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On Marketing: Product Descriptions

This week we’ve got guest posts from my good friend and fellow Consortium Writer, Joshua Unruh. He’s back today to talk about writing product descriptions, or back-cover copy for your books.

Last time I gave you a bit of my career background to help explain why Aaron crowned me king of back-cover copy. (Kings and czars? I may have delusions of grandeur.)

This time, I’m going to tell you how Aaron and I whipped his latest blurb into shape and finally explain why the kind of books I write polished me into the senses-shattering copywriter I am today.

Taming Fire In Tandem

Early last month Aaron and I knocked out what we thought was some strong back-cover copy for his latest novel, a fantasy piece called Taming Fire. Something was tingling Aaron’s spidey-sense though and he couldn’t shake an uneasy feeling about it. So I did a little instant-message-focus-group and ran it past some friends of mine who I know to be fantasy fans.

Aaron and I had a shock to the system. None of them loved the copy.

They all had various reasons for this, but all their issues tied into extraneous details. These details that we thought added color and were integral to getting a feel for the novel either didn’t make sense together (without reading the novel, anyway), straight out contradicted each other, or diluted the bits that were more interesting.

We were deeply thankful to these guys because, not only did they help us with Taming Fire, but their feedback was the first step in realizing what we were doing right.

Neo-Pulp to the Rescue

See, when it comes to my books, I tend to get it right. I’ve been known to nail the back-cover copy of a novel before I’ve even written one word of it.

I don’t ever set out to do this, exactly. It’s just that when I fill out the Unstressed Syllables Tested-and-Approved Pre-Writing Package (patent pending), a synopsis is the second thing you do. And synopses should be pure plot distilled to weaponized potency.

This isn’t hard for me because I typically write in a very neo-pulp style. Some of the books I currently have on deck feature a science-hero crime buster, a kung fu master from a mystical city out for revenge, and a cowboy that fights demons and monsters.

Now, there are emotional aspects to each of these things because one-dimensional characters are boring. But at the same time, these are definitely plot driven just like old school pulp was.

  • Doc Savage fights John Sunlight over super weapons stored in the arctic.
  • The Spider has to stop a herd of rabid animals from destroying a town at the behest of a madman.
  • Texas Air Ranger Gerry Frost has to storm a floating fortress to bring in murderers and thieves.

There are three examples, but they’re totally typical of the old pulp magazines. These are not emotionally fraught, claustrophobic, matches-arranging stories. They are plot thrown at you like lead pellets from a .45. I’m happily drenched in this style.

So when I recently worked through the big Pre-Writing Package, I shared a couple of my synopses with Aaron (mainly because pre-writing in this detail is a bit of a new discipline for me). Every time I sent him one, I was surprised at how much he enjoyed just the short summary of the novel.

About the third or fourth time I did this to him, he said I had already written the back-cover copy for my books (usually one of the last steps in the publication process), because that little snippet would totally make him read the book.

Laser Focus Nails It Down (And Other Mixed Metaphors)

Somewhere between the focus group and talking about my synopses, we hit the formula:

Back-cover copy has to be about the plot and nothing but the plot.

Take the most surface yet most exciting details of the plot. Then marry that with a few clever turns of phrase and/or clichés turned on their head.

Lastly, finish with the Story Question or the Story Question restated as an affirmation (ie, “Hero must save the girl!”). Stir it all up and bake it in the crucible of cruel people who are willing to tell you if it doesn’t work, and you’ve got back-cover copy.

Lemme give you an example:

It’s the wedding of the century for world renowned crime buster Ajax Stewart and Shiarra, Queen of the Enigma Isles. But when Ajax’s archnemesis, Arkady Androvich, kidnaps the bride-to-be, Ajax is forced into a series of contests to prove his superiority to his old foe. Ajax and his heroic friends must now quest for something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue to save Shiarra’s life. Their travels will take them across the globe, to the bottom of the oceans, and to the end of time itself. Can even the Engineer of the Impossible outsmart the world’s maddest scientist and make it to the church on time?

Sounds exciting, right? Thrills, chills, and all that stuff. But I leave out all kinds of details that are really fun and interesting but would not, on their own merits, add reasons for a potential reader to check out the book.

Describe Your Product (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopThis is key: I take the plot and boil it down to the most essential, most interesting elements. I don’t talk about how Arkady and Ajax used to be best friends but turned bitterest enemies in their teens. I don’t talk about how the Enigma Isles are a lost land where dinosaurs live. I don’t even talk about the Roaring Corsairs who are vicious air pirates and the crux of one of the contests.

All that stuff is probably at least as exciting as what made it into the final product, but it would take too much explanation to make it work for back-cover copy. Back-cover copy has to sing while also punching a potential reader in the face and making them want the same thing to happen for several hundred pages.

You can’t do that by putting in every single clever idea you came up with for the book.

But you can do that. Most of you have finished novels or works-in-progress, right? Give it a shot. Take one of your stories, maybe one you did without a pre-writing synopsis, and create some back-cover copy for it.

Try to distill its plot down to the simplest but hardest-hitting essentials, and then put it together in the cleverest package you can.

Then hold on to it. Aaron and I are cooking up a little fun with them. Stay tuned.

3 Responses to “On Marketing: Product Descriptions”

  1. Great article, Josh — and welcome to The World of Guestblogging at Unstressed Syllables. ; )

    I love the formula you suggest: Plot + clever phrasing + story question + cruel critics = PERFECT BACK COVER COPY. In fact, I love it so much that I just re-tweeted using that equation as the lead-in. It’s simple and effective.

    I’d almost call it comprehensive, but I’d add one final element: tone. The tone of the copy should match or at least resemble the tone of the story.

    I’m thinking of the back cover copy for my fantasy epic, Triad. It’s not a light-hearted story; so if I write light-hearted copy for it, that’s going to mislead readers. But if I let a bit of my MC’s desperation seep into the copy, then I’ve given readers a glimpse of one of the driving forces of the story.


    • Joshua Unruh says:

      You know, I honestly hadn’t though about tone mainly because it seems so obvious. My horror synopsis should read like a horror synopsis, after all. But that’s usually where things bite you, so very good call with the tone.

      (Plot + clever phrasing + story question + cruel critics) * Tone = PERFECT BACK COVER COPY