by Siol na Tine
My official cover art process starts with D.M. Atkins putting a folder with the story and a details page (called the “SPQ”) in my box. I read the story, gathering mental images suitable for the cover as I go, and then read the SPQ to see if they emphasized something I overlooked.
Far more often, the real beginning is sitting with Atkins, listening sympathetically to a rant about how hard it is to find one or another sort of image. Often it’s just about the frustration of scarcity making the job harder – most of our covers need to be composite photo manipulation for various reasons, not the least of which is that it’s faster and the authors here are prolific. Sometimes, though, it’s about societal biases.
Heavy women are just as capable of being irresistible to their wolfish stalkers as anybody else, as you and I and Konrad Hartmann well know. Alas, the mainstream media isn’t ready to admit that for countless ridiculous and quite frankly oppressive reasons.
“[Siol], I’ve got a story about a curvy woman in a long colorful skirt with braids down her back being stalked through a forest.”
“Heh, sounds like me.”
“Exactly. Can you draw that?”
“I’d love to give it a shot.”
“Great! The story’s in your box. Look for ‘Coyote Tree'”
I got out my sketchbook and read through the story. The character in question, Brooke, is actually a bit rounder than I am, and blonde (I’m a redhead). Justin, Brooke’s stalker, is enthralled by the “luxurious spheres” of her ass, the firm curve of her hips, and the heavy sway of her breasts. Well, I certainly knew how to emphasize what attracted him to her! I love it when the author makes my job easy.
I chose a pivotal-yet-PG scene; the image of Brooke kneeling in the woods, as seen through Justin’s wolf mask, was very clear in my mind. Sketching Brooke was even easier than I anticipated.
I found myself picturing my friend Meri Devlyn, who sounds like Brooke, visually. I cleaned up Brooke and colored her in first, because how she looked would determine the rest of the art style for the cover. For the forest setting, I was able to find a thoroughly appropriate photo of a Big Basin trail that I took with my little phone camera. Photoshop is full of useful layers and filters to modify the image into something suitable, including making the ground a lighter color so Brooke’s skirt wouldn’t disappear into the leaves. For Justin’s mask I was inspired by an acquaintance who regularly wears a leather wolf mask to kink gatherings.
The problem was that there was no way to combine these three major visual story elements effectively on the cover. The forest and the woman went together just fine but no matter how I scaled, tilted, or distorted the mask, I couldn’t show enough of Brooke through its eyes without obscuring what the mask itself was supposed to be. It would have worked beautifully in print with a two layer cover, mask on the outside, woman in the forest on the inside. If there’s ever a reason to make such a cover someday, I hope they call me back to finish the design, but that’s not how things work for short story epubs.
Back to the drawing board (sensing a trend yet?). Cover art and illustration are just as iterative as story editing, as far as I can tell.
I knew what the wolf mask was supposed to look like from the outside, but I was a lot less clear what was going to work for our wolf man himself than I had been for Brooke, so I didn’t commit to a real drawing. I just made a posture sketch that I could play with in the photoshop layers to see how it would work. I scanned the sketch and made a composition draft to show to Atkins before continuing. It’s nice to have a boss who gives detailed feedback when you’re stuck.
“Why is he crouching?”
“I wanted him to look like a predator sneaking up on his prey.”
“He needs to be more threatening than sneaky. Make it so he’s looming over her.”
“So, re-draw just the legs, then.”
“And his hand, yeah.”
“Gah, hands! Yes, I always have to re-do the hands. I never get hands right on the first try.”
“Don’t you use hand models?”
“Yes, but usually just my own hands. It works, I just have to take the time to do it right.”
My vision restored, I went back through the story and SPQ to look for detailed information about Justin’s appearance. The story itself is tantalizingly sparing with Justin’s self description, but the SPQ specified shirtless with tattoos of runic sigils. This is how I know my boss loves me. I get to design runic body modifications for half-naked Germanic wolf warriors! Woohoo!
Okay, I admit, I didn’t go all out with my runic-fu. I figured existing traditional runic designs might look at least vaguely familiar to an untrained eye, and were thus more likely to get the point across than any bindrune I could design for this exact character. (Wait, that means I gave up an opportunity to enchant the cover to persuade people to buy our stories…. Dangit, why does the evil only occur to me after the fact?)
To start with, I drew a traditional protection glyph called an Aegishjalmr across his back. At first I intended it to be a tattoo, but I realized as I was working that it looked much better as a scar, so I adjusted the colors accordingly. Then I gleefully settled in to do a bit of runic research.
I already knew that “Berzerker” comes from an Old Norse phrase referring to the bear-skin shirts the warriors used to wear. I also knew that there were stories about similar warriors who identified with wolves rather than bears. I just needed the word. For once Wikipedia had it right where I needed it. “Úlfhéðinn” – “Wolf-skinned”. That’s what’s written phonetically across his lower back.
The armband tattoo is part of a basic rune ring. The forearm has another scar, this time the 9-line sigil that includes all 24 Elder runes within it. (One of my lovers has just such a cutting scar on his own arm.) Last, but not least, I finally had a way to include that first wolf mask in the cover. I made it into his bicep tattoo.
With Justin finally ready to pounce Brooke, it was time for the author and title text. “Coyote Tree” didn’t quite work for the story name.
“[Atkins], why is it called ‘Coyote Tree’? The whole story is about a wolf, not a coyote. The only coyote in the story is a minor detail.”
“Good question. I’ve been meaning to re-title it anyway. Any ideas?”
“Well, the tree part actually does matter to the story, and it’s all about predators and prey. What about ‘The Hunters Tree’? That’s nice and ambiguous about which hunter, whose tree, while still obviously applying from beginning to end.”
“Do we need the article? Most titles that start with ‘The’ don’t really need to. Let’s use ‘Hunters Tree'”
So I ran with that, picked out a font from the hundreds Atkins gave me to work with, and made a final draft cover. Hartmann, the author, loved it. He especially appreciated the work I put into designing Justin’s body art, for which I am grateful.
Meanwhile, Lon Sarver, the story editor, asserted the need for an apostrophe (because that’s what editors are for), and all the text-based forms, including the website templates, were filled out accordingly – “Hunter’s Tree”. One problem with that: the font I used for the cover didn’t have an apostrophe to work with. Ahh, but it did have a comma, so I sneakily placed it on a separate layer and voila, one makeshift apostrophe.
The full scale final cover was ready to go.
All that was left was to generate the various sized thumbnails and samples necessary for creating the epubs and marketing for all the sites where our stories are sold. Thankfully most of them are exactly the same proportions, just at different scales. There’s always the one that’s different, though, because All Romance EBooks needs a 3×2 thumbnail, which means I have to either trim the length of my final image by 25 pixels, or expand it 17 pixels in width before shrinking it down for a thumbnail. Which one I do depends on what kind of image I’m working with. In this case, trimming the length was much easier than trying to expand the sides.
The official work done, it was time to upload my own images to Flickr and FetLife to show off my work to my friends who might like the story, write fascinating a blog post to entertain and enlighten the good people of ForbiddenFiction, and finally, to fall down.
Let me know when Hunter’s Tree goes up for sale, somebody? I need a nap.
#1 Awesome runic details