When I pulled up the chair to my drawing table, to illustrate the cover for my middle grade novel, there I sat competing with myself, having an artist-writer stare-down.
Problem is, I find it easier to depict a scene or a subject with words than with paint.
I wrote The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Abrams/Amulet, April 2011) with no intention of illustrating it, and hardly knew what I'd do for the cover. I had already painted with words—the images were there, waiting to be enhanced by the reader's own vision. I had said all I'd wanted to say.
But books need covers, and logically, since I'm also an artist ...
I believe a cover should read like a premise. It's the book's visual pitch. You get one shot, usually. Setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, genre, theme, even voice—some or all of these can be conveyed on the cover, though the simpler the design the more immediate the message. Above all, audience is the primary consideration. Had this been a book for adults, I would have depicted the little scene of Cripple Creek, Colorado, in early lithographic style, with the dragon hovering skyward in psychic distance. But being an MG, it must appeal to that age group, and also appeal to them through the eyes of parents, grandparents, aunts, booksellers.
The story involves the last dragon on earth who's been holed up in a gold mine for ages. A real gold mine—the Mollie Kathleen in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Kat Graham, the heroine, discovers Ye, the dragon, after an accidental fall down an abandoned chute, and consequently triggers the twenty-first century gold rush. Her mishap also endangers Ye and his glittering subterranean Wonderland. In short, it's Calamity Jane colliding with the Reluctant Dragon, and the dragon in turn colliding with our world.
Illustrating a book cover is not a time to indulge the inner artist, though that may happily occur during the process. It’s a time to submit to the needs of the book.
Here's Kat narrating the moment she meets Ye:
And beyond that, smoldering like a thundercloud at dusk, lay the dragon. He was as tarnished and mythological as prehistory itself. Two gold-leafed wings with silver veins were folded along his back; a scarlet ruffle ran ridge-like between them, into the shadows where his tail was curled; two silver strands hung from his chin; two filaments of smoke rose from his nostrils; two glowing eyes glared into mine. Fire-and-cinnamon eyes. They say that dragons can cast a spell with one look—and I believe it. I was stuck in that stare. If I stepped up and peered into it, I’d see myself trapped like an insect in amber.
My first visuals were simple: a close-up of the girl holding a nugget of gold, and the dragon. (I'm showing one of many here.)
The designer, Chad Beckerman, set a rough layout for type on an altered version of a sketch.
Then I thought of focusing more on one of the main elements (pardon the pun): gold. Gold runs like a vein throughout the book. My editor, Howard Reeves, claims I've created a new mythology about dragons and gold, so I tossed a bigger chunk of gold into the picture. This new idea grew from Chad's version, with a nugget replacing the dragon's head as the central image. Gold represents several aspects of theme within the story, besides being something everyone wants to cling to, so this made sense.
It then became a matter of creating depictions true enough to what I'd already described, though I felt the words still eclipsed any pictures I could conjure up with paint.
The girl was easier than the dragon, and a young friend provided the model.
Wanting to stay true to my original vision for the book, which was that of rolling the American West and an ancient dragon into one tumbleweed tale, I aimed for a similar effect for the art and ended up with a stylized version of realism, the kind you’d see on a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show poster that features Annie Oakley. And as you delve into the story, my cover decisions become more apparent. Kat’s pose, for example, represents her dilemma: One of her hands is pocket-bound, where she hides not only a stolen chunk of gold but her mother’s heirloom ring, to which Ye has a particular attraction; her other hand reaches out to him in compassion. As for Ye’s looks, he becomes less the stereotypical fierce fire breather after Kat’s first impression, until on further acquaintance you realize he’s a reluctant dragon by choice, becoming the antithesis of greed. A deteriorating nineteenth century wanted poster appears in one of the subplots, so that becomes the cover’s background. I credit the designer for this idea, and an artist friend with the idea of adding faded type. The wanted poster also symbolizes the craze for gold that occurs—everybody wants it—and Kat's world is crumbling; also, the aging dragon's destiny is uncertain. This kind of symbolism is not of course obvious at first glance or even after a studied look, but no matter: It helps convey mood.
In doing the cover for my own novel, the challenge was to successfully perform the task over again in an externally visual way. You’re welcome to read it and conclude for yourself whether this book can be judged by its cover.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Friday, June 5, 2009
First off, hello fellow Nesters and visitors from cyberspace. It's a pleasure, and an honor, and just a wee bit scary, to be writing my first post here.
Now . . . what to say? My first novel, The Morgue and Me, comes out in a few short weeks, so it would seem an appropriate topic of conversation. And yes, I could go on all day about the magnificent writing (ahem), but what I'd really like to tell you about is the experience of seeing the cover art for the first time. And why I love it so. Take thee a gander:
(hopefully you see the above -- newbie blogger having technical problems . . .)
While writing this manuscript, which is a mystery, I participated in the long tradition of people sitting at computers with messy drafts and no publication contracts, daydreaming about what their "book" might look like on the shelves. (Provided they got past page 75 someday and fixed those ten plot issues.)
In my story there is a morgue, a gun or two, a dead body, a dingy motel, some pretty lakeside cliffs, and one hot babe. Inevitably, my visions ran towards some combination of these elements. And of course, the cover didn't use any of them. Instead, as in a good mystery itself, the final vision was nothing at all what I expected yet fit the story perfectly.
It came attached to an email from my editor, the wonderful Catherine Frank at Viking. With a little cover note along the lines of "What do you think?" I prepared myself for the worst--and didn't open the attachment for a half hour or so--but the thing shocked me in the best possible way.
Why do I love it so? Let me count the ways:
1) It's enticing: There's lots of cash. And a bloody hand. It's dirty money -- and somebody got hurt! But how? Why? The path to intrigue lies in leaving enough unsaid. (You may know this principle from burlesque shows, but let's not get into that.) All that negative space in the background, I think, does that.
2) The enticement goes to the heart of the story: Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot of The Morgue and Me takes off with the discovery of a large amount of money. It's the thing that drives the story, which makes its appearance on the cover a very satisfying choice. No one is going to feel conned while reading.
3) It's appealing to the readers: Based on memories of my 15-year-old self and informal polling of teens, I'm feeling optimistic that mystery-loving YA readers would stop and look at this cover. It looks a little dangerous, even edgy--in line with an image of yourself you might want to convey. I mean, Hollywood celebs get hybrid cars for image reasons. I won't complain if someone picks up my book with the same thing in mind--not to mention it's like $35,000 cheaper and you don't need a driver's license.
4) Most importantly, the pulp novel allusion: I wrote a mystery because I love reading mysteries, and the mysteries I first fell for come from the bygone day of Hammett, Chandler, et al. It's no surprise that mine came out as a kind of modern take on those books. And this cover does just the same thing so well--it fells very "dime store novel," and yet very fresh. I think it might be the black and the cool font, mixed with the more pulpy image of the dough. I'm sure the designer him/herself could explain this much better than I could. (The book design is credited to Sam Kim--shout out to Sam!--but I don't know how the process works or how many others are involved. I just know they made one author quite happy.)
5) This brings us to the final--and best--part. The back! Check it:
Excuse the poor quality -- I just took that shot on my camera. But okay, here it is. Up top, a muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline: "When the mystery starts in the morgue, things are bound to get interesting." Awesome, no? Anyway, below that, a snippet from a dramatic scene in the book.
Now, can I tell you why I love this? This will help explain:
This is from the 1957 Ross Macdonald novel The Barbarous Coast. See the muscular, just-melodramatic-enough tagline? "I make my living wearing a gun." I'm sold.
Ross Macdonald's The Galton Case, 1959. Just a block of text from the novel. "Culotti's shoulder caught me like a truck-bumper in the small of the back." I'm in.
These are the books I've cherished, hunted down at used book stores over the years, and kept. My Ross Macdonald collection:
The cover of my book has a home here. It could fit, of one piece with my ramshackle library. The one that fed my imagination in high school, that took me to dangerous places, that made me think in exciting ways, that made me want to write.
The cover of my book could be the start of someone else's pile. Somebody else's imaginings--somebody else's unwieldy library to be schlepped from dorm to apartment to house, because the weight of the boxes is far less substantial than the thrill they once had reading a good line, seeing themselves in the pages, looking at that cover and thinking of what the world held for them.
That would be the finest honor of all. Thanks, Viking, for a great jacket.