Plan Your Novel Tip #1: Start Your Novel Planning with the Elevator Pitch, by Beth Barany

There are brainstorming exercises you can take to plan your novel that are fun, take a short amount of time, and keep your enthusiasm up.

In our Plan Your Novel: 30-Day Writing Challenge course, we teach an accordion method that encourages you to start small and expand your story ideas outward.

In this post, I share one of the essential tools on story planning that I recommend writers start with: how to your elevator pitch.

An elevator pitch can be used to shape the back cover blurb, what you see on the back of books and on the online book record, usually under “Book Description” or “Overview.”

I recommend you start with your elevator pitch because it’s an activity you can do in 5-20 minutes and it’s a good way to get your brain in gear for writing your novel. Don’t worry about your elevator pitch being perfect. You can revise it once you’re done with all your novel planning or when you’re done writing your novel.

Start here: Take note of your genre. This will give you a general idea of your story ending. If you’re not sure of your genre, make your best guess. You can always change your mind later.

Elevator Pitch Formula

Here’s a 5-piece plug and play formula that you can follow to write your Elevator Pitch. This will help you create one paragraph of 1-3 sentences. Your goal is to keep this short.

Situation: Also called the Initial Action or Premise, this is the beginning of the story.

Main Character(s): Name (optional: add one adjective, identifying the person. Pick something not cliché.)

Primary Objective: At first, what does your main character want?

Antagonist Or Opponent: (or Central Conflict. ) Who or what is keeping your main characters from getting what they want?

Disaster That Could Happen: What’s the worst that could happen, and/or what does your character want next? Often phrased as a question.

Here’s an example: (You’ll probably recognize this!)

  1. Abandoned on his relatives’ doorstep as an infant,
  2. an orphaned boy
  3. longs to understand where he came from and why he feels different.
  4. He discovers that he is a wizard and that his parents were killed by a powerful and evil wizard,
  5. who has been hunting for the orphan, to kill him.

You guessed it! This is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Book 1 in the Harry Potter series.

Here’s another example, in paragraph format: A reclusive computer programmer, Nathan Yirmorshy, pounds out ones and zeros in the quiet of his home while his landlord secretly watches from behind a two-way mirror. When an intercepted note connects the landlord to a secret society, and a detective ends up dead, Nathan must abandon his home and everything familiar to him, open his heart to a tarot reader he has never met, and trust her with his life – just as the ancient scriptures have foretold. (The Torah Codes by Ezra Barany.)


First, get the tip sheet, “10 Questions to Ask Your Characters” here:

Then, get your list of other essential novel planning tools go here:


We’re gearing up to start our 4th Annual Plan Your Novel course. If you’d like hands-on support with your peers and with two experienced instructors — Beth and Ezra Barany have over 20 published novels and novellas between then, then join us for our next course starting October 1st: 30-Day Writing Challenge to Plan Your Novel:


Award-winning novelist in YA fantasy, Master NLP Practitioner and certified creativity coach for writers, Beth Barany’s courses are packed with useful hands-on information that you can implement right away. Beth runs the Writer’s Fun Zone blog, for and by creative writers, where you can download her free reports on book marketing and novel writing. She is also the author of The Writer’s Adventure GuideOvercome Writer’s Block, and Twitter for Authors.


Ezra Barany started his career of freaking out readers with his suspense and thriller stories in college. In March 2011, Ezra unleashed his first novel The Torah Codes, which became an award-winning international bestseller. In his free time, he has eye-opening discussions on the art of writing novels with his wife and book coach, Beth Barany. A physics teacher, Ezra lives in Oakland with his beloved wife, working on the third book in The Torah Codes series.


FTC Disclaimer: All the links on this web page go directly to Beth and Ezra’s website or to Amazon; they are not affiliate links. 

Training Yourself to Be A Prolific Author (In 5 Minutes A Day)



Wouldn’t it be great if you could program your brain to go into writing mode on command?

You can, actually, If you’re willing to spend five minutes a day for the next three months doing a simple exercise.

You’ve probably heard other writers talk about the importance of a writing habit.

You’ve might have also heard that many successful writers have a writing ritual that helps them maintain their habit.

But if you don’t already have one, you might feel overwhelmed at the idea of starting one.

Write every day?

What if I don’t feel inspired?

What if I’m having an awful day?

What if I don’t have time to write every day?

Won’t staring at a blank page (or screen) every day just train me to have more writer’s block?

I understand why you’d be worried. I used to be afraid of the same things.

Here’s how I got past those fears and developed a writing habit that feels so good, I don’t want to skip a day unless I absolutely have to.

I started with a very simple pre-writing ritual:  Take a few deep breaths, then say out loud, I am writing.

Then, I would set a timer for five minutes and do one of two things:

1. Type a scene from a book by an author I admired.

This caused me to associate my ritual with the act of typing fiction.

It had a secondary benefit of allowing me to look at the author’s work with fresh eyes as I typed.

I started to understand why the author made the storytelling choices they did.

I started to get a better grasp of how the techniques I was studying could actually be applied to my own stories.

2.  Write about something that had happened to me recently, without trying to make it entertaining.

This caused me to associate my ritual with the act of telling stories without the pressure to “get it right.”

I wouldn’t try to embellish what happened or explain anything. I’d just try to put down every detail about the mundane encounter that I could remember.

It had a secondary benefit of making me much more aware of things like body language, the way people really talk, the subtle conflicts that shape a conversation, and all the things that I normally ignored as I went through my day on autopilot.

In other words, it helped me to be more observant and to focus on those telling details that ground a story in reality.

After years of thinking that I…

  • didn’t have time to establish a writing habit
  • wouldn’t be inspired enough to write every day
  • would find the structure of a writing ritual too constrictive

…I discovered that I could train myself to write on command with this simple, 5-minute daily exercise.

My monthly word count tripled. But that wasn’t the best part.

The best part that as writing became a habit for me, I no longer had to talk myself into getting started.

And I suddenly had a ton of mental energy free for actually writing.

What untold stories would you finally write if you gave yourself the gift of a writing habit?


Are You Making These 6 Mistakes That Lead to Writer’s Block?

Feeling stuck?

Sometimes writer’s block happens because there’s some aspect of your story that you need to stop and think about.

But if you’re feeling blocked on a regular basis, there’s a good chance you’re making one of these 6 psychological mistakes that writers often fall prey to.

Mistake #1:  You rely too heavily on inspiration to get started.

When you were young, you had to write a variety of things for school, and that felt like drudgery.

But if you had an inclination toward writerhood, you would sometimes feel inspired to create something wonderful for yourself.

You came to think of your own writing as something that happened when you were inspired.

That’s how we all start out.

But there’s an important truth that these childhood excursions into writing didn’t teach us:

Inspiration happens more often when you’re already writing.

When you wait for inspiration to get started, you spend a lot more time waiting than you do writing.

It’s better to write about the dumb thing that happened on the bus in your journal than to not write at all.

It’s better to do a writing exercise (google “writing prompts” to find thousands of them online) than to not write at all.

It’s better to write a scene of your novel that will need revision later than to not write at all.

The more you write, the better you get.

Writing exercises aren’t a waste of time–they’re a form of training that gets you ready so that when inspiration strikes with a great idea, you have the skill to actually write it well.

Mistake #2:  You only write when it’s easy.

There’s this myth in literary circles that if you’re a talented writer, writing will come easy to you.

It’s completely untrue.

Sure, there are times when the writing comes easy. Where the words just flow and the characters seem to be writing the story for you. Those are the times when writing is fun.

Many writers make the mistake of assuming that it will always be this easy. If they sit down to write and the words don’t immediately start flowing, they give up.

They think things like:

I must not be inspired enough.

I must not be ready to write this story.

I must not be good enough to write this story.

So they quit for the day.

In doing so, they’re essentially training themselves to only write when it’s easy. And the next time a challenge comes up in their writing, they’re more likely to quit.

It can become a downward spiral into fear, where eventually they go weeks without writing. Because they’re afraid that if today is a difficult day, it means they’re not as talented as they want to be.

A variation on this is that you assume that if the writing is difficult, you must be writing badly.

Not true. When the writing is difficult, it’s often the case that you’re stretching yourself.

I’ve done extensive tracking of my own writing, and have discovered through my tracking journal that how much editing a scene needs has no correlation at all with how difficult it is to write. In fact, some of the scenes that need the most work are the ones that felt easy to write. Because I wasn’t digging deep enough.

Of course, sometimes the writing feels difficult just because you haven’t thought the scene through. In that case, a bit of brainstorming is all that’s needed to make the writing go a little easier.

Other reasons the writing could feel difficult? You’re sick, you’ve exhausted your creative energies for the day on other things, or you’re just in a terrible mood. What you’re writing could be just fine, but your perception of it might be colored by what’s happening in the rest of your life.

Mistake #3:  You rely too heavily on your talent.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard new writers say proudly that they’ve never taken a writing course, because they don’t want to risk constraining (or diluting, or squashing) their talent.

Deep down, I think they’re afraid that if they learn the techniques of their craft, it will somehow mean they’re not artists.

This is so, so sad.

Because every time I read the work of someone who says this, I see them struggling to execute on a story that would be a thousand times better if the writer had more skill with dialogue, with exposition, with all the other techniques that they’re afraid to learn.

Art and technique are not opposites.

Techniques are tools that you use to create a piece of art.

The real art is in how you use those techniques to tell your story.

Mistake #4:  You won’t commit to a project unless you’re sure it will be successful.

Do you have a story you’ve been dying to write but have been stalling on starting?

I did, for years. I worked on stories that felt safer while my favorite story idea languished on the shelf. I told myself that I needed to do more research. I told myself that I needed to become more skilled to pull it off. I told myself that it was the kind of novel that required a more mature writer.

But the real reason I was procrastinating?

I didn’t see a clear path to success. And I loved that story idea so much, I couldn’t bear to see it fail.

It took me five years to get up the nerve to start it. I regret every second of that delay.

Everything worth doing brings not only the hope of success, but the possibility of failure.

If we hold ourselves back because we’re afraid to fail, we’ll never get where we want to go.

If there’s something you’ve been wanting to write, but have been stalling because you can’t bear to see it fail…guess what?

By not writing it, YOU ARE FAILING.

Mistake #5:  You won’t write unless conditions are perfect.

We all dream of a perfect place to write…a shabby apartment in Paris, or a cabin on a tropical island, or even a shed in our own backyard.

Maybe yours is a desk in a corner of a room where the kids aren’t allowed to leave their toys.

Or the window seat at Starbucks that’s next to the electrical outlet and the fake wall that muffles chatter to a non-distracting level.

We long for a place where no one ever bothers us.

Where the chair is so perfectly adjusted, our backs don’t ache even if we write all day.

Where someone brings us exactly what we want to eat or drink without talking to us and interrupting our thought processes.

Where our colored pens never run out of ink and the wifi zooms so fast that it only takes seconds to find out what kind of shoes children wore in the 16th century.

Yes. That would be awesome. If you can arrange for this, do so.

But if you can’t, WRITE ANYWAY.

Write even though you’re tired.

Write even though your spouse is watching CSI reruns in the next room. (Ear plugs are awesome, by the way.)

Write even though you’re on the bus and you only have time to scribble a quick page of dialogue.

Write standing up at the kitchen counter while you’re waiting for the ramen water to boil.

If you push yourself to write when things aren’t perfect, you are training yourself to be able to write when things aren’t perfect.

Which is a great skill to have when you live in a world where things are almost never perfect.

Mistake #6:  You want to be entertained by the writing process.

Our early experiences of inspired writing are often our happiest memories. The ideas come to us in an ecstatic rush. We’re eager to get the story down on paper (or disk). We laugh or cry as we live the story through our characters.

And we look forward to the next rush of inspiration, because inspired writing is fun.

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained by your own creative process. It’s wonderful, and you should enjoy it when it happens.

But if you insist that every day of writing be entertaining–that your Muse entertain you in addition to inspiring you–you’re putting an extra (unnecessary) constraint on your creative process.

Instead of just figuring out how to write the story that your readers will love, you now have to find an interesting way to write the story that your readers will love.

And as we all know from studying our craft–conflict is interesting.

So you’ll start finding ways to generate drama around your writing that actually impede your progress. Like writer’s block.

What’s the fix?

If you’re feeling blocked, and you suspect you might be unconsciously making any of these psychological mistakes, there’s one thing you can do that will cure all six of them simultaneously.

Start a writing habit.

It doesn’t have to be every day, it can be the three afternoons a week when your kids have after-school sports practice. Or your lunch break at work.

Whatever kind of writing schedule you can set up, do it.

Writing at regularly-scheduled times trains you to write when things aren’t perfect.

It trains you to start writing and trust that sooner or later, inspiration will hit.

It trains you to get into a writing mindset at will.

It teaches that you can write when you’re in a terrible mood, or when you’re sick, or when you’re not even sure you want to be a writer any more.

And most important, it’s how you master the techniques of your craft so you can use them to make art.

My #1 Productivity Tool for Getting More Done

There was a period in my life where I had a lot of things I wanted to do, but I never seemed to get anything done.

I would wake up in the morning, telling myself that today would be different. Today, I would be super-efficient. I would cross dozens of things off my to-do list.

I experimented with all sorts of productivity systems. Restructured my to-do list dozens of different ways, based on which self-help book I was reading at the time.

I had given up TV. I gave up reading for fun. I gave up everything that I thought was a distraction outside of my day job so that I could shut myself in the spare bedroom for a couple hours after dinner and make progress on my writing.

And yet, at the end of the day, I still felt like I had wasted my time.

I don’t remember who introduced me to the tool that saved me. It might have been yet another self-help book. Or it might have been my husband.  Or a blog post that I’ve since forgotten.

But here it is:


I know. It’s not a cool piece of software with flashing icons and reminders that guide me through a carefully-crafted schedule. Or an elaborate chart that gives me an up-to-date dashboard for every aspect of my life.

It’s a time log. A piece of paper and a pen, which I use to note the start and stop time for each task I do during the day.

It takes a second to notice the time, and a few more seconds to jot it down with a short note each time I switch tasks. I probably spend less than five minutes each day updating it.

There are no rules about what I do–the only rule is: whatever I do, I must record it on the time log.

But it’s been the difference between me not getting anything worthwhile done and me making significant progress on my big projects every work day.

There are a number of proven psychological reasons why a time log can skyrocket your productivity.

#1: It increases mindfulness, helping you to make better decisions.

I was in serious denial about how I was spending my time. I thought I was spending two hours writing every evening, when in reality, I was spending most of my “writing time” looking things up on the internet, sending “quick” replies to emails, and fussing with my story notes.

I was doing almost everything BUT writing during my writing time.

#2: It gives you an accurate record of how you’re using your time (and shows you exactly where you’re wasting it).

After two days of keeping a time log for my writing hours, I realized that I was never going to make any progress as long as I had email open. (For some of your, that will be Facebook or Twitter or your favorite chat program.)

I decided that I would spend 15 minutes sending emails before I started my writing session, to get that urge out of my system.

I also realized that I needed to ask my husband to only talk to me if it was an emergency. I was stopping at least once or twice in that two-hour period to have a conversation with him that would often last 15 minutes. That was 1/8th of my writing time gone.

#3: It puts a stop to multi-tasking, which is another word for “distracting myself from getting things done.”

Studies on multi-tasking have shown that every time you switch to a new task, it takes your brain time to adjust to the new task. And that people who focus on a series of tasks one-at-a-time finish those tasks much more quickly than people who try to complete multiple tasks simultaneously.

We all complain about feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, and we are doing it to ourselves by asking our brains to constantly switch from email to Facebook to television to face-to-face conversation to Twitter every few seconds.

When I stopped trying to multitask, my stress levels went down by about half almost immediately.

Because I had stopped asking my brain to the unnecessary extra work of shifting focus repeatedly in a short period of time.

Once I realized that I was wasting most of my mental energy just on adapting to the constant switching, I embraced pomodoros (timed intervals where you only work on one task at a time). And my productivity went through the roof.

#4: It helps me get a better handle on how long things really take, which has allowed me to be more realistic about what I can really do.

I spent a lot of my life feeling overwhelmed because I used to be incredibly optimistic about how quickly I could get things done. And as I said “yes” to more and more things, I found myself pulling all-nighters to keep all the commitments I’d made. Or worse, asking people for multiple extensions to allow me to catch up on deadlines I missed.

Now, as I continue to track my time, I can look back through my log notebook and see how long different types of projects really take. How many words I can really write in an hour. How many pages I can really edit in a day.

I’m not perfect. I still sometimes I bite off more than I can chew, and I fall behind on one project or another–especially if it’s a new challenge, something I’ve never attempted before. (I had a little bit of that with the plotting webinars last month, and am working extra hours to catch up there.)

But I’m getting better as I continue to log my time.

#5: It increases my sense of satisfaction with my day.

Psychological studies have shown that crossing things off a list doesn’t make you feel happier about what you’ve done–the opposite, in fact. It makes you feel like you’re behind and you’ve got to work through your list just to get back to ground zero (i.e. a blank to-do list).

Those same studies have shown that making a list of the things you’ve accomplished, however, significantly boosts how happy you feel about your day.

Let me repeat that, because it’s really important. The simple act of writing down what you did each day makes you happier.

I’ve told so many people about the incredible increases of productivity I’ve gotten from this simple tool.

And everyone is excited about it until they realize it isn’t some cool piece of tech. Then they get that look on their faces that tells me they’re not going to try it.

Because it seems too simple.

You’d think they’d be delighted. Just write everything you do down and you’ll be more productive. Add a time stamp as you chronicle your daily achievements, and time management becomes a piece of cake.

But instead, their reaction is often somewhere between disdain and disbelief.

There’s a psychological reason for that too–we tend to want the complexity of our solutions to match the perceived complexity of the problem.

In other words, if I live with a problem for years, and then I discover that something incredibly simple fixes it…I feel like an idiot for not seeing that solution when the problem first started.

So instead, we rationalize. We come up with all sorts of reasons why that simple solution won’t work before we try it, and that saves us from having to feel dumb for not having seen the solution sooner.

But here’s the thing. We’re not dumb. We’re just overwhelmed with everything that’s going on, and we don’t often have the luxury of sitting down and really thinking about our lives. Or we get so much advice that we don’t have time to evaluate, so we ignore it all and keep on doing things the way we always have. We miss the simple fixes as we run from one task to the other, constantly trying to catch our deadlines.

I’m not saying that you should be anal-retentive and chronicle every last minute of each day for the rest of your life.

It’s a great exercise to do for a week, though, to get a clearer picture of how you manage your time.

It’s also a fantastic tool for keeping yourself focused during your scheduled work time or writing time.

Just knowing that you’re going to be writing down the next thing you do makes it easier to choose a worthwhile task over a waste-of-time activity.

I only log the hours that I’ve set aside for working–the rest of my time is my time, to spend with loved ones, to do fun things.

So if you’re wondering why you seem to work for hours and get nothing done, or if you feel like your schedule is completely out of your control, please consider logging your time for a few days. It’s an eye-opening experience.

And once you’ve done it, I’d love to hear what you learned!

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part Three)

Some more goodies for you–three more excerpts from the series of live trainings I did in October about plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

Romance brainstorming questions, illustrated with a romance story’s inciting incident:

Weaving multiple inciting incidents together in a multi-plotline story:

How to turn plot events into specific scenes that move your story forward:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot, which ended up generating more than 9 hours of video training!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here:

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part Two)

Yesterday, I shared some excerpts from a series of live trainings I did in October about plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

The result was more than 9 hours of video, covering an array of plotting techniques for all types of writers, both organic writers (pantsers) and outliners who love traditional story structure (plotters).

Here are some more excerpts from this training with you.

A couple of the “rules of thumb” for escalating conflict in fiction (applies to both outliners and intuitive writers, but each of you will use them a little differently):

How understanding power shifts in traditional plot structure can help organic or intuitive writers:

Why romance fiction is so tricky to do well:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here:

An Assortment of Plotting Tips for You (Part One)

In October, I taught a series of live trainings on plotting methods for both plotters and pantsers (From Premise to Plot: Easy Story Structure for Plotters and Pantsers).

It was a ton of fun, and so many of you who attended asked great questions that spurred me to add extra content beyond what I’d planned.

The result was more than 9 hours of video, covering an array of plotting techniques for all types of writers, both organic writers (pantsers) and outliners who love traditional story structure (plotters).

I’d like to share some excerpts from this training with you.

Functional definitions of “plot” and “plot point” (it’s not the same ones you learned in your high school English class):

Brainstorming questions for plotting, using the first pinch point as an example:

Plotters vs. pantsers – why you shouldn’t think of it as a “versus”:

Of course, we covered so much more in From Premise to Plot!

If you missed it and would like to learn more about the replays (and how you can get them), go here:

For Fiction Writers: How to Start Your Email List

I’ve been talking to a lot of you about book promotion lately, and I’m hearing that most of you know you could be be a lot more successful if you had a newsletter for your fans…

…but you’re not doing it.

Because you’re afraid:

  • it’ll take too much time
  • it means learning a bunch of complicated technical stuff
  • it’ll be expensive
  • you don’t think anyone will sign up

I understand. I procrastinated on creating my own email lists for months. For exactly the same reasons.

But once I was finally forced to do it…I realized that none of my fears were accurate.

So I’ve recorded a short video for you, where I show you how to create an email list in 15 minutes.

I could’ve done it in about 5 minutes, but I slowed down to be sure I was explaining everything completely.

In this video I show you:

  1. How to create a campaign (i.e. tell your service that you want to create a list for a particular purpose)
  2. How to create a signup form that asks people for their name and email address
  3. How to put that signup form on your blog or website
  4. How to set up a welcome message that each new person receives when they sign up
  5. How to send a newsletter to your list

I used Get Response, which I’ve been using for 9 months and have no complaints–their interface is simple and clear. It’s as easy to mail 400 people from my Get Response account as it is to email a friend in gmail.

I’m not recommending them and I’m not an affiliate, I’m just letting you know that’s what I use. I spent $15 a month for their cheapest plan, and I have no problem covering that from the royalties I make each month from my kindle sales.

Other writers tell me that they love MailChimp and aWeber. If you’re not sure which one is right for you, pick the cheapest one. Or ask a friend and go with whatever they’re using. The difference between the autoresponder services is not big enough to be worth stressing over if all you’re doing is emailing your readers once a month.

That brings me to the fear that it’ll take you too much time to publish a newsletter.

You want to keep your newsletter simple. Remember who you’re emailing–people who’ve already bought and read one of your books. They liked that book enough to sign up for your list. In other words, they’re already fans.

You don’t have to sell them anything.

All you have to do is keep them up-to-date. Once a month, let them know:

  • what you’re working on right now
  • what you’ve published since your last newsletter
  • if you’re giving away a freebie or running a contest or have a book deal for them

That’s it.

You can do more if you want. You can send them recipes. Or pictures of your cat. Or explain why you believe Pluto should be a planet no matter what astronomers say.

But you don’t have to. All you have to do is give them a short, sweet update. Once a month.

That’s twelve emails a year, and two-thirds of those emails will be blurbs for your latest release and your upcoming release. Which you have to write anyway.

Now, let’s talk about the fear that no one will sign up.

The standard advice is to write a short story related to your paid books, and give it away for free to people who sign up for your mailing list. That’s great advice.

But you don’t have to wait until you’ve got that story written to start your mailing list.

I just started publishing books in a new genre under a new pen name. I don’t have a story to give away yet. But I created a list on Get Response and then put the link to the signup page in both of the books that I released this month.

In the first three weeks my books were available on Amazon, 8 people signed up to be notified when the next in the series releases.

If you’ve got one book on Amazon–or you’ve got one that you’re preparing to publish right now–take 15 minutes and set up your email list. A year from now, when you get your royalty statements from Amazon, you’ll be so glad you did!

What’s Wrong (or Right) With This Book Cover?

It’s tough being an indie author–and one of the toughest things we have to tackle is cover art for our books.

It’s a dilemma–pay a graphics designer somewhere between $100 – $500 for a cover image that looks professional?

Go with a cheap designer and hope for the best?

Or…(gulp)…make the cover ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong:  this isn’t going to be a rant about how expensive covers are. Covers are incredibly important for attracting readers. A skilled graphic designer is worth the hefty fee.

But if you’re just starting out and you don’t have the money to invest in your writing career, hiring a pro might not be an option.

It’s a catch 22:  you need a fantastic cover to sell books so you have enough money to pay for a fantastic cover.

In the meantime, the best option is to keep your covers simple, whether you’re doing them yourself or hiring a less-experienced artist.

Let’s take a look at some great and not-so-great covers, and see what we can learn from them.

(And before I continue, I just want to say that I’m not in any way commenting on the actual content of the books–some of these books with not-so-great covers could tell amazing stories!  We’re not judging a book by it’s cover, just looking at how the cover could have done a better job of selling the book.)

Since most authors don’t have extensive Photoshop skills (me neither!), I’m focusing on the simplest kind of cover you can make:  one with a single stock photo with words added.  No special effects required.

maid for the billionaire good romance

This one’s really simple, but striking:  because the image is a closeup, and the man is nuzzling the woman’s neck, it feels intimate, which suggests we’re going to get a sexy romance.

The text is large enough that it’s easy to read, even in a thumbnail, and the girliness of the title font fits with a romance. The colors of the title font are also feminine, and they contrast with the image strongly enough to jump out.

The text is positioned such that even though it covers the lower part of the woman’s face, we still have a very clear, immediate understanding of what’s going on in the picture. Nothing crucial is obscured.

tangled beauty bad romanceCompare with this one–the way the couple is positioned, the image is also intimate, but not in a graceful way.

The colors on the cover are vivid, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they fight with the even more vivid title text, which glows like a neon sign, giving it an adult store vibe. The title font doesn’t match the raw sexuality that the cover artists seems to be going for either–the swirly, feminine font would look better on the cover of a Disney DVD.

The author’s name is in a font that clashes with the title font, and the whitish text is hard to see against the paleness of the girl’s forearm, which means at a first glance, I come away with the impression that the author’s name is “K.L. dleton.”
Both of these covers are simple text over a stock photo, but which one do you think readers will choose?

murder tightly knit romance goodHere’s another excellent cover made from adding text to a stock photo.

It’s a very simple design, but it looks very dynamic — the cover artist tilted the title slightly, so it looks like it’s taking off, and it balances out the contrasting slant of the knitting needles that the Amish girl is holding.

Part of the title is done with the same color as the girl’s ball of yarn, while the rest of the cover text is a lighter shade of that color. Not only do the two shades of blue tie the cover together, they also stand out against the girl’s gray dress and the white-painted boards she’s facing.

The title font is old-fashioned looking, which fits with the book’s topic, but it’s also easy to read.

Under the author’s name is a generic flourish, but the cover would still work without it.

not over you bad romanceCompare this one–the artist did sometime similar in terms of matching colors, using a paler shade of the model’s orange swimsuit for the author name and the heart in “you.”

But…the heavy black bars framing the image at the top and bottom scream “self-published”, and the title font is super-feminine–it doesn’t go with the hypermasculine, heavily-muscled man we’re looking at.

Also, as a side note, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that the model was wearing a swimsuit–the white stripe on the side is mostly obscured by his arm, and that orange is the same color that prison jumpsuits are made of. Exacerbating that impression is that the man is hunched forward aggressively, like he’s ready to pounce on something.

ryker good romanceHere’s another excellent (but also very simple) book cover — the black and white picture of the man has excellent contrast, and the look on the cover model’s face is intense (it fits with the series title “A Cold Fury Hockey Novel”).

The only splash of color is the title, which seems to be the hero’s name; even though the title is somewhat transparent, it still stands out, due the b&w background and the fact that the letters are outlined in white.

The author’s name, in white, is clearly visible against the dark waistband of the model’s shorts.

Super-simple design, with all the text in the lower quarter of the image, but striking. when you see it at thumbnail size in an Amazon search, this one jumps out at you.

dead soprano bad mysteryThe summary for the mystery “Dead Soprano” looked interesting, but the cover was extremely off-putting.

The photo is a blurry black-and-white image with poor contrast, and it actually looks a little bit fuzzy, like it might have been very low resolution or a poor-quality scan of a photo.

The title is in a difficult to read font–with some parts of the letters oddly thick and other parts so thin that they almost disappear–and the blue text doesn’t really stand out well from the grays in the cover model’s hat and suit. It’s work to figure out what the title of the book is, and the author’s name is almost illegible.

classmate murders bad mysteryHere’s another mystery that might be amazing, but whose cover scared me off.  The color scheme is garish, more appropriate for a teen romance that’s actually targeting girls who want to be cheerleaders. It doesn’t scream “murder mystery”, it screams “pep rally.”

Also, why does the cheerleader have an off-center “no” sign on her chest?

The placement of the title and author name is actually fine, but there are three different fonts used, and none of them go together.

Finally, the series title, “A Jim Richards Murder Novel” is sufficient–or the wording at the top that explains that Jim Richards is a senior citizen/sleuth is sufficient–but put together, one of them is redundant.

dead wood - good mysteryNot a romance cover, but a mystery, and it’s just about perfect.The stark, leafless tree in black-and-white suggests death and the dark tone that goes with murder mysteries.

Like the artist of “Not Over You” (above), this cover artist added a black shape to the image for the sake of making the author’s name stand out. But instead of identical black bars at the top and bottom, this artist chose a more organic, rounded shape at the bottom that feels much gentler.

The title font is also stark, and seems to be overlaid with the texture of weathered wood with peeling paint, which not only ties in with the book’s title nicely.

There’s a quote at the top that’s small enough that it’s hard to read at thumbnail size, but that’s okay–if the artist had put it much lower on the cover, it would have felt like clutter instead of a helpful blurb that’s visible when you click on the book.

Are you starting to see that the good covers all have something in common?

  1. Simple, striking image that communicates either the content or the tone of the book.
  2. Not a lot of text (so the cover doesn’t look cluttered).
  3. Fonts work together if there’s more than one, and they’re chosen for how they fit with the image.
  4. A simple color scheme, with only one or maybe two bright colors used to highlight something important (like the ball of yarn and the word “murder” on the “Murder Tightly Knit” cover).
  5. The words are integrated into the design in some way–the design doesn’t feel like a stock photo with words tacked onto the edges.


Short Story Q&A Webinar (Plus PDF Slides)

I did a short story webinar last night, where I talked about incorporating short stories into your writing career plan in a variety of ways (and being strategic about it). Topics covered included approaches for novelists wanting to promote with short stories vs short story writers who want to build income through Amazon Short Reads, and much more.

Here’s the replay, and a PDF of the slides:

Short Story Q&A PDF:  Short Story Q&A – May 14 2015 – Lynn Johnston