I recently sat down, via Skype, with Pro Se Productions’s Tommy Hancock to talk about new pulp, my story in his anthology Sixguns & Spaceships, and a new project I’m working on for him: a short story based on an illustration.

It struck me, even as year-end work overload and other bullshit excuses kept me from posting last week, that this idea of starting with an illustration is worthy of further examination.

First, Tommy gave me the okay to share with you the brilliant new pulp SF illustration by the talented Adam Shaw.

“Write to the Cover"

“Write to the Cover”


I spotted this while just flipping through their web site and was instantly in. How does someone like me, a collector of Ace SF Doubles, a died-in-the-wool pulp/Golden Age SF fanboy, pass up an opportunity like this?

All we authors have to go on is this illustration, with no further explanation. I get to decide if that huge golden robot is a good guy or a bad guy. Is the robot trying to kill our blue-clad heroine, or is it about to save her life? What’s she looking at? The guy in red with the backpack and helmet seems surprised, but is it a happy surprise, or an “oh crap, I’m about to get stomped to death” surprise? What’s this woman’s story? What does her groovy ray gun do? Why is she dressed in blue and the other guy’s in red? Is this robot artificially intelligent or remotely operated? Can it talk? Does it have some kind of plan or agenda? That question goes to whether or not it’s a “monster” or a “character.”

In this case this illustration becomes a sort of commission. It implies some set of rules, however loose, and got my imagination immediately and fully charged.

A Paul Jaquays masterpiece!

A Paul Jaquays masterpiece!

In that podcast I mentioned a book that I worked on at Wizards of the Coast: The Star of Cursrah by Clayton Emery. That book started as a painting, too. In that case we had commissioned cover art for a novelization of the Second Edition AD&D reboot of the classic adventure Tomb of Horrors. Alas, that book was never published but the brilliant (then) Paul Jaquays painting remained and I finally asked, “Hey, can we still use that?” We could, and I had a series that was starting that explored some of the ancient, lost empires of the Forgotten Realms world, and this was a perfect fit, so I sent the illustration to Clayton and he wrote a fantastic book, building from that image.

It’s important, especially for you self-publishers out there, to keep in mind that Tommy Hancock and Pro Se Productions has a professional arrangement with Adam Shaw to use that painting for their anthology. Paul Jaquays was paid for the cover art, with all rights going to Wizards of the Coast, regardless of the story it eventually introduced. Before you hare off into the fantasy, horror, and SF art-rich internet to find art to inspire your next story, understand that you can’t just grab an artist’s work and run with it. But there are two things you can do:

Find an artist who’s as “up-and-coming” as you are an author and introduce yourself. Maybe work out some kind of partnership agreement to share the proceeds. At the very least get a written release to use that piece of art on a non-exclusive basis.

Or, very carefully, go out and find public domain art. And it turns out the internet is full of it. In this case you won’t get art that looks particularly “modern,” especially for science fiction stories, but on the other hand, if you’re writing fantasy, some medieval sources or other old, classic art pieces can provide inspiration for whole strange new worlds. And as an exercise, at least, the weirder the illustration the greater the writing challenge, and the greater your creative freedom.

For instance, write a short story based on this:

Consider yourselves “prompted.”

Consider yourselves “prompted.”

I dare you.


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Sean Durity says:

    Reminds me a bit of C.S. Lewis. He had a mental picture of a faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in the snow that was the start of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

    There is another benefit, here, too. If you start with the cover art, you don’t have to find an artist who can capture your already formed mental image.

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