The toughest writing I’ve ever done
Yes it was.
I did draft after draft after draft. After draft after draft after draft. Spend months on it. One paragraph, about a hundred words.
And none of them seemed right. Rarely have words failed me the way they did when I tried to write the back cover “blurb” for my novel, Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Nothing seemed right. Summing up anything in a short space is hard. Summing it up to make people as excited about it as you are—to make them hopefully drop whatever they are doing and grab their Mastercard—that’s a lot harder. Doing all that and not telling too much of the plot and yet teasing out enough to make your short description memorable and unique—sans cliches—well, climbing Everest might be easier.
Time for a coffee…
I should be a good candidate for this game. For years I worked as a writer and sometimes producer for many a TV news station. We TV news people are hired partly for our ability to write copy that grabs the viewer and says “Stop what you’re doing and pay attention!”
Easy when you’re dealing with car crashes, fires and waterskiing dogs. Tough when you’re trying to describe an upmarket novel that doesn’t have your typical plot hooks—nobody dies, there’s no violence, and no one wakes up from a coma to discover their lover waiting at their bedside. No spells, no quests, no dystopian futures with cold pizza and bad TV.
Like I said, not easy.
I had to plug it while being honest. Avoid hyperbole…and the impulse is always to start out writing hyperbole. You find yourself using those tired words and phrases unforgettable, hilarious, exciting, page-turning. Then you backspace over them, only to replace them with more tired phrases that really don’t describe your book. You begin to feel that only your book can describe your book. But you can’t fit your book on the back cover of your book.
Time for an Irish coffee…
The thing is, it gets done. Every book that comes out has back copy, and sometimes flap copy (if the cover has flaps). So you go to your bookshelf to see how others did it. This is a good idea. I chose one particular novel I love that also has very little of the usual hooks and handles most mainstream books have. Plus it is one of President Obama’s favorite books too, which doesn’t hurt. How’d that novel get described? Was it a fair description? How much was given away? Was the copy mostly about atmosphere and expectations or was a lot of the mechanics of the story given away.
I studied it, but it ultimately didn’t help me a lot. I read some more, and while I gleaned some elements to use (and pitfalls to avoid), there was still no magic bullet solution.
So I went back and wrote some more. I never discarded so many drafts, never felt so impotent as a writer before, all the while knowing this was the most important writing in the book, because if this didn’t appeal to potential readers the stuff between the covers would never get red.
Time for a cognac. A de Fussigny. I’m telling you, it’s the best.
“Literary” writers have it made here. You don’t have to recount plotlines or hook readers when the author is a “literary” type. All you have to do is list the existing accolades and their pedigree. “BRILLIANT!” —Time. “ASTONISHING!” —The New Yorker. “A TRIUMPH” —LA Times. Then you read “Jason McGenius is a gradate of the Very Small Liberal Arts College That Cost Six Figures to Attend and a two-time winner of the Really Smart Person award. When not writing, McGenius travels throughout the country giving lectures on his books and appears regularly on PBS and NPR.”
I wish I had a bio like that. Who needs to worry about selling the book based on its content? The selling point is you’re buying a little piece of Mr. McGenius.
But I had to buckle up and take another whack at that blurb. Cognac finished, off we go. Dig deep. What’s the novel really about? What do I want the reader to take away from it? What would I like the reader to tell his or her friends?
Plus, there aren’t many places to go after cognac. I don’t do hallucinogens or illegal pharmacological substances. So my options for inspiration are getting limited.
I find myself weighing every word, because I have so few in the small space. That’s a good thing. It forces me to find not only fresh but efficient ways of seeing things. And after about three months and maybe 50 drafts, I have copy!
One important thing I learned is not to write copy you would want to see describe your work. The important thing is to write copy that you believe would motivate your reader base to buy it. Those are two different things. Try to find turns of phrase you think your readership relates to. I would not describe my story quite the same way to myself, but nobody cares about what I think. :-)
Bottom line is I recommend anyone start thinking—really thinking—about their blurbs and flaps months before publication. Be prepared to write and rewrite and rerewrite. Because it’s tough, the toughest writing you’ll do for your project.
You’ll also really learn what the important elements of your story are. That will help when you’re talking about your project, from casual conversations at parties and get-togethers to talks you may give to pitches to potential agents or publishers at writers’ conferences. You only have about 15 seconds to really nab ’em. In blurb-speak, that translates to about 20-30 words.
Make sure they’re good.
And just to reiterate, because several people have asked me, Entertaining Welsey Shaw is now out, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells, and just about everywhere else they sell books (if you ask nicely). You can also either get it, or ask them to order it, at your local indie book store. In fact, there’s a list of such stores right here. Whatever way you choose, thanks to the internet, it’s easy to get.