suspense

Why is Little Timmy’s Face on Fire? (aka how to write a good book description)

One of a potential reader’s biggest “sell” points is your book description. Sadly, it’s also one of the things that I most often see get mangled by authors. But fear no more! I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the elements you need for great cover copy.

 

 

To establish my bona fides: I’m an internationally-bestselling author in everything from horror to science fiction and fantasy to (I kid you not) Western Romance. I’ve sold tens of thousands of eBooks on the strength of my back cover copy. I have literally had Hollywood producers call me with variations on this conversation:

 

 

Producer: Hey, are the rights for [cool Michaelbrent book title here] available?

Me (in needy tones, because Author): You bet. Did you like the book? My mom liked it and she says I’m handsome and talented and –

Producer: What, you think I’ve read it? [Sharp, barking laughter.] No, I just read the description. That’d make a great movie tagline! So is it available or not? Answer quick, ‘cause I have to go for a swim in my McDuck-style pool of ducats.

 

 

This should clue you in on how critical back cover copy is.

 

 

But too many authors don’t know how to do it. In fact, when I go to comic cons and writing conferences one of the first things I notice is that few authors know how to sell a book. They know how to tell their story, but guess what (and this is important): no one cares about your story. Not yet.

 

 

Your story is the equivalent of baby photos by that obnoxious coworker you barely know. Sure, they’re kids. Sure, they probably have some level of worth. But you don’t know them. You don’t care about them. You have no stake, and just want the microwave burrito calling your name in the break room.

 

 

But what if that same coworker sidles up to you and says, “So Little Timmy’s face spontaneously caught on fire yesterday.”

 

 

Now you’re in. The coworker can say, “The story starts with Little Timmy in his mother’s fallopian tube,” and go through every day of Little Timmy’s life in agonizing detail and you will hang on every word because HOW DID LITTLE TIMMY’S FACE CATCH FIRE?!

 

 

Note that the thing that worked wasn’t the story. It was a) the hook, and b) the emotional attachment that created.

 

 

That’s good back cover copy, which does three things:

 

 

1) Establish what the hook of the book is – that thing that makes your story utterly unique.

2) Provide an emotional(not cerebral) response.

3) Show that you know how to write, because holy crap look how invested I am in this back cover copy and if you know how to do that in 100 words, then I. AM. SO. IN.

 

 

A quick example:

 

 

You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home.

The doors are locked, the windows are barred.

THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family.

A game with no rules, only consequences.

 

 

So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?

OR DO YOU DIE?

The above is the entirety of the description to my novel, Strangers. It immediately shows what the hook is – a family that’s been sealed in their home with a killer. It draws in the reader emotionally, both by providing a quick snapshot of the stakes (“DO YOU DIE”) and also, in this case, by the sneaky, underhanded author making the story about the reader (not only is Little Timmy’s face on fire, but it turns out Little Timmy is your secret love child! Oh no, poor baby! Poor me!).

 

 

62 words, and I’ve got ‘em.

 

 

A lot of authors don’t want to reveal their hook, because they’re “giving away the coolest thing.” But that just means you need to retool your book/story, because your hook should not be the only – or even the most important – twist and turn in your story.

 

 

With Strangers I’ve told you the most basic part of the first hundred pages of the novel. But you don’t know the mechanics of how the killer got in, or why he chose this particular family, or whether they get out, or, or, or, or…

 

 

Your hook isn’t the story. What it is, is the thing that tells your reader that there’s something in it for them. That they can plunk over five bucks and get a good value, because in here is something they’ve never seen (or never seen done this way).

 

 

Then you set that hook good and tight by making them feel. You don’t have to write the story as actually happening to them to do this. The tried-and-true way is to describe the characters in a way that makes them important/sympathetic/relateable to the reader. Another example, this time from my book Predators:

 

 

She is one of the only animals
who can chase a lion from its kill …

Evie Childs hoped the all-expense-paid trip to Africa would give her a chance at adventure. Maybe it would even let her forget a past that haunts her, and find safety from a husband who abuses her.

Her jaws can crush bone to powder…

But when a group of “freedom fighters” kidnaps her safari tour group, intent on holding them for ransom, the adventure turns to nightmare.

She knows no mercy, only hunger…

Now, Evie and the rest of the survivors must travel across miles of the harshest, most dangerous environment on Earth. No food. No water. No communications.

And they’re being hunted.

She is the only animal alive
who laughs as she hunts…

A pack of Africa’s top predators have smelled the blood of the survivors, and will not stop until they have fed. Because in this place, you can be either one of the prey, or one of the…

… PREDATORS

 

 

Again, it’s short (167 words). Again, it sets a hook (“What kinda scary animal can chase away a lion?”), then invests the reader emotionally (a woman with an abusive husband and secrets from her past, we’re already torn between rooting for her and being curious). It then sets the hook even tighter (“You mean they got kidnapped and then things got bad?”), and gets us further invested when it talks about Evie and “the survivors” (a phrase we are hard-wired to root for and you bet I used it on purpose!).

 

 

Too many authors resist “giving away the good parts” without telling the whole story. So at those comic cons and conventions that I mention, I’ve run through descriptions – a quick hook, a brush stroke of the characters and stakes – of all forty or so of my books before the author at the next table has gotten through chapter one.

 

 

Who do you think gets the sale?

 

 

I’m not boring them with baby pictures. I’m quietly setting Little Timmy’s face on fire, then pointing out the blaze.

 

 

Set the hook. Make it matter to the reader.

 

 

And sell that book.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice
What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

What Thriller Writers Can Learn From Horror

So since the title of this is “What can thriller writers learn from the horror genre?” I am going to focus on a thing that is REQUIRED in horror, for it to actually BE horror, but which is glossed over (or missing entirely) from far too many thrillers.

 

Now before I get to the meat of it, I want to say clearly: I’m NOT saying that thrillers aren’t as good as horror, or vice-versa. I’m NOT saying that all thrillers miss some imaginary mark. I’m NOT denigrating any author or any book. Just gotta front that because people tend to read things like “here’s something horror HAS to nail and which thrillers have a bit more leeway with” as “here’s something horror does right and thrillers don’t and also thriller readers suck and thriller writers are morons” etc. etc.

 

I have nothing but respect for both the thriller and horror tropes, and I run back and forth between the two in my own writing with gusto and a real appreciation for both.

 

All right. Caveating and hemming-and-hawing over. On to the meat:

 

There are a number of things horror HAS to do in order to work, to function AS horror. Of them, the one that is most useful when writing thrillers is this simple fact: horror has to matter.

 

Horror, at its core, is something that frightens us (the readers). It does this by putting us in someone’s shoes, and giving us as much (or as little) information as they have. Then, firmly planted in the path of the book (or story or movie or whatever) protag, the reader screams when the terror reveals itself. The terror is real in that moment, not just for the characters in the story, but for the audience.

 

Whenever you go to a horror movie, you’re sure to see a scene where the hero is backing away. The shot is tight, showing her face, the expression of fear, the knowledge that IT is out there, that IT wants her blood. She backs up a step. Another step… turns…

 

AND IT IS RIGHT BEHIND HER!

 

I often hear people talking about this “cheap trick” – as in, “Like we don’t know that there’s gonna be something behind her. What do those Hollywood guys think we are, morons?”

 

The people saying that miss the point. That moment isn’t about a “trick” – no one at the production company hinges their career on the fact that “this time we’ll get ’em with the ol’ ‘Closeup and then she turns and BLAMMO!’ trick, fellas!” No, what they’re doing with that tight shot, that closeup of her face, is PUTTING YOU RIGHT THERE WITH HER. The audience has no choice but to walk in the hero’s path, taking the same steps she takes, and suffering the same terror she suffers.

 

In horror – or at least the BEST horror – the audience must fear. For that to work, the audience must stand in the shoes of a character who fears as well. The character’s terror becomes ours (the audience’s) and voila! Horror!

 

Now here’s the fun part: fear is intensely personal. You get a bit woozy at the sight of blood, don’t you? Not me. I laugh at your weak stomach. Laugh, I say!

 

But you probably don’t freak out when you get in the ocean past your kneecaps. And I do. (Cue your laughter now, because revenge is a dish best served cold… and as a part of the ITW roundtable discussion.)

 

In sum, what terrifies you does NOT terrify me (necessarily). That’s WHY people who write horror novels or direct horror movies take such pains to keep everything in dark places, in extreme closeups: to hobble the audience; to shackle their experiences to those of the story’s characters.

 

Then, thus shackled, when the character runs breathlessly through the airplane-hangar-sized tool shed full of rusty pitchforks and idling chainsaws and dismembered body parts, so do we. When the character trips and falls over an unlikely root, we tumble to the ground and hurt ourselves as well. When the character screams, our own shrieks follow close behind.

 

The horror is real, because it matters to us. It matters to us because it matters to THEM, the characters. Without the twin steps of a) association by the audience with the characters, and b) something that is terrible in a specific and unique way TO those characters, horror cannot be achieved. The movie or book is a bust.

 

And that’s something that thrillers are more likely to miss: a uniquely personal tie between what is happening and the characters in the story. Thinking about the typical thriller series illustrates this problem: in the first book, the detective has to find the Big Bad, because the detective lost his father in a tragic combine accident, and now the police have come to him, stumped, because they can’t figure out who the newest serial killer is. The killer has been dubbed The Combiner by the press, because he chops people up in a combine and leaves them on the lawn of the various towns where the killings occur.

 

The detective resists taking the case. But he will. Because there’s that question: is this how his dad REALLY died? WAS his father’s death an accident… or was it early practice by a blossoming serial killer?

 

He gets deeper and deeper, the hunt moves faster and faster. NO! The killer didn’t murder his father. The killer IS HIS FATHER! (cue trumpets)

 

Fast-forward to book seventeen. The cops are stumped. A killer the press has dubbed The Retainer – so named because he wires his victims’ jaws shut and makes them watch old reruns of Everwood until their souls just give out – is on the loose. The detective resists the case… but he’ll come around. Because as was revealed in a fascinating flashback during the prologue, the detective’s favorite niece once had a best friend whose dog peed on a hydrant outside the local dentist’s office, and the dentist threw a retainer at the dog to get rid of it. Trauma for all.

 

So yeah… this time it’s personal.

 

Obviously, I’m saying a lot of the above tongue-in-cheek. But there’s some truth to it. I mean, you’ve cycled through all the protagonist’s most deep-seated fears in the first book. You caught the man who killed his father… and who WAS HIS FATHER! Book two: the rapist who came after his sister. Book three: the trilogy moment where you find out The Combiner WASN’T HIS FATHER AFTER ALL, and his REAL father is being held captive in a grain silo slowly being flooded as a result of the tornado that just hit, so our hero only has two hours to solve the mystery of where he is and who put him there! Book four: I dunno, something about his sister again? Book five: we’re definitely moving from family to friends at this point. Book eight: I think that one’s got something to do with the local grocer.

 

My hat is off to those thriller writers who manage to keep wringing painful memories out of their heroes, book after book after book, and so craft a story that MATTERS to the character. But it doesn’t always happen. Far too often, in fact, thrillers are thrilling only as a mental exercise of sorts: there’s nothing that matters to the detective, or the doctor, or the Everyman at the heart of the story. The thriller becomes more of a crossword puzzle: something to be solved, and the victory to be savored. But the suspense comes more in the form of “Can he/she (the hero) figure this out?” rather than in the nail-biting-knowledge that the stakes are simply victory on the one hand, and destruction on the other.

 

Horror MUST have those kinds of stakes. No one comes out of a horror movie raving about “the movie of the year where if the hero didn’t get away he was faced with the very real possibility of BEING SET BACK A DECADE IN HIS CAREER!” No. That is a FAILED horror movie, and it has failed from the start.

 

I’m not saying that a thriller has to have blood and guts, or even a life on the line to work. But the best thrillers DO remember the lesson that horror imparts: the story has to matter. It has to matter – deeply, profoundly, irrevocably matter – to the characters. It can’t be an interesting mental exercise, or even a question that will bring shame or unhappiness if not answered. It must be MORE.

 

A good, competent, fun thriller will take us on a roller coaster ride. A heart-pumping, blood-pounding, arms-in-the-air-and-screams-on-our-lips adventure that has us smiling as we get off because of the sheer exuberant madness of the experience.

 

A GREAT thriller takes us on that same roller coaster. And reminds us – subtly sometimes, overtly others – that somewhere, the roller coaster is on fire. That somewhere, the rivets are loosening. That if we ride the roller coaster just right, then we will pump our fists and shout for joy that WE WERE THERE… but that if we fail to do it, destruction will follow.

 

Thrillers must thrill. Of course. But there are different kinds of thrills. One is the the thrills-by-proxy we experience when someone tells us of an extreme event, an unusual occurrence. It could be anything from winning the lottery to the time they almost fell down the stairs right in front of the Girl/Boy Of Their Dreams.

 

Another kind of thrill comes when we witness someone escape a situation that could have ended in death or madness or damnation (the extremes of body, soul, and mind).

 

And the third kind of thrill – the best kind, and the ONLY kind acceptable in a good horror story – is the one where we witness that same situation… and forget we are merely the audience. We fall into the story, and become the characters, and the doom that looms is our own. Then, at the end, we feel our wet palms and totter unsteadily to the shelf, where we return our book. We pause. We breathe. We smile.

 

And we pull the next title in the series from the shelf. What has happened in the story happened to us. We survived. And a thrill like that is addictive. A thrill like THAT – one that, like all good horror, is based in things that MATTER to us – is one we will pay dearly and eagerly to enjoy.

 

This article originally appeared as part of an online roundtable discussion for the International Thriller Writers website.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

The Most Important Kind of Writing Is…

When asked what is the most important skill to learn as a writer, I always say the same thing: turning water into gold.

 
However, because most people have failed to take their required alchemy classes at the local community college, I often have to start over and come up with something that any ol’ muggle can do.

 
And that secondary skill, the skill that comes only after the ability to turn base metal into precious, is this: any writer who wants to sell books must know how to create suspense.

 
“But,” you say, “I am writing a YA fantasy!” Or perhaps, “My magnum opus shall be a romantic comedy in the vein of the great Jane Austen!” Or even, “I just need to make my werewolves sparkle and I’m all good.”
 

Well, to you folks, I have this to say: WRONG.

 
Suspense isn’t just something that horror writers or people who write thrillers about whether a nuclear weapon can be stopped en route to its intended target use. Suspense is (and I hope you write this down) the driving force that gets any reader to finish the book.

 
Suspense is more than just worry about life and limb. There doesn’t have to be a ticking clock, or an oncoming car, or a serial killer looking after someone. Suspense is used to create import in these situations, yes, but suspense is so much more…and so much less.
 

Suspense, is, quite simply, the creation of a critical question in your readers’ minds: “What happens next?”

 
My novel The Haunted is a straight-up ghost story. It’s received numerous accolades from readers and critics alike. And the truth is, it’s scary. But the scary is less important than the fact that people stick around to read the whole thing! Because is a scary book really scary if no one cares to read it past page 14?
 

If you just heard a popping sound, that’s your mind. ‘Cause I just blew it, man.
 

So remember, no matter what genre you are writing — even if you’re writing nonfiction — the first skill you must master is the creation of suspense. You must tease your readers with information, set up questions that they know only you can answer. And you have to do this from page one on. The worst books aren’t the ones that people hated reading. The worst books are the ones that no one could be persuaded to finish.

 
Don’t let that be you. Suspense. It’s the only way to write.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice