Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What Makes a Good Cover for a Novel?

How do you react when you see the cover of your new novel for the first time? And what if you’re a stickler for what you feel should be good covers, exceptional covers?

All cover artists are usually fantastic at what they do, producing a stimulating and informative image. But not always. I won’t give examples, but I’ve seen a few that would cause a reader to be disappointed, even angry, at not finding in the book the mood, situation, or characters implied by the packaging. 

But I’ve been very fortunate for my own books, because all my covers have been produced by the excellent Bradley Sharp. I still remember how hesitant I was when I got the email showing the cover for my first book The Man Who Loved Alien Landscapes, because I hadn’t seen Brad’s covers yet, so I was pretty terrified. My experience with art (and I’ve had some) actually made me more nervous—I felt too qualified, that I surely would nitpick it or judge it to death. 

But I opened the file, and . . . I was delighted! And now, after two more books, I’m still impressed. Indeed, this third cover is maybe the best:

Before talking about it, let’s ask:  what’s needed in general for a cover to be “good”? 

  1. Accuracy of subject matter. It should not mislead the reader. The visuals do not have to be exact (it’s almost impossible to depict precisely what’s in the author’s mind, and often those mental pictures are much more vague than one assumes). An artist should be allowed to go in the best creative direction to make an appealing image, which an overly-exact rendition might not be. But the cover still should be tied to the subject matter. The spaceship shown does not need to be the same as the one described by the writer, but it still should be a spaceship. 
  1. Accuracy of mood. Even more important is the accuracy of the book’s emotion. The cover for a horror novel should not be “cheery.” An adventure story should have adventure. And a romance book should be . . . romantic. The cover should suggest what the reader will feel, the primary emotion and mood of the story. And if there’s a whole assortment of contradictory moods instead, then that too should be suggested. Artists can play and tease with expectations—sometimes the shock of surprise is useful. But then the idea of contrast itself should be expressed, like the pleasant yellow smiley face on the front of Watchmen—with a streak of blood slashed across it.
  1. Visual appeal. Some aspect of the cover needs to stand out to catch attention, to grab someone perusing the bookshelves or browsing online, an item or detail that calls quick attention to itself. The call can be subtle—a visual whisper instead of a klaxon shout, a hint of a breeze instead of a hurricane—but the call still needs to be there. You want to look again, to be sucked in, by the single red leaf in a field of green, or by the baby doll that has the expression of a murderer. 
  1. A creative spark, a difference, a uniqueness. Even when the cover seems to be doing exactly what it should, there still should be something that’s new, that has maybe never been seen before, a surprise, the unexpected, a hint that “You’ll get a different experience in this book.” It's hard to define, and you might not notice it at first:  a subtle visual surprise, a raised question, a hint of difference, a promise of a reading adventure. It’s the odd reflection in a perfect eye, the use of black-and-white in a world of color, or a playful visual connection with the words of the title itself. 

The cover by Bradley Sharp for my latest, Temporary Planets for Transitory Days, a collection of poetry “written” by the protagonist of my two earlier books, satisfies all four of these requirements.

The subject is accurate. A poem in the book called “As It Fell” is based on a scene from In a Suspect Universe (my previous novel) and Brad has used the description from the novel and not just from the poem as the landscape for the cover. The ice lake, the darkness of night, the overhead stars, are all part of the original scene in the novel and of how it’s presented in the poem. 

The mood is accurate. The poems in the book express many emotions—love, wonder, admiration, desire, fear, regret, pain—but the one I believe comes across the most is “longing.” And, oh, how this picture glows with that emotion. The book is science fiction, and you can see that a strong emotion is “wonder”—with the several worlds, the star-clouds in the sky, the spaceship landing on the ice, the distant exotic peaks. But more than anything, I see longing. That figure wants that sky, the night, the alien planet. 

There’s visual appeal. The design of the picture, the symmetry, the receding perspective,  pulls you in. You identify with the figure, placing you into the scene, and the figure being partially transparent allows you to see what he is seeing too, causing even more identification. But what really grabs attention is the very well-chosen green color of the first world. Its bright and rich tone contrasts well with the darker purple-pinks around it. That choice of color alone is perfect, and it sets up a gradual distancing effect with the less vividly colored worlds behind it. 

And there’s a creative spark. After seeing the cover, you shouldn’t be surprised that  a poem in the book is named, “Touching the Night Sky.” The image is a visual rendition of that very title. The figure reaches upward and figuratively touches the first planet. And then  the shadows of the fingers also touch the next world.  Subtle, and yet so obvious and appropriate.  And, of course, these worlds mirror the “Temporary Planets” of the words in the title itself. 

So, all in all, an outstanding picture. 

If a novel conveys the experience of life, of actions, arcs, movements, and accomplishments, then the cover to a novel is a single act of magic, a crystallized “presto” image that distills the effect of the entire book.  It’s a brief but eye-catching harbinger of what’s to come, a herald, a flag. 

Yeah, I liked it!

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Writing Prompts From Classic Writers - The Ancient Greeks and Romans

Here’s another collection of “Writing Prompts From the Classics”—helpful inspiration from a phrase, a line, or a poetic twist by an ancient writer.  Covered here are several from the ancient Greeks and Romans:  Oedipus the King and Antigone by the Greek Sophocles, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, then several from the Roman Aeneid by Virgil, and finally Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I hope these are helpful in providing you some imaginative ideas as they sink into your mind and onto your paper or screen. Have fun with them, and compose away.


  • The griefs that punish us are those we've chosen for ourselves.


·         you win all your battles! . . . cruising the oceans, invading homes deep in the wilds!
·         no home here on earth and none down with the dead, not quite alive, not yet a corpse.
·         Nursed in caves among her father’s stormwinds, this daughter of the gods, this child of Boreas, rode swift horses over the mountains


·         Drawing them diagrams for decadence
·         Grannies on the go, mommies with mucho macho


·         her phantom sifted through my fingers
·         the high sky bears witness to the wedding, nymphs on the mountaintops wail out the wedding hymn.
·         an eye that never sleeps and as many tongues as eyes and as many raucous mouths and ears pricked up for news.
·         The earth was rich with blood of slaughtered herds and the temple doorways wreathed with riots of flowers.
·         torrents coursed down from the old Titan’s chin
·         Wasting time in Libya.
·         who can delude a lover?
·         echoes round with maddened midnight cries
·         reaped with bronze sickles under the moonlight, dripping their milky black poison


·         Majestic power and erotic love do not get on together very well, nor do they linger long in the same place. 
·         why do you have the plumage of birds and the faces of virgins?
·         the tree groaned and bent over double
·         thrice the funereal owl sings his poem of endings

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Writing Prompts from Classic Writers - "The Odyssey"

            In The Odyssey, I didn’t find as many stand-out prompts as I did in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but that’s probably because The Odyssey is much better known and has already been highly influential—segments of the story have become part of the Western heritage, like pretending to be “Noman,” avoiding the seductive call of the Sirens, fighting the temptation to become a Lotus-Eater, having to decide between Scylla and Charybdis, and falling for Circe who turns men into swine—all these have been used over and over. But some lines or scenes still stood out that could be used as prompts for situations, like: 

  • Devise a story or scenario for: 

                        “she bound on her feet
The beautiful sandals, golden, immortal,
That carry her over landscape and seascape
On a puff of wind.”

  • Create a character for the “Daughter of . . . the Old Man of the Sea”

  • What situation and person could produce these lines:

                                    “He will try everything,
            And turn into everything that moves on the earth,
            And into water also, and a burning flame.
            Just hang on and grip him all the more tightly.”

  • Use the following to produce a story:

            “Shedding salt tears in the halls of Calypso”

  • This one is haunting:

            “the phantom slipped through the keyhole and became a sigh in the air.”

  • Imagine a background for this:

            “the cry of the spirit women who hold the high peaks”

  • An interesting setting:

            “a floating island surrounded by a wall of indestructible bronze set on sheer stone”

  • Another setting:

            “For night and day make one twilight there”

  • What would lead to this situation:

            “The other ghosts crowded around in sorrow”

  • Or this:

            “Most men die only once, but you twice.” 

  • And this last one, so simple, is one of my favorites:

            “The night is young—and magical.”

  • Finally, just in case you’re thinking of The Odyssey as being much too “classic” for modern tastes, I give you the gory and well-detailed description of puncturing the Cyclops’ single eye, with a stake that’s been heated and sharpened in a fire.  (Horror writers, take note of the great use of detail and simile):

My men lifted up the olivewood stake
And drove the sharp point right into his eye,
While I, putting my weight behind it, spun it around
The way a man bores a ship’s beam with a drill,
Leaning down on it while other men beneath him
Keep it spinning and spinning with a leather strap.
That’s how we twirled the fiery-pointed stake
In the Cyclops’ eye. The blood formed a whirlpool
Around its searing tip. His lids and brow
Were all singed by the heat from the burning eyeball
And its roots crackled in the fire and hissed
Like an axe-head or adze a smith dips into water
When he wants to temper the iron—that’s how his eye
Sizzled and hissed around the olivewood stake. 
He screamed, and the rock walls rang with his voice. 


All quotes are from the Stanley Lombardo translation, and were taken from: 
The Norton Anthology of  Western Literature, 9th ed., vol. 1.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Writing Prompts From Classic Writers - "The Epic of Gilgamesh"

            I’ll be teaching classics of European Literature throughout this academic year, and whenever I’ve dealt with such writers before, I’ve always been fascinated by a sudden twist of phrasing or a gem-like statement that makes me think, “Gosh, this would make such a great writing prompt.”  They pop up anywhere in classic texts.  Some meaningful, some obscure, and some so quirky or poetic or blunt that you feel—or hope—it could really stir the creative juices.

            So this is what I hope to do throughout the academic year:  Give brief quotes, on Twitter, label them as “Prompts from the Classics,” and throw them to all you busy, struggling, and devoted writers of fiction out there as possible goads to your inspiration, inventiveness, imagination.  A few helpful words that might lead to an idea, a plot, a character, a theme, a mood. 

            All of these lines I’ve found intriguing, so I just want to share them. 

            And here’s my first batch. I was reading The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first major works of literature, from Sumeria or Mesopatamia (present-day Iraq).  It tells the story of a half-divine ancient king whose habits are so bad he’s given by the gods a half-animal friend—Enkidu—to keep him occupied. All’s well with them (together they go off to kill monsters) until his friend Enkidu dies.  And then Gilgamesh encounters, for the first time, the fear of death.  He goes on a quest for immortality, and though he learns much during his travels (by following the sun beneath the earth, speaking with a bartender at the end of the world, and begging secrets from a survivor of the Flood), he does not gain immortality.  He returns home, much wiser, but still mortal.

            While reading the epic (in translation, of course, this one by Benjamin R. Foster), a few lines stood out, the shorter of which I’ll send out in Tweets for instant wide-open prompting.  Take from them what you will.  But I hope you get, from these brief but sometimes haunting phrases, a responding idea, a scenario, a character, a scene, a mood, a setting, anything at all. 

            Good luck!  And let me know if it works.          

  •        What kind of a person, or what would that person have to do, to see “the       wellspring, the foundations of the land”?
  •        Who would have the label, and why, of “The Distant One”?
  •        What would cause the following: 
                                   Aghast, struck dumb,
                                   His heart in a turmoil, his face drawn,
                                   With woe in his vitals,
                                   His face like a traveler’s from afar . . .
  •        What situation would lead to: “Even the great gods are kept from sleeping at   night!”
  •        What kind of creature would this describe: “His maw is fire, his breath is death.” (Don’t make it a dragon.)
  •        Imagine a landscape with thirteen winds:
                                  South wind, north wind, east wind, west wind, moaning wind,
                                  Blasting wind, lashing wind, contrary wind, dust storm,
                                  Demon wind, freezing wind, storm wind, whirlwind . . .
  •        What would create this scenario:  “Will he not share tiara and scepter with the   moon?”
  •        What would be the duties of this job:  “meat carver of the netherworld”
  •        And imagine the background for this:  “The scorpion monster called to his wife”

            Hope you get some ideas. All quotes are from The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, 9th ed., vol. 1. 

            Next, The Odyssey