If there is one thing I am guilty of in my writing (ok, there are quite a few, but one specifically that I take a small amount of pride in), it is my attempts to tie a number of individual stories into one powerful theme. I feel that cover art should be the reader’s first opportunity to recognize that theme because quite contrary to popular opinion (and possibly contrary to good sense) we most certainly do judge a book by its cover. So when I go about sketching my crude designs for a cover I know that not only does the art need to connect with the story, it has to tell the story with a single glance.
The cover for Master of the House essentially ends up being one of those portraits that wealthy families or corporations commission of their important people to denote success. It is a snapshot in time that says, “Look here. We are powerful and we will be remembered.” Master of the House is a hard luck story of people overcoming adversity and their own failings even as the world around them descends into very dark times. The book itself ends with a warning about how bad things will be for them going forward. In a sense, the cover art, the portrait of those characters is the high water mark for their success amid the criminal empire of Seaside. It also hopefully begs the question of the reader as to how the guy in the suit gets to be the one with power when surrounded by such obviously dangerous individuals.
Now we come to the sequel, House of Cards and the dire warning left for things to come:
No one, could have foreseen how quickly the delicate house of cards we had built would fall apart.
We were set against a creature whose designs on the world included the death of a God.
We would not escape unscathed.
Now I edited that slightly to avoid any real chance for spoilers, but between that passage and the title of the book, the reader knows things are about to fall apart. The over arching story and the saga in Seaside in particular use the progression of the Fool in Tarot readings for its symbolism in accordance with growth and struggle. With that being the case and this book being about a massive reversal of fortunes, I devised a cover scheme that would mimic the traditional callings of the Wheel of Fortune cards in Tarot decks.
Let’s go ahead and look at the first draft layout sent to me by my artist Josh.
So, the first thing to keep in mind is that this is a draft (a damn good one, but still a draft). A few things, like the center character image, are only place holders. Likewise, the character in the lower right corner just ended up disturbing the composition of the piece and was later removed. Let’s talk about the symbolism for a moment and the not so obvious things.
One thing that I like in particular here, is the complicated steam and gear mechanics in the background. The technology of this world is rooted in steampunk concepts and tropes, but it is played subtly, as if it is just something to accept. The steampunk stylings are not the core concept of this world, but because there are some major technological intrusions in this story, I felt that placing the hint of it all there to be seen after the fact was a nice touch. Especially because the actual wheel of fortune in this instance is a gear. When the significance of this is revealed late into the book, I think anyone who notices all this will get look back with one of those ‘ah ha’ type moments.
Now, the Wheel of Fortune is the card or event that symbolizes a turning point, the rise and fall of people and forces via events beyond our control. Depending on the time period, the artist, and the style; the card will always depict a few central characteristics. A heavenly presence, a central figure in or controlling the wheel (usually Fortuna), and one person rising on the wheel while another falls.
Knowing that this is the story about how things fall apart, there are some ominous tidings already in the cover that an attentive reader will pick up on. Envy is clearly at the center of the wheel, marking her influence on the events that have transpired or will transpire. Worse yet, is that the heavenly figure is replaced by a dragon who looms over every thing below, both good and evil. Yet still through it all, despite his haggard appearance, it is Julian who is rising on the wheel of fate, showing that while things are certainly not good, hope has not yet died.
Of course, that leaves the fate of the character on the other side of the wheel entirely in question. Someone is falling from grace while Julian is rising out of the fires. Blame has to fall somewhere for such an occurrence and when your villains are incarnations of sin…we can be sure that the heroes will be held responsible somehow.
So what of style? The last cover held a very detailed, very oil painting like quality that marked the pomp and circumstance of Julian’s Syndicate. This cover will diverge from that significantly. After carefully considering the options and discussing the matter with Josh, we agreed that an art nouveau style was the perfect way to implement the sweeping changes that the picture was to depict. I’m told that unruly lines and curves denote this style and that fit perfectly into my desire to see a cover that was more or less out of control (and to color outside the lines).
This example of art nouveau to the left captures the colorful movement and lack of crisp boundaries that we’re moving towards with the cover for House of Cards.
Stepping away from the thematic now, I thought it might be fun to give a look into how or why characters look the way they do and the way in which the discussion with your cover artist can influence that look. For this example, I’m going to use Envy as the character in question. I like to start general with the description, hitting the important notes and then working from there. So, this was my initial description of Envy:
One thing that I really have to point out here, and something that Josh would probably note as well, Envy aside, I have purposely avoided selling these covers to the audience by sleazing up the female cast members. I really can’t stand the books that sell their story through the image of a female knight baring a midriff or who wears thigh high boots sans pants. Point being, when I purposely noted that this charcter was meant to be alluring, it is to accentuate the fact that she is a Deadly Sin.
What I got back in regards to Envy’s distinct look was varied and provided a great range of choices. Let’s look at them now, starting with the ones least fitting and ending with the option I eventually chose.
Let’s call this the “coy tom-boy” look. To me, this is a very specific kind of appeal that doesn’t exactly hit the legendary beauty or temptation mark. She is also somewhat more aware and smug than I wanted to show here. The eyes and expression show off a threat that the heroes might understand, but is too well defined in the context of the story for now.
Here we encounter the same issue as before. She is too assured, too outwardly dangerous or smug. The most dangerous thing about this villain is her ability to use your own failings against you. It is difficult to think that the clever character in the book woudl not immediately recognize this kind of character as dangerous. In my mind, this was the “Spider Queen” look, very suitable for other ideas, just not right for this one.
This picture here, which I think of as the “Vallejo” look, is a perfect example of how your own discussion or idea can go just a bit too far in one direction despite being exactly what you were looking for. The larger image of Envy here is enticing and she has that classic fantasy beauty to her. It’s a great image, but it is also not exactly what I was looking for. She’s cold and distant despite being attractive. That being said, I almost went with this one because I am certain that colored in pastels, it would look amazing…
A surprise runner up, yet completely out of contention, I love this “Wild Child” look. It was not Envy. I knew that as soon as I saw it, but at the same time, I knew that this look could and should be recaptured for some other characters, likely the Shadow Elves. She’s not prisitine enough here and there’s too much nature in the hair and gentle eyes. I would love to use this as a base for other elven characters, especially the heroic ones. She’s just not evil enough for Envy.
This example nails the classic beauty ideal head on. The slight tilt of her head and focused eyes portray the idea that she is considering her subject but do not betray the dark intent behind those thoughts. Further, there is an innocence displayed here that in my mind, differs from the previous example with the “Wild Child”. The innocent glance here is almost practiced, purposeful even. This is a woman who has learned to destroy people by suggesting it to them as a best course of action, not someone who has to compell or force her victims into ruin. When I think of dangerous beauty, this is where it takes me.
Thanks for taking a look at the design process and thanks to Josh Beach for allowing me to use some of the draft material in the discussion. I hope to preview the cover a little bit prior to the book’s release this month.