Interview with Megan Haskell

Today we’ve got an interview with Megan Haskell, author of the epic fantasy Sanyare Chronicles and Publish: Take Charge of your Author Career. She and I share a lot of common fans, so if you like the interview, I encourage you to go check out her fantasy. If you’re a budding author, her non-fiction is worth it!

AC: Hi Megan, thanks for joining us today. My readers might know you from your Sanyare Chronicles, but you’ve also written some non-fiction. Can you tell us about your books? 

MH: Of course! As you mentioned, I write The Sanyare Chronicles, which is a fast-paced adventure fantasy featuring a kick-ass heroine, snarky carnivorous pixies, and a quest across nine faerie realms. The story begins with our heroine, Rie, being attacked by assassins from the enemy realm and framed for treason. She’s forced to flee for her life and prove her innocence, before the executioner’s axe catches up with her. 

I’ve also co-written a non-fiction book for writers called PUBLISH: Take Charge of Your Author Career. My co-author is Greta Boris and between the two of us, we have experience in both traditional and independent publishing: she has a seven-book deal with a small press, and I, of course, am the indie half of things. We work under the premise that neither path to publication is the “right” way, it all depends on the author’s goals and the project’s strengths. The book is designed to help amateur writers make the transition from hobbyist to professional, and guides them in assessing their skills and goals in order to make the best choice for their work. We then cover the basics of what to do and how to do it, from initial queries or contracts, to the book launch. It’s an overview that will help writers ask the right questions with further resources for deeper dives into the details.

AC: When I look at your Sanyare books, “fierce carnivorous pixies” jumps off the screen at me. What are these things, and what was the inspiration for such unusual creatures?

MH: Everybody loves the pixies! I think the best quick description I’ve heard is “piranhas with wings”. They’re about 2-3 inches tall, hairless, with dragonfly-style wings. They have razor sharp teeth and can change their skin to match their surroundings, like chameleons. They’ll eat pretty much any living meat they can find, but Niinka (their leader) has a personal goal of tasting every race of greater fae (elves).

I don’t remember exactly where the inspiration came from, but in general, I like to take mythological creatures and twist them up a little. For the pixies, I figured if there were really sentient creatures that small, they would have to be pretty badass. So rather than making them all sparkly and cute, I made them funny but vicious. A hungry swarm can devour a large mammal within minutes, but they like to collect trinkets and treasure, like buttons and string. They’re misunderstood by elvish society, so Rie earned their loyalty when she treated them with compassion.

AC: Anywhere we can find a sample of your work?

MH: Yes, absolutely! For the full story of how Rie came to be friends with the pixies, you can read the prequel, Pixie Tamer (free with newsletter subscription).

In addition, as a special treat for your fans, you can download Broken Honor: An Early Adventure of Garamaen Sanyaro (also free with newsletter subscription).

The first half of this story was originally published in the Ragged Heroes anthology, but the second half has only ever been seen by my existing newsletter subscribers. Which, as an aside, is why the cover is just a black screen with a title on it. I ultimately plan on writing more short stories of Garamaen’s early adventures, and will eventually publish a full unified anthology, but until then I haven’t wanted to pay for a cover. (And I have zero skills in photoshop to do anything better myself.)

AC: Aside from that one, all of your covers feature a badass looking woman holding a blade. Decades ago, the only women on the cover of a fantasy book would be half-naked and clinging to some muscled dude. Even just a few years ago, most of the women on fantasy covers were in the YA or Romance categories. What has it been like to crash the sausage party, and what do you think has been the primary driver behind more and more women writing “badass” fantasy?

MH: It's funny, I’ve never really looked at it that way. My literary heroes growing up were authors like Anne Rice (TheVampire Chronicles, 1967) and Anne McCaffrey (Dragonriders of Pern, 1967), and characters like Lessa (from Dragonriders of Pern, who starts off a bedraggled servant on a mission of vengeance) and Anita Blake (a petite necromancer who gets herself into and out of trouble with each chicken she beheads, by Laurell K Hamilton 1993). So when I started writing, it wasn’t to make a statement, it was simply to tell a story I wanted to read.

But with that said, I think for a long time, science-fiction and fantasy were stereotypically male genres, and the stories were targeted at a male audience with a male eye, but just like comic books, that “old boys club” has begun to shift, with more women standing up and saying “Hey! I like this too!” Just because we have boobs doesn’t mean we don’t like a good action sequence, know what I mean? So now we’re seeing more strong female leads, the kind of women we wish we could be, written by women for women.

But I should probably also admit that, like Elaine from Seinfeld, I’m something of a “Man’s Woman”. I have no problem being in an industry dominated by men, and quite honestly would rather hang out and watch college football than have my nails done. (Also…Fight On!)

AC: Hmm, maybe it was just the fantasy books I read… I was waiting for you to say that you yourself are a badass woman, and you write what you know. What other women are writing great fantasy that you think we should know about?

MH: LOL…I won’t say I’m a badass woman, but I will say that I wish I could kick ass and take names the way Rie does!

Okay, so here are my top five modern female fantasy authors I adore:

1.     Lindsay Buroker is one of my favorites. She writes snarky quick-witted characters in action-packed science-fiction and fantasy (she writes on both sides of the aisle, so to speak).

2.     If you’re more into the Norse mythology side of things, T.L Greylock just released the completed trilogy of The Song of the Ash Tree which is amazing. Subtle magic, at least in the first book, but if you want to read about Vikings and myth, this will be right up your alley.

3.     Miranda Honfleur’s Blade and Rose series is great. It’s epic fantasy romance/sword & sorcery with a strong female lead who definitely kicks butt and takes names. 

4.     Faith Hunter writes the Jane Yellowrock series, featuring a six-foot shapeshifting Cherokee vampire hunter. Oh, and her alter ego who she often shifts into is a panther named Beast. I haven’t kept up with recent releases in this series, but the first seven or so books were amazing. I learned how to write action sequences from reading these books!

5.     Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series is my instant pre-order, no questions asked purchase. I don’t even bother reading the book descriptions anymore. However, this is definitely romantic science fantasy. Each book in the series is the love story of a couple, written in traditional romance chapter-swapping format, so if that’s not your thing, you might not want to pick it up. BUT the series plotline is AMAZING and what really keeps me reading. I think there are about 14 books in the series, I’ve ready every one of them, most more than once, and I am constantly amazed at how she manages to carry the threads of the political story through each book. If you want to learn about world-building and long series writing, this is the one to read.

<AC’s note: I’ve met Megan, Lindsay, TL, and Miranda. All certified badass.>

AC: Writing a book, and getting that book seen by someone other than your mother, is a challenge no matter who you are. What sorts of advice do you have for aspiring authors out there?

MH: First: assess yourself and your goals. What are you trying to achieve with your book(s)? What sort of work-life balance fits with your lifestyle? What are your 3-month, 6-month, 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals?

Once you understand yourself, you can start to take steps toward your dreams. 

Writing and publishing can seem overwhelming, so you need to break it down into smaller steps that you can tackle one at a time. Don’t worry about getting everything “right” the first time…you’re going to make mistakes, but they’re all fixable…unless you do something illegal, I guess. So, don’t do that. 

Otherwise, slow and steady wins the race, this is a marathon not a sprint, and it’s not a get-rich-quick-scheme, no matter what those ten-year over-night successes might make you think. (Was that enough cliché? LOL.)

AC: I saw you’re heavily involved in a group called Orange County Writers. Tell us a little bit about that? 

MH: OC Writers is a local group that I co-lead with my friend (and co-author of PUBLISH) Greta Boris. We have a few different ways that we support both published and aspiring authors, including a Monday morning coffee shop “write-in” and accountability meeting, a Facebook group with over 1,000 members, and a website/blog. 

The “write-in” begins at about 9, but people arrive whenever they can for heads-down work. We try to avoid chatting and distractions (other than coffee and tea deliveries, of course). Then at 11 we break our concentration for about an hour of conversation. In that time, we go around the table stating wins from the previous week and goals for the upcoming week. We usually run off on tangents about one thing or another that’s writing or marketing related. It’s a great opportunity—especially for us introverts—to get out and see people with very little pressure, while also providing better accountability for our writing craft and career. 

The Facebook group is open to all writers, no matter where they live. Obviously, a lot of the announcements and events are centered in Orange County, but the overall advice and community spans the country. 

My largest responsibility is on the blog. We used to have twice-weekly posts in business and craft from a ton of different contributors, but it got too hard to keep begging people for posts. Now, we mostly post upcoming local writing events plus Greta and I each post at least once a month on various topics that are relevant for our current writing careers, or answers to questions from our community. That said, there’s a lot of great information for writers of all stages in the archives.

AC: For those who don’t have an awesome community of local writers (anyone living in Houston, just sayin’), how do you recommend writers get connected?

MH: Why don’t you start one? Hmm? 😉

But seriously, if you don’t have an existing writing community in your area, go on Meetup or Facebook and start one. You’ll probably be surprised at the number of writers hiding in the shadows—we’re a bit like cockroaches that way. 

Alternatively, if you’re not an in-person kind of person, search Facebook for writing groups that fit your genre and your personality. There’s a million of them online! Then lurk for a little while until you’re comfortable and post or comment when you’re ready. 

I know you know this, but in this gig, it’s really critical to set up a support network to celebrate the wins and commiserate the rejections/fails (‘cause they’re inevitable.)

AC: What’s next for Megan Haskell? More Sanyare, something else?

MH: Well, I’m currently working on an epic trilogy that’s an ancient prequel to The Sanyare Chronicles. It’s the story of the Great War of the Nine Faerie Realms and features a few of the long-lived characters from Rie’s world. I’ve finished the second draft of the first book, but want to have the entire trilogy roughed out before I publish anything so that I can ensure continuity and add in any awesome ideas I come up with by the end of the trilogy. 

So, what that all means is that I’ve been working on this already for over a year, and don’t plan to publish anything new until spring 2020, but once the first book is out the rest will follow pretty quickly, and when they do it will be a complete story. (No GRRM syndrome over here...) 

So stay tuned for that…it’s gonna be awesome. 

AC: I haven’t tried roughing out a series like that before finalizing the first one. It sounds like an incredible way to ensure continuity and build layers. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and the rest of your process?

MH: Well, this is a first for me, too!! With the Sanyare Chronicles I took the more traditional path of writing one book at a time and sort of hoping that whatever I set up in the earlier books would play out well in the later ones. 

But with The War of the Nine Faerie Realms trilogy I knew there was going to be an end, and I knew what that end was going to be, because it sets up some of the conflict in The Sanyare Chronicles. So knowing the end, and certain high points that had been referred to in the chronicles, I knew a lot of plot points for the overall trilogy story arc that had to be logically woven together. It also makes more sense to write it this way this time because it’s a single-story trilogy, sort of like Lord of the Rings, where the books really can’t be read out of order or they just won’t make much sense.

Which has been both good and bad. 😏

The good side:

·       I’m not an outliner, but this has given me many key moments to work toward and has kept me on track as far as the plot.

·       It’s added complexity in the storyline; I get to come up with new ideas in the second and third books and then weave them into or foreshadow them in the first.

·       I can get all “craftsy” with this series, which is fun.

·       Working on a longer timeline for the whole series has given me the opportunity to think more about the first book and ways to make it better.

·       Once I do start to publish, I’ll be able to put them out much more quickly than I would have been able to do otherwise (I’m not a fast writer) which I think (I hope) will bring in more readers to the series.

The bad side: 

·       I’m not an outliner, so sometimes following a predetermined path is hard.

·       This is really the first time I’ve worked with multiple point of view characters (Sanyare: The Winter Warrior (Book 4), technically has two, but the second POV is minor) and that’s hard too.

·       I’m not the most patient person…waiting to release the first book is hard.

·       Trying to keep the whole story in my head at once is hard.

·       Weaving all the storylines together is hard.

·       It’s hard.

Still, I’m glad I’m writing this series this way. It’s a challenge, for sure, but I think the end product is going to be my best so far.

So…what’s my process?

I started out with the characters I knew from The Sanyare Chronicles—namely Curuthannor and Lhéwen (Rie’s guardians), and Aradae (Shadow King in the chronicles, but still a prince during the war). I also plotted out the facts that I knew of the war that I had written into the chronicles. Then, for the most part, I just started at the beginning. I like to ask myself questions as I write, like “Where were they before the war started?” or “What specifically were they doing?” or “Who do they love/trust on day one?” and “Who betrays them and why?” (‘cause, conflict, ya know? 

Sometimes it takes me a little while to really pin down the central story—what’s important to my characters and why. For example, with Curuthannor, I knew he was a smith’s son and had worked in his father’s smithy, but really prefers wielding the blades rather than crafting them. Still, he doesn’t want to disappoint his father so he does his best to live up to the family business. As I was writing, I realized that his story isn’t just about becoming a warrior, it’s about family and expectations, of finding his place and trusting his instincts. By the time I was done with the second draft, I’d finally realized that family is the key theme in the first book.

Because of the complexity of the story, I’ve had to go back several times to the beginning (which I hate doing in the rough draft stage because it slows me down even more) to reconsider how all the different chess-pieces are moving on the board and sometimes completely redraw the timeline. At one point, I killed a character that didn’t exist, and had to go back and write him into the story! Following the logical motivations of so many characters can be mind-boggling. But it’s fun.

AC: Tell us something no one knows about you!

MH: Something NO ONE knows? Umm...I married my college sweetheart, so I don’t think that’s possible....

But I guess something not many people know is that I take mugen bujutsu mixed martial arts and kickboxing classes three days a week (sometimes four), and am hoping to test for my blue belt next month!

AC: Where can we find out more about you and your books?

Hit up my website at meganhaskell.com where you can read the first chapter of each book and enter to win a signed paperback!  I’m also active on Facebook. Every Wednesday morning at about 10:30 am Pacific time, I do a Facebook Live video on my page, and while I usually do have a rough idea of something to talk about (because mostly I feel like I’m talking into the void) it’s an open Ask Me Anything, so ya know, stop by and ask me anything. I’d enjoy the company!

And that’s all we’ve got for today! You can find Megan’s Sanyare Chronicles HERE. Happy reading!

-AC

Writing Craft Discussion - Outlining

The last two posts I shared on writing craft were Research and Worldbuilding. Today, I’ll talk a little about the final step before actually writing — outlining. It’s important to note that as we step through the process, the variety of tactics writers use increases. There is no “right” way to write. There are really talented authors doing completely different methods. I encourage you to do what works for YOU, and not what works for THEM. <this is a huge pet peeve of mine, you do you!> But regardless of what you think your style is, the value in talking about tactics is that to begin, you have to start somewhere. And once you get started, it’s worth evaluating your methods, considering new tactics, and always striving to improve your craft. No one is perfect, which means we can all stand to get a little bit better.

Okay, so first up, in a lot of early writer’s workshops / groups you’ll hear the terms “pantser” and “plotter”. Meaning, someone who writes by the seat of their pants, or someone who thoroughly plots their story before they begin. The truth is, there is no distinct cut-off between these methods and you don’t have to be one or the other. You don’t have to have an outline, you can have a 30,000 foot one, you can have a couple of pages, you can have a 100-page outline and story bible. None of these are right or wrong, they are just what works for that author. And importantly, what works on one story may not work on another.

With Benjamin Ashwood, I had no outline at all. With later books in that series, I had rudimentary ones (1-2 pages) because I found I was spending loads of time going back and correcting plot holes. I briefly toyed with longer, more robust outlines around books 3 & 4, but I found with Ben’s story I didn’t like it. There is only one POV, it’s a straight-forward timeline, and all I really needed was a high level summary of what Ben was going to be up to. I found I could chart it almost on a geographical basis. Ie, he goes to X place, fights Y guy, and reveals Z. Done. Anything more than that and I was wasting time outlining when I could be writing.

With the Cartographer, I needed a great deal more detail. There are multiple points of view, the action is happening in different geographic locations, and the timelines matter. There is a layer of history and foreshadowing that is gradually unveiled as the story progresses, and that onion-like unfolding has to be set up at the beginning. The elements of the world (magic, politics, commerce, geography, etc) are much more important to the story flow with this series. Just in general, the story is vastly more complex than Benjamin Ashwood was. To keep my shit together, I needed an outline. And not just an outline, but a story bible / wiki / whatever you want to call it. That’s a carry-over from the world building discussion, but it’s all related, and all of these pre-writing documents support each other.

For the Cartographer, I have 8-10 pages of story bible, outlining themes, organizations, characters, technology, magic, etc. From there, I built an overall trilogy story arc, which is fairly basic. It outlines where the characters will be, who the confrontations will be between, and when there will be major reveals. This one is about 1-2 pages. For Quill, I then went a layer deeper and outlined that specific story arc. It’s about 3-4 pages of bullet point level detail on what is happening. Again, I considered expanding this, but from my experience with Benjamin Ashwood, I know I like to have some freedom when I write. I know X and Y will fight each other, but I don’t map out the actual fight until I’m in the scene. It’s more fun for me that way. I also did 1 pagers for Books 2 & 3 before I began real writing, and as I get to those books, I flesh the outlines out to match the 3-4 pages of detail I had for Quill. The reason I do this is that I have the general concept of what will happen in the books which allows me to foreshadow in previous ones, but I’ve left myself room to add characters and elements as I go. There are some minor characters who will appear and 2 & 3 that were never part of the original outlines. But, they’re either a lot of fun and worth adding, or I found ways they can fill in the details and support the original bullet points.

And here’s an insider tip. Aside from the Cartographer trilogy I’ve committed to writing, I also mapped out a potential 9-book arc. I don’t know if I’ll write those later books, but if the series takes off and I’m still enjoying it, there are ideas I’ve documented so I can continue and it will feel natural to the reader. The groundwork is already laid down, and it will be there whether I choose to use it or not.

Finally, how this all works in practice. Most authors I know have some level of outlining. Whether it’s a massive, intricate tome, or a one pager, they’ve got some idea of where their story is going. That saves you from writing off on some tangent that goes nowhere and you end up deleting tens of thousands of words in editing. But writers also don’t handcuff themselves to the outline. It’s your story, and if you want to change it, you do. I’ve found the beginning and the end are generally static in my outlines, but I frequently change what’s happening in the middle. As I write, I discover, and it’d be a shame to not use what I’m learning about my world, my characters, and how they can interact. My outlines are suggestions as I write, rather than rules ;)

So at the end of the day, don’t worry about whether you’re a pantser or a plotter. It only matters what you’re comfortable with, and it’s worth doing a little experimentation to find where that spot is. If you’re already written some books, try going into a little more detail on the next outline, or try granting yourself freedom to divert. If you’ve never written a book, then I do recommend spending some time on the outline. You can always steer away from it, but until you’ve got a feel for your own style, it doesn’t hurt to put up a few signposts.

Alright, hope this helps, and I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk about Drafting.

AC

Interview with Shawn T King

Combining a little bit of Craft Discussion and a little bit of Interview today with one of the hottest cover designers in the business. Shawn T King, founder of STK Kreations (http://www.stkkreations.com), has worked with Brian McClellan, Rob Hayes, Andrew Rowe, Ben Galley, Michael R Fletcher, and Anthony Ryan. He’s done work for Talos Press, Night Shade Books, PS Publishing, and Grim Oak Press. And of course, he’s the one I selected to do my Cartographer covers. He’s also responsible for the design of all of the banners you see at the top and that stellar Cartographer logo over on the Art Page.

I wanted to bring Shawn on to the blog today because I think it’s fascinating how authors and designers work together to come up with a book cover. I also think it’s important for aspiring authors to really consider saving those pennies for high-quality cover design. I recommend investing in a decent cover over all other expenses. We say, “don’t judge a book by its cover” because everyone does.

I asked Shawn his opinion and he agrees. People think they CAN design a cover, which is true, but can they design a professional level cover? Per me, that’s what you need to compete these days. Don’t put that MS Paint garbage up on Amazon and expect sales! Shawn brought up an issue he sees more often, and that’s authors spending a fortune on great artwork, then ruining it by doing the rest of the design themselves. Nothing wrecks a book’s chances faster than spectacular illustration covered in comic sans ;) 

Alright, enough of my soapbox! Let’s get onto the interview!

Pre-Post-Script: I started following Shawn’s RAD :: Random Art of the Day on Facebook immediately after formatting this interview. Recommended for Fantasy Art Nerds.

AC: Hi Shawn, thanks for joining me today. My fans may know you from your book cover design work, but you’re involved in a lot of graphic design projects. Can you tell us about them?

STK: Hey AC! Thanks for having me! I should start off by saying I’m kinda terrible at talking about myself, so I’ll likely be meandering a bit heh.

Yeah, sure! So book covers (design or art+design) are my primary focus, but I also do interior layouts for print books, some of which are for specialty presses like Vault Books and PS Publishing. Interior layout can either enhance a reader’s experience or hinder it in a short amount of time, so I think it deserves a lot more love and attention than people seem to give it.

Let’s see, some other design projects that aren’t book design would be the normal type of thing you’d think of when you think of graphic design: posters, bookmarks, brochures, calendars, postcards, advertisements, magazine layout, etc.

I’ve done graduation postcards, author bookmarks, concert posters, newspaper ads, a store map for my old department store boss…if it’s in my means and I’m getting paid, I’ll do it haha.

I also occasionally do social media graphics for authors. One of which I did as a personal project for an author and it helped get me my first gig in the book industry (the other project was a poster that won a contest held by author Mark Lawrence).

And I have to mention the project I just wrapped up, a deck of poker cards for author Ashley Capes. It was a first for me, and I’m pretty happy with how they came out. If you’re a fan of his Book of Never series, you might be interested to know there’s a deck of poker cards featuring the characters from that series. You can find it here: https://www.makeplayingcards.com/sell/book-of-never-playing-cards.

AC: How did you get into the business of designing book covers?

STK: I knew I wanted to work in the book industry for quite a while -- once I realized I had a knack for design it was my goal. I got my first opportunity in 2013 designing the cover and interior for sort of a men’s self-help book I guess you could call it (not my preferred genre, but I was just happy to be working on a book).

The following year I was reaching out to publishers when I stumbled across Jeff Salyards’ book series, Bloodsounders Arc, and his author photo was cool so I decided to just make up a social media banner for him as a personal project. I sent it to him, he ended up using it, and the creative director for a small press, Ragnarok Publications, saw it (along with a poster that went live around the same time) and pretty much signed me on the spot as their designer. And everything else just kinda grew from there.

AC: Spill the beans, what is your favorite cover you’ve done, and what’s one you admire that you didn’t do?

STK: Oh boy…hmm… Right now I think I’d have to say my favorite cover that I’ve done would have to be The God King’s Legacy, for Richard Nell. It had been two years since I did a character-focused cover when I got that gig, and it felt like I didn’t know what I was doing the entire time but everything kept snapping together and turned out really cool I think. And it’s probably my most well-received cover so far.

I’m also still proud of my cover for City of Kings, by Rob J. Hayes. I second-guessed myself a lot on that one, and was ready to pull my hair out when all a sudden everything just started working and formed something pretty cool I think.

One of my favorites that I collaborated on is A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, by Darrell Drake. John Anthony Di Giovanni did the illustration for that one. I had some oldschool cover inspirations when going into that one and I think I gave it a nice mixture of a little bit of old, a little bit of new. 

A cover that I admire but didn’t work on would definitely be the Blades of the Moonsea trilogy from Richard Baker (SwordmageCorsairAvenger). It’s an older series (2008 I think) set in the Forgotten Realms, and they’ve been favorite covers of mine since I first laid eyes on them (made sure to get the hardcovers when they released and will never part with them). It’s a perfect harmony between art and design. The art is by Raymond Swanland, and design by Matt Adelsperger (he did a lot of the Forgotten Realms cover designs in those days). Just perfection.

AC: You work with a lot of artists when collaborating on covers. Do you have any favorites?

STK: That’s one of the most exciting parts of my job, getting to work with so many amazing artists.

I’d have to say my favorites to work with would be Felix Ortiz and John Anthony Di Giovanni. I don’t know if it’s just because I work with them the most (I have a lot of cover credits between the two of them), or because I love their art so much. John always delivers something stellar to work with. And me and Felix have a good back-and-forth relationship when it comes to getting feedback from one another throughout the art and design process, and I’ve been able to watch him grow as an artist in a very short time and it’s just great fun and inspirational.

My all-time favorite artist is Raymond Swanland. I’ve been following his work since his days doing concept art for the Oddworld video game series. He has this distinct sense of fluidity to his work that is immediately recognizable and pulls me into each piece where I easily get lost trying to follow every line and shape around until I’ve explored every inch.

Needless to say I’d love to work with him on a project one day. 

And while we’re talking about artists, I started a page on Facebook called RAD :: Random Art of the Day, where I show off some of my favorite art from around the world. It’s sort of my way of giving back to the art community by promoting artists. So if you like fantasy and sci-fi art feel free to follow along. 

AC: Can you tell us a little bit about how the creative process works between you and the book’s author?

STK: It’s quite simple, really…well, unless I get a very stubborn author haha. More often than not the author will have some sort of vision of how they’d like their cover to look. I’ll give my feedback on any ideas and offer up some of my own if I think of something that will look better, going back and forth until something is agreed upon from both parties (I find it’s important for the designer and/or artist to be happy with the concept or else they won’t put their all into it).

At that point I’ll start gathering any resources I may need and sorta just start throwing things and seeing what sticks. I often have a really cool image in my head but it’s a real challenge trying to get that image on the screen hah, so once I start working it’s a lot of trial and error until things start to snap in place.

Once I’m happy enough with how things are going I’ll send off a progress shot to get a “Yeah, that’s awesome!” or a “Eh, let’s try again”. Hopefully it’s the former, and I’ll keep going until I have something more fleshed out to reveal.

It’s been said I deliver more finished looking proofs than normal. That may slow me down in the long run, but I think it has to do with me not wanting to show something I’m not happy with, so I tend to go too far sometimes for no reason, but I’m not gonna send off something I don’t like.

<Part of the brief I sent Shawn. What the fresh hell is that?!? There’s no title on that thing!>

AC: What are the most important elements in a good book cover?

STK: To me an effective cover has to have harmony between art and design (and when I say “design” I mean the graphic design, the typography or type-treatment – a lot of people get that confused and just say “cover design” for the entire cover…sorry, it’s a bit of a pet-peeve for me because often times only the artist or designer gets notice for the cover…okay, I’ll stop ranting now).

Harmony is key, and without it you’ll have a disjointed cover that will leave some people scrutinizing it instead of snatching your book up. If you’re a “big name” or already have an established fanbase your fans are gonna pick it up regardless, but it’ll still look awkward and will have some difficulty gaining new fans…at least, in my opinion.

Equal attention needs to be made to both the art and the design. You can’t (or shouldn’t) have great art and bad design, and if you have bad art it’s impossible to have great design.

As far as content goes, your cover should convey at least a little bit of what readers can expect from the story. The goal is to get people to pick up the book, but there should be at least one element featured that is integral to the story.

Oh, and no Cinzel font!!!! I despise Cinzel, and it should be wiped off the face of the Earth, nay, the entire universe.

AC: The old yarn is to not judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do. Have you read many of the books you’ve done covers for? If so, any you thought, “nailed it!” or any you thought, “what the hell is this?”

STK: hahaha Oh that old saying. First off, you should be able to judge a book by its cover, I know I do. It’s the first thing people see, and can immediately turn a potential reader away if there’s no effort put into it.

I do try to read the books I work on. I currently still have a day-job, so it’s hard to read them in a timely manner, but I do read them at some point. It’s common to get snippets or some other form of description before starting on any cover work, so usually everything feels good and relatable to the story. That being said I have worked on a few collaborations (where I design the typography/design with an illustrator doing the artwork) where I thought a different scene would have made a more powerful cover, and one where I was pinching the bridge of my nose every time I looked at it because the author’s indecisiveness led to a very disjointed package.

AC: I know you’re a fantasy fan, tell us some of your favorite titles?

STK: Not at all…fantasy is the dumbest genre out there.

Sike! Of course I’m a fantasy fan. It’s my favorite genre in fact.

Oh boy, well I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention where it all started: R.A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy (along with the rest of the Drizzt series) was the first book that really got me hooked on fantasy (and reading in general if I’m being honest). I was always fairly shy and standoffish as a teen, so with very few friends and lots of alone time, joining Drizzt and the Companions as they journeyed through the world of Faerûn was a blessing. And another series that helped get me hooked was William King’s Gotrek & Felix series for Black Library (Warhammer). It was much darker and bloodier than Salvatore’s work but I loved it. And between its titular character, Gotrek, and Salvatore’s dwarven characters (all hail King Bruenor!), I developed a love for the dwarven race that some might find unsettling…

Some other favorites of mine are: anything by Rob J. Hayes; Ben Galley’s The Heart of Stone is one of the best standalone novels out there; Luke Chmilenko’s Ascend Online series; Paul S. Kemp’s Erevis Cale series (The Forgotten Realms); Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria series; Smoke Eaters from Sean Grigsby; A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe from Alex White; Clay Sanger’s Endsville is freakin’ superb and I can’t wait for a sequel…please!; Andrew Rowe; Kenny Soward; Kirk Dougal; hell I could keep going, there’s so many great authors out there, but those are a few that popped to the top of my ol’ noggin right away.

AC: If you weren’t designing book covers, what would Shawn King be doing?

STK: Watching wrestling in Cheeto-stained pajamas with my feline son sitting shotgun.

Actually, I’d probably still be at the day-job I’m currently at (queue Robert Downey Jr. eye-roll gif). I work at a newspaper (going on 13 years – I’m no quitter) where I’m miserable every day, but it helps to pay the bills. So if I never would have took a chance on graphic design I’m sure I’d just sit there inhaling toxic press fumes and having headaches induced by eleven fluorescent lightbulbs (seriously, there’s eleven freakin’ bulbs in this 20x20’ office) for the rest of my life.

I can’t really think of an alternate reality to that as I’ve been there for so long. 

AC: One of the best forms of fantasy digital media (uh, aside from your covers), is gaming. Are you much of a gamer?

STK: Oh, I love video games! My first system was the original Nintendo, I still remember bashing the shit out of the controller when playing Battletoads…that was a really durable system, even though you had to slap it and blow on it to get it going sometimes (wow, that sounded kinky…what kind of interview are you running here?!).

I don’t get a lot of gaming time these days (working a full-time job and freelance doesn’t leave a lot of free time) so I’m more of a casual gamer, but I really enjoy it. I’m really into RPGs and Action-RPGs, as I love being able to customize characters, (even if it’s just weapons and equipment) and the story and worldbuilding offer a more expansive experience. My favorite series of the last few years is Darksiders, from the mind of comic artist Joe Madureira (Joe Mad!).

I also love the artform of games in general. When I was a senior in high school we were given forms from the local college to help plan our curriculum, and low and behold game design was nowhere to be found, so I chose the next closest thing with the word “design” in it…seemed to be a pretty good move I guess hah. 

On the tabletop gaming front, I actually don’t have a lot of experience there. I never had anyone around me growing up that played D&D, and all my current friends were formed through social media so they don’t live nearby haha. But those tabletop RPG fans reading this, be sure to check out Aetaltis! It’s created by a company I work for, Mechanical Muse, and there’s lots of cool stuff planned. J

AC: I’m sure there are some nerds out there in the audience wanting to know, so can you tell us what equipment and software you use?

STK: LOL Sure, it’s not anything overly interesting though, just Photoshop and InDesign. And occasionally I’ll sketch things out if I’m working on a logo. Photoshop is my go-to for all graphics, cover art, and majority of design. InDesign is mainly only used when laying out book interiors or back cover and small text for covers when the publisher demands it – I still do my main titling in Photoshop though because InDesign is pretty limiting when it comes to customizing letters.

That’s about it really, other than a mechanical pencil and a lot of unfinished sketchbooks heh (if I ever get to fulltime freelancer status drawing is one thing I’m gonna make more time for).

AC: And that’s all for today! You can find out more about Shawn or hire him (after he’s done with Spirit: The Cartographer Book 3) at http://www.stkkreations.com or you can just see some pretty artwork on Facebook at RAD :: Random Art of the Day.

Steel: The Cartographer Book 2 is on pre-order

Steel: The Cartographer Book 2 is on pre-order. Official release date is December 1st for eBook and Print. Audio will be recorded in early November, but it’s a bit of a wildcard when the sound editing and quality control will be finished. I’m expecting it sometime in early December, but can’t peg an exact date. As always, if you Just Can’t Wait, you can support me on Patreon and get Steel a couple of weeks before everyone else. Not even the wife gets that level of access…