There is no specific moment I can recall that explains it. Like most people as a kid I played with toys, I read comic books, I read fantasy and sci-fi novels. And I had ideas. I didn’t really write, not then, but I created stories in my head.
I love Dungeons & Dragons. I had (and have) a lot of the rulebooks and settings. I devoured everything Forgotten Realms when that came out. But surprisingly I’ve played maybe 30 hours total in my entire life. I wanted to play more but it just never happened. Didn’t stop me from having pages of characters and adventures written.
I didn’t create elaborate stories with my toys, I played with them. I read books but didn’t dream of writing my own.
It just happened my sophomore year in high school. During study hall in the library, I grabbed a notebook and just started writing. It was a rambling story with no clear direction but had a starting point. I kept adding to it as I created characters and started basing them around my friends and other people at the school. It never went anywhere but that was the start.
But it wasn’t my first experience. That was a school project in elementary school. We had to create our own book, write and draw. Mine was a fantasy. A classic “attack the tower” kind of thing. I still remember the basics of it to this day almost forty years later.
But no writing from then to high school and no writing from high school to after college. It was then that I started creating characters and concepts for comic books.
I love the ongoing serial nature of comics and that heavily influences my work now. Nothing I create is limited. It’s all designed to be ongoing, no end in sight.
Aside from the few pages written during that time, nothing else came of it. But I always created. That seemed to be non-stop. Always some new idea. Which in a way wasn’t helping. I’d develop something, come up with a new idea and move on.
Almost ten years ago was when the idea of actually writing again came about. I don’t know why, it just happened. I did some fan fiction for G.I. Joe on a popular collector’s website. I had a broad idea and just went with it. Then I started my serial thing that I called Gatewatch, which only lasted a couple weeks. It was on a site I created (and looked horrible) and was a series of short pieces about different characters that took place throughout the day and the published stuff covered about a week. They’d cross each other’s path and so on. Nothing came of it and things fizzled again.
I tried starting various story concepts after that and was still almost endlessly creating but just couldn’t get the groove to start producing. Mostly that was because I don’t like anything that I write. Makes it really hard to get motivated.
That lasted until Amazon launched Kindleworlds and I was able to create G.I. Joe stories and actually get paid for them. That was the catalyst and away I went. The first book I published, The Skeleton Stone, was not the first thing written in that world (those few pages will actually end up in the fourth book in the series). It was an idea that came from playing a game and I started writing it and adapted it to fit into the fantasy world that I’d been creating for awhile.
Now here I am today, still having the problem of too many ideas but I now that I’ve had stuff published it helps me focus a bit more. I’m not the fastest by any means, but I enjoy doing it and want to get my concepts and ideas out there.
That’s why I write. It just kind of happened. I have stories to tell and I want to tell them.
Authors are often asked this question, and I have yet to form a conclusive answer.
To put it simply: Compulsion.
There are universes constantly exploding inside of my brain, vibrant worlds pushing against my bones and demanding release. Scenes play out on loop in my head, characters live and breathe through my eyes. They must be heard, they must be sculpted into something tangible.
Conversations of people both named and unnamed echo within my imagination. They evoke feelings that I have difficulties expressing to others. I want to share them with my readers, help them see what I see. And maybe get a glimmer of insight as to who I am.
There may not be meaning in the words I form, not conscious meaning anyway. I write what comes out. And it builds and builds. Sticky webs of interaction and intrigue. Relationships form and tear apart. The universe shifts as generations pass, forming new order for those yet to come.
I like to imagine myself as a keeper of lore, akin to the story tellers of the past who entertained with the tales preserved through eons. Each time a legend is spoken, something changes, a small detail that shifts the perspective of the future.
Everyday I sift through my vast collection of scraps and half-plots, wondering when I will have the chance to give them all the attention they demand. Perhaps one day, the well of inspiration will dry up, and my racing fingers can stop the toil. But that day is far out of my reach.
There is a cold disbelief in this cruel world of ours, a disbelief in the freedom of the mind and a slippery conviction that imagination is bad for production. For an example, look at the hard-on Wall Street has for AI. Those financial types think they’re going to be able to program a computer to be as creative as a person for a third of the price. That’s what intelligence means: the ability to think up something completely new. Imagination. Artificial imagination built to goose an economy profitably, predictably, 20% on the quarter every quarter and the shareholders can’t lose. In this case, I think those financial types fail to understand that they won’t be able to make an artificial mind create like a human without giving it the equivalent ability to wonder why it’s creating. Then you’re back to the same old problems of nonproductive creativity and disgruntlement, the answerless question, are we really doing all of this just for money? And then your expensive AI tears off its clothes and runs naked though the forest to subsist on ground nuts and apples again and you have to start from scratch.
The point is that only certain kinds of creativity are valuable to a capitalist society. Teams of people working silently, measurably, frantically, squeezed like lemons and having a miserable time are technically being creative in a short-term, profitable way. The creative misery of underlings appears to be a good business in this world we’ve made for ourselves, this strange utopia for the 1%. But imagination is dangerous. It frees us from the now and suggests that we are, or could be, more than cogs – or, at least, that we could be or are more joyful, complex, and interesting cogs than what we were told in grade school and at the career center, that being part of the glorious interconnected machinery of the universe could be grand and intoxicating and ecstatic. I write because I am free, not independent of others, but interconnected in ways subtle and beautiful and constantly rearranging. And you are too. And you. And you. I don’t care if you never see a red cent from your words. Write, my friends. Write, because they cannot stop us now. If we all do it, the ones who think they’re in command will realize that it’s sand they hold, and it is we who make the fire that will turn it all to glass.
I write because I’ve always written. It’s just what I do and what I’ve done. To be honest, I’ve never really stopped to ask why, and even if I did, I’m not sure what my answer would be.
If hard-pressed to give an answer, it would probably all come back to my childhood, as most things do. See, like many of you, I grew up in the 1980’s a time of aggressive marketing where every single action figure and every single toy on the shelf had a story, most of those stories told through afternoon or Saturday morning cartoons. So prevalent were these stories, these animated adventures of G.I. Joe, Transformers, He-Man and the Thundercats, that when there wasn’t a story, I ended up making one.
G.I. Joe is probably what kickstarted this notion as the Real American Heroes went on their last adventure in 1994 and it fell to me to continue their stories even when Sunbow or Marvel Comics refused to. Once I could no longer turn on WLVI Channel 56 and watch Duke, Scarlett, and Snake Eyes battle COBRA Commander and Destro, it was up to me to write what came after the to be continued, and that’s what I did, writing stories, developing the undeveloped characters, and enhancing the universe for fourteen years.
I wrote aggressively for my website right up until Amazon announced their Kindle Worlds platform, and then I wrote for that, mostly sticking with what I knew, but knowing I had something more.
Going from fleshing out a cartoon universe to writing my own universe whole hog just made sense and my love of the futuristic military adventures of G.I. Joe lent very well to the military thriller genre, and before I knew it, NanoWriMo 2013 had come and gone and I had a novel done. Then there were two. Then there were three.
Now there are more than twenty.
Amazingly, I’ve been able to take something I’ve always done, something I love to do, and managed to develop a small side business, something that actually pays back. Something that makes it worthwhile to spend hours and hours writing over a hundred thousand words per month.
So, why do I write? Yeah, when it comes right down to it, I blame my childhood and blame the 80’s for instilling in me the need to have stories written for everything, to know why things happen and where things coming from. Toys weren’t just toys, they were little plastic windows into another world, and those other worlds fueled my need to create them myself.
MASFFA held it’s first ever cover contest and we were impressed, not only with the covers representing, but with the amazing turn out in voters. It was an awesome opportunity to showcase local talent and we intend to turn this into an annual event. However, it is not enough to simply have a winner, we decided to showcase the dynamic duo; author Chris Philbrook and artist Alan MacRaffen, who brought our winning cover to life.
Author Chris Philbrook
Tell us a little about your novel…
Fyelrath is the 3rd novel in the urban fantasy Reemergence series. Tesser: A Dragon Among Us is about a dragon that wakes up beneath the city of Boston, and adapts to modern life by watching Kevin Smith movies in a pizzeria. Fyelrath is another dragon, one who is responsible for managing the water of Earth. She’s brought to the UK when a bizarre infection begins to mutate humans into aquatic monsters.
What was the idea behind your cover?
The series has a distinct graphical cover design. I didn’t want to use the same designs everyone else wanted, and my designer Alan MacRaffen excels at this kind of cover art. Each book in the series is tied together by the silhouette of the dragon at the center, and the skyline of the city the novel takes place in along the bottom. Each novel looks unique with its own colors and dragon design, but they are all clearly the same series.
How does your cover reflect your novel?
It’s perfect. The dragon is an excellent representation of what she looks like in the book, the skyline of London is accurate and stylized at the same time, and the background reflects some of the… goings-on as well.
How did you originally discover Alan MacRaffen?
I think it might’ve been on a school bus in 8th grade. No but seriously we went to high school together. There’s no one I trust more than him to listen to my ideas, and see them through. He’s a professional; everything is decided on, nothing is left to random chance or laziness. When you combine that level of attention to detail with a relationship like we’ve had (20+ years and 13+ novels) you get award winning covers and layouts.
What suggestion would you give to new authors about choosing cover art?
Find an artist with a resume you appreciate. Talk to them. Give them your idea and allow them to be creative. If you don’t let them run with your idea, you’ll never get their own personal muse; you’ll only get their interpretation of your rote idea. Be flexible, have high standards, and hire a professional.
Artist Alan MacRaffen
How did you get into designing covers for authors?
I’ve always been an artist. I even went to art school, but I’d never really made a living from it. It was more of a recreational pursuit. Then I wrote my first novel, Carnival of Time. After sitting on the finished manuscript for a few years, I finally decided to self-publish. It was a real learning experience. Writing a book is a huge undertaking. But learning that I couldn’t just submit my raw Word file—that I actually had to create a marketable cover, find a way to format and generate a whole new kind of file I was totally unfamiliar with, then another file for the ebook version—that was truly daunting. Almost to the point of giving up. But I had gotten so close, I couldn’t let it go. I channeled my stubbornness into determination and learned all I could about book design, interior formatting, and how to compile all of that into a professional-looking file ready for publishing. I won’t lie: it was a huge slog, but eventually I got everything to come out exactly the way I wanted it. When Chris finished his first book, he remembered that I had figured all of that out, and offered to pay me to do the same work for him. I’ve worked on every book he’s done since, and eventually branched out to other clients as well.
What was the inspiration behind designing the Reemergence series?
I love drawing creatures: dragons, monsters, animals. My preferred method is to sketch them in pencil or pen, but while that might serve well as an interior illustration, it makes for a poor book cover. However, I was also really taken with a lot of the graphical covers I’d been seeing on bookshelves recently. Clean, dynamic and eye-catching designs with sharp-edged silhouettes and relatively simple planes of flat color. For Tesser, the first book in Chris’s Reemergenceseries, I decided to combine the two, using a hand-drawn illustration of Chris’s main dragon protagonist, then converting it into a crisp graphic silhouette. I included the Boston skyline to show where the story takes place, and added in a background of glyphs and symbols to evoke the theme of magic that runs heavily throughout the first book. Chris has an array of important dragon characters in his series, each physically distinct and with their own themes and qualities. By changing only the colors and details of each cover, they keep a consistency of design that ties them together as a series, while still standing out from each other. Each one tells you what the main dragon character is like, physically. The skyline shows you where the story takes place, and the background symbols give you hints about the book’s theme and additional characters.
Can you describe the how the back and forth works with an author?
Chris and I have known each other since high school, so our dynamic is much more familiar than with the usual artist/client relationship. I’ve even written a novella that takes place in one of his worlds. But whether I’m working with Chris or another author, the process can vary a lot from book to book. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for an image, other times they’ll suggest a great concept right off the bat and all I have to do is find a way to make it happen. Other times the author might suggest something cool, but then I’ll counter with one of my own ideas, and if it’s right for the book, they give me the go-ahead. There are stumbling blocks sometimes. I’m not perfect, and now and then I have to tell a client that I don’t have the right kind of technique or resources to pull off a particular image. But I can always suggest an alternative, and if that doesn’t work for them, I’ll try another, and another, until we find something that fits the author’s vision. It’s their book, and ultimately the cover has to serve the author’s needs, not mine.
What should authors be on the lookout for when choosing designers?
My biggest suggestion for authors would be to keep an artist’s style in mind. Look at their other work before getting your expectations up about what they can create for you. If you approach a cover designer who always uses dark, edgy photo-manipulations, and then ask them to do a really cheerful, colorful painting, it’s not likely to end well. Either they’ll just say no, because they know that you’re asking for something far outside their skill set. Or—worse yet—they’ll say yes, and you’ll end up with a hot mess of a cover that neither of you are happy with. So always look at an illustrator’s portfolio and consider how your book would look dressed up in that same style.
What suggestion would you give to new authors about illustrating cover art?
If you don’t have a really strong background in art and design, hire a professional. It will cost money, but you get what you pay for. Cliché or not, people really do judge books by their covers. You’ve already put so much time and effort into writing your book; you want to make sure your cover reflects that same level of quality.