Aunt Edna: Did you hear about the Smith’s dog?
Me: Who are the Smiths?
AE: Remember that nice couple who lived on Oak Drive? The blue house. Awful color, looked like one of those toilet bowl cakes. I thought about leaving them a note. A nice note, not mean or anything, just a hint that paint is cheap and I’m sure the neighbors would be more than happy to help paint the house on a weekend.
Me: Huh? What does this have to do with a dog?
AE: They painted the house when they moved in–
Me: Huh? What? Who moved in where?
AE: The blue house, dear, aren’t you listening? I was talking to the doctor the other day about Uncle Henry’s hearing. We set up a test for him. Have you thought about having your hearing tested? You say what and huh an awful lot. Henry started doing that, too, and it’s irritating. If he can’t hear me, he should just admit it…
Around this point in the conversation, I’m digging through drawers for the key to the gun safe. Or for the liquor cabinet.
Bless her soul, Aunt Edna is not trying to drive people crazy. It’s that she has a story to tell, and it excites her and she wants other people to understand how exciting it is, so she needs to explain all the backstory and who the characters are and, of course, every story relates to another, so Uncle Henry’s hearing problems are important, too.
It’s those Aunt Edna-ish impulses that give many writers fits when they try to write book descriptions. They love their book, they’re excited, they want others excited, too, but they know too much and they’re emotionally involved. Browsers on Amazon or B&N won’t look for the key to the gun safe, they’ll just click the “next” button.
Copy writers who create blurbs and book descriptions for publishers tend to work off synopses, rather than the read the books. Why? It’s not their job to love the book or get involved or excited about the story. Their job is to entice readers into buying the book. A synopsis hits the high points of character and plot, providing all the information the copy writer needs with none of the emotional investment.
(sidenote: This article is for indie writers who are writing book descriptions for self-published titles. But, if you are going the traditional route, your ability to write a great synopsis will increase your value. Not just because it will make the editor more inclined to read your manuscript, but because a great synopsis means she doesn’t have to write one for the art department or the copy writer or the sales department. She can use yours. You just saved her (or her assistant or intern) a few hours of work. Learn to write great synopses. Trust me, do it.)
The copy writer’s advantage is that she isn’t emotionally invested. It would be ridiculous for me to tell a writer to get uninvested and work off a synopsis. That’s silly. One option would be to hire a copy writer, give them a good synopsis and pay them to write the book description. If that option isn’t feasible for you, then your other option is to learn how to write a good description. A few pointers.
- Study. Go through your shelves or head to the bookstore or browse Amazon for descriptions written by pros. Find mass market paperback novels that are similar in genre and tone to your novel. After you read about ten or twenty, you will discover there is a formula. Copy writers use that formula because it works. (The Formula for a Novel Blurb)
- Put yourself in the right frame of mind. Aunt Edna’s real problem is that she’s so caught up in her storytelling, she doesn’t notice when people are gulping down Jack Daniels in an effort to numb the pain. What I do is pretend I have to convince the old man to take me to a movie. He doesn’t care much for movie theaters, which makes him a resistant audience. The challenge is, convince him he needs to see the movie.
- Know your audience. Do a little market research. Hop over to Amazon or GoodReads, find the ten most popular novels that are similar in genre and tone to yours. Read the reviews and look for buzzwords. If for instance you wrote a fantasy novel, look for whatever readers are mentioning. The characters? The setting? Use of magic? Dragons? Tricky plots? Battle scenes? What are readers getting excited about? Seriously, make a list of the buzzwords. Readers who liked those popular titles will be looking for similar titles to enjoy. To help them find yours, focus your book description on what the readers are actually looking for. (Example: your fantasy novel has dragons in it. So you read the reviews for the top ten most popular fantasy novels that have dragons in them. You notice a lot reviewers like friendships between people and dragons, and they get very excited about aerial dragon battles. You say, hey, my story has a strong friendship between a person and a dragon, and I wrote some kick ass aerial battles. Bingo. There’s your focus.)
(sidenote: But Jaye! That’s so calculating and mercenary and, and… it’s cheating! My story is about a magic well and a legend and the rise of a young prince to save the world. Uh huh. I’m sure you and Aunt Edna would love to tell me all about it. This is not about you. It’s about enticing your readers. You write on your terms, but you sell on theirs. Once they read about your magic well and the rise of the prince, they will love it. Unless you hook them with what they want–dragon friendship and battles–they’ll never read the story to find out how much they love it. When I’m trying to entice the old man to the movies, it doesn’t do me any good to tell him about juicy dialogue or tricky plot twists. I tell him about car chases and stuff blowing up. He’ll love the great lines and the twisty plot when he sees the movie, but it’s the car chases that lure him into the theater.)
- Write your description, then go back through it and strip out all the adjectives and adverbs. Every. Single. One. (Jaye, are you out of your freakin’ mind? No. Bear with me.) I see this all the time. Writers panic that if they do not tell readers their stories are exciting or magnificent or sweeping or breathtaking and how everyone will love it because it’s the best story ever written, readers won’t understand. In the first place, that’s just flat out wrong. In the second place, any time you give a potential buyer the chance to argue with you, you risk them walking away. When you tell people how to feel, many will want to argue. You, the writer, will lose the argument and the sale. (Honey, this movie is better than the A-team. Yeah, right, says who? I’ve blown the chance to the see the movie.) If you find after stripping out the adjectives and adverbs, your 300 word description is now 89 words and makes no sense at all, it is time to start over. In this draft, no opinions, no hyperbole, just the facts. The good facts with strong nouns and verbs and specifics. (Honey, in this movie they blow up bridges. Explosions like in the A-team? Now I’ve got him hooked.)
- Think journalism. Get your important facts in early. Who, what, where, why. Your book cover will tell part of the story (or should). Make sure the genre is clear. If the setting plays a big role in the story, you might consider a short lead that sets the stage: “In the land of Wyrm, where unicorns graze next to sheep and everyone owns a pet fairy, trouble brews in the Ice Mountains. The dragon-lords prepare for war.” Then start a new paragraph, and write about the characters and their struggle.
- Think brief. You have seconds to catch browser attention with your cover. A few seconds more to intrigue with your first sentence or two. A reader will then decide if they want to read more. So you have to lead with your very best. Don’t blow it by presenting a mass of text. Blurbs on the backs of mass market paperbacks tend to run between 100-250 words. Usually closer to a hundred. You aren’t limited by physical space restraints, but keep in mind that dense blocks of text can turn off readers. If you find yourself going over 250 words, consider some serious trimming, or break up the description into paragraphs.
- Polish. Polish! POLISH! Readers are judging the quality of the writing. Every typo, misused word, or clumsy sentence gives the reader an excuse to say, no thanks, and click on another page. This is where you have my permission and blessing to go absolutely nuts and even drive your friends nuts in your quest to make your description shine.
So sit Aunt Edna in an easy chair and give her a magazine, put on a pair of earphones to tune her out, and write a description that will actually sell your novel.
(and in case you’re interested, I managed to talk the old man into taking me to see SHERLOCK HOLMES. He loved it. And no, I never did find out what happened to the damned dog. I got drunk before Aunt Edna finished the story.)