Saturday, January 27, 2018

Zoe Grey Novella: The Making of the Cover

Zoe Grey Novella Rookie: The Making of the Cover

As many of you know, Sabrina, my dear friend and exceptionally talented photographer, moved from Colorado to Texas several years ago. Sabrina took the photos for the cover for the first book I ever published, and thus began a wonderful and very successful endeavor. We’ve done four book covers, two novella covers, and two boxed set images since.

Here are the first three stunning book covers:

Book 1 - original cover (left) and updated cover (right)

Book 2 - original and updated

Book 3 - original and updated

The Novellas

Rookie (Zoe Grey 1.5)

Guardian (Zoe Grey 3.5)

Novella cover needed

The first novella I released came up kind of quickly. I had never planned to write any short stories as part of the Zoe Grey series, so I’d never given much thought to it—and I’d certainly never thought about a cover. For several reasons, the idea of a novella became a serious consideration in early November 2015. When it became obvious to me the story would come together and be publishable, it became equally obvious I would need a cover.

Someday, I sincerely hope to become a jetsetter, someone who can just hop on a plane and fly any place that is needed, for inspiration or for other reasons, say to shoot a book cover. But as that time has not yet arrived, there was no way for me to reach my beloved photographer. This left me in a bit of a bind.

I spent a week scouring the internet looking for images to buy, anything that would even remotely work for the story the novella had become. I can’t even begin to count how many images I looked at—thousands, tens of thousands, maybe; I looked until my eyes crossed and my brain couldn’t tell the difference between them anymore. I ran out of ideas to search, and places to search them. To be sure, I found a lot of really cool images; there are some very talented folks out there. But none were right for my story. None were right for Zoe Grey.

Two Problems

The issue of the novella also raised questions I hadn’t considered before. Chiefly: What to do about the titles? What to put on the cover?

When I chose the title sequence for this series, I did so with the thought in mind that it would allow me to be consistent throughout the series, and that it left a lot of options, so it would see the series through quite a ways. Nothing would be worse than to start a series title sequence and then run out of title options before the last book was written. What to do then?

But I’d never considered between-the-novel story titles, because I never thought there would be any stories apart from the novels themselves. So now I had a title problem.

Second, I had no idea what to put on the cover. When I began to conceptualize the first book cover, I knew I wanted to have a man on the front. I don’t know why, and this even seemed counterintuitive, because my books have a female protagonist—and are told in the first person, no less! But I was very set on it being a man. So the idea evolved into the man being the bad guy. I begged and coerced my dear brother into modeling and voilĂ , a cover was born.

Now we had a pattern we could stick to. For book two, the “bad guys” were a male and female double act, so my wonderful and never shy friend Nancy instantly agreed to model. (She has made me swear a blood oath that should Zoe Grey ever come to film, a part for her will be written into the contract.) Finding a male model was a bit more challenging. I knew only that I wanted him to be taller than Nancy. Apart from that, I’d take anyone willing. My brother was not, and this time, no amount of bribery or begging would suffice. So we spread the word, and it was a true blessing that Patrick, a wonderful, long-time friend of the family agreed.

In book three, I was once again dealing with a male and female bad guy duo, so when it came time to shoot the cover, I called on Nancy and Patrick once more. Bless their hearts, they both agreed, even after the grueling experience that was the last photoshoot. No, securing a venue was by far the most challenging part of shooting cover number three.

For the fourth cover, which we’ve already shot, we were again able to stick to the pattern of putting the bad guy on the cover. And that is all I’ll say about cover number four for now. I lied. I’ll add one more thing: the photos are stunning. This cover has the potential to be my favorite. I can’t wait to show it to you!

But wait we must. So let’s get back to the novella.

What to put on the front? Do I stick with the pattern of putting bad guys on the cover? Do I put someone else on the front? The protagonist? Maybe the victim? No one at all? If I use a person, do I go for another silhouette, as is the pattern of the other covers?

I eventually realized I wanted to break pattern with the title. “The Trouble with . . .” pattern just didn’t seem to fit the novella. And I wanted to differentiate the novellas from the full-length novels. So I still had no idea what to title it, only what it wouldn’t be. In eliminating the pattern title, I also eliminated the idea of a silhouetted bad guy on the cover.

Enter Zoe Grey 

It took quite a while to finally decide to go for a black and white image, to put Zoe Grey on the front, and how to pose her. It took even longer to come up with the title, which will form a new pattern for the mid-series novellas.

Deciding what to put on the cover wasn’t even really the hard part, because now I needed to get the image. With my trusted photographer in Texas, which, incidentally, was where my female model was at the time, too, I was left with few options. If I were already the jetsetter I want to be, I would have just flown down to Sabrina and flown Nancy over to meet us.

The realistic options were to hire another photographer or—deep breath—take the photos myself. I did seriously consider the photographer option, but where to find one? And then it would be like starting over, trying to impart all the things Sabrina and I have learned along the way . . . And the few I did find either couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide me with any samples of their work—huge red flag—or else didn’t have work I really liked. I’ve said it a thousand times, because it’s the simple truth. There is something about Sabrina’s photos. Not being an art person myself, I can’t even put my finger on it, but I know I’m not alone; all of us who have seen her work, and especially those who have been the subject of her work, agree on this point. She just takes wonderful photos.

So I knew there was really only one thing for it. I needed to try taking the photos myself. So much easier said than done!

An Experiment

First I called Sabrina to make sure she felt like she could edit any photos someone else (me) might take and then insert them in the template she'd developed for this series. To my surprise, she was relieved to learn I planned to take the photos! Either she had unfounded faith in me, or it is more difficult to edit another (read: real) photographer’s work.

Second, I needed a venue, and, more importantly, a model. I knew I needed a female, and with Nancy gone the way of Sabrina, I wasn't sure where to turn. And I didn't have a lot of time. Thank heaven for family. I called my new sister-in-law, pitched the model idea, and she was in. I stressed the entire exercise would be an experiment, that I had no idea what I was doing, and that modeling is a tedious and mind-numbing experience. She agreed anyway. Bless her. 

The Prep

I took about fifty practice shots at home in preparation, none of which turned out. 

I will totally admit I kinda forgot that any image could be turned into a black and white image, so I had it in my head it needed to be dark. Don't ask me. Looking back, it made no sense. 

So I dragged my very patient and not terribly photogenic dog with me and started in this hallway. It leads to a storage area in my basement and is nearly pitch black when the door's shut. I do think the long hallway makes for a cool shot, but only now that I'm looking back. At the time, all I thought was "too much light! There's too much light!"


So I tried turning off the flash and opening the door for some backlight. (Jack was totally over it by now, and we're only about two minutes in. Poor guy.) But of course this only got me closer to the silhouette I didn't want.

So no flash, closed door. That just got me all black. Then I thought, "Well, I need light from somewhere. Oh! Spotlight!" 

I kind of like this concept, but it's obviously poorly executed here, and not what I was going for. So then I thought maybe the problem was the subject was too low. I'm serious, I considered this as real possibility. Light? What? No, the problem is clearly that the dog is sitting on the floor. 

So I took our little experiment upstairs into this room, which has blackout curtains. I dragged this kennel in here for height, then used this fall scarecrow as a model. Anyway, this is with the room completely dark and a flash. Well, of course, that's just too bright.

Next I tried the spotlight thing again. Why? I don't know. It didn't work in the basement, so I have no idea why I thought it might possibly work in this room. Oh, yeah, because I raised the subject up off the floor. That's right.

I still wasn't getting what I wanted, and I was beginning to catch on to the idea it had to do with the light. So I tried a couple of filters over the light source. Sabrina has had good luck with this before (cover three is a prime example) so I decided to give it a try here. Closer maybe, but still no cigar.


Finally, I got wise and asked the expert for advice. Sabrina's text: “A balanced light will give a more balanced scene.” Right. What the hell does that mean? She clarified: “Don’t have too many hot spots (bright light) or anything too dark.” She further advised I worry more about spacing than lighting.

As you may have noticed, I didn't take spacing into account for one instant in any photo I'd shot up to this point. On the one hand, when my mind did touch on that idea, I quickly pushed it aside telling myself the focus was to get the lighting right. Once the light was right, then I'd worry about spacing.

One thing to note here: I didn't actually look at any of these photos in black and white prior to the actual photoshoot. Looking at them now in black and white beside the original images, it's pretty easy to see which ones had me closer to my goal. And, of course, those were the ones in which the light was balanced, whether it was high- or low-light. I shouldn't even own a camera. It's ridiculous.

The First Photoshoot

Yes, the first, meaning there was more than one. Oh, my poor sister-in-law. Lauren, you're a wonderful person with a benevolent soul. Thank you.

In case there was any question that I was not qualified to be taking these photos, it became apparent here. Even after Sabrina's advice, I was still so focused on the light! Background? Spacing? Positioning? Pfft. No. Light! The light has to be right!

One of the first photos I shot:

So, I kind of do like the shadow, but what a terrible photo! Ugh. 

Here we were getting one of those hotspots Sabrina warned against. I think this happened because I'd moved the camera. 

Then we occasionally got these reddish images. When this happened, all I did was move the camera a few centimeters. Nothing about the light changed. It was kind of a cool phenomenon. And, I found out later, these reddish images turn out okay in black and white.

My camera doesn't have a setting for black and white. Or if it does, it's pretty well hidden. So I took a few photos with my phone. Once I saw the photos would look okay in black and white (Sabrina was right about the light!), we finally turned our attention to the pose and positioning. 

Which pose to choose?

Handcuffs out?
 Handcuffs back? Weight on right hip?
 Weight on left hip?
 Handcuffs dangling?

No gun?
Gun on hip?

Gun behind back?
 Maybe like this?
What about a white shirt?
 How about some glint off the cuffs?
 Maybe less glint.
Hair up?
 Hair down?
We need a black background!

Four Hundred Photos

The first night, we got nearly three hundred photos. Most of them weren't useable, and no one, including you, is surprised by that.

I wish I'd realized the problem with the background sooner. Some of my favorite shots are on the door and white wall. Once we figured that out, we threw up a blanket. With Lauren standing on the floor, I couldn't get the shot without the edges of the backdrop visible. So we had her stand on the milk crate I keep all my photoshoot lights in. Those were better, but she looked slightly awkward, as if she wasn't sure of her feet. And I'm sure she wasn't. That crate probably didn't feel too steady.

Trooper that she is, she agreed to let me come back. So I hung sheets on the wall and used the blanket on the floor. This gave us more room to work with and allowed Lauren to keep her feet on the ground.

In total, we had over four hundred photos. All of the photos that came under serious consideration were from the second shoot.

Ultimately, we narrowed it down to these:

Sabrina went to work, did her magic to fix what I'd given her, and then we had these three:

Zoe Grey is Born

A new pattern has been established. The mid-series novellas will feature Zoe Grey on the cover, and they will be black and white. And my dear sister-in-law, the doll, has agreed to take up this mantel. She makes a fantastic Zoe Grey. I can't thank her enough. I do hope one day she can experience a photoshoot with a real professional, though. 

Bottom line? I do not have a future as a photographer.

Sabrina, when are you and your husband moving back to Colorado . . . ?

Rookie: A Zoe Grey Novella

If you haven't had a chance to download the novella, you can do that here. It's totally free, and can be downloaded onto any eReader you use.

The second Zoe Grey novella, Guardian, is also available for download. That cover was much easier. We just pulled a salvageable photo and Sabrina worked her magic. 

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