The Basics of Cover Design

comparing book covers

What are the most basic requirements for cover design?

The most important thing to remember is that your cover is a marketing tool to attract new readers. It will be the focus of any marketing you do, and it will need to work in banners, advertising, and maybe even posters. Established readers of your work will buy your books if you wrap it in a brown paper bag. The cover is a tool to increase that readership.

There seem to be two schools of thought on book covers. The first one I see espoused is to blend with your genre. Find the best-selling books in your genre and make sure your cover is easily associated with these. This helps for marketability and as a side effect gives the book an unconscious visual recommendation. A viewers mind remembers that they liked X, and this looks like X, therefore I will probably like it too. On the other hand, do you want to be one of the crowd? A good cover that stands out will attract the eye faster than a good cover that blends into all the others. Whichever philosophy you ascribe to your cover must…

Convey who the author is, and what the story is about.

  • To achieve this, you need to have a readable font that is clearly visible against the background image;
  • Fancy fonts are fine as long as they can still be read in thumbnail images;
  • Your author name falls below the title unless you are so well known your name is enough to sell books;
  • Your Title must be both predictive (hinting at the story) and evoke a positive emotional reaction in prospective readers.

Be eye-catching so it stands out on the shelf or webpage.

  • Your cover has to be attractive. People do judge a book by its cover.
  • Your cover has to look professional. If the cover isn’t professional, people will assume the writing isn’t either.
  • If you make your own covers or pre-purchase them make sure you avoid overused stock photos. Check out the Gallery of Clones.
  • A substantial part of the population has vision problems. Do yourself a favour and don’t discourage buyers with confusing imagery, blue/green colour grades, or small text.

Convey the feel (if not the content) of the story.

A picture paints a thousand words [circa 1% of your word count] so if a reader picks up your story based on the cover then finds it bears little resemblance to the story you will have an unhappy reader/reviewer. Some common examples to avoid are

  • A romantic looking couple on the cover when there is no romance.
  • Space battles in Sci-Fi books that don’t feature space battles.
  • A figure on the cover who seems to be the protagonist who almost the opposite of how the character is described.
  • Dark stories with neon-happy covers, such as stories focused on abuse and domestic violence with a ‘flowery romance’ cover.

 

Grammar basics for writers

This is a quick Grammar for Dummies. As a reader recently pointed out, my article on the split infinitive may have gone over the head of anyone “…not well versed in Latin or [who] attended primary school after 1990”.

Keep in mind that these are the VERY basics and are geared towards writers. If you write, you probably already know these. When you break these down they sound complicated, but in essence they are about clarity in writing. You might even find you’ve been following them even if you don’t know the formal terms.

The Building Blocks

Nouns are concepts. A noun names a person, animal, quality, feeling, or place. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. Common pronouns are “they”, “you”, and “I”. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, providing an additional descriptive to the concept such as ‘tall girl’, or ‘angry boy’.

Verbs show the process. A verb is an action and can add tense (past, present, or future) to a sentence. Adverbs give you more detail about the verb. “They walked” can become “They walked quickly”. These add information such as when, where, why, and quantity. Linking verbs link the subject to the rest of the sentence and should be used sparingly in fiction. Some examples you should look for are “seems” and “appear”

Conjunctions connect separate words and clauses, the most common ones being “and”, “or”, and “but”.

Communicating Ideas

A sentence needs to express a complete thought. In each, the subject is the star of the show, and the predicate tells us about the subject.

A paragraph contains all the sentences that deal with one set of ideas. Set is a deliberately vague word which is why I use it. What separates one ‘set’ of sentences from another is often debatable. The times you should always start a new paragraph are when something breaks the narrative.

  • You skip forward in time
  • The person who is speaking (dialogue) changes
  • The person who is speaking changes subject
  • You change the location (often in association with skipping time)
  • The paragraph has just gotten too long and needs to be broken up so you don’t present a wall of text.

Dialogue is used where characters speak. If someone speaks aloud, this is shown as dialogue. The most important rule of dialogue is that inside the quotation marks realism is more important than grammatical correctness. The second rule is that Dialogue starts and ends with dialogue indicators.

If you write in US English, this means quotation marks ( ” ). As America English has dominated the international landscape, this is acceptable across the globe.

“Are you coming over tonight?” Jessica asked.

I’ll go more in-depth into dialogue, including the alternate styles and how to show one speaking character quoting another in a future post.

Dialogue Tags can be used before, after or in the middle of the dialogue itself. The simplest and most common follows the dialogue and looks like the example above.

You only need to use dialogue tags when it is necessary to clarify who is speaking. So when the situation clearly indicates who is talking, dialogue tags can be skipped. One school of thought on dialogue tags is that the only two tags you need are “said” and “asked”. The other thinks ‘said is dead’ and advocates using tags that add additional meaning. Using the common two tags forces you as a writer to show the action rather than just telling the reader what to think, however not everything needs to given that level of detail. Personally, I’m on the fence.

Clarity of Communication

Punctuation gives meaning and structure to what is otherwise just a string of words.

Capitalisation is important. Uppercase letters indicate the start of each sentence and are used for the titles of people, books, specific places, organisations, and compass points.

The end of every sentence is marked by punctuation that can change the entire meaning. The most common are the period ( . ) exclamation ( ! ) and the question mark ( ? ). As a writer, the exclamation is considered a no-no. Use it sparingly.

I’ll skip colon and semicolon for now. As a general rule, if you are uncertain how to use the semicolon or colon, avoid them. They are used in lists, but writers shouldn’t present lists to their readers.

Commas are fun. I have literally seen people come to blows over the correct use of a comma. A comma is used to separate things and mimic the pause in spoken language. Such as in that last sentence. ‘Basically’ is the introductory phrase. Which is separated from descriptive clause.

Comma use will vary depending on the style of your writing and the intended audience age. If you write YA or romance, the removal of commas to create simple sentences is encouraged. An epic fantasy or complex sci-fi aimed at high vocabulary adults allowed for more complex grammar structures. In the first example you want an easy reading experience, in the second your audience is looking for complexity and expects to be challenged. The comma is also used to separate to separate the city from the state in addresses and the day from the month in dates.

Apostrophes are used to show ownership such as “Jane’s knife” and in contractions to take the place of one or more letters such as replacing “could have” with “could’ve”.

Parentheses enclose things that clarify but are not grammatically integral to the sentence. Such as above where I gave examples of a period, exclamation, and question mark. It wasn’t necessary for the sentence but was a visual aid providing the symbols themselves. In fiction writing, parentheses should be rare outside glossaries, timelines, and footnotes.

Application and how it applies to your ‘Voice’.

I planned to do a section on knowing the rules, and how to apply them. Once you know the basics, the next important steps are distinguishing between “active vs passive voice”, and how to “show not tell”. This has already gone on long enough and left you with enough to consider, so those will also have to be articles for another Wednesday.

See also

Grammar Basics (thanks to Grammarly Blog)

Never Split Infinitives

Splitting the infinitive

 

Never split the infinitive. Unless you want to…

I can not stress this enough. When composing a stirring rebuttal to Cicero’s latest piece, or writing a formal letter of complaint to your local senator, magistrate, Comitia Centuriata or Concilium Plebis, it is important never to split the infinitive. To do otherwise would suggest you are of low breeding or barbaric education. When writing in Latin, there are some rules a citizen of Rome should never break.

Wait! What? You’re writing in English and not Latin.

Well, I guess you plebs could write in English if you really had to. I can’t imagine why you would.  An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?* and all that. To be honest, the rule against split infinitives is more of a guideline. In the 19th century, there was an attempt to make it a prescriptive grammatical rule, but that has long since been abandoned. The original objection harkens to comparisons with the structure of Latin. Since few people speak Latin these days, objections aren’t as strenuous as they once were. When writing fiction the linguistical gymnastics required to avoid splitting the infinitive is rarely worth the effort and may change the emphasis and meaning of a sentence. Still, it’s safest to avoid split infinitives in formal writing.

For example: “You really have to watch him.” vs “You have to really watch him.”

The first suggests it is important to watch the person, the second (with the split infinitive) is suggesting you have to watch closely or you will miss something subtle.

So for the budding fiction writer when your editor (or grammar checker) flags an excessive number of split infinitives, don’t panic. Unless you are regularly getting more than one split infinitive per 5,000 words you can usually just ignore this. Grammar is a blunt instrument and doesn’t take into consideration deliberate stylistic choices. If you do find too many examples then it may be a good idea to excise the entire sentence instead of trying to re-write it. If you need that bit of information try a completely new structure. In short when it comes to writing fiction “Arcem ex cloacâ facĕre.”**

*Don’t you know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed? 

**Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

Things to check before you publish/promote

MarketingSo what makes a good/bad marketing strategy for reaching those elusive readers?

There have been many good marketing strategies over the years. Take the all-time champion, the De Beers’ diamond campaign. That one company’s efforts led to the worldwide consumption of something that has no intrinsic value, but people now pay an arm and a leg for. There are many models available, and no end of experts happy to sell you their unique 7 step program or downloadable .pdf for $199.

I subscribe to a few simple rules.

Quality

Your work doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but a well-written story is easier to market than a rushed second draft. The question is “Do you believe in your product?” If you don’t enjoy your work, what makes you think anyone else will? Sure you can go with quantity over quality, and to be fair that works for many people but you still need to get people to notice

Sniff Test

sniff testMarketing is 1 part exposure, 2 parts content, and 1 part spam. There is no magic model (damn, I could charge 3 handy instalments of $39.95 to tell you that… padded out and with lots of jargon and some graphs. Guess I suck at marketing). So, sniff test, if it smells like BS, it probably is. Look at your own Inbox, your own reading material, your own town. What gets your attention, work out what stands out and do that. At the same time work out which sites send you so much spam you wish there was a ‘return to sender’ button that came with an automatic malware attachment. What ads annoy you, what campaigns insult your intelligence. Keep track of what they do that bugs you and don’t do it. In this business people tell you to target your material to your market, yet they fail to mention YOU are your own ideal reader. Your audience will be people who share your tastes and interests, so if something feels like BS to you, it will feel like BS to them. Unless you know your product is BS, and you’re okay with that… and plan to work with a good PR machine.

Satisfaction

Made in America (or wherever you’re proud to be from). Once you pass the sniff test and design a product you believe in, you can begin. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and it’ll be better if you don’t try to make it perfect. Be comfortable with what you’ve written.

Is your prose solid, your copy-edit professional level, your cover something that makes you smile? If you believe in your product, others will too. You should have murdered all your darlings during drafting, but they can still be recycled to show off your clever use of language. The fat you trim from your story to streamline it for publication. You can polish these extracts and expand them to feed the returning fans hungry for more detail. Even that clunky exposition you cut can be blogged to bring joy to your legions, LEGIONS I TELL YOU, of die-hard fans.

Completion

Batteries not Included. Free extras are great. Serialised stories can be great. Leaving out chunks of stuff in the hope people will pay for them later is not. This is not video-game development, and even then you don’t make friends with DLC (Gaming term for downloadable content you buy AFTER you buy the game). The same goes for selling things that aren’t written yet. Coming soon, is no substitute for a known release date. Sure you can release content as you write it, but don’t charge. Sell your finished product, anything of lower quality will only harm your brand. That’s not to say you can’t pre-sell, but when you deliver it needs to be a finished product or you risk alienating your readers/fans.