Devil’s Advocate #4: You *Can* Judge a Book by its Cover

The old adage, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is somewhat inaccurate, IMO. A better saying would be, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” Either way, people will judge things by appearances, at least at first. We do it all the time, though most people are ashamed to admit it, so as not to seem shallow. The guy covered in tattoos and piercings may turn out to be a caring father, while the clean cut choir boy often ends up a serial killer. You really can’t know the value of something until you spend some time with it. Unfortunately, time is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. If you’re in the business of entertainment, you are constantly battling for eyeballs. One problem in my life (albeit minor) is deciding what to do. What TV show should I watch? What game should I play? What book should I read? Between cable, Netflix, HBO NOW, Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc., the choices might as well be infinite. And that’s just television. What about the web? Which of the million+ YouTube videos will be earning your attention tonight? For that matter, why are you even reading this post? Don’t you have better things to do? Walking into Barnes & Nobles is no better. There are literally over a million books in print. Sometimes, I just walk out of the store in a daze, having purchased nothing. On the other hand, if Ancient Athens had a B&N, you can be certain everyone who knew to read would have copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey, whether fans of fantasy or not.

This is why we end up judging books by their covers. What choice do we have? I could pick novels at random, or look at titles, the synopses on jackets or the praise from reviewers, but these are all still part of the cover, and are no more indicative of great storytelling than the picture. When I chose Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, because the title moved me, I was pleasantly surprised by the power of his story. With other books, like The Maze Runner and A Wrinkle in Time, I was not so fortunate. This is not to say that you might not have the opposite experience. My younger self would probably find Ishiguro a snooze-fest. Now, you might purchase an early edition of A Game of Thrones because you’ve seen the TV show and could care less about the clip art wolf on the front. This is where not judging a book by its cover makes sense. But for those of us without TV shows, struggling to make it in the literary world, we do not have such a luxury.


Seriously, is this clip art?


This brings me to the e-book wasteland. Typically, I can immediately tell when a book is self-published, and admit it, you can too. If you’re a newbie writer, and your undiscovered masterpiece is lurking behind a Photoshopped image of your backyard, don’t expect me to be reading it. To the author whose name isn’t a marketing draw, the cover is everything. A good cover communicates many things about your work: a cartoon drawing is usually kids’ fare, a dragon indicates fantasy, a spaceship Sci-Fi, and a brooding, hooded rogue means big-name publishers have no imagination. But more than anything else, a good cover conveys professionalism. If you cannot be bothered to waste time or money on a cover, it’s doubtful you’ve spent enough time on the writing.

For the past three years, I have labored over The Princess of Aenya. The book represents hundreds of hours of writing, editing and rewriting, not to mention a lifetime of practice. For me, every character has to be engaging, every chapter intriguing, and every line has to sing. If the reader is not moved in some way by the last page, I know I’ve failed my job. Why should the face of the book, the very thing that might encourage someone to discover your story, be of any less concern?

The image below is a proof-of-concept. While some of the elements are copyrighted, I was lucky enough to attain the rights to this portrait, by Selene Regener, originally titled “Awakening.” Now this might make for a decent cover as is, but I will be using it primarily to give direction to my artists. If I am the one to do it, and not some big name publisher (who’ll likely put a hooded rogue on the front), I might come up with a better idea. Who knows? Either way, the art should reflect the writing, and vice versa, because, like it or not, everyone judges a book first by its cover, and second by its contents.



The Fantasy Writer’s Dictionary

Words can be highly volatile, explosive even, and yet we rarely stop to consider their power. Use them incorrectly, and you can get yourself killed, in a bar, for instance; or in the face of a religious fanatic. Words also have the capacity to heal. Consider the consoling effect of a eulogy, the world shaping sermon of Jesus or the philosophy of Socrates. Mathematicians like to argue that their discipline trumps all other sciences. Psychology is rooted in biology, biology in physics, and physics in math. But without language to give meaning to all those numbers, math might as well be scratchings on a cat post.

In the hand of a brilliant writer, a pen becomes a wand, the words incantations, and the sentences spells. How else do you explain the transportive power of fiction? Its potential to bring tears to the eyes? But for a language apprentice, words can also backfire. This is particularly true of words that are not part of everyday parlance. If you’re always digging through your spell book . . . er, thesaurus, for an awkward synonym (like parlance), you’ll come across as cocky. Used properly, however, a well placed word can engender trust in the author’s abilities. When I pick up a book, I want to know that I can trust where the story will take me. An author asks for a great deal of faith from his readers. If he comes across as inexperienced or just lazy, I’ll lose confidence in his story. This is why spelling and grammar are so important, but also, proper and effective word use.

In an online debate, philosopher Sam Harris accused his opponent of being, “vituperative.” I’d never even heard of the word and I am pretty sure the guy he was debating didn’t either. With a single abstract adjective, Harris shifted the balance of the debate in his favor, like a boxer with a well placed jab. It was as if to say, “I am smarter than you. You can’t win this.” Here’s another example from George R.R. Martin. As I was getting through Storm of Swords, I came across a scene where a girl—I think it was Arya—“hid behind the wain.” But what the heck is a wain? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a “wain” is an archaic noun for wagon, which begs the question, why the heck didn’t Martin just use wagon? Certainly, more people would have understood it. But I don’t think clarity is the issue here. Every now and then, I think, Martin wants to let his readers know he’s smarter than they are. Oh, and all you perfect-SAT scorers who may be thinking, “This guy’s dumb, how could he not know such simple words like vituperative or wain?” let me ask you, do you know what “crozzled” means? Turns out, the OED doesn’t either. But it is a real word. And Cormac McCarthy expects you to know it.

This is why I feel it would be useful to have a dictionary made for writers, and writers of fantasy especially, because we tend to make greater use of archaic nouns and lesser known terms. But as it turns out, such a resource does not exist. So, I decided to make my own. What follows is my vocabulary list, to be expanded periodically, that I think all serious writers need to know.

Please note: While many of these words have multiple meanings, I have elected to use either the lesser known definition, or the one that I feel most useful to writers of fantasy.

*Here I have replaced a few Earth specific terms, like Muslim and North America, with more generic or Aenya related versions. I have also replaced some OED examples with my own.


ABJURE (v): To renounce a belief or claim.

ABROGATE (v): evade (a responsibility or duty): we believe the soldiers are abrogating their responsibilities.

BALDRIC (n): a belt for a sword or other piece of equipment, worn over one shoulder and reaching down to the opposite hip.

BATTLEMENT (n): a parapet at the top of a wall, usually of a fort or castle, that has regularly spaced, squared openings for shooting through.

BESOM (n): a broom made of twigs tied around a stick.

BINNACLE (n): a built-in housing for a ship’s compass.

BLAZING STAR (n): any of a number of plants [found in the *North], some of which are cultivated for their flowers, in particular:

BLOCK AND TACKLE (n): a mechanism consisting of ropes and one or more pulley-blocks, used for lifting or pulling heavy objects.

BODICE (n): the part of a woman’s dress (excluding sleeves) that is above the waist / a woman’s vest, especially a laced vest worn as an outer garment.

BOX KITE (n): a tailless kite in the form of a long box open at each end.

BRIGANDINE (n):  a form of body armor from the Middle Ages. It is a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric.

BUSTLE (n): a pad or frame worn under a skirt and puffing it out behind.

CAPSTAN (n): a revolving cylinder with a vertical axis used for winding a rope or cable [usually for a ship] pushed around by levers.

CHADOR (n): a large piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head and upper body leaving only the face exposed, worn especially by *Shemite women.

CHICORY (n): a blue-flowered [found near the *One Sea] plant of the daisy family, cultivated for its edible salad leaves and carrot-shaped root.

CHIMINEA (n): an earthenware outdoor fireplace shaped like a light bulb, with the bulbous end housing the fire and typically supported by a wrought-iron stand.

CLOG (n): a wooden shoe

COGITATING (v): think deeply about something; meditate or reflect: *Xandr stroked his beard and retired to cogitate.

COLLUDE (v): come to a secret understanding for a harmful purpose; conspire: *Zaibos colluded with his soldiers to usurp the throne. 

CREEL (n): a wicker basket for carrying fish.

CRENELLATE  (v) [ with obj. ] (usu. as adj. crenellated): provide (a wall of a building) with battlements.

CROZZLED (adj.): burnt.

DHOW (n): a lateen-rigged ship with one or two masts, used on the *Potamis River.

DIRNDL (n): a full, wide skirt with a tight waistband.

EPHEMERAL (adj.): lasting for a very short time: fashions are ephemeral.

EXHORTATIONS (n): an address or communication emphatically urging someone to do something: exhortations to eat well | no amount of exhortation had any effect.

FLAGON (n): a large container in which drink is served, typically with a handle and spout: there was a flagon of beer in his vast fist.

GRAPNEL (n): a grappling hook / a small anchor with several flukes.

GYRKE (n): a solution fissure, a vertical crack formed by the dissolving of limestone by water, that divides an exposed limestone surface into sections or clints

HARROW (n): an implement consisting of a heavy frame set with teeth or tines that is dragged over plowed land to break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seed.

HOLLYHOCK (n): a tall plant of the mallow family, widely cultivated for its large showy flowers.

IMPRECATORY (adj.): As relating to a spoken curse: she hurled her imprecations at anyone who might be listening.

INDOLENT (adj.): wanting to avoid activity or exertion; lazy.

INVEIGHING (v): speak or write about (something) with great hostility: *Esse inveighed against Zaibos’ tyranny.

LARGESSE (n): money or gifts given generously: the distribution of largesse to the local population.

LIVERY (n): a special uniform worn by a servant or official.

PEDANTIC (adj.): a pedantic interpretation of the rules: scrupulous, precise, exact, perfectionist, meticulous, fussy, literalist, hair-splitting, nitpicking, persnickety.

PENNON (n): a tapering flag or banner.

PEJORATIVE (n): a word expressing contempt or disapproval.

PRIMROSE (n): a commonly cultivated plant of woodland areas that produces pale yellow flowers in the early spring.

PRIVET (n): a shrub of the olive family, with small white, heavily scented flowers and poisonous black berries.

PRIVY (n): a toilet located in a small shed outside a house or other building; an outhouse.

PROMENADE (n): a paved public walk, typically one along a waterfront at a resort.

PROPITIOUS (adj.): favorably disposed toward someone: there were points on which they did not agree, moments in which she did not seem propitious.

PUISSANT (adj.): having great power or influence.

PURPLE CONEFLOWER (n): A cone-shaped, purple flower. 

QIBLAS (n): The western road leading to *Shemselinihar, the holy city.

QUAY (n): A concrete, stone, or metal platform lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships.

QUINTAIN (n): a post set up as a mark in tilting with a lance, typically with a sandbag attached that would swing around and strike an unsuccessful tilter.

QUIXOTIC (adj.) exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: Her quixotic nature clashed with that of her brother, *Zaibos.

RUBRIC (n): a statement of purpose or function: art for a purpose, not for its own sake, was his rubric.

SEPULCHER (n): a small room or monument, cut in rock or built of stone, in which a dead person is laid or buried.

SKEIN (n): a tangled or complicated arrangement, state, or situation: the skeins of her long hair | figurative : a skein of lies.

STOCHASTIC (adj.): randomly determined.

TEMERITY (n): excessive confidence or boldness; audacity: *Radia had the temerity to question her brother’s authority.

TILTH (n): prepared surface soil.

UBIQUITOUS (adj.): present, appearing, or found everywhere: *Radia’s presence was ubiquitous throughout the city.

VITUPERATIVE (adj.): bitter and abusive: the criticism soon turned into a vituperative attack.

WHANG (n): a noisy blow

WYND (n): a narrow street or alley

The Princess of Aenya Query Letter #1


Dear Editor,

The Princess of Aenya is a fantasy adventure reminiscent of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story, with a little bit of Song of Ice and Fire injected for good measure. It stands roughly at 125,000 words.

What’s the story? 

She is known for her arresting beauty and mismatched eyes. One is turquoise, like the greater moon, the other is violet, like the lesser. But at fifteen years, the heir of Tyrnael is innocent to life’s cruelties. After her father’s death, her quixotic outlook clashes with that of her step-brother, Zaibos, upon which he seizes the throne and she is forced to flee for her life. Her only protector is a stranger from a fallen empire, Demacharon, a soldier tormented by visions of the afterlife, by those he has lost and those he has wronged. And yet, unbeknownst even to herself, Radia carries an awesome secret. For she is far more than an innocent girl, and if she were to die, so too would the world itself. 

Why invest in me?

You will never meet anyone more passionate about storytelling, and I am prepared to do what is necessary to market and promote my work. This is an opportunity to invest not only in the Aenya series, but in a great writer as well.

My Life

At age six, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and that was to engage people with my fiction. By age nine, I had the temerity to solicit my superhero series to DC Comics Headquarters in New York City. At fourteen, I queried my first novel to publishers. I later attended the University of South Florida, where I earned my BA in English, tutored students, and worked as a freelance editor. I continue to write essays, reviews and short fiction at

My world . . .

For book excerpts, artwork, poetry and short fiction; or to learn about the characters, geography and history of Aenya, please be sure to visit!

Thank you for your time and consideration,
Nick Alimonos