Showing posts with label cover copy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cover copy. Show all posts

15 October 2018

The Invisible Engine


by Steve Liskow

Saturday, I led a workshop on developing plot. It was the second half of my program on preparing for National Novel Writing Month, and I'll do a slightly expanded version (I have an extra fifteen minutes) at the same venue next week.

I know several people who do decent workshops on plot, and I can name more good books about building your plot than any other facet of writing fiction, but there's one idea almost everyone has trouble grasping. In fact, only two of the eight or nine books I often cite even mention it.

Concept and Premise.

Almost everyone understands that a plot is the stuff that happens to or around your protagonist, and most of them understand the idea of cause and effect. Most of them grasp structure and increasing tension, too. But making someone see that his or her premise needs more focus or oomph is hard. Maybe that's because everyone knows it when he sees it, but it's hard to define except by example.

Every story has a concept and premise, but unless it captures the reader's attention, the story won't sell. In fact, it won't even be read.

A concept is simply an idea. It can be a setting, a character, a story line, an imaginary world or practically anything else. But it has to develop into a premise, and that's tricky. The premise usually involves the "what if..." idea, the thing that "goes wrong." Michael Crichton's concept for Jurassic Park is that you can use the DNA from fossils to clone prehistoric dinosaurs. His premise builds on that: What if those dinosaurs get out of control and start eating people?

From that simple but specific foundation, you can build your plot because you have a conflict, setting and characters. You also have the beginning of your elevator pitch to an agent or editor. It even gives you a head start on your cover copy, which I always find hard to write.

I tell my classes that if you can put your premise into language a fairly bright ten-year-old can understand, you've got it.

Two of my books use Roller Derby as a loose concept. The premise of one of them is that a disgraced police officer finds redemption by protecting a group of women who help victims of domestic abuse, and, by extension, help themselves. That's more specific. More importantly, it helps me determine what will happen in the story. There will be roller derby and there will be at least one character who is being abused. The cop will help her. Sure, other things will happen, too, but that's the foundation.

Here is the back cover copy of The Whammer Jammers, which grew out of that concept and premise:

Chicks on wheels, dirty deals, and everything you never dared ask about roller derby. Suspended after a "questionable" shooting, Hartford cop Tracy "Trash" Hendrix hires on to protect the local skaters from vandals while they prepare for a match to fund a women's shelter. He suspects a skater's ex-boyfriend, but the guy has an alibi when that shelter gets torched--and an even better one when he turns up dead. Then a skater is killed in a drive-by, and Hendrix knows someone plays rougher than the roller girls. Unless he can figure out who it is before the match begins, the wheels really will come off.

The fire and the drive-by aren't in the original idea, but they grew out of it and raise the stakes.

Your premise has to generate conflict, and this one does. In my case, that matters because my thought process is far from linear. I can come up with dialogue or character traits on demand, but plot is hard. That's why I need a concrete--but flexible--concept I can turn into a premise. And it needs to promise the reader something she or he hasn't seen before.

Most people stare at me when I tell them there are currently seven women's roller derby teams in Connecticut, but it works. I self-published The Whammer Jammers in 2011. Two weeks ago, I sold out every copy I brought with me to an event because people still want to hear about it.

That's your ultimate test.

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.