Yesterday Rebecca Forster posted a challenge on FB. Write about whatever pops into your head right now. I’d just listened to the 1st WH news conference and feeling an odd mixture of ignorant, apprehensive and sardonic this is what came tumbling out:
Only one Rhode Island Red crowed like that. And it hadn’t come from Scoundrel’s pen. Curly Tuwitt ground his teeth—all seven of them. He hated that wart faced, belly slitherin’, wrinkled old hag on a good day but this—this was the last straw from a lifetime of her crap.
Already het up over the never ending updates and dire warnings about that Chiineeze virus pouring from the TV, pissed that he’d failed to stock up on anything and was out of everything. (There was that one lone can of beans, and he hated to think what that could lead to.) A second, clearly distant call from Scoundrel chased out any thoughts of supplies and focused his blazing anger.
The first time he’d seen her was skippin’ across his grannie’s strawberry patch, just a pickin’ and a nibblin’ her way through those fat ripe berries like she done own it all; like she’s the one who’d been out in the last frost, barefoot and freezin’, just to get the young plants covered and then come early summer who you think did the weedin’ and the waterin’?
He wasn’t but six and that girl looked tall. Despite that he knew she weren’t much older than him. With that fiery red hair and those rusty freckles like she was in the way come sloppin’ time he knew this was Marjo Geordy. Pa said that whole clan was troublesome.
“Hey, you there! Put them berries down now or I’m a gonna whoop your skinny butt fer stealin.” Curly’d made his voice as deep and growly as he could and he’d stood his ground, frowning, like a man ready to make good on his word.
Marjo looked up, slowly placing a purloined berry into the basket on her arm. Her mouth, red with the smear of ripe strawberries, looked to be dripping in blood. A slow, malicious smile bared reddened teeth. “Where you want me to put ‘em, big scary man?”
Marjo didn’t sound scared and for a moment Curly was flummoxed. “Down. Put ‘em down. Right there.” Curly pointed vaguely to the edge of the patch. He hoped he sounded as stern as Pa when he caught Curly in the sugar bowl.
Marjo looked to where he’d pointed. Her smile got even wider and she turned back to him. “Okay. But you better be ready to grab this basket quick. I don’t give up easy.” Her long legs took three steps to the edge of the patch and reaching out one long skinny arm she placed the basket high on the top of a bush. Three reverse steps took her back in the patch. She didn’t have to say a word; her whole body screamed challenge.
Curly looked to the basket and knew he’d have to jump to reach it. I’m fast; I can do it. Running like lightening he’d leapt into the bush, grabbed the basket and got a snoot full of unmistakable scent—poison sumac. A cackle of mirth faded into the distance. That was just the first time.
Curly understood life takes us on unexpected paths. From his family’s farm down the road of economic highs and lows he’d come near his end in this dusty settlement of trailers, not more’n 60 feet from his nemesis. There was some satisfaction in seeing Marjo brought to the same pass but she had taken Scoundrel and that was the final poke she was gonna take at him.
Heaving himself out of the recliner he slammed out the door, grabbed his pitchfork and stormed across the open 60 feet. “Marjo Jean Geordy you give me back my rooster or I’m gonna use this pitch fork to take him.”
“Possession is nine tenths of the law. Got papers to prove that last one tenth?”
“You stole Scoundrel and you know it, you skinny old cow.”
“Naw. No stealin’. I just took him to try him out. I like him. That rooster is as purdy as everyone says. I‘ll trade ya for him.”
It was always like this. Marjo Geordy bein’ all reasonable like and Curly Tuwitt gettin’ flustered and maybe a little confused. “You can’t trade for somethin’ ya stole.” Curly glared at Marjo who leaned calmly against her little storage shed.
“Mebbe not in regular days but things’re a bit different right now. Might be there’s somehin’ you want more’n that rooster.”
Curly lowered his pitchfork, eyes wary as he saw the familiar smile creep over her lips. “What could I possibly want more’n the best Rhode Island Red in the tri-counties?”
Still graceful and wiry after all these years Marjo turned and pulled the shed door open, bowing like she was presenting the Queen of Sheba. Curly stared into the shadows at rows and rows and stacks and stacks of toilet paper.
It had always been like this and it looked like it always would.
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.
Snow falling. No deadlines looming. Perfect day to cozy up on the couch and read.
Deep into a very funny paranormal romance I reach the climactic moment when the cheeky young witch meets the acid tongued evil vampiress. Biting insults fly back and forth with the speed of fiery spells. I’m laughing and then…wait. Who said that? I have to go back to the beginning to be sure I understand which character that pithy insult came from. The dialog rages on for a page and a half, not a dialog tag in sight. The punctuation alone sets apart the speakers. The rhythm of the story is broken when I lose my place and I wish the author had found a way to make that clever, long exchange read effortlessly. It’s still funny and well written though, so I read to the end.
Not long ago I’d given up on a detective story when I stumbled on yet another doozy of a dialog tag line: “I want to go home,” she said vulnerably. Really, vulnerably? The character’s husband has just been gruesomely murdered and her junky son is in jail. I’m pretty certain she’s vulnerable. Worse, given the flow of the narrative I know who’s speaking. That adverb felt like hitting a chug hole at 40 mph. Sigh. That was the final disconnect for me – I’d lost the rhythm of the story. I no longer cared who’d murdered the bookstore owner.
The writerly world is flooded with dialog tag dicta. We have the Elmore Leonard – Steven King school of absolute ‘she/he’ said (and possibly, maybe, sometimes ‘asked’). We have the proponents of injected emotion: ‘she yelled’, “he cried”, “she demanded hotly”. And then there are the minimalists who reject all tags, relying solely on punctuation to set speakers apart.
There are no rules for dialog tags, and I don’t champion making any, but smart writers are aware of how a tag affects the narrative flow and when it adds to, or detracts from that flow. The purpose of a dialog tag is to identify the speaker. Good storytelling shows emotion so the narrative circumstances and the wording of the dialog will convey how the words were said. Depending on how the scene is structured no tag would be needed, or ‘said’ would be enough.
And then there are those instances where a more elaborate tag is vital. (There really are no rules!) All the great writers occasionally use some variation of ‘she snarled’ ‘he groaned’ etc. Sometimes it makes sense to support the dialog by a little telling. Even Steven King admits to slipping in an adverb in a dialog tag or two. A writer’s gotta do what their story demands. As an editor and reader I prefer that the music of the dialog within the setting of the scene show me all I need to know.
The reader’s inner ear will hear good dialog; it’s an unconscious understanding. For my money the best dialog tags are invisible. All that need register at the conscious level is the identity of the speaker. Does anyone knowingly read ‘said’? It’s like a good child, seen but not heard. “Unless it’s little Parker next door whose screams of delight fill me with joy,” I say unreservedly.
I enjoy book reviews. I read reviews of books I might want to purchase, reviews of books I’ve read and loved, reviews on the works of authors I I know and love, reviews of books I’ve just finished, reviews of my client’s work. And I read reviews because, well, I really love listening to fellow bookworms talk about books.
Reviews are important to any author’s success, of course, but they’re especially important to the Indie author. Indie authors can promote any number of ways, but reviews are the crucial fuel for sales. Readers rely on reviews, especially if the author is new to them; Indie authors rely on reviews to find readers. It’s this fact that makes me so crazy when a review is an elaborate retelling of the story, complete with outing all the twists and mysteries as well as the resolution. That isn’t a review; it’s a damn book report.
I can feel my head begin to explode when a reviewer prefaces a sentence with ‘spoiler alert’. That’s not a pass to spill the beans. It’s a glaring neon sign declaring that this reviewer, this self appointed arbiter of storytelling, has kindly read the book for me. Now I can save my money because reviewer person has graciously taken care of that grisly chore of actually reading. (Audacity always makes my blood boil.) I mean, what about the word ‘spoiler’ don’t you understand?
A book review should give me some indication of why and how the book affected the reviewer. Specifics are welcome, the more insightful the better. Perhaps the author’s voice is particularly unique and pleasing, or the plot was a refreshing take on a well-loved genre. Maybe it’s the characters that win the day, or the book presented a world view that made the reviewer thoughtful. And if the reviewer didn’t like the book I want to know why. If the book was terrible, what made it a stinker? If some aspect of the story was off-putting be fair; not all readers like the same thing, which doesn’t necessarily make the work bad.
It’s not about the author. If a reviewer dislikes a book because the F-bomb and it’s numerous cousins were used it does not mean the author is in need of spiritual counseling. If the political bent of the tale does not suit the reviewer it does not mean the author could use time in a re-education camp. A review is about the story.
Being of mostly open mind and generally democratic spirit I’ll take the one or two line reviews of the “If you like fill in the genre then this is a must read” or “I spent a great winter weekend with this book. Highly recommend” variety. I may not have any specifics but there is something wonderfully persuasive about that kind of joyful sharing.
You may say I should just give a pass to the book reports and the spoilers, and you would be right. But I raise my pen-sword in defense of every Indie author I know, and those I’ve yet to meet. Insightful, honest reviews are sustenance to a writer. They impact sales and the writer’s heart. When you review, do it with substance. Please don’t retell the story – it’s the author’s story to tell and the reader’s tale to enjoy, and for the love of the muses, don’t give away the best bits. You’re going to make my head explode and I do not want my heirs to have to clean that up.
A perspective client and I were in the first stages; you know, where you get a feel for one another to be sure of a good fit. It was a great exchange. She was funny and literate and serious and we quickly decided to move forward (I passed muster too!). Before she sent her manuscript she had one last question: What are the five things a writer should bring to the editorial table. Great question!
And I love doing just that.
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