Thursday, May 5, 2016

Blurbs, Synopses, and Back Jacket Copy (Pt. II)

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Hey everybody!  Last month I talked about the (admittedly wishy-washy) difference between blurbs, synopses, and back jacket copy but that ran so long I didn't even really get into the meaty part, which is:

How to write a decent query letter

There are four things you'll need before you start sending out query letters:

1.  A two-page synopsis
2.  A one-page synopsis
3.  Back jacket copy
4.  An elevator pitch

The first step (IMHO) is to write a decent synopsis.  So let's talk about that.

Agents and small publishers will sometimes ask you for a synopsis along with your query letter.  If the agent does not specify how long they want the synopsis to be, you should assume no longer than two pages. 

Each time you introduce the name of a new character in your synopsis, it is common practice to capitalize it.  Not every time - just the first time.  Your synopsis should then describe your entire book, including the ending.

It's as simple - and hard - as that.  It's a struggle to strip your 100,000 word novel down to a page or two, but really it must be done.  Some tips I would offer are:

- concentrate only on your main character
- concentrate only on your main plotline
- strip out ancillary characters and subplots
- only introduce secondary characters if you must to understand the main plotline
- use economy of language (think about the shortest way to get the most information across)

Economy of language is going to be key in much of this.  Have you ever had a clever joke or bon mot and had to tweet it?  I find that working within Twitter's 140 character structure teaches you to strip paragraphs and sentences down to their bare bones.  It's an art, certainly, and it must be learned, but it's not impossible.

Once you have a two-page synopsis, I would recommend taking a hatchet to it a second time and stripping it down to one-page.  Again, I have no magic trick for this, except to utilize economy of language.  The first paragraph should be the set-up and the last paragraph should be the ending.  If you thought jamming an entire novel into two pages was hard, wait until you have to jam it into one.  But once you have your two-page, it becomes geometrically easier to strip out those last lingering "extraneous" bits.

Now that you've stripped your novel down to one precious page, guess what we're going to do next?  That's right, we're going to (somehow, gulp!) strip it down even further.

Back jacket copy should be about 250 words, tops.  The nice thing about the back jacket copy is that you 100% should not be including the ending of your story.  In 250 words you just need to set up the story and entice the reader to buy the book...and not incidentally the agent or publisher to want to represent or publish it. 

Here are a couple of points:

- you should be using your flashiest, sexiest language.  Have you ever felt a shiver down your spine when reading the back of a book?  That's what you're going for here.
- you need to establish the stakes.  Jim's hanging out on a beach in France.  Um...okay.  Who cares?  Oh, did I mention Jim is there because he has to save the world from fascism because it's Normandy 1944?  Okay, now we've got stakes.  Remember, stakes can be emotional, physical, and even political.  Ideally it's all three.  Think about Luke's trench run against the Death Star.  His life is at stake, his belief in the Force is at stake, and the galaxy is at stake.
- again, you should only concentrate on your main character.  Maybe your antagonist.  Maybe an ancillary character or two if it's necessary to understand the stakes.  But if you start getting into how Harry's best friend is Hermione but his other best friend is Ron and his mentor is Dumbledore and his (sort-of) antagonist is Snape but his real antagonist is Voldemort and Ron has all these brothers...well, this is what we call character soup and it's utter query kryptonite.
- play around.  Whenever I write back jacket copy I write dozens of versions.  Reword things.  Strip things out mercilessly.  Jazz up your language.  Make sure every sentence is absolutely vital, and scintillating, too.
- if you're completely lost, read the backs of books you've enjoyed to see what format they use.  Odds are if you bought it, the back jacket copy sucked you in.  Try another version of yours using the structure of one of your favorite books.
- avoid rhetorical questions.  Things like, "What would you do if you could fly?" used to be the norm in the publishing industry.  In fact, so much so, that it is now a cliché and many agents will reject you outright for using them.  The general rule of thumb is, "If I can think of a smartass answer to your question, I will, and then I'll immediately stop taking the rest of what you wrote seriously."

Now, if you do it right, your publisher should be able to just slap what you wrote on the back of the book when it comes out - possibly along with some review quotes and maybe even a blurb as we discussed last time.

And now we come to the final, most brutal part thing you will need for your query letter: the elevator pitch.  Imagine you're at a convention and you step into an elevator with the chief acquisitions editor of MacMillan.  You have until you reach her floor to convince her to buy your book.  So you have two options.

"Say, I have a book you might like.  It's about a teenage wizard, well, I guess he doesn't know he's a wizard at first but he lives under his aunt and uncle's stairwell and he's got this wicked awesome scar on his head but he wears glasses and, oh, hey, wait, where are you going?"


"Say, I have a book you might like.  It's about an ordinary boy who learns he's a wizard and has to go to a special high school to learn to use his powers."

See the difference?  Another way to think of it is to picture the movie announcer guy going, "In a world..."  Obviously you don't want to use something as clichéd as "in a world..." but the film industry has mastered the elevator pitch.  Think about it: in a thirty second commercial, or a single glance at a poster, or, at the outside, a two-minute trailer, they have to grab the attention of millions of people and make them want to see "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fucking 7" or whatever.

So, once you have all four of these tools, how do you assemble a query letter?  Simple.  Use this format:

Dear Agent/Publisher,

Elevator Pitch.  I hope you'll consider representing/publishing my (genre) novel (TITLE), complete at (number) words.

Back jacket copy.

(Brief author bio and previous works if applicable.)

Per your submission guidelines I have included a one- or two-page synopsis and (whatever other crap they asked for) below.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best Regards,

(Address Line 1)
(Address Line 2)
(Phone Number)

What's that?  You want to see it in action?  Well, all right, here is my actual, genuine query letter for my latest release, EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED.

Dear Slappy,

After the 2nd American Revolution, a loyal Blue citizen must save his lover by venturing into the heart of darkness itself: The Red States. I hope you'll consider representing my sci-fi novel EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED, complete at 82,000 words.

Jack Pasternak, a laid-back California doctor, receives a garbled distress call from his fiancée in Maryland before her transmissions stop altogether. Unfortunately for Jack, citizens of the Blue States are no longer allowed to cross Red America. He is faced with an impossible choice: ignore his lover's peril or risk his own life and sanity by venturing into the dark heart of The Red States. When the armies of the Mexican reconquista come marching into Los Angeles, Jack's hand is forced and he heads east in an old-fashioned petroleum-fueled automobile.

The journey is a minefield of dangers, as Jack faces partisan warbands, feral Wal-Mart dwellers, and missionaries from the Mormon State of Deseret. He is soon joined by Haley Daniels, a fellow traveler who turns out to be the Red president's daughter. Jack's quixotic quest transforms into a deadly crucible when the president unleashes the full might of the Red military to track Haley down and save her from the Blue Menace. The final showdown between the politicized armies of the Former United States with Jack stuck in the middle takes place in Harrisburg, PA, within spitting distance of his lost love.

My published novels include BRAINEATER JONES (2013, Red Adept Publishing), THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO (2013, Severed Press), and BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS (2014, Severed Press.)  I served as an officer in the U.S. Army and earned the Bronze Star Medal for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Below, per your submission guidelines, I have included a synopsis and the first three chapters of my manuscript.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

Stephen Kozeniewski
123 Wherever St.
Whereversville, Wherever 12345
(123) 456-7890

What do you think?  Any tips, tricks, or best practices?  Did I completely bolo it?  Let me know in the comments below.


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Slappy would be an idiot not to ask for a full. I find writing synopses before I write the book to be the best strategy. I hate them. Blurbs -- as Steve would know because I ask him to look at them so often -- take a lot of revision work.

Unknown said...

Great reminders!!

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

That is true. I have seen a lot of yours. :)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Thanks, Jamie!

Carrie Beckort said...

Great post, Steve! I'll have to keep this in mind if I ever decide to step away from self-pup and go querying.

Jonathan Schramm said...

Very well done, sir! A true clinic; though, there's one thing you forgot on your list of things you'll need when you start sending out query letters (see #5).

1. A two-page synopsis
2. A one-page synopsis
3. Back jacket copy
4. An elevator pitch
5. A book!:)

Thanks for the post!

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Thanks, Carrie! It's brutal, but I guess you've got to do what you've got to do. :)

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

He he. Yep, that, too. :D

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