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Writer Julie Metz offers some hard-won advice:

Like many of you, I am working on a new writing project, a novel. What made me think I could do this, anyway? But here I am, too far in to let go, committed to my characters. Some days are thrilling, but lately I often find myself stuck, wondering how I will push out the next sentence.

My first book, published last year, was a memoir titled Perfection. The great thing about writing a memoir is that you know the story; the art is in the writing. With fiction one has that same challenge but in addition the pesky problem of not really knowing where it’s all going to end, or, for that matter, what’s happening in the beginning or middle either.

So here’s what keeps me going on the dark writing days:

1.  Reading a very good novel. At first, as I am reading the very good novel, I’m filled with self-loathing and fear of failure. Wow, this book is so effing amazing, I’ll never be able to write anything like this! But then I relax and begin to enjoy and finally adore the world the author has created, and to see that we all can create our own worlds. I won’t be writing a novel about the day a tightrope walker crossed the space between the World Trade Towers, but I might be able to write a good book about something else. Like a demanding but inspiring teacher, a good book elevates my day-to-day language and my life.

2.  Exercise. While I might tell myself that I don’t have time to take care of my body, because I should be busy writing, taking time to keep fit helps my mind work so much better.  I have begun the year with frequent trips to the gym, which I hope will help me through the winter doldrums. It’s a cliché that our body is our home.  Right now I feel like my body is my home office. If I can keep it clean and tidy, there is room for clearer thinking and perhaps some inspiration.

3. Accidental moments of insight. Just when I think it can’t get worse, that I’ll never write a decent sentence again, that my first book was a weird fluke and now I am doomed, doomed, doomed to utter failure, I’ll have some odd revelatory moment about my story and characters. Often it’s feedback from one of my readers that I have been resisting (grumpily), but suddenly realize is fantastically clear and true. Other times there’ll be some small moment out in the world, a scene at the grocery store or an encounter with a friend in my neighborhood, that allows me to understand a character or scene. These moments help me clarify a point, and then I can move on. Not at the pace I wish, but I move on nonetheless.

Julie Metz, a memoirist, book designer, and soon-to-be novelist, is a frequent contributor to this blog.

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WNBA-NY-October-2009From left to right: Rosalind Reisner (co-moderator), C.M. Mayo, Julie Metz, Eva Hoffman, Christina Baker Kline, Roxana Robinson, and Miriam Tuliao (co-moderator).

This month I was privileged to be on the Women’s National Book Association panel in celebration of National Reading Group Month.  On her lively blog, “A Reader’s Place,” Rosalind Reisner gives the full report.  She talks about my new novel, Bird in Hand, as well as recent works by Roxana Robinson (Cost), Eva Hoffman (Apassionata), Julie Metz (Perfection), and C.M. Mayo (The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire).   It was an honor to be in a room full of people who are passionate about books; as much as I enjoyed talking about my own novel, I was even happier to listen to the other writers talk about their work.

And here’s what Marian Schembari has to say about this extraordinary evening over at Marian Librarian.

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Earlier this week I posted Part 1 of this conversation with book designer Julie Metz on what makes a successful cover.  Here’s the rest.

What should writers know about how to get their ideas across to a book designer? Writers who have labored over their books for years might be horrified to know that designers do not always have an opportunity to read their manuscripts before designing the cover. This is a result of scheduling and the sheer volume of work required of art departments. I often think it would be helpful to have authors write a short description of their book, not like the teaser ad copy we designers get on tip sheets, but a true synopsis that also identifies recurring imagery and themes. Writers are in the word business, but designers are in the image business. The author knows what her own images and themes are better than anyone else. That said, once those ideas have been successfully communicated, designers love to have the freedom to work with those ideas in ways that might surprise and delight an open-minded author.

david sedarisCan you give examples of some book covers you particularly like? Just a very few of the smart, clever covers I personally admire include all of David Sedaris, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Nabokov’s Short Stories, J.M. Coetzee’s all-white novels (stark, spare, just like his writing).  I have a small but cherished collection of book covers designed by greats like Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. And then there are classics like Catch-22.  The original cover design still looks modern and eye-catching.

birds of americaNabokovCoetzeeCatch-22

chick lit

Women writers I know sometimes lament that publishers want to make their book covers too “chick litty” — that is, ultra-feminine, with soft colors and pretty-pretty designs.  Publishers counter that they want to sell books.  What do you think of this ongoing debate? A huge proportion of book buyers are women, so it certainly makes sense for publishers and booksellers to market to this audience, though at times it seems as if books are being packaged like cosmetics. I have designed my share of true chick-lit covers! Some books clearly fit right in to this category of light entertainment and are well served by light and bright (and pink!) packaging.  It’s too bad when a more literary novel ends up too pink and perky. So I can imagine that many women authors feel that the marketplace is dumbing down their work.

What makes a bad book cover? Too much cleverness can confuse book buyers.  Cluttered or just plain ugly turns them away.  Bland, tired, clichéd – ditto.

Have you ever had an author who vehemently didn’t like a cover you designed?  If so, who won that battle, and why? Over the course of twenty working years, that scenario has happened at least a dozen times. My job is to be resilient in the face of rejection, not get too attached to my work, and remember that I am in a service industry! Once, many years ago, an author and editor killed a job I designed that the art director and I loved. “An award winner,” he said (we graphic designers live for those awards). I hung up the phone and cried. After I calmed down, I decided that it was time to grow a tougher skin, and I did. Another time I was called in to meet with a very famous author (who shall remain nameless) who spoke rudely about our efforts to create a cover for one of his novels. I grew even thicker skin. Now I try to cultivate some Buddhist-style detachment: I do my very best work and then release it to my client. I try to have a good attitude, and I try to make my art director’s job easy.

How important do you think a book cover is, ultimately, to the success of a book? In this era, marketing and packaging are extremely important. The cover needs to be strong enough so that when it appears at the size of a postage stamp in a magazine or online review it will still have some impact. But the truth is that while a bad cover may harm sales of a worthy book, and a great cover can help sales of a good book, a great cover will not sell a bad book.


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The inside scoop on what makes a successful book cover – and why it matters.

Several weeks ago I wrote about the jacket cover for my new novel, Bird in Hand.  So many people responded with stories about their own covers, and questions about the process, that I asked Julie Metz, a book designer who has worked with all the major publishers (and who also recently wrote a memoir, Perfection) to weigh in.  We talked about how she designs covers, what kinds of covers are most successful, and what writers should know about how to get the covers they want.  (Part 2 of this conversation will run later this week.)

Thanks for joining us, Julie.  How do you approach the process of designing a book cover? First I try to get hold of a manuscript.  If this isn’t possible I settle for a tip sheet or an outline. Editors often provide useful information such as competitive titles in the marketplace, and occasionally I’ll be sent an author questionnaire. I try to factor in all these influences before I begin, then take a deep breath. Every project is a journey.

little childrenI read a piece the other day about how the cover for Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children spawned a dozen or so similar ones.  As a designer, do you consciously try to avoid colors, motifs, or trends that seem popular in a given moment, or do you embrace them? Trends are out there in the world, like the latest styles of shoes or jeans, so as a visual person you take them in whether you realize it or not.  Sometimes I embrace the trends, or am asked to embrace them, or rebel and reject them.  A book cover is essentially packaging, and as we all know, packaging is more important than ever.  It’s important to find a way to signal to the book buyer where this new title fits in, or, if it is truly original, that it doesn’t fit into any neat category.

What are some of your own most meaningful cover designs, and why? A good cover is a smart, clever idea executed in a way that is eye-catching.  It’s all about helping authors find readers – serving the content of the book in a way that will help a browser want to pick it up. You wouldn’t want to package the latest thriller the same way as this year’s big literary novel.  I have enjoyed working on spooky vampire gothic novels as much as I have enjoyed designing the cover for a terrific novel or poetry collection.

Here are a few examples, and the stories behind them:

The Dracula DossierThe Dracula Dossier is a fun read, and the cover was fun to design.  The challenge was putting together pieces from several images to make it all look like one universe.  The story takes place in London during the time of Jack the Ripper, and the theater plays a big part in the story. I think the curtain adds mystery and some information for the reader about the setting.

word comix 2The poems in Charlie Smith’s Word Comix are engaging and full of fantastic imagery, and I wanted to treat the cover as if the book were a novel.  The author suggested the Western element, and when I found this picture I knew my work was done.  I added some elements to give it a more gravity-defying feel.  I love doing hand-lettering whenever I can get away with it.

Pound coverWe designers live for the AIGA “50 covers 50 books” show, and I am proud that this Ezra Pound cover won a spot in the show.  As I mentioned, I love doing hand-lettering – and it seemed so appropriate for this collection of correspondence. I tried to give it an edgy, desperate feeling.

inheritanceBIGI hired a picture researcher to help me with the cover for Inheritance.  She had a friend whose mother had grown up in China at the right time, and there were family photos.  We did some hand-coloring, and I tried to channel my inner calligrapher.

The RomanticThe title of Barbara Gowdy’s novel The Romantic is somewhat ironic, so I wanted to find an image that showed the edgier, sharper side of love.

What’s your most “successful” cover? The Poisonwood BibleA book cover I wish I had been paid royalties for, because it has withstood the test of time:  The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.  When the art director assigned the job, he said that the mission was to take the author out of what might be called “genre” fiction to something wider.  I read the book and loved it.  I purchased Bible paper and organized a photo shoot to create the book for the background. I chose elegant, classic type, as we all saw this novel as a modern classic. But the cover was still missing something.  At 2 am (this was long before I had a baby, and my freelancer hours were night-owlish), I was fretting over the design in progress. My then-husband said he felt it needed a human element.

I began thinking about the story, about how these five hapless Americans in the missionary family that narrate the novel might be seen by the indigenous people of the Congo, where the story takes place. I found a great book on art of the Congo and noted that they created wonderful drawings using stick figures that, even in their simplicity, revealed so much about character.  Inspired by this artwork, I created five stick figures of my own.  My art director, Joseph Montebello, loved the design and fought hard to get it approved. I think the cover really did help the book succeed. It’s a great book and would have been successful anyway, but I like to think that the successful packaging made a difference.

Metz, PERFECTIONWas it harder or easier than usual to design your own book cover?It was harder! I felt like I had so much on the line. I wrote a piece about this for the May 25, 2009 edition of Publishers Weekly titled “Double Duty,” a title that accurately sums up the emotions I experienced as I worked on the cover.

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Metz, PERFECTIONThe memoirist Julie Metz, who is now working on a novel, writes:

When I wrote my memoir, Perfection, the story of my discovery of my husband’s secret life only after his sudden death, my focus was on careful recall aided by journals and letters.  And yet, since I love reading fiction, I wanted my memoir to “read” like a novel.  After many failed attempts, I found a structure for the factual narrative that allowed me to recapture my own state of mind at the moment of my husband’s death and the early months of widowhood.  The primary inspiration for my book was the fictional memoir Jane Eyre, in which an innocent narrator’s life is changed by a devastating revelation.

During this last year, while Perfection was in the final stages of publication, I began working on a new project, a novel.  I am finding it to be a very different process.  I began with a snippet of a story I’d been kicking around in my head for years, but as I got into the project in a deep way, the original story fell away as the characters became more vivid. Very little remains of the original idea except for locations and some back story.  The day I realized I had to quit forcing my original idea into the book was both sad and liberating. My attempts to direct the plot were those of a classroom bully who tries to force other kids to play by his or her rules. No one wants to play with a bully.

Now that I spend my days conjuring rather than exclusively researching my past, I frequently think of Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird: to focus not on plot but on character. I try to sit with my (mostly) made up characters and hope that if I am quiet and patient I will get to know them as well as the real people in my life, and that they will tell me what they need to do and say.

Julie Metz is a graphic designer (she co-designed the cover of her memoir), artist, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, Glamour, and Publisher’s Weekly. Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, is her first book.

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