Would somebody please explain how it is that I once wrote 60,000 words of a novel in four weeks (don’t go hunting on Amazon, it’s still in the attic) but it’s taken me the better part of a week to come up with five hundred words about other people’s?
I didn’t have to dream up the plot. The characters are the products of other people’s imaginations, and the same people did all the research which makes the settings zing off the page. The hard work has been done, or is being done, elsewhere.
So what on earth is so difficult about writing cover blurbs?
Someone said it’s a skill akin to writing headlines, and I was never much good at that either. Or titles. And I suppose they fulfil the same purpose: to draw the reader in, provide enough of the flavour of the book to make them want to gobble up the whole thing, without giving away key plot points.
Big publishing houses have a whole department devoted to cover blurbs, presumably staffed by people who couldn’t write a novel if their lives depended on it, but possess that knack of capturing the spirit of one in a hundred words. But as I told someone on the phone yesterday (one of those calls, usually from India, offering a comprehensive service which takes care of everything from copy-editing the book to sourcing the paper for the print run, and charging a king’s ransom for the privilege of being mentioned on the title page) we little guys do everything in house.
And this house contains – me. So I just have to knuckle down and acquire that knack. Actually acquire it anew every autumn. You’d think, after five years and thirty titles it would be getting easier.
Somebody who pops up frequently in dictionaries of quotations once said something wise about writing a long letter because he didn’t have time to write a short one. That, I think, is the heart of the matter. When I’m writing a theatre review, it’s the short ones that stump me; 300 words is far less of a problem than 150.
So, you’re probably not asking, how do I go about creating this vital marketing tool? The secret is in the editing, which I’ve been told is my great strength. And play to your strengths is always good advice. The hard part is creating something I can edit. We decided a long time ago that our blurbs would tell – well, hint at – the story. They wouldn’t use manipulative language like enthralling or gripping or the best yet. That’s up to the reader to decide. So I study the synopsis (it’s unusual for us to have finished manuscripts at this stage of the process), look at the author’s previous cover blurbs to make sure I adopt a similar tone, and eventually produce something two or three hundred words long – two or three times too long. Then I edit.
And you know what? Once it’s down to a hundred words, I have to edit again. For the distributors’ catalogue, advance information for booksellers, occasional forays into the murky world of advertising, I have to perform the same essential task in 50 words. Or 20. Once or twice even ten.
Excuse me. I have hair to tear and nails to bite.