Using Comp Covers to Clarify What Readers Need to Know About NEXT BOOK

I already had a mood board for NEXT BOOK (by which I mean I had a Google Doc with a bunch of internet images pasted into it), but at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams workshop last Saturday we discussed getting really specific about both mood and what types of emotions a reader can expect to have while reading the book.

One way to clarify this is to find other book covers that communicate the mood/emotion “if you pick up this book, you will get this kind of story” thing to the reader.

So… here we go.

Covers that suggest portal fantasies centered around a female character

Fun fact: neither of these books are actually portal fantasies! But they both feature a woman standing in front of SOMETHING NEW without fully stepping into it, which is the emotional conflict that drives Act 1 of NEXT BOOK.

Both books also suggest the SOMETHING NEW is SOMETHING OLD — an old clock, an old castle, etc. This is also an important component of NEXT BOOK, and something I’d like to flag for potential readers.

The colors on The Lost Girls of Paris are also kinda right for the mood I’m going for: this story includes both a portal and a mystery.

Yes, these books are both women’s fiction titles, which means they’ve got the perhaps-overdone FACELESS LADY on the cover, but FACELESS LADY works for a reason. (The reason is we imagine our own face on her face.)

Covers that suggest the primary conflict takes place inside a female character’s head

A Kingdom of Exiles, by S.B. Nova.
More Than Words, by Jill Santopolo

This set includes one fantasy title and one women’s fiction title, and of these two the fantasy book feels more like the overall mood I’m going for, but what I like about both of these books is that they suggest the story is about A WOMAN WHO MAKES A CHOICE. Does she choose the dream inside her head, or the expectations outside of it?

I also like these books because both of these women have their hair pulled up, and when I was doing image research for my main character I found this exactly-what-I-was-looking-for Instagram photo:

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“There are a lot of things about getting old that are far worse than the gray hair. I almost caved and dyed it the other day when some 11 year-olds figured out my age and said they were confused because their moms are at least a decade older but don’t have any gray hair. I didn’t cave, though. I’m going to teach loving oneself by example. 👵🏻” thanks for the inspiration! -Jen, 34, gray since my early twenties thanks @jdowt for sharing a courageous story with us. #grombre #gogrombre ▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️#goinggrey #greyhair #greyhairdontcare #greyhairs #grayhairdontcare #grayhair #grayhairs #silverfox #goinggray #goinggreygracefully #greyingout #naturalisbeautiful #confidence #naturalgrey #naturalgreyhair #naturalgray #naturalgrayhair #saltandpepperhair #saltandpepperhairdontcare #silversisters #silversister #naturalgreyhair #naturalbeauty #naturallygrey

A post shared by Going grey with (grohm)(bray) (@grombre) on

So that’s another reason why these covers feel right to me, although I’d also like to tip the reader off to the fact that this character is a woman in her 30s with graying hair. (BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN IT STARTS, Y’ALL.) We are often attracted to books that feature people similar to us, and I want to make sure that similarity is visible on the cover.

Covers that imply the universe and/or light science will be involved

I don’t think either of these covers contain enough information about the themes present in NEXT BOOK to be particularly useful, but I like the idea of cuing the reader in to the fact that THERE WILL BE A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION FOR THE PORTAL. Is that the most important thing the reader needs to know before deciding to read the book? Not really. (I could probably communicate it just as easily over flap/back cover copy, too.)

But as a reader myself, I tend to avoid the types of fantasies that aren’t rooted in reality (or at least a plausible reality). Suddenly finding yourself in the Magical Kingdom of Whatever isn’t good enough. I want to know why you, and why is this place a monarchy, and how does this fit in with the available parallel universe theories that are legitimized by math.*

So that’s where I am, in terms of figuring out what I want this book to communicate to its reader. Because that’s what this exercise is really about, since book cover trends change so quickly that you can’t set your heart on one type of cover before you’ve even written the first page.

*No, seriously. It is extremely mathematically likely that there are parallel universes, if the universe operates according to the rules of mathematics. Go read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

What the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams Seminar Taught Me About Plot

I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids this morning,* but I wanted to tell you all that Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar was AMAZING and HUGELY INFORMATIONAL and OH WOW I WANT TO START WRITING THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY EXCEPT I HAVE A FEW MORE PIECES I NEED TO PUT TOGETHER FIRST, and if you were thinking about attending one of the upcoming Portraits and Dreams seminars you have my word that it is SO SO SO SO WORTH IT.

That said, I’m not going to give you any specifics as to what was discussed at the seminar, because no spoilers.

I will note that before I actually start writing NEXT BOOK I am going to do some extra background work on the mood I’m trying to convey with this story, which is not technically a spoiler because Maggie Stiefvater has already written about the importance of mood in storytelling on her Tumblr.

I’ll also note that the seminar made me think absolutely 100% differently about plot. This I think I can share, because it wasn’t actually discussed in the seminar at all.

Well, plot was. In the traditional three-act-structure sense.

I have never been a huge fan of the traditional three-act structure, mostly because I could see through it by the time I was ten years old. (It was 1992. I was watching The Mighty Ducks, and when they got to the part where the coach did a bad thing and the team split up but then someone came back with an inspirational speech and they all went out on the ice anyway I remember thinking all these stories are just telling the same story and I was furious.)

This is one of the reasons why The Biographies of Ordinary People is episodic. That and the fact that I was trying to write a contemporary book that made 30-something readers feel the way we did when we read (or re-read) Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, both of which are episodic stories.

But Maggie was talking about the way she used three-act structure in The Raven Boys, and I was sitting there thinking “well, but that isn’t really three-act structure because there isn’t the part where the coach does a bad thing and then the team splits up and then someone comes back with an inspirational speech and they all go out on the ice anyway OH WAIT.”

Substitute Cabeswater for “the ice,” and literally all of that happens in The Raven Boys. It’s just not the emotional focus of the story. When Gansey and Adam fight and the team does in fact split up, you don’t really notice that’s where you are in the three-act structure because emotionally you’re with Gansey and Adam in this intimate, human, complicated moment. You don’t even notice that the team has split up because the team doesn’t think they’re split up. (Or, more accurately, they’re still hoping they can stay together.)

In other words, unlike the types of books that made me never want to write a traditionally-plotted novel in my life, the chapter doesn’t end with “The door slammed. That was it. The Raven Boys were through.”

Maggie did not discuss how to write the type of story that has the emotional satisfaction of the traditional three-act structure** without the predictability of such, but it made me think of her blog post about how to create characters that aren’t cartoons or clichés.

I suspect the path towards creating a plot that isn’t a cliché leads in the same direction.

Anyway, NEXT BOOK is going to have a traditional three-act structure now.*** First to see if I can do it, and second to see if I can hide what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Wish me luck. ❤️

*This is a lie. Not the part where I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids on Monday morning. The part where I actually wrote this post on Sunday night.

**We did discuss emotional satisfaction in the seminar, so no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to hint that Aristotle was right.

***I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a goof, but no I didn’t really have a structure for NEXT BOOK. My outline had an opening, and it had an inciting incident, and then it had a bunch of episodes because I’m reallll good with episodes, and then it had a big thing that changed everything, and then I told myself I’d figure the rest out when I got there. TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, and also cut a few of those episodes and make the whole story actually story-shaped.

How I Found the Time to Write NEXT BOOK

I’m going to be attending Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar this weekend, assuming the ARCTIC OUTBREAK doesn’t ground me in Iowa.*

Here’s the workshop description, aka “why I signed up in a hot minute:”

Join Maggie Stiefvater as she covers developing ideas into novels you’ll truly love (and finish), crafting memorable characters, writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways, and structuring your writing work day. Four hours of lecture and one and an hour of informal Q&A.

I am particularly interested in that “writing supernatural elements in unique and meaningful ways” part, as it is one of the big problems I have to solve in NEXT BOOK.

But I’ve told myself that, when I come back, I start writing. I’ve spent plenty of time outlining and thinking about the characters and pulling together inspirational images and researching the death of the universe.

So I do the workshop, and then I start.

And I see what happens.

The question then becomes: when should I do this writing?

My original assumption was that I’d write after hours and on weekends, same as I did for The Biographies of Ordinary People. However, my life is a little different than it was back in 2015 — I’ve gotten involved in a lot of stuff, from running a small business to singing in a choir, and maybe it’s just because I’m a little older, but I don’t have the energy to put in evening work in addition to my all-day work. Evenings are for reading and playing the piano and spending time with people and choir rehearsal and taking Les Mills classes at the YMCA.

Then I realized I had created this lovely slot of focused writing time, right here, right now, first thing in the morning when I tend to do my best work.

So I’m going to give some of these writing slots to NEXT BOOK.

This means you won’t get a new Creative Practice Club post every day, since I’ll be spending some of this time actually doing the creative practice.

Right now I’m thinking MWF for blog posts and TTH for book drafting, though we’ll see how it goes. I reserve the right to make things work the way they need to work so I can get THE WORK done.**

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted — and I’ll keep posting. ❤️

*Right now, my educated guess is that my Thursday CID-ORD-LGA flight will be canceled but they’ll get me there on Friday. The workshop itself is Saturday, and I gave myself that buffer specifically for this type of situation. Midwest winters, y’all.

**That’s what building a creative practice is all about, after all.

On Reading the News While Reading Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

I checked Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys out of the library for three reasons:

  1. I love her posts on writing.
  2. I love her rules for living.
  3. Her background appears to be similar to mine in some interesting ways.

Supernatural/paranormal YA is not usually my genre, but character is my genre and feelings is my genre and mythology was definitely my genre when I was a teenager, and I ended up reading all four Raven Cycle books in five consecutive days.

I’m not sure that reading is the right word, though. More like actively hallucinating. I remember taking this pause, looking away from the page, and realizing that my bedroom looked wrong because it wasn’t the kitchen in 300 Fox Way. (Then I asked myself: Nicole, can you mentally walk through every room of that house the same way you could walk through the rooms of any place where you’ve actually lived? And I could. It was weird. I’d also created a memory map of Monmouth Manufacturing.)


Even though I love my adulthood much more than I ever enjoyed my teenagerhood—which can be emotionally, though not factually, summed up in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 1: 1989–2000The Raven Cycle made me wish I could be a teenager again.

It’s like… I wasn’t just seeing the walls of everybody’s houses, I was also inside those houses—and caves, and cars, and characters’ perspectives. Although I had a very different adolescence, I still had a moment with a guidance counselor and I still had a smile that I put on in public and I still had so many questions about love.

So I felt all of these emotions that are so vividly associated with youth and then I had to put the book down and be in my thirty-five-year-old body. Which was just as jarring as seeing my own bedroom and not the kitchen at 300 Fox Way.


But here’s why I’m actually writing this post:

If you haven’t read The Raven Cycle, I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that there are several primary characters and each character is involved in at least two or three intersecting plotlines. Sometimes one of the plotlines will be experiencing some stress, shall we call it—you could also call it property destruction, demon possession, or occasionally blood—but then you get to the next chapter and it’s about characters learning how to trust each other or finding joy in a cup of Dannon “Fruit on the Bottom” Yogurt.

(I don’t have time to write about the role that socioeconomic class plays in The Raven Cycle—and anyway, it’s already been written—but that cheap cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt struck me right in the lived experience. Also the sentence describing the bookshelf that also holds cooking stuff. That bookshelf is in my apartment right now.)

Anyway, by the time you get to the fourth book in the series, all the plotlines start experiencing stress. You turn the pages and there is no relief; you keep turning the pages and things start happening that can’t be undone. You watch a few powerful people make choices that you know are going to hurt so many other people and there is nothing you can do to stop them.

And then you take a break and make yourself a cup of Celestial Seasonings tea and check Twitter or the Washington Post as the electric kettle on your bookshelf heats up, and you feel like you are still in the book.


The trouble is that I’m not a teenager, and I’m certainly not a YA teenager who is crucial to the narrative. I haven’t even figured out the love thing to the point that I could—well, now I am getting dangerously near spoiler territory, but what I mean is that I feel very unpowerful right now.

I’m not the Chosen One and I’m not young enough to feel like I could be someday. I’m a background character and I have to watch the monster or the earthquake or the government or the corporations and wonder if the heroes will show up—or if the only person who can fix this is off doing their homework, leaving me stuck within the boundaries of my single paragraph. Calling my reps and saying my one line of dialogue.


There is a section at the end of The Raven Cycle that addresses what we can do when we don’t know what else to do; when we feel powerless and afraid and the bad news keeps coming. I don’t want to spoil it, but I read it I felt so grateful that it had been included. You don’t have to be the Chosen One to do it, either.

Of course, the drawback is that it doesn’t really change anything except yourself. But you already know how I feel about magic only working when it’s applied to your own actions.


Maggie Stiefvater’s #1 Rule For Living is this:

Decide life is going to be great. All other methods will fail without this prerequisite. A decision that life will be great allows a terrible event to turn into a plot twist along the way, not a confirmation that your life is shit.

I love that it begins with the word decide, and I love that it implies that we can write, though not necessarily control, our own stories. Mostly I love that it’s about keeping on, moving forward, doing the work, pursuing happiness if you want to describe it that way—even when, to borrow a phrase I learned when I was an executive assistant at a DC think tank, the situation on the ground has changed.

The situation on the ground is changing faster than I can turn the pages, these days.

I don’t know what to do when all the plotlines start falling apart.

I really want to end this with “I guess I’ll write my own,” which feels like the most selfish and honest thing I could possibly say.

But I’m going to keep doing the work, which is to say doing what I can for the world and then doing my work, which is to say doing what matters to me BECAUSE IT MATTERS TO ME and that is enough reason to do it.

And because, as I wrote earlier this month, I feel emotions through stories—which means that if it does in fact come down to love, this is how I create and share it.

Now go read The Raven Cycle.❤️

Photo credit: Andrea Pokrzywinski, CC BY 2.0.