[Remember, keep sending in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer questions about once a week. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I love doing two at once....even if we're just talking about answering blog questions.]
So I just happened to get two questions in the span of a couple of days with a high amount of overlap. So clearly the celestial bodies are aligned and the sentient universe wants me to talk about your blurb, your pitch, your summary/synopsis. So let's do that. But first...the questions.
I saw a quote that has inspired a question!
“You shouldn’t ever write a novel that you can summarise because then you should just write a summary. What is the point of writing something that isn’t a challenge? I can’t think in a simpler way anymore. I really can’t.”
- Arundhati Roy, when asked about the complexity of her second novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.
(First, I'd note that that interview was discussing her work in general but also focussed on the situation in Kashmir, & India as a whole, and the rise of populism, and is worth reading for its own sake - https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/news/if-kashmir-is-occupied-by-an-army-right-now-india-is-occupied-by-a-mob-says-arundhati-roy - she was talking to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the Edinburgh Book Festival.) I shrank this bit for the sake of formatting space. -C
But the quote at the end made me stop - I've never seen that opinion before, and it goes against almost all of the writing advice I've seen.
In so many places I've seen the advice that you should be able to summarise your novel in a couple of paragraphs at most. An elevator pitch.
If you can't summarise it in 50 words, then it's too complicated.
But then you've got an acclaimed, Booker prize-winning author saying:
“You shouldn’t ever write a novel that you can summarise because then you should just write a summary."
What do you think?
To be honest, I am biased and was delighted when I read that - a book I'm working on has no chance of being summarised in a few sentences, and I have been worried for a while I was doing it all wrong because of so many articles which mention this.
Hey, there. Hope all is well!
I know how busy you are, so if you have time to answer, great, if not I totally understand.
I am currently trying to market my novel series, and when I can get people to pick it up, they love it. But actually GETTING people to pick it up is starting to seem impossible. Do you have any advice on how to write the perfect blurb or pitch? My books are a contemporary Mafia series, and always seem to lose out to the ones with mostly naked guys on the cover, and I'd like to not have to so literally pimp them out.
Thanks for all you do. Some days your blog is all that keeps me writing.
I want to take one quick moment to apologize to everyone. Yes, even you. Apparently you all have this image of me where I'm so fucking busy that I can't answer an email or handle a question. Like, I just wake up in the morning and start screaming as I write. I scream as I write while I dress, scream as I think about what I'm going to write in the shower, scream/brush my teeth/write-with-my-free-hand, I drive to my nanny gig screaming and typing on my phone despite the danger, and if my email pings, I stop screaming for a moment, glance over at the counter, take a deep breath and scream EVEN LOUDER.
Let me divest you of this image. Now that I have the FAQ and the Facebook FAQ, I only actually get one or two questions a day that they don't cover. I love hearing from folks, and even though the day may come where I have to stop replying to every query I get, I set aside some time each day to deal with audience stuff (whether that is answering emails or moderating threads or whatever). Plus....these questions make up a SIGNIFICANT portion of my blog and my most popular "segment." So please please please keep em' coming. Don't be shy.
Let's start with that Arundhati Roy quote and work our way out to the more commercial aspects of these questions. And for the time being, I'm just going to focus on that quote and leave alone the fraught topics she sometimes writes about that bitterly divide even some of the short list of folks I would gladly jump in front of a bullet for.
To put it bluntly, this is a really "I have arrived" thing to say. It's like Joyce saying that he SHOULD be studied for years to be understood. Roy is an amazing writer of deep complexity and nuance and you can easily say that every sentence in her works is vital to the gestalt, but most everything can be summarized. In fact that's one of the skills you will often be set to in a liberal arts education because it is so absofuckinglutely useful. This is why you did it so often in English class. So you would learn not to be like, "And there was this one scene.....where the guy......takes these scissors.......and he kills this other guy......but then the guy kind of deserved it......so......" Instead keep it focused on the most vital information.
As a quick note: in praxis, "summary" in and "synopsis" are similar, but they are not interchangeable. A synopsis is usually what's on the back of a paperback. It's often written in the same tone as the book. It may be written "in character" or as prose or as bullet points or something. It often leaves out the final act for the reader to discover and avoids "spoilers." A summary, on the other hand, is a more academic response to a work. It is written more formally. It is written in the present tense. And it will contain the work's climax and spoilers. While all synopses involve some amount of summary, not all summaries are a synopsis.
Think for a moment about the very best books you've EVER read. Could any of them not be summarized? I'm not asking you if you feel as if you can't do justice to every twist and turn and how gloriously the author dealt with details and how the work made you feel. I'm simply asking if you couldn't break it down to a couple of sentences.
Should you read Beloved cover to cover? Oh fuck yes! Can I convey every agonizing moment of gorgeous prose and deep emotional complexity in a three-sentence summary? Oh fuck no! Can I summarize it, though? Sure: A woman named Sethe is haunted by the ghost of her eldest daughter who she murdered to keep from slavery. At first the haunting is by a revenant, but then by a physical manifestation of a woman named Beloved––the only word on her eldest daughter's tombstone. Beloved consumes Sethe's life until the black community intervenes with an exorcism.
Obviously any summary leaves a lot out, including the entire romantic plot line. That's what a summary IS. It is just the main ideas. That's why you open the cover and start reading if you "WOULD LIKE TO KNOW MORE," but distilling the MOST important information is actually a sought-after skill.
Roy is often contrarian towards conventional wisdom in just this way, and I think she does so to bring an important, oft-unconsidered aspect to the table even if she could just as easily advocate for the other side––sort of to force the hand of nuance. A lot of people limit themselves to summaries and so they lack the flavor and substance of a work. My three-line summary does not even begin to convey the sheer scope of horror in Beloved that is rooted in mother-daughter relationships and the relationship that develops between Sethe and Beloved is....deeply, profoundly creepy. For that, you would have to read it, and I think that's what Roy is getting at. Literature can't be summarized (even though it literally can). And if that sounds like exactly the sort of paradox artists live in, you're starting to catch on.
As we shift focus to the commercial side of this question, I want to point one last thing out about the Roy quote: she has an advantage over most writers that unless she scrawls her name on eucalyptus leaves ten million times, whatever she writes is going to be published. So she no longer needs to consider that a tight synopsis is a fundamental part of the traditional publication process.
Pitches and blurbs are a little different, and let me unpack this one at a time.
A writer's pitch––and right now I'm talking about a fiction novelist––is a query letter. There's no need to have an elevator pitch if you're writing fiction to be published. (Yes, I know the Jim Butcher story. I fucking **PROMISE** you that The Dresden Files were going to get published one way or another.) You are a writer. Your "pitch" gets to be revised, edited, and a little bit longer. (Isn't writing AWESOME!) I've written an in depth guide here. This is what you will send out with sample chapters (or whatever an agent asks for).
Unless you're writing screenplays IN HOLLYWOOD, you don't need an elevator pitch. And I swear to you, on all the writers' guides of the greats, that even if you are writing screenplays in Hollywood, this is one of those things that is sort of kind of true, but mostly a myth––like being "discovered." It doesn't really happen, and you're definitely not throwing away your shot if you focus on writing quality work instead of practicing what you would say if you ended up in an elevator with Christopher Nolan. Would you even know if you were in an elevator with the biggest publisher in the world? Would you recognize them? Go work on your query letter....and only do THAT after your book is done.
Because now we're moving into MARKETING. The book is done. And you want someone to give it a chance. Enter the blurb. Remember the sentences that used to be at the top of every paperback or movie poster. (You still see them, just not as much because of different marketing tools.) Those are blurbs. Just enough to pique curiosity.
- Start with the hook.
- Don't summarize.
- No longer than a Tweet.
- Appeal to emotions.
Blurbs are like flirting, and even though my flirting is vaguely like a wombat with indigestion and has caused me to adopt a courtship ritual that is more like "I project weaponized cuteness and then say 'Yes!' a lot," I can do my best to explain blurbs.
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You want to tease your reader. You want them to want more. You want them to have an ever-so-slight sense of what the book is about and the genre without giving away the store.
"In a world where feelings are illegal, love was the ultimate crime...."
"The harbingers rolled into town one Tuesday. Now Billy had one week to stop Armageddon..."
"How do you measure a year in the life? How about love..."
"In the last days of Earth, could there be hope for the Unwanted?"
"A Jedi must not know passion. Or emotion. Or love."
You get the idea? Emotional. Charged. A little over the top. These are not quick summaries. "Eight friends deal with HIV over the course of a year." NO! This is a wink from across the room. This is the promise of more if they take the step. Make that reader want to turn the book over and read the...um......SYNOPSIS (glances upward at the earlier part of the article). Hook them.
Now....there's another informal meaning of blurb that sort of just means ANY promotional short writing, and you probably want someone else to do your blurb if you're trying to sell books. "Author Aubrey weaves a breathtaking tale of modern organized crime dynamics, steamy romance, and supernatural forces living among us. A thoroughly enjoyable romp. If you like Kim Harrison, you'll LOVE this!" See how that's just not going to work if you write it yourself?
If you DO write a blurb yourself, stick to a tiny summary, say what the book is LIKE (genre, a book it's similar to that many have read), but keep the sort of hook/enticing language, and talk up the BOOK without seeming like you're bragging about yourself. "Gumshoe McDick takes a case working for the mafia that seems too good to be true. But everyone has an angle and no one is exactly what they seem. Soon Gumshoe is in over his head, and the only way out is to face Chicago's underworld leaders: the ruthless succubus gang. A mixture of urban fantasy and gangster genre, with enough steamy romance to keep the pages turning well past your bedtime."
Just between you and me....I'll give you a little bit of "insider trading" advice. One of the beauties of blurbs and synopses and such is that they're SHORT. So if you're having trouble knowing what details to cut out of a summary or how to blurb your book with really enticing language, you can get professional quality help for usually only ONE HOUR'S worth of someone's freelance rate. (Unless you want them to read the whole book––which just so you know them reading YOUR summary will probably be sufficient.) That's all they're going to need. So it's cheap to farm this one out if it's giving you the vapors.
|Encapsulate my entire masterpiece in a tweet???????|