#SPFBO Saturday : Guest post from Bjørn Larssen

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As part of the SPFBO Competition each weekend I am hoping to post guest blog posts inviting authors taking part in the competition to visit my blog to either write an article, discuss covers, take part in an interview or post an excerpt or teaser for their work.

This weekend is my first visit and I’m really happy to be hosting a guest post submitted by Bjørn Larssen in which he discusses the thought processes that led him to come up with the wonderful cover we’re now familiar with.  A cover that was also submitted into the SPFBO Cover Competition and won Silver place from the public vote. Bjørn is the author of Children (The Ten World #1).  The description for which can be found here.

Firstly, I’d like to thank Bjørn for agreeing to take part and providing us with an insight into the amount of work that goes into putting together a successful cover.

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Everything began with a shot of Meghan and Harry walking in front of photographers. Meghan, an actress, did the smiling and waving thing. Harry’s mouth formed a grimace, his best attempt at a smile. He gazed to the side, eyebrows furrowed. He was not holding Meghan’s hand; she held his.

Harry was never going to become King; he’d forever remain “the son of.” At best, potentially useful as a point of access to those who have actual power. He knew all that, saw no escape, knew this was going to be how the rest of his life would unfold, and he was terrified.

Magni, son of Thor, was neglected, cast away, ignored by his father. He was also a giant, flame-haired, bearded blacksmith who carried his favourite hammer around. He looked like the father he despised – and the last time he had seen Thor was when Thor had destroyed the town Magni and his mother lived in. Magni made a vow to become the opposite of Thor, rejecting everything his father stood for.

Someone like Magni could never be accepted as simply a strong man who likes working with iron though. He was not a person – but “the son of,” hated or loved at first sight, preconceptions about him made before it transpired he even had a name of his own. At best, potentially useful as a point of access to the “real” Gods. He knew all that, saw no escape, knew this was going to be how the rest of his life would  unfold, and he was terrified.

I wanted Magni on the cover and now I knew what he should look like.

Portrait

Most covers of indie fantasy books are paintings. I had the blurb for the artist ready – here’s the photo. Give me those haunted eyes, the apprehension, add darkness and fire. I approached two artists whose earlier work I adored. When I received their price quotes, I slightly passed out. Those prices, when I thought about it, were completely reasonable, when compared with how much time and work it would take. But in order to afford their fees, I’d have to postpone the book by at least six months in order to save money.

The probability of me finding a model with red hair and beard, clad in medieval clothing, with that look in his eyes and the right facial expression, seemed near-zero. To my excited disbelief, I found him. I stared at the photos (there was a whole series!), picked one, bought it, and started working. The cover couldn’t just have Magni on it. It needed to convey the message “this is a Norse mythology retelling from the point of view of the son of Thor (pictured), oh, and despite the title it is also not at all suitable for children.”

I added layers – a flock of birds to represent Odin’s ravens; tree branches; fire. After consideration I took out the birds, because representing Odin’s two ravens using fifty or so bird silhouettes felt unclear even to me. I replaced the branches with an actual peek of a forest at night. Added more fire (when in doubt, always add more fire) for that fantasy je ne sais quoi. My inner graphic designer (I worked as one for nearly fifteen years) was delighted. As a reader, all I could tell was that it was a fantasy book that featured some bloke with green eyes. The only reason why I knew it had something to do with Norse Gods was that I wrote the book.

I tried various pseudo-runic fonts and cringed from here to New Zealand at how cheap they made the cover look. I changed the title to Children of the Gods, because Gods = possibly Norse Gods, might work. I showed the result to some people and all of them praised it – but they all already knew what the book was about.

But it was so pretty.

lynn_children_compositeA few weeks before the release date a friend told me about a lengthy series of vaguely homophobic vampire erotica called Children of the Gods. Now I really had a branding disaster in my hands. Calling the book Children didn’t really explain what it was about, but getting it mixed up with a series of 46 (by now 51) vampire romances? The publishers of those had massive marketing budgets (and potentially a lawyer). My book would never appear in Amazon search above the 47th position. I was happy to go back to the original title – but now the cover again conveyed, without a doubt, that it contained a green-eyed man.

Trees

Children is the first book in The Ten Worlds series. I commissioned a logo for the series from Brad Bergman. It was supposed to appear on the spines and front covers, small, just for branding. When it arrived, I was blown away. It just fit, an illustration rather than a logo, Yggdrasil, the Tree of life, surrounded by clearly Norse symbols. I blew the logo up, placed it on a burgundy red background, made it golden, then replaced the gold with fire. (When in doubt…) The typography was simple, not to distract from the Tree. I barely bothered to say a quick “bye” to poor Magni.

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When the book came out, many of the reviewers couldn’t compliment the cover enough. It was a triumph. I loved it, the readers who followed me after Storytellers (my debut) loved it, and all seemed great until a stranger asked me what sort of book it was.

It didn’t occur to me that the reviewers were approached with the question “would you like to read a Norse mythology retelling from the point of view of the Gods’ children?” They knew what they were getting, they’ve read the blurb, and then they read the book. The readers who followed me knew what I was writing. A new potential buyer saw a (beautiful) drawing of a (burning?) tree on red background.

Hoping that it was a one-off, I asked other authors in a group I am a member of – what do you think this book is? I thought the problem was the typography and I needed to make it “more fantasy.” But most of those I polled answered “epic fantasy.” I got the genre right, but not the subgenre. I created a wonderful cover for some other book.

When I explained what it actually was, most people suggested putting Thor’s hammer on the cover. This didn’t work for multiple reasons. Children is the first book in a series. What would I do with the second or third? Multiple hammers? But the reason why they were mentioning Thor’s hammer was that they saw it on Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. Which was why I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t even look like an homage, just a shameless attempt to coat-tail on Gaiman’s success.

I decided to ask people who had read the book instead. What did they think it was? Their answers could be summed up with “a very dark Norse fairytale.” One of them used the word “grimdark.” No, I thought, confused. Grimdark was all about blood-dripping axes and burning battlefields and cackling warriors raping the daughters of their enemies, and so on. I knew that, because I had read two grimdark books. It turned out that they didn’t cover the entire genre.

The new brief I gave myself said: Grimdark. Norse. Fairytale.

I found the right typeface, Noatún – very different from the pseudo-runic hand-drawn letters, yet just Norse enough to clearly convey the message. Grimdark – no blood-dripping axes for me, but obviously saturated, bright colours were not right. It needed to be subdued. Fairytale – I browsed through many images until I decided on one. Yggdrasil, the Tree, stil fit, but it shouldn’t be pretty and fierce. Instead, I would use an image of a moss-covered tree in a foggy forest. I filtered, layered, worked on the photo until it no longer looked like a photo. The fog turned silver. Just to hammer (sorry) the message home, I added “A NORSE MYTHOLOGY RETELLING” under the title. There it was. My fitting, striking, informative cover.

lynn_tree_compositeIt killed the sales.

There are weeks when I sell more books, then fewer. But when I change nothing but the cover, the number drops to zero, and remains there, it’s easy to guess what the reason could be. I analysed the cover, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong this time. On the thumbnail, the “Norse Mythology Retelling” was illegible. Without that, potential readers saw a blurry, green tree. Their first thought was never going to be, “oh, this is very clearly a grimdark fairytale-like Norse mythology retelling.” I lost the attraction of the red “epic fantasy” tree and failed to convey what the book actually was – again. Oh boy, I thought. If I went with a painted portrait of Magni, I would now be commissioning the fourth painting.

Raven

Back to the photoshopping board we go. Again.

The blurb was fine, but the imagery wasn’t, so the image search and Amazon search became my best friends. Grimdark fantasy. Norse grimdark fantasy. Norse inspired fantasy. Books about Norse mythology. Heathenry symbols. Ásatrú symbols. Viking symbols.

The list I already had seemed, sadly, quite complete. Apart from Odin’s eyepatch I only added Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse – who makes a brief appearance indeed – and Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn.

In the book, ravens are mostly present because of their absence. My characters’ paranoia about being potentially watched by or listened to by Odin’s ravens is justified. Huginn and Muninn are an extension of Odin; the all-seeing-eyes that might be near… or not. Menacing, dark, fairytale-like – if that fairytale was written by Brothers Grimm on a really cloudy day.

I chose blue that was simultaneously saturated and subdued, moving from fire to ice. The colour was both striking and cold. I added layers of trees, but not pretty, green trees; dark and menacing. The raven himself is a painting I luckily didn’t have to commission. Once I added firefly-like lights, I tested it on a few more people who haven’t read the book, and sighed with relief.

lynn_raven_composite

The final (for now) cover couldn’t possibly be more different from what I started with. This one, however, works. And I got another reminder, or three, that cover design is a very different form of art from graphic design.

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Thanks so much for visiting today, I loved reading about your own book cover journey and hope everyone else does too.