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Art and Argument in Arts of Dark and Light

Monday, October 15th, 2012 | Posted by Theo

A Magic BrokenToday I have the pleasure to announce the publication of a new novella as well as a forthcoming first foray into epic fantasy.

As most Black Gate readers know, I haven’t been hesitant to share my opinion about modern fantasy, particularly modern epic fantasy, but it is easy to criticize. It’s rather less easy to figure out how to materially apply that criticism.  One rapidly finds oneself rethinking things when attempting to improve upon that which has been criticized, and after spending the last year writing an 800-page first volume in a new fantasy series, I find myself increasingly sympathetic towards some of those I’ve criticized in the past, Steven Erikson in particular.

I rather liked his grim Malazan Books of the Fallen, but always considered them to be something of a chaotic mess. Now that I’m wrapping up a novel that is rather longer than Gardens of the Moon, I find myself hoping that it will turn out as orderly as Erikson’s work.

However, it’s less my purpose to discuss A Magic Broken, the novella that serves as an appetizer to my forthcoming novel, A Throne of Bones, than to give Black Gate‘s readers a chance to see a side of the cover art process that is seldom made public. It was an occasionally contentious process that wasn’t easy on anyone’s ego, but it was one that I think you will agree turned out surprisingly well in the end.

So, without further ado, I will step aside and turn over the metaphorical microphone to my favorite cover artist, Kirk DouPounce, whose work can be seen at DogEared Design.


Over the past 17 years, I’ve gotten to design a pile of book covers, well over a thousand if my math is correct. And if I learned anything at art school, it was math. So when I say A Throne of Bones is my favorite cover so far, it does mean something.

Summa ElveticaThe design process which Theo has asked me to share in this post, however, was not an easy one. I blame most of this difficulty on the female gender.

Scientifically speaking, women read approximately a lot more books than men do. This is especially true when it comes to fiction. So when I design fiction covers for publishers, no matter what the genre, I know how important the female demographic is. Covers need to appeal to women. Simple enough.

Or not. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning of the process.

I had designed and illustrated Summa Elvetica, the prequel of sorts to this book a couple years ago. So when I was asked by Theo’s publisher, Marcher Lord Press, to design Throne, it only made sense to follow in the same medieval/Book of Hours direction. And that’s where I thought I was going to take it.

That is until I read the manuscript. Summa had an ecclesiastical theme to it. Very good for what it was, but Throne was so much darker and epic in scope. Very R. R. Martin if I dare make the comparison. I did want to keep the medieval feel, but not a 2D tapestry this time.

I started researching medieval art online and found this nice border etching which I modified and used vertically on each side of the cover, tying it into Summa’s general layout. Though instead of painting, I thought it would be fun to make it a relief sculpture in Zbrush, a 3D sculpting package I had been playing with.

border

So I had the image of the manly warriors on the bottom and the sculpture with the weapons, werewolf, and orc on the sides. What else did it need? Well, let’s not forget that ginormous demographic who buy books. Now don’t get me wrong, I like women. A lot. In fact, I have friends who are women, not to mention my mother and wife (two separate people). It certainly could have worked to put a beautiful woman there, but in this case the cover immediately went teen twilight. It really didn’t reflect what Theo had written and wasn’t the epic cover I had originally set out to create. I was way too close to it though. So many hours later, all I could see was a cover that I thought would sell a lot of books.

A Throne of Bones draft ATheo adds: “Because Marcher Lord and I really loved the Summa cover Kirk had created, the original idea was for the Throne cover to utilize the same Book of Hours style, albeit with a theme that ran a bit darker.  We thought Kirk might replace the blue and gold color scheme with a red and white one, and turn the ornate sceptres into bones.  So, we were more than a little surprised when he presented the image on the left, which we felt didn’t fit the tone of the book at all.  However, if you pay attention, you can see the evolution of the flat, two-dimensional elements on the sides into the three-dimensional borders.

It was at about this time that I elected to go with my best-known pen name, partly because six letters look better on a cover than thirteen, and partly because my non-fiction works appear to be rather better known than my fiction.”

skullAt this point, neither the publisher nor the author had seen anything. Needless to say, they were a bit surprised when I emailed the image. Instead of a fast response, all I heard was the chirping of crickets. Days later, the publisher requested that I start over and create a cover more in line with Summa. Knowing of Theo’s blog, however, I asked if they would be willing to post the cover and ask Theo’s readers for their opinions. They were gracious enough to comply and the poll was pretty much split 50/50 between the two design directions.

I got a kick out of reading the responses, so honest and unfiltered. For the most part, the critiques were focused on the image of the girl. Theo was willing to pursue this direction, but suggested replacing the girl’s face with a throne made with golden skulls and jeweled eyes as described in the book. The throne was based on this cool throne-like chair that he had inherited from his grandfather. I think he sits on it during family meals. It’s gotta be tough to cut your food and hold a scepter at the same time. The man has skills.

I was more than willing to give the skull idea a shot, though I had to rewire my brain to do it. This direction so went against what most of my publishers want. Sculpting the skull in Zbrush was a blast. I’d like to thank the blog community at Vox Popoli. The final cover is so much better because of your input!

the cover for the forthcoming novel

5 Comments »

  1. I’m glad that you decided against the one with the girl’s photo in the end. Photomanipulations, in my opinion, don’t belong on the front of epic fantasy novels.

    Also: 23 reviews in a week for A Magic Broken?! I’m insanely jealous. Getting a lot of reviews early is incredibly important for ebooks on Amazon. I’m guessing you/your publisher was pretty diligent about sending out advanced reader copies?

    Comment by Cephalophore - October 15, 2012 9:51 pm

  2. I concur on the photo stuff. I don’t like it. As for the reviews, my publisher hasn’t done anything yet, it’s just that I enjoy the benefit of an intensely loyal readership. I requested reviewers on the blog on Friday and had the 30 volunteers within 90 minutes. I sent out 30 review copies to the respondents and by Tuesday afternoon, there are now 27 reviews.

    My goal is for there to be 100 by the time A THRONE OF BONES is released in December. Since the genre reviewers simply will not review my work – Black Gate excepted – I have no choice but to bypass them. Which is absolutely fine, because modern technology and social media permit one to do that rather easily, so long as one has a core audience.

    Amazon has not only begun to render the publishing gatekeepers irrelevant, it is rendering the professional critics and reviewers increasingly irrelevant as well. And frankly, in my opinion, the myopic little fascists deserve to be irrelevant.

    The ironic thing is that thanks to the gatekeepers, Lewis, Tolkien, and Heinlein probably could not get professionally published by a genre publisher today.

    Comment by Theo - October 16, 2012 6:33 pm

  3. I really like the final version of the cover Theo. Even before the change to the golden skull throne (I love the idea that it is based upon your inherited chair!) I liked it better than something similar to SUMMA ELVETICA…a cover I never really cottoned to.

    I am surprised to learn DouPounce declares it his favorite…until reviewing his site. It’s hands down his best work in my opinion, rightfully worthy of being his favorite.

    Congratulations sir! May you reap the rewards of a loyal fanbase and friendly artist.

    Comment by Jason M. Waltz - October 16, 2012 11:16 pm

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