What’s your book about? Well, it’s quite like a TARDIS...Roz Morris

'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 Linkwritten 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.


Nicola Morgan said…
V interesting piece, Roz, and I'm definitely drawn towards the book. One thing though - when you said that a publishing house would have written the blurb - yes, but they wouldn't have done it as well as you would and personally I would never trust them with it! All my blurbs have been written by me and my editor, and only then do we let the others get involved, but it's always been our (my!) final decision. Team effort but with author as boss - perfect!

Good luck with the book. Off to buy my kindle copy.
Thanks, Nicola! And you make a good point about who's best to write the blurb. Some of my ghosted books had inaccurate blurbs because they were written without the author being involved... Hope you enjoy the book.
Dan Holloway said…
Name-checking other novels is one of those nightmarish things as you say - people's tastes are so different. We might assume that everyone who likes Corso would also like Ferlinghetti, only to find at least half the Ferlinghetti fans out there have an absolute antipathy to him. Likewise, even if we are just trying convey "the feeling of Ferlinghetti", how do we know *what* it is about him people love who will also love Corso - is it the frenzied rhythms or is it the sense of place? It's the finest of lines, but you seem to have walked it perfectly - marvellous!
Thanks, Dan - it took a long time. As you say, what one person likes about a book isn't what another person does. We all choose novels for different reasons - setting, tone, style, types of characters, and many more intangible factors such as the author's particular and unreplicatable imagination.
In the same vein is 'this meets that' - Jaws in Space, for Alien. The clash can be exciting to some, ridiculous to others.
Red Tash said…
Sounds really interesting. I'm into time travel books, and anything Dr Who will get my attention (well done). It's on my list of to-reads!

Oh! I just released my first book, and I'm giving away a Kindle to celebrate. More info on my site--hope to see you there.
Blurb writing is a whole skill in itself. I don't think I have mine quite right yet - and on the Kindle, only the first few words appear on the main book screen, so I'm very aware those must be the right words!

I loved the Time Traveller's Wife, which makes me very interested in your novel...
Katherine, I didn't know the Kindle only showed the first few words of the blurb. I buy my Kindle books while on my PC, then load them up for reading at large. That's a great tip in itself.
JO said…
Great post - and I love the word 'gnarly' when attached to a book. Promise I won't put it in my blurb, but might find other ways to use it!
Marcia Ricahrds said…
I'm glad you didn't compare it to other books. Sometimes the reader just gets confused at that. I just bought the 4 episodes for Kindle and began reading. You hooked me right away! I think it was the character's voice that got me first. She pulled me into the story. Loving it!

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