writing advice

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

Die, Poop Bird, DIE!

One of my least favorite things about today’s world is the prevalence of people who say, “It is what it is.”
 
Forget about the threat of global financial meltdown, skyrocketing teen pregnancy, and the pervasive appeal of the Kardashians – whenever I hear someone say, “It is what it is,” it makes me want to weep and run for the hills.
 
After punching the person who said it.
 
I mean, really, what the heck does that even mean? “It is what it is.” Huh? You ever walk up to someone and say out of the blue, “That water sure is wet,” or “I find almost all ice to be cold”? Those make about as much self-defining sense as “It is what it is.”
 
That being said, there is one area where sometimes you can legitimately say “It is what it is” and actually have it mean something. And that area is writing.
 
I’ve gotten many emails and personal queries about how to keep writing when the ideas aren’t flowing. As a novelist, I try to get out at least 5,000 words a day. 10,000 is not unusual. I write anywhere from three to eight books a year, along with numerous screenplays, blog entries, short stories, etc. etc. blah blah blah. And they don’t suck, either: my last book, The Haunted, spent almost two months on Amazon’s Horror Bestsellers list (and is still selling quite well), and (I was recently informed) is an official Whitney Awards nominee. So I must be doing something right to get that many people willing to shell out a couple bucks for my work. And when other authors and aspiring authors hear about how fast I work, they want to know my secret.
 
My secret is simple, and not very secret at all: sometimes you just gotta say, “It is what it is.” By that I mean: most people who suffer from “writer’s block” don’t really suffer from any kind of block. Rather, they suffer from what one of my old writing teachers called the “Poop Bird.” (He didn’t actually call it that, but the word he did use was a naughty one, so I’ll leave it up to you to figure out.)
 
The Poop Bird is an imaginary creature that sits on many writers’ shoulders and whispers, “That’s no good,” as they type. If it’s your typical PB, he (or she, the Poop Bird comes in many shapes, sizes, and genders) will even try to get a jump on his work by telling you, “That idea is no good,” before you even start typing. This is what most “writer’s block” really is: a self-editing function that insists on a perfect first draft.
 
This is bupkis. First drafts are supposed to be messy. They’re supposed to need work. That’s why God invented White Out and “delete” keys.
 
So what’s my secret? What’s the method I use to make sure I get out hundreds of pages when others are still working on an opening paragraph? I’ve killed the PB. I have learned to say, “This isn’t perfect. It’s a first draft. Mistakes are okay.”
 
In other words, I can look at a word or a sentence or a page and know it needs work and still be okay with it.
 
Sometimes it’s the time that you put in that matters as much as the quality. Sometimes being a “good writer” means being able to just get mediocre words on the page. Sometimes…
 
… sometimes, it is what it is.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice