Many authors, both self pubbed and those with small publishers, find themselves writing their own back cover copy. Or, at least, staring at a blank screen thinking, ‘Do I have to?’
Yes, you do. The blurb is your biggest and best opportunity to sell your book. It’s what readers see. It’s their reason to click through or move on.
And this means, for each book, the blurb should be the most polished passage of writing you do – including the manuscript. Labouring over a MS and then knocking out a quick blurb is like spending hours creating a marvellous feast of molecular gastronomy, and then serving it on paper plates off which your toddler has eaten jelly.
So how to do it? Well, practice, mostly. I’ve been writing blurbs for fifteen years and it still makes my head hurt. But if you’re feeling stuck, some of this might help…
A blurb sells the book
The blurb is a selling tool. Everything in your blurb should be directed at making readers want the book, preferably in exchange for money. The blurb is the sizzle that sells the sausage.
The blurb does not tell the story: it tells the potential buyer about the story. Major difference. If you find yourself telling the story, cut. Watch out for ‘And then’ connectives, which often signal that you’re giving a sequence of events. Turn them into ‘But’ connectives – the ones that suggest obstacles, reversals, drama.
Telling the story makes boring blurbs. I used to work with a sales manager whose cry at sales conference rehearsals was, ‘Nobody cares.’
Editor, rehearsing presentation: ‘Polly Smith was sent to Lady Letitia’s Orphanage when her parents died in a hot-air balloon accident – ’
Sales manager: Nobody cares.
Editor: But it’s important for her reactions –
Sales manager: NOBODY. CARES.
Of course they’ll care when they read the book. But in the back cover copy, the expression you’re looking for to cover your three chapters of carefully crafted emotional dissection at balloon-related bereavement is, at most, ‘Orphan Polly Smith’ and quite possibly, just ‘Polly’.
What sells? A conflict, a romantic set-up, a mystery, a dramatic situation. Not a backstory, a description, or an explanation.
Answer the key questions
These should get you at least halfway to something usable.
Who are the main character/s? Headline details only, and try putting the adjectives before the noun. ‘John is a photographer burned out after years covering conflicts in war zones’ is an infodump. ‘Burned-out war photographer John’ is the beginning of a sentence that might get interesting.
What’s the problem facing your hero/ine/s? A race against time, a family battle, the love interest being a zombie…
What’s at stake? The world? A child’s happiness? The love affair? The heroine’s braaaaains?
If you can tell the reader that [appealing person] in [interesting situation] has [thing going on] with [X at stake], you have 80% of a blurb right there.
Avoid the pitfall questions
There are some things it’s very tempting to tell the reader, but think twice.
Where/when are we? Unless the setting is really a major selling point, beware. If you start your blurb with ‘Devon, 1782. As the mist drifts through the chilly moorland…’, that clicking noise is the sound of a lot of readers going elsewhere.
Who else is in the book? The child/dog/sidekick might be one of the most effective things in the book, but are they part of what sells it? The cute dog may be the thing that readers will remember, but you’re not addressing existing readers here, you’re selling to potential buyers.
What’s important to the book is not necessarily what’s important to the blurb.
Keep it short
This is not an essay, it’s a selling tool. Go Edward Scissorhands. You won’t lose out by keeping it to three paragraphs; you may well lose readers if they have to plough through six.
A blurb sells the book that you wrote
Not the book that you suddenly feel you should have written, or the book that would probably have sold more copies. It might temporarily drive sales up to give the blurb a commercial spin (e.g. selling it as a romance when it’s that very different thing, a book about two people who occasionally shag). But it won’t endear the author to the misled readers.
Remember the classic Wizard of Oz TV guide listing?
Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.
You can pull in the Cormac McCarthy fans this way, but you won’t keep them once ‘Over the Rainbow’ starts.
Typos and errors. Spellcheck like mad. Get someone else to read it. Do not rush this. You wouldn’t use a picture of burned steak and soggy chips to advertise your restaurant; do not use sloppy writing to advertise your book.
Extract. No matter how good your writing is. Let people be stunned by the extract when they’re already hooked on the concept. Exception: a single fantastic line that sells the book, as a pull quote.
Spoilers. If your book’s impact depends on a massive unforeseen twist, for God’s sake don’t give it away on the back.
KJ Charles has five blurbs to write for work, which is why she’s blogging.
I’ve been a commissioning editor for fifteen years or so, and in that time I’ve taken on a lot of new authors, mostly out of the slush pile. That means I’ve made ‘The Call’ (the offer to publish someone’s first book) many times, and I can say with certainty that it’s far and away the best bit of the job. After all, to make someone else that happy normally takes a lot of money, several hours in the kitchen, or a level of sexual favours I’m just not prepared to offer authors. (Maybe the really good ones.)
Me: Hi, it’s KJ Charles from Publishers, I think you did a great job on the revisions, so I’d like to offer you a contract to publish the book.
Author, calmly: I see. Excuse me a moment.
[places phone on table]
Author [in distance]: AAAAAAIIIEIEIEIEIEIEEIEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!
[picks up phone]
Author, calmly: Right, yes, that’s great, thanks.
I once made The Call in person. I had an opportunity to meet the author, so what the hell, I thought I’d tell her face to face that I’d like to publish her book. It’s one of my lifetime favourite memories. I have never seen an adult cry so much, so hard, for so long. People were clustering around us asking if she’d just been bereaved. It was brilliant.
I even have a record of how I felt when I got the email offering to publish The Magpie Lord, because I was straight on to my online book group. Bearing in mind that I’m a highly experienced editor, have a degree in English Literature and am attempting to build a career as a writer, how did I make this announcement?
F*** me, I’m going to be published!
Master of her craft, right there.
So yeah, it’s great when someone offers to publish your book…
And then you wait.
And then there’s edits. Some complete git telling you to change stuff! In your book! Ack!
And then you wait.
And then there’s the terrifying prospect of the cover. Which if you’re lucky (like me) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re not is the subject of this conversation.
And then you wait.
And you join Goodreads as an author, and get yourself an Amazon author page, and blog, and guest blog, and tweet, and join groups, and do all those things that everyone says you have to do, and in between those things, you wait more.
And you check Twitter maybe 400 times a day in case someone’s reviewed it, and it’s not clear which is worse, getting a bad review or not being reviewed at all, but either way you kind of feel like throwing up.
Also, more waiting.
And then publication day dawns, and with it the following realisations:
- The rest of the world is basically indifferent to this life-exploding development. Just because people can now buy it does not mean they will.
- I cannot prevent my boss or my friends or my mother from reading it. I hope you guys like sex and weird magic horror. Let’s not do a book group.
- My book is published. Today is the birthday-and-Christmas I’ve been waiting for all my life. Tomorrow will be… Wednesday.
- If I want this dizzy, heady, ‘oh sweet lord I’m going to be published’ feeling again, I’m going to have to write another book. Another one!
But all of that is for tomorrow. Today, I’m going to enjoy having my first book published. And, also, drink.
The Magpie Lord is out from Samhain. KJ Charles is in the pub.
Needless to say, publishers, editors and cover designers want each cover to be a thing of beauty that will delight the author and sell enough copies to rebuild the Great Wall of China. A lot of work and passion goes into these. People really do try to get it right, and much of the time, they do. Nevertheless…
This is what the author wants:
This is what Sales thinks will sell:
This is the designer’s artistic vision:
And this is what the budget allows:
Keeping all these different needs and expectations in mind, you rough out a concept and design that really works for the book and balances author feedback, budget and editorial judgement… and then you take it to a committee of fifteen people.
Editor: So this book is about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers. We’ve gone for a football with a swastika on it.
Marketing: The swastika looks Nazi.
Editor: It’s about Nazis.
Publicity: We don’t want it to look Nazi.
Editor: This isn’t a pro-Nazi book. If this book was any less pro-Nazi it would be Simon Wiesenthal. It’s about Nazis.
Marketing: It’s got a swastika on it. It looks Nazi. Do something else.
Second cover meeting
Editor: So this is the book about a football match between Allied prisoners of war and Nazi soldiers, again. We’ve gone for an old-fashioned footballing image with some barbed wire superimposed over it.
Marketing: That just doesn’t say ‘Second World War’ strongly enough. It needs some sort of iconic Second World War thing, some sort of image that sums up the period…
Designer [very quietly]: Like a swastika?
Publicity: I don’t like those football shorts, they look silly, and it’s very old-fashioned. Isn’t there a sexier image?
Sales: Oooh. Can we use modern footballers, and do a sort of Instagram photo treatment to make it look old?
Editor and designer, in chorus: NO.
High-up person: Why don’t we do a photoshoot with a modern footballer, like David Beckham, in Second World War gear?
Editor: Because you gave me a budget of £250.
Publicity: Let’s see some other options.
Fourth cover meeting
Editor, slumped in chair: It’s the Nazi football book again.
[Chorus of groans]
Designer: I’ve done nineteen alternative treatments this time. This one has a montage of searchlights and barbed wire, these ones have every photo of a 1940s footballer available for free off Shutterstock, this one is entirely typographic, this is Wayne Rooney photoshopped onto the trenches of Ypres –
Editor, through teeth: Wrong war.
Designer: This one is a picture of a rose for some symbolic reason that the editor told me about, this one is a football exploding when it’s shot, this is a bullet being kicked into a goal…
High-up person: I like the rose.
Sales [carefully]: I don’t think a rose says ‘Nazis playing football’.
Editor: It has a thematic meaning in the context of the book.
High-up person: We should have the rose.
[All salespeople glare at editor.]
Publicity: The rose is pretty. It would look great on the shelf.
Marketing, desperately: What if we use the rose but put a football behind it? And maybe barbed wire over the top?
[Editor slumps further down into chair. Designer bites back a sob.]
Author phone call
Editor: I know… yeah, yeah… well, the rose has a thematic meaning in the context – No. No. Well, that’s what the cover meeting said. Right. I’m sorry you feel that way.
One year later
Marketing: This book hasn’t sold at all. Why did we use a rose on the cover? Surely it should have been much simpler. Something like… a football with a swastika on it.
I was heading into work this morning, down a busy London street, when I noticed the footprints of a giant cat (bigger than tiger size) splashed in white paint across the road. I looked up to note that the digital temperature display ahead of me was reading -93°. At this point a man walked past me with a huge hawk on his arm.
I think it’s fairly clear I’m about to be an urban fantasy heroine.
So, while I’m waiting to develop my magic powers and pre-planning my sassy put-downs, here are some other warning signs that you might be in a book.
Warning sign: You’re walking home at night after working late, alone, your heels sounding loud on the street. A tramp holds out a hand, mumbling a request for money. You ignore him, hurrying past with thoughts of a glass of chardonnay with your lovely partner and kissing your sleeping child.
Book alert: You’re in the prologue to a serial killer book. You are not going to make it to chapter 1.
Warning sign: You are required to marry someone you’ve never met before in order to conclude a business deal or satisfy an elderly relative.
Book alert: Check your surroundings. If you’re in a boardroom, fictional Arab kingdom or luxurious Italian villa, this should work out very nicely. If you’re in unflinchingly realistic India or China, you’re screwed.
Warning sign: You are called any of the following (capitals required): the One, the Lost X, the Chosen X. You have a mysterious scar, brand or tattoo. You don’t know your real parents. A sword may be involved.
Book alert: This is going to take anywhere between three and seven volumes to sort out. Bring snacks.
Warning signs: A lawyer summons you to his dusty office to reveal that an unknown great-aunt has bequeathed you her isolated old house.
Book alert: If you’re under 12, this should be brilliant. Watch out for the invisible servants and don’t trust the butler. If you’re a single woman of marriageable age, brace for the incredibly handsome yet horribly sexist asshat of a neighbour. If you’re a novelist suffering from writer’s block, don’t go.
Warning sign: People address you by your name in every second remark they make to you. You take an inventory of your features every time you look in a mirror, instead of just checking for jam smears. You find yourself thinking of people as ‘the tough-talking yet kind-hearted Irishman’ instead of, eg, ‘Jim’. You like to do a critical assessment of the art and architecture of major European cities while running for your life through them.
Book alert: You’re in a thriller of the [Famous Arty Dead Person] [Mystery Word] type. If you just accept that the villain is your beloved elderly mentor, like the readers are screaming at you to do, we can all get through this a lot faster.
If you’re an overworked magician falling for a gorgeous tattooed nobleman, you’re probably in The Magpie Lord, out on 3 Sept. Comment here before 7pm GMT on 24 Aug to enter the draw for a free electronic copy!
Friend: I hate the Victorians. They never had sex.
My first book, The Magpie Lord, is set in Victorian England (with magic). So, obviously, is the sequel. My WIP is a country house adventure set just after Victoria finally popped her clogs. I’m plotting out a long alternate-Victorian fantasy now. What, you may well ask, is my thing about the nineteenth century?
Well, I love it. I’ve guest-blogged about why the Victorians aren’t nearly as boring as they’re cracked up to be (widespread drug abuse, sex toys, eyewatering spiky devices…). But, as well as being fascinating in itself, the era’s a boon for authors, which in turn makes it fun for readers.
Secrets and sex. Because if there’s one thing that’ll give you a plot, it’s secrets. And if there’s one thing that people actually did in Victorian times – constantly, in private and public, in the weirdest combinations, and in a world bound around by social and legal restrictions of class and gender and sexuality, repression, secrecy and double standards – it was have sex. Check out My Secret Life, the eleven-volume pornographic diary of a man who could really have used some time in therapy or, preferably, prison. Much more enjoyably, try Sins of the Cities of the Plain, the classic gay erotica work (which includes fan fiction based on the real-life notorious Fanny and Stella sex scandal). Prepare to be surprised.
Grotesque social contrasts. The seething, filthy poverty of the darkest rookeries, the glittering jewels and swishing dresses of the balls. It invites melodrama at its finest.
A world of possibility. Just imagine for a moment what it was like to live in a period of accelerating change that makes ours look comprehensible. From horse and carriage to the London Underground in a handful of years. The invention of electric light, telegrams and telephones. The concept of evolution turning everything you ever knew on its head. Medicine triumphing over disease and pain. Of course this was when science fiction took off: the Victorians were living it. The world seethed with wonderful new ideas, the sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic, and anything seemed possible. This is why steampunk is Victorian: the explosive sense of the period that technology could, quite suddenly, do anything at all.
What I’m getting at is, my friend’s an idiot the Victorian era is not all top hats and the duller sort of corset, and you’re missing a trick if you think it is. It’s a wild blend of restrictions and indulgence, mysteries and possibilities, repressive laws and social change and the death of old certainties. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a hell of a place to visit.
The Magpie Lord is out 3 September. If you’re reading this before 24 August, go here and comment for a chance to win a free electronic copy. If you’re reading this after 24 August then either I forgot to take this paragraph down, or you’re a time traveller and should hop off to 1860 forthwith.
This one is all about my book! Which can now be yours! Before it’s even published!
The Magpie Lord is released on 3 September. I am very, very excited. So, here’s a free ebook giveaway. Please just leave a comment below and include your email and I’ll pick the winner at random on 24 August.
I love the stunning cover by Lou Harper:
If you want to know what you’re getting into:
Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.
Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude…and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.
Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.
I’ve already had a couple of reviews, a lovely one from the Fresh Fiction blog and this from Publisher’s Weekly:
Charles begins a new gay Victorian fantasy series with this short but colorful novel. Lord Crane suffers from suicidal impulses resulting from a supernatural curse. He hires magical practitioner Stephen Day, who solves the immediate problem but identifies a more dire threat against Crane. Sexual tension between the two men is sizzling, yet subordinate to Charles’s clever dialogue (“I never met anyone who didn’t want to die as much as you don’t”) and imaginatively creepy magic.
Which is nice.
More info at the publisher website, where you can order it if the uncertainty about winning is too unbearable.
- To enter, leave a comment stating that you are entering the contest. Contest closes 7 pm GMT on 24 August 2013.
- By entering the contest, you’re confirming that you are at least 18 years old.
- Winners will be selected by random number.
- You must leave a valid email address in the “Email” portion of the comment form.
- If you win, please respect my intellectual property and don’t make copies of the ebook for anyone else.
- This contest is open worldwide, ebooks are available in the usual formats (epub, mobi etc).
I would like to submit my candidacy for Global Book Dictator, with full responsibility for all book-related matters everywhere. Here’s what you can expect from my ruthlessly autocratic regime.
The following will be instantly banned
- Rubberized covers. The ones that make your fingertips feel weird, like the book is wearing a condom.
- The use of the following in sex scenes: rod, nubbin, turgid, pebbled, intimate fold, rosebud. The use of ‘turgid’ anywhere at any time.
- Fantasy book covers with the woman managing to showcase both her bum and her breasts to the viewer. (If you haven’t read Jim C Hines on this, do so.)
If you want to try this position, I accept no responsibility for subsequent physiotherapy costs.
- Snide remarks about publishers or authors “just trying to make money”, like that’s a weird thing for businesses and self-employed people to do.
- Pink or blue on the covers of children’s books. The use of ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ ditto. In fact, any gendering of children’s books whatsoever.
The following will be placed under a three-year moratorium to see what happens if we have to do something else
- Books about shifters. There is now a werehedgehog romance out there. The madness must end.
- The Regency period. I love a good Regency romance but there are now more fictional Regency couples than there were people alive in England at the time.
- Novels about writers writing or failing to write novels. Novels by graduates of writing courses about being on writing courses. Novels by literary people who went to Oxbridge about… etc. Yes, they say write about what you know, but damn.
The following will be strongly encouraged, possibly with government grants
- Three hours of free editorial advice for everyone writing their first novel, as long as they commit to putting the damn thing in a bottom drawer without asking anyone else to read it, and writing another book instead.
- Either all interviews will comment on the author’s physical appearance and include a sultry picture, or none will. I’m leaning towards ‘all’ because I’d like to see George RR Martin forced to pout sexily by a lake, but I’d be happy with ‘none’ and never reading a journalist’s assessment of a female author’s body again.
- The return of double covers with die cut, so you have a hole through which you see the picture on the next page, 1980s horror novel style. I want these for all genres, including literary fiction and economics textbooks.
Just look how cool this is.
Vote for me as Global Book Dictator!
Anything to add to the manifesto? Comment away…
The internet is full of articles telling writers how to improve. But there are at least several more readers than writers out there, and better readers make better writers writing better books. So, here are some ways to improve your reading life. There may be a test.
Read something you wouldn’t normally read. At least once every couple of months, pick up a genre you’ve never tried, non-fiction on a subject you know nothing about, a novel that doesn’t look like your cup of tea. There could be an entire world of new books out there, waiting for you to love them.
Read more non-fiction. Discover something about science. Explore a random period of history. Pick up something you’ve no reason to care about yet. I want you in the pub, next week, telling people, ‘No, seriously, it’s a biography of this woman who was married to an Archbishop of Canterbury and she never actually did anything much but it’s really interesting!’
There is a special seat in heaven for the reader who spreads the word about a book she loves.
There is a special seat in hell for the reader who leaves a one-star review on Amazon because the book had a printing error or was delivered late. That seat is very pointy.
Annoyed at the price of a book? Please tell me all about it, in a properly edited 100,000-word manuscript. What, does that sound like months of hard work? Oh.
Give yourself proper time to read, not just ten pages on your commute and five pages while falling asleep. You wouldn’t try to watch The Wire in ten-minute snatches, hours apart, would you? Books need attention too.
If you fear that your friends/family/fellow commuters will judge you for your reading matter, you have three choices: read with your head high because they have no right to book-shame you; get better friends/family/fellow commuters; buy an e-reader. Do not stop reading.
The TV is tempting, the dirty laundry is massing, the to-do list is taking on independent life. On the other hand, the entire collective intelligence, insight and discoveries of the human race are spread out in front of you for the taking. Go on, five more pages.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a time traveller. He wrote Nausea, his great cry of existential agony, after visiting the 21st century and listening to the 500th argument about the relative merits of ebooks and print. Let it go.
Given the choice between the movie/TV tie-in cover and the real one, buy the real one. Have book pride.
Authors will keep writing, if you’ll just keep reading.
(This blog was inspired by this very gloomy article in The Guardian.)
So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.
Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???
Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.
Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.
[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]
Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.
Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]
Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.
Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?
Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.
[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]
Two things about the Boss Books.
First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.
Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.
For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.
You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’
Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.
It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.
This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’
And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.
Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.
All I know is, it’s a bad book.
The first in an occasional series of self-editing blogs, in which I address common writing errors, and marvel that my fifteen years’ editing experience doesn’t stop me making them.
Today, repetition, which comes in three main forms.
‘Turn round.’ John looked round, and saw the round muzzle of a gun pointed at his face. He sagged, realizing they had been roundly defeated. His enemy smiled. ‘Round them up!’
It’s appallingly easy to do. I fix this for authors on a daily basis, but I still turned in The Magpie Lord to Samhain with so many unconscious repetitions I was hiding behind the sofa with embarrassment when I got my edits back.
Read the MS aloud to catch these, or if you are in public or find yourself totally word-blind, run your MS though a piece of software such as this free one. I wouldn’t ever use an automated grammar check function, but as a basic highlighting tool to flag duplicate words, this can be very helpful.
NB: Don’t go mad with a thesaurus to change every instance. The above paragraph would not be improved by replacing instances of ‘round’ with ‘circular’, ‘rotate’ or ‘pirouette’.
Concept repetition, micro level
Peter and John are alone in a room.
‘You want me to carry this thing, Peter?’ John asked, prodding the gun with a finger as if it might explode. ‘I don’t like guns.’
Just consider how much of that is repeated concepts.
‘You want me to carry this thing [if you must have a noun here, use one that isn’t null]
, Peter?’ [they are alone in the room, John knows who he’s talking to]
John asked, [there’s a question mark right there to tell us he’s asking]
prodding at the gun with a finger. [what else would he prod it with?]
‘I don’t like guns.’ [A restatement that adds nothing and gives no flavour of his character. Useless. Plus repetition of the word ‘gun’]
And without repetition:
‘You want me to carry this?’ John prodded the gun as if it might explode. ‘I’d rather leave violence to the experts.’
Repetition of meaning can be tricky to spot. Read slowly, and look hard at passages where your attention starts to skip or you feel the text drag: you’ll probably find concept repetition lurking within. And trim your speech tags as much as possible. See here for how much I hate speech tags (a lot).
Content repetition, macro level
A real example from my soldier/spy romance, which I’m currently editing.
Curtis and da Silva are trapped in a country house. They have discovered that their host is a ruthless villain; if the host learns his secret is out, our heroes are for the chop. That’s crucial for the plot. So crucial, in fact, that I seem to have written three separate conversations where da Silva makes this very point to Curtis – or, rather, where I make it to the reader. Yes, it is dangerous! Lots of danger! Be very afraid!
What’s actually going on here is that I haven’t set up the threat properly in the first place. There are two key plot elements coexisting in the first scene where our heroes are faced with the threat, and I concentrated on the other one, at the expense of the sense of danger. Because the threat only comes across as a secondary element of the scene, it isn’t sufficiently convincing. I wasn’t consciously aware of this as I wrote the first draft, but my lizard brain seems to have tried to patch that hole by demanding extra passages to assure the reader that the danger is real.
Nice try, lizard brain. Unfortunately, repeatedly telling your readers something is not the same as convincing them it’s true. If you find yourself making the same point over and over, you’re probably compensating for something that isn’t working. Go back to the scene that should have established it in the first place, and make it happen there.
Go on a repetition hunt. It’ll do terrible things to your word count, but such glorious things to your text.