On Writing,  publishing

Writing A Novel From a Cover

Yes, An Old Pulp Trick…

But I did it a number of times in the hundred-plus books I wrote in my days of traditional publishing. And I am writing a book now from a cover. And having a blast with it.

What do I mean by writing a novel from a cover? Well, exactly that. The cover exists and I look at the cover and write the novel to fit the cover.

The history of this tends to flow through many writers and far over a hundred years. In fact, at one point or another, most pulp writers were assigned to do this for a short story or a novel to fit a magazine.

I had always liked the idea, but never had the chance until one fine day I got a call from Martin H. Greenberg of Tekno Books. He was in a bind and needed my help.

It seems that Jonathan Frakes (of Next Gen and directing fame) had agreed to have his name on a ghostwritten novel called The Abductors: Conspiracy. This was back in the day that movie stars were supposedly writing a lot of books. Some helped in the writing like Shatner, others at least read them. Only a few actually wrote them.

Frakes didn’t much like the idea from what I heard, but someone convinced him to go along. (More than likely an agent.) The book was to be published by Tor Books. So they hired a writer (not me) and the writer wrote a fine book (I read it and liked it, but wow was it not Frakes.)

So it took a while, a long while, before Frakes’ people finally nixed the original manuscript. Only problem was in the publishing house the book was done, ready to go out. Tor had put a big push behind it, orders had been taken, and so on, but they had no book. They had a dust jacket, but no text.

And since I was known to Marty and others as being fast and good, Marty called me. They rushed a contract through in a matter of days and sent me the cover.

And I wrote The Abductors: Conspiracy from the cover of the book in six days (70,000 words), a book I know fit Frakes, and they didn’t even have time to copyedit and it came out on time.  And Frakes was nice enough to make sure my name was on the book with his inside. That I was not expecting. I was expecting a ghost book.

I wrote this in 1996, so you want to see what a first draft and only draft of mine looked like twenty-plus years ago, here it is. No copyediting or editing. They flat didn’t have the time. I doubt anyone anywhere in any publishing house read it, to be honest. It flat had to go to print pretty much the day I turned it in. Copies now are only used and some are expensive, so might not be worth that. (grin)

So that was my first fun with writing a novel to a piece of cover art. I had a couple other times I did it for my ghost work, but I can’t talk about those.

Over the years now with Smith’s Monthly, I have done it a few times as well, and now, with this challenge, I am doing it again. (Only with twenty years more practice and great copyediting now. (grin))

The first book in this July challenge, Tombstone Canyon, the cover came about halfway through the book. So that doesn’t count.

But as I was finishing that book, Allyson Longueira, the publisher at WMG asked me what I was writing next and I told her I had no idea. Nothing had struck me yet.

So I told her I would go find a piece of art that hit me and decide from there. As she does a lot, she shook her head at me.

I found that nifty piece of art with the woman with the diamond and did a mock-up of a Smith’s Monthly cover to see if it would work. (Day before I started the book.)

Allyson liked it and turned it into the cover for Murder Takes a Diamond.

I am writing that book now. Basically from the cover. Great fun and I have a note on my computer that says simply, “Put a blue diamond in the book somewhere.”

I had also found another piece of art that I thought was fun with the same model. And Allyson, who is a master of branding series, thought it would be fun as well.

She played with the art to make it work, just as she played with the second art to make it work.

And I now have a third book in the series. Death Takes it Raw.

Only problem is, I am working on finishing the second book. I have covers, but no book.(grin)

So who knows, I might do another Mary Jo Assassin book this challenge or wait until next month. But it is sure fun to write a book to fit a cover, especially when the covers are as good as what Allyson does with series branding.

You might want to try it sometime. Just for fun.


  • Jim Johnson

    I love that Frakes story. Any other tips or advice on just writing into the dark based only on a cover? I found a couple pre-made covers for a really low price (like under $20 each) and think they’re great covers that’ll make fun books, just need to sit down and write them up.

    • dwsmith

      Other than to try to work in an element in the cover in the story, no tips. Just have fun and play with the story.

  • Shawna Canon

    I’ve got four books planned where I’m doing this. I found pre-made covers on different artists’ websites, and with each one I liked it so much that I came up with a story idea for it and bought the cover. And now I’m actually pretty excited to write those books when I can fit them into my schedule.

    On the subject of ghost-written books, though, I hate them. As a reader, I feel like it’s such a lie, a smack to the face, really. I read some tie-in books when I was a teen, and ones where the author was someone actually involved in the show/movie always seemed to be more legitimate. Knowing most of that was just marketing BS makes me angry. I mean, that’s just flat out lying. You might think I should have known that those people didn’t really write those books, but A) I was a kid, and B) I tend not to automatically assume that someone is lying to me, nor do I think that “I should have known” lets them off the hook for doing so. Bah. Just another reason why fanfic is better. But hey, now I know never to believe when a book says it’s written by some actor I might like, so thanks, publishing industry. Because the world definitely needs more cynicism. (No, I didn’t ever read that specific book, but there are others I read which now I’m questioning.)

    • dwsmith

      They are pretty much required these days to list the author. If the publisher hires the ghost, like I did. If an author hires a ghost, that’s another matter.

    • Harvey

      Hmm. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, is a ghost-written novel any more of a lie than a novel written under a pseudonym or persona? Other than that, just a couple of points: One, the novel or story exists for entertainment. If it entertains, what difference does it make who wrote it? Two, a professional fiction writer makes a living by lying, yes? Wasn’t it the great Lawrence Block who wrote Telling Lies for Fun and Profit? Of course, given his profession I’m not sure I can believe anything he wrote, but I siphoned what I believe were some great tips. (grin)

      • dwsmith

        Yup. The people who have trouble with who the author is really should get a life. As I have a fondness of saying for many topics… “It’s Fiction!”

  • Diane Darcy

    My romance writer friends and I used to go to the charm store and look at charms for bracelets. The charms always gave us cool ideas for stories. Now we mock up covers. =)

  • Chong Go

    It occurs to me that it doesn’t even have to be my cover! (bursts into evil laughter 🙂 )

  • Jo

    I remember the Frank Frazetta covers, some of them were written to his work. The Death Dealer stories, if I remember correctly, were written to Frazetta’s paintings.

  • Michèle Laframboise

    Something remotely similar happened at the end of final editing of a SF novel some years ago. The graphic designer came up with a fantastic cover with the opening scene of a little girl fleeing some unseen danger. Except the color of the dress, white in the text, was a nice aqua blue. Well, I changed the detail in the first chapter to match the cover.
    And I did it again for the opening scene of my next novel… I’m a nitpicker!