Pippa’s fascinating post about the evolution of her new cover for Bones of the Sea had me fantasizing about the day when I would have to talk to artists about a cover for my own novel(s).
For months, sometimes for years, we authors are constrained to put our concepts into words, describing vast galaxies, gleaming starships, slavering aliens (or maybe mouth-watering aliens) and exotic landscapes with nothing but lively verbs and bright adjectives. How exciting to have an artist put those concepts into actual pictures on the page (or better yet, images on a screen—squeeee!).
For all authors, the choice of a cover is fraught with angst and seems a matter of commercial life and death. Does it convey the right points about the plot and characters? Does it project just the right emotional tone? Will it attract the audience we want? Will it stand out from others on a shelf—either actual or virtual?
But for science fiction romance authors, the choice of a cover is even more difficult. Do we opt more heavily for planets and spaceships, hoping to scoop up the SF crowd? Or do we boldly go for the romance audience, with a couple on the cover? Should the woman be in front, or the man? Should they be fully clothed or partially undressed, naked torsos or filmy ecstatic expressions? Stars or weapons? Landscapes or closeups? So many decisions—and so much that could go wrong!
But, okay, let’s say for the sake of argument that this is my book we're talking about and I and my publisher/editor/cover artist/second cousin twice removed and his best friend all decide that I want to attract a primarily romance audience and secondarily an SF audience for UNCHAINED MEMORY. We agree, after much discussion, that a couple should appear on the cover. (That’s as far as I’m willing to speculate right now, folks. I have another point to make.)
Great! Now, what do Asia and Ethan, the heroine and hero of my novel, look like? Here, I think, is where it all breaks down. I can describe my people in the book with passages like this:
“Ethan Roberts was the deluxe edition—his dark blond hair a little too long to be fashionable, his deep-set gray-blue eyes examining me with what seemed like X-ray vision, his strong jaw skimmed by the barest shading of beard, highlighting the cleft in his chin.”
“He looked up to see a woman charge into the waiting room, her high cheekbones flaming with color, her amber eyes snapping with fire. She was so furious she seemed on the verge of tears. She was so beautiful he forgot to breathe.”
I can even say I wrote the characters with certain physical models in mind. In Ethan’s case, it was Viggo Mortensen. For Asia, I wavered back and forth between Shania Twain and Ashley Judd. I started with those models, but eventually, as I wrote, the characters became themselves, someone unique and never before seen in the world.
The problem is, everyone who reads the book will visualize those characters differently. So when the cover artist gives me her version of Ethan and Asia, based on what I’ve told her, or maybe even on what she’s read, it can’t possibly be what I’ve envisioned. Her Ethan and Asia may be better; they may be worse. But they will most certainly be different.
I don’t mind. I find the envisioning of characters a fascinating process. The “rule” in romance writing has traditionally been that your hero and heroine must be clearly described—eye color, hair color, height, weight, etc. Some contest judges get a little OCD about this. They want to know what these people look like. But beyond a few particulars, I can’t tell you that. You will come up with that picture on your own, no matter what I say. I can tell you that Ethan has broad shoulders and narrow hips, but if you like guys big and beefy, and I’ve written him as a sexy character, you’ll fit him into your mold, and so will your girlfriend, who likes ’em lean and long.
Each writer has her own process for discovering the attributes of their characters. Some are very visual and plaster photos of their physical models around their desks while they work. Some work up complete background files on each character, with bios and backstories. Some have music or other things associated with them. I just sketch out a backstory (which I can change or add to as I go along) before I start the book, and I usually look for a physical model.
In my current WIP, Sam, the pirate captain who becomes a faithful agent of Rescue, friend of tracker Gabriel (from Trouble in Mind) and lover of Rayna/Dozen from the first two books, is based on David Boreanaz, of BONES and ANGEL fame. Rayna herself is based on an African-American woman I saw in a picture once on a wall in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service training center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She was a rock climber—young, vibrant, tiny and very beautiful. I have no idea who she is, but I can still see her smile. I took one look at the picture and knew it was Dozen.
But then, I’m the writer, and I created Dozen. Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many romance covers feature headless torsos or couples turned so you can’t really see their faces. Those leave room for the reader to impose her own vision of the characters on the story as she reads. Let's just call them “interactive” covers—and not feel so bad about them.