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How to Describe Your World to an Artist

A guest post by Holly Heisey

So you’ve just finished your masterpiece. Maybe, like me, you focus on the story in the first few drafts and the world itself is a colorful blur. If an artist asked you right now to describe the feel of your world for your book cover, could you do it?

Or maybe you lead with description, your prose so gorgeous a reader could live in it. You know all the details of your world, and you can describe any object in a given room. But could you describe the visual feel of your world? Could you pare down the details?

As an artist, I work with authors all the time on distilling their visions into cover art. Most authors know their story well, and many have a good idea of what they’d like on their cover, but they often have a hard time translating those concepts into visual ideas. A visual representation of a story is a different medium than the story itself. A cover, unlike a summary, shouldn’t describe the world, but invite the reader into it.

So how do you translate the vision in your head for an artist?

First, gather reference. Artists love reference—it’s like gold for dragons. Have you ever dream-casted your novel or collected images that looked like places in your world? That will come in handy now. Try breaking your world into four categories: people, places, things, and ideas. Google image search, Pinterest, Behance, and Artstation are your friends. Gather photos and paintings of things that could inhabit your world. For the idea category, put in images that evoke the emotions, themes, or specific scenes in your story. Building the visual feel of your book is a lot like finding your novel’s theme as you write. You’ll know it when you start to see it.

Here’s an “idea” Pinterest board for one of my story projects:

The next step is research of a different sort. A lot of authors overlook market research, but it’s too important to skip! Your cover is an invitation, but it’s also like a secret visual code. Your cover, if targeted correctly, will tell a reader exactly the kind of story they’ll get in under two seconds. A good cover artist will know the market trends, but you should know them, too. You might give your artist a beautiful description of your world and they’ll make a beautiful cover, but if your novel is adult fantasy and it reads at a glance as contemporary YA, that’s a serious setback. You want to give yourself as much advantage in reader expectations and sales as you can.

The quickest and most targeted way I’ve found to do market research is to run two searches: the first in your book’s specific ebook categories on Amazon, and the second as a more general search on Goodreads. On Amazon, look at the current ebook bestseller listings for your specific categories. The ebook charts will give the truest feel of the indie market—you’ll see exactly the kinds of covers that are selling books right now. Some of these covers will be amazing, and some…not so amazing. But most of them will have pieces of the visual tropes—or code—for that genre.

As an example, if you’re writing space opera, bestselling books often have starships. Big, colorful, epic starships. Those that don’t are still colorful and epic, sometimes with characters in action. Lots of blue/green, lots of red/orange. Lots of shiny tech and lens flares. This is the genre code for space opera.

Save the covers you like and that are similar to the visual feel you discovered while gathering reference earlier. And once you have a few favorites, it’s a good idea to look them up on Goodreads and explore the “readers also enjoyed” links. This will open up your search to books published in the last five years and bring in more traditional publishing trends. Study these, too. Collect your favorites. But be careful not to collect more than a few covers from over five years ago, as chances are the trends will have changed.

Now that you know the visual feel of your book and the cover tropes of the audience you’re targeting, look again at the references you’ve gathered for the feel of your story world. What are the big things and recurring trends? What evokes the most emotion? Write these elements down in a list. Look at the genre covers you’ve just gathered. What are the genre codes you want to target? Write these elements down, too, and compare the lists. Where do they match up? What gives the stronger image? For example, if you have an urban fantasy with a cool fight scene in the forest, but most of the book takes place in the city and that will make the stronger marketing image, you’ll need to decide what best represents the book as a whole.Not everything needs to match up, and you don’t need to hit all of the genre cover tropes—it’s probably a good idea not to. You want your own twist on this, within the genre. Look for the things that will make your cover stand out. But keep in mind, too, that the tropes are a visual code that people will read, whether you send the right signals or the wrong ones. Make sure your ideas hit at least a few tropes in your genre.

When you’ve found the elements you like, describe them in detail. Break them again into people, places, things, and ideas, and describe every detail of your main character or characters (physical appearance, clothing, emotional and mental states), the strongest places and most interesting settings, any objects or effects the characters or places might need, and any other cool things that might help convey the emotional feel. If the genre you’re targeting has covers that tend more toward abstract design than characters or scenery, still describe it all, paying particular attention to props and emotions. Include some of the reference pics you’ve gathered for each category, and some of your favorite covers that are similar to what you’d like for your book.

And that’s it. You now have a solid page or two of workable details and visual guides to take to an artist, who can help you hone your vision from there. This is a great process to do if you’re self-publishing, but I think it’s valuable for authors aiming at traditional publishing as well. You’ll know exactly how to describe your world to anyone who asks. And you’ll know your world better for yourself, which is the true gold.



About the Author:

Holly Heisey is an author, illustrator, and designer with a love of spaceships and a tendency to quote Monty Python. They’ve had stories in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Clockwork Phoenix 5, and Escape Pod, and have designed and illustrated for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Future Chronicles anthology series, and USA Today and Amazon.com bestselling authors. Holly lives in Arizona with their pet cacti, enjoying the heat and plotting to take over the world.

You can find Holly at http://hollyheiseydesign.com, on Instagram @hollyheiseydesign, and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/hollyheiseydesign/


From an Artist’s Point of View

A guest post by Suzanne Helmigh.

CaldyraTwo Aliens walked into a bar,one an author and one an artist.The author alien makes his order:”Could you serve me a smooth but strong beverage that will burn like gentle oil from Neptune as it slides through my throat?” The artist alien orders, “I’d like that purple stuff with the bubbles, can I get it in one of those spiral glasses with the sugar coating?” 

Many of my artist friends and I share similar experiences when it comes to working with authors on their book covers. It seems like misunderstandings or misinterpretations are a common problem, because we simply have different ways of describing things. Both authors and artists are creative people, though one thinks in words and the other thinks in imagery.

Authors tend to over-detail their descriptions, but the artist simply needs a still/fraction of the story, as if putting a movie on pause. Often, the artist gets more information than needed, which can make their vision of the image cloudy.

An artist only needs 3 things.

  • The synopsis of your story.
  • A movie frame instance for the cover. (If it portrays a scene/keymoment.)
  • Physical description of the main object or person.

When you’ve worked on a story for a long time, it becomes dear to you. Artists make stories,too, yet they rarely get portrayed into words, so we understand how precious specific details can get. You’ve had times where you share a quick run of your story to a non-creative friend,but they drown in the details and enthusiasm of your world, loosing the plot line because they’re simply not experienced with keeping track of such things. It’s like explaining to my mother how Skype works; she’ll get parts of it, yet still tries to video-call me over Facebook.

My point with this: when you make your idea for the book cover clear to the artist, treat them like you would treat that non-creative friend or I would treat my mother about Skype. Spare them the copious amounts of detail and keep it limited to a simple synopsis, spoilers included (so a little different from the back blurb of a book.)

The next thing the artist needs is the “movieframe”.

Maybe it’s just me, as I’ve done film school and my first passion towards drawing came from wanting to become a story-boarder for films. Though most artists I know do seem to work with the same method, a simple list:

  • Who: (What object or character is the main element and or side elements.)
  • What: (What is going on??)
  • Where: (Where are they, small description of the environment.)
  • When: (This is needed for lighting; colors are different during sunset than at noon. If it’s an interior scene, simply describe what the light source is. candle light- neonlight… you see my point?)

Now the character portrayed or the object needs some description, too. We don’t need to know about the person’s history or the fact he/she is a bird lover, unless it clearly shows by all the feathers in their outfit. Let me show you a sample of a character we probably all know, and explain what’s relevant and what’s not.

  • Aragorn (Lord of the Rings.)
  • Middle aged. Rugged by living outdoors. Adventurer. Dark hair, blue eyes, Caucasian.
  • Carries sword and elvish necklace. Color scheme of clothing matches nature.
  • He’s a hero, traveler, calm and mysterious.

That’s all an artist needs. Even though we know Aragorn is actually 87 years of age, it has no relevance as he looks in his 40’s because he’s a Dunedine. Dunedine? The artist probably has no clue about any race/type/planet/order/organization names you mention, so simply don’t. He has the elvish necklace from Arwen which contains her immortality, not something of relevance for the image unless, of course, the image is a portrait of his head and shoulders and the necklace becomes a center piece. Though an image of Aragorn wielding his sword against a bunch of Orcs makes the source of the necklace far from relevant. The less items are shown in an image, the less we need to know about its details.

The big “Don’ts”.

Naming fictional elements such as races/types/planets/orders/organisations etc. When you say “Vera is a half Funderon and half human…” we have no idea how to image that. When you say, “Vera looks like a human but with rabbit ears and a flat rabbit- like face,” that brings us much closer to the visual appearance.

Don’t send the artist pages of the book unless they ask for it.Sometimes 1 page can be fine if it perfectly portrays the scene for the cover. Though, I’ve had entire chapters with highlighted portions before, and it’s one of those drown-in-the-details moments.Suddenly sneaking into a movie in the cinema midway through, and then leaving after 15 minutes, will make you very confused about the story.

Please don’t get too nit-picky about the tiniest points. The last thing an artist wants is to become a machine that loses their own vision and simply copies. The 3 different eye colors of the octo-alien in the distance really won’t be bigger than a pixel.

Another helpful thing: send the artist imagerythey can use. Maybe you fancy the look of a certain actor or you’ve seen a lasergun that really comes close to the style you’d like. Heck, you can even make a mood-board! It will only help the artist’s vision match yours better, presenting it to them in a form they understand.

I hope this will help you communicate with your artists. I’m curious to read your point of view as a writer so I can better understand you as well.

Suzanne HelmighSuzanne Helmigh Bio:

At 24 years old, Suzanne Helmigh is a professional artist who went from film to concept art and illustration. She always wrote stories as a hobby, but found her words get lost compared to her ability to create images.

Currently, she’s working on an Artbook titled Caldyra, which will show a story portrayed into illustrations and key element concept designs–a bit of a mix between a graphic novel without words and a concept art book for animation or games. You can have a look at her Facebook fan page and let her know what you think!