Working with cover artists – part 2 – watching the cover evolve

In my guest blog for Lucy Hay on working with cover artists to get your self published book looking exciting and marketable, I talked about inspiring the artist and respecting their decisions.

In this blog I want to expand on where I did that well, and where I did that less well. Fortunately I ended up with great pieces of art in both cases, because of the talent of the cover artists. The process of reaching the eventual cover is important, because (a) you might want to work with that designer again, (b) how you approach the artist will influence the quality of work you get back, and (c) if you have a dispute or need more draft work done than expected, you need to have invested in the artist in advance so that they’re more willing to be flexible.

First, an example of where I approached the cover art commissioning process poorly.

Planetfall – Childhood’s End

I’m lucky to work with Rob Ellis of @moviessimple on the Planetfall covers. For the cover to book 1, I followed the rules properly – I gave Rob some key scenes and imagery from the book and gave him free rein. The image he came up with isn’t something I could have ever envisaged:


Planetfall: All Fall Down, final cover image, (c) Robert Ellis 2013

I think I only asked for one tweak to this image. Rob did an amazing job of interpreting what Planetfall: All Fall Down was centred around, and my fondness for graphic design and the scifi art of the 1960s and 70s, and came up with something that will stand the test of time in artistic terms.

When it came to the teaser story Childhood’s End, I had a pretty strong idea of what the cover “should” look like. And that’s the first and most fundamental mistake.

Instead of following my own advice, I told Rob that I wanted the cover to be one of two things. Either silhouettes of a mother and daughter boarding a spaceship, or a ship heading towards a wormhole. I’ll take you through the Powerpoint file I sent him so we can see what was good and where it went bad.


This is the first slide. This starts well. It simply sets out the inspiration for a key scene in the story, and helps set out a vision. The next slide is where I over-stepped the mark and turned into a dictator. I’ll show you why further down, but first I’ll continue sharing the Powerpoint slides to show how my mistake became compounded.


Yes, I put together a mock-up of a cover, outlining the colouring, positioning and design I wanted. This is far too dictatorial. I built on this mistake with these two slides:



We start here with another inspiration image, which wouldn’t be too bad if I hadn’t then produced another mock-up of a book cover below:

Now Rob being Rob was very nice and came back to me saying he felt the ship front cover was the stronger image. And so he set to work. And this is was his first draft.

planetfall childhood (1)

Planetfall: Childhood’s End draft cover image, (c) Robert Ellis 2014

This looks remarkably similar to the mock up I produced. And it’s not a strong enough image. And the reason for that? Because I dictated what I wanted it to look like. Rob did his best with a very narrow and overly-specified commission.

Fortunately we worked together to re-imagine this and work towards the eventual cover, which combines elements of the two ideas. And while the outcome is great, I know that for the cover to the next Planetfall book (“Children of Fall”) I’ll be stepping back and letting Rob design something from scratch. I will share some imagery that’s inspired me, and give him access to the book and key scenes, and that’s where I’ll stop, because that leads to a more productive and happy relationship.

Final image:

childhoods end FINAL1

Planetfall: Childhood’s End final cover image, (c) Robert Ellis 2014

Sympathy for the Devil

Suffice to say I learned from the mistakes I made on Childhood’s End, and went back to my original approach of simply inspiring the artist for Sympathy for the Devil.

Bodil Juline had an artistic style (which you can see here) which I felt really captured the tone of Sympathy – comic book, with elements of design and fun. For me, Sympathy for the Devil is a cartoon caper. It’s a little old lady being chased around London by demons and Margaret Thatcher. It has a serious message in it but it’s also utterly ridiculous, and I wanted that feeling of comic book fun to translate into the cover.

Let me take you through the imagery I shared with Bodil to help inspire her, and then the drafts she came back with and the feedback I gave.

Initial imagery I shared:

Black cat    evil-black-cat-tattoo-design

These were images for Sam the cat, to get a sense of his black evilness and his cartoon villainy.

These pics were images I’d looked at for Lucy, the main character:

Dot cotton 2

Fur cape

psychedelic dress

Lucy was always modelled a little bit on Dot Cotton from Eastenders, but I also wanted Lucy to be a little bit like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as if she’d just grown old but never really changed.

And a final few images:

custom pop art printed on canvas

custom pop art printed on canvas


Pink Panther

Here we have a picture of Margaret Thatcher, a major presence and character in the book – and whose styling Lucy emulates. And two pieces of art. First a Roy Lichtenstein for the pop-art element, and finally the 1960s cartoon styling in the Pink Panther advert. Note the elements similar to Holly Golightly – the cigarette holder and the upper class style.

The big issue here is that I didn’t give any comments about what the cover should look like. I simply shared the images I’d used, and the styles I liked.

So here’s the first draft cover that came back:


Sympathy for the Devil initial draft cover image, (c) 2015 Bodil Juline

Note how all the elements are drawn together.With this we could enter a more productive relationship of feedback and drafting. My first feedback centred around the following comments: could there be more contrast in the colours, and could we keep Lucy’s face more mysterious – following established advice that a face helps sell covers, but the whole face shouldn’t be shown. (This face is also, of course, Dot Cotton from Eastenders, so we had to find a way of disguising that slightly.)

Bodil came back with a couple of fresh drafts:


Sympathy for the Devil draft cover images, (c) 2015 Bodil Juline


Note the colour variations and the stronger use of Sam the cat, whose eyes draw you in.

We talked about the background and foreground colours, and went with this as the next draft. Here Lucy has lost her fur, because the artist felt it didn’t look right, so I went with her decision.

Sympathy almost final

Sympathy for the Devil penultimate draft of cover image, (c) 2015 Bodil Juline

This is almost finished. I shared this image with a friend who works in graphic design, who gave me two pieces of technical feedback. In the final image you’ll see that the font is slightly smaller, and Lucy has an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. Lucy’s upper face is missing, so we don’t have her eyes to work out what that enigmatic smile means. But we do have Sam’s eyes – and in the novel Sam is her familiar. So what we see on the front cover is now a clue to the book and Lucy’s character.

Here’s the final image:


Sympathy for the Devil final cover image, (c) 2015 Bodil Juline

Sympathy for the Devil – cover reveal & publication date

My new novel, Sympathy for the Devil, will be published on 10 September! Here’s the synopsis:

Margaret Thatcher has come back from the dead, and this time she’s got a challenger. Get ready for a fight for the Mother of All Parliaments. And her opponent?

68-year old Lucy is Margaret Thacher’s personal maid. When the former Prime Minister dies, Lucy suddenly finds herself with nothing to do and only a meagre pension to live on. But soon she’s thrust into a world of politics between a moribund Left Wing and a resurgent Far Right Wing. She must battle dragons, rent boys, dead clowns, symbols of a mythical pure England, and worst of all – ambitious politicians.

In the end, Lucy has to ask herself: will she save Britain from its own corrupt politicians? And will you want her to win?

Sympathy for the Devil is in equal parts comedy, fantastical tale of demons and rollicking action-adventure. The main character is a little old lady, Lucy, who is aided and abetted by her talking cat, Sam. Together they negotiate the perils of retirement while desperately trying not to face up to the truth: that Lucy, old, knackered, wrinkly, a drug addict and in desperate need of a nice sit down and a cup of tea, might just be the Antichrist.

To lead into publication, I am proud to reveal the cover art! It was put together by the very talented Bodil Juline, whose work you can view and buy on her etsy shop here:

Sympathy for the Devil will be available for pre-order on Kindle from 17 August, and released in paperback on 10 September. Tune in for more details about how to get your copy!

astro x

Writing update – marketing and editing

Finishing the first draft of a book is difficult. Doing it while trying to write a marketing plan for another book raises the stakes. Doing those while holding down a full time job puts it all in peril. And doing all of that while selling, buying and moving house and becoming a first-time father puts us in high stakes drama mode. So here I am – Planetfall 2 draft finished, a marketing plan for Sympathy for the Devil in development, bedrooms full of unpacked boxes and a 2 week old daughter in my arms.

One of the first lessons we learn as authors is that we have to make space for writing. We all do that differently. Some of us grab the spaces between other things and scribble like mad. Some of us eschew television or social engagements. Some of us rise early and dedicate an hour or so before our ‘normal’ day begins. And some of us may give ourselves two hours every Saturday and Sunday alone in a cafe to catch up on our writing. Whatever our approach, we do it because it’s important. Writing needs space, it needs dedication, and it needs its own time free from other distractions.

That lesson is even more important when a baby comes along. Babies don’t care about our approach to grabbing time for writing. Those two hours we normally have? Gone in bringing up baby’s wind. The social engagements we eschewed are no longer an option while we catch up with just 20 minutes of writing in-between changing nappies, putting the washing on, tidying up the kitchen and cooking a meal.

I’ve carried on writing throughout this tumultuous period and it’s been difficult and it’s also been necessary. Ever since 2008 I’ve planned my writing time, and now that’s really paying off with the following writing updates:

UPDATE – Planetfall 2: Children of Fall

I finished the first draft of PF2 in early June, amid a rush of writing as moving and birth date approached. I was really pleased with the first draft. It was structured and planned in much more detail than previous books, which meant when I came to write, I could rattle off a 5000-word chapter in a couple of days.

The first draft has already been to a beta-reader, and I now have an extensive list of re-writes. The most significant re-write will be around returning lead character Kate Leland, whose character I haven’t quite nailed. Returning characters are a little more difficult to get right, I think. I last wrote Kate in 2011, and in-between wrote Backpackers and Sympathy for the Devil. PF2 is also set 12 years later, and there needs to be clear character progression between the two books. Kate needs to ‘feel like’ Kate from All Fall Down, and she also needs to feel like she’s matured, and changed in response to her personal history. A returning reader should be able to tell they’re back with her and also recognise and ‘allow’ her to be and feel slightly different.

I’ve just completed my own read through of the first draft. The second half of the book I’m very happy with. The first half, or at least Kate’s first four chapters are going to be completely scrapped so that I can get her storyline and character right. There’s also work to do in bringing out the other returning characters who are only present in light brush-strokes at the moment (Djembe, Daoud). And there are character relationship issues between new characters (Swan, Stendahl) which need strengthening and made deeper.

Children of Fall was originally slated for a Christmas 2015 release. I think this is now looking unlikely. Even if I get a second draft written by October, I’ll still need to go through a 3rd and 4th draft and then let the book rest for a month or two before I can contemplate a final draft. Perhaps May 2016 would be more realistic?

By the way, I maintain a Facebook page for Planetfall, on which I also share news about science fictions films, books and other media. Please Like it for updates: – when Sympathy and the next PF book are published, there’ll be exclusive competitions on the page.

UPDATE – Sympathy for the Devil

To fill the release schedule left empty by Planetfall 2, I’ve got Sympathy for the Devil almost ready for publication. I was disappointed not to find representation for this book. Based on feedback from agents I know the quality of the book is at the right level for ‘formal’ publication. Unfortunately the book is satire, and the agents who sent personal responses (as opposed to template responses) said that publishing houses rarely pick up satire. This means it’s not worth their while putting effort into representation. Their time is money, and if there’s very little chance of publication, their time is wasted. I understand this, we all need an income. I’m also disappointed – it would be nice to have the book’s quality validated by industry recognition.

Onwards and upwards though! I’ve been extremely fortunate in working with a talented artist and now have cover art for the book. The design ethic is a departure from my previous book covers (Planetfall is a deliberate mix of scifi art and graphic design, Backpackers was self-designed with help on the lettering from Whitefire Designs), and I’ll be revealing some of the artwork on here in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, I’m waiting to get my new home wired up for broadband before I start any significant work on marketing the book. Before that I’m writing a proper marketing plan. This is a first for me – previously I’ve used marketing plan templates and taken bits and bobs from them as tips. This time I’m raising my game and putting together a proper action plan. Once it’s prepared I’ll share it for other writers to crib.

That’s all for now. I hope you’re writing is going well. Drop me a line here on  Twitter @astrotomato if you want to chat about any #amwriting issues.

astro x

Sympathy for the Devil – deleted material

I’ve had no luck finding representation for Sympathy for the Devil, so am moving ahead with self-publishing. Some very kind people are checking the text for typos, and I am working with a comic artist to produce the front cover.

In advance of its publication (possibly in August), here’s some deleted material.

The following passages bear no relation to the final story, except in that they eventually acted as background notes for a character in the book (who has a slightly different name). The text here centres on events in the north east of England in the 1980s, during the miners’ strikes.

Note: the text is unedited, and features typos and some awkward grammar.

Sympathy for the Devil – deleted material

Part I

It started in Yorkshire, when Little Ruthie put up her hand and said, “My dad says there’s no such thing as G-d. He says there’s no need for G-d in nineteen eighty four.”

Mr. Sowerby, her teacher, held his hand behind his back. Between thumb and forefinger he squeezed the stick of compressed skeletons with which he wrote confused facts about people long since dead. “Does he now? I know your dad. Taught him in this very classroom, Miss Willoughby.”

“Yes, Sir.”


“But he does say that Margaret Thatcher is the devil.”

“Really?” Squeeze. “And who is the Saviour, then?” A smile full of pride on his face.

“Mr. Scargill, dad says.”

“That donkey jacketed,” squeeze, but she interrupted again.

“Sir, my dad says Manvers will never be closed. That’s why Mr. Scargill’s got them to walk out. To keep it open.”

“So he’s a picket, is he? Always was a trouble maker. You listen to me. Your dad could have had a proper job, rather than being buried underground ten hours a day hitting rocks. Thatcher’s Britain doesn’t need uneducated oafs. It needs people with O levels and ambition. Britain needs strivers, not miners.”

There, that shut her up. Ten years old and full of herself.


“Miss. Willoughby.”

“My dad says Mrs. Thatcher is a complete,”

“We’ve all heard quite enough from you, Miss Willoughby. Let’s return to your religious,”

“When I’m Prime Minister I’ll re-open Manvers.”

Little Ruthie ducked as the chalk flew over her head and shattered on the wall behind her. It made a high pitched chink when it struck the tiled floor, where it rolled from side to side to side to side. Children looked every which way.

“There’ll be no presumption in this class, you hear me? This is a religious education lesson. I am in control.”

O’d faces all around the class. No one had ever seen Sowerby mad.

Little Ruthie looked at him and opened her mouth to speak.

“Enough!” he shouted.

“I’m telling my dad on you.”

“Tell him all you like. If you can get him off the picket line. These strikers care more about coal than they do their families. Now, anyone else wish to discuss the politics of Communists? No? Good. Then please open your bibles to the Book of Job.”

Little Ruthie flicked through the pages. Her eyes were out the window, on the distant colliery where the wheel no longer turned. No fun fairs here in Wath, not any more. The only spinning lights cane from the riot vans at the coal plant.

One day, she thought, one day I’ll prove my dad’s right.

Part II

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, ten year old Yorkshire lass. Hair pulled back under an Alice-band. School bag already decorated with pins for Bananarama and Adam and the Ants.

The streets of Wath-upon-Dearne were decorated with banners, “SUPPORT THE MINERS”.

Policemen walked around in pairs or sat in riot vans, bored, waiting for something to happen. Pissy little mining towns with their upstart miners. Why couldn’t they just get other jobs?

Men in donkey jackets stood at braziers, watching pathetic flames lick at the cold air. The great chimney at the colliery was quiet, its usual belch settled in its belly. They grumbled about the lack of jobs, and talked about the families who had moved south, to the factories of the Midlands. One family had even moved to the south coast to open a bed and breakfast. Not one of the men could bring themselves to call those who’d gone traitors. But still the word floated in the air between them, missing its lightning rod.

“It’s John’s girl,” one of the men nodded his head at Little Ruthie. “John! Your lass is here.”

John Willoughby was stood in a group of miners, a confabulation.

“Ruthie, come ‘ere love,” suddenly all smiles for his daughter.

Over their shoulders, the coal ramps were still. The site was asleep, the workers outside and above ground, the coal slumbering in its bed.

“Bring her along, John. She should see,” said one of the other men.

“You want to come to Orgreaves, Ruthie? We’re going on a demo up Rotherham way.”


“It might be a bit scary. Lots of pigs around.”

Little Ruthie held her dad’s hand. The callouses and ground-in coal dust were home, her tiny hand was soft and clean, now smudged with that solid fuel that burns so well. She could smell her dad a mile away, the pit was in his lungs and his bones.

“Will Margaret Thatcher be there?”

“Trained her well, John!” shouted the men behind him. They laughed and turned away.

“No, she won’t come up here. Them politicians don’t care, Ruthie. We have to care instead. Listen, don’t tell your mam we’re away to Orgreaves, you know how she is.”

“I’ll say I’m at Nanny and Granda’s, don’t worry.”

“There’s my girl.”

A coach pulled up. Men moved and shared cigarettes, small roll-ups which drooped and went flat between their fingers.

Little Ruthie climbed onto the bus, the only girl amongst those grown-up men, strikers, pit workers.

Little Ruthie went on the bus to Orgreaves, her first demonstration.

Ten year old Little Ruthie darted between the legs of policemen and strikers alike, avoiding the truncheons and flung stones.

Little Ruthie hid behind a police car, hating its protection, and watched her dad struck, fall to the floor, blood on the tarmac and between its cracks where grass pushed up, ever hopeful.

Ten year old Little Ruthie hated Margaret Thatcher.

Little Ruthie, Ruth Willoughby, cradled her dad, John Willoughby, while he held his cut head and looked at his blood on the soil of his country. “Never forget, Ruthie,” he said, all the way to the hospital, and all the way home. “Never forget.”

Writing update

Busy times! Life has been hectic since my last blog post in … September?! Blimey.

Since September, I’ve completed the following writing:

Sympathy for the Devil is complete, formatted, reviewed by my brilliant beta readers, and is now out looking for representation. So far it’s been to 30 different literary agents, and I’ve received rejections from 11 of them. Eighteen never responded – I assume these are therefore rejections – and I am waiting to hear from one more agent. A lot of the responses from agents have been personal and very positive. There’s been a couple of ‘form rejections’ (those where it’s clearly a standard letter saying thanks-but-no-thanks). The personal responses were very heartening, essentially saying, “Yep, it’s strong enough, the writing is there, but it’s not right for our particular agency.” I love these responses.

All of the submissions I’ve made so far are to agents who accept e-submissions. I haven’t sent Sympathy to any agency that demands a printed submission. I think it’s a waste of paper and money. The author has to pay for printing and postage, and the agency has to pay for disposal costs later (if the author hasn’t paid for a return SAE). It’s so outdated and wasteful as to be laughable. I imagine literary agencies with piles of paper, towers of mulched wood and ink surrounding poor graduates. When instead they could simply transfer a Word doc to a Kindle and read submissions anywhere.

In September I also wrote a short story, Maisy & Jim. I sent it to a literary magazine, which duly rejected it. I will be keeping it on file for a later short story collection, I think.

Currently I’m working on Planetfall 2: Children of Fall. The action picks up twelve years after the events in All Fall Down. Kate Leland is now a Fleet Admiral. The war that Daoud started is still going. And… that’s as much as you’re getting. I’m about halfway through the first draft now, and hope to have that completed in August.

I am also editing another book for Tara Basi (Masterminders, Blocks), and may have some more editing work upcoming for a scifi novel.

On top of that, we’re also moving house soon and having a baby!


astro x