Monday, June 26, 2017

How the Starswept Cover Came To Be

A post by Mary Fan
Hey everyone! As some of you might recall, I had a cover reveal for my YA sci-fi novel, , here a few weeks back. Today, I'm gonna take y'all behind the scenes of how it came to be.

STARSWEPT is, at its core, a romance. It's the story of a teen viola player, Iris, who's grown up surrounded by classical music and dance, who's been so immersed in the glittering dramas and fairy tales of the stage that she wants nothing more to be a part of it all. Though she lives in a sci-fi future--the story takes place about 200 years in Earth's future--she's an old-fashioned romantic. And she soon finds herself lost in the kind of hopeless love she depicts in her music after an unexpected encounter with a mysterious alien boy... who ends up revealing information that shatters everything she thought she knew about the world she lives in. Her journey eventually takes her to an alien planet lightyears away.

So I needed the cover to convey both the romantic tone of the story and Iris's voice and something that spoke of galaxy-spanning sci-fi. Also, something that fit in the young adult category. In addition, it was super important to me that Iris herself be pictured on the cover. Even though there's been a trend lately of YA covers not depicting people. But here's the thing: Iris is Asian American. There are not a lot of Asian Americans (or Asians in general) on book covers. Especially in sci-fi/fantasy.

Anyone who says they don't like seeing characters on book covers likely hasn't grown up feeling invisible because they've never seen anyone who looks like them on book covers. I remember wandering the rows of bookstores and libraries, seeing white face after white face depicted as the heroines of countless stories, be it contemporary or speculative. This is beautiful, they said. This is normal. This is what a heroine looks like.

This is not you.

Unless it was a specifically Asian-centric story focusing specifically on Asian-ness--think Joy Luck Club or Dragonwings--Asians were literally invisible in fiction. They were not pictured. They weren't intrepid warriors or quirky sleuths or determined underdogs. Or romance novel heroines. They didn't get to wear the pretty ball gown under the swirly title, didn't get to narrate the story, didn't get to catch the eye of the handsome stranger.

Asian girls can be heroines too.
With Iris, I was determined to take one step more toward changing all that. She was going to be front-and-center on the cover of a sci-fi romance, telling young Asian girls that yes, you are beautiful. You are normal--and you are more than just your Asian-ness. You are what a heroine looks like.

Anyway, those of you who read a lot of YA may have noticed that girls in ball gowns is a common theme on covers, and the concept fit Iris's story perfectly. Not only does it scream "romance"--signaling to romance readers that this is their kind of book--but it brings in that old-fashioned romanticism that's so integral to Iris's character. Plus, she literally attends a ball at one point.

To add in the element of sci-fi, I decided she'd be pictured against a space background--a galaxy or nebula. And holding her instrument, since it's such a core part of both her character and the story.

I briefly considered going the old-fashioned route and searching stock photo libraries for a suitable model, but quickly abandoned the idea. First of all, stock photo libraries are overwhelmingly white... there just weren't a lot of options. And secondly, I've been around stock photo libraries and book covers long enough to have seen the same faces on different covers multiple times. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with this, but it began to bug me a bit (I've seen the characters on my other covers on several other books, and it weirds me out a bit every time).

Angel Fan, about to dive in for the shoot
Next, I went about arranging a photo shoot... and decided it should be underwater. I've always loved underwater photography for the otherworldly, ethereal look it gives its subjects. And it was perfect for my pretty little romance novel. Also, the weightlessness of being underwater translated perfectly to the weightlessness of being in outer space.

Finding a model was easy: my kid sister, Angel, was eager to volunteer. And it just so happened that she was uniquely qualified for the gig. Not only did she have the right look, but she's a dancer and an experienced swimmer (a trained diver, in fact!) who wasn't afraid of spending long periods of time in the water. And she actually plays viola. As a string player myself (violinist), it always bothered the heck out of me to see unqualified models atrociously clutching and
One of Roberto's gorgeous photos.
clawing at their instruments. Even when they weren't "playing," the way they held the instruments made it obvious that they didn't know what they were doing. Even if Iris wasn't going to be playing her viola on the cover, whoever portrayed her sure as heck had to know how to handle one. And Angel did.

So I had the concept, and I had the model. Next thing I needed: A photographer experienced in underwater photography. Lucky for me, I live in the NYC area, and finding one was a simple matter of Googling. I came across Roberto Falck's website and immediately fell in love with his portfolio. This was my guy.

Next task: obtaining props and wardrobe. Since I wanted a viola to be depicted in the shoot and knew that whatever unfortunate instrument I used would be totally ruined, I went online and sought out the cheapest instrument I could find. Thank goodness for eBay. I also had to find a suitable ball gown for Angel to wear. I ended up finding two that I liked. The first one was a slender pink dress with butterfly sleeves I absolutely adored. However, one of the best things about underwater photography is the floaty-ness it adds to fabric, and I was hoping to find something with a lot of skirt. So I found a
Angel doing her make-up before the shoot
second dress--a white one--that had a train. I loved everything about it, but was worried it might be too heavy and pose a safety risk. So I obtained both dresses and decided to see the day of which one worked.

Then there are all the little things that pop up. For instance: what to do about hair and makeup? Well, hair, I decided, was easy: She'd just wear her natural long hair down and let the water play with it. For makeup, I went online to mermaid forums (as in, forums for professional underwater performers) to gather tips. Still, I wanted Iris's look to be as natural as possible... "no make-up make-up," if you will. Essentially, I wanted Iris to be all about natural beauty. So I ended up finding a waterproof tattoo cover-up recommended by several professional mermaids that would serve as foundation (and cover Angel's wrist tattoo). And that was the only make-up we ended up using. Also, it occurred to me to obtain a two-piece swimsuit to serve as underwear and pack some towels and Angel's bathrobe so she wouldn't have to wander around in a soaking dress when she got out of the water. Finally, Roberto suggested trying a few shots of Angel seated, so I found a short stool that would be heavy enough to sink (in other words, no wood).

We rented out the pool at a Long Island diving school for the shoot. Roberto and his crew arrived the evening before to set up--the lights, the backdrop, etc.--and conduct a few test shots on a different model (an acquaintance on his).

Angel, Roberto, and Frank in the pool
Angel and I arrived the next morning. Besides Roberto, there were six other crewmembers: Ed (the producer), Frank (underwater support), Jeff, Jesse, and Maha (the latter three performed miscellaneous support tasks... adjusting the equipment, previewing the photos on a computer, running errands, etc.)

The pool room was super hot and humid, since the water had to be kept pretty warm (no hypothermia!). We started with the pink dress, since it was lighter and would be easier for Angel. Roberto and Frank were in the pool with her--Roberto in his wetsuit photographing her, and Frank providing miscellaneous underwater support, which included fluffing up Angel's hair and skirt to give it more movement. I spent the whole time crouched by the pool's edge, watching everything from above.

Roberto would tell Angel what poses to try, and Angel would oblige (as a dancer with ballet training, she's really good at posing). Each time, he'd give a count, and then they'd submerge (one... two... three... hold your breath and go down!). They'd stay down for about a minute, then come up. Roberto would review a few shots and give Angel feedback. I also got to get a peek at some of them in case I wanted to give feedback, but I really didn't have anything to say other than, "That's beautiful!"

Le broken viola. I ended up using this shot for a chapter spread.
Of course, something had to go wrong. About an hour into the shoot, the viola broke. The neck
snapped clean off the body. Apparently it was because the waterlogged wood expanded and softened, and the tension of the strings pulled it apart. We'd barely begun... we were scheduled to go all through the afternoon.

Fortunately, Frank was super handy, and I know a thing or two about string instruments. He pointed out that he could screw the neck back on if we could get the strings off. So I unstrung the instrument, and Maha ran out to the nearest hardware store to get some screws. It was a good time for Angel to take a break, too (and she was really glad that bathrobe was there!). After Frank got the neck back on, I restrung the instrument, being mindful to keep the strings looser this time (the hardest part was getting the bridge to stay up, since that's held up by the string tension alone, without letting the strings get too tight).

After that, fortunately, it was pretty much smooth sailing. After another hour of shooting, Angel changed into the white dress. And, it turned out, it wasn't too heavy at all! And the train looked fantastic underwater... the skirt was a lot more dynamic than the pink one was. Angel tried a bunch of different poses... in the end, we ended up with more than 400 shots.

Here's a behind-the-scenes video Roberto made...

Now, I had been in contact with a cover artist since before the photo shoot, and when I last heard from her, she was ready and eager to do the design, just waiting on the photos. Once the photos were available, I contacted her again, and... crickets. For more than a month.

So I contacted Streetlight Graphics (whom I'd worked with in the past and totally love--the only reason I was trying a different artist this time was for variety) in a panic, since I had to have the cover done by a certain date if I was to have hardcovers printed in time for Gen Con, a huge convention I exhibit at every year. Thankfully, Glendon (owner/artist extraordinaire) was able to accommodate the hastened timeframe.

From a graphic design standpoint, I only had two instructions, really: That the background be some kind of pretty galaxy/nebula, and that there be some kind of frame. Because I was determined to have silver foil for this cover and thought it'd be cool to have a silver frame (as well as the title and author name being in foil). I was thrilled with the end result... it's everything I wanted. Some have pointed out that it's a little old-fashioned looking. Considering it's about a classical musician, I say that's all the better.

When I finally got my hardback production sample in my hands, with that photo and those shiny foil letters... well, let's just say I needed a tissue ;-)

Clockwise from top left: Shot as seen from above the water, un-retouched shot, cover as hardback, cover as e-book
STARSWEPT will be released on August 29 from Snowy Wings Publishing!





Brenda St John Brown said...

Wow! I love that! And love that it's your sister on the cover, too. It really is a fab cover and your hard work shows!

Kimberly G. Giarratano said... It's so incredible to see how it all came together.

Mary Fan said...

Thank you!! :-D

Mary Fan said...

Aw thanks! <3

Carrie Beckort said...

Thanks for sharing the process with us, Mary! The cover really turned out great.

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Your cover is incredible. Thanks for sharing the process, I had no idea how all the details come together, fabulous post.

Mary Fan said...

Thank you much!

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