Sunday, August 06, 2006

A step too far

Maybe I'm weird, but when I read a novel -- whether it is an alien romance, or totally terrestrial -- I expect to come across the scene on the cover, and I feel vaguely cheated if it is not there.

Does anyone else?

I'm not so bothered if the cover is an artistic grouping of artifacts, although... if there's a bejewelled dagger and a dragon feather, I suppose that I do expect them to be used to good effect in the novel.

Please do not misunderstand me. I'm not criticizing anyone's cover or art department. I am simply sharing my inner thoughts about covers in general, and my gut reaction to the gorgeous cover of my next book... and the hazards of hasty research.

The colors are fabulous, and the artwork is sexy. The alien sky is wonderfully ... alien. I couldn't ask for a better looking cover (unless I was absolutely out of my mind). It's just that the scene depicted on the cover of INSUFFICIENT MATING MATERIAL is a little more "romancy" than I had in mind.

An author friend who is a bit of an expert on cover psychology says that I should tell readers, especially male readers, to ignore the cover. But should I?

My gut instinct is that if the sex-in-an-alien-sea scene is suggested on the cover but is not in the book, then I have to --somehow-- write the scene and beg my editor to fit it in.

Is that extreme? Am I being too anal about this?

If only they'd given me a bare-chested hunk staring out to sea (face not visible, so his features could not be wrong) or up to his waist in the ocean... I should have suggested that! I'm not blaming the Art Department at all. I was warned that I could not have a god-like alien hunk in underpants out of respect for buyers' fine sensibilities.

Anyway, how many cover models would want INSUFFICIENT MATING MATERIAL displayed boldly across their groins?

Verisimilitude is important, and there are times when you just cannot ask your more exhibitionist friends to commit an illegal act and tell you how it felt.

Illegal? Well I think you can be pinched for doing the deed on a public beach, and I don't have access to any secluded ones in outer space.

In case any members of this planet's law enforcement community are reading this with professional interest, I must disclose at this point that the sea was too cold for my husband. (Mostly).

Suffice it to say that my scrupulous --and ingenious-- attempts at research took longer than expected. Either the tide was wrong (too far in or out), or the waves were too mighty, or too placid, or the sand was too gritty, or the light was wrong....

On the last day of my time by the sea, when my bags were packed and it really wasn't convenient to get my costume wet again, my dear husband and our child decided that despite the low tide, and a stiff onshore breeze, it might be fun to experience the surge of surf against parts south of their chests and north of their knees.

My mother went to get towels from the car, and we splashed into the North Sea (English Channel) to join dozens of screaming bathers and people surfing on one sort of board or another.
August. Low tide, but only a seven foot drop, not like the nine foot range one gets at the full moon or with the spring tides. For a month I'd watched the shallows at low tide for signs of sinister movement. That day... I forgot.

I did get to refresh my memory of whether there is any difference between the feel of sun-warmed, masculine, muscled skin in cold seawater (as opposed to in a fresh water bath, shower, or chlorinated swimming pool) but it's not useable. I mean, even in an alien romance, the hero's skin cannot be said to feel slightly slimy, can it?

Copping a feel was definitely not worth the risk.

If anyone in my immediate family had to step on a weaver fish, I'm glad it was me. I have very high arches, and go barefoot a lot. Thanks to that, only one spine got me, and it broke off before it could deliver much of the excruciating neurotoxin.

Knowing what had stung me, I flicked off the spine, got out of the water, got home as quickly as possible (luckily it was not far), and immersed my throbbing foot in the washing up bowl filled with water as hot as I could bear. And epsom salts. And more water.

That's what you do to draw out the poison, if you are unfortunate enough to step on a weaver fish or lesser weaver fish. They are spined, venomous little predators (they eat prawns, I believe) who like to bury themselves all but the spines in sand when the water is relatively warm.

Keeping the water as hot as possible until the pain was gone meant regular top ups. My dear husband was especially enthusiastic about this, and had no compunction about tipping very hot water onto my toes (the arch area was what needed it). I noticed an odd thing. Near boiling water feels almost cold for the first second or two as it is added to hot water. Then the brain resets, and registers that the water is very hot.

I didn't even limp the next day, as I lugged (schlepped) my little family's three heavy suitcases from Guernsey, to Gatwick, to Detroit. I was lucky.

I'm glad to have my feet under my desk again.



  1. It's a beautiful cover, but I admit I wouldn't have taken it, at first look, for SF romance. My own feeling about cover illustrations is that a scene giving a general idea of the book's content is OK. It doesn't have to be a literal rendering of a scene that's actually in the book. WILD SORCERESS and BESIEGED ADEPT, two fantasy novels co-written by my husband and me, don't have a scene as such on the cover. Each one has a close-up of a character or (for the second book) 2 characters, with a rainbow-toned landscape in the background.

    It does bother me if the scene on the cover directly contradicts the story. Or if the portrayal of the character conflicts blatantly with the author's description of him/her. For instance, the paperbacks of John Morrisey's Kedrigern stories have delightful covers of a conventional bearded wizard in magical-looking robes. The trouble is, the narratives state explicitly, several times, that Kedrigern is clean-shaven, eschews the traditional long-white-beard image, and likes to wear simple clothes rather than elaborate robes.

    Having a blurb that contradicts the story, however, is far worse than having a cover that does. Or a blurb that gives away a surprise. The cover of Mary Brown's PIGS DON'T FLY had a line below the title that read, "...but dragons do." Thus giving away the main crucial secret of the whole novel.

    Funny story about tweaking a book to correspond to the cover -- one of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels was to be called WINGS OF DARKOVER, but a typo in the advance publicity materials rendered the title as WINDS OF DARKOVER. So at the last minute she wrote in a ghost wind scene to make the title accurate.

    There's an Ann McCaffrey book that was supposed to be called GET OF THE UNICORN (i.e., in the sense of offspring). It was typeset as GET OFF THE UNICORN, which was what it remained.

    Ouch, that experience with the fish spine sounds awful.

  2. Margaret,

    Thank you for your kind thoughts. I had to snort over Get Off The Unicorn. What a complete change of mood!
    I think I'd have had a purple fit over that.
    Dorchester does Futuristics, so I am sure that the romance is more important than anything else.
    The hair color is wrong on the heroine, but that was an easy fix for me.
    There is a point newly written into the story where the hero gives her a noogie with a handful of dirt.
    Do you think the reader would buy the idea that he is lovingly about to wash her hair clean again for her ?


  3. Hmm...for me covers might catch my attention or nudge me one way or the other if I'm still sitting on the fence based on what the book is about. But...once I start reading the story and get into the plot and the characters I usually couldn't tell you what the cover looked like at all because it just doesn't have any bearing on how my mind considers the story any more.

    Of course, I started reading romance way back in the 80s (I started really young ;) ) when all the infamous covers with the characters with the wrong color hair were making the rounds so I've pretty much learned not to trust the image on the cover that much.

  4. How interesting.

    I turn back and gaze at the cover many times in the course of reading a book, especially if the hero or heroine are depicted.

    Best wishes,

  5. I would never peg it for SFR, no. It's a very romantic cover but there's nothing that bespeaks alien or sci-fi/SF to me. I'd hate to have someone buy it--not reading the back blurb if that is clearly SFR--and then wonder what in blazes they were reading!

    But we have no say. I covered this (pardon the pun) with my own rant on covers. I think the readers really have to understand that. Sometimes the cover is just the thing to hold the pages together.

    Like you, Rowena, I do refer to the cover when reading if there's something to refer to (JD Robb's, for example, don't have that as they're 'misty scenery'). But the bearded/clean shaven wizard is about on par with my red spandex clad space bimbo from hell.

    Only marketing knows how marketing thinks. ;-) ~Linnnea

  6. Linnea,

    Thank you for your thoughts. If I'd seen your red spandexed heroine story before I posted my blog, I'd have mentioned that, because it is a perfect example!

    I suppose my best course is one we've discussed: promote in good, established SF company in ROF and other sci-fi publications, appear at conventions and on blogs in SFR contexts....

    The reviews should help. They usually mention genre. However, I'm pretty certain that Dorchester Love Spells are shelved in chain stores' romance aisles. I'm sure that is a consideration.

    Congratulations again on your lovely new Bantam cover!

    Best wishes,

  7. I understand Diana Gabaldon doesn't like the idea of having pictures of the characters on the covers, because no illustration which match her image (or most readers') of Claire and Jamie. So far, the cover artists have usually cooperated, portraying objects rather than people.

    Ellora's Cave asks authors for very specific details on characters' appearance but still warns us that the picture probably won't look like our private image of the character -- naturally not, since everyone's imagination works differently.

    RE suitable illustrations for the genre, I really dislike the current trend with sexy vampire novels of designing covers that look more like erotica than vampire fiction, sometimes so much so that from the cover alone (without the title), one would never guess the story involved vampires. The covers of the new editions of Hamilton's earlier Anita Blake novels fall into that category. I liked the original illustrations much better.

  8. Aargh. WOULD match her image, I mean, of course.