William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Getting Hot Art for a Cold Story

A couple of days ago, I released a new short story called "Stay Cold" on Amazon and Smashwords. As with two of my other stories, I was fortunate enough to have Andria Cogley of A. Cogley Design supply the cover art. I've written here before about how important it is to get professional help when producing ebooks, but to illustrate the point, I wanted to show you the process we went through on the cover for "Stay Cold" and how a good designer's intuition will usually trump a writer's best graphical ideas every time.

Long before I went to Andria with the story, I started with this image:

This copyrighted shot was supplied to me by a photographer friend, the immensely talented Gary Wilson. I instantly fell in love with the drama of the approaching snowstorm and how it seemed to warp the sun's light. Especially viewed at full size, the photograph is incredible, and it seemed to encapsulate this sense of impending disaster. I sent the picture to Andria, told her I thought it was the greatest thing ever, and asked her to do something with it. This was the initial result:

I know Andria is probably cringing while reading this, as she strongly encouraged me not to share the image while the cover was in progress. (Sorry, Andria...but we're good now...right?) She was very up front about indicating her dislike of this draft. I'd noted that the concept of melting figured into the story, so she gave the sun a warmer tone. And since that warm sun would be revealing some unsavory elements buried in the storm, she threw a hand into the foreground as a sort of conceptual placeholder.

But as Andia had insinuated, the whole cover just flopped. The colors weren't right. Nothing popped out visually. Why was there textured ground after a blizzard that flattened everything? And most of all, where was the approaching storm? I tried to futz with the composition myself and just couldn't get the storm back into the frame. It was a bust.

That takes us to draft number two:

At first, I resisted this version. I missed the storm, most of all. But the longer I looked at this draft, the more I recognized where Andria was going. Now, we had a bloody hand that looked to be trapped under thawing ice. That lent a drama to the scene that was wholly absent in my design. Was the owner of the hand alive or dead? Why was there blood? Most importantly, this new urgency now gave fresh, intriguing ambiguity to the title. If someone was trapped, why should it "stay cold"?

At this point, I hadn't finished the story, and Andria couldn't read my mind. I had to tell her that there was no ice in the tale. We needed the snow back. Also, I missed the big, blocky font from the first draft, which struck me as more dramatic and imperative.

So we went into draft number three:

When this popped out of my inbox, my breath caught in my chest. I'm going to start calling that "The Andria Effect." I had never even mentioned frostbite to her. There is no mention of frostbite in my story. But she thought that up independently, and it completely made the cover. OK, I'll be honest. I'd never seen frostbite before and didn't know that it would turn finger extremities black. I had to look it up in Google Images, and that was no treat on a full stomach, let me tell you.

I loved damn near everything about this cover. You get the snow, but it's a texture, not distracting detail. There's blood, so you know something possibly violent has happened, but the blood takes a back seat to the frostbite, which in turn visually pops against the pale background. (Note that it's the same hand as was used in the second draft, only dressed up in a lot of Photoshop layers. I really wish I knew how to create effects like that.) I got my big font back, and I even dug the way she sort of set it into the snow.

The only thing still needed was cleaning up some of the oddly placed snow texture and frostbite/blood stains that looked more like ink than damaged tissue. Andria also added some puckering to the skin to simulate desiccation. That took us into draft 3.5 (right).

I'm finding that both the art and text in my self-publishing go through three major drafts followed by one or two touch-up mini-drafts. Some writers do two or only one major draft; some will edit and re-edit for years in the hopeless pursuit of perfection. If I can get to 90% to 95% of perfection in three drafts plus spare change, I'm a happy camper. That's a schedule I can live with and feel acceptably productive.

In any event, there you go -- another cover evolution that shows how something awesome can emerge from good intentions gone horribly wrong...with the proper professional help.

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