Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cover Story: Designing 'The Dragon Ring'

What more can any man hope for than to sit and be creative among friends?

When it hits the digital shelves of your local online bookstore, it will be called The Dragon Ring but when I read the first draft of Maggie Secara's sweeping fantasy epic, it was still titled Sparrow's Dragon.

I was enchanted. I remember thinking: Boy, I'd love to do the cover for this...

So when Maggie told me her publisher was looking for a cover designer, as you can imagine, my hand shot up. Luckily, I've done some web design for Maggie in the past, so when I stepped forward, she welcomed me with open arms. We talked about. We talked some more. Then I received a sketch of a dragon from noted folklorist, artist, and author Ari Berk and Maggie said "Yes, something like that" and it was on.

How could anyone pass up the opportunity to put themselves in the middle of so much talent?

Cover design is more than typesetting and Photoshop manipulations; there's always an element of art direction and packaging.  The photos or artwork has to be gathered from the illustrators, the client has to feel that the images and typefaces chosen correctly reflect their desires, balanced, of course with legibility and style.

And somewhere in there, you have to create something that also fits your own aesthetics.

Photo from Wikipedia: Used under Creative Commons License
The description of the eponymous Dragon Ring is that it's viking in origin.  Appropriately, the sketch that Professor Berk sent me is loosely based on the intricate viking-era serpent carvings like those found in the Urnes Stave Church in Norway. (see photo)

I took Ari's sketch, fed it into Photoshop and started sending ideas to Maggie for comment. One of the hurdles for any project of this sort is the mental image the author holds of their ideal cover, their ideal heroine, or in this case, the ideal artifact at the center of their story. In this case, I was lucky enough to have full participation from an author who understood that cover design is not about illustrating the story, but about creating an accurate impression of the story inside. And not to get in the way of the reader opening the book to begin with.

Fifteen or so emails later, we had a couple of final ideas to send to the publisher for them to choose from.

This is a unique experience in many ways and one of those things that distinguish the "Indie" authors and small presses from the big guys. At larger publishers, the covers are very polished. The cover art is chosen mostly for marketing concerns and often drawn from stock sources rather than commissioned from artists who have read the book and discussed them with the authors.  The authors are given very little input on cover designs in the classic publishing model. I've heard stories of authors managing to get covers changed, but not very often and only with great hardship.

That's neither good nor bad. I certainly understand why it has evolved that way. I've talked to authors who would have to back a Brinks truck up to my studio to get me to take their call. People who cannot put away "This is pretty" and say "This will get people to open the book (or click on the thumbnail) and give my words a chance to capture their hearts."

Maggie gets that. Gets it in spades.

What else can I say about Maggie? We've been the 21st century equivalent of penpals for quite awhile now. She is part of my online writing group and one of the many great and surprisingly close friends I have met online but never in person. She's been a great friend and an excellent sounding board for ideas when I'm contemplating anything to do with history.

Dragon Ring has a lot of time travel in it, and seeing someone with genuine historical chops take on a story like that is always exciting. Maggie is the force behind Life in Elizabethan England: A Compendium of Common Knowledge, a one-stop shop for all matters Elizabethan. Whenever my work wanders into the time of Shakespeare, as when I was writing the first draft of Mummer's Masque last year, Maggie's website is my first stop. (She has handily turned the website into a book, which you can buy in all the finest online establishments).

Look for The Dragon Ring from Crooked Cat Publishing, available March 16, 2012! 
Cover Design by Scott Perkins, Ari Berk, Illustrator.
Copyright 2012, Crooked {Cat} Publishing.

Ben Harper, an American living in England, is an organizational guru with a popular British TV program and a great family. It may not be the career his theatrical and musical training prepared him for, but it’s a good one, and he does have a definite knack for bringing order out of chaos. But for all his success, Ben remains unhappy, aching to find a channel for his pent-up creative talents. 
A chance meeting in the pub leads to an offer from some guy who claims to be Oberon king of Faerie. Oberon--if that's who he is--tells Ben that he can help him with the career crisis in return for a favor. All Ben needs to do is take a dragon arm ring back in time and deliver it to Alfred the Great so the medieval king can make peace with the Vikings and get down to forging modern England. If this doesn’t happen, Oberon says, the world Ben knows will cease to exist... 
The Dragon Ring is filled with music, adventure, faerie magic, and dry humor. It also has solid roots in history and folklore, and some indebtedness to the worlds of Brian Froud, Neil Gaiman, and Marie Brennan. 
Read a synopsis and sample chapters here on Maggie's blog.  

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).