Book Cover Magic

Above: Dostoevsky covers by Peter Mendelsund

Above: Dostoevsky covers by Peter Mendelsund

I was listening to Debbie Millman interview book cover designer Peter Mendelsund in a Design Matters podcast from November, 2011. At one point, Debbie asks (in response to one of Peter’s comments), “So, what makes a really great book jacket?”

The answer was so brilliant I had to write it down for posterity:

“… the bottom line is that it has to be beautiful, whatever you think that means… A book really does three things: it advertises itself before you buy it, it (obviously) contains the text that you read, and then it interacts with you after you’ve read it…

“The first part of that equation is that it has to sell you the book. So in a way, a big part of what we do as designers is advertise the thing… It has to be compelling on some level… The jacket does other things in those subsequent two stages, but you don’t get to those stages without the first stage. You gotta make the sale.

“What makes a really great book jacket, though… is a book jacket that evolves along with the reading of the text – that there should be, I think, ideally, some point when [the reader] will casually look at the jacket … and there’ll be some sort of connection made – that you have made some sort of nod towards the text, towards the narrative, towards whatever the author’s themes are, that will emerge at that point… I think you have to do a jacket that will stand the test of time in the sense that people will want it in their house. Because these things are, ultimately, a souvenir of an experience of having been somewhere.

I’ve made a few small edits to his comments for clarity, but you should go listen to the whole podcast anyway » at Design Observer or at Soundcloud. Peter Mendelsund’s website is here, with links to his design books here.

Color Experiments: Screen Printing

1904 Worlds Fair illustration by Christi Frey

1904 Worlds Fair

Last week I scanned a piece that’s been in my sketchbook for a long time – like, several years. I decided I wanted to try to mimic the flat pastel tones of screen printing, aka silkscreen, and this was the perfect piece to try it out.

Here’s how it was done.

Helen Payton screen print silkscreenI came across this page in the book Low Tech Print: Contemporary Handmade Printing by Caspar Williamson, featuring a print from Helen Payton. I loooove the pics showing the different silkscreen layers, and wanted to see if I could use the same effect in Photoshop.

For the 1904 World’s Fair piece, I used a total of fifteen layers and nine colors. I set each layer to either multiply or normal, depending on the effect I wanted, at anywhere from 40 to 60% transparency. I filled the layer with the chosen color and applied a layer mask. I then used the layer mask to draw in the areas that would show the color.

You can see the results above – the layers aren’t shown in the order they were created, but you can see how the buildup of color contributed to some nice effects. I like how the limited palette dictates that you have to use multiple layers to achieve the darker colors – they end up matching the palette much better than if I’d picked the color myself.

Here’s the final piece. 1904 World’s Fair prints are available on my Society6 page.

1904 Worlds Fair illustraiton by Christi Frey

1904 Worlds Fair illustraiton by Christi Frey


Dispatches from This Side of Cyberspace

Next year I’m going to hang a sign on my website in July that says “Closed for the Summer.” I mean, that’s more or less what happens. We get two fickle months of hot weather here in Saskatchewan and making the most of them generally means being outside and away from wifi signal.

But now it’s fall. NaNoWriMo is only a month and a half away. It’s cold, it’s pouring rain, and I am ensconced at my desk with a cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot). And I found an interview I had to share.

William Gibson is the author of Neuromancer (I have yet to read; it’s on my TBR list). I didn’t realize that he lives in Vancouver, BC (born and raised in the Southern U.S.), although I have a vague remembrance of him being referred to as a Canadian author. He’s the writer who coined the term ‘cyberspace’, and his interview in the Paris Review covers a lot of ground that I just find fascinating. Such as this:

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.

My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. Some people were extremely upset by the first Edison recordings. It nauseated them, terrified them. It sounded like the devil, they said, this evil unnatural technology that offered the potential of hearing the dead speak. We don’t think about that when we’re driving somewhere and turn on the radio. We take it for granted.

And this…

If you read the Victorians writing about themselves, they’re describing something that never existed. The Victorians didn’t think of themselves as sexually repressed, and they didn’t think of themselves as racist. They didn’t think of themselves as colonialists. They thought of themselves as the crown of creation.

Of course, we might be Victorians, too…

…we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while.

But if you read the accounts of people who rode steam trains for the first time, for instance, they went a little crazy. They’d traveled fifteen miles an hour, and when they were writing the accounts afterward they struggled to describe that unthinkable speed and what this linear velocity does to a perspective as you’re looking forward. There was even a Victorian medical complaint called “railway spine.”

And I am particularly fond of this, talking about our digital life and where it may go in the future:

It looks to me as though that prosthetic-memory project is going to be what we are about, as a species, because our prosthetic memory now actually stands a pretty good chance of surviving humanity. We could conceivably go extinct and our creations would live on. One day, in the sort of science-fiction novel I’m unlikely ever to write, intelligent aliens might encounter something descended from our creations. That something would introduce itself by saying, Hey, we wish our human ancestors could have been around to meet you guys because they were totally fascinated by this moment, but at least we’ve got this PowerPoint we’d like to show you about them. They don’t look anything like us, but that is where we came from, and they were actually made out of meat, as weird as that seems.

Reminder to Future Me

Every once in a while I post stuff that is more or less a reminder to future me. This is one of those posts. From “Why You Should Do Your Work First, Others’ Second“:

If you don’t build big-picture meaningful work right into your daily calendar, it will always get crowded out by the small stuff.

Best-selling author and researcher Tom Rath reinforces this point by saying, “What you will be most proud of a decade from now will not be anything that was a result of you simply responding.” He recommends to, “Manage your communications, online and offline, instead of letting them run your life. If you don’t, you will inadvertently spend a majority of your time responding to other people’s needs instead of creating anything that lasts.”

Tolerance Can Extend in All Directions

This is what public shaming does: I’m genuinely trepidatious about commenting on this topic, lest I incur the wrath of social media.

But first, let’s celebrate the #distractinglysexy hashtag. Because no matter where it came from, it speaks to real perceptions and it is awesome.

I found the hashtag before I heard about the Tim Hunt debacle. “Hmm,” I thought, “that’s too bad. It must have been uncomfortable to be one of the women in that audience.” Then I was taking photos this weekend at a client’s STEM function, and they were looking at old class photos of graduates. In the first class, in 1969, there were no women. In the second class, there was one woman, who happened to be attending. I overheard her laughingly remark, “Everyone always asks me why women in (my field) are so stubborn. Well, you have to be stubborn, to be a woman in this field!”

But that wasn’t the kicker. One of the old fellows, looking at the time in the mid-eighties where the class photos began to segue from a male-dominated field to a female-dominated field (yes! in the sciences! bonus points if you can guess which field it is), made a remark that could have come out of Tim Hunt’s mouth: “Must have been distracting to have all those women in the lab,” he said. “Yes,” his companion agreed. “Some of them are real lookers!”

I tell you this not so that you can have MOAR OUTRAGE. To me, it was a genuine indication of how pervasive these ideas are within a certain generation. And Zoe Williams has a fantastic article in the Guardian which you should read, and I am going to quote thusly:

The issue is particularly piquant in the wake of the Nobel laureate Professor Sir Tim Hunt (I give him his full title to indicate my elaborate respect for his plentiful science), who lost his jobs following what has come to be described as a feminist witch-hunt. To a conference in Seoul, he explained the problem with women – you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. By the end of the week, he had lost his posts at University College London, the European Research Council and the Royal Society. “I am finished,” he said, in an interview with the Observer. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science in this country and in Europe, but … I have become toxic.” This looks like the best possible case against making a fuss: the price he paid was out of all proportion to the remarks he made, which were jocular and minor. He was tried by Twitter and convicted by his employers, unable until it was too late to make a case in his own defence.

We first need to separate the individual women who mocked Hunt with the hashtag “#distractinglysexy” from the institutions that fired him. Most of the social media response was, itself, pretty jocular. While plenty of people said that Hunt distilled the working environment in science, and the reason women can’t thrive in it, it didn’t follow that those people were calling for him to be sacked.

I keep seeing this trend of pillorying people for small-minded remarks, when their actions speak loudly of them being an otherwise generally good human being, and it’s wrong.

1. Words are easy disproportionally to prove. A man said some stuff he shouldn’t have said in front of a bunch of women. Yep. It was bad. Let’s put this in perspective, though – what about a man who pinches a woman’s bum or “accidentally” brushes against her breasts? Whether in a crowded room or in private, although this is a much more egregious action, it’s also much harder to provide a record of what happened. In a very real way, people who have given verbal proof that they hold outdated or sexist views (even when defended by co-workers and family members) are treated just as badly – or worse – than those who actually cross that line.

2. People are a product of their environment. And a product of their own determination. It’s both. You start with a huge dose of being a product of your environment, taking for granted the values and ideas handed to you by your parents and your teachers – in which actions and situations often speak louder than words – and bit by bit, as you grow and educate yourself and form opinions and learn from experience, you figure out which of those values and ideas are wrong for you and should be discarded. You form your own person, and it’s a life long process. Some people ossify into crusty old Get-Off-My-Lawn buggers well before their time. Some people, god bless ’em, stay curious and motivated all throughout their journey until they die at a ripe old age.

But bias is subtle and pervasive, and you can’t discard values if you don’t even realize you have them. Or, even more subtly, you can completely agree with a statement that says, “Women are equal to men,” and yet, when someone mentions a judge or a scientist, automatically picture a male person in that role.

Here’s my example of this. I grew up in a farming community. For anyone who didn’t grow up on a farm, the women are an integral part. There are not that many farm women who don’t how to start a tractor, or who haven’t taken a turn on the combine or driving the truck during harvest. But when I was growing up, men were farmers, and women were the farmer’s wives. I saw a picture when I was in grade 12 that was captioned something like, “(Woman’s name), a farmer, stands next to her crop.” MIND = BLOWN. I’m pretty sure this was a photography book celebrating women in all aspects of industry, from space travel to firefighting to scientific research to trucking, and it was the farmer that got me. Just from that one little syntax, I could see one of the pervasive ways that the outdated language of sexism had a legacy in our community – a leftover from a time, not that long ago, when women didn’t drive tractors.

Here’s another example of someone being a product of their time, this one not so subtle, and one of the most shocking things I’ve recently read:

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.49.53 AM

It’s a section of Virginia Woolf’s diary from 1915, discussed in Virginia Woolf in Context, by Bryony Randall & Jane Goldman. She didn’t grow up, as I did, in a time that recognized the personhood of disabled and mentally handicapped people. You can read the book it’s excerpted from if you want the greater picture of what the views of Victorian England were – her thoughts were not considered radical, but thankfully, we’ve moved on since then. 

What is my point? Just this: a reminder that tolerance and understanding can extend in all directions. That whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. That you can be tolerant of a person’s mistakes while not being tolerant of a sexist situation or comment.

Let him or her among us who has never made an off-colour joke or tasteless comment throw the first tweet.

Some bits about writing


Sketchbook worm.

So a while back, I wrote a guest post at DeadlyEverAfter about what I read when I’m writing. One of the things I mentioned is that I keep a writing binder of printouts from the internet with particularly good advice (because I like killing trees, apparently, but actually I just lose things when they’re digitally bookmarked). It’s like a reference book of starter prompts for when I get stuck –  I actually hate that word, “prompts” – it sounds like seventh-grade English class, so let’s just say they’re a way to either jump-start or test the potency of the conversation I’m trying to have with myself (and readers) when I’m writing.

This week’s assorted curios includes stuff from Maggie Stiefvater’s blog (I’ve been stalking her How I Write posts), and some random things that popped up in my twitter feed.

First Drafts (any draft, really)

One of the things that I’m always harping on with drafts is that they need to be specific. Make it a book that can’t take place anywhere else, make so that it couldn’t happen to any other people, make it so that the plot couldn’t be told by anyone else.

From Rough to Final: A Dissection of Revision – Maggie Stiefvater

Kill Your Darlings… Or Not

Faulkner was the first to advise writer to kill their darlings, which basically boils down to: if you love a bit of your writing too much to be reasonable and logical about it, you should cut it. That you should never sacrifice the good of the whole because of blind affection for a single bit. (I do not agree with this advice, by the way. I think if you love a part of your writing beyond reason, you should delete the rest of it and write the rest to match the loved bit).

Do Not Love Your Characters More or Less Than Your Readers – Maggie Steifvater


Is worldbuilding something the reader or viewer ought to notice, because the writer makes a point of showing it off? If anything, I’d argue it’s closer to being the other way around — oftentimes, the more you notice the scaffolding, the less skillful the worldbuilding is. And the best worldbuilding frequently escapes your notice, unless you’re paying a lot of attention.

Does the Phantom Menace have better Worldbuilding than A New Hope?

The Tiny Tragedy

For me the toughest part is dealing with the gulf between the perfect thing in my head and the flawed thing that ends up on the page. It’s a tiny tragedy every time you set something down. And sometimes the tragedy doesn’t feel that tiny. And so it becomes easier to not write, and just spend my days pacing, snacking, and watching my dog watch me.

Interview with picture book author Mac Barnett
(this whole interview is very thoughtful and a good read)


I actually DO use electronic bookmarks for “research” articles, rather than printing them out, because then I really would be killing too many trees. At any rate, this article is just hella fascinating. It really speaks to how the people in charge, those with an agenda, can manipulate perceptions of history as moving in a straight line to support their claims. When, in fact, the complete opposite is true:

‘We Apologize of the Inconvenients’ is in a Book!

Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century

The piece I did for Neil Gaiman’s Calendar of Tales has been included in a book! Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics and Other Works, edited by Tara Prescott, reviewed here by the Guardian.

You can see the original illustration in full color here.

Short Story Roundup

A confession, if I may. Not that long ago, I would have said I did not “do” short stories. Hated reading them. Was incapable of writing them. And then karma conspires to change your mind.

Which is a great thing, because man, I was missing out. And I *still* hate short stories – of a certain type. The depressing-Hemingway-you-had-to-read-in-high-school type. (Nothing against you if that’s your bag. But I have a moratorium on depressing stories right now.)

Here are some short stories that have made my Awesome list for 2015 so far:


TALISMANS by Jessica Bloczynski

(A CONVERSATION) by the Elusive Mark

Those last two came from the March Madness flash fiction collection on the Undead Duo blog (theme = “madness”). I also made a contribution which you can read here:

SCAVENGERS by Christi Frey

Flat characters


“I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or ‘deep’ enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. In such cases, our appetite is quickly disappointed, and surges wildly in excess of what we are provided, and we tend to blame the author, unfairly, for not giving us enough – the characters, we complain, are not alive or round or free enough.”

– James Wood, A Life of Their Own