Cover advice: The Last Girls Standing

Apropos of this thread on Covercritics.


So! The bad news is your current cover is not on the right track but the good news is you’ve got what sounds like a cracking premise/hook which ought to get plenty of attention as soon as people catch the idea.


So the job of the cover is to make that as clear as possible.


From what you have said on Covercritics I am going to go ahead and infer some stuff about your book. Bear in mind I might be off with some of this but I'm going to assume this all stands as I move through the process. this is intended as a guide to show you the most successful steps for getting to the right cover. If any of the specifics are off, you can mentally edit those!


So my inferences are:


That as you have teenaged characters so this is primarily a YA book (though probably a slightly hard-edge, older-readers one). Tone-wise, it’s clearly horror by genre but going by the premise and the trope-referencing title, we’re talking horror with something of the tongue-in-cheek and/or slightly campy (no pun intended). We're harking back to the classic slasher/schlocky teen-aimed films of the 80s/90s/early-2000s from Friday The 13th through to I Know What You Did Last Summer. The self-aware spin within the premise and title implies at least a slight archness to the tone.


Like Buffy or The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, it's pulling on a tradition of horror but subverting that into a story where the girl is not the victim but the fighting hero. Great!



Research

Now the first place to start always, with every cover, is research and it’s super clear when a novice designer hasn’t done that. There are all kinds of trends, tropes and guidelines guiding covers for each genre and sub-genre. Of course you want your book to be unique but you also want it to very clearly signal what other books it is a bit like, to say to the right people 'if you enjoyed that, you'll enjoy this'. It;s the only way the right readers are going to notice your book.


I always start by going to Amazon. I'll use the US version as your primary market looks to be a US one (there are some different cover trends and tropes across country oundaries, e.g. Uk and US, though in genre fiction the lines aren't so distinctly drawn).


Narrowing down the earch: Books > YA > fantasy and science fiction > horror.


Then I just scroll through the first few pages grabbing the covers that leap out as eye-catching, particularly looking out for any that look like they have any relevance to the book I am designing for.

All of these are great, effective covers. All of them are sorted as ‘horror’ by Amazon. But only some are going to be relevant reference points for your book.


It’s worth looking at a wide range of genre covers like this rather than narrowing down too quickly because you can also work out broad trends, and avoid going by any mistaken preconceived ideas. You may spot some trends that surprise you straight away.


E.g: palette-wise I'm surprised by the amount of hot pink going on there. Without researching I wouldn’t have thought of pink as an obvious horror colour but seeing it, it makes sense: it’s lurid without being gruesome. A strong neon or hot pink indicates a girl-oriented book without feeling soft or safe.


Less surprisingly, perhaps, but also helpful are other trends and common factors: e.g. these are all high-contrast covers particularly using dense black and shadow.Many make sure of destaurated or balck and white elements juxtaposed with lurid colour. Typography is hugely important for setting tone and sub-genre (e.g. I now all the ones with gothic lettering are going to be vampirey)


Once you've absorbed those broad pointers, you can begin to discard some of these covers as pretty irrelevant to your own. Those Maureen Johnson covers are gorgeous – but completely inappropriate to your described story. Similarly we can weed out The Bone Houses, Winterwood etc as just not being within a sub-genre that overlaps with yours.

The covers left in here are the ones with something specific that might inform your book. None of them are completely in line with your book but each has something that is worth paying attention to as a possible angle of approach.


Hunting Prince Dracula looks like a pretty serious and gothic-tinged historical horror which is not like your book, but does clearly get across the idea of a table-flipping slayer narrative.


The Vampire Diaries books are more supernatural romance than they are horror but it's worth paying attention to how the title treatment really nicely gets across a tone that balanced OTT fun with serious horror-fantasy vibes.


There’s Someone Inside Your House feels like a movie poster, specifically for the kind of 90s/early-200s teen-aimed horror film that your premise has notes of. Talking of which those Lois Duncan reissues again have really great tone-setting lettering. That scratchy, uneven hand-painted look really gets across a ‘slasher’ vibe.


Two books, #mudertrending and Betrayal use a paper doll type image which suggests a possible good lead for your book in terms of imagery. Dolls of any kind are inherently creepy-looking and it’s a good way of expressing visually the idea of ‘a set of girls’.


The Belles, American Monsters and Etiquette and Espionage all feature cover models prominently and thus communicate the sense of these books centring on a young female protagonist effectively. The Thirst also features a central female character shot, but I’ve eliminated it for giving a ‘helpless victim’ vibe instead of ‘fierce action girl’ or ‘survivor’ vibe. The Oldest Girl in Town has all that female energy just as strongly as the face-featuring covers just in a more distinct and eye-catching way.


Finally, the Sabrina books, the R. L Stine reissue and the Lois Duncan reissues point to something else which is your favour: that throwing back to 90s/early 2000s horror and horror-related fantasy is really hot right now.


So that last point suggests another angle of research: 80s and I would say particularly 90s/early 2000s teen horror media. The horror movies and books that your premise links to.


Summer camp horror might obviously suggest classics like Sleepaway Camp and Friday The 13th. And those posters are worth reminding yourself of. But the tone seems off for what your doing. But it’s posters like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream that start to focus on the victims and particularly the final girls. They seem like the more valuable reference point.


And at least as importantly, the 90s/early 2000s properties based on subverting the victims into heroes and turning the horror narrative on its head in a pop-feminist way: Buffy and Sabrina.

Again, you can pick out some useful trends. One worth noting is that the two modern images here use hand-written lettering like Friday The 13th; all the other fonts look rather dated. Blue is a strong trend too, and again we see lots of the high-contrast/de-saturated trends.


Finding imagery

So now you have explored how books within your network and the movies in your lineage have packaged themselves. With some principles based on that now established, it's time to find the imagery for your own book.


For me the things you want to signal are:


The genre and particular tone. I.e. this is broadly horror but it’s not Saw. All the above research should have helped pinned down where your tone sits and what kinds of colours and lettering etc might help signal that.


That this is a book founded in horror but which subverts the slasher/monster-spree narrative into a protagonist-centred heroic story.


Something that is really cool about your premise is that where something like Buffy subverted the horror story in one way (the vulnerable female heroine turning out to be the powerful hero), but this story adds a new dimension that seems particularly timely: the lone survivor girl joins a team of fellow Final Girls.


That's really central to the book. And as Nathan on covercritics said, it would be ideal to lean into that, what with girl team-up movies being kind of a thing right now. But as long as you are working with pre-exsting stock imagery it;s going to difficult to find an atmosphere-appropriate image of a group of girls. there's just aren't many about. You could go for something more figurative, like the paper dolls idea that came up above, but you might risk losing some clarity of vibe there...


If you are reliant on existing stock imagery, it means you’re going to have to think pretty laterally and try out a bunch of different approaches.


(On a similar note there’s a massive bias towards Causasian models in stock imagery so if your protagonist isn't, you have to think outside of character-representation most of the time).


So let’s take to Shutterstock! You may or may not end up buying an image from there - but it’s a better place to search than Google Images because you’re not going to be sifting through endless snapshots and other people’s book covers etc – you’re going to be narrowing down to a library that is, though vast, only full of artwork created with editorial or commercial use in mind.


I went through trying a bunch of different search terms, starting out broad and then trying more specific ideas as different possibilities suggested themselves.


E.g.

Teenage horror

Girl survivor horror movie

Girl warrior horror movie

Girl team (excluding the keyword ‘sport’)

Girl bloody face

Girl axe

Etc


I tried search terms that don’t directly connect to your narrative but might through up something appropriate by being in related fields:


Teen witches modern

Vampire slayer

Zombie girl


From across these searches and more I gathered up a handful of images worth trying out and did five-minute mockups of how each might work with some very rough letting overlayed:

The purple cover features on of the few images I could find which got across anything of that girl-team vibe. The other five are all images I felt got across something of that broad sense of ‘subverted slasher story/girl flipping the tables’ vibe.


A white background is always tricky for covers as the edges disappear on-screen, so three are off to a bad start. But the bottom left two are otherwise two of the stronger possibilities. They’re not quite telling the right story. It would be easy to interpret as a story about a disturbed killer girl but the title is so communicative it might be OK.


The two other possibilities I feel strongest about at this stage are the bottom right and top right. To take the bottom right first, this is the original stock images that I’ve used here:

As you can see the the original image is meant as a gothic ghost/zombie illustration, but it shows the importance of spreading your net far and wide in searching for possible imagery. In this case cropping out the cemetery details leaves a potentially appropriate image, a girl who is dirty and wounded but standing strong, with other female figures poised in the background.


The other image showing some potential for development is the one top right. The vibe feels horror-action-y without being gory, the pose is confident and fight-y, and the composition really lends itself to a cover with the back of the T-shirt making a nice frame for the title.

This is a more obvious image than other other but still shows how some images are going to be useful only once you’ve edited or cropped them in a certain way. Here the environment the girl is standing in looks video-gamey and for some reason she’s got no trousers on! But cropped down these distracting aspects drop away.


Developing cover options

So let’s take those three rough ideas on to the next stage of development and see how far the potential runs on each.


Where I’ve roughly scribbled in a text layout above I’m going to spend some designing something closer to a final look. I’ll do a proper pass on lettering, taking a queue from my research that the scratchy/rough hand-painted look is the way to go.


So firstly:

A couple of these don’t look bad as potential book covers but definitely aren’t right for your book. We’re not shedding the psycho-girl vibe of the photo and the figure just looks too calm to get across the sense that she’s a proactive hero. The empty background also implies exactly the opposite of a key feature of the books – she is isolated.


OK, so next:

Much better. This cover obviously doesn’t tell the entire story but I feel it gets across exactly what is needed in tone for your book. Like the previous image it's a girl with a weapon, but the confident pose make this feel like a fighter rather than a creepy psycho. The axe does a lot to clue us into the ‘horror’ genre. And the image makes such a good frame for text that the whole cover feels more bespoke and professional.


I’ve added in a scratch tagline here too, which is well worth having. Genre and children’s fiction routinely include these now, like movie posters: a quick punch tagline that gets across the hook. Whatever cover you end up with, that’s worth including.


And the final option:

This feels equally strong just pulling in a slightly different direction – more towards horror where the previous image leaned into the action. I like the atmosphere and the presence of other figures. I like the crop at the shoulders which feels horror-y and the focus on the legs to tie in with the word ‘standing’ of the title.


One reason both these images are more successful than the first is that they have a slightly soft illustrated vibe. That feels more in line with the correct kind of horror – it ties back to R. L. Stine covers and the airbrush-illustrated movie posters of the 80s. It feels like fun, young, imaginative horror, not the stark realism that photography implies.


Editing stock imagery

Even when you find an image that will work, it will need adjusting to best suit your particular purpose. You can see if you compare these covers to the stock images I have done a lot of editing for contrast and brightness.


You don't need advanced Photoshop skills (or even Photoshop) to do this, just ability to lasso areas of the image and adjust the levels within them, and the patience to do this until you have everything in the perfect balance.


For example, in the red t-shirt image, in my crop the bright oranges of the background become distracting away from the central frame of the t-shirt. So I’ve lasso'd the background areas and darkened/de-saturated them.


Or in the second image I've lifted the brightness and contrast of the central figure a lot generally. Then as I’ve worked on the composition of the cover I’ve come to realise that the detail of the girl’s wounded arm crossed across her needs to be especially crisp and light, partly because it adds interest into the cover and partly because it’s the part of the pose that makes the girl look clearly alive.


I’ve flipped the image too, which brings me to...


Typography

In the graveyard image, I reversed the orientation because the shape the girl’s bent arm makes fits better with slanted text. And I’ve slanted the text because it gives me more space for the comparatively long word ‘Standing’ to fit without feeling cramped or much smaller than the other title words. (And of course angled text is appropriate to horror.)


I chose a font called Edo SZ for the roughly-painted look. But it’s only base: I turned the letters into editable graphics) and pulled the shapes around.


This is the other ability which it is hard to do without in creating a cover, the ability to do more than just type in a chosen font, but to manipulate the letters afterward to suit.


Even if it’s just lassoing and manually moving/resizing letters a bit, it makes all the different. With a hand-drawn font like this it just looks immediately obvious when a title has been typed out and placed with no further manipulation.


In this case if you look closely you can see that though the writing looks rough I have carefully moved the shapes of the letters around to work well with the shapes of the illustration. Look at how the D of 'standing' sits within the black space of the leg or the S and T of 'Last' give the hand detail clearance.


For me, playing with lettering is in Illustrator and means: choosing a base font, writing out the text, then using the 'expand' function to turn the text into graphics that can be manipulated. Other people would work on Photoshop, or even simply literally painting or felt-tipping the letters on paper and scanning them.



NB: this post was actually written and published 10th Feb 2020 but date attached changed for reasons too uninteresting to get into.

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