Writing Excuses 4.25: Mating Plumage

James Dashner and Julie Wright join Brandon and Dan for an episode about what Lou Anders called “Mating Plumage” back in this 2008 episode of Writing Excuses recorded at Denvention. Lou was just referring to covers, but for this ‘cast Dan has extended the metaphor to include  titles and first lines.

These are the three things that are best positioned to quickly “sell” a book. But to whom? And why?

The crew talks about their experiences with each of these. Yes, we judge books by covers, and no, writers don’t have any control over them. We have a little more control of our titles, and still more over our first lines.  Humorous and tragic anecdotes follow, along with a great example of a first line from Barbara Hambly.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Writing Prompt: Julie Wright, when offered the chance to use the word” monkey,” came up with “I can’t believe you did this to me.” James suggested “Brandon and Julie go on safari and get attacked by monkeys.” Plenty of material there. PLENTY.

Big Hugs One Last Time: With the absence of Producer Jordo and Former Audio Engineer Howard (neither of whom could make it to CONduit) Revan and Malek of Dungeon Crawlers Radio stepped up and made each of these last FIVE EPISODES of Writing Excuses possible. We owe them big-time, and you should go check out their podcast.

I bet it’s about puppies: I Don’t Want to Kill You, by Dan Wells.

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29 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.25: Mating Plumage”

  1. Another funny, informative, and enjoyable podcast from the Writing Excuses gang and their amazing guest writers! I particularly liked this topic, since it’s something I’ve been struggling with for quite for some time.

    Thanks, Writing Excuses.

  2. For me, the thing that entices me most to read a novel is the description of the book (usually on the back cover, but sometimes unfortunately put on an inside flap… I don’t like it when it’s just quotes about the author on the back–I want to know what the book is about!). A clever title and a cool-looking cover are both very nice, but usually the deal-breaker for me is the premise. If it sounds like an interesting story I’ve never heard before, I’ll be much more likely to give it a try.
    First lines usually don’t mean so much to me. It’s typically the first chapter as a whole that I go by when I decide if I like the story enough to keep reading. If the book was highly-recommended to me I’ll usually read at least a few chapters before giving up on it, though (in the event it bores me).

  3. Been thinking about this whole discussion since I first listened to it, and something I’ve just started pondering: has the effect of covers/first sentences been reduced at all by places like Amazon with their easy access reviews by real people? Personally I read a few of the top and all (or several if there are a ton of these) one star reviews. When the one star ones tend to be stupid (my classic example is The Blade Itself by Abercrombie) but the higher rating reviews are interesting and/or insightful, I will tend to pick the book up.

    This is assuming I don’t know anyone who’s read it of course.

    Only time this has failed me is when I misunderstood some major part of the book from the description plus reviews and ended up not getting something I expected and being so pissed off I stop reading the book before finishing. But then I don’t know ANY method other than friends who know your tastes recommending a book to be fool proof, and SOMEONE always has to be the first reader in your circle of friends… and I’m usually that canary in the coal mine for mine ;)

  4. I was initially surprised that writers don’t get a say over the cover. There is an argument to be made that the cover is a representation of your story, your creativity and so a ‘by your leave,’ to me at least would make sense. But yes, of course, I don’t know squat about marketing a book so who am I to pipe up and say no.
    I’d dread it though, it’s not many that get a design that just WORKS. Like The Way of the Kings. Awesome cover.

    Janny Wurts is so lucky, she actually gets to PAINT her book covers.

    Good podcast, chaps.

  5. This is an interesting subject. I’m an amateur artist as well, well aware that I’m an amateur and that the pro artist and the marketing people know their stuff. But I would scream, cry and buy a baseboll bat and a skimask if anything I wrote got a cover with something I couldn’t stand. Truly. But hopefully there is a real chance of having an open communication with the artist if you ask nicely (without the basebollbat and the skimask).

    @ Gumption Brash: (Just a playful reflection) Well, anyone that gets to paint their covers worked their ass off as an artist as well as a writer. I’m not sure that would be considered lucky. Loads of work.

  6. Another great podcast. For guys who are Not That Smart you sure seem to know a lot. :)

    I was thinking that the guy who was dead but still at work doesn’t have to be supernatural. He could have been downloaded into an AI, or cloned.

  7. Great podcast guys. Very informative and funny. Missing Howard but you guys are doing “ok” without him. I can’t say “great” cause Howard would feel bad. Can’t wait for next weeks podcast.

    *Psst, you’re doing great!*

  8. I think that if a publishing house decided to put my work out there, I would be so grateful that I wouldn’t even care how the cover looked. Of course, by saying that I am jinxing myself. Knock on wood! Knock on wood!

    The only real pet peeve I have when it comes to covers is when they put the author’s name in a bigger font than the title of the book. I love Brandon, and I love Warbreaker, but I hated its cover because every time I picked it up, I subconsciously thought I was reading a book called Brandon Sanderson by some guy named Warbreaker :( Also, both the title and the author’s name were so big that they hid a large chunk of the cover art, which stank since Warbreaker had a pretty awesome cover image.

  9. So I’m listening to an old episode, where retconning comes up and you immediately can of worms it. However you’ve never opened that can! If you’re fishing for ideas, I’d like to hear that addressed–I’m in a situation where I need to do some retcons on my setting. Fortunately I’m not published so no one (except my beta readers) will see the horrible mistake, but still. Advice!

  10. Question about first lines: which is more important if you’re including a prologue, the first line of the prologue, or the first line of Chapter 1? I’m thinking of the Wheel of Time–Chapter 1 always opens with the iconic words, but the prologue comes before that. chapter 1 is more memorable. To my way of thinking, Chapter 1 is where the punch needs to come. I’ve been wrong before, though. What do you guys think?

  11. If the first line of your prologue doesn’t sell me hard enough to get me to Chapter 1, then you got the good first line in the wrong place. :-)

  12. @Howard: it’s the way I browse in a store–if I’m going to open a book to check out the first line I’m going to skip the prologue and look at Chapter 1. Hm. Maybe I need to reevaluate my shopping habits as well as my writing habits. :)

  13. I just read the prologue of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, and the first line of the prologue was not as strong as the first line of Chapter 1. But it was definitely strong, and the prologue itself completely hooked me on the book. The cover is also completely and flawlessly gorgeous.

    If it were a bird showing mating plumage, and I were an appropriately gendered also-bird, I would totally mate with this book.

  14. I was really tickled by this episode, as a cover artist myself. I do mostly e-pubbed novels. Ever wonder why the covers on e-published offerings are so awful? It’s because the authors DO have a say in those! They play art director most of the time, and they have a hard time thinking beyond the photomanipped naked torso. They really don’t know what they’re doing…….no offense, you writerly types! I’ll really cheer when e-publishers run with more than the romance/erotica genre. It’s paid me well, but boy do I want to stretch my creative wings in other categories.

    PS…I’m totally addicted to Writing Excuses. You’re my drug.

  15. @Cris: I checked out your online portfolio. Now I want to be able to engage your services as an artist. Nice stuff! Way beyond what I’m capable of.

    Correction: I didn’t read the prologue of The Way of Kings. I read the prelude. The prelude had a good first line. The prologue had a great first line. I don’t recall the first line of Chapter 1, because by then I was reading voraciously.

  16. As a reader it bothers me a little that I knew instinctually that writers weren’t responsible for their cover art. It’s particularly annoying when the artist gets the details wrong. Especially when the cover art is supposed to be a dipiction of an important scene or character and you have know idea who or what they were trying to draw.

    Often times the cover art is the only true image of the setting or characters. As such I wish that they were more accurate, taking care to insure that the details are all right. While writers won’t necessarily know how to paint a scene or what scene would be best to capture, they do know what the characters and the setting is supposed to look like. It bothers me when the art doesn’t mesh well with the written descriptions.

    How would you guys address this problem?

  17. While it’s aesthetically annoying, I see why some books have such large and prominent author’s names on the cover. For me, the author is what’s most likely to sell a book. And when I do buy something by an author I haven’t read before, it’s almost never because of an interesting cover/title/first line but because I read a positive review, or it was nominated for an award, etc. I also try to avoid reading the back cover copy since it often contains spoilers – if I already know I’m going to read the book I want to start it without preconceptions. Usually I read the back cover copy after I’ve finished the book, and then I laugh at how inaccurate it is.

    I think the “mating plumage” is geared mostly toward people who will actually handle the book before making a decision – i.e. they are shopping in a brick and mortar store. This has got to be a dwindling percentage of book buyers…

  18. Great podcast – I remember the “mating plumage” comment from the original podcast; I think it’s a great analogy.

    I’m one of the very few people who actually prefer the current “ugly” American Terry Pratchett covers. They’re much less interesting to look at, but they give off the message that these books are for adults and are sophisticated and intelligent. The old covers were more fun, but they looked like cheesy humor books more appropriate for a teen audience. I remember someone rolling their eyes as they saw me reading one of them once, and I was protesting, No, really, it’s a very intelligent book!

  19. In my estimation, the only way to address the problem of a bad cover is to not have the problem to begin with. The cover artist is not typically paid royalties, so the art ends up being (in some cases) almost as expensive as the advance the author got for writing the book. Once that money has been spent, it’s really hard to justify spending it AGAIN — especially if the cover that has been created is going to succeed in selling the book.

    So… not having the problem to begin with? Work with a publisher who will let you communicate directly with the art director. Provide the art director with details, like “showing the tatoos would be a spoiler” or “fashion in this era did not allow for bare-chested anything.” A good art director can use all of that, and will then work closely with the artist to make sure that the details are right.

    If you’re given the opportunity to provide input on drafts from the artist, make sure to address the important details rather than the composition. “I don’t like the way he is standing” is not especially helpful, but “his hair should be shoulder-length” is.

  20. I seen certain trends in covers which worry me. The curvy, hip-huger wearing female in UF covers (were in many of these titles are written by women with women MCs), or spaceships in sci-fi and dragons/swords in fantasy. Individually the art is great, but it tends to blend in with the rest of the stuff in the shelf which probably hurts individual tittles as people pas them by.

  21. That’s because IT SELLS, Rafael. Sometimes we have to cater to the masses, and it’s tough to get the design department to think out of the box when there’s a tried and true formula that sells. Remember, the cover is, above all else, a big fat ad for your product. It’s not an opportunity for the writer to self-indugently get the perfect depiction of his MC, but hopefully the cover image will be eye-catching, deliver the vibe of the book with accuracy, and use all the tricks of the marketing trade to make the customer hunger to pick up your product. Oh, and NOT embarrass either the author or the publisher, in the process! :D

  22. Does it sell? And I’m not talking about the author’s self-indulgence. Honestly, I can’t tell one cover from the next. None of them stand out! Unless I’m already looking for a specific title (like the Honor Harrington book I just picked up), I would have pass them by because they all look generic. Why should I choose one swordsman or rocket ship from another?

  23. Opening line: It took a while for my publisher to figure out that my pet monkey was secretly writing my books.

    A point about covers, as long as it attracts attention from a perspective reader…that’s all that matters. Your publisher is happy that they’re selling, you’re happy they’re selling, the artist is happy they could be a part of the process, everyone should be good with it. Case in point, my wife picked up a certain Harlan Coben novel (Tell No One?)that had an obnoxious neon orange cover with simple black lettering. I thought it was a terrible choice by the publisher but she read it and loved it. Since then she’s forked over all kinds of cash for his books and is still a big fan.

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