Sunday, February 5, 2023

Book cover: Soul Jar

Soul Jar, the next Forest Avenue Press anthology, is a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories written by disabled authors. When I first started mulling cover concepts, I was a little stymied by the question of how best to depict science fiction and fantasy and disability all in one effective image. Disability is a huge, varied subject, and it felt wrong somehow to squeeze it all down into the single object of, say, a wheelchair or a container of pills or a hearing aid. And what about all the invisible disabilities that are also very real? Publisher Laura Stanfill said, don't try to find a simplified visual symbol; disability will be front and center in the subtitle. Instead, she suggested that I think on the stories and find my imagery there, as I did with the giant octopus on the cover of City of Weird.

She sent me a list of some possibilities that stood out to her. A cranberry bog monster. A pizza delivery guy on Mars. A "geyser pterosaur" that squirts great streams of water from its mouth. A girl born in the sea.

I was particularly intrigued with the sea girl whose story is lush and melancholy and magical. And the geyser pterosaur, whose story is light and clever. I spent some time building a pterosaur, which I thought I could eventually add shading and detail to if I liked how it was working...

...but it wasn't working. Although I share this image of the creature in progress, mostly because I'm happy with the tongue.

I moved on to the sea girl, playing with moody greens and hints of yellow. My idea was a blurred-out seascape background overlaid with all the text: title, subtitle, editor name, blurb. For the title, I found a font I liked and turned it into an outline you could see the sea through, then adjusted the J to add the swirl. My hope was that those text elements would be what you see first, and then in the next second you'd discover that in that seascape behind hides the woman.

But at the same time, when I was doing my image search for seascapes I liked, I found this great picture of a jar with lights coming up out of it.

Which led me down another concepting rabbit hole. The question of whether or not, and how, to use the object of the jar from the title in the actual imagery was something I mulled a lot. The term soul jar appears in one of the stories as a metaphor, but Laura told me, "to me it speaks of the body and how we are and aren’t our bodies." I liked that a lot. And for me, soul jar also spoke of the head, specifically—the jar, the head; the soul, imagination. I pictured that jar sitting on the cover but instead of the blurred-out spheres of light rising from it: a dragon. The ultimate symbol of fantasy.

I started by taking the picture of the jar, adjusting the color, and using Photoshop's smudge tool to push the lights around so that it looked kind of... firelike.

Then I built a stylized dragon in Illustrator and used the firelike blob to create a clipping mask.

I went back to Photoshop and did some cutting and pasting and painting and erasing and feathering and blurring until it began to look more and more like a rising, glowing, fiery...

...phantom chicken?

The feather (no pun intended) effect and blurring I was using to soften edges and make this dragon look less chunky and more ethereal (and okay, maybe my original drawing?) made the head look way less dragony than I'd been hoping. And I also started to think: Why did I not make this dragon with its mouth more open? Why did I not make this dragon with its head up? It’s bursting out of the jar, bursting into life; why is it doing it so... casually?

I spent a dragon's age tinkering with that head to try to get it right. Fighting with the effects I needed to keep it looking magical. Work, work work—now it's a chicken. Work, work work—now it's a pig. 

When I had a cover sample I liked...

...I sent it, and the sea girl, and the pterodon for good measure, to Laura. (Well, there were a couple versions of some of these, but who's counting?) Laura chose the ones she thought were working best to send to editor Annie Carl for a look.

Annie's reaction made me happy: "I think I love the dragon and mermaid equally!!! The green is so pretty. But I have a soft spot for dragons! I’d love to have a dragon cover!"

She seemed to lean toward sea girl at first. Then she showed the samples to some friends and family for their thoughts, and consensus drifted toward the dragon, particularly because of the jar. One beta tester noted that the dragon's teeth might be too scary for readers—granted that tester was Annie's six-year-old son. I started getting excited for the dragon jar cover, but then Annie said: "I personally would like the dragon to look more dragon-like, less dinosaur."

Argh! I had a chicken, then I had a pig, now I had a dinosaur. I swear I can make a dragon. 

One of the difficult things about tinkering with that dragon head was the soft edges and, particularly, the blur effect behind it. It was very difficult to make any changes without messing that up, making it look very cut-and-paste and not smooth at all.

While considering all this, I went back to the sea girl and thought, why don't I just add a jar?

That same jar from the dragon jar cover worked well.

Happily, Laura and Annie liked this addition. Laura shared Annie's latest comments:

"So now I’m torn because I love both the dragon/dino and the underwater for different reasons. I think the underwater one is more meditative and hints at something a bit sinister. While the dragon one is obvious about the fantasy elements and potential for sinister stories. It’s also more playful and hints at the humor in the anthology."

Laura said maybe I could add one playful element to the sea girl cover. "I’m thinking of how Richard Scarry books had animals fishing and they always caught an old wet boot. Something like the boot. Just amid the scene, nestled in, to say STORY THIS WAY."

Ah ha. The boot made me wonder about a fishing hook hanging in the water. When I mentioned that to Laura, she came back with a frog. Orchids. A golden ring. All elements from different stories.

I tried adding a swimming frog because it seemed the funniest, but then, as I was sending this latest sample off to Laura, I thought, no. Not frog. You know what this cover needs. A dragon.

No, really, I could do it. I just had to start over and create a completely new dragon. 

I started with shapes and lines.

And I built my details on top of it, using mostly blobby shapes to get the sense of the lizardy-bumpy skin dragons have. I knew I could go high-contrast on my details because in the end this dragon was going to be blurred out and softened a lot, so I'd need sharp details to keep everything from disappearing.

It wasn't an old, wet boot, but I hoped it would do.

With some added bubbles and tweaks to the text, I sent along another sample to Laura. She was happy with it and sent it along to Annie and then sent back Annie's thoughts:

"I. LOVE. IT! This is it! This is the cover!!"

I was thrilled. I'd come full circle with jar and dragon, and had given Annie what she'd wanted, all in one.

Soul Jar will be out on October 17, 2023. More information is here. And here's a short, and fitting excerpt. From "The Rising Currents of Ocean Fire in My Blood" by Bethy Wernert.

My body adapts. Scales become flesh. Gills become lungs. Fins become limbs. Transforming, I grow into girlhood. My coral-strung hair deepens into the earthen volcanic red of lava, and my algae-green eyes become the emerald of moss.

I look just like them. Humans. The only remnants of my squamous body is the slight, coruscating hue my skin reflects in the crescent of the Harvest Moon.

My mother calls me “a gift from the ocean,” her “oyster,” her “pearl.” And like a pearl, she must keep me safe. Safe from the cavernous mouths of those hungry enough to eat mermaids.

She locks me in an aquarium. A large room painted the abyssal blue of the ocean. In the corner of the room is a dresser, the pink hue of anemones. In the other corner sits a simple wooden bed, seaweed green. From the ceiling hangs a mobile, dangling carved shards of mother-of-pearl and glass figurines composed of various sea creatures. A dolphin, a whale, a sea turtle, an octopus, a fish, a squid, a sea star. All dangling precariously on strings.

I spend hours wading through this room. Wandering and exploring its individual nooks and crevices. But it feels too small.