Monthly Archives: January 2013

On Cover Art and the Judging of Books Thereby…

At last year’s Genrecon one of the undoubted highlights was a snark presentation of covers given by Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Of course her particular focus was the Romance novels, an easy target perhaps for snarking, what with Fabio and man-titties (as opposed to man-boobs) and various other such tropes. It came to me though that Fantasy was as easily lampooned, the Hooded man, the enthroned King, the busty and poorly armoured warrior woman.

Covers are vitally important, despite the old adage that does not bear repeating. Perhaps in the ebook market this is less true, as opening a new ebook usually will take you to page one rather than to a cover, but with the flood of product a good cover is still an effective way to draw clicks to your Goodreads, or Amazon, or Kindle store presence.

I was surprised to hear from published authors how little control they had over the covers with which their novels appeared. I did here some anecdotes of cover artists communicating with the author, or perhaps even reading the book, but these were told as exceptions, remarkable precisely because they were not the rule. In some cases the author hated the cover which the publishers used.

Some years ago my sister recommended a book to me:


This is (I think) the 1997 edition.

On the back cover, below the blurb, there’s an image of a white wolf running through the snow.

Here, I thought, is everything I hated about Fantasy.

The swordsman in black, the black warhorse, the snowy castle, the raven…

Could these images look more hackneyed and clichéd?

It looked terrible.

I read a chapter or so in case she asked me about it, then it was shelved.

Some years later I found this book in a book store:


This is the 2003 edition under the Voyager imprint.

There’s a few extra endorsements, as over the intervening years and sequels Mr. Martin’s work had gathered a following and some rave reviews, but they’re mostly the same.

The blurb is much better on this than on the original, and I’m certain that that played a role in my selecting it too.

I bought it and began reading it without ever making the connection to the book my sister had given me.

It was only when I was several chapters into the book, and hooked, that I started to make connections with the earlier book I had shelved (or in fact, by that time, boxed-up and stored under the stairs).

For five years I had ignored a great Fantasy novel because of its cover.

Another example of a cover leading me to great fiction is Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes


I had a voucher to a bookstore sent to me as a Christmas gift, and I went in to buy China Mieville’s collection of short stories “Looking for Jake”, but I had some money left over and no real plan so I browsed the shelves.

Abercrombie’s views on maps have been well explained, and he included none in his First Law trilogy (which also have great covers), but this cover (as with the covers for “Best Served Cold” and “Red Country”) manages to convey I think a very real sense of Abercrombie’s world and the style of Fantasy he writes.

I like them far more than the hyper-real close-ups of the US covers.)

I bought it, loved it, and went back through the First Law and “Best Served Cold” in a matter of weeks.

Here’s the jacket of Heroes in all its glory (click the image to enlarge):


Recently the author Mark Lawrence responded to some suggestions comparing his cover for King of Thorns to GRRM’s Game of Thrones (specifically the Sean Bean cover that was released to tie-in with the success of the television series)


Lawrence’s response was to refer to similar covers back through the history of genre and still being released:

His point of course is well made. The mere similarity of having your protagonist (if Ned is the protagonist) sitting a throne is as much a part of Fantasy as the heroine swooning in the strong arms of her hunk is a part of Romance.

It’s always tempting of course to judge these covers. Whether they are examples of the best the genre has to offer, or some of the worst covers in the history of literature, there’s no denying their effect. It was suggested that the success of Fifty Shades of Grey in breaking beyond the Erotic Fiction market and into the mainstream was (in part) because it didn’t look like a typical Erotica cover.

It’s also worth acknowledging that the covers do not always reflect or represent the novel in the way the author would wish though, so in the interest of dispelling that hoary old cliche and admitting that of course we all do judge books in this way I invite you in the comments to nominate others.

What covers have made you pick up a book you went on to love?

What covers have drawn you to a book that you hated?

What covers have chased you screaming away swearing never to inflict such rubbish upon yourself… at least until they repackage it?

Next Big Thing

I was nominated as ‘The Next Big Thing’ by fellow Spec-Fic writer Chris Andrews (see his post here). The idea behind the nomination is that writers promote one another through our various networks and blogs, and so it falls to me to answer the questions below.

You may wish to head over to Chris’ blog and have a look around, he’s been doing this a while longer than me I feel and has some really interesting resources on his planning process and novel writing. Far more organised than my general musing and occasional update of progress.

But I digress…

1) What is the working title of your book?

It’s currently going under the title of Exile. I like the idea of a shorter title, and I like the idea that ‘exile’ functions as both noun and verb, that as a noun it can apply to a person or a condition or perhaps even a place.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

It has changed so much since it was first conceived that I’m not sure that I can answer the question well. I didn’t think so at the time of writing, but looking back I suspect it may have come from the experience of my own family’s circumstances. When I started writing I had a very clear idea of who the main character would be, but I’ve drifted away from that, perhaps as I’ve matured, and it’s more an ensemble piece now.
It draws from my studies of history and the Classical world. I kept wondering how different historical cultures would have reacted if they ever were to have met. I also wanted to explore the social contract we enter into, that decision to submit to an authority and the assumption that the authority will act in your interests, or at least not directly against them. I’m interested in how that social contract is currently functioning in various cultures, and I wanted to explore how it functioned in a Fantasy setting.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s Fantasy, but that’s not really specific enough is it? When I describe it to others they use the term Epic Fantasy. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. Certainly I think there is an epic back-drop in terms of the scale of the world-building.  The plot is influenced by inter-continental events, the clash of great powers, and yet that’s not the focus. It’s not about the saving of worlds, or the shaping of history through great deeds and prophecies fulfilled, and I think to be Epic Fantasy these are pretty important.

Low Fantasy then perhaps, but not quite as dark as Abercrombie, Morgan, Lawrence et al.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I have deliberately avoided thinking in these terms. In many ways because if it ever were to be made into a film that future is so distant and unlikely that references to current Hollywood stars would be meaningless.

So I would choose up-and-comers. I would (given my ‘druthers) avoid the star-powered path. That said, I think there’s a part in there for Djimon Honsou and for Chiwetel Ejiofor or Idris Elba. Cristoph Waltz almost certainly. Stellan and Alexander  Skarsgård. Probably more European actors than American.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

When three siblings are separated by a conflict they cannot control, each must adapt to a new life, and perhaps find a way to thrive.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have pitched to an agent, who requested pages, so the process is under-way. I’m thinking the agent to publishing path is my preferred, so I’ll try and exhaust that possibility before looking too closely at others.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This is another interesting question. I started writing the manuscript that would become this manuscript about 15 years ago. That’s not to say I’ve spent 15 years writing it though. I wrote as a hobby, when I could. I had only the most nebulous dreams of one day being a ‘writer’ and I didn’t ever think I would reach the point of having a manuscript that might interest anyone else. That original writing has changed so much, been rewritten so often, been so edited that very little of it survives in the current manuscript.

I’ve been seriously working to make this a novel for the last 12 months or so.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’ve mentioned a few. I’ll use the usual suspects and some new-comers as landmarks and maybe place myself that way:

Not as stolid as Tolkein, not as genealogical as GRRM, less graphic sex than Richard Morgan, less bleak then Abercrombie. Not as weird as Bas-Lag. Not as dense as Viriconium. Not as overtly allegorical as Dune.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The foremost influence was Feist’s  ‘Magician’ I think, at least initially. It wasn’t the first Fantasy novel I had read but it was the first time I had read a novel and seen the constituent parts that built the story. I think it stands as an excellent example, perhaps the prime example, of what it is. I cannot think of a Bildungsromanin the Fantasy genre that does it quite so well. It also opened up the idea of non-European cultures in Fantasy, and of those cultures being something more than the indistinctly drawn enemy. It seems that Feist will use Tsurannuani this way, and yet there’s that scene where he gives us their POV: We see the characters we’ve followed as they saved Crydee and we see them as a respected enemy, and from there of course we learn about the fractured nature of the Tsurani and their internal political disputes.

From that point, that I decided I could write a novel, I drew inspiration from many places. From history’s many tales. From Chaucer’s Middle English, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval bestiaries, the eddas and sagas, the myths of India and Africa, the common human myth identified and explained by Joseph Campbell.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

What indeed. I suppose that depends on the reader.

A huge secondary world with a living history?

Fallible characters who err and face the consequences, who are uncertain, who lack-confidence or over-commit, who cannot rely on divine prophecy or enchanted trinkets?

Political intrigues played out in the chambers and courts of nobility?

Bloody battles played out in the mud, ringing with the cries of warriors and the clash of spear on shield?

Forests filled with strange beasts?

Death, love, betrayal, suspicion… all the confused emotions that from people trying to find their way toward the life they wish to lead.

And my recommendation for the ‘next big thing’?

Richard Marek, whom I knew online long before I met him (recently – at Genrecon), and has shown me some of his work and I sincerely hope he  continues with his efforts to publish.

The re-write is complete


Now that was more an effort than I realised it would be.

I removed about 40,000 words from my manuscript over the past few months. That’s nearly a quarter of its weight!

Many of these were removed on a line-by-line edit: clarifying sentences, dealing death to adjective clusters, seeking out adverbs remorselessly and casting their brutally beaten bodies from my work. I did away with many dialogue tags. I found ways to say with ten words what I had said with twelve or fifteen. I found all of these little slivers of fat that still clung to the meat of my tale and I carved them off with a wicked sharp blade.

Then I had to really get stuck in.

This wasn’t my first pass with the scalpel, and on a project this size trimming fat didn’t shrink the manuscript by the requisite amount, so I started cutting away at the muscle, the flesh, in some cases the connective tissue. That hurt. I lost some good stuff I think. A character was erased from existence. Another had his role cut significantly. Two characters became so peripheral that to survive they had to undergo a melding of bodies and minds and become one. Details were lost, poignant moments, not-quite-salient anecdotes, slightly obscure back-story, geographical references, subtle foreshadowings… but these things ultimately were bloating the story into something more than what it should have been.

So now I have 131,000 words. Still big by the standards of a debut novel, but it’s a manageable big.

I asked a few agents (through the wonder of Twitter) what would be a maximum word-limit they would consider as a submission from an unpublished novelist and the answers were in the range of 140,000 to 150,000. I’m happily below that upper limit, and I’m sure the manuscript is much better for it.

I said at the outset that my goal here was not necessarily to become a professional writer, not even necessarily to become published, though both of those are measures of success. My goal is to become a better writer, and whatever comes as an outcome of this process I feel that the process has already achieved some success toward that goal. I made brutal decisions, but they were the right ones. Some years ago, perhaps even some months ago, I would have baulked those decisions, and I would have remained in a comfort zone of bloat and easy-living. That is not a good place for a writer to remain.

I also now have a much clearer delineation of writing and editing. When I was starting I would open the document and start editing the material I had just written the day before, and so writing was a crawl. I would write a couple of hundred words in a day, but then spend a day or two editing those before adding another couple of hundred and restarting the edit process. It’s a dysfunctional approach. It’s the wrong one. To borrow from Chuck Wendig:

“Writing is when we make the words. Editing is when we make the words not shitty.”

I believe I have done that. I believe my words are not shitty.

And now? Now I get the query letter dressed up. Now I nail that synopsis. Now I go back to Chapter One, Page One, Paragraph One, Word One. Now I make that opening irresistible. Because this week the queries go out (agents be warned) and I think I’ve got a good chance now of putting my best foot forward. That might or might not lead somewhere, but at least I’ll be stepping out knowing I’ve put the work in to make it possible.