18 December 2017

Less is Hard

by Steve Liskow

When people at events ask why I'm self-published, I can spot the other writers in the group with my standard answer: "So I don't have to write another synopsis."

Condensing your 300-more-or-less-page novel to five pages (some agents want only two or even one) is like gift-wrapping the state of Michigan. Remember, there are two peninsulae (or is it peninsulas?), and they're both pretty big. Lots of ribbon and tape...

Agents want your protagonist, setting, and conflict. They also want the plot and emotional stakes. They want to know how the story ends, too, and a sense of your style. In one to five pages. Maybe that's why Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain and Thoreau are among those famous writers who published at least some of their own work. I'd love to see Tolstoy's synopsis for War And Peace or Joyce's packaging of Finnegan's Wake.

But wait, there's less.

When I started self-publishing, I found a genius cover designer, a guy I worked with on dozens of plays. He designed posters for several shows I produced and most of the shows I directed.
We discovered that we could understand each other so he could create a poster that did all that synopsis stuff with a well-chosen graphic image. His covers prove that the cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is still true.

But I still need to write a cover blurb. If you think a one-to-five-page synopsis is hard, try the postage-stamp-sized pitch on your back cover.
Mine run between 125 and 150 words, and they have to do everything that synopsis does except reveal the ending. Once a buyer looks at the cool cover picture, she's going to turn the book over and read the back (I hope). My portrait isn't going to sell the book (although I'm still frequently mistaken for Brad Pitt if it's dark enough), so it's up to that blurb.
How do you do it? Think Tarzan on steroids. Shun adverbs, adjectives and passive verbs. Use concrete, evocative nouns; precise active verbs; and all the voodoo you can conjure up. My designer usually shows me the cover image after reading my outline/synopsis (he'll read up to ten pages, bless him) and asking questions. He can shrink the font, but he's a good enough writer to tell me when he thinks I need to do better.

Before You Accuse Me, my fourth Woody Guthrie novel, will arrive in January. I started struggling with the blurb last June. I thought the cover image was strong enough so we didn't need a tagline, but I like to start the blurb with something punchy. I was playing with Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors."

"Old offenses make bad relations" was too vague, not to mention stupid. That was the third or fourth try. We changed it to "old betrayals make bad relatives," only slightly better. Maybe. Peter dug into the outline again and told me to specify the relative. We played around with that for another two months and finally agreed on "Bad exes make bad clients." Then we changed and cut and added until we could both live with the rhythm.

We could probably do more with it, but we were both exhausted and I was still revising the MS, too. Maybe the second "bad" should be "worse" or some other monosyllable. We knew we were pushing our luck when we used early backstory and an adverb to fill out the rhythm in the closing sentence.

Here is the ninth revision, which we agreed to use:

Bad exes make bad clients.

Years ago, Sarah McKinnon dumped Chris Guthrie and moved hundreds of miles away for a new job and, eventually, a new husband. Soon after that, Guthrie nearly lost his leg in a shoot-out that cost him his job as a Detroit cop.

Now Sarah's new husband is in trouble and she wants her PI ex- to get him out of it. Against his better judgment--and that of his new companion Megan Traine--Guthrie flies east, where he and Megan find Sam Henderson accused of killing his mistress. He has a motive, the opportunity, a weak alibi, and maybe the murder weapon--which has disappeared. when they dig deeper, they find an even more damning motive.

Unfortunately, someone else has found it, too.

It's 128 words, about my average. It has no passive sentences and it reads at about seventh-grade, seventh-month reading level. I aim at fourth or fifth grade, but summaries tend to skew toward more passive verbs, so I'll take this.

someday, maybe I'll learn to write a blurb. Then I'll bottle the secret and sell it to other writers and make the fortune that continues to elude me.

4 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

That's a good blurb. Agree with you about being an indie writer. No synopsis. No agent telling you what to write and how to write. One of my ex-agents wanted me to kill off LaStanza wife Lizette in the fourth book in the series, said having a cop (now private eye) who is happily married wouldn't work. Wrong. Love being an indie. It's my art. I write what I want to write, when I want to write, the way I want to write it. Cover control. Price control. Larger royalties and the books STAY IN PRINT. Good luck with the new book and let us know when it's available. Cool.

janice law said...

Amen. I hate boiling down my own work but shrinking someone else's often seems quite easy. Maybe writers need blurb buddies more than writing groups!

Belated congratulations on your Black Orchid victory! I am way behind reading AHMM.

Eve Fisher said...

I hate synopses - or even cover letters! "Please read my story / novel because..." But you came up with a good back cover blurb. And I love, love, love the artwork.

Steve Liskow said...

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words.

Eve, I passed your cover comment on to my designer (haven't heard back from him yet). O'Neil, right now we're looking at mid-January for the release. I'll try to remember to mention it in my post mid-month.

Janice, you may be on to something. Blurb buddies, even more valuable than beta readers.