Sparked by Words

I is for Inside the Covers

Book covers are important. They are the introduction to your book (This here cover may be a bit of visual schtick but you’re gonna love the actual performance – open up) and the invitation to your potential reader (The Author Invites You to Attend This Splendid Affair.) If you can’t do the art or photography yourself, find someone who can. Someone good – creative, imaginative, technically brilliant, and experienced. This post isn’t about book covers, however, but about what’s inside. If there’s something that really snags at a reader’s craw, it’s an intriguing book cover plastered over a story as feeble as dryer lint. Turns them off that author forever.

Whatever your genre, you must develop a tale worth reading, and it will usually involve someone a bit out of their mind or a time frame in which the world tilted out of orbit or a bizarre situation. Ordinary events that fill your daily journal entries aren’t the stuff of which books are made, so leave that for personal reminisces and create an unexpected world to investigate.

Coming of age stories fill book shelves, sometimes mirroring our own lives, sometimes reminding us how lucky we are. Janet Fitch’s White Oleander begins with a young girl named Astrid and her single mother.  At the outset of the book, the family situation presents as fairly ordinary until the self-centered mother becomes enraged over a boyfriend’s behavior. Even this isn’t particularly unusual in modern American life, but the mother’s response is. She kills her lover with a dose of poisonous oleander and is arrested for murder, tried, and imprisoned. Astrid is subsequently dumped into a series of foster care homes that force her to deal with increasingly abusive situations. What begins as a garden variety single family home life quickly dissolves into unpredictable and chaotic circumstances. The story amplifies the strained relationship between mother and daughter and exposes the murky territory of the foster care system. Readers bond with young Astrid, sympathizing with the tumultuous, violent, and indifferent world she learns to navigate and survive. Between the book’s covers the plot takes risks to explore difficult social territory.

Love stories are a staple of book plots and often boringly predictable. Not so the love story in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.  Its transcendent circumstances lift its characters well beyond the bonds of earth’s chronological orbit and launch them into a world where calendars can’t determine time, and presence in one year can’t predict linear continuity. The book follows the relationship of Clare and Henry, a couple who barely stay in touch with each other physically yet remain loyal and infatuated with each other forever. Nothing in this world or outside of it will ever interrupt the love that binds them, not even Henry’s inability to remain in his wife’s presence for any length of time. Anyone who has ever felt the despair of betrayal or of a broken relationship is moved by the endurance of Henry and Clare’s love, he who meanders in and out of their lives, she who waits devotedly. No one will experience Henry’s genetic disorder that forces the time traveling, but all of us have felt the depth of the couple’s passion. Between the book’s covers is a soaring romance twisted inside a freakish yet compelling storyline.

Historical fiction sets its fictional characters in an authentic historical moment, and in inexpert hands can slog through the history or muddle its characters. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet plumbs 18th century feudal Japan during the period when the Dutch East India Company cornered the market on Asian goods and built its power by trading with eager Europeans. A righteous and rigid bookkeeper, Jacob de Zoet becomes involved in the subtle, complex, and corrupt dealings of the two cultures. He expects to make his fortune in Japan and return to Holland in five years to engage a predictable life with his Dutch fiancée. Attempting to correct the company’s dishonest business dealings, de Zoet is sidetracked by the allure of a Japanese dignitary’s daughter. Inter-company betrayal, political machinations, and attraction to a forbidden woman bind him for decades to Japan. Mitchell’s well crafted story engages readers with an intimate response to a panoramic episode every teenager studied in high school history classes. Between the book’s covers is a sensory bounty and a wealth of descriptive historical detail that was about two dry paragraphs in the textbook.

Context, complexity, and imagination are the bricks of good storytelling. A thousand other books could have been selected as examples of craftsmanship and style. Read your choices with an eye to discovery in order to improve your writing skill. Book covers may be made of rigid cardboard or the stiff plastic of an E-reader, but your story must explode with the excitement of uncommon moments and struggling characters. Nobody wants to read about the ordinary. Everyone wants to read about that which is wondrous. Between the covers of your book must be an uncommon story. Write that one.

Comments on: "I is for Inside the Covers" (16)

  1. “….and it will usually involve someone a bit out of their mind.” Love it. So very true. The art of the written word…painful at times. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂


    • Hi Audrey,
      I’ve long believed that the best writers feel much – pain, joy, grief, exuberance, anticipation, even boredom. It’s their skill at sensing the personal and making it universally intimate that makes them the best. I’m not afraid to feel, even pain, because I know I’m alive and receptive. And from reading your blog (and enjoying your insights) I know you function much the same.


      • Hi! I agree and find strength in reading your reminder, Sharon. I envy the way you choose your words.

        Often times the vunerability can keep me from writing what I truly feel needs to be said, for fear of hurting another person. I need the reminder that, even when hard, the emotions that come through me can change the reader’s perspective forever, hopefully in a good way, if they allow it.

        It’s much harder for me to write fiction. I find it’s like playing, the creative side has to come through. I often times keep those emotions too close to the chest. Living in a playful creative world is appealing to me, so I try and try again.


      • I think many people deal with this – saying what needs to be said without identifying anyone. Maybe that’s the way to do it: write about the situation but don’t use any names. That way you can validate your feelings without hurting someone else.
        I like writing fiction because I can do exactly that in a hidden way. At times, I’ve apologized in the same way, and that felt good. To be able to confess without stating specifics or by changing enough facts that “real” is secreted in “imaginary.” It allows me to forgive myself for things that otherwise nag my heart.
        You could also keep a journal and make it something that no one else ever sees. The old fashioned locked diary has its uses.
        I sense a lot of goodness in you – strive to recognize that – it’s your best defense against anyone who hurts you.
        Take care,


      • You are most welcome – hope you are feeling more optimistic.


  2. Speaking of book covers, don’t you ever think they are sometimes too far apart?


    • Ha ha ha ha ha – that is really funny!
      I’m probably guilty but have been working hard to cull the chaff. Course, I don’t actually have the book covers yet…..

      Are you back from your event? Sunday night, I guess you would be. Can’t wait to hear what you’ve learned.


  3. You know how they say never judge a book by its cover? Sad but true but I think they might have been wrong. Still looking for a cover that might work for me, Then again, I’m still looking for anything to work for me in increasing my (non) sales 😉


    • Irene, welcome and thank you for following my blog.

      Book covers are a reader’s first moment with a story, and potential readers size up the goods by what they see on that cover. They judge what they think is the genre, the quality of writing, how much they perceive they might become engaged by the story. Kind of like kids at a dance making on the spot decisions about whether that other kid is worthy of a spin on the dance floor, readers see the cover as part of the choice about whether to buy that book and must make an on the spot decision. There are other reasons that readers buy, and often they know in advance their intentions based on reviews or past experiences with that writer. But the whole publishing industry is so different from just a decade ago, and this difference has impacted the way books are now promoted – or not. I don’t know much about generating sales in this new era but there are lots of articles on the web and many books that suggest ways writers can publicize their work. I suspect that none of them will hands down get readers to buy your book, and you may have to do a combo of things to help sales. You might try seeing what has worked for other published writers. Maybe you could then adapt their approaches for your book. That might even include a new cover. I certainly wish you success.


  4. Unfortunately I am disappointed by a lot of book covers, too often they don’t mirror what’s inside and seem to be more about making an impression in the store. Which can make a bookshop the kind of place you need to go into wearing sunglasses! SD


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