People tend to think of cover design as something that happens after the book is finished; perhaps contemporaneously with edits and revisions, but certainly after the draft is complete. And yes, that's usually so. But it doesn't always have to be.
Perhaps this doesn't apply so much to full-length novels, but in shorter fiction, your cover designer can be an amazingly useful resource while you are writing. I discovered this by accident.
Years ago, I was struggling to write a short story for a competition I wanted to enter. I had a sort of basic concept which involved the overthrow of a particularly nasty office bully. The contest rules called for the story to contain three elements - a page torn out of a calendar, a paragraph from The Moonstone, and raging jealousy.
Rather than try to work those things into a story, my approach was to consider the three elements and let the story form around them, crystallising like one of those chemical gardens children make with copper salts and what-all. But somehow it wasn't quite coming together, and I moaned about it to my friend, as one does.
My saviour that day was that my good friend, whose shoulders have borne so many of my writing woes, is also my cover designer, Patti Roberts, of Paradox Book Covers. Patti's all about the covers, and her response to my dilemma was to create a cover for the story. This is it:
I loved the cover so much. The office bully (shown on the right) was not at all like my original concept for the character (I was writing from life), but I accepted the change, and suddenly the story took life in my mind. The character I based on this picture really worked in the story. All of a sudden I had a plot that worked, driven by the particular nature of the character I based on the woman in this picture.
I don't know what would have happened without the timely intervention of Patti and her cover. I suspect I'd either have written something not nearly as good, or perhaps I'd have missed the deadline. That would have been a pity, as I won a prize, but more importantly, my little win with Sophie's Revenge gave me the confidence to tackle writing more short fiction, of which back then I had done hardly any. And looking back over the time since then, and all the short and long stories I've written, they've brought me so much enjoyment, and have allowed me to experiment with all kinds of techniques and different genres. If there's one thing that's made me grow as a writer, I'd say it's been writing a lot of short fiction.
Of course, with a full-length novel, everything is often very clearly specified at the outset, when you finish your outline. But it's worth considering commissioning your cover early, rather than late, in the process. There is another obvious benefit to this. If your cover is going to depict people, objects and so on, there will be all kinds of details about those people or objects that don't really matter to the story, but will be described, or at least mentioned, as you write. Having your cover early in the game allows you to fit that part of your writing around it, avoiding long wrangles with the designer at the other end - 'no, it's perfect but she's supposed to have red hair', and so on. It can also surprise you with the little touches of texture you can find in it. For example, there was nothing in the contest specifications about plants, but the touches of greenery in Patti's cover prompted a chain of thinking that gave me the character Sophie Green, and I've used her again and again; to date I've published three short stories featuring her, and I have a novella in progress. One day I may bring out a Sophie Green collection. Of all my fictional characters, she is my favourite. And without Patti's cover, she would very likely never have existed.
Don't miss the new book in my Operation Tomcat series. Operation Badger will release on 1 June, on both AMAZON and SMASHWORDS, and can be preordered at either site.