Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dissecting a Book Cover

Some books from my Goodreads shelf
Picture yourself in the bookstore of your choice, the smell of coffee and paper wafting through the air, a light buzz of background noise filling your ears as you scan shelf after shelf. At last--there--you see it! The most beautiful book you've ever laid eyes on! And you knew, without a doubt, that that book must be yours.

Ever had a reaction like that? Probably not. Still, we've all felt that irresistible attraction to a beautiful book cover that makes us want to pick up the book and see what it's all about. More importantly, almost all of us have had some experience with a horribly designed, amateurish book cover that makes us want to run away as fast as possible.

As these reactions reveal, it's not just what's in the books, it's what's on them that counts. Therefore, in today's post, we'll be exploring the most basic and crucial elements of any successful book cover. You may not be designing your own book cover--for sanity's sake, I hope you aren't!--but you can still use the tips below to evaluate book covers and, when the time comes, to guide your own designer as you create your book cover. (Stay tuned for an announcement about my own book cover at the end of today's post!)

1. Readability

This is the absolute single factor that will make or break a cover. The title, the author's name, the all needs to be legible! You all know how frustrating it is to try to squint and puzzle out, "Is that an 'i' or an 'l'? Is that curlicue a word or decoration? What does 'lmfori' spell, anyway?" The last thing you want is for your readers to be frustrated with your book before they even reach the first page!

So, in a nutshell: make it legible.

2. The Human Element

It's a psychologically proven fact that the human eye is drawn first to any human element in an image before looking at other items in the image. Don't believe me? Try it out on this image below:

Your eye was drawn to the person, right? The point here is that people are drawn to other people, and we can take advantage of that fact when creating and evaluating book cover designs. To put this fact into more tangible terms: potential readers will pick up your book or click on the link to the book and then read the book more often if your book cover has a human element on it. Don't ignore the power of the human factor.

3. A Sense of Genre

What are covers there for? Have you ever thought about why books have covers (other than to keep the dust and coffeestains off)? Here's your answer: book covers are a form of communication.

Your book covers exist to alert readers at a glance to the book's contents. If it's a scifi thriller, you might see a lot of steel surfaces but you won't see a girl in a ballgown on the cover. If it's a mystery, you might see a magnifying glass but you probably won't be seeing a Ranger, hooded and cloaked.

On the reading end, of course, we already know this fact subconsciously. What makes us pick up some books in the library and pass on others? A lot of times, it's because the covers have already alerted us to the material inside.

But as writers or designers, we need to realize that the cover of our book sets up expectations about what the readers will find inside. We need to utilize the cover as a first-glance tool, not just for catching a reader's attention, but to let them know what to expect inside.

And those are the most crucial considerations of cover design! I hope this post has increased your interested in the fascinating world of cover design. Let me know about any experiences you've had with covers in the comments--best, worst, or your own cover design process.

I mentioned above that I have an announcement to make. My cover designer, Scarlett Rugers, has completed a beautiful cover for my novel, Red Sun Blue Earth! I highly recommend Scarlett's work for anyone looking for a cover designer. And for those of you who don't know, my novel is the story of a teen girl who survives Japan's 2011 tsunami, and her search for her family in the aftermath. The book will be available on March 11, 2013, the two-year anniversary of Japan's tsunami.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Food & Fantasy

I love food. Cranberry scones, lemon sorbet, apple pie, Japanese hiyashi-chuka noodles, fresh-baked bread, thin crust can be so delicious and amazing!

Then again, sometimes it's more weird than wonderful--bird's nests, shark fin soup, grubs, fried crickets, and more. As fantasy writers and readers, we can be alert to using all of the mighty powers of food for many different purposes.

That's what today's blog post is about: food and fantasy.

1. Everyday-subsistence food
Your story may be a fantasy, but your characters do need to eat. (Unless they are some sort of non-eating-elemental-beings, in which case they probably need energy like moonbeams rather than food.)

Think carefully about what the ordinary people in your story eat on a daily basis. Do they have wheat and corn and potatoes, as in our world? Is there a ready supply of meat? Or are they vegetarians (like me)? Are there any types of daily foods that are unique to your world--special fruits, for example, or maybe a type of vegetable that your main character hates?

If your characters travel over the course of your story, be sure to have them sample different cuisines along the way. There's no better way to add realism to your story than by describing the different sorts of foods your characters encounter along the way!

A few words of warning: while food is an interesting detail that adds texture to your story, don't let it be unnecessarily prominent. Don't just mention food for the sake of mentioning food. Whenever you mention food, make it part of the conflict: the main character doesn't want to offend her host, but she hates eating zinzer roots; some village children are falling sick because of malnutrition; your crew of hearty sailors have scurvy or are running short of food. You get the picture. Make food interesting, important, and maybe dangerous.

2. Special-occasion food
In our world, food is so often tied to celebrations. Think of Thanksgiving dinner. What would it be without turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing? Then there's Easter, which is practically synonymous with eggs. Or what about Chinese New Year--you have your springrolls, your pineapple tarts, your lo hei/yusheng. Food is an inescapable part of celebrating.

So in your fantasy world, when you have celebrations of the new year or for a coronation or for the king's birthday or for the Harvest Festival, be sure to concoct some special and essential foods to celebrate.

3. Food with special properties
Think of all the examples: Snow White's poisoned apple. The elves' lembas bread from Lord of the Rings. The Weasley twins' nosebleed nougats and canary creams from Harry Potter. We're writing fantasy stories, so we really can let our imagination run wild with our foods. Make your foods poisonous, deceiving to the eye (maybe it looks like sugar and tastes like coal), bestow strength on the eater, make the eater turn into a canary, make the eater invisible...the possibilities are endless.

If you're really interested in the possibilities of magical food in fantasy, study J.K. Rowling's use of candies and foods in Harry Potter. Food is one of the many things that makes Rowling's stories come to life in readers' heads.

A note on presentation: in some cultures, like Japan, the arrangement of the food is crucial. The food is meant not just to be useful but to be beautiful. The colors are chosen to create harmony on the plate; the foods are arranged in special shapes and positions. In such cultures, food can be an art form in and of itself. You could write an entire book about a girl determined to succeed as a food artist but prevented by the traditional heirarchy of her fantasy world. My point here is, don't just think about food as a detail or sustenance for your character. Make the food and the presentation of the food woven seamlessly into the fabric of your fantasy culture.

All this talk about food is making me hungry! Good thing it's almost lunchtime. Let me know if you've made up any foods for your fantasy world, or if you have any cool examples to share of uses of food in the stories you've read.

Friday, February 1, 2013

What to Do When You're Self-Publishing

For those of you who don't know, I'm self-publishing my first novel, Red Sun Blue Earth, in only five weeks on March 11, 2013. It's the story of a teen girl caught in Japan's 2011 tsunami, and how she survives and tries to find her family. As you can imagine, my story has been consuming a lot of my thoughts and energy lately. I thought I'd take advantage of the things I've learned so far in the process and write a post on resources you can use when you've reached the self-publishing stage.

Mini story, "The Two Princess and Freddie," by yours truly

1. Get yourself a professional cover.
Seriously, folks, it's that important. The cover is your first impression, the first connection between your readers and your story. It's a method of communication in the same way that your first page is. Your cover could in fact make or break your story. Don't skimp here! Budget carefully so that you can hire the best.

The cover designer I'm using for Red Sun Blue Earth is Scarlett Rugers. I've been very impressed with her services thus far, and her prices are fairly reasonable for the industry. Here's a blog post on covers for self-published authors, and one on getting cover art. Other cover designers that I researched are Damonza and Historical Editorial. Self publishing companies such as CreateSpace also offer basic cover design, but not sure that I'd recommend using those resources. They may not offer professional quality covers or enough flexibility to get a cover you like.

2. You need feedback. Hire an editor, or at the very least have a team of test-readers edit and critique your book.
What I said above really says it all. The stereotype of self-published books is that they are poor quality and badly written. Who doesn't like busting stereotypes? So be sure to make your book the best it possibly can be by offering it up as a sacrificial offering to the eyes of editors and test readers who may butcher it but who will probably ensure that your book is better than it would've been on its own.

For my book, once I was finished with two drafts on my own, I got together a team of test readers from my favorite writing forum, HolyWorlds, who gave me some good feedback. I also got feedback from family and friends at this point. After incorporating their feedback in a third and fourth draft, I hired what's called an editorial evaluation, which is where editors give me their feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of my story in about a six or eight page Word document. (It's less detailed and more general than page-by-page editorial services, but since hiring a professional editor costs one or two thousand dollars or more, I needed to economize a bit!) I got the evaluation from CreateSpace, and was very pleased with the quality and depth of it. If you are looking for a full editor, I'd suggest the following resources as a starting point: Book Editing Associates, Through the Looking Glass, G-Revisions, Editorial Freelancers Association, and Hock's Editing Services.

3. Appearances matter, so be sure to format it or hire a formatter.
This one's a bit more basic. The technical details of preparing a Word document or manuscript to sell online can get a bit complex, so I'd recommend hiring someone to take care of it for you. However, it's definitely possible to DIY this one, especially if you've got an eye and the time for nitty-gritty details. Here's a tutorial that walks you through formatting your book in HTML. Although I haven't hired a formatter yet, I'm planning to use the skills of Aubrey Hansen, who has done some excellent formatting in books that I've read in the past. Plus she's extremely affordable.

There's more involved, of course, but these are the three major elements that every self-publishing author needs to deeply consider before the book becomes public. I may post later about other aspects of self-publishing to keep in mind. This is quite enough information to start off with, though, in my opinion!

Let me know in the comments if you've ever self-published, and what resources you've used, and if you have any questions on self-publishing or any tips to share from your experiences. Have a great week!