Sunday, 10 July 2011

Your book, in 140 characters or less...

Heaven Can Wait: 'Tom is dead, but the Non-Agency are having trouble convincing him of it, and he's falling in love with a living girl.' (actually rather less than 140, but that leaves room for a book link).

I'm not sure that's the best plug I could write, but it's the best I've got so far. There's a real knack to writing good promotional copy, and I think it's one of the most important things for an indie writer to get right. I've been talking for a while about doing a blog post on the topic, and here it is (I apologise for the lateness - I've been delayed by, in order, starting Google+, saving Arkham and Innsmouth from a variety of Lovecraftian horrors, my band and MINECRAFT).

This post is going to be about more than just Twitter plugs - I want to talk more generally about how to write a blurb, of which a twitter plug is just a specialised (and harder) version - but we're going to start with a little writing exercise.

Why? Because it's flat-out the best exercise I've ever done. I encountered it on a National Youth Theatre playwriting course when I was about 17. Like all exercises, the object is not to produce good writing but to practice some particular skill - in this case, brevity.

The exercise goes like this: write a conversation consisting of five lines of dialogue. Keep it fairly simple, but pour in as much tension as you can - no conversing about the weather unless there's a hurricane on the way. It needs to be a scene of high drama, and don't worry if it turns out a bit camp, because you're going to cut most of the words you write anyway.

I couldn't find my original scene that I wrote at this stage, only the final product of the exercise, so I'm guessing a bit, but the scene I wrote went something like this:

A: Don't do this.

B: Why not? What else can I do?

A: Please. You have to believe me, things will get better.

B: No. You don't know how bad it is.

A: But I do! You trusted me enough to tell me, can't you trust me now?

Like I said, not great writing (also, see my previous comment about being 17 when I wrote it). But it'll do.

The next stage of the exercise is to cut it down so that no character says more than 5 words at a time. I'm going to skip that and go straight to the final stage, where you cut it down so that each character only says one word at a time.

Mine came out to:

A: Don't.

B: Why?

A: Please

B:  No

A: But...

Again, not great writing. But you get the same drama, distilled. Remember it's originally a theatre-writing exercise; it's partly about learning to trust your actors and designers to give the context that's been removed from your dialogue (or, as we prose writers call it, showing not telling ;D).

Sidebar: my dad once told me of a similar exercise in an academic context, where you take an article and summarise it, then summarise the summary and so on until you get it down to 1 sentence. I haven't done that here because it would take too long, but the principle is the same.

The principle is, of course, getting to the core of whatever writing you've done, with as few of those pesky words in the way as possible.

Writing in as few words as possible is only part of the task, though; you've also got to pick the right words and the right kind of words. The two go hand in hand; the more right the words you pick are, the fewer of them you're going to feel you need, but while you can learn the right kind of words by just practicing editing down to bare bones, going the other way is maybe easier, so here are some pointers:

1: pick strong verbs. 'Hate', not 'dislike'. 'Refuses to', not 'will not'. 'Can't', not 'will struggle to'. 'Needs' whereever you can justify it instead of 'wants'. You're trying to make the stakes high and the characters distinctive.

2: keep it simple. Don't mention sub-plots. Most of your book is about your main character and his/her main problem; therefore, all of your blurb should be (if most of your book is not about your main character's main problem, please don't sell it to me, however brilliant other people think it is). Your blurb should tell the potential reader who your main character is, and what conflict affects him. In 'Heaven Can Wait', the conflict comes from Tom wanting to linger as a ghost to be with Mary and the Non-Agency trying to get him to go towards the light. Three elements. So, no more than three sentences in the blurb (unfinished and unpolished), something like: 'Tom is dead, but the Men Who Aren't There can't prove it to him. They have to get him to go to Judgement and the afterlife, but he's fallen in love with Mary, who's still alive. And if he tries to fight the Non-Agency, they'll start fighting back.' (needs work, but you get the idea). The only other thing you might need to put in your blurb is some setting information - where does this happen? I haven't for 'Heaven Can Wait' because the setting doesn't play a big part in the story - you could transpose it into more or less any urban setting from any period without losing anything. For something like a Brandon Sanderson high fantasy novel, this wouldn't work, because the magic or the prince's nation or whatever would be relevant. Books set in the real world often benefit from their locations being recognisable, too.

3: don't hedge. You don't need to be perfectly accurate in your description. Obviously, you can't lie - that's the spirit of false marketing even if it doesn't fall foul of any laws. But you don't need to worry about too much precision - no 'sort of's, no 'almost's. Let the reader learn where the limits and details are once they care about the characters, not before.

4: don't fear the cheese. Your blurb is going to feel cheesy relative to your novel. This may not bother you (may even be to your advantage - there's a huge amount of very successful, deliberately-pulpy fiction out there), but it drives some people up the wall. When you simplify and summarise, and particularly when you aim for high-impact writing, you're inevitably going to fall towards Movie Trailer Voiceover Man voice, and that may make you cringe. Don't. All blurbs have an element of the cringeworthy for some audience or other. Don't sweat it - if there's an audience for your book, they aren't going to be put off by a bit of cheese. I bought the series that has gone on to be my favourite books ('Hyperion' by Dan Simmons), because the blurb to book 1 starts 'On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it.' (note: 'vowed' is less strong than 'sworn' - don't make this mistake in your blurb! ;D). Some people find that cheesy as all hell. I read it and went 'wow, that sounds cool'.

5: don't give too much away. Obvious, really, but you're trying to show situations, not resolutions - no spoilers! You need a certain amount of mystery/uncertainty to create tension.

That's enough rules for now, I think. There's a caveat to be added to #2, though. I said you should only talk about the main character and the main problem and that's true, but you sometimes see (particularly, I think, with YA and fantasy books) an italicised line at the start of the blurb (which may or may not have a technical name - I don't know) which doesn't really say anything useful but creates intrigue. For 'Heaven Can Wait', I'm going with 'I met a man who wasn't there...' This sort of leader line is something to be careful with - because it's very easy to over-egg it and end up sounding cliched - but it can be quite powerful.

Anyway, that's blurbing. Your writing exercise: write a blurb. Then summarise it in less than 140 characters. ;)


  1. Phew. That's exhaustive and very useful. :)

    I have never heard of this exercise and I wonder if I can do a dialogue where each line contains one word. Ha! I have to try it later. And your tips regarding the blurb sentences are very clear and easy to apply. In fact, I'll bookmark this and spread the word. Thanks! :)

  2. I would point out that, for e.g. if you are writing a novel about the wishy-washy-ness of modern life, you might want to use weak language to satirise the blurb format. Punchy, dramatic language is great, but I think the tone of a blurb should somewhat reflect the tone of the novel itself.

    Lil Sis

    P.s. playwrights talk about showing not telling too - it's to do with avoiding monologues and soliloquies in favour of dialogue and action.

    Snotty younger sister signing off again :-P

  3. Bah, playwrights. Who cares about theatre? (My lil sis, for those of you who haven't guessed, is theatre-mad ;D)

    I'm tempted to suggest that if you're writing a novel about the wishy-washyness of modern life you need more laser guns before you worry about a blurb. Or dragons. But I might just be being juvenile ;)

  4. Possibly. Got to take the mickey out of modern life, or we might start taking it too seriously!