When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember your initial objective was merely to drain the swamp. Swamp draining can be a pretty arduous task in and of itself, so why take on alligators, too? But we’ve all been there. Things seem to be flowing and suddenly there you are, trapped in some backwater filled with things that don’t belong in your story. There are a million ways to float into these ponds, but what you need is a way to paddle out.
It happens when we get so involved in some piece of minutia, say a sentence’s structure or some plot snag or characterization, and you lose site of the big picture. We sometimes just plain confuse activity with forward movement, then, before you know it, rather than moving forward you’re bogged down.
All writing starts from an idea. Some writers spend a great deal of time flushing out the details needed to support the basic idea before pen touches paper. Others of us charge ahead in confident certainty that we’ll discover our direction and stay on the trail of some brilliant thought. Too often our flash of an idea is teetering on the launch pad when we fire the rocket and things go awry. Bottom line: it’s easy to get so focused on the minutia of the process that we loose track of the substance of our goal.
Don’t slap yourself silly or feel too guilty about this. It’s inevitable. For a writer, carts and horses tend to change places, one sneaks past the other right before your eyes. It happens because not an insubstantial part of the writing process is emotional. As a result, we are easily lured away from our original (intended) path. Without this element of emotion, a story idea would likely wither or die, but unfortunately, because of the internal excitement (emotions), we can also fail to realize that we have allowed our baby to morph into a Frankenstein monster that devours our time and gives little or nothing in return.
In the tech industry this is sometimes referred to as project creep. A team, through its own brainstorming, loses site of the original goal and by the time they’ve filled the white boards on the wall around the room the original focus is lost. This can be a good thing, but not infrequently for a writer to wander too far from his or her original idea can mean the loss of a really good opportunity to produce a really good and well-focused product. Part of the discipline of writing is staying on track. Part of the problem with writing is that tracks are never made of steel but take you across mushy ground and sometimes into quick sand.
I’m not talking about rewriting or revision here—the important elements that put the fine finish on an idea and preserve its focus—but just plain losing site of what you originally intended to achieve. You end up wandering around the south forty trying to figure out where and how you got off track. Certainly we all want our writing to flow, but unfortunately it sometimes flows in the wrong direction.
Such inevitabilities can be addressed in two ways—how to avoid them and what do when you find that you haven’t. This piece is about the latter. One way is to put the cart before the horse—put what usually comes last first. One of the last things that happens in the birthing process of a book is the design of the book jacket and writing the marketing copy that goes on and in it.
Originally called dust jackets, they were little more than a paper wrap to protect the hardcover. Hardcover books didn’t lend themselves to fancy, four-color printing so what was at first a protective cover soon became valuable marketing real estate. Now the jacket is, for all intents and purposes, the cover. A book jacket presents five critical marketing venues. The first is the illustration or design and content of the front cover—the visual elements that reach out and grab our attention as we pass by the display table. The other four venues for marketing messages are the back cover, the spine, the inside front flap, and the inside back flap. For such a typically small package, these spaces offer a lot of billboard surface to try and attract and hold a person’s attention and convert her from book browser into book buyer. (I predict that someday, an enterprising marketer will also use the backside of a cover jacket to deliver even more marketing messages, maybe to suggest related readings by the same author or authors who reside in the same genre. Have you noticed that some paperback covers fold over and pretend to be jacket covers?)
This is not intended to turn you into a book designer, but to use the process to get you back on focus. In the process you might, however, come up with some ideas that will be helpful when you do get the book finished. For self-publishing writers, book designer is one of the hats you might find yourself wearing.
A book’s cover must grab a browser’s attention. Something there—the combination of the illustration, title, subtitle, and maybe a short blurb—has to motivate the browser to pick up the book. That alone is no small task. The ultimate goal of a cover is to lure the browser to open it and see what lurks inside, then taste a few pages. The cover, outside and inside, is the aroma. But the opening paragraphs of the first chapter—or a page anywhere in between the front and back cover—is the tray of cookies. Try one. Nibble. Yummy. Gobble! Gobble! Buy!
How would you use these pieces of real estate for your book—or short story (we’re pretending after all)? What would you put on them, and how would they look? You likely already have a title, but just for the fun of it, put on the hat of some imagined cantankerous reader who has seen and heard “all this crap before . . . so tell me why I would want to buy this book?”
What would you say to him or her? Maybe you should first try to write a letter to this imaginary customer spelling out why your book is worth his or her investment of time and money. You have to be able to clearly and succinctly explain what makes your story different and/or unique or you might as well close your laptop and move on to some other activity.
A website literally has but a few seconds to grab the attention and pique the interest of web browsers and encourage them to stay for a while. My approach was to make my site—lowellforte.com—a very busy place with lots to look at and explore. It’s not designed to force you to stay but to encourage you to not want to leave immediately.
A cover is a book’s homepage. An editor is going to read the whole book before s/he decides to invest in it. A customer is, at best, going to give it a quick skim. You don’t get to haul his butt over to the coffee area, treat him to a scone and a cup of something, and tell him where the book idea came from and what you intended by all those chapters and why you have so brilliantly succeeded in creating a read worth the price.
There are, of course, a few readers who will take a few preliminary selections over to the coffee shop and spend a little more time making the ultimate selection, which is scary because they are the ones with the most critical eye.
For an e-book author, the challenge is even greater. There’s nothing to pick up and haul off to the coffee bar, and no back cover or inside jacket flaps. The cover, blurb, and maybe a few sample chapters constitute the pre-sale package. Thus the cover becomes even more important.
Ever pick up a book because of its cover and spend a few moments inside only to discover the promises hinted at on the cover didn’t materialize? We have all purchased a book that after the first few chapters drops the ball and breaks the promises upon which we relied to make our purchasing decision. Makes you want to do what New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker suggested about a book she reviewed: “This book should not be taken lightly. It should be flung across the room with great force.”
Stop the presses. Set down the galley proofs. Go directly to your desk and start work on your cover. You need the break. Sketch out a diagram of a cover and number its parts: (1) cover illustration; (2) cover copy (3) back cover copy, (4) inside front flap copy, and (5) inside back cover copy. The illustration can wait, as can the title and subtitle alternatives. What you want to do is write the synopsis that goes on the inside flap and/or back cover. If you can’t make your story work there, it’s going to be DOA. So not only does this project give you a break from your writing schedule, it will help you double down on your focus and improve it. You’re not just writing a synopsis, but a distillation—the very essence of your novel or story. Every word has a job to do.
To train for this exercise requires spending some time in a book store not only reading the editorial copy that wraps around a dozen or so books, but watching how browsers browse. Note what grabs your attention and analyze why. Your notes should include an analysis and assessment of these elements:
• Cover illustration (Its job is to please and tease your eyes.)
• Title and copy typeface and font selections (Classy, readable, eye catching without being difficult to read.)
• Title (You have one, but may change it once the rest of the cover is designed.)
• Subtitle (Why can’t a novel have a subtitle? Consider the title the salt and the subtitle the pepper.)
• Front jacket blurb (Not required but think about it—a few lines at the bottom of the front cover. But don’t clutter the cover. No single element should limit or neutralize the value of another.)
• Back (Watch people browse. Most will pick up the book and look and then flip it over—before they open the jacket. The cover is the tease; the back cover starts the intrigue necessary to get a browser to look farther. If a browser goes no further and sets the book down, try to figure out the reasons why. One book cover’s failure might lead to your’s success.)
• Inside flap front (The synopsis is the hardest writing assignment you’ll have.)
• Inside flap back (Typically your bio. It’s not telling them how cool and talented you are, it’s making them wish they could meet you in person. It’s the visual equivalent to a woodwind ensemble, not a noisy brass band.)
When you have finished looking at what others have done, you need to be able to verbalize and/or write down what worked for you and what didn’t and why. The why is important. If you can explain why someone else’s effort fell short (at least for you), you’ll learn a lot about what to do and what not to do for your own book. Analyze, analyze, analyze.
If you spot someone going through this process and deciding to keep the book, go look at what he looked at. Yes, yes, some of these people are picking up a book by their favorite author (those are the books with covers where the biggest element is the author’s name). After your field trip, you should be ready to think about and write the copy for your own jacket. Sketch it out. Type the copy. The process will make you think about every word you write and every word you write will make you think of the quality and focus of your own between-the-covers efforts. It will tell you if you have and how far you have wandered off track from your original concepts and ideas for your own book.
Remember, the guy who is very good at catching alligators is the guy who understands the swamp.
Now you are ready to get back to work.