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.