'So... this book you're writing... what's it about?'
A common question. But answering it can be so hard.
Genre novelists have it easy. All they need to do is focus on the staple ingredients that get readers going and the USP of their book. Vampires? Romance? Mysteries? Murders? Simply precis the first few events, make sure to mention your book’s special angle and you’re done.
A literary novel is way more gnarly. Although mine has a suspenseful plot, it isn’t about what’s on the outside, it is about the infinite labyrinths within. It’s like the TARDIS; bigger inside than outside.
This was all cosmically satisfying until I had to write a blurb - one paragraph that fitted all that infinity into a neat space again. And not just for the sake of five minutes of fluffy chat at a dinner party. This paragraph would go in an email to potential reviewers. It would serve as the description on the book’s Amazon page.
This is serious business. My Memories of a Future Life is 100,000 words and I had to distil it into 150. Those words would have to pitch my book cold, to strangers who had never seen my blog, didn't know what I like to read, what films I love. If I got it wrong, I'd be chatting up the wrong kind of reader, who would leave a sore review. And I would miss mister right.
This is where a publishing house would have come into its own and written it for me, with full knowledge of the market. But I had only myself and my labyrinths.
For a month, on and off, I prepared by reading blurbs of literary novels. I test-drove all the blurb styles. I tried writing about the characters alone, but that made it sound like they didn’t do anything but stew in their starting emotions when in fact the novel is paced like a Hitchcock movie. Tactic 2 was to explain why it was called My Memories of a Future Life but that skewed it towards science fiction, which it isn’t (despite my liking for TARDISes). I then had a go at explaining the cover. ‘A red piano - hell, blood, passion. A blue sky - infinity, the beyond, hope... or perhaps it’s just sky.’ No, too abstract and indulgent.
I groped my way to a first draft of the blurb, then sent it to my trusted readers who had helped with the final phase of fine tuning. They were surprised to find themselves my wise counsellors as I attempted to pin down exactly how I should woo an utter stranger to try my book. For a solid three weeks, we ping-ponged that blurb back and forth across the Atlantic. ‘You haven’t mentioned the main character is injured; I think that’s important.’ ‘Don’t put so much emphasis on Jack the Ripper, he’s peripheral.’ ‘We need more of a sense of despair and reincarnation while not being supernatural. And the green Post-Its are good. If you know what I mean.’
A classic blurbing trick is to cite similar books. I thought that would be a lifeline but it was a minefield. I could easily say what songs embodied the book’s spirit, but if you put that on a blurb you look half-witted. My confidantes suggested The Time Traveller’s Wife and Vertigo, even though when I wrote the novel I had not read either of them. When I did I could see strong similarities, but also glaring differences. Of all the statements to make, comparisons with other books are the most dangerous. I imagined reviews saying 'that's my favourite book and yours is nothing like it; how dare you.'
Anyway, the book is out, the reviews are winging in... a process that is nail-biting and thrilling. And it’s finding the right kinds of readers, so the month of the long scalpels was worth it. Comparisons with other books are coming in too. Niffenegger’s novel is namechecked a lot; one reviewer volunteered The Magus, which I'm still trying to fathom. Another seemed to take x-ray specs to my past and said Iain Banks’s The Bridge. I read that novel 20 years ago and it remains a landmark that certainly nudged me towards this one. Fancy him seeing that.
But perhaps we writers are not the best people to judge what’s going on with our novels. All we can do is tempt our readers over the threshold and in. And wait for them to tell us what the TARDIS is like on the inside.
Thank you for the TARDIS picture, Sarah G.
My Memories of a Future Life is out now on Kindle. A print edition will follow on September 26.
You can listen to the first four chapters for free - stream it or download an MP3.
Roz Morris is a ghostwriter, editor and the author of Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available from Amazon. She has a website and a blog. You can follow her on Twitter as @DirtyWhiteCandy and @ByRozMorris.