Every author faces this last crucial challenge. You’ve already spent untold hours researching, writing and editing your book. Your title hits just the right poetic note. You’ve gone several tense rounds to find the perfect cover. All that remains is the book blurb, the opening salvo in the promotional war. This is the first (and sometimes only) chance to grab a reader and compel them to buy the book. And so, like click bait, you need to lure your reader with an honest but irresistible snap shot.
It’s an art, this writing of a synopsis that isn’t a synopsis, this sell copy that isn’t an ad. And for something that isn’t a science there are strict rules: you have to be honest – no misleading the reader. No spoilers or why bother to read it – which can be tough since the spoiler is often the most exciting part of the story. Keep it at 200 words or less and don’t make it one run-on paragraph. Use the proper keywords for your genre. Reveal something about the antagonist – readers like to know if they can root for the hero. This isn’t the place to relate the entire plot but you have to provide the zeitgeist, the feel of the tale. No easy task.
A lot of the writers I work with find this daunting and ask for help, which I am happy to provide. I think it’s difficult for the writer to step far enough away from their work to pick out the enticing, salient points and present them with the tension and intrigue that make for a successful blurb. To the author, all story points are important. I get that, but as an avid reader I know what works for me in a blurb. It’s not how much is said, but how compellingly it’s said.
I start with a deconstruction approach. It’s possible to distill any story down to bare bones. In his book Hit Lit – Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers James W. Hall provided the most distilled example I’ve ever seen. This is a beloved tale that we all know intimately: “A young girl wakes in a surreal landscape and murders the first woman she sees. She teams with three strangers and does it again.” It’s short, accurate and intriguing but would it sell the book?
I wouldn’t distill it down that far but it makes a great beginning. What if we knew something about the young girl – an orphan, a princess, a refugee? And what about the surreal landscape – gaping desert, oozing swamp, forbidding mountains? Then the three strangers – female, male, older, menacing, kindly? Is all this murdering spurred by necessity, thrills, defense, the three strangers or is it unintended manslaughter? And finally, what is the young girl up to – revenge, enlightenment, finding a way out of the surreal landscape? Flesh out those points, add some genre keywords, reference any kudos and you could turn those original 24 spartan words into a 160 – 200 word blurb that would peak curiosity and entice the shopper to buy.
If you can step away from the totality of your story and deconstruct the plot to the primary elements, then present those elements in a provocative way you can create an effective selling tool with your book blurb. BTW, that book Hall described? The Wizard of Oz.
In these times of pandemic lock down we’re all searching for something that will absorb us, entertain, teach–challenge us. I’ve dabbled in baking (very mixed results), sewing (mended everything mendable), crafty things (be glad you’re not on my Christmas list), knitting (have you seen the price of good wool?). They all passed the time between books, but none inspired a passion and I didn’t feel particularly challenged.
My grandmother and my mother were both avid cruciverbalists. Not only does that sound exotic, it felt like I’d be carrying on a tradition. Those esteemed women fearlessly challenged their brains daily. I bought a puzzle book with 99 crosswords claiming to “be enjoyable at all solving levels”. Perfect! I could limber up and go on to the hard stuff.
I felt I had gotten the knack with the first 30 puzzles. Sharp flavor, four letters–TANG. This is a breeze. The next 56 began to take some effort: Central parts, six letters, fifth being ‘e’. Hmmm. I consider all things central and am not arriving at those 6 letters, the fifth of which is ‘e’. Then I crossed words with Tile problem and MILDEW gives me ‘L’ for the fourth letter. I hit on nuclei. I got it! Central parts: NUCLEI pl. I am strutting like a peacock, never mind that it isn’t a commonly used word. “The nuclei of the garden are the tulips and the erotic statue.” Naw. Clearly this is a new language.
I like to think I am an honest sort, so I keep count of how many times I peek at the answers page. Eight times over 86 puzzles; a mere misdemeanor. Many of the clues involve rather esoteric and antiquated knowledge. I feel I can be forgiven for not knowing every letter of the Greek alphabet or the lessor characters of 19th century French drama. I now include recent pop music titles among esoteric knowledge. I do not know a single Abba song title. (This leaves me feeling hopelessly uncool, but never mind.)
Still, I’m getting better–that is, until number 87. I feel like I’m taking an exam in advanced astrophysics–and it’s in Brail. Philanthropy source, 11 letters. I get there finally with the help of crossed words: BILLIONAIRE. It’s so obvious, so clear and so disheartening that I’d agonized over this. Then a light bulb goes on and I realize crosswords do not involve a new language. It’s still English (except for those pesky Greek letters). What is needed here is an entirely different thought process, a less rigid way of considering words.
I need to be flexible, more elastic than Silly String, more malleable than Play Dough. How else can you arrive at ROLE as the answer to Office? It’s all those English words with multiple meanings, all the nuances of our language that makes for rich, lyrical writing. It’s the forgiving nature of our language that allows us to get by with radical interpretation, lets us stretch the truth, so to speak. I’d been ignoring what I already know and what I love so much about writing.
Puzzle 88 is next and it looks daunting. It’s a giant grid with one and a half pages of clues. I’m going to be like water and with each clue let my mind flow over and under, through and past pedestrian definition until I arrive at the clever stretch, the humorous bent, the deceptively simple answer. It’s poetic.
I’m determined to join the ranks of my foremothers and become a cruciverbalist. I may pull out all my hair, but I intend to get there. I am definitely Faced off, 10 letters.
Every writer is subject to the influences of their time, influences that shape their work in some way. From Stephan King’s brand of horror—which he’s said was influenced by the pervasive fears of the cold war — to the oh so mannerly and delicately choreographed plots of Regency era literature, a reader can feel the spirit of the author’s era. I think that’s why I love H. G. Wells and his manly adventurers whose waistcoats and stiff collars are never out of place despite the monsters and hazards that beset them, and they always have time for a full service tea.
Covid is the strongest influence on us at present, changing behavior at a really basic social level, and I am eagerly anticipating how that will be reflected in contemporary fiction. Each genre presents a host of different affects to play with. How will full dress PPE impact the mystery and crime genre? With my mask in place, my sunglasses on my nose and a cap on my head, I am hard to recognize. Add gloves to that, and I don’t have to sweat over fingerprints. And if you’re not short and a touch chubby like me, it would be easy to quickly blend in with the (6 feet apart) crowd and make a smooth getaway. Does anyone want to get near enough to grab a suspect?
Science fiction, viewed through this lens, might use the long-lasting effects of a worldwide pandemic in interesting ways. The population has been decimated, but the disease is at last eradicated. Does the population retain a fear of personal distance? Does it become ritualized? Do they formalize ways of washing their food, like futuristic raccoons? Has public dining or public attendance at an event become distasteful, and if it is replaced, what with? That could be really fun.
Fantasy always gets a lovely reality pass. That’s part of why we love it. Fantasy isn’t required to reflect anything about the real world. But again, every writer is working through the lens of their own reality and all these new behaviors and social concerns are bound to be reflected somehow. Maybe it’s a race of creatures that are forever shunned—The Cooties. You can’t ever get close to them or they will sicken you, but the hero requires the help of those outcasts and so the taboo has to be overcome. It could be that a virus has been locked in a magic cave and as the ultimate weapon, it must be guarded by the heart of a dragon. The influence of this pandemic will be in there somewhere.
Then there’s Romance! I am especially eager to see how this genre deals with our current reality. One of the hallmarks of Romance fiction is its timeliness. We never tire of boy meets girl stories set in the shared here and now. These are tales that reflect our contemporary social and moral norms with the clarity of a mirror image. How will masks and gloves and 6 feet apart influence a love story? How will a chance meeting play out? Is love at first sight possible?
I have complete faith in Romance authors to create inventive and realistic approaches to this current social reality. I haven’t come across any yet. I may not have looked hard enough, but if you know of a romance in the time of Covid, I hope you’ll share it with me. I can’t wait to read it.
“All stories are about wolves. Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
That’s a strong statement—lots of ways to interpret it. I love it because to me, it says that all stories should have a villain. And I agree. How can you have the good without the bad? Where would the tension live? If something has to be overcome, you need a villain to vanquish. And if the plot needs redemption the story needs a villain to redeem. (A Christmas Carol without Ebenezer’s reform? Unthinkable.)
The villain isn’t always a person. It can be an institution,or an illness, or Mother Nature. All those ‘larger issue’ villains work for some magnificent tales, but my favorites are the really awful, mustachet wirling, gloating, cackling, venal bad guys.
Good villains, the kind we love to hate, are never one dimensional tools included just to make the protagonist work hard to overcome something. A well-drawn villain is a fully fleshed out character with attributes, history, and purpose strong enough to motivate and justify the hero’s tribulations. We’re so fully shown who and what Mordred is that his relentles spursuit of King Arthur is entirely credible—and because Arthur is beautifully depicted
—it’s personal to the reader. Now that’s an enthralling story.
Whether redeemable or irredeemable the villain is often the best part of a story. No one can think of Oliver twist without Fagin popping upwith his “…face obscured by a quantity of red hair” as he beats and betrays the children he has enslaved. We don’t forget Oliver, but we don’t dream about him either (or is that a nightmare?). When a character is that memorable it’s because something, if not everything about him, is relatable.
To develop a really badass villain, one whose actions the reader can understand and accept, the character needs some face time. Not as much as the hero certainly, but enough to lay the background for future actions, enough to make him real and fathomable. There is nothing more boring than a serial killer who is seen only through the gruesome details of the killing. If he is complex, as real people are, if he is exceptional in some way that supports an evil bent, then all the more disconcerting—like the jolly neighborhood butcher whose cutlets may not all be beef.
Some of the best villains have sterling personality traits. Perhaps they’re charming, or witty, well mannered and gracious. Traits contradictory to the villain’s actions make those bad actions all the more frightening. Showing the bad guy through contradictory traits is a powerful tool but if you work at it you can spin evil traits to appear benign—until they’re not. That’s chilling.
A well-developed villain written as an authentic character will give any story the spice it needs. Who will your next villain be?
Rules of the Road
I enjoy driving, except for those time when some numptie ignores traffic rules. Whizzing through red lights, flying through stop signs, speeding, texting, ignoring yield signs all certainly disrupt the smooth flow of traffic, often catastrophically. We good drivers know that those who chose to ignore the rules are the bad drivers—or failed ones. While I have the choice to take defensive action in traffic and avoid most collisions I find I can’t defend against, avoid or ignore writers who chose to ignore the rules of grammar and punctuation. I’d rather just close the book or delete it.
I’m not a grisly grammarian or a pedantic pedagogue (redundant?) – really! It’s that I love our beautiful language and I love to read, to immerse myself in the lyrical flow of words well written and a story well told. I admit there have been times I wished I carried a big read marker so I could correct an egregious misuse. “Hunters please use caution when hunting pedestrians using walk trails” being one example that gave me really itchy fingers. I was laughing too hard to be incensed, though I did worry a bit about getting shot.
The rules of the written word are like the rules of the road, a map to smooth sailing. Correct punctuation guides the reader, unconsciously and effortlessly, to get where she wants to be; lost in the story. Commas tell the reader to take a breath, or make instant sense of a string of adjectives or a list. Commas are what show the meaning, cadence and flow of a character’s voice. A semi colon or an em-dash tells the reader to yield just a touch then get onto a related point. Quotation marks show who is speaking and for how long. An ellipses indicates a pause or shows that a thought has trailed off. A period brings our reader eye to a full stop.
The rules of grammar set the reader free of confusing nests of conflicting definitions. Does “Their on the way to the concert” mean ‘The goose/uncle/cockatoo belonging to the characters is headed to the concert and the object of the sentence just got left out? Or is the dialog meant to suggest there is the way to the concert, or did the writer intend a sensible contraction, they’re? Sneaky homophones.
I’m disappointed when an intriguing story is riddled with errors of grammar and punctuation. I really want to hear the tale but I’m forced to puzzle out meaning and narrative flow – even if it only takes an instant to understand, that instant is too long. It just isn’t necessary. The only time the rules of grammar and punctuation are unimportant is during the process of creating. Who cares if draft #1 is a grammarian’s nightmare? Or drafts #2 – 4 for that matter. What’s important at that stage is getting the story down, then making it work, then making it sing—no matter how many drafts it takes.
Once the story pleases the author there is no excuse to launch it into the world without a proper proofing. If a writer feels a full edit isn’t needed, that’s their choice but believe me when I say every published work should first be proofed. There are hundreds of editors—including myself—who offer that professional service at a reasonable price. A thorough proofing is worthy of the energy put into creating the book and respectful of the language and the reader.
Whew! A rant. Thanks for listening.
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