There Are No Rules

An edited version of this article originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When you publish a novel, there are certain questions that come up a lot.

What’s your book about? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

In my case, at least, these questions have identical answers: there are no rules.

That sounds monstrously adolescent, I realise, but bear with me. I can explain. My book, without giving too much away, is about a young girl for whom there are no rules. As for advice, I don’t have any. In fact, there isn’t any, or none that matters. There are no rules.

I don’t mean that I’m special or exceptional. I’m just speaking from what little experience I have. And I did everything wrong, basically. Everything, right from the beginning.

26It’s not as if I didn’t know any better. When you’re writing a book and trying to get it published, one of the first things you discover is that there’s no shortage of advice on the subject. There are lucid primers by reputable publishing professionals. There are candid and only gently chiding self-help manuals by veteran writers. There are impassioned but violently illiterate online screeds by—well, it can be hard to tell. Plus, I wasn’t really paying attention.

And there is a lot of this stuff. No, really. There is a corpus of received wisdom so gigantic that it would take many lifetimes to traverse it in its entirety. Luckily, you don’t have to. You can ignore it, all of it. There are no rules.

No, honestly. I did everything wrong. You’re not supposed to approach an agent until you’ve finished your novel. That one is practically a commandment. Well, I approached an agent before I’d even started a novel. I asked her to hang on for a bit while I wrote one, and it was fine. Granted, she didn’t like it when it was finished, but if I hadn’t put myself in such a spectacularly awkward predicament, I’m not sure I’d have produced a novel at all. And anyway, the next agent I showed it to did like it, so it all worked out in the end. No one died. There are no rules.

But, but, but. You’ve got to follow the submission guidelines. And your query letter has to be flawless. And it’s vital to format your manuscript correctly. And so on.

Look, here’s thing. The query letter is just an email. You have to send it to the right person. You have to include the right information and write it clearly and so on. You know, like a competent adult. You don’t need rules for that. And yes, you do also have to write it in such a way that you don’t appear deranged or unpleasant, but you don’t need rules for that either. You just need not to be deranged or unpleasant.

The same goes for the manuscript. Are you good at writing? No, I mean, properly good, not ever-since-I-was-little good? And have you read lots of books? Well, you’ll be fine, then. You’ll know the sort of thing that happens in them, and what they’re supposed to look like, with the paragraphs and the dialogue and what-have-you. So, you know, just write one of those.

And by ‘write’, of course, I mean ‘type’. It’s not a Sumerian epic. You type the book like a normal person, you make sure there aren’t any spelling mistakes and you save it in the document format used by literally everyone alive. You don’t need rules for this stuff. Seriously. This is just what people do. There are no rules.

This applies to the writing too. In fact, this applies especially to the writing. Take Elmore Leonard’s oft-cited ‘rules’, for instance, which have now acquired something approaching the force of doctrine. It helps, of course, that these ‘rules’ are themselves unshowy gems of aphorism: ‘Never open a book with weather’; ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’. Nice. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

For the record, Elmore Leonard is a writer I revere. His ‘rules’, like everything he wrote, are a source of delight. What many people seem to miss, though, is that they aren’t rules at all. Leonard read widely, we may be sure, and in many genres. He knew better than most that any rule you care to formulate has any number of glorious exceptions. He even says as much, in the article in The New York Times which sets out his ‘rules’, but people don’t tend to quote those parts.

The point is, a writer of Leonard’s subtlety, humour and humility doesn’t take it upon himself to make unironic prescriptions for the entire literate world. His ‘rules’ are a wry codification of his own style, nothing more. And that style, for all its miraculous grace and levity, is just that: Leonard’s style. There are no rules.

So, yes, I did things wrong. Sometimes, I admit, I did so on purpose, just to see what I could get away with. At the beginning of my book, a character is woken from a dream. (There’s a rule about that. You can look it up.) There are even gunshots. (They don’t ‘ring out’, though. Having no rules doesn’t mean having no taste.) I don’t know whether I did get away with it, but if I didn’t it was because of my own failings, not because I broke a rule.

I introduced elements of the fantastic in a work of literary fiction. In fact, I hardly left any out. I used alternating points of view (readers hate that), and switched between the past and the present tense (readers really hate that). I set the book in unnamed places, and interleaved two historical periods without identifying either of them. A pattern may be emerging here.

I tried very hard to create a satisfying story, but there were things I refused to explain because explaining them would have killed them. I worked with the utmost care, and with an unremitting consciousness of my duty to the reader. I wrote everything – every single line – over and over again, many hundreds of times, to get it closer, to get it as close I could. I tried.

But I took certain liberties too. I allowed myself certain excesses. I had no choice, not with this story. There is great art that dignifies the ordinary passages of our lives, great art whose workings are quiet and unceremonious, and I have nothing but respect for it. But we live other lives, each of us. There is something else, always, just beneath the skin of daylight. Don’t you feel it? There is a lifelong singing, a secret rhapsody, an elsewhere to which we also belong. We must honour that too, in our art. We must try to be true to it.

This is why I did everything wrong. This is why it was necessary. And I know how it sounds, believe me, but I can only explain it in this way. It was an act of love, this thing. It was a slow convulsion, an episode of rapture. When that comes, you obey it, and you obey nothing else. There are no rules.

The Maker of Swans: The Making of a Cover

The Maker of Swans - Final Front Cover Image
The final cover design for The Maker of Swans

Well, here we are at last. The Maker of Swans officially has a cover.

Not that it’s been the best-kept of secrets, mind you. Early proof copies of the book began circulating a few weeks ago, and images of the preliminary cover began to surface on Twitter shortly afterwards.

Last week, though, the finished artwork was uploaded to the databases of the online retailers, which is the nearest thing a cover gets these days to an official unveiling.

And what a cover. Authors are supposed to say this sort of thing, I know, but I have loved it without reservation from the moment I first saw it. Back in June, when my editor sent me an early JPEG version, my response was less eloquent than I might have hoped.

‘It’s glorious,’ was all I could manage. ‘It’s just glorious.’

I had replied to her email within three minutes, but I’d only spent ten seconds or so typing. The rest of that time was spent staring in rapture.

And it is glorious. I can say that freely, having had nothing to do with it. The team at W&N have produced a design of singular grace and immense subtlety, and one that encapsulates the book with almost miraculous economy. I’ve paid tribute to them in private, of course (effusively, and at embarrassing length), but I was determined to give them the wider acknowledgement they deserve when the time came.

I was thrilled, then, when the design team agreed to be interviewed, to discuss not just this particular book but their approach to cover design in general; the extent to which it is constrained by conventions or shaped by trends, and the balancing of creative and commercial impulses.

Steve Marking is Art Director at Orion Books. He is a graduate of Central Saint Martins, and in his role at Orion, he oversees the design of covers for its W&N imprint. He has worked on covers for authors including Gillian Flynn, Laura Barnett and Henry Marsh.

Sinem Erkas is a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator. Like Steve, she was trained at Central Saint Martins, and her portfolio includes book covers for Orion Books, Profile Books and Bloomsbury. You can see more of her work at

* * *

What’s the single most important job that a book cover must do?

Steve Marking: Get noticed. But that doesn’t necessarily mean shouting the loudest.

Sinem Erkas: Stand out!

There’s more to it than that, though, isn’t there? Contemporary book covers are sophisticated design artefacts, and most of them clearly operate on multiple levels. What else should a good cover do, aside from make someone pick up the book?

SM: Give the reader enough information about the subject matter and style of the book, but leave some ambiguity to make the reader intrigued. Obviously, the amount of clear information versus intrigue depends on the type of book.

And it should ultimately be a beautiful object that the reader will want to keep looking at, and will want to keep on their book shelf or coffee table.

SEI think after it grabs your attention, it then needs to keep your attention.

Growth in e-book sales has begun to slow down, and there are whispers of nervous optimism in publishing about a resurgence in the importance of print. In the last couple of years especially, we’ve seen selected titles published in special hardcover editions, with features (laminated cases, sprayed edges, opulent endpapers, etc.) designed to make them more desirable as physical objects. Are you conscious of this trend? Do you welcome it, as designers?

SM: I definitely welcome the idea of creating special editions, with tactile finishes, endpapers etc., of creating a beautiful physical object that’s as enjoyable to look at and hold as it is to read (well, almost).

SE: Of course! It’s always exciting when we have budgets to do specials, but they should always add to the design rather than cover up a bad design or over-decorate it. So many covers have finishes just for the sake of it – I’m a believer in everything being there for a reason, not just for decoration. 

Non-fiction covers tend to be more literal and programmatic than those for fiction, though there are many honourable exceptions. Are fiction and non-fiction covers very different disciplines? Do you find one more liberating than the other?

SM: With a non-fiction cover, you have to be a lot clearer about the book’s subject matter. Non-fiction can be easier to design than fiction, as you have something tangible to work with – a person, an event, a period in history. With fiction, particularly literary fiction, the cover needs to suggest a mood and emotion more than a subject, which is often harder to visualise.

SE: I think with non-fiction it’s easier to sum the book up literally or with a witty image. Fiction, however, is a bit more complex. It’s more emotional, and this provides endless possibilities and directions. This can be seen when classics are repackaged in so many ways.

Publishers invest a great deal in covers, and their design teams are constantly striving to create memorable and distinctive examples, some of which attract almost as much attention as the books themselves. Are you conscious of an ‘arms race’ to produce ever more striking and competitive designs?

SM: I think the competition to create ever more interesting and innovative covers is very healthy. Book cover design right now is perhaps as creative as it has ever been.

SE: Yes! I always try to make my next cover better than the last. And different! I don’t like being asked to do the same thing over and over. I always try to push my creative style, and not know myself what I’m going to do next. That’s what keeps it fresh. I tend not to look too much at other book cover designs or ‘the competition’ or ‘trends’ either, but look instead at other things for inspiration, like cinematography, art, illustration, text, found objects, etc.

Book cover enthusiasts often remark on the way genre is signalled by conventions in cover design – moody photography with bold typography for crime; watercolours and cursive lettering for ‘women’s fiction’, etc. – do you sometimes find yourselves rebelling against these demarcations?

SM: As a designer, you don’t want to just follow the herd, but you do need to tell the reader very quickly what kind of book it is. Conventions used in design are a visual language of codes, which can immediately tell a reader what kind of book it is. The trick is to make a book cover look like a crime novel, for example, but different enough from every other crime novel that it stands out and doesn’t blend into the background.

The amount of ‘difference’ you can get away with depends on the genre, and on sales expectations. This is why some of the most innovative covers (and consequently the most copied), have been for books without the baggage of high expectations. Like A History of Tractors in Ukrainian, designed by Jon Gray, where the designer was free to come up with something different, and the publisher didn’t try to force it into a particular conventional look.

SE: I think that’s where the fun is. Always trying to rebel against the genre look – that’s when covers really stand out! Why create something that will blend in? In some genres, it’s harder to break the mould. As a woman, I get asked a lot to design books for ‘women’s fiction’. They’re challenging, as the look generally is something quite whimsical and dated. I think literary covers are the best ones to work on because you can get away with more and the covers are more individual to the book, reflecting the writing rather than the genre. Saying that, I’m always being asked to make my typography ‘more literary’. I don’t know what that means!

Can you think of a recent cover by another designer that you particularly admired, or that you wished you had worked on?

SM: The Rosie Project [designed by Lee Motley of Penguin]. It’s one of those covers that you see every so often that is just slightly different from anything you’ve seen before. It’s nothing radical or particularly unusual – just a hand drawn title and a lobster – but it’s quirky and intriguing, very simple but strangely beautiful.

SE: Actually, I really like Steve’s latest cover for Anthony Horowitz. You can cut it up and turn it into a rocket! What more could you ask for!? You’d have to buy two copies, though. And I couldn’t cut up a book jacket.

In the case of The Maker of Swans, Orion indulged me by allowing me to provide an additional design brief, which was basically four pages of handwaving by an over-invested back seat designer. Do you dread when authors do that? Is it ever useful?

SM: In this case, it was very useful to get more detail about the book from you, and to hear your ideas and vision for the cover. It gave Sinem and me more to work with, and certainly helped us develop our ideas.

When an author has spent so much time creating a book, they are obviously going to have an opinion on the cover, so it’s important to listen to their ideas. But it can be difficult when an author has a very specific vision of their characters and plot, and gets very concerned with specific details [of design] that don’t always help to make a successful cover.

SE: [Laughs] I normally do dread that, yes! But honestly, your case was different – it was exactly what we needed for inspiration. Sometimes when you get a brief, you’re left feeling like you need to know more. Especially with fiction, it’s so important to read the manuscript (even if it’s just a few chapters) to be able to create something unique, with that added layer. Your brief really made it clear just how interesting the book is. I ignored your design suggestions, but took from it the themes and [a sense of] what was unique about your book.

We’ve spoken privately about how much I love the design you came up with, and I’m glad you ignored my amateurish suggestions. The result is utterly – and quite rightly – different to anything I had envisaged. The composition is starkly symmetrical, but also extraordinarily graceful. It has a wonderful visual economy too, and manages to encapsulate a great deal thematically that I think readers will appreciate once they’ve read the book. Was it a design that came easily, or did it go through many iterations?

An early mock-up design for The Maker of Swans

SM: I knew that Sinem’s elegant and hand-crafted style of illustration would be perfect. I suggested a swan’s neck as a starting point, and Sinem did about six rough versions. The one I thought was really interesting had the title made out of swan feathers. We tried to develop that idea but it just wasn’t working; it wasn’t swan-like or legible enough.

We went back to my initial idea of a swan’s neck, and the concept of reflection and duality in the brief led us to two interlocking swans, like a playing card. I tried to make the cover work either way up – with the title appearing twice, so it could be viewed upside down. But it was too complicated and spoiled the simplicity of the design.

The process of design often involves trying out over-complicated and unnecessary ideas, before scrapping them and going back to something much more simple. Sinem and I sat down and discussed ideas and scribbled rough sketches together, which is much more productive and creative than the usual process of emailing JPEGs back and forth.

SE: Sometimes to produce something so simple, you have to go through a complex process and keep eliminating the unnecessary detail. Before you sent over your text, Steve had done a preliminary sketch, and asked me to illustrate a very graceful swan. It looked good, but a bit one-dimensional. It needed a twist.

Another mock-up design rejected by Steve and Sinem

I then made about six rough mock-ups, which were either too obscure or too humorous. But after reading your inspiring brief, we had a chat and sketched out new ideas, scribbling over each other’s sketches. Towards the end of the day, I mentioned something about interlocking swans, like yin and yang — inspired by your themes of mirroring images — and Steve thought of an upside-down swan, and the idea just clicked!

We knew it was going to work, and I developed the illustration of these interlocking swans to be as simple as possible and perfectly symmetrical. Steve’s art direction was brilliant, and he kept pushing me to make it more and more graceful. I added a handmade texture reminiscent of wood blocking or mono printing, which I think really adds a burst of energy to it.

Another strength of this design is that it scales very well, and makes for an immediately recognisable thumbnail. How important a consideration are thumbnail images in the design process, given how much book buying now takes place not just online but on mobile devices?

SM: It’s important to consider how a cover appears as a thumbnail on screen. It can feel disheartening to spend a long time designing something that is often so small when it’s viewed. Ultimately, though, I think the consideration to keep cover designs simple and eye-catching at small sizes has improved the design of covers generally.

SE: Very! Throughout the design process, I’m constantly zooming in and out, and like to make sure my covers work well very small. My style tends to be quite minimalistic, so this works well.

 One last question. When you walk into a bookshop, is it difficult for you to suppress your critical instincts as designers, and to respond to the covers you see as a reader and a book buyer?

SM: Yes! I look at book covers as a piece of design, and am instinctively drawn to designs that appeal to me, whether or not the book itself interests me. Looking in bookshops is very inspiring. I’m always seeing things and thinking, I wish I’d done that!

SE: Totally! My bookshelves have to look good! I always find it upsetting when a brilliant story isn’t represented as it should be on the outside. Equally, I have been tricked many times into buying books — and music — with great covers that aren’t great. I have a lot of books I haven’t finished reading. I should listen to Bo Diddley’s advice [in ‘You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover’], but I can’t.

* * *The Maker of Swans will be published by W&N in February 2016.

What the Spellchecker Saw

In Which a Young Novelist of Feeling Makes Certain Confessions

Earlier this week, I was preparing to send a near-final draft of my novel, The Maker of Swans, to my editor. Before doing so, I performed a series of checks designed to ensure that the manuscript was free of errors. I’m fastidious about this sort of thing at the best of times, but at this stage of the process my rituals of textual hygiene occupy that shadowy region between rigorous professional habits and extravagant coping mechanisms.

In any case, one of the rituals I perform before sending out the manuscript is something I call a ‘flushed spellcheck’. That is, before running the spellcheck, I disable the custom dictionary to which I have added all the words that the spellchecker has–legitimately or otherwise–failed to recognise.

I use Microsoft Word, and its British English dictionary, while perfectly adequate for most purposes, doesn’t appear to have any grand ambitions in the matter of comprehensiveness. It’s pocked with missing entries–lacunae that are sometimes defensible (the OED also favours tranquillity, though tranquility, as is evident to all but the most depraved of sensibilities, is infinitely more graceful), but more often merely scandalising (the use of stockinged may attract certain criticisms, but whimsical novelty isn’t one of them).

To suppress the false positives that the spellchecker would otherwise report (I can think of almost nothing so nakedly inflammatory as a wavy red line under a refined but blameless lexical item), it becomes necessary to add these exotic word choices to a custom dictionary as they arise. The decision to click on Add to dictionary is usually arrived at with a certain brisk confidence (oh, come on, Word–what are you like?), but over the course of a hundred thousand words or so, there are going to be some marginal calls. There are going to be occasions when one acts not out of rectitude, but out of simple expediency (oh, just fuck off, Word).

In this way, a corpus of exceptions is accumulated that the spellchecker dutifully refers to each time it is invoked. This is a generally satisfactory state of affairs, but as one approaches the completion of a longish piece of work, a certain waning of confidence is perhaps inevitable. What if there were times when my judgement wavered? What if there were times when I told Word to fuck off not because I was filled with righteous rage at its latest assault on the sanctity of the language, but because I really needed a wee?

It is in such circumstances that the need for the flushed spellcheck arises. While disabling my custom dictionary the other evening, I took a few moments to scroll through it. At one level (the important and sane level), it’s just ephemeral metadata, of no conceivable interest to anyone but me. At another level, though–and this is the level I actually inhabit–it’s a fascinating artefact, like an ice core drilled from my own accreted language. It’s a sample that has been excised by means of more or less arbitrary criteria, yet one which manages to be oddly revealing about the novel from which it was extracted; about its diction (that starchy proprietress; that pleasureless, with its effortful suggestion of languor), about its aspirations (Poussin and Fauré–well, excuse me) and about its author’s weakness for certain stylistic tics (that excruciating concordance of un- words).

Still, I present it here in the spirit of philological candour, and in the hope that this kind of mortification may lead to some infinitesimal self-improvement. Make of it what you will.




































































W&N Acquires The Maker of Swans

The trade announcement below originally appeared in The Bookseller.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson has acquired a gothic literary novel by Irish writer Paraic O’Donnell.

Deputy publishing director Arzu Tahsin bought UK and Commonwealth rights to The Maker of Swans, O’Donnell’s debut, from Lucy Luck at Aitken Alexander Associates.

Described as “both a dark, lyrical thriller and an allegory of the power and limits of art”, The Maker of Swans follows Eustace, the faithful but disillusioned servant to the gifted Mr Crowe, a man who was once the toast of the finest salons.

Now, the pair live amid the fading splendor of the Estate, where Mr Crowe’s great library gathers dust and his magnificent gardens grow wild.

With them lives Clara, a young girl who doesn’t speak, but who possesses gifts of her own, the extent of which are hidden even from herself.

Tahsin described The Maker of Swans as “an absolutely enchanting and magical novel and so beautifully written”.

“Paraic O’Donnell’s extraordinary imagination inhabits every page. I was mesmerised from the first to the last page,” she added.

The Maker of Swans will be published in April 2016.