Wyldblood Press by Mark Bilsborough

wolves-2Ever wake up one morning and do something really stupid? Well one day recently, suffering heavily from lockdown fever, I did just that: I set up a publishing imprint. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d just self-published a short story collection (mainly reprinting stuff I’d sold before) and was drunk on how easy it was and how bloody fantastic the paperback version came out (well, I’m a proud book-parent. Of course I’m going to think it was bloody fantastic). I’d probably lost my mind, too, for a short while.

The product of all this fevered enthusiasm was Wyldblood Press, and before the week was out we’d got a website, a clutch of (surprisingly expensive) ISDN numbers on file, a Facebook page, listings on Duotrope, Ralan and the Submissions Grinder, a business plan, a fancy spreadsheet and submissions already hurtling towards three figures. And we published our first piece of flash fiction (Milford stalwart Vaughan Stanger’s  In Every Dream Home). Only a week before we hadn’t even decided on a name for the company. I needed to lie down.

I’m going to post here from time to time and let you know how it’s all going. Obviously I’d like you all to spread the word and send me great stories but really I just want a friendly space to blather on about what I’m pretty sure is going to be a wild ride. This whole project may ultimately collapse into its own entrails but I’m going to give it a major go. If I can turn Wyldblood into a quality writing outlet then that’s one more market – and we certainly need them. And if not there’ll be a great case study into setting up a new small press whether or not it takes off or crashes and burns.

There’ll be three primary fiction outlets – Flash Fridays on the website, short fiction in a magazine launching in January (still publicly called Wyldblood Magazine, but I’m leaning towards Wyld Stories) and novels and novellas published separately, if I get quality work in.

DreamsAll together that’s led me into some interesting areas. Publishing my own collection, Dreams and Visions, on Amazon was a doddle, both ebook and paperback, though cover design was a nightmare and I’m definitely going to use pro design for them from now on. Cheap, too, because there were no upfront costs (the main stories had already been edited for previous publication, and the covers were free). But selling them to anyone other than family and friends? A new, nightmare world or Search Engine Optimisation, boosted Facebook posts, Google Ads, networking like crazy, pricing strategies and splitting headaches.

But when I’d pressed the ‘publish’ button that brave new world of internet selling was ahead of me, and by the time reality had set in it was too late: Wyldblood Press was up and running.

And the costs, oh the costs. Publishing ain’t free no more, not if you’re doing it properly. We’re starting modest, because I don’t want to eat up our starting budget before we’ve actually published anything outside the website, but even so there’s the website to pay for (upfront, with all the business add-ons that I’ve not had to bother with before), the mechanics (registrations, filings, accountants, barcodes etc. Who knew barcodes cost money?) and the content. We’re paying for content because writers need to be paid for their work (no argument), and because paying good money equals good stories. We’ll pay pro if we could, but we’re not there yet – but we will, when we can.

I’m astounded we’ve had so many submissions so early. Maybe it’s an early peak, and it’s certainly helped by getting our listings in early on Duotrope etc, but I’ve seen enough already to know that finding quality stories is not going to be a problem for us (at least for the first few issues). Most submissions are supposed to be typo-infested tonally jarring plot nightmares, right? Most from newbies taking a punt and jaded old lags dredging the bowels of their computer’s ‘unsold’ folders, yes? Not this lot. Serious writers, already published in serious places, with quality submissions in the majority. As an editor it’s left me rubbing my hands, even though the selection process is going to be tough (as a writer it was a bit of an ‘oh shit’ moment, though, because it gave me an insight on what my own works are faced with when they sit in an editor’s slush pile).

Some things I’ve learned so far:

  • Have a plan. Works for writing, works for life. I’ve got a pretty good idea where I want Wyldblood Press to be in a couple of years’ time, and the broad steps along the way.
  • Have some up-front money (and be prepared to spend it). I’m one of life’s natural misers, so this is tough for me.
  • Take advantage of previous experience. Fortunately, I’ve edited before, know what goes into a writer’s publication journey and have made some good contacts and friends in our world. Without all that, I probably wouldn’t have a clue.
  • Be prepared to learn. There are some tough choices to make, many with hefty financial implications (use Amazon for book distribution or use a book wholesaler or distributor (not the same thing)? Ebook or print for the magazine? Amazon again or use newsstand distributors (like Interzone does)?
  • Have some time. I’m lucky that I have options, but it’s already clear that the only way for this to succeed is to fully embrace that this is a job, not a hobby.
  • Get some help. I have some great support from my partner Sandra, a writer with a background in journalism and copy writing, but we’re going to need slush readers soon, and an artist/designer, more editorial help and some reviewers and most of that, at this stage, is going to be on a for-love basis.
  • Build a community. Working on that.

If anybody’s been through this before (and I know some of you have) it would be great to pick your brains. What’s your advice? What should I be doing and what should I never, ever do? And if you fancy reading some submissions or reviewing some books/TV/films for us, let me know.

But if you want to talk me out of this? Too late.

Mark BilsboroughMark Bilsborough is a Northerner in long term exile in the soft-bellied South of England where he’s found a rare scrap of countryside to inspire him, though his attempts to write proper science fiction often strangely morph into fantasy. He’s had short stories published in numerous places and is perennially about to finish his novel.  In real life he’s been a civil servant, teacher and charity director, occasionally skulking off to attend things like Odyssey and Milford. He writes reviews for SFconcatenation (www.concatenation.org) and edits Mensa’s Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror journal. His infrequently updated website is at www.markbilsborough.com.  And now he’s the proud owner of Wyldblood Press.

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Twelve Ways To Be Better at Writing by David Gullen

TGFATF - Book 1

I believe there are only two rules of writing, true rules that are unbreakable in the same way ‘Ye canna break the laws of physics’. (Except with the laws of Physics  we’re still not sure whether we have the full set of laws, or even, much like the three blind men encountering different parts of the same elephant, if we’ve a clear grasp of the beast entire.) With writing it’s easier, there are fewer fundamental particles and fewer rules. My Grand Unified Theory consists of:

  1. Writers Write
  2. There are no other rules

The interpretation of Rule #1 is obvious. If you write, you are a writer, however you chose to do, or be.

This article is about some good ways to behave towards yourself and towards your writing that I’ve found work for me. It is a condensation of things I’ve read, concluded from experience, and discovered in conversation with other writers— many of whom have been around the block several more times than me.  One thing I discovered is that everyone has their own ways of being a writer. Here are some of mine.

  1. Your writing, your rules

There’s a huge amount of advice out there. Much of it is good, and most of it is well-intended. Take what works for you and don’t worry about the rest. If, at some point in the future you feel the need to change the emphasis in how you work or what you write, do it. Don’t stick with rules that make you struggle.

King On WritingDon’t get me wrong, many of these suggestions are excellent pieces of advice, and you should think long and hard about how and when you apply them to your own writing. There are some wonderful books on the art and craft of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the Craft is highly rated, so is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Two other books I’ve found useful are Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and D.V. Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer. These books are polar opposites in many ways. Vogler focusses on mythic structure and archetypes, Swain is pure nuts-and-bolts how to write, why you should do it that way, and importantly, why sometimes you should not. His rules are not rules but they are strong suggestions. This is one of the reasons I have found his book so helpful because I have a deep-rooted distrust of anyone telling me there is only one way of doing  anything. (Which Vogler does and is one reason his book is just another tool in my toolbox.)

  1. Take what you do seriously.

The more I treated writing as a job the more writing I did. Having a place to write can help, but what is much better is to find places where you can write. I used to co-run a London-based group called Million Monkeys based on just that idea – that you can write anywhere.

I like to write in the conservatory, or in Waterstones (very professional writing in a bookshop café I like to think). That short walk into town with my writing kit in my bag cleared my mind, set the expectation I was going to work, and also put me somewhere where there is little else for me to do.  I look forwards to those days returning.  If you’re stuck at home, try walking around the block before you start work, that ‘walk to work’ can work surprisingly well.

  1. Finish what you start

If you don’t finish you can’t fail but if you don’t finish you’ll never be published. One early piece of advice I had was ‘You can’t edit a blank page.’

  1. Don’t worry about what comes next.

The story is your story, long or short. Worrying about submissions and the likely rejection will only reduce your confidence and pleasure in writing.

This is among the best advice I’ve ever seen on writing:
“Your entitlement is to the deed alone, never to its results. Do not make the result of an action your motive.” – Bhagavad Gita, 2, 47-51, trans. Sir James Mallinson.

This one I find difficult. From time to time I need to come back to it and remind myself not to stress.

  1. Celebrate Success

Decide what your own successes are, and how you celebrate them.  Finish a short story and I’ll walk around feeling satisfied for a bit; finish the first draft of a novel or actually sell that story and I might open a bottle of cheap fizz.

My self-confidence as a writer goes up and down. One thing that helps is having a shelf for everything I’ve had work in so I can see I’ve had some successes.

  1. Get it out, keep it out

If you don’t submit work to markets you can’t be rejected. It’s another great way to avoid failure, but if you want to be published in paying markets you have to go through this process. I’ve sold stories  to big and small markets, I’ve been rejected by those markets before and after those sales. I’ve sold stories on first submission, or on the tenth, or twentieth. Online resources like The Submission Grinder and Ralan are very good for finding markets and helping you keep your work on submission.

Grinder

  1. Calmness. Space. Timing

Too much time can be a bad thing. I’ve known writers who decided to live the dream, packed in the day job and wrote almost nothing for a year. One of the most useful productivity tools I’ve found is to divide my day up into chunks for 40 minutes or an hour. Set a timer and write until the tone sounds. Then reset the timer and do something else. Reset it again and come back to writing. I can do a huge amount in a day like this.  However, there will be times when you must—

  1. Accept Downtime

Life will inevitably intrude on your plans and sometimes you just have to roll with it. Beating yourself up about not being able to write never helps. Maybe you cannot sit down for hours, but perhaps you can grab a few minutes. A friend of mine wrote a prize-winning short story on his PDA (remember them?) standing up on the train during his commute.

Perhaps you don’t have the focus to do even that. At times like that all I’ve been able to do is wait and hope for better times to come around again. Hopefully they will.

  1. Word counts

My daily word count spreadsheet is hugely motivating, but I had to learn how to use it. For some years I set my annual targets too high and never reached them. I realised this was de-motivating so I lowered it to something I knew I could achieve.  The result was I actually wrote more because I felt good about hitting my lower target and felt even better when I carried on and wrote more.

I’m not a great fan of things like NaNoWriMo, and ‘A Novel in 100 Days’.  I know my chances of hitting these target are very low and I can’t see the point in setting out to do something I know I won’t achieve. However, other people get a huge amount from these events.  Your writing. your rules, set your own targets. One thing that helps me is:

  1. Routine, Exercise. Sleep

I quite like being a creature of habit, though after a while I’ll drift out of them and have to reset.  Keeping fit, eating well, getting enough sleep are all basic things but they are easy to forget and really help.

Drifting off to sleep thinking about the current work in progress is a nice thing.

  1. Limit Planning

I’ve met more than one person who is planning a book. They’re building the world, creating the characters, defining the back story, drawing maps and street plans, exploring culture and language. The months and sometimes years go by and still they have not started writing. Planning can become prevarication and besides, no plot survives contact with the characters.

I think of plotting in the same way as the plans you make before you go on holiday to a place you’ve never been before. You may pick all the things you want to do and see in advance of arrival, but once you’re actually there you find a whole lot of other interesting things you’d rather do.

  1. Join in. Meet, talk, listen

My first novel would never have been published if I hadn’t gone to my first Milford. I met someone there who introduced me to someone else at an early EdgeLit convention. We leaned on the bar and had a beer and things went from there.

There are dozens of conventions, groups, and meetups. Dip a toe into a few, find the ones that work for you. Hang out, meet people, get to know them. It really helps.  I find a weekend at a convention can be quite tiring, I need to pace myself because I only have so many social beans, but it can also be hugely energising and motivating too.

  1. It’s a muscle.

Did I say twelve ways? Never mind. Like anything we do writing gets stronger the more we practice.  Good luck with yours.

 

btfhdr

David Gullen’s latest novel, The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms,  is available in print and ebook.  Other recent work includes Third Instar from Eibonvale Press, and Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales, from Newcon Press. His short story, Warm Gun, won the BFS Short Story Competition in 2016, with other work short-listed for the James White Award and placed in the Aeon Award. He is a past judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and is the current Chair of the Milford SF Conference.

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Ghostly Services of the A1 by Kari Sperring

Leicester 02

Leicester Forest East as was – on the M1.

Service stations have a weird place in my heart. When I was small, we lived quite a long way from the rest of our families, and as a result holidays were often spent driving cross country to visit aunts and uncles and grandparents. My father rarely stopped at services, as they were expensive, but I used to look out for them anyway. I loved the long narrow bridge that linked the two sides of Corley services on the M6, like one of the bullet trains I’d seen on Blue Peter. And I longed to sit one day and eat in the restaurant of Leicester Forest East, which was built right over the motorway. Further south near Huntingdon, on what was then the junction of the A604 and the northbound A1 was a services shaped like a flying saucer, which I was sure would one day take off to visit new planets. Service stations were exciting and alien, shaped like the future and I was sure they were a sign of things to come. It was the 1970s and I’d been woken in the middle of the night to watch men land on the moon. Later, N.A.S.A. named its first space shuttle Enterprise, and, devoted Star Trek fan that I was, I knew the United Federation of Planets was just around the corner. I was a bit worried about the Eugenics war and Khan Noonian Singh, but I knew we came out of that in the end and things got better. I knew the starship Enterprise was on its way, via Corley and Leicester Forest East and Huntingdon North. When, on a school trip, I found a copy of one of James Blish’s novelisations of Star Trek in the W H Smith at Watford Gap services, it felt like a sign.

Flying Saucer Alconbury

The Flying saucer services at Alconbury

My whole life, I have loved to travel. New places tell new stories and open up new possibilities. The future is everywhere around us, encoded in neon and wood and metal and stone and thought and idea. Childhood television – Blue Peter  and Tomorrow’s World – showed us the routes opening up ahead. Today, by Vauxhall Cavalier to Corley. Tomorrow, by interplanetary bullet train to Callisto Ice Prime. The day after? The Enterprise, and breakfast at T’Phani’s. Those strange-shaped buildings, those bullet trains and suspended restaurants and flying saucers-in-the-basket, were symbols born from dreams.

Leicester Forest East

The restaurant bridge at Leicester Forest East

Fast forward, and I am driving north from Cambridge, where I now live, past the ghosts of services past. Corley is still there: I used to stop at it regularly when I worked in Wales, and I still watched out the bridge, I no longer walked over it. I had finally achieved my ambition of eating over the M1 at Leicester Forest East and even managed to get a window table. The windows were dirty and hard to see through, the motorway queueing in both directions, the food bland. This was Britain in the 1990s, tired out and disenchanted, taught by neo-liberalism to look down, not forward. Tomorrow’s World was history, though Blue Peter soldiered on. Passing Huntingdon, I no longer look for the flying saucer. It’s long gone, knocked down to make way for the new, wider A14. Further up, the Little Chefs are gone, turned into US franchises, or, up near Grantham, a sex shop. Who stops there, breaking their journey to stare at dildoes and DVDs? Who, and why? It seems like a strange location, but it’s survived for over a decade, longer than the restaurant it replaced. If I want a break, I get off the main road, these days, and look for a pub with food. The bathrooms are usually nicer, the food way better, and there are no more of those alluring cherry pancakes and refills of coffee with which Little Chefs welcomed wet bikers. The franchises aren’t sure about me and Phil, when we stop with the bike, unlike the Little Chef at Marston Moretaine, which always gave us a large table for our panniers, and brought coffee with the menu. That one is still there, and I pass it occasionally. Next time I pass, I’ll wave, in memory of those pancakes, and also to Captain-Colonel Sir Tom Moore, the man who raised the NHS funding our government refused. Further north on the A1, services grow scarce and I worry for the truckers who plough their way back and forth, up and down. I see them parked up to sleep and eat in laybys, and I wonder when it became acceptable to shut them out.

Because those old services, Corley and Watford Gap and Doncaster South, were democratisers. Anyone could use them, anyone at all. Lorry drivers and families, bikers and coach trips of seniors, battered old Ford Escorts and brand new top of the range Rovers: all of them were there. My uncle, in his year as Lord Mayor of Coventry, once parked the mayoral Rolls at one. With their strange imaginative beautiful-ugly shapes, they imagined the future while feeding us egg and chips. They, like us, were travelling forward.

They, like us, look worn these days. The shapes are retro, shabby and cracked. That future is done, replaced with the machinery of capitalism, of logos in space and privatisation. Food has always shown class divides but the division is more clearly illuminated now. The rich don’t stop at services, or, if they do, send their people to clear the bathrooms and buy wine and smoked salmon sandwiches at Waitrose. For the rest of us, there’s franchise burgers and a queue. And for the truckers, who drive our food and goods? A fry-up in a portacabin that shakes as the traffic roars by.

Kari Sperring

Kari Sperring is the author of two novels (Living with Ghosts [DAW 2009] and The Grass King’s Concubine [DAW 2012]. As Kari Maund, she has written and published five books and many articles on Celtic and Viking history and co-authored a book on the history and real people behind her favourite novel, The Three Musketeers (with Phil Nanson). She’s British and lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner Phil and three very determined cats, who guarantee that everything she writes will have been thoroughly sat upon. Her website is http://www.karisperring .com and you can also find her on Facebook.

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Forward Momentum! On loving Lois McMaster Bujold by Una McCormack

Lois McMaster Bujold

Back in the late 1990s, I was a member of a mailing list (remember them?) devoted to the discussion and analysis of Blake’s 7 (remember that— yes of course you do). We were a lively, eclectic, opinionated and – though I say it myself – phenomenally well-informed set of individuals. I was partway through a Master’s degree at the time, and about to start on a PhD, but a substantial part of my education came from the people I met on those lists. But apart from all that – and the long-term friendships which came from time – I’m particularly grateful to whoever on that list recommended to us the novels of Lois McMaster Bujold.

The person reccing the books was fairly sure that Bujold had seen Blake’s 7, pointing to her 1989 novel Brothers in Arms (which is a mid-period entry in her science fiction series the Vorkosigan Saga). There was a character (Duv Galeni) who seemed to have echoes of Paul Darrow’s Avon (saturnine appearance and cool intellect), and another (short-haired ruthless commander) who surely owed something to Jacqueline Pearce’s Servalan. I hadn’t – for various reasons – read much science fiction at the time, but I dived into Brothers in Arms, and thought, “Oh, that’s not bad. I think I’ll try a couple more.” There are complicated discussions (and firm opinions) about where to start with Bujold’s novels (particularly her sf Vorkosigan Saga): fortunately, I didn’t know anything about this, and just carried on chronologically, moving on next to The Vor Game (1990).

This was a good way into her writing. The novels before Brothers in Arms and The Vor Game are highly accomplished space operas, written with verve, wit, imagination, and energy. From Mirror Dance (1994) onwards, Bujold’s writing goes up a gear. There is a seriousness of intent to the Vorkosigan books from here on that transforms the series: they become steadily more ambitious; her facility with her trademark genre-bending becomes even more skilled; the novels are enjoyable on their own terms, but vastly more satisfying when read in the context of the full body of work. With A Civil Campaign (1999), the crowning entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold shifts between space opera, romantic novel, comedy of manners… and two of the best set-pieces I’ve ever read. The dedication in A Civil Campaign reads: “To Jane, Charlotte, Georgette, and Dorothy – long may they rule.” Austen, Brontë, Heyer, Sayer – Bujold knows her tradition, and her name is not out of place added to that list.

I’ve not even mentioned her fantasy series. The Curse of Chalion (2001) and Paladin of Souls (2003), with a world inspired by southern Europe during the Spanish Reconquista and a fully worked out theological and religious system, contain profound reflections on fate, destiny, free will, and individual agency. Bujold has come back to this setting with an ongoing set of novellas, the ‘Penric and Desdemona’ series. In her other main set of books, The Sharing Knife tetralogy (2006-2009), Bujold dispenses with the traditional European fantasy setting, and creates a distinctively American setting. Although these novels are not, to my mind, as immediately gripping as her other series, they subtly blur the line between science fiction and fantasy. Often, in these books, what seems like magic turns out to have a rational basis.

To say that reading Bujold has had significant impact on me is an understatement. Let’s scurry forwards to 2013, when I was a university lecturer in creative writing within an English department that was friendly to genre fiction, and I had the bright idea of holding a one-day conference on Lois McMaster Bujold. I hadn’t organized an academic conference before (I’d run other events in various previous lives). How hard could it be? To be honest, it wasn’t that hard, although it was made slightly more complicated by the fact that I went on maternity leave that September. Nevertheless, I used some of the time after my daughter was born to get the conference off the ground. In August 2014 (checking the date, I see that I am writing this blog post six years to the day), around thirty of us from three continents gather to geek about a beloved author. Could anything be more enjoyable?

As it turns out, yes: deciding to work with one of the presenters (Regina Yung Lee) to turn that conference into a collection of essays on Bujold’s work. This book, Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, was published by Liverpool University Press in June 2020, and is only the second scholarly collection of essays on her work. We got through the indexing during the first weeks of lockdown and, shortly after we sent the final proofs back, Bujold published a new entry in her ‘Penric’ series, ‘The Physicians of Vilnoc’. This novella concerns the outbreak of deadly plague in an army camp and the variety of responses to bringing it under control. I can’t regret that our volume doesn’t cover this publication, because it means that Bujold is still writing – and that her ideas are as vigorous and timely as ever.

Biology and Manners: Essays on the Worlds and Works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Regina Yung Lee and Una McCormack, is published by Liverpool University Press:
https://www.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/books/id/52704/

Short But Concentrated: an essay symposium on the works of Lois McMaster Bujold, edited by Una McCormack and Regina Yung Lee, is available as a free e-book:
https://unamccormack.co.uk/?books=short-but-concentrated

Dr Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling science fiction author. She is passionate about women’s writing, science fiction, and helping people find their words and voices. Her Star Trek: Picard novel, The Last Best Hope, is published by Simon and Schuster in 2020.

https://unamccormack.co.uk/

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Milford 2020 Cancellation

Crit room 02This slot on the Milford blog is usually reserved for live blogging from the actual Milford event. I chase everyone around with a laptop and get them to write a paragraph or three about their experience of Milford while they’re actually in the middle of it. Most people give in at some point before the week ends, and if you want to see what people wrote last year, go to Milford 2019 and work your way through progressively.

This year, sadly there is no live blogging from Milford because there is no Milford due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ros and Kayleigh at our venue, Trigonos, have been very helpful, keeping us up to date with how they are managing under the Welsh Government’s lockdown restrictions. Sadly by the time the middle of August came around, and still no news of any government changes, we simply had to make a decision – and our only course was to cancel.

We value the health and wellbeing of our potential attendees, however it’s with heavy hearts and much regret that we have taken the decision to cancel.

Apart from one year (1979) when Milford didn’t run for reasons that have been lost in the mists of time, Milford has run annually in the UK since 1972. Before that it ran annually in the USA (Milford, Pennsylvania) from 1956. [Ben Jeapes emailed to say that 1993 was also a year of no Milford.] A committee is elected every year at the AGM during the Milford Conference week. This year’s AGM will have to be by Skype.

All our 2020 attendees (including our two bursary writers) have agreed to roll on their attendance to September 2021 and therefore we are fully booked for 11th to 18th September 2021. We are now taking bookings for Milford 2022 which will run 10th – 17th September 7/15 places have already been booked. Two bursary places are already reserved for Writers of Colour, though applications will not open up until September 2021.

We still have four places available for the May 2021 Milford Writers’ Retreat.

In the meantime, here are some pretty pictures of previous Milfords, our location, Trigonos, and beautiful North Wales.

Nantlle Valley 2019

VLUU P1200 / Samsung P1200

lake-1

caernarfon-2

Dinner Bianchini

20190918_114833

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8) The irresistible end by Colin Brush

The last instalment in Colin Brush’s series on how to write the perfect blurb for your book.

‘But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.’ – The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne

And now we reach the end. Although the end of the blurb is (cross fingers) a beginning – the point of embarkation for the reader who has been convinced by the proposition they’ve just perused as they head for the till and many happy hours voyaging on a sea of words. 

So without giving away the ending how do we finish our blurb in such a tantalising manner that the reader is sold? In other words how do we make the end of our little story irresistible? 

We can start by making life easier for ourselves by having written a blurb with carefully weighed oppositions and our understanding of Hegelian dialectic (thesis/antithesis/synthesis). If our synthesis is powerful and resonant with our clashing thesis and antithesis then the end may already have written itself. The end, as they say, was written in the beginning.

However, we might want to add something to that or perhaps we’ve taken a different approach and we’re searching around for some new or more novel angle.

Broadly speaking, I think there are six main ways of sealing the deal on the back or flap of a book.

Make a Promise

‘Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men.
All will play the Game of thrones . . .’

I found the above words on the back of a copy of A Game of Thrones. It wasn’t at the end of the copy but I’ve always felt that it reads like the last words you want to read before you dive in. Here, they insist, lies a world of adventure just waiting for you . . . Irresistible (says the person who has yet to read a word of the novels or indeed seen an episode of the TV series). 

Or how about the below from David Gemmell’s Legend:

His name is Druss.

The stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled Drenai veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair.

His home is Dros Delnoch.

And it is the only route through the mountains for the invading Nadir army. Once the stronghold of the Drenai, the fortress of Dros Delnoch will now be their final battleground. And Druss will be its last hope.

His story is LEGEND.

Now there’s a promise to live up to.

Make them feel

Art wouldn’t be art if we didn’t feel it inside us. We want to be touched by it in some way. I’ve already spoken about the powers of emotion to engage readers and the final sentences of our blurb are our last chance to excite them. What’s appropriate? A joke? Something heartbreaking? The end of the world? What serves your blurb and your book best?

Here’s the blurb from a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker:

‘Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same.’

Composed in an English which has never been spoken and laced with a storytelling tradition that predates the written word, Riddley Walker is the world waiting for us at the bitter end of the nuclear road.

If you grew up in the seventies and eighties those final words ‘bitter end of the nuclear road’ echo a bleakness that years of daily news reports carved into your soul.

Deepen the intrigue

‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .’

Perhaps your conflict says it all. The tensions of your story when laid bare have their own dramatic force and you don’t wish to temper them with some suggestion of peace or resolution. Or perhaps you are the kind of maniac who thinks nothing of turning the dial past eleven. Whatever groove you’ve been furrowing in your blurb why not deepen it? Go bolder. Cut deeper. Take your audience to the very brink – and push them over. 

Here’s The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

The future is small. The future is nano . . .

And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell – an orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?

Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.

And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed . . .

I wrote this. I could have ended it at the bottom of the second paragraph but I wanted to add a further layer of intrigue, which then, pleasingly, allowed me to play off the opening.

Questions need answers

Pose a question. Or, better yet, pose three. The three question beginning to a blurb is a classic opening for non-fiction but its converse, the three question ending, is more typically used in the crime genre: who murdered Selma? How did they do it? And, goddammit, why? This can be tricky to pull off in both science fiction and fantasy where the questions often relate to multiple story threads and can seem to barely relate to one another. I try to make the questions I use build on one another, as if one leads naturally to the next with the final one being so tantalising you just have to read the book to get the answer.

Here’s Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, posing two powerful questions at its end:

What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Raise the stakes

Entropy rules. Things fall apart. Everything goes to pieces in the end. And in a really good blurb trouble for our heroes should just get worse and worse and worse. The end of your blurb is a good point to raise the stakes. It’s not just our heroes’ lives that are at risk, it is the fate of all humanity . . . If the queen dies then the empire will fall . . . If the android ever falls in love, the kill switch will be triggered . . .

Here’s a book from my youth. Michael Moorcock’s The Blood Red Game:

Renark was born to wander under the diamond glare of a myriad suns. He was never alone because he sensed the power of the unseen hands which guided the ebb and flow of the universe. Then, after two years of watching and waiting, he was ready for the great journey to the rim of the galaxy – and beyond. There he found himself in the arena of the Blood Red Game. The stakes were high: for the human race it meant extinction – or rebirth.

You think this story is about a single man. Turns out it is about the future of humankind.

Add a twist

We’ve already discussed how wrong-footing the reader can be a good way to start a blurb. Equally good is to wrong foot them or put an unexpected twist in at the end of the blurb – just when they think they know what they’re dealing with. This suggests increased intrigue, narrative unreliability, that this story is not going to be straightforward. You may have to set it up so it feels earned.

Michael Moorcock and my youth again. This time it’s The Black Corridor:

The world is sick. The forces of Chaos have energized the planet. Leaders, fuhrers, duces, prophets, visionaries, gurus and politicians are all at each others’ throats. And Chaos leers over the broken body of Order.

So Ryan freezes his family into suspended animation and sets off for the planet Munich 15040, five years distant. There he will re-establish Order in a New World – and create a happier, healthier, saner and more decent society with the ones he loves.

But they are suspended, they cannot talk, and he is alone in space, unable to see his destination . . .

They don’t write them like that anymore (book or blurb). The twist here is that for all the grand conflict and high ideals of the first two paragraphs, this story turns out to be about a single man going slowly mad in space. (A formulation exactly the opposite of The Blood Red Game, almost as if I’d chosen them as a pair.)

Concluding the conclusion

We’ve looked at story types, audiences, pitches and emotional hooks, grabbing beginnings, opposition as structure, blurb geometry and, finally, endings. It’s a lot to take in.

What I’ve tried to outline here are a series of processes to help you write a blurb that connects your book to its readers. But don’t let these processes be a substitute for creativity. If you’ve a cool idea, go for it. Afterwards, you can go through the analysis stages and see whether you think the blurb does justice to your story and will connect with your audience. You can then modify it as necessary.

That’s what I’ve been getting at all along. A good blurb, like a great cover, forges a connection with the reader. In combination, they’re the brochure hinting at the journey author and reader are about to undertake together. 

It is a journey reader and author alike embark on with some little trepidation but always a great dose of hope.

Colin Brush writes blurbs to sell other people’s books in order to buy food. He fears the day authors figure out there’s no great secret to this and decide to cut out the middle man.

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7) The Many Shaped Blurb by Colin Brush

‘Poetry is precise a thing as geometry’ – Gustave Flaubert

We’ve looked at beginning our blurb and structuring it utilising opposites and tension and now we’re going to see how different blurb shapes can help us write different blurbs.

The physical shape of blurbs is generally not something anyone bar a designer considers. And a designer usually only considers it as a means of contorting the blurb around their design (it is at this point that I like to remind designers that the back of the book is first and foremost the blurb writer’s territory: the designer’s job is to encourage a reader to pick up the book (the front), the blurb writer’s job (the back) is to ensure it isn’t put down again). 

But I’m not talking the layout shape of blurbs.

If we consider blurbs in terms of their scope then suddenly we find that they have hidden shapes. What do I mean by scope? By scope I mean its range or focus in any one line. Are we talking particular or general? A small or a big idea? Is the blurb focused on the protagonist (small, narrow POV) or the world/an overall situation (large, widescreen) at that moment? Are we talking plot (narrow) or overarching theme (wide)?

Once we’ve established that blurbs can be at different points wide or narrow in scope we can begin to examine their shape. Like stories themselves, some blurbs start small with a protagonist and get bigger as they begin to refer to the wider world: they are triangular. Think how The Lord of the Rings begins with the Shire and slowly reveals over a thousand pages the entire world of Middle Earth. 

Others invert the triangle by beginning with the world (big) and narrow in on a protagonist and their problem (small). The opening crawl of Star Wars takes us from a galactic civil war to the Empire’s search for stolen plans to pursuing that miscreant Princess Leia. More complicated shapes are possible, but we’re going to look at just four which I think are a kind of Platonic ideal of blurb geometry: simple blurbs with clearly defined shapes. 

Let’s explore them by looking at four ways to approach Nineteen Eighty-Four. (I have shaped these blurbs physically for illustrative purposes, to make clearer where I think the scope is small or large/narrow or wide. As you’ll see, the broad shape is not slavishly followed by every line.)

Triangle

Here we start with a diary entry by the protagonist, Winston Smith. We learn what Winston does and his petty rebellion against it. We discover that his life is made miserable by the totalitarian society in which he lives. We learn how deeply those in authority control the populace, how even Winston falling in love is suspect and how the Big Brother Winston denounced in the first line punishes those who resist.

The focus gets bigger and bigger: from one man to the world he inhabits, from apex to base . . .

Inverted triangle

For this approach we start with the world (and to some extent the themes) and we progressively narrow all the way down until we get to one man, Winston. Since I knew I was taking this approach – wider, bigger to narrower, smaller – I wondered what it would be like to include the reader at the opening by making us all part of Big Brother, to in a sense collude with the regime. This then led, by the time I got to the end, to my turning the novel’s protagonist, our hero, into the blurb’s enemy. An intriguing approach and likely an idea I would not have thought of without taking this inversion.

Hourglass 

This is actually the blurb I wrote for the Penguin Shepard Fairey-jacketed Orwells. We start with the world (borrowing the wonderful opening line) and our protagonist with his place in it. Then we focus on Winston and Julia’s needs and hopes in the narrow middle. But their act of rebellion  draws the ire of the totalitarian world in which they live, giving this blurb its hourglass shape. It starts wide, narrows and widens at its close.

Diamond

Here we begin with Winston and slowly expand outwards to take in his world (though the ‘heart rebels’ line is clearly narrow – not every line will follow the plan!) then we narrow again to focus on the lovers and their personal struggle and sacrifice.

Now we have four ways of looking at the same story. Which do you prefer?

The point about these simple blurb shapes is not that every good blurb should follow them (though many bad blurbs, by this analysis, have no obviously definable shape) but that they provide clear ways for you to take a blurb in a new direction. They allow you to take a blurb you’ve already written, analyse its broad shape and then have a go at rewriting it, with a straightforward and clear new intention: go wide, or narrow . . .

If you’re happy with your blurb as it stands, who cares if it does not adhere to any of these shapes? But if you are unhappy, examine its shape and then see what it becomes if you try and make it triangular or hourglass-shaped. Is it improved? What’s it doing now? Rather like the formal rules employed by poets, your line choices are limited by the form you’re adopting but limitations, as the best writers know, can free the imagination.

Colin Brush has written so many book blurbs over the last twenty years that he now imagines he can see geometric shapes in them. We can only hope that enforced retirement or people in white coats are waiting around the next corner.

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6) Middling: the power of opposites to structure your blurb by Colin Brush

6 Moorcock‘Elric knew that everything that existed had its opposite. In danger he might find peace. And yet, of course, in peace there was danger. Being an imperfect creature in an imperfect world he would always know paradox. And that was why in paradox there was always a kind of truth.’ The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Opposites, according to science and literature, attract. Or, in the case of matter and anti-matter, they annihilate one another. Either way, you get a reaction and that is the key to structuring your blurb. In any blurb I write I look for the tension: the two elements that are in direct opposition, that are most clearly colliding or pulling away from one another. The star captain torn between following orders and respecting the wishes of the planetary natives blocking her way. The sky war that must be fought to bring a lasting peace among the dragons. The planet-sized mind that lobotomises itself to fit inside a skull’s cranium just to satisfy their desire to feel truly human.

Opposition powers our stories. Generally, these opposites emerge from the protagonist’s problem: they want something and something or someone else is preventing them from getting it. So far, so beginner’s guide to writing. Take The Lord of the Rings. Let’s baldly state Frodo’s problem:

Frodo must destroy the all-powerful one-ring.
But the ring’s maker Sauron will use all his power to stop him.

That’s fine and I’ve seen many fantasy blurbs saying pretty much that (usually at length). Yet, can we be a bit more interesting? Can we add some depth, a little human universality to our proposal?

Another way to think about these tensions is that of story versus theme. The story is generally what the protagonist wants to achieve. The theme, however, concerns what the protagonist usually (and the reader hopefully definitely) will come to understand over the course of the tale. Often the theme is in direct opposition to what a hero desires (though it is often what they really need – see most big-budget Hollywood movies).

6 The_Lord_of_the_RingsSpeaking of which, here’s The Lord of the Rings again:
Story: Frodo wants to destroy the all-powerful one-ring.
Theme: Power corrupts.*

You’ll notice that these aren’t conventional opposites, but they are in direct opposition to one another with regard to what Frodo wants/needs. So when we restate Frodo’s problem in terms of story versus theme we get:

Frodo must carry the powerful one ring to Mount Doom.
But doing so risks destroying his soul.

For me, this feels like a hook I can really get my teeth into as a reader. I care more about Frodo’s quest potentially destroying his good heart than I do about whether he’ll overcome the evil Sauron. That’s an interesting story.

This is fine, but we as discerning readers still want more. We like our stories to have beginnings, middles and ends. And, often (but not always) so should blurbs – though blurb ends are usually a question or an uncertainty of outcome . . . (or indeed an ellipsis)

Which brings us to the Central Dramatic Argument, which I’ve shamelessly lifted from Craig Mazin over at Scriptnotes. And if you do any kind of writing it is certainly worth a read – particularly, I imagine, if you’re seeking to write Hollywood style.

Mazin takes the story versus theme idea and chucks it in the blender that is the Hegelian Dialectic. What do you mean ‘it’s early/late and your tired brain can’t remember what exactly is the Hegelian Dialectic’? It’s very simple. It is a three-stage development or process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The statement of an idea. A reaction that contradicts or negates the idea. And, finally, a resolution between our idea and its contradiction. Otherwise known as beginning, middle and end.

Or with our story versus theme angle for our blurbs: story, theme and promise/question.
Colin, for the love of God, please explain yourself.
Let’s take The Lord of the Rings again, and poor suffering Frodo:

  • Thesis: Good-hearted Frodo must bear the ring of power
  • Antithesis: But the ring corrupts all who bear it
  • Synthesis: Is a good heart proof against the ring’s power?

So now we have a three-part structure for writing our blurb. Before we’ve even written a word we know where we begin, where we’re going and where we’ll end. So let’s write it:

The day his uncle vanishes from the gentle Shire, young hobbit Frodo Baggins receives the strangest of inheritances. A golden ring which bestows invisibility on its wearer. The wizard Gandalf the Grey tells Frodo it is a dangerous gift: a ring of immense power that others have long sought.

Instructed by Gandalf to flee with the ring, Frodo is joined by a fellowship of dwarves, elves and humans. They pledge to help Frodo journey to destroy the ring before those who would return it to its evil maker can stake their claim. But the ring feeds the darkest thoughts, corrupting all in its circle.

And no one more so than brave Frodo. For the journey will be long, dangerous and terrifying, and every day the ring’s whispers will grow harder to resist . . .

Three simple paragraphs, broadly following our thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Notice how most of the detail supports the general thrust of each paragraph. We have one broad idea in each one. This keeps things simple for the reader. Three ideas bound by the tension between them. Change our ideas (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and you’ll change the type of blurb you are writing.

In summary, know the oppositions in your story and have them clash to bring drama to your blurb. If you’re looking for depth get your theme to clash with your protagonist’s story. Keep your structure simple to read by ensuring your blurb has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Next we’re going to have a look at blurb geometry to see how we can simply rework blurbs by bending them out of shape.

* There are other themes and so other approaches to take when writing a blurb for The Lord of the Rings. Its versatility is its strength.

Colin BrushAs a publishing copywriter Colin Brush likes to think he’s sold a great many books over the years. Sadly, not a single one of them has been his own.

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5) Beginnings or How to Get People’s Attention by Colin Brush

‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

5 1984

We’re just over the halfway point in my guide to writing blurbs and you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get around to actually looking at writing a blurb. Finally, that moment has arrived. By now, we should know what story it is we want to sell. We have an idea in our heads of our audience. We also have our one-line pitch to emotionally hook in our reader. Now we need to grab their attention with a powerful opening. But what kind of opening do we want?

Beginnings, as anyone who has stared at a blank page or screen appreciates, can be paralysing, They tend to be leaps into the unknown – for writer and reader, alike. However, in this instance we have two distinct advantages. Firstly, you are likely to have already written the novel already – so we know what we’re writing about. And secondly, by having done some groundwork on who we are talking to and what they might like we have some sense of what we want our copy to do.

The single most important thing your opening line needs to do is grab your reader. I’ve watched people picking up books in bookshops. Intrigued by something on the cover (title, author, image, shout line or some combination) they pick up the book. They turn it over and within a handful of seconds they’ve put it down again and moved on to the next thing. What was the deal breaker? What did they read that turned them off? It certainly wasn’t the entire blurb. There wasn’t time to read that far. And that’s the awful truth. Most people never read the whole blurb.

Which is why we need to start with something strong and unignorable. You want the reader to want to keep on reading even if they’ve already decided this book isn’t for them. They have to keep going just because you’ve intrigued them, dammit. That way you’ve still got a chance to win them over. So how do we do this?

It is at this point that I suggest turning to the classics. But not the blurbs of classic novels (just yet). I mean classic opening lines to novels. What are those arresting lines that have stayed with us since the moment we first read them and which took us into another world from which we may not quite have ever left? What can we learn from these lines in beginning our blurbs.

Take the opening quote to this post. The first line of perhaps the most famous and widely read science fiction novel of the twentieth century. It is a brilliantly constructed sentence designed with but one purpose in mind and that is to draw in the innocent reader and then utterly wrongfoot them at the last moment. Everything is perfectly reasonable, recognisable and normal until the last word, ‘thirteen’, which loudly declares that something is clearly wrong with the world.

To my mind this line exemplifies one of the key aspects of a good opening gambit: it stirs your curiosity. By the end of the line you are asking yourself how can all the clocks be striking thirteen*? What is this place? What (and here is its real power) has gone awry? Emotions are triggered: confusion, uncertainty, bafflement, intrigue. Some people will not like them but for others they will be stimulating. What’s going on? Can clocks strike thirteen – how? What would a world look like in which this was true? If you’re stimulated by this counterintuitive line then you will likely read on. Job done, Mr Orwell.

Here’s another famous science-fiction opening line (from a book coincidentally published in 1984):

5 Neuromancer‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’

William Gibson’s Neuromancer created a whole subgenre of science fiction. It came to define how many of us thought about the twenty-first century many years before the new millennium had even arrived. Gibson does not write dense thickets of prose but what he can do is sketch in with a line or two an entire mood or atmosphere. Suddenly a world is brought to life. Some people (including a well-known author I once had an argument with over this line) think it is meaningless: it does nothing for them. But for people like me it conjures the sights, sounds and smells of another place and I want to be there, to experience it, to live it (at least briefly, as a tourist, only a fool would want to live in this technodystopia).

5 HHGSimilarly, lines that make you laugh (‘Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.’) or fill you with dread (‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’) or joy (‘I exist!’) or melancholy (‘Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.’) or wonder (‘The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.’), or any feeling that you are looking for, will pull you in as a reader. An emotional response has been triggered – you like it and hopefully want more of it.

Finally, I believe, there is a third kind of opening line. This is the immersive line, the one that drops you straight into the story. Take the start of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’

You are immediately in the middle of something – though you do not yet know what. But you’ll have questions. Burn what? Why is it pleasurable? Who is making this disturbing statement? You have questions and questions need answers. And so you read on. It’s the oldest trick in the unburned book. Tell them something but leave them hanging. Answer their questions but leave them with further questions. Keep them turning the pages. Writing a blurb is in many ways the same as writing a novel – only you’ve got a thousandth of the word count to play with.

Curiosity, atmospheric/emotional and immersive: three different approaches for your blurb’s opening line that seek to hook the reader’s attention. So what do these approaches look like on actual books? Below are some of my favourite opening lines to science fiction blurbs. I’ve put them in the category I personally think they most belong in. You may well disagree!

Curiosity – you’re intrigued:

  • After the Internet, what came next? [1]
  • The mystery of Ryhope wood had obsessed George Huxley to the point of madness. [2]
  • The last story in the annals of the human race [3]
  • When aliens made all Earth a farm . . . [4]
  • At stake – the Earth . . . [5]
  • No one knows why the ice has come, and no one can stop it. [6]
  • Jackie and a group of fellow rebel women have escape the Authority’s repressive regime, forming a militia in the far north of Cumbria. [7]
  • When a deadly plague devastates humanity on every planet in known space, only Grass seems untouched. [8]

Emotional/atmospheric – creates a specific emotional response:

  • What happens when old spies come out to play one last game? [9]
  • Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort he offered him a job. [10]
  • Prepare to believe. [11]
  • In a war of lies she seeks the truth [12]
  • Change or die. [13]

Immersive – you’re there, but you want to know more:

  • When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. [14]
  • Mary Gentle’s magnificent tale of the gutsy and beautiful mercenary leader Ash will take you on an unforgettable ride through medieval Europe as it never quite was. [15]
  • Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. [16]
  • This be the tale of how I bring the cure to all the nighted states, save every poory children, short for life. [17]

In conclusion, I believe it is worth interrogating what your opening line is doing and whether it is the right approach. Whatever line you choose to begin with should depend on the story you’re selling and on what emotions you want to trigger in your audience. It is worth trying out these different approaches to see where they get you. Because this is our leaping off point for the rest of the blurb. It will send us down a certain route. One we’ll explore in our next post, on the power of opposites to structure your blurb.

* I wonder how much this wonderful line now resonates in a world that to some degree has replaced the twelve-hour analogue clock with the twenty-four digital one. Not to mention who now is aware that thirteen strikes of a clock was once an indicator of doubt . . .

  • [1] Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson
  • [2] Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
  • [3] An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock
  • [4] The Genocides by Thomas M Disch
  • [5] The Game Players of Titan by Philip K Dick
  • [6] Ice by Anna Kavan
  • [7] The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
  • [8] Grass by Sheri S Tepper
  • [9] Spook Country by William Gibson
  • [10] Mort by Terry Pratchett
  • [11] American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • [12] A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
  • [13] Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • [14] The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • [15] Ash by Mary Gentle
  • [16] Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
  • [17] The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

Colin BrushColin Brush writes blurbs for a living. They are much shorter than novels, novellas and nearly all short stories. Sometimes he’s been known to haiku a book blurb.

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4) Pitching your story’s emotional hook by Colin Brush

‘I never take on a client unless I can pitch their book in twelve words.’ UK literary agent

The pitch is perhaps the most crucial aspect of understanding and selling your book. It is how you connect it to other people. But we have very little time and space to get their attention. Everyone is busy and being constantly bombarded by information. So how do we make our pitch stand out?

Firstly, we should write short. One of the most well-known agents in UK publishing used to say he would not take on a new client unless he could pitch their book in twelve words or fewer. Most people react with horror when told this. It’s impossible! Ridiculous! Nonsense! But actually if you can’t say what a book is one sentence can you confidently say you understand it or know it? It was Pascal who said (I paraphrase) ‘I’d have written a shorter letter if I’d had more time’.

Concision does take time but it also focuses the mind on what is truly important. Pitching your story in one line forces you to keep only what matters and ditch everything else: is it the stakes, the world, the themes, a character, a journey? Just as importantly, your pitch becomes an anchor: a holdfast that will keep you from drifting too far from this central crucial idea when it comes to writing your blurb. This should be the kernel around which your story has accreted.

Secondly, to inspire interest in others a pitch requires some tension: it should fizz. The elements in it should resonate in some sense, whether in opposition or harmony or even happy disharmony or something that is just plain unexpected. This is where your word choices and structure become vital.

Thirdly, your pitch requires an emotional hook of some sort. Yes, we are treading into the murky waters of advertising terminology. But without engaging the emotions of your reader your book just a block of dead wood. Readers need to feel something, a connection of some sort to your story (mostly you hope a strong desire to read it!). The cover and title should have stirred their emotions enough to get them to engage with your book as an object. Thus sufficiently buttered up, they are ready for your pitch to bring the story alive.

But hang on. The pitch isn’t the blurb (not yet, anyway). It might form part of the blurb, but mostly it is the beating heart of your blurb: the hooky idea that brings it all to life. I’m suggesting we figure out our pitch before we begin writing our blurb (in the same way that we figured out what story we were selling and just who it was we were selling that story to).

Which twelve words or single sentence hookily describes our book? And just as we looked at story types, there are likely to be a few different ways in which we can do it. Below are some I’ve quickly written for some well known stories and/or movies.

  1. 4 the-lord-of-the-rings-book-coverSometimes the smallest person must bear the biggest burden.
  2. Whoever possesses the true ring can destroy a world, or save it.
  3. Only the purest of hearts can resist the most corrupting of evils.
  4. When plague strikes the citizens fight and die – but never surrender.
  5. When the plague comes it is the end of everything – but hope.
  6. You can’t fake being human – except when you’re living a lie.
  7. Is the monster out there worse than the one hiding inside us?

As you can see they don’t tell you very much and some of them sound rather like film poster tag lines. Which, to some extent, they should do. They will almost certainly apply to other stories as well as the specific ones that inspired these lines. That doesn’t matter. What these lines will hopefully do – and your mileage may vary, this is not a science – is trigger some emotional recognition you (remember our archetypal story types), depending on your susceptibility to certain kinds of story.

For instance, I’m a sucker for stories in which characters face impossible odds (the end of everything) or tales in which the rug is ripped out from under you halfway through (you’re living a lie). As I said earlier we need to give the lines some frisson and that is why each one is constructed with some tension in it – small vs big, destroy vs save, pure vs corrupt, fight vs surrender. Opposites are attractive (or if you read science-fiction tales featuring anti-matter: they have a tendency to be explosive). Alternatively, you can try juxtaposing something unexpected or counterintuitive.

Of course, all the time you want to remain true to your story.

If you find it hard summarising your story in twelve words, write something longer and then start shaving words off it. Write long to write short.

Next time – now that we’ve determined our story type, our audience and what our pitch is going to be – we’ll finally get around to starting to write our blurb.

PS The seven stories I pitched in twelve words or under are The Lord of the Rings (first three), The Plague (four and five), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (six) and Alien (seven).

Colin BrushColin Brush has now entered his twenty-first year working as a copywriter in publishing. Coincidentally, twenty-one is the exact number of blurbs he wrote for a particularly tricky popular novel before the editor allowed him to put down his pen.

 

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