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So as you well know by now, I am obsessed by book covers. It’s all part of my obsession with books. Now I need your opinion on an upcoming cover. Just Breathe has a strong, sophisticated cover, clean and light, with a single evocative image:
Next hardcover is Lakeshore Christmas. Marketing-wise, this cover has a big job to do. It needs to straddle the line between a hardcover and the Lakeshore paperbacks. It needs to attract readers who have never heard of me but who might want to give it a try. It needs to be memorable. It currently looks like this:
The shot above is an early mockup that was sent. The title is wrong (no “A”) but the general idea is there. Next we saw the full jacket. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what I think of Barkis’s star turn:
There are a couple of tweaks. The title script is nicer, I think, though my agent wanted my name bigger. There’s a #1 in front of “New York Times” which makes me proud and could be a selling point. I don’t love the text at the very top and hope they’ll move that. It looks cluttered, and remember, we want this to appeal to people who haven’t yet discovered the series, so it’s not much of a hook and might be off-putting to people who don’t want to read a book out of order.
The Lakeshore Chronicles have a “look”–small-town charm in miniature. In that sense, this cover works. It’s a pretty image, too. Reminds me of those little collectible Christmas villages. No complaints about that. The question is, will it stand out? When you view Just Breathe from across the bookstore, the image grabs your attention. The Christmas cover…maybe not. My concern–the eye doesn’t know where to go. To the couple on the bench? The gazebo? There isn’t something strong, standing out. Up against all the other books on the shelf, it might end up looking like wallpaper. At this point, it probably can’t be radically changed, but there could be some tweaking. My thought is maybe they could bring up the light around part of the image–maybe the gazebo and tree?–to give book browsers something to focus on. Better yet, it needs to look like something they want to take home with them. C’mon, put on your art-director hat and chime in.
Premise in fiction. Your undergrad English professor probably taught you a fancy definition for this concept, but every novelist will tell you this: The premise is the cool thing your book is about.
Simple, right? Like, a crazed fan holds an author hostage and forces him to write a novel (Misery by Stephen King). The lives and loves of best friends through the years (Light a Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy). A forbidden love that lasts a lifetime (The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough). A Navy wife whose marriage is in crisis learns her husband is missing at sea (The Ocean Between Us by my favorite author).
In The Art of Dramatic Writing (1977), Lajos Egri (who seems to have been obsessed with the concept of premise) states:
“Everything has a purpose, or premise. Every second of our life has its own premise, whether or not we are conscious of it at the time. That premise may be as simple as breathing or as complex as a vital emotional decision, but it is always there…Every good play must have a well-formulated premise…No idea, and no situation, was ever strong enough to carry you through to its logical conclusion without a clear-cut premise.”
I envy the writer who comes up with fantastic ideas again and again, using the same method–listening to music, going for a drive, staring out the window, reading the paper, brainstorming with a friend.
For me, coming up with a premise is like going shopping without knowing what you’re looking for. “I’ll know it when I find it,” you tell yourself. Figuring out exactly what “it” is can be all-consuming. All I know is that “it” will be the driving force that sends me on the longest walk in the world, every day for the next six months to a year–that deathly commute from the couch to the blank page. So “it” had better be good.
The funny thing is, the harder I try, the more elusive “it” becomes. I think myself into a dither. I fiddle with things. I “what-if” myself into a state of confusion. I go on personal quests in search of the Cool Thing.
Sometimes I get lucky. I might discover it as I take my dog for a walk on the beach. Suddenly, I might think, “a child with Aspergers.” And I’ll think about a writer friend of mine and his sweet son, who has this condition, and its curiously gentling effect on the father. Or I’ll be digging in the garden or Windexing the kitchen, two activities that any writer will tell you have enormous appeal when confronted with a blank page. Maybe “it” will smack me upside the head as I stand at the refrigerator with the door propped open, contemplating the merits of leftover mac-and-cheese for breakfast.
Then I’ll have to test the idea in a thousand ways, figuring out what the most compelling elements are. Where will the tension come from? What will the reader see on the page and how will I make myself–and then the reader–happy to be reading it?
For most books, my story premise is cobbled together the way a magpie gathers things for its nest, with a shiny object here, a twisty thread there. At some point, maybe while making a story collage, these seemingly disparate pieces will coalesce into the Great Thing I’ve been seeking, the thing that will consume me through the next year: IT.
How serious am I about nailing the premise of my next book? So serious, we’re having a meeting about it. I’m not kidding. I have a brain trust coming to my house today and we’re going to brainstorm our book premises all day long.
What’s a brain trust? Well, it’s my writers’ group plus the world’s best story consultant, Michael Hauge. Some of you might remember he has a lifelong connection to the place where I live–and I have a rockin’ private guest house. He’s ours for the day. We’re rolling up our sleeves…I’ll report in on our progress. Stay tuned….