When we write, we create pictures in our heads. Which of us has not felt that a character’s face is as familiar to us as that of one of our own family, or “seen” a particularly dramatic scene as if it were unfolding inches away from us? This kind of creative visualisation is key to what we do – in a sense we’re not simply writers, but painters too, and without even having to pick up a brush. These mental pictures may be vivid to us, but they are also very personal. No matter how skilfully we describe a scene, or seek to capture the exact colour of a character’s hair in words, the chances are that we will never truly replicate what we see in our mind’s eye. Readers have their own pictures, and what they see in our writing may be a world away from what we ourselves believe to be truly there.
Of course, most of the time, the very privacy of these pictures in our heads prevents them from becoming an issue. What does it matter if one reader sees our MC as slight and brunette, another as curvy and blonde? – the chances are that we will never know. But there is one exception - one occasion when imaginary images become concrete – the moment when a book is given a cover. Cover designers have a daunting (and considering that most writers have strong views on their own work, an unenviable) task. They must effectively sum up a book in a single image. They must find the perfect picture to symbolise the conflicts, passions, themes and nuances that make up the complex tapestry of a novel. And because they have not written the book, they must interpret it through impartial eyes.
The picture that I have chosen to illustrate this post is an example of a cover designer making so bold a statement that almost no statement is made at all. I must confess I haven’t read the book, but I wonder what Eric G Wilson made of the fruits of the designer’s labours. Did he stare at the page, disbelieving, outraged that his work had been reduced to a slick of yellow and a semicircle of text? Or was he elated? – had the very simplicity of the design “got” his novel in a way of which he had barely dreamed?
I must confess that when I saw an initial cover design for my own novel, I was unsure. I looked at the image, and I couldn’t relate it back to the book I had created – couldn’t imagine that picture in my head. Luckily, the design was eventually changed, but I was surprised at how much it had disturbed me. I had not thought that I was “precious” about covers, but I soon discovered that although I had had no clear idea of what would fill that blank space, I instinctively knew what wouldn’t.
I’m already trying to imagine the cover for my second book – but whilst they say a picture paints a thousand words, perhaps expecting it to paint ninety thousand is asking a little too much. Could your book be summed up by an image… and if so, what would it be?