There are days when I just love my job. Writing the novel Deadpoint (which is a hi-interest, low-vocabulary novel for reluctant teen readers) has been fun from Day One. Day One was spent sitting at the bottom of a crag near Mount Yamnuska observing a class of climbers new to climbing outside. Fabio was one of the teachers and I took pages and pages of notes of what was going on. I was pretty new to the whole outdoor climbing world myself and it was a great chance to pay close attention to the kinds of challenges faced by people making the transition from gym climbing to real rock.
As I was sitting in the sun, scribbling away in my notebook, the three main characters started to emerge from wherever characters come from. Ayla is a keen gym climber who competes in climbing competitions, but struggles with a fear of falling (ok, that weird quirk – the fear of falling – was directly drawn from my own psyche). Lissy, her best friend, is a hard core outdoors enthusiast who was ‘conceived in a tent, born in a gully, and raised in a backpack.’ Lissy and her family can’t imagine a better place to hang out than somewhere deep in the wilderness. And then, there’s the boy – Carlos, a city kid who likes to free solo buildings for fun. Carlos is new in town and catches Lissy’s eye, which sets up the friendship tension in the story.
Long story short (you need to read the book if you want to see how it all turns out), the three teenagers find themselves in trouble on a multi-pitch climb in the mountains when the adult leader of the group is injured and incapacitated. I was pretty happy with the way things were going (more or less smoothly!) through the writing and editing process. It’s great when that happens – some stories come together a bit easier than others – this one was generally straightforward and involved lots of fun conversations and discussions with my in-house consultant, Fabio, about technical details of the climbing, the accident, the rescue, etc… In fact, we wound up working out plot problems while we were on our long climbing road trip down in the USA earlier this year. I wrote away while Fabio drove…
And then, after a couple of rounds of edits with two different editors at Orca, I was sent a cover mock-up. I don’t think I can post the photo that was originally suggested because of copyright issues, but basically it showed a teenager top-roping what is clearly a sport climb – she has been cleaning the route and has draws clipped to her harness. It’s almost a perfect image – the sense of being way up high is pretty good, the climbing isn’t terribly difficult, the model is age appropriate… But, if one is seconding on a trad route, a multi pitch, what she would have dangling from her gear loops would be cams and nuts and maybe a sling around her torso and, yes, some draws…
An interesting debate with the editor, publisher, and book designer followed about how important it was (or wasn’t) to get the technical details right in the cover image. The thought at the publishing house (where nobody climbs) was that the image they found made it look plenty scary and showed a climber way up high. When Fabio and I looked at the image we knew that a) it wasn’t accurate and b) really didn’t reflect what was going on in the story – which has a lot to do with the strange and very specific details of trad climbing. True, someone who knows nothing about climbing would not spot the differences, but anyone who read the book and was interested in climbing, or wanted to learn more, or who might actually have done some climbing would definitely be confused.
So, I suggested we could probably stage something that was equally interesting visually (appropriately aged female, seconding on a trad route, cams dangling from her gear loops, good exposure drop-off-wise, and – bonus – a lake in the distance, which is mentioned in the story as the place where the group sets up camp).
Both the editor and designer were skeptical that I could tick all the boxes and come up with something appropriate that was going to work better than the stock image. I suggested politely they let me try and sent a couple of generic shots I happened to have on hand from some climbs at Barrier Mountain.
All of this is quite unusual – in most cases, I am presented with a cover for a new book and we all know it’s basically a fait accompli. Writers don’t get to design covers, which is how it should be. I am not a designer. I tell stories. I am usually more than happy to let the experts deal with their areas of specialty.
So I was a bit surprised and rather delighted when I got the word back from the publisher that we could go ahead and see if we could come up with something.
Of course, this immediately threw me into a bit of a logistical tizzy. I needed someone who could climb, who could pass for 16/17, and who would be willing to be climb up and down and pose in different positions so we could get the right shot. We needed to have me in position parallel with her, and we needed her to be belayed from above. We needed a pair of patient and competent belayers who could lead the routes we had in mind. And, we needed some reasonable weather – the rain and clouds and thunderstorms of the first part of summer this year have not exactly made for perfect climbing weather. We needed some appropriate gear to dangle from the climber’s harness… And we needed that perfect location that would make sense within the story.
Which is how Anne and I wound up climbing side by side routes on the upper bit of Barrier Wall. Barrier Lake is off in the background and by shooting from The Flake (11a) towards In Us, Under Us (11b) we could get a sense of the exposure we were looking for. The climber needed to fill out the frame, so I didn’t want to be too far away.
Anne on In Us, Under Us. Not a bad spot, hey? And, note that technically accurate assortment of gear hanging from her harness. There’s even a sling around her body and, if you look very closely, a nut tool.
Fabio led In Us, Under Us and Greg McKee led The Flake and then the two very patient belayers set up belays above us. They stopped and started belaying as Anne and I climbed up side by side. We took dozens of photos along the way, with me clipping to bolts so I could push my feet against the wall and get both Anne and the backdrop framed reasonably well… Poor Anne had to climb and re-climb sections so I could climb a bit above her and then beside her to try to get something useable. And some of what she had to re-climb was not easy!
We tried having her look up, look down, look away and pretend to be stressed, concentrating, scared, and neutral. We had her traverse off the route to try to get her to stand out better against the sky. We took some action shots, some pensive shots, and some just for fun of Anne looking happy. We lucked out with the weather (it was a glorious evening when we shot the series) and, in the end, one of the shots turned out well enough that – yes – it will be on the cover of the book!
This shot was taken by Greg from above as we were working (note me being very bossy and pointing out where Anne should put her hand…). What’s weird about it is that it was taken right at the top of the climb but it doesn’t look like we are that far up. We were actually about 10 storeys up and right at the limit of what our ropes would allow us do in a single push from the ground… But right below us is a bit of a bulge in the rock so you can’t actually see the vast expanse of rock we’ve climbed up to get to where we are. The next photo below gives a better idea of the scale of the particular cliff we were working on. (Photo Credit: Greg McKee)
A couple of times as I was dangling and angling for a good shot I found myself marvelling at how absolutely cool it was to be climbing with such great people in such a stunning spot on a glorious day all in the name of work! Really, a day at the office simply does not get much better than this!
And, in the end, this is what the cover will look like!
Something to ponder… keen observers who know the area will note that one, but not both, roads were removed from the image (ah, the joys of Photoshop!)… Stay tuned for a longer discussion in a future blog post about why, or why not, a designer might choose to modify an image…
Kudos to Rachel at Orca Book Publishers for coming up with this cool-looking cover… Fingers crossed that the cover will catch the eye of some teen readers in search of a bit of vicarious adventure! Deadpoint is scheduled for release in January, 2017. If you happen to be a book blogger or a climbing blogger and you’d like to receive a review copy, get in touch and we may be able to send a one your way! Then you, too, can pick apart the cover and see whether or not we got it right!