This one’s for A. And I am shocked – shocked, I tell you! – that I have never actually written about this before.
In a perhaps surprising turn of events, high school Lily – who was already aware of her destiny (determined to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy?) as a novelist and working toward amassing her writing toolkit – never made a perfect score on the verbal section of the SATs. She did on math. Why? Because math* has only one answer. (*Math at that level, obviously; I know when you get deeply into experimental/theoretical maths you can find ambiguity.) There is no personal bias in the answers, nothing but hard numbers and A-E to be selected from a binary system of “right/not right.” The verbal, however, at least when I was a teenager, included a section that very much was open to individual interpretation: the main idea questions. “What is the main theme of this piece?” “Which sentence best summarizes the selection?” Invariably, I got at least one of those wrong. And why? Because what I took away from the reading, coming to it with my biases and my experiences and my INTJ way of looking at the world, was different from what the person who wrote the question did.
Finding the main idea of a work is hard, because it isn’t obvious – and sometimes it has more than one “right” answer.
Common wisdom in writerly circles is that it’s often hardest for the person who is closest to a book (AKA the author) to accurately describe what it’s about. I understand the reasons why that is said, but I disagree with the premise that a writer cannot attain enough self-awareness to see their own work clearly.
I would compare it perhaps to trying to describe your own personality. You know your own strengths and weaknesses; you know your own intentions. What you don’t know is whether what you feel on the inside is what is reflected externally in your interactions with others. Having someone else describe you can be enlightening – and sometimes befuddling or even horrifying. So asking a reader to describe your work can also be helpful. For example, if you don’t read romance genre books you might not know whether your novel with strong romantic elements could be marketed as a romance. A friend who reads romance would be able to give you that answer.
But ultimately, as a writer you know what’s at the heart of your story. You know what it’s mostly about.
So how do you go about turning that knowledge into the back cover copy, the book description, the pitch, the blurb – whatever you want to call it – in order to find your target reader?
Here are the elements I think need to be considered:
1. Who is your target audience? Could be a subset of genre readers, or “a reader like me” – as long as you can define what you mean by “like me.” For example, I know my audience is fans of historical romance who want more realistic stories and loves built on a believable foundation. I am also aware that my current works would also appeal to fans of the traditional Regency novels (AKA the category romance), so I will keep them in mind as well.
2. What is the genre or category for your book? If it’s not a specific genre, think of what award category it might fit into (women’s fiction? Novel with strong romantic elements? Etc.).
3. What is the tone of your book? Light and frothy? Darkly funny? Tragic? Introspective?
All of these are going to affect the tone of your blurb. The voice of the blurb does NOT need to be the voice of the novel, but it should be in the same color palette. Think of the scene in Robin Hood: Men in Tights when the Sheriff of Rottingham is trying to deliver bad news in a good way. You don’t want there to be that kind of disparity between the tone of your description and the tone of the book.
Now you have to decide if your book is the kind of book where you lay out the main conflict in the description, or hold it back for dramatic effect and use only a premise hook to get readers to try it out. Once you decide that, you need to figure out what the selling point of the conflict is going to be.
Kat Sheridan has some really great pointers for writing back copy, and the one that’s stuck with me most is to focus on the external goals and impediments of the characters, and how their interactions will escalate the conflict.
You also have to decide if you are going to discuss all the protagonists or just one (assuming you have more than one). Most romances give equal time to heroine and hero on the back, but if the story is really one character’s journey (even if your book uses both as POV characters), the description can reflect that.
When you talk about your characters in the description, it’s important to focus on the parts of their characterization that actually affect their situation or the conflict. Stupid example, but I’ve seen this used – the only reason to mention eye color is if there is a prophecy about it or a death sentence on people of that eye color. Otherwise it’s wasted words to say “blue-eyed Cristabel had a hundred suitors” instead of…well, either nothing or any of a dozen personality characteristics (picky; vain; shy) that might either shed light on why she has that many suitors or why that many suitors is a good/bad thing for her.
When you talk about the conflict, avoid both cliches and overly broad statements. I have lost track of the number of blurbs I’ve read with a conflict described something like this: “…but when a dark secret from her past threatens to come out, she has to make a choice that could change her life forever.” Um. So what’s it about? Obviously in that case the author didn’t want to give away the dark secret because that reveal is part of the book’s narrative tension. Fine. The conflict can still be described in concrete terms.
There are a few other description do not’s in a post I ran ages ago about free books and why I don’t download them even though they are free.
I actually really enjoy writing summaries of my stories. In some ways it’s probably easy for me because I write in romance, which is a genre with a pretty easy formula for back copy:
DESCRIPTION OF HEROINE
Sum up her situation in life, goal and obstacle.
DESCRIPTION OF HERO
Sum up his situation in life, goal and obstacle.
HOW THEY RELATE TO ONE ANOTHER
Are they the answer to or author of one another’s problems?
DRAMATICALLY REITERATE THE TITLE OF THE BOOK.
I really enjoy distilling my characters and stories into sound bites. Sometimes doing so helps me clarify what is really the most important theme of a story, or what the real conflict is. (This is helpful when I have started a story that I don’t really know where it’s going. NaNo 2013 book is one such, where I wrote the heroine’s back copy in order to figure out her point of view on the world.)
One exercise I’ve tried, that doesn’t necessarily help with the back copy, is trying to sum up the themes of your novel in a word or two. After my post about that, I decided the themes for the never-ending revision project are split loyalties and choice. Decide for yourself if much of that ended up in my first attempt at back copy for Anything But a Gentleman:
A Resourceful Ex-Debutante
After two years of exile from the ton, Lauren Stevens has decided to reclaim her life. 1818 is a new year, and within a month she manages to lose her virginity at a masquerade, win a fortune in fabric on a wager, and set up shop as London’s hottest new modiste. Her new life is exceeding her wildest dreams, until a devil’s bargain puts her repeatedly in company with her gentleman landlord. He makes her finally regret the future her scandalous past has made impossible.
A Reluctant Businessman
Lysander St. James can’t afford to make any mistakes. His father has beggared the family, his sister still needs to be presented to society, and the only thing standing between his family and debtor’s goal are the rents his properties accrue. He is dumbstruck to discover the woman he mistook for a courtesan at a masquerade is now his best tenant.
An Inconvenient Attraction
Lauren Stevens has disgraced herself in every possible way–she is the last woman Lysander could ever consider marrying, no matter how much he wants her. Fate seems bent on thrusting Miss Stevens into his path, however, and he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his distance. Lauren is not the lady he needs, but she makes him want to be…
Anything But a Gentleman
This covers maybe the first third of the book in terms of plot, and just sort of skims over the details about why she’s scandalous and in exile from society, why his family dynamic is the way it is, and so on. It doesn’t get into the fact that as the book progresses, her personal situation changes, which affects his willingness to walk away from her. This is a book where the hook conflict is not the entire conflict, but it is more than just the inciting incident. However, I could probably also write a back copy that only deals with the first 10% of the book. I’ll give it a go right now.
A MYSTERIOUS LADY
Lysander St. James is delighted to find a courtesan waiting for him at a masquerade. He’s spent the last year in abstinence in order to win his sister a dowry. His friends owe him more recompense than just the money, and a woman who might literally be a fallen angel seems like just their kind of lagniappe. He is only too happy to let her lead him from the ballroom and under her skirts.
A MISTAKEN IDENTITY
Lauren Stevens is a woman on a mission: find the man who ruined her in society, seduce him, and by so doing ruin his marriage to the lady for whom he abandoned her. She executes her plan without a hitch, until its fatal flaw is revealed: The wrong man was behind the mask.
A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE
When Lysander’s friends swear they hired no such female, he fears he has dishonored a young lady of his own class, to whom he now owes a marriage proposal. But his desperate search of the party turns up no lady and no leads. How can he offer her his name when he doesn’t even know hers? She might have run from him, but his honor demands he find her, or forever know himself to be ANYTHING BUT A GENTLEMAN….
Meh. I like the first one better, but the second isn’t bad. If he spent more of the book not knowing who she was, I might prefer it – but he finds out within a few days what her name is, and the real conflict is that he can’t be associated with someone of her reputation, so using a description that focuses so much on the inciting incident might give a prospective reader a bit of misdirection in terms of what the book is *mostly* about.
In both cases I think the tone of this particular book is captured. ABAG is a serious but not melodramatic/super-angsty historical romance novel. It’s not light and fluffy and funny, but neither is it an epic hurricane of crazysauce or adventures. It deals with class anxieties, social expectations, and duty to family. The descriptions are straightforward (rather than funny or melodramatic), and they touch on at least some of those themes. No one is going to feel like they got sold a false bill of goods if they buy the book based on either description.
Writing different descriptions for the same book can help identify the most compelling parts of it. Focusing on different parts of the conflict helps winnow out the irrelevant details and red herring obstacles. The back copy is your chance to highlight the thing about your story that would make YOU want to read it – since, presumably, you are part of your own intended audience. Most importantly, send your cover copy to friends you can trust to give you a straight answer with the subject line, “Would you want to read this?”