From Writers Block to Fairytales

I began writing Almost Midnight as a writing exercise to jog myself out of a major writing funk. 2014 was not an easy year for me personally, and I wrote very little prose after launching The Edge of the Woods. After busying myself with some script work, I was determined to get back into it, but every time I tried to think of something new or work on one of the concepts I’d started plotting before my dad died, I’d come up blank. My fingers would hover over the keyboard, tap out half a sentence, delete, and hover again. I’d groan, sigh, swear, make another cup of tea, do my nails, swear some more, close the computer and give up and watch a TV show. The part of my brain that tells stories was asleep behind a wall of thorns and vines and I couldn’t find the right sword to cut my way through.

I decided that if I couldn’t work on my novels, I could at least try to update my blog more often (which, if you follow this blog, you’ll know how well that went!), but I struggle to think of topics to write about. I’m not a journalist or a columnist, I’m terrible at essays and my opinions evolve so often I don’t really want to commit to that many of them on the eternity of internet. So I thought I’d use a shortcut and try to retell a story I already knew (that was safely in the public domain). I began with one of my favourite fairytales, Hans My Hedgehog.

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I barely remembered the actual structure of Hans. I’d never read it, only watched the episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, and not in years. I knew that Hans had been cursed to be a hedgehog by some fault of his parents, I knew that he was reviled, that he rode a rooster and lived in the forest, that he tricked a king into letting him marry a princess, that he became human for one hour every night, that the princess ruined his chances of breaking the spell, and that she walked the world to find him in a pair of iron shoes and broke the spell with love. Most of these are unique to the Jim Henson version. The original was, like so many fairytales, incredibly cruel.

So I used what I remembered as the framework, and almost at once something new began to grow from the gaps in my memory. I wanted to know who Hans’ parents were and what they’d done to doom him to life as a (actually pretty cute) monster. As if hearing his name called, out stepped a poor but ambitious young woodcutter from behind the wall of thorns.

That first day, I made my personal best for words written in one session. Hans was the sword I needed to free the storyteller trapped in my head and I wrote all day for two weeks until his story was done. Too long for a blog post at 13,000 words, but a story finished and one I felt proud of. Rewatching the episode of The Storyteller afterwards, I found I’d also written something quite new. My Hans didn’t look a thing like Jim Henson’s. Nor did our princesses, or our kings. I had added a fairy godmother in the form of a little hedgehog, and Jim had faceless magic and John Hurt. Our endings are different – though both happy – and every character’s motivation is different. But they’re both Hans My Hedgehog in that special way a fairytale can be told a thousand ways with a thousand endings and still be the same story.

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Writing fairytales didn’t completely cure my writers block. It was another six months before I really got stuck into my Cinderella retelling, which was less the labour of love I felt for Hans and more an attempt to understand a heroine I’d only ever been able to connect with in one retelling – 1997’s Ever After. Cinderella, in all the other adaptations and all the stories, didn’t make sense to me, which always bothered me given how popular a story and character she’s always been. It took much longer to write than Hans, and it’s by far the longest story in the collection at 25,000 words, but to my very great surprise I found myself more at home in Ella’s head than I had in any other character before (which, naturally, means she will be everyone’s least favourite heroine!). Ella is at first held back by the terrible things that happen to her, and then by her own fear of further disappointment or rejection. Cindersoot became a story about finding the strength to speak up and not waiting for someone else to change your life for you. At last, I feel like I understand Cinderella. And more than that, I like her.

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The story I knew I always wanted to have a go at rewriting was The Little Mermaid. It’s been my all-time favourite story for as long as I can remember. When I was young I watched the Disney movie at least once a day (but more like three) for years, but at the same time also watched the 1975 Japanese animated film (featuring the sea foam ending) and a low budget direct adaptation we found at the local video shop. So while I worshipped at the new feet of Ariel, I was always aware of the original ending, the little mermaid’s quest for a soul and the prince’s love for someone else. I thought it would be the easiest of the three stories to write, given that I knew it and loved it so well.

So, of course, it was nearly impossible. I knew it too well. I was basically trying to rewrite the original but with a prince who wasn’t a condescending prat (read Andersen’s original, he is the least dreamy prince of an already impressive cast of unappealing romantic heroes) and without the mermaid’s quest for an immortal soul (which is actually an aspect of the original I love, but as someone who isn’t religious I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing it). Everything I tried to write was terrible. It was bland and unoriginal and it, somewhat appropriately, had no voice. I was back in 2014, writing and deleting and swearing and coming dangerously close to ditching my laptop at a wall.

But I couldn’t give up. I’d always wanted to write this story. And besides, I’d already told people I was writing it. So I started again, and figured out who my mermaid was. Was she a princess? Did she have a family? Why would she give up her voice? Why does she fall in love with the first human she sees?

The answer to all these questions, as it turned out, was pretty much ‘no.’ No, she wasn’t a princess. She didn’t have a family. She was alone, and had always been alone. She was searching the ocean for someone who looked like her, and found the closest thing in the humans who travelled upon it. She didn’t give up her voice, because she had never had to speak anything but the language of the sea, which I discovered was a song. She didn’t fall in love with the first human she saw, but the one who looked as lonely as she felt.

And then it went from there. The story I wanted to tell was one of love, that loving someone doesn’t entitle you to be loved back. That true love expects nothing but gives everything, and that the love of a friend is not worth less than the love of a lover, even if it’s not the love you crave.

In the end, The Mermaid was exactly the story I’d always hoped to tell. I’ve gotten reports now from several people that it made them cry, which is a very high compliment.

Fairytales mean a lot to me. I think they’re always relevant, parables reshaped by the time and the teller, a game of Chinese whispers through the ages.

Will I write more? Absolutely, one day. But for now, I’m outlining a story set in rural Australia in 1994. Which, weirdly enough, might not have been possible without a magic hedgehog.

Almost Midnight

You can read Hans My Hedgehog for free here.

Almost Midnight: Three Classic Fairytales can be found on eBook for US$2.99 from AmazoniBooksNook and Kobo.

The paperback is available for US$11.99 from Amazon.

 

 

Almost Midnight: Three Classic Fairytales is HERE!

When I had the idea to publish a small collection of fairy tale retellings (back in June), I thought it would take maybe four months, tops. After all, I’d already written a retelling of Hans My Hedgehog that I felt very proud of, I’d started my own version of Cinderella and I’d always wanted to have a crack at my favourite fairy tale, The Little Mermaid.

What I didn’t expect was for Ella to have so much to say that her story stretched out to 25,000 words (the accepted minimum for a young adult novel) or to be so intimidated by completely rehauling a story that meant so much to me as a child that I had to rewrite The Mermaid nearly five full times.

But here we are, nine months later. The stories say everything I want them to, and they’ve been beautifully illustrated by my very talented friend Ben Sigas. I’m very proud of this book. I hope you like it.

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You can buy the eBook for US$2.99 from Amazon, iBooks, Nook and Kobo. The paperback is available for US$11.99 from Amazon.

Almost Midnight: Cover and Blurb reveal!

Well, I’m officially a hermit. I’ve been chained to my desk for weeks hammering away at rewrites and rewrites and rewrites, and I still have plenty more rewrites to go. But while I do that, why don’t I finally introduce Almost Midnight to you properly?

Almost Midnight is a collection of three classic fairytales: Cinderella, Hans My Hedgehog, and The Little Mermaid. While we all know the basic stories of all the great fairy tales, I think the details, themes and lessons change depending on the person telling them. So these are my versions of the fairy tales, and while they still have happily ever afters, the getting there involves a lot more talking hedgehogs and dancing scarecrows than you’re probably used to.

So without further ado, here’s the cover, the blurb, and a sneak peek of one of Ben Sigas‘s stunning illustrations, featured in both the eBook and the paperback.

Almost Midnight

 

‘Keep a careful eye to the hour,’ said the white bird. ‘Our magic will last only until midnight, and everything we’ve changed will be as it was.’

Meet Ella, a young woman who has lost everything; Hans, a boy doomed by his father’s greed to live as a monster; and Nameless, a lonely mermaid who yearns to be loved. Each seeks their happily ever after, but wishes and magic will only get them so far…

Almost Midnight takes three beloved fairy tales and retells them with new twists and turns, uniting them with the powers of love, courage, hope, and the magic of midnight.

 

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Release date to be announced!

The Work In Progress Blog Tour

Is anyone there?

It’s me, Cei. I’ve been away since the start of 2015, which I’ve just realised is quite a while ago. But S. Elliot Brandis has tagged me in a blog tour where I’m supposed to talk about what I’m currently working on, so here I am to tell you how the dog ate my homework and that my printer ran out of ink and all other excuses for being super slack on the blog front.

First, a bit about my tagger. S. Elliot Brandis is an indie author from Queensland who has written about some rad ladies in some pretty horrifying, yet very unique and well drawn worlds. I’m seriously waiting for fan-artists to get busy putting pictures to his words. You can read about his upcoming book here on his own post. He had me at YA-sci fi about a girl with gills, even though he puts me to shame with how quickly he can get good books out.

Now, what am I working on?

Everything. Which is why nothing is getting done.

I’m supposed to post the first line of the first three chapters of what I’m working on, which I’m not going to do. Mostly because I’m in the first draft stages of several projects, and none of them are organised into neat chapters yet. Also because of the nature of some of these projects, I know the middle or ending better than the beginnings, so there’s not so many first lines to speak of. But here’s a brief overview of all the projects that are clamouring to get out of my brain (all titles are working titles):

SUBJECT

A YA sci-fi set between dystopian London and a space shuttle carrying a lone girl and an automaton as they travel to a potentially habitable new planet. The Earth only has 20 years of sustainable life left, and this mission is humankind’s last chance to survive. But how much of their humanity will survive with them?

Told from the perspectives of Subject, a young woman born and trained solely for this mission, and Riley, a teenage girl living in  overpopulated London.

SHATTERED

A lower YA/MG fairytale adventure that pays homage to Lewis Carroll, Hayao Miyazaki, the Grimms, Jim Henson, Isobelle Carmody, Guillermo Del Toro and basically anyone who has inspired me with magic and danger over my lifetime. A young girl goes on a picnic with her estranged father and loses him in a national park. Looking for him, she stumbles into a magical world. If she ever wants to get back to the real world, she’ll need to help an petty witch with a simple task. But the task is not so simple, and the witch is not so petty.

MISS M

A YA comedy/coming of age about a sixteen year old girl growing up in rural Australia in 1987. The mysteries of sex, friendship, family, acceptance, self-confidence, blue light disco’s and tight perms will be explored, though probably not answered. There’ll be laughs, there’ll be heart, and by god there will be music.

ALMOST MIDNIGHT

A small collection of classic fairytales, retold by me, linked by the power of midnight. You can read one of them here!

TV PILOT PROJECT

I’m writing a pilot script for a television project which is very exciting, and is actually paid, and is going to take up most of my focus for the next few months. But I’ll be dabbling in the others as often as I can.

So basically this will probably be a year of behind the scene work. Last year was largely a write off due to personal stuff. Not a lot got done other than wallowing and grieving, but this is the year of Getting My (Business?) Together. So I’ll share what I can with you when I can, and hopefully in the near future I’ll have exciting news to share with you all.

And next in the blog hop, I have not asked her permission for this so she can feel very free to ignore me, but I tag Marina Finlayson. Marina just published her debut Urban Fantasy novel Twiceborn, which has one of my favourite concepts ever. Dragons in Sydney? Yes please! It’s sitting on my kindle just waiting for me to burn through my reading list. The sequel will be out soon, so I’d better get cracking.

Until next time, friends, happy reading!

x

The Speculative Fiction Blog Hop

I’ve been tagged in the Speculative Fiction Blog Hop by Kevin Hardman! Kevin writes some kick-ass superhero fiction, and is author of the Kid Sensation and Warden series. You can read his blog hop entry and find out more about his work here.

So here we go!

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1. What am I working on?
Right now I’m working on two new projects, both still in first draft. And while they generally stick to my favourite format – young adult, female protagonist – they’re both challenging me to get out of my comfort zone. The first is a fantasy novella, which is my go-to genre, but has a lot more action than I’m used to writing! This story follows a headstrong teen with a rocky relationship with her dad as she’s pulled into a fantasy world and blackmailed into helping a witch. It’s a bit of a tribute to the surreal adventure fantasy stories I grew up reading and watching: Alice in Wonderland, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth and so on. It’s very visual, which is a challenge, but it’s a lot of fun. 

The second project is really new for me: science fiction. I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching it, but writing is definitely a new challenge. And one that I’m really, really enjoying. This is also the first in a trilogy, which means a new way of plotting and a new way of structuring my story. It’s tricky to leave the book on enough of a cliffhanger to keep your readers crying out for the next book while still making it feel like a complete book so they don’t feel cheated. I’m enjoying working on this book so much, but it’s a little bit early in the process to outline the plot for you. But the trilogy as a whole will be a little bit space action, a little bit dystopian rat race, a little bit colonisation adventure. It’s also giving me a great excuse to watch my favourite sci-fi movies and Cosmos.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I can’t say for sure that it makes me unique among other YA spec-fic writers, but the things I really focus on in my work are interesting and diverse characters, with a focus on women protagonists, and I really try to make sure there are consequences for my characters actions. I like active protagonists who make choices, good or bad, and have to deal with the fallout or unexpected rewards. And romance usually takes a backseat in my stories, which in young adult is apparently a bit weird, even though I’d argue that the romantic storyline in books like The Hunger Games has been way overblown for what’s actually in the text.

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3. Why do I write what I do?
I love the optimism of young adult works. I love the urgency, the young characters trying their best to navigate a world and situations they might not have a great deal of experience and perspective on. Young people have enormous fortitude and bravery, and their ability to adapt makes for such great character and story potential. Young adult fiction still has such a bad rap for being frivolous or light reading and it’s not, as some like to say, the best time of our lives, but it is where we do so much of our growing and where we shape our perspectives. Youth is about possibility and hoping for the best. And call me a sucker, but I like to find hope even in the darkest settings.

As for the spec-fic side of things, I like the opportunity to create worlds that look a little better than the one I live in. I like to see diversity of race, gender, sexuality. I like monsters, I like magic, I like beautiful things that turn out to be dangerous and ugly things that turn out to be something special. I like that I can write about wonderful women who aren’t considered an exception, but are in good company. Speculative fiction is about freedom of imagination, asking ‘what if?’ It’s what started my love of reading, and it’s what led to my love of writing.

4. How does my writing process work?
A little differently for every book! But it averages out to this: I usually begin with an image of a character in a situation. For The Edge of the Woods it was Emma standing in front of a boy, a row of trees dividing them. For my sci-fi, it was a girl alone on a space shuttle, and for my fantasy adventure it was a girl and a monster facing off with a witch.

From there, I ask questions to unravel the story: who is this person? How did they into that situation? What do they want? I end up with some answers, some scene ideas, maybe a beginning or ending or random bits in between, and it lets me figure out what happens to get this character from what I already know, and what happens to them on the way. At the end of that, I have a pretty good idea of who my protagonist is, and the overall shape of the story.

Then I write the first draft, which is the longest part of the process for me, even though I write very short first drafts – in The Edge of the Woods I added over 30,000 words in the editing! My first drafts leave out a lot of detail and world building and focus on story and character. Does the arc work? Is the pacing good? Do the events logically flow? I take the time to work on the bones of the story so that when it comes to the editing – my favourite part – I can let myself go and indulge in building the book over the top, knowing my story and character journey is in solid shape. This is where I fill in character development, work on my supporting characters, paint the visuals, choose the right words, add new scenes and work on foreshadowing and consistency. And then, when I’ve done as much as I can do myself, I work with an editor to make sure the story actually works as well as I think it does, make any changes, send it out to a few beta readers (I do this the other way round to a lot of writers – I prefer to edit first, beta second) who also act as proofreaders, send it to an actual proofreader, proofread myself and enlist a friend or two to check for errors. And then it’s off to the formatter, and then I publish! And somewhere in there I hire a cover artist.

It’s kind of a long and involved process, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing my work with any less. Maybe when I’m a little more experienced it’ll streamline itself, but for now I’m very happy with the way I work, and it means I can feel confident about the quality of my books and be proud to put them out into the world with my name on them.

And… end of blog hop.

I’m tagging sci-fi whiz Vincent Trigili to go next! Vincent is a father and husband of nearly two decades and holds degrees in both Maths and Computer Science. He got his start in writing fiction as a small child, losing himself in the worlds he dreamed up in order to escape the doldrums of normal life. Now, using his formal education and extensive career experience, he excels in creating fictional worlds of depth and rich fantasy, while maintaining a foundation of reality based on science and technology.

You can read his blog hop entry next week, but until then you can check out his blog and his books at  the losttalesofpower.com.

First Draft Doozies

Sorry, I just wanted to alliterate a little bit.

I am knee deep in a first draft! I’ve been flirting with some novel concepts since finishing The Edge of the Woods, but for whatever reason – I still love all of them – I just couldn’t commit to any. Wrong timing, maybe. Wrong headspace, probably. But last week I took the plunge, and I’ve pledged the next few months to a YA/Children’s fantasy adventure story. I’m 12,824 words into what I hope will be a 30,000 – 40,000 word novella, and I’m having a lot of fun with it.

Everyone approaches first drafts differently. Sometimes they even approach them differently between ideas. I have a method for writing first drafts for scripts, which I’ve adapted a little to suit my prose writing, and have adapted again between The Edge of the Woods and my current project.

Cei’s Killer First Draft Battle Plan
Step 1. Get a bit of an idea. Take a lot of showers and baths and think about it until it ignites into a full-on, sustainable, must-write idea.
Step 2. Write down everything you know about the plot, in order. It might be the inciting incident, the ending, a really great scene. Whatever.
Step 3. Plot! Fill in the gaps between what you wrote down in Step 2. How are they linked? What leads to what? What choices does our hero make to get themselves there? It’s like the most fun puzzle ever.
Step 4. Write! Expand all of your plot points into scenes. Write from the beginning through to the end. No editing. The writing will not be good. The story will not make heaps of sense. The characters will not be consistent. It doesn’t matter. Let the story and characters find themselves. Fixing everything is for the subsequent drafts. If you get stuck, leave a placeholder and come back to it. If the style isn’t working, try a different one. Just keep moving forward.

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 I do all of my best writing in re-writing, but I can’t fix what isn’t there. So for me, slapping the story down in it’s barest form works best. I also work best when I know, generally, where I’m going. It’s probably been ingrained in me from scriptwriting, but I need to plot out my story. I didn’t do this for The Edge of the Woods in my first attempt at the first draft, instead ‘pansting it’ as the cool kids call it. But I found myself running into dead ends a lot, so I started plotting a few chapters ahead and writing up to there. Like checkpoints in a video game, if you will. It worked better, but it wasn’t ideal, so this time I’ve plotted the entire story and I feel much better about it.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned character work or character sheets. I don’t really bother with either. This is not to say I don’t think character is an incredibly important aspect of all books and writing (personally it’s my favourite aspect of writing and reading) but I like to find my characters through writing the story. I do the same with scripts. I like to spend a draft on story, then a draft on character, and let each one shape the other. It’s kind of a drawn out process, but again, it works for me. When I start my first draft, I just have the name of my protagonist and their motivation, and maybe a few secondary characters.

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There are some people who prefer to make detailed character charts or do intensive world building, or people who prefer to completely wing everything, or edit as they go. There’s no one correct way to approach it, and there might not even be one correct way for you. Just play around and find out what works for you.

Creating My Cover (plus resources)

In my last blog, I had a bit of a ramble about covers and what I think makes good ones.

So how did I apply all that to my novel?

I found my cover through 99 Designs, but this process will apply if you use a specific designer (as I intend to in the future).

TONE

I thought about what I wanted my cover to say about my story. I knew that I wanted it to go with my title (The Edge of the Woods… fairly specific), but more than that I wanted it to evoke the feel of my book. Emma, my protagonist, lives in a village surrounded on all sides by thick woods, and has grown up hearing myths about the dangers of wandering into them. Although the majority of my book takes place in the village, the simultaneous call and threat of the woods are constantly there. So it made sense that the look and feel of the woods should be evoked on my cover. I also thought about colours. Blues are very popular in YA, and can evoke a sense mystery and magic, so I asked for blues with pops of gold in the form of fireflies, which are a frequently used symbol in the novel.

I received several mock ups of the cover featuring woods, but most felt too safe. They were pleasant woods, daytime woods, woods you wouldn’t think twice about going into. Or they were flat out horror movie woods – woods you wouldn’t need to hear stories about to want to stay clear of them. Only three designers really nailed the beautiful-but-deadly tone I wanted to to convey. (I’d like to show you the designs, but as I only own the winning one I won’t).

I went back and forward on including Emma in the cover. My own preferences said no, but I didn’t want to rule out a very popular marketing trend out of prejudice. So I included an optional Emma in my brief with a description (which I made up for the brief, as Emma is only described as being tall in the book) and waited to see what came in. Most were pretty, bland stock models staring bored into the middle-distance. But again, three (and not quite the same ones) designers used her in an interesting way that I felt added rather than detracted to the cover.

So I ended up with four finalists. Three featured Emma. Three featured the woods. Two featured fireflies. All conveyed the tone I wanted.

GENRE

So then it came to genre (fantasy) and target audience (young adults, primarily girls). And here I enlisted a test audience.

One cover was immediately put out of the running because it skewed quite young. It appealed to boys more than the other covers, but looked like children’s fiction. And while my book is appropriate for children to read, I didn’t want to turn young adults and older readers off. Another looked great and appealed to young women, but my test audience interpreted it as a historical drama rather than a fantasy.

So I was left with two covers I loved: one showed the woods and Emma, the other only focused on the woods. Both gave the tone I wanted, and both featured fireflies which gave the test audience a sense of magic. But in the end, I found that the cover featuring Emma actually skewed older, appealing to 30+ readers while the woods-only cover appealed unanimously to 13 – 25 year old readers. With their results in, the decision felt clear. Only one design ticked all the boxes and even fell in line with my character-free preference.

And here it is! And how I love it.

Cover KINDLEI know, you’ve all seen it. 

These are my woods, and this is my book.

TYPEFACE

I haven’t discussed typeface, which I should as it can make or break your cover. In the brief I specified that it should be clear and readable, pretty but not too ‘girly,’ and not exceed more than two fonts. The font on the runner up was difficult to read, and the fonts on the other two rejected designs complimented the children’s fiction and historical fiction feel of them. Both good title fonts, but neither appropriate to my book.

I love this typeface. I love that my name is simple and small, but readable. I love that my designer used the same simple font to balance out the flourish on edge – feminine but strong – and I like that she picked one word to focus on. I also like that she gave the weight to ‘edge,’ rather than ‘woods’ which reflects Emma’s position in the story. My designer had no idea about that of course, but she did a great job and made me very happy. The only real complaint I could have is the obscured ‘w’ but if I’m being honest it doesn’t bother me. And who doesn’t love an ood?

The original title was in light blue, which was pretty (and I still use in my banners) but we decided later to change it to white so it would really pop.

RESOURCES

Are you in the market for a cover? Is that the whole reason you clicked read more on this post? Well aren’t you in luck! I’ve come across some cover designers with great portfolios over the past few months and I’m going to share my favourites.

Now, if you haven’t heard of premade covers, you are missing out. Great for writers on a budget or for something as simple a short fiction, premade covers are, as the title so handily implies, ready made covers. You just chose your cover and the artist will swap out their interim title and author name with yours. You have to be willing to make compromises and go a little more vague with your imagery (unless you find THE PERFECT COVER), but they tend to range between $30 – $100, and some designers run specials so you can get them for even less.

My absolute favourite premade designer can be found at GoOnWrite, who offers unbelievably professional covers for $40 and updates regularly. Another great resource is the Cover Art Collective, a Facebook group which highlights premade work from various artists. And if you like the look of an artist’s premades, you can always click through to their site and request a custom cover.

Custom covers cost more, especially if you want to make a full paperback version and/or audiobook cover (and Facebook/promo banners). Depending on the designer, a custom cover can cost you anywhere between $100-$1000. My favourite designers portfolios are: Art By Karri ($175 – 225), M. S. Corley (contact to negotiate price), Yocla Designs ($95 – 145), and Jason Gurley ($350 – 750). My designer, Destiny Marie, doesn’t currently have a website but if you contact me I can pass on her email address.

You can also find an artist whose style you love and negotiate to purchase the rights to an image they’ve already produced or commission new work for your cover. You’ll often have to come up with your own typeface to lay over the image, or you can see if another cover designer would be willing to negotiate a typography only price for you (if you can’t do it yourself – and if you don’t have decent photoshop skills, don’t!).

Any cover artist recommendations? Name drop in the comments!