Saturday, 20 July 2019

How To Make a Black River Cover (Part 1)

I've said half-jokingly that working with artists is my favourite part of being an author, and though obviously I enjoy all that writing stuff too - at least on the good days! - it's not a million miles from the truth;  I never quite get used to the privilege of having someone incredibly talented produce something totally amazing on my behalf.  And while I'm sure not everyone is as emotionally involved in my book covers as I am, still, I reckon there are a few people out there who are curious about how this stuff works, right?  So I thought it might be interesting, with the permission of our terrific Black River cover artist Kim Van Deun, to reveal a little of how these stunning images come to be.  Unfortunately, that's inevitably going to mean a few SPOILERS, so be warned, and maybe don't read this until you've read Eye of the Observer - yet another excuse to grab a copy if you haven't already!

Of course, by the time we got to this third book, I'd already worked with Kim twice before.  I didn't have so much input on the cover of Level One, my co-creator and editor Michael Wills handled that one, but I got to see the work in progress, and so I had an idea of Kim's process by the time we got to The Ursvaal Exchange.  There, Mike and I swapped roles altogether, and I even had strict instructions to surprise him with the finished image, which is a lovely position of trust to be placed in as a writer, but would have been kind of intimidating if I hadn't known I could rely on Kim to deliver!

With that behind us, I had no worries when Mike said much the same about Eye of the Observer; the process had been a pleasure and I felt I knew how to play to Kim's considerable strengths.  However, I wasn't quite so certain about what ought to grace the front of this one as I'd been with the last.  There's a definite balance, especially once you're midway into a series: on the one hand, you want to give enough information to a prospective reader that they'll have a fair idea of why they should pick up your book, but on the other, you don't want reveal anything that might ruin crucial plot points.  This was straightforward enough with Level One, in that we were really just trying to convey the core concept, and The Ursvaal Exchange had a relatively early scene that was an ideal fit.  This time around, the balancing act wasn't so straightforward, and the scene I had in mind occurred relatively late on.

Being the sort of person who tends to think out loud, I'd said all this in my initial pitch to Kim.  There was a lot I was definite on: the underground setting that's basically the whole second half of the book, the ruins, the nod to the Dwarven city and the idea of subtly hinting at what it's hiding.  But the question we started out grappling with was, do we explicitly show Pootle or don't we?  Both approaches had their advantages and disadvantages.  However, initially I found myself leaning toward keeping an air of mystery - and the result was the image up there at the top.  Even at the thumbnail stage, there was a lot that I liked; this is still perhaps my favourite take on Arein, with a perfect balance of yearning and trepidation in the way she's reaching toward Pootle, and the rest of the party look great too.  But it was immediately apparent that, from the back, it was awfully hard to tell what Pootle was.  Are they looking at a big rock?  A beach ball?  The moon?  Hiding a giant eyeball's one distinguishing feature might not be the best way to go!

That discussion left us with four thumbnail sketches, one of them the image here and the remainder variations on these two.  In the alternative designs, there was no ambiguity: Pootle was front and centre.  The result was more immediately striking, but it brought its own share of issues, the most obvious of which being that Arein, effectively our protagonist for this third book, had her back to us.  (You'll probably have noticed that, for obvious reasons, covers don't generally show characters with their backs to the reader!)  And since I couldn't choose between the two, I did what I always do: pester friends, family, and anyone else who'd listen for their opinions.  The result was an ever-so-slight preference toward the second design, one that basically came down to the fact that there was something very cool about Pootle looming there dead centre with that glowing light behind it.  So, after much discussion, we had a direction, and now the real hard work could begin - well, for Kim, at least!

To be continued...

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