Saturday, July 12, 2008


Charles’ tale of editing a 20-minute training film down to 7 minutes illustrates a perfect exercise in getting down to the essence of what you’re trying to say.

Before a new book comes out, many publishing houses ask their authors to fill out an enormously lengthy questionnaire. You are to provide every piece of information about yourself and your book that could conceivably be used to publicize the novel. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the first couple of times I filled out this form were hell on wheels. I still don’t enjoy doing it, but it does get easier, since by book 3 or 4, you’ve already written your autobiography, every book you ever read that may have influenced your writing, and everyone you’ve ever met who might be interested in reviewing and/or publicizing your novel. And as onerous a task as it is to complete this questionnaire, it really does help you plan your publicity campaign.

The really hard part to fill out, though, is the section which asks you to provide two summaries of your book - an official detailed description in 200-250 words, and a short description of the book not to exceed 50 words. If you’ve never tried to distill the description of a 300 page book down to 50 words then you have a treat waiting for you. You not only want to give an idea of what the book is about, but you want to make your description so compelling that whoever reads it can’t wait to rush right out and buy your novel.

Try it. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

It’s not easy, is it? I’ve always managed to do it, but I’ve never been satisfied with any of my efforts. Fortunately, the publisher isn’t shy about punching up my blurbs. I went to lunch with a writer friend of mine earlier this week, and we discussed this very thing - the one-sentence pitch. She had come up with a pretty good one for her book. She told me that she had been advised to list individual words that described what her book was about and construct the sentence around them.

All of this talk of editing has made me ponder how writing styles have changed in the last twenty-five or thirty years. It’s well known that our attention spans are getting shorter. I have read that movie producers now don’t want individual scenes to last more than two minutes, as a rule of thumb. Books have followed the same pattern. Once upon a time, an author could spend many pages on the set up of a story before anything actually happened. Many very famous books of yore would never be published now, unless some editor took a hatchet to them. When I was a girl, my very favorite book was Beau Geste, an oh-so-romantic French Foreign Legion adventure/mystery which has been made into a movie at least twice that I know of. It is a ripping yarn of the first order, but the first 70 pages are dull as dirt.

Readers don’t seem to have the patience any more to allow a story to build - you have to grab ‘em quick, especially if you are a first time author and haven’t built up a reservoir of good will among your readers, like, for example, Steven King has. I think that fans of Steven King would give him the benefit of the doubt and keep reading even if a character didn’t have his arm ripped off on the first page.


Charles benoit said...

You are so right about the questionnaires. I can see some of the personal stuff, but book summaries? I find myself thinking, 'didn't someone on your end read the book? If you know what you need to market the book, shouldn't someone on your end write what you need in the way that you need it?' Yeah, no one knows the book better than the author, but maybe we're too close to say what needs to be said. As an ad man, it's rare that I work with a client that knows what needs to be highlighted about their product/service. They might think it's price but in fact to separate themselves from the pack they need to be pushing the quality and RAISE their price. But all that said, it's good to tackle those questionnaires since it means you have a new book coming out soon.

Rick Blechta said...

My feeling is that there's no one better to describe your book than you -- except that most authors can't write ad copy to save their lives. Describing the book in 30-50 words is a great exercise in selling the book when you're out on the road.

I always think of it like the 30 seconds a producer gives a screen writer to pitch his script. It's all about selling the sizzle, not the steak and I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out just what the sizzle is. What sort of thing would get me to buy the book.

A good place to look for this type of copy is the back of DVD boxes. The people who write this stuff really know what they're doing.

Sadly, the questionnaires are a necessary evil. At least your publisher asks you to do one.

Donis Casey said...

I can see that book summaries are absolutely necessary, and very much like a movie pitch. It's really important to have a good one at hand, or else when a potential reader asks you what your book is about you end up blathering until his eyes glaze over and he's looking for the exit. Only thing is, it really takes a different skill set to write a blurb as opposed to a novel, and I fear a lot of authors don't have both. (You two professional ad men/novelists obviously excepted)
I really wish presses could routinely provide help in this area.

Rick Blechta said...

They certainly could, if on nothing but by having their marketing team edit the darn things for the authors.

You're right, it is a different skill set but it can be learned by a skilled writer. It takes practise, that's all -- along with ruthless editing. Both of these are also valuable for any kind of writing.

Bet you can teach yourself to do it. Try it with books you really enjoyed reading.