Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Ugh! Writing Back Cover Synopses & Pitches: 5 Steps to Ease the Pain

There are few things that I enjoy LESS than writing a back cover synopsis. That someone could really expect you to summarize 50k-100K words in about 300 is cruel. Cruel Cruel Cruel. I mean, really. I'm a novelist. I can't even write short stories. Somehow my short stories always become novels. I obviously don't know when to stop...at least until I reach about 80,000 words (the average length of my novels). So how the heck can I work with (about) 300?

I can't. But I have to. Because the industry requires it. As much as we'd like to say, "Just read it!" we obviously can't do that. Editors won't let us get away with. Neither will agents. And readers surely aren't going to plot down $10-15 buck on a book when you can't even tell them what it's about.

So you've got to buck up and get it done. Somehow. Some way. Endure the pain. It won't hurt for long.

How do I go about it? The following are the five tips follow when writing them.  

1. Make sure I identify the right genre for the book.  

This is pretty key for understanding how you want to write "the voice" in your back cover copy. I mean if it's a romantic comedy you don't want the copy to sound like a thriller. You need to make people chuckle or laugh. You need to keep it light. If you've written a thriller and people laugh...well that's usually going to be a bad thing. Unless you've written a thriller with lots of humor--and  you better be a darn good writer to pull that off.

In this respect, I personally have developed a kind of bass-ackwards process because I write the story that I want to tell and then I figure out what genre it is. Based on the feedback from my beta readers, they tell me it's between a spy thriller, romantic suspense, and suspense mystery. Even if I could call it all over those things, I wouldn't want to. The big things that stand out for me espionage, romance, suspense.

So, I'm going with a romantic suspense spy novel.

2. Identify the plot points that don't give the book away.  

So now that I've identified my genre, I have to build up some expectations. I have to allude to a mystery and a sense of urgency (i.e., ticking clock). I also have to convey the romance in some way, as well as the plot points, without giving the book away.

For The Seven Year Itch
  • J.J. McCall is a professionally frustrated FBI Agent who catches and recruits spies operating in the United States.  
  • She's a born lie detector who itches when someone tells a lie--it's a generational curse. Even though she can tell people are lying, she can't tell why (little white lie vs. intentionally deceitful)
  • She's caught in a love triangle between her co-case agent and a CIA case officer.
  • She has a problem with alcohol that she's in denial about and her co-case agent fears she may fail him when he needs her most.
  • She has valuable sources who are getting picked off left and right, so she has been lying in her case files to protect her last one. But the last one disappears as well and she must find out how.
  • The FBI Director orders an internal investigation to find the mole, requires everyone with access to the cases that have been compromised to take polygraphs. Only J.J. and Tony fear they can't pass a polygraph because they've been lying to protect the source. If they fail, they will become prime suspects in the compromies and probably arrested. Since sources have died because of the mole, they will face death penalty charges. And if they tell the truth about the lying, they will be fired.
  • So they are drawn into a mole hunt to find the traitor BEFORE they flunk the polygraph AND to save their new source.
3. Next I clearly identify the stakes. Stakes have to be pretty high to capture the reader. In this case, the stakes are the difference between life and death and freedom and imprisonment. Pretty high stakes for most audiences. 

  • Moles (Traitors) are bad (duh). When they betray the country sources die.
  • If they don't catch the mole, more sources may die.
  • If they don't catch the mole, they may go to prison or be fired--if they fail their polygraphs.
4. Finally, I begin crafting a summary that hits on all the plot points.

So, I've identified the ticking clock, romantic, espionage elements, and my stakes. This is what I've come up with so far.

When turncoats betray America’s human sources, there is no greater failure than the loss of life—and no one knows that better than FBI Special Agent J.J. McCall She and her co-case Agent Tony Donato have lost two of their best sources in the past two years, and they may lose another in just a few short days if they don't catch him. The ICE PHANTOM. Code name for a near dead investigation to identify a rumored insider spy more insidious and elusive than Ames and Hanssen combined. After a decade of fruitless investigation, the Intelligence Community fears it might be chasing ghosts—but J.J. and Tony suspect he might be burrowed deep inside FBI counterintelligence. (High Stakes)

A born lie detector caught in an evolving love triangle with Tony and a CIA case officer and stuck beneath the Bureau's glass ceiling. J.J. drops vodka shots to cope with the pressure mounting in her love life--and at work. She crafts a web of deceit and falsified case files to protect her last remaining and most valuable source and deny her own ugly truth. But her strategy boomerangs when the FBI Director orders a new internal investigation slated to identify ICE PHANTOM and it threatens to point the blame for the unthinkable directly at J.J. and Tony. Her ability to detect lies can’t help them pass the polygraph exam they are doomed to fail. And if they’re arrested, Supermax—the high security prison—will be nothing compared to death penalty charges. (more stakes, plot points and stuff)

Drawn into a secret hunt, they have a week to catch ICE PHANTOM, save their source’s life—and avoid the polygraph exam that could end their own. And while J.J.’s lie detecting ability helps them narrow down the list of suspects, her ultimate lie, the one she’s been telling herself for too many years, may be the very one that helps the ICE PHANTOM get away with the murder of the man she finally realizes she cannot live without (more plot, biggest stakes of all).

5. I go back to double-check that I hit all the important point--and then try to cut this in half.

And in this case, I think I did.


In the Game of Espionage, Spy takes Traitor. 

J.J. McCall takes Over. 


When turncoats betray America’s human intelligence assets, there is no greater failure than the loss of life—and no one knows that better than FBI Special Agent J.J. McCall, a born lie detector who recruits foreign spies to catch American traitors. She and co-case agent Tony Donato have lost two of their most critical Russian sources in the past two years, and they may lose another in just a few short days if they don’t catch him. The ICE PHANTOM. Decades of investigations have yielded nothing and the Intelligence Community fears it's chasing ghosts—but J.J. and Tony suspect he might be burrowed deep inside FBI counterintelligence. And his body count is going up.

In a twist neither expects, the pair is drawn into an unsanctioned mole hunt. With Tony's help and her lie-detecting ability, J.J. has a week to catch ICE PHANTOM, save a key source’s life—and her own.

Welcome to the hunt.

Can YOU identify the MOLE? 


So those are my five tips for writing back cover copy. Understand that you're going to go through many many drafts until you get it right. And it's best to plan and work on this over a few weeks' time rather than try to rush it in a few days. You'll be surprised how a little perspective will help you tighten the narrative so you draw your audience in from sentence one. This is probably draft #376409 for me. But each one gets better and better.

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 Check out my new release: The Seven Year Itch (A J.J. McCall Novel). 

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