WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book

From a discussion on writing blurbs (also known as the pitch), I’d like to share some of my ideas on a ‘formula’ for writing a pitch.

The difficulty with writing a pitch is that most novelist have trouble figuring out how to ‘sell’ their book. I’m taking the blurb of my novel Reprobate as an example on how write a pitch:

First things first, the blurb is not a synopsis of the book, but the blurb has to provide incentive for the reader to read the book.

What is also useful if you write the blurb like a pitch, with three different stages:

Stage one, the elevator pitch: Describe your book in one sentence, preferably less than could be spoken in one short breath. For example: Hungry white shark terrorizes beach community. Lone undercover cop battles terrorists in highrise office building.

Stage two, the story pitch: Try to tell, as succinctly as possible, what happens in the first part of the book that sets up what will happen next.

Stage three, the promise: This book is X genre and part of a series. The author is a gynecologist and therefore qualified to write about this subject. This book is highly recommended for easily excitable readers with short attention spans.

If your three stages work well, the first stage poses a question that is answered in the second stage with another question that is explained in the third stage.

My ABNA pitch (in 2010) for Reprobate was:

REPROBATE is the first novel in a series featuring female commercial assassin Katla Sieltjes, a specialist in making homicide appear as ‘deaths without suspicious circumstances’. The setting of the story is the Netherlands, in particular Amsterdam.

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience Katla Sieltjes views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her alias Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with principals through electronic means, all to protect her identity.

Resigned to remain single for the duration of her career Katla meets the enigmatic blind musician Bram Merleyn when he enters the gallery where Katla has just killed the owner. Deciding that the blind man won’t make a reliable witness, Katla spares his life. After stalking the blind man to gain information whether he is truly harmless, an opportunity presents itself for a new introduction and Katla becomes intimate with Bram who is unaware of her real occupation. While the relationship between Bram and Katla blossoms and starts to affect both their lives, the suspense mounts to exciting heights as Katla accepts a difficult high-risk assignment from an unreliable principal – not only her possible exposition and fragile relationship with Bram are at stake, but her very life is in peril as Katla scrambles to get back to zero.

Through the developing romance between Katla and Bram, and their interaction with a supporting cast of unusual characters, the reader gains insight in the business of a commercial assassin as well as detailed knowledge about the life of session musicians; local information about the famous Dutch capital; the narcotics trade; motorcycle gangs; mehndi bridal tattoos; martial arts; and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The strength of REPROBATE lies in authentic details and psychological depth of the characters, mixed with fast-paced action and a realistic plot.

My final description for Reprobate follows my formula, but uses text from the pitch:

Assassin Katla breaks her own rules when confronted with an unusual witness…

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

This e-book features a glossary.

You can see the repeated elements. And it’s a lot shorter, because pitches to agents are 150 words max, while ABNA pitches are (were?) 300 words max.

Analyzing your pitch/blurb:

Take the first part of the blurb from Reprobate:

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

If you analyze this blurb, you see:
Who is the protagonist? Freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, who considers herself ‘blessed’ by being unburdened by a conscience. So she kills without remorse, which is not a common trait in a protagonist.
What does the protagonist do (what is the status quo? She lives a solitary life, apparently enjoys killing for profit, and takes great pains to remain anonymous
What is the conflict that changes the status quo? A blind man walks into her crime scene, and Katla breaks her own rules and spares his life. And Katla becomes dissatisfied with her solitary existence.

That ‘conflict’ happens in the first of fifty chapters. So, you don’t need to ‘tell the whole story’. Just give a reader enough that they may think, ‘hey, this might be interesting’.

The second part of the blurb is:

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, computer hacking, the art of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The second part is the ‘promise’. What can the reader expect? The first book in a series (so if they like it, there is more), the heroine is unusual (a remorseless killer is often the antagonist, but rarely the protagonist), and she’s not the only unusual character.
Amsterdam is famous all over the world, but the blurb offers a rare glimpse in the local culture and information on a host of other topics, which may or may not be unknown/interesting to the reader. And it contains brutal violence (so the reader won’t think it’s chick-lit and complain about the violent bits).

What the blurb doesn’t do is tell what happens after Katla breaks her rule. Breaking rules is always a risk, and the reader can figure out that there’ll be consequences. Only, to know the consequences, they’ll have to read the book.

If you apply the analysis to your own blurb, see if you can figure out what you’re telling and what not.

Other articles on writing blurbs:

Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb.

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OPINION: Writing a series is lazy writing to cash in on gullible people!

Recently, a discussion on GoodReads was started by a reader who loved stand-alone books, but every book he was offered seemed to be part of a series. The thread quickly turned ‘anti-series’ with complaints about sequels being less good than the first novel, stories become repetitive, single volume books being enlarged to fill several volumes to make more money from gullible readers, writers becoming too lazy to invent new characters, and so on.

As I write a suspense fiction series, I want to address these issues in this blog article.

When I wrote Reprobate, I had some excellent ideas for additional plot lines that would explore other sides of the freelance assassin protagonist, so I decided to develop the Amsterdam Assassin Series as a series of stand-alone novels and short stories that have the same characters but enjoying one book does not rely on having read the other books/stories. No cliffhangers beyond readers want to know what will happen next in the lives of the protagonists.

As to the concerns addressed in the GoodReads thread:

“Can’t you put just everything in one book?”

No. The books are all over 100K and all have a different theme. The first book, Reprobate, deals with the protagonist breaking her own rules and the consequences. The second book, Peccadillo, has criminals trying a hostile takeover of her legitimate business, unaware that they’re dealing with an assassin. In the third book, Rogue, Katla comes to the attention of global intelligence communities when she kills the wrong target. I’m currently working on the fourth novel, Ghosting, which will show yet another side of the character.

“The first book is mostly good, but the rest is repetitive crap.”

Most reviewers agree that the second book is superior to the first book. I just published the third novel. Feedback from the beta-readers convince me that Rogue is both different from Peccadillo and Reprobate, but just as interesting and entertaining. Just because some people force themselves to turn a stand-alone book into a series doesn’t mean every series writer succumbs to this laziness.

“You write a series to cash in.”

If I wanted to cash in, I’d write short novels in a hot genre, not suspense fiction about a freelance assassin in Amsterdam. And as I sell somewhere around 30-60 books per month, I’m not ‘cashing in’. If I listened to ‘market experts’ I would abandon the series due to the meagre sales. However, I do have fans who want to know what happens to the protagonists and are eager for future books (check my reviews), so I just ignore the sales and keep on writing what I love to write.

“Series are just fluff/sugar coated candy/throwaway books.”

My series is pretty dark, which is quite normal for a suspense fiction series with a freelance assassin protagonist. I’ve been praised for the brief instances of wit that lighten the mood and ground the story in reality. In keeping with the need for verisimilitude, the events in the books have real moral/ethical/physical consequences and I received feedback from fans on how scenes made them reconsider the reader’s own attitudes.

“You’re just too lazy to invent new characters.”

Writing a series is actually more difficult than writing stand-alone novels, mostly because you need to satisfy both the new readers and the readers who read the other books, which requires a fine balance of putting in just enough back story to please both. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to writing about characters who might never ‘hit it big’ with fans. Writing stand-alones with new characters doesn’t require any referencing to published stories.

Also, the series does feature new characters. Granted, they may be antagonists, but if the antagonists don’t measure up, the protagonist will fall kind of flat. I go by the principle that any character I create should be able to hold their own as protagonist of their own stories, so they have to be fully developed, not just sounding boards for the main characters.

Still I understand how readers don’t want to read series and prefer stand-alone books. In that case, Reprobate would work as a great stand-alone novel because it has all the characters, but all the plot lines are resolved in the end and you don’t need to read the other books.

Except if you want to know what the future holds in store for Katla and Bram…


WRITING: Getting Unexpected Reviews…

I got some great five star reviews of Reprobate and a couple of five star review of Peccadillo.

This is an interesting angle I didn’t realize when I wrote Reprobate: Some people are more interested in other characters than the protagonist, assassin Katla. If you read the reviews, you must’ve read this passage in the ‘Great New Series’ review by DevoGirl:

“But for me, the best part was the romance between Bram and Katla. Bram is a terrific character, one of the more realistic portrayals of a blind person that I have read in a while. He’s well-adjusted and capable, but not superhuman. He plays the saxophone, practices shiatsu on the local yakuza, and studies aikido. He’s just the right combination of strong and vulnerable, and it’s oh so sexy. With so many books appearing lately with blind characters that are totally unrealistic, I really appreciate that the author went to the trouble to do the research and get it right.”

The fact that the blind character Bram is considered ‘hot and sexy’ by this reader, led me to my WordPress Stats, where I can see if people visit me from certain websites or forums. And I found this thread on paradevo, a website for devotees of disabled persons, where books are discussed and reviewed when they have disabled characters. And the website has its own review section, on books and movies, where an extended review is given, with more attention to what makes Reprobate attractive to devotees of disabled persons.

Although I’m aware of the fact that there are people who are specifically attracted to disabled persons, Reprobate hadn’t been written with the idea that people would read the series because it also features disabled characters. And the fact that people who are familiar with disabled persons judge my portrayal of the blind characters realistic is immensely gratifying. Being a stickler for verisimilitude seems to be paying off, if readers are searching me out in their quest for believable characters.

DevoGirl contacted me with questions for an author interview with emphasis on how and why I wrote about disabled characters, which can be found here. While the interview touches on several sensitive issues, I think it might be illuminating for those who read my books, whether they read the Amsterdam Assassin Series for the suspense, the kick-ass heroine, or the blind, but capable, characters.

Enjoy the series, and please, let me know what you think!


KATLA FAQ: Why I chose an assassin for my protagonist…

Why I write what I write is very simple in essence. I write what I write because no-one else writes it. And I want to read what I write. I wanted to read a story about a female freelance assassin, someone who enjoys her job without being a freak, pervert or weirdo. Someone whose view of the world is bleak enough to do the job without remorse, but not so bleak as to make her bitter. With a heart cold enough to make dispassionate decisions, but still warm enough to trust and love someone who accepts her for who she is.

In stories, whether books or movies, hired killers, in any shape or form, are mostly perverted weirdos, as if killing in exchange for money debases someone more than killing for God and Country. A soldier can justify his actions, as he is ordered by his superiors to kill ‘the enemy’. A mercenary can be ethical, following certain ideals in joining an army that fights for what he thinks is right. But a freelance assassin is a realist, someone who accepts the responsibility of taking a life without justification, for there can be no justification for the taking of a life. Reasons, sure. There are always plenty of reasons to kill another human being, but rarely a justifiable reason. But then, isn’t justification just another illusion? Is there justice in this world? Are the evildoers punished and the righteous rewarded? Anyone who takes a good look around them knows better.

Katla is a realist, pur sang. She knows there are more reasons to kill other people than people to do the job. Do the job properly, that is. There are always ambitious punks who can be hired to kill for a nickel. As Creaux says in Reprobate: “The world is overrun by amateurs, but bereft of professionals.” If you have carefully built a company and your business partner is driving your company into the ground, and you know you cannot buy him out or talk sense into him, maybe it’s time to get a professional to do the job.

Katla is an expert in disguising homicide, which makes her a particular breed of assassin. Most professional killers want to remain detached from their targets, needing the distance to separate themselves from the act. Dispatch the target with the minimum amount of fuss. Use a suppressed semi-automatic Ruger .22 Mark II and shoot a dumdum into the base of the skull, with just enough power to enter, but not to exit the cranium, so the bullet will bounce around the dome of bone and shred the brains. Just a trickle of blood, maybe bulging eyes from the pressure in the head, caused by the gases that exited the barrel pressed against the entry wound. Clean and easy. Except that such a kill would send up a red flag at any law enforcement office. Warning: Professional At Work. Same goes with any kind of skilful applied violence. Whether you garrotte someone or bomb his car, if you cannot disguise the homicide, there will be an investigation. And since your client most likely stands to benefit from the death of your target, any criminal investigation is to be avoided. Unless the investigation clears your client, or rules the demise of your target accidental or self-induced.

Katla has the mind of a hunter and trapper. Not the kind of hunter who runs around the woods drunk with a bright orange vest to avoid getting shot by his equally drunk buddies who will use an elephant gun to shoot a squirrel. Katla studies her targets like a dedicated hunter tracks his prey, like a trapper finds the places to position his snare. Stalking her target and constructing the perfect strategy towards the demise is as much an intellectual endeavour as a physical challenge, demanding both acumen and stamina. To become the perfect assassin requires a study both of human nature and human biology, its inherent flaws and how to put them to full advantage. With that pursuit of excellence taken into account, Katla’s fascination with her job make her choice of occupation not only understandable but even admirable, to an extent.

My own life has had its moments of violence, enough to make me realise that violence lurks in pretty much everyone, although the veneer of civility may have more substance on some people than others. To the outside world, Katla seems more than composed, she has an almost Zen-like attitude towards life, but it’s rooted less spirituality than reality. Katla knows how fragile life is and how easily destroyed, which makes her appreciate her own life and that of her loved ones. Fate is fickle and the wrong circumstances or timing can extinguish any life prematurely, so celebrate the life you have today and don’t live in the future life you might never receive. To be aware of the present is the greatest gift.


WRITING: Self-Editing Fiction

I’ve been writing and editing my own work for over twenty years now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to new ideas. When I first started writing, I wrote on paper using a typewriter, retyping whole sections to edit out the errors. Currently, I write on a MacBook Pro, using Scrivener, synching scenes in progress with SimpleNote, so I can edit them on my iPad. Needless to say, my current work process differs from the process I had when I started out.

First a couple of things that tend to confuse beginning writers:

  • Writing and Editing use different parts of the brain. Editing while Writing uses more energy, but most Writers have trouble ignoring the Editor.
  • Most Writers produce a first or rough draft that is not fit for consumption. This is normal.
  • When Writing, there is no rule as to the length of the scene, or chapter, or dialogue, or narrative. That will be sorted out by the Editor.
  • Don’t sweat the grammatical issues, the Editor will sort them out. Just get the stuff that’s in your head onto something tangible outside your head.
  • The Editor doesn’t work on a computer screen. That’s why Writers print out their books and use a highlighter and a pen to edit their manuscripts. Or they make an e-book draft (see below).
  • If you wait for the right moment to write, you will spend a lot of time waiting.

Since I used to write on a typewriter, I understand the advantages of writing on a computer, but there are also some disadvantages. Like having to print out your work, or losing a few scenes or chapters or even a whole book if you do not to back-up your work. This disadvantages are minor compared to the advantages of creating on a computer. You can Edit your first draft without the need of having to retype the whole bloody thing for starters.

Let’s start with that. Too many writers try to churn out perfect copy when they’re supposed to be creating a story. This tends to stir up a conflict between the Writer and the Editor. While the Writer just wants to get the stuff in his head on paper, the Editor is constantly pointing out grammatical errors, overused words, typos, clichés, run-on sentences, punctuation issues, and so forth. All important issues, certainly, but Any Mistake Can Be Remedied in the Second Draft. And, more importantly, the Editor is distracting the Writer from the creative process. The first or rough draft is supposed to be an outpouring of creative energy, and anything that hinders or blocks the flow should die in horrible agony.

Only to rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix when the first draft is finished, because now the Editor can get to work. Like I stated above, the Editor doesn’t work on a computer screen. I’m sure there’s a chorus of writers who will naysay this assertion and claim they can Edit on a computer screen, and I’m sure they can. Nothing is set in stone. However, most writers agree that you’ll find mistakes and errors in your prose when you’ve printed the manuscript that you didn’t find when you read the text on a computer screen. I think that’s because the computer screen is for creating, not for correcting.

So, I used to print out my work, carrying around a sheaf of paper (that’s 500 pages), a pen and a highlighter. And wondering why people though I was nuts, screaming at them to close the goddamn door because my papers were flying around. Ah, good old times.

All this changed when I got an e-reader. With some simple conversion programs, I could take my draft, turn it into an e-book and upload it to my e-reader. And most e-readers have a built-in highlight and note function. Even better, instead of a stack of paper with scribblings in the margins, I could select ‘View Notes & Marks’ and get a neat list of all the editorial scribblings I’d made in the e-book.

First things first, though.

Computers allow for pre-editing the rough draft to eliminate some of the most irritating errors. First, use Find+Replace to eliminate extra spaces, and search for filter words, crutch words and overused expressions. If you don’t know what I mean by that, send me an email and I’ll send you a Word file with words that you can safely eliminate from your manuscript, like ‘actually’, ‘very’, and ‘seemed to’.

Then the rough draft goes into the e-reader that I can take everywhere without fear that my papers blow everywhere or that my highlighter/pen will run out of ink. As long as I don’t forget to charge the battery regularly. Reading your manuscript like a reader will reveal mistakes that you had never taken into account, like the number of times the name of your protagonist is featured on the page [too many or too little], how the dialogue is confusing without speech tags, how the small paragraph of information you squeezed in turns out to be two pages of exposition, etcetera. Many e-readers also have ‘text-to-speech’ features that allow for a bored robot to read back your awkward prose to you.

And when you’ve finished Marking & Notating your entire manuscript, you sit back down behind the keyboard, View the list of Notes & Marks, and make the changes.

So fill your screen with unreadable garbage and revel in the fact that you can polish the turd in a few months, when your draft is finished and your creative juices are depleted.

Enjoy your writing, and let me know if you liked this post. I might write more articles that distract you from writing your own garbage.

 

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WRITING: Exposition and the dreaded Info Dump

One of the most difficult skills in writing fiction is how to give your reader information without making it seem like you’re giving information.

A shortcut often used is for a character to be called into an audience with a superior or authority, who will have a file on the character from which they will quote and, sometimes, demand elaboration:

“You’ve been working undercover in narcotics for four years since you lost your wife and child, and now you want to work the homicide squad?”

That is not a question. That’s an info dump. All the information above is already known to the person being questioned. Also, is it relevant to the story? If so, there are more subtle ways:

“Do you think homicide is less stressful than narcotics, Michael?”

“No, sir. I just want to get out of the undercover work.”

“You don’t seem to have a difficulty staying on the right side,” the commissioner said. “I know the temptations are sometimes, ehm, persuasive.”

“I haven’t been tempted for years, sir.”

“You were tempted before.”

“That changed, sir. Lily and Chantelle…”

The commissioner’s eyes softened. “It must’ve been hard on you, that we never caught the killers. We always thought it had something to do with the XXX case, but nobody talked.”

“I made my peace with it, sir.”

“So your application with homicide is not to gain access to the records, to see where we failed.”

“No, sir. Like I said–”

“You just want to get out from the undercover work. Even though you received two commendations.”

“I’m tired of play-acting, sir. I want to do some straight police work for a change.”

The commissioner nodded. “I’ll approve your application, Michael. Don’t let me down.”

“No, sir. I won’t. Thank you.”

“The change might involve a change of roster, so your free days will be suspended for a moment until the new roster…”

“I’ll still have next Wednesday off, don’t I?”

The commissioner smiled sadly. “Yes, Michael. Nobody would want to you to come in for work when you need to pay your respects.”

Michael sighed his relief. Visiting their graves was about the only thing he could do since they had been slain so senselessly. He rose and nodded at the commissioner for turning for the office door, hoping the commissioner’s remark had been a wild stab and not a clue visible in his face. Homicide detail would give him access to the records. And he would see where they’d failed to bring Lily and Chantelle’s killers to justice. He’d been biding his time for four years, he wouldn’t want to screw up now.

Only the last paragraph features true exposition, but since the reader’s interest should be piqued by the hints in the dialogue, the information isn’t dumped. Plus it leaves enough to the imagination to give the reader. Also, it’s possible to leave it off–the commissioner’s remark is enough hint that Michael might be tempted to do some investigating on his own.

 

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