Why I Design My Own Book Covers

TDS New 3I design a lot of book covers, for someone who doesn’t do it full-time.  Being responsible for the design of your books, inside and out, is part and parcel of being a self-published author.  That responsibility usually amounts to a choice between designing the books yourself, or contracting the work out to a freelance designer.

Deciding whether to do something yourself or outsource it is a decision that will be familiar to anyone who has run a small business.  When I worked as a private attorney, I faced this question everyday.  Do I pay for someone to design my website, or do it myself, since I have that skillset?  Do I do all the bookkeeping, or hire someone to man Quickbooks for me?  The only way to make these choices is to apply a cost-benefit analysis.  First and foremost, do you have the ability to do this task yourself?  If  yes, what’s more valuable to you, your time or your money?  If no, is it something you can learn?  And if you spend time learning how to do accomplish an ancillary task, are you spending your time wisely?

When you sit down to take care of the myriad tasks that make up the logistical and business side of being a full-time writer, you always have to ask yourself whether you’d be better off skipping this part and just doing some writing.  Usually, the answer is yes.  You should probably be writing.  Sometimes, the answer is an uncomfortable no: getting this shit accomplished is vital to the success of your career.  Other times, and these are the times I’m getting at here, the answer is a confident no: this is important, and it’s okay that I’m focusing on this for the moment instead of doing what I actually do, which is write fiction.

Exile AMZN-EPUBWhen my wife and I started Evil Toad Press, the imprint under which we publish our books, one thing we decided very quickly was that we would outsource all of our interior formatting/typesetting.  Neither of us had any significant experience doing this kind of work, and a day or two spent reading distributors’ formatting requirements and fooling around with Calibre and Adobe InDesign was enough to make up my mind.  I was confident that I could format the text of my book by myself if I had to, but it would require a significant investment of time and effort that I felt would be better put toward writing the actual books.  Most importantly, I figured out relatively quickly that I had no desire to do that work: it didn’t speak to me.  It felt dry and repetitive and boring.  I wanted to pay someone to do it for me, so I did.  We’ve never looked back.

On the other hand, I did have some experience with graphic design.  I’ve got some background in art and web design, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit teaching myself Adobe Photoshop.  I felt confident that I could at least take a crack at designing a few book covers, and to my surprise I found that not only did I have something of a knack for it, I really enjoyed doing it.

BOS CoverTo date, I’ve designed the cover for every book released by Evil Toad Press.  Even if you factor in the (small) cost of the tools required–subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud and Shutterstock, the odd font license–as well as a reasonable rate for the man-hours I put in designing them, we’ve certainly saved money doing it this way.  Even “pre-made” book covers, which are predesigned templates with your name and book title added, usually run anywhere from seventy-five to several hundred dollars.  If you want a completely custom design by a professional designer or illustrator, the cost may run into the thousands.

But more important, for me, was the unexpected thrill I got designing covers for books I cared about personally.  The challenge of capturing a book’s essence, genre, and tone and expressing them visually was exciting.  It was, and still is, a learning process, to be sure.  It requires a fusion of skillsets, including graphic design, typography, illustration, painting, geometry, and more.  But seeing a book cover come to life and being happy with the end result is incredibly satisfying.

TDODR Cover AMZN-EPUBI’m no professional designer.  I didn’t go to school for this.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn–sometimes it feels like I learn something new with every cover I design.  And not every cover is an immediate hit: some need several mock-ups before I get the concept right, others need to be redesigned entirely.  Sometimes I have to design several alternate covers simultaneously, to see which works the best.  Sometimes it turns out that a book needs a new cover somewhere down the line, because the first version isn’t selling as well as it could.

Some of my covers, to be brutally honest, are better than others.  As I said, it’s a learning process, and sometimes the magic just comes together better than others.

But the point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that designing book covers adds to my enjoyment of being a writer.  It doesn’t detract from it.  The moment it stops being fun, the moment it starts being a drag that I just want to put behind me, I’ll start paying someone else.  There’s no shortage of ways to buy a book cover.

So what’s the lesson, here?  I know.  You’re waiting for the sappy moral.  Well here’s a go at it.

TPS Omnibus CoverAn accountant once cautioned me not to let logistics get in the way my actual business.  At the time, his advice was specific: don’t try to do payroll by yourself, even if you’ve only got one employee.  Pay someone else to do that for you.  “You do what you do,” he said.  At the time, that meant that I should worry less about payroll and more about actually practicing law, so as to make the money that would support said payroll.  But it’s good advice for any business.  And writing, my friends, is a business like any other.

So do what you do: write.  Pay somebody else to worry about the rest.

New York Times: ‘Police Stab Man To Death With Knife!!!’

Not really.  But sort of.

Yesterday the New York Times published a short article about a shooting in Indianapolis.  The online version originally bore the headline “Police Kill Armed Man With Knife in Indianapolis.”  After a flurry of comments alerting them to the obvious ambiguity of this title, the newspaper replaced the headline with the clearer, if clunkier, “Indianapolis Police Kill Man Who Had Knife.”

The actual facts of the situation involved a knife-wielding man who lunged at a police officer after the officer tried to subdue him using nonlethal force.  (Yeesh, that sentence was a mouthful too, wasn’t it?)

This is a teachable moment if there ever was one.  A Strunk & White moment, if you will.  The original headline, as the Times eventually realized, made it sound as if the Indianapolis police had stabbed a man to death with a knife, which was almost the opposite of what really happened.

It’s not that the sentence was technically grammatically incorrect: one could, if one were so inclined, read the prepositional phrase “with knife” as modifying the words “armed man” as opposed to the word “police.”  Which is a funny way of saying that it’s possible, if not plausible, to read that sentence as meaning what the Times intended it to mean: that the police killed a man who was armed with a knife.

We can probably ascribe the editors’ failure to use “Police Kill Man Armed With Knife” to overexposure to the sometimes over-simplistic sentence structure used in newspaper headlines.  One need only read one of those articles explaining a complex scientific concept using only common words to realize that, sometimes, dumbing down your language only makes an idea more obtuse.

That said, it’s a perfect example of why language matters, and why writers must write clearly.

If nothing else, it’s comforting to know that even the New York Times occasionally makes mistakes.

The Story Is Always About the Characters

I’ve been known to defend certain aspects of the Star Wars prequels.  Not because I think that they’re good films overall, but because there are certain parts of them, mostly involving setting, action, or small character quirks, that struck me as belonging in the Star Wars canon.  That is to say, certain aspects of the films, such as parts of Ewan MacGregor’s performance as Obi Wan, jibe with my own internal vision of the backstory of that character.  They seem to fit.  They seem like glimpses into what the prequels might have been had they been written and directed by someone who actually cared about Star Wars.

io9’s recent look back at Attack of the Clones pretty much sums up my feelings on that movie, in a way I’ve never really been able to express very well myself.  In short, they describe Clones as being, for the most part, just as bad as we all remember, a storytelling failure not redeemed by the one or two good moments of fan service we see on screen.

The message I really take from their review, however, is one I’ve been struggling to elucidate for some time: that the failure of Episode II and, by extension, the Star Wars prequels as a whole, is a failure of character.  The prequels prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that no amount of intriguing world-building, beautiful production design, or stunning action sequences can save a story that fails to bring its characters to life.

So wait, Jim.  Step back a minute.  What you’re saying here, really, is that character is important to storytelling?  Big reveal, dude.  You’re really jumping the shark, here.

Yes, what I’m saying is that character is important–vital–to storytelling.  But you already knew that.  What I think is interesting is finding such a great example of a story that should have worked, that had everything going for it, every reason to work, but completely screwed the pooch when it came time to deliver.

Sure, George Lucas had the burden of decades of fan expectations to deal with.  Yes, that’s a lot of pressure.  But what people often forget is that Lucas made the movies he wanted to make.  He’s never responded well to criticism of the prequels, and generally speaks dismissively of Star Wars fans.  He’s the kind of filmmaker who’s more concerned with how things look than how things feel.  To him, the saga is a soap opera, and he filmed it like one: a story purportedly about passion and heartbreak and betrayal that nonetheless fails almost completely to deliver the pathos of any of those emotions.

What Lucas wanted is what we got: a throwback to the sci-fi adventure serials of his youth, peppered with just enough superficial emotional motivation to propel the plot of the adventure forward.  It’s something that’s appealing to children, but not to adults, who crave real character arcs.

Had he endeavored to see it from the perspective of the people who enjoyed the original movies, he would have (or should have) realized that the films he was making couldn’t possibly have worked.

-Anakin-and-Padme-anakin-and-padme-31435845-813-1500
These are our passion faces.

Take io9’s example of the romantic relationship between Padme and Anakin:

As forced and muddled as the courtship between Anakin and Padme is, it’s obviously an essential piece of the overall puzzle of Star Wars. It’s a nice thing to see, but it’s just handled so terribly. “You are in my very soul tormenting me?” Really? It just sounds like robots talking. And why are you guys eating pears with forks and knives?

It i handled terribly.  The romantic scenes between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman should be used in film school as an example of a lack of chemistry.  The actors are woodenly delivering lines, having been sapped by the bad writing and the directing of any emotional motivation to make the scene work.

Padme Amidala is supposed to be the entire reason Anakin Skywalker falls to the dark side.  At the very least, she is the proximate cause: his desire to save her from the death he envisions is the turning point for his character.  In order for that to make sense, for it to play for the audience, we have to believe it.  We have to buy that he loves her so much that he can’t imagine a world without her in it.  That unlike the average person dealing with the idea of loss, Skywalker sees the power to prevent it, and falls into the trap.  He falls to the dark side with the best intentions, but in this case, those intentions never really make any sense, because from the standpoint of the character as he’s portrayed on screen, the audience has absolutely no reason to believe that he actually believes any of it.  The viewer can’t buy what you can’t sell.

Plot and character may be unavoidably intertwined with most stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the plot serve the characters rather than the other way around.

Writing character is a question of empathy: can you, as the writer, put yourself in the shoes of the character you’re writing, so that the character’s emotional responses to the stimuli around them come off as fully realized.  There’s no substitute for running a character through the filter of real human emotion.

There may be some writers out there who can create authentic seeming characters completely dispassionately, but if there are I don’t know of them.  If you can’t see the world through your character’s eyes, at least imaginatively, and feel at least a small flicker of what they must be feeling in the situation you’ve placed them in, then you’re not doing your job as a writer.

And that’s where Lucas failed as a writer with the prequels: he couldn’t sell the defining relationship.  As io9 puts it:

Then it happens. The biggest leap in the history of Star Wars. On the brink of death, Padme confesses her love for Anakin. It’s so out of left field, even in the movie the character of Anakin is surprised to hear it. “I truly, deeply, love you,” she says. Too bad we barely get that sense before that. I couldn’t help but laugh that Lucas made the decision to have Anakin act so shocked. It almost feels like an admission he wasn’t sure how to get the characters to this point, but had to, and here it is.

You might be able to get away with the equivalent of “And then something happens” when it comes to plot, but you’ll never get away with it with character.  The beauty of fiction is that you can get the reader, or the viewer, to believe and accept almost anything if you can sell the characters’ responses to those stories.  If the characters clearly believe it, if they act and think and feel in a way that reflects humanity and emotional logic, then your reader won’t have any trouble suspending their disbelief when it comes to interstellar spaceships or unlikely plot developments.  The reverse is not true.

The story is always about the characters.

Christopher Nolan on Obsession

The Tribeca Film Festival is happening right now in New York (it goes through the 26th), and The Hollywood Reporter has some great coverage of the event and its various panels, one of which involved a discussion on filmmaking with Christopher Nolan and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher).

There were two moments in particular that I enjoyed reading about.  While discussing the difficulty in maintaining creative direction over a studio film, Nolan talked about some advice given to him by Steven Soderbergh and having the courage to do your own thing:

“You have to get out there and find a place for yourself,” he explained. “You have to make your own rules. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you…. That’s the thing he taught me, is that you’re on your own and you have to get out there and make it work.”

Nolan made his own rules when he was writing the script for Memento, attributing the film’s mind-bending storytelling approach to him just disregarding the rules.

“It’s the classic example of something interesting that can come about when you don’t know what you’re doing,” Nolan said when Miller asked how one writes a script like that. “You’re starting out and you think, ‘Why are there all these rules? Why do people take screenwriting courses? Why can’t you just write the movie you want to see as it would appear on the screen?’ “

Later, when asked about his fears going forward, he said:

“My biggest fear is embarking on a project that you lose faith in or fall out of love with,” he said. “There’s a huge investment of time [in a film], and the biggest fear is that I’d get halfway through and think, ‘No, this isn’t something I really care about anymore.’ So before I embark on a project, I just have to test it, however I test it, by writing drafts, by just living with it and really trying to dive into it. You have to be sure that you’re going to be as happy, as obsessed with this film two-and-a-half, three years later as you are the day you commit to it.”

Christopher Nolan is a great role model for aspiring artists of any genre or medium, because he epitomizes an ideal balance between mainstream appeal and artistic integrity.  He tells stories that move and excite people and that appeal to a diverse audience without sacrificing his artistic vision or dumbing down his subject.

His fear of losing interest in a project he’s working on likely hit home with many artists, particularly writers.  Writing is the art of the long con, a marathon not a sprint, and it’s important to be able to gauge how in love with an idea you are before embarking on the process of turning it into a real thing.  Even when you find an idea you love consistently, there will undoubtedly be times when you need to bolster your enthusiasm–when you’ll need to sit back and remind yourself of why you wanted to write this particular story in the first place.  When you’ll need to take a break and regain some of that lost passion.  This can happen to anyone at any time.  With that in mind, it’s obviously best if, like Nolan, you only put your creative effort behind the projects that really grab you.  The ones you can’t let go of.  The ones you’re obsessed with.

With art, obsession can be a good thing.