A Novel Cover Up is a semi-regular feature that looks at how covers are designed. I have been fortunate enough to interview Graphic Designer Leo Nickolls about how he designed the cover for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig. Other than the cover, all images in this post are copyrighted to Leo Nickolls and used with permission. They can be clicked to be enlarged.
Can you tell us about the cover for For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig? What do you hope it tells readers about the story?
I’m not sure how much detail I can go into without potentially spoiling the story here! But I hope it tells readers that it’s a fantasy story based around shadow theatre (with some shadowy secrets) with a hint of the supernatural. The concept of the cover is based on what I read in the manuscript, so the goal was to - like all good book covers should - show the nature of the story: a girl with powers she can only just control, in a war-torn country involving a tyrant leader - which hopefully is alluded to with the er, combustible look of my design!
How did you come up with the idea for the cover?
I was given some key visual references, so a fictitious Asian town, fantouches (the main description I was given was 'Dragon fantouche: made out of colourful leather, a "long sinuous dragon, cut and crafted from water buffalo hide." Painted red and saffron, "each scale is scraped translucent and rubbed in gold and carmine, his teeth are carved of bone, he is twice as long as I am tall, with over two dozen joints" that are linked together with copper rivets.'
Which would have been an ambitious thing to design, so I opted instead to show a fantouche glowing red in front of rising fire, with the lead character in front raising a hand to show a connection/element of control over it. The fire was intended to be both metaphorical, alluding to her powers, and literal, tying in with the title and the aforementioned war-torn country the story takes place in.
I had initially designed a version where the dragon was created out of fire (same concept really, just with different execution), which is on my site* because I was quite pleased with it, but they went with the fantouche one, which I’m equally happy with!
*(If you go to Leo's website, and click on the For a Muse of Fire cover, not only will it enlarge, but you will also see it switch back and forth from the actual cover to the earlier design Leo mentions - also shown below.)
What were you given to base your ideas on? Did you have a manuscript, or were you given an outline?
I dipped into the manuscript to get a feel for atmosphere and get any clues about the environment. And I was also given a good brief with character descriptions and comparable covers (Caraval, The Hazel Wood, Tempests and Slaughter). Other than that, it was a ‘See what you can come up with’ kind of deal.
What went into creating the For a Muse of Fire cover? Can you tell us about the process? Who else was involved?
I’m something of a one-man band, so it’s only ever me, unless a publisher wants me to work with an illustrator (usually I’m asked to provide type against the illustrators composition in those instances). So in terms of process, it was essentially illustrating a fantouche/photoshopping together a dragon made out of fire (from sites like cgtextures where you can download free images for all sorts of things), creating a character that fit with the description - essentially photobashing together different images of women to form a sort of Asian steampunk look for her, making a city scene out of various images of Thailand, and playing around with composition until something fit.
I tend to be a bit scattershot with design. I believe I once read an interview with Jamie Keenan who said that designing book covers can a lot of the time be a ‘thoughtless’ process, which I think I agree with, in terms of it being somewhat meditative and instinctive. Once you hit on something that looks good to your eye, that’s when you get traction with a design, then you can run with it and gild it with extra bits that help the concept you come up with. Sometimes to my own detriment, often I find my initial designs are WAY more ornate than the finished product, and more often than not I find I’ve overloaded the idea.
What do you like most about this cover?
Honestly? At the time I thought, "Cool, technically, I’ve upped my game with this one," which is what you always want as a designer. I hate feeling like I’m coasting with my job. So I’m pleased with aesthetic execution, I suppose! Is that shallow/humble-braggy of me?
Were there any other early ideas for the cover? Why didn’t they make it?
The aforementioned fiery dragon! It didn’t make it because the author just preferred the fantouche one, simple as that. And I had initially given it a more sombre type treatment, so I have to give Sylvie Le Floc’h credit for that type choice. And I think it was the right choice too.
What are you thinking for the sequels in the For a Muse of Fire series? Is there a theme? Have you started working on them yet?
I’ve only just been given the brief, so I don’t know JUST yet, but thematically it’ll be similar, and there’s (obviously) going to be a very different colour palette. That’s all I can give you on it right now!
Thank you, Leo, for such incredible answers. Mate, I don't know about you guys, but I absolutely love all designs. They're just gorgeous! I probably prefer the current font for the title, it stands our more, but the actual designs are stunning! Look at that dragon made of fire! Look at the detail of that fantouche! And the buildings! Mate, I just love them. And I'd want a blown up version of the final cover in a frame on my wall. What do you guys think?
Leo Nickolls has been a freelance book cover designer since 2007, working for most of the major publishers along with a handful of independent ones. Be sure to visit Leo Nickolls’ website and follow him on Twitter - seriously, because so many beautiful covers, go bless your eyes! - and check out For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, an incredible novel by an incredible author, which is out today! Need more convincing? Read my review.
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