Pub Rants

Straight From A Reviewer’s Mouth

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STATUS: Back to back conferences are a bit tough. On Sunday I flew back from San Francisco and RWA. Today, Worldcon began right here in Denver. On one hand, I didn’t have to travel to attend. On the other, I might be a little conferenced out but away we go.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? YOU’LL NEVER FIND ANOTHER LOVE LIKE MINE by Lou Rawls

As I mentioned above, Denvention 3 began this morning and I kicked it off with one of the opening sessions on how to create that perfect pitch paragraph in a query letter.

No, I’m not going to beat that almost dead horse again. All you blog readers are pretty much experts by this point.

But one of the session attendees was Jacqueline Lichtenberg, a writer and a reviewer. She added a comment to the panel mix that I thought was well worth repeating. She said that for her job as a reviewer, the back cover copy of any given published novel becomes absolutely essential in terms of deciding which books to actually review. Publishers send her so much that she has stacks and stacks of books just waiting for her attention.

A quick skim of the back cover copy makes her decision on which book to read and review. Go figure. The same technique applies when agents read query letters. If you make your pitch paragraph read like back cover copy, you’ll get attention. But that isn’t the tip I want to share.

From her position as reviewer, Jacqueline recommended that aspiring writers not wait to write their pitch paragraphs or what they would consider their own back cover copy for their novels. She suggested doing that even before the novel is complete. Even, dare I say it, before the novel gets written!

If you can write good back cover copy for the novel you have in mind, your writing will be forced to live up to the copy you’ve created.

I think this is a great idea—especially for writers who are kicking around several ideas and are contemplating which idea to pursue in terms of writing a novel.

Write the back cover copy (in the way it would look if the novel were actually be published) and that alone will force you to focus on that essential plot catalyst that will drive your story forward and force you to focus the novel.

Not a bad day’s work….

20 Responses

  1. notenoughwords said:

    That’s excellent advice. I always write my back cover blurb early on, because it makes the book feel like a tangible thing instead of just an idea and a couple of thousand words.

  2. chris bates said:

    I’ve always been intrigued about cover copy differences between trade PB and hardcover – why does one have back cover copy and the other flap cover copy? Anyone have a clue?

    I personally hate flap cover copy because I’d prefer just to flip the book over and scan the back for the pitch.

    And no, it’s not because I’m a lazy bastard! It’s because I need to hold the book with one arm and restrain a two year old with the other arm so that he doesn’t typhoon the entire shelf that houses a decade of self-help and parenting best-sellers.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Great post, Kristin!

    I second writing back cover copy before you write the book as I have just spent ALL SUMMER wasting my time on a first draft which, just yesterday I realized has no plot to speak of.

    It’s got characters. It’s got a theme. It’s got snappy dialouge, but not the standard, concrete, neccessary — If Main Character can’t X in time for Y then W and Z will happen.

    I have to bury this book. Today. And I’m so sad to do this. What an absolute waste of creative energy. Honest to God, I feel like crap.

  4. John Arkwright said:

    George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series did not blurb well. There are many excellent characters and subplots, but the main plot of the series, especially the first novel, has been done a million times.

    Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game does not blurb well, either. Training genius kids to battle the evil space aliens. Unique?

    In today’s market, a new author has to have a fantastic blurb.

    Before I wrote a novel I read a few books, including one that had advice on the business of selling FSF by Orson Scott Card. Card is brilliant, but he founded his career decades ago and his advice was decades old. I don’t think he has caught up yet–a subsequent post in his forums reiterated his old advice.

    After reading a million agent blog posts, I decided that my novel does not distinguish itself on a back cover. Perhaps that makes it a diamond in the rough–potentially quite valuable, but nobody in today’s industry gets out the jeweller’s loupe. One has to dazzle at a glance. How many queries per hour does an agent read?

    In planning for the second novel, I had decided to do exactly what Ms. L. recommended. I have the blurb concept and am proceeding apace.

  5. Eden Sharpe said:

    Yippee! I love this idea.
    When working on my previous novel, I had so much trouble seeing whole novel and condensing it into a sentence or two, especially after I’d spent so much time on the individual pieces.
    On my current wip, I’m writing the back cover blurb first to guide me in arranging my few completed scenes into a more complete plot.
    Since this is only my second book, I’m glad to be on the right/write 😉 track this time.
    Thanks !

  6. Margaret Yang said:

    In the book, Save the Cat! Blake Snyder suggests that you take this concept one step further. You take your short blurb, then approach strangers in Starbucks or wherever. Say, “Can I have a moment to tell you about my screenplay idea?” (He writes screenplays but it works for books.) The stranger will be annoyed. Perfect. You want a difficult audience. You then pitch your idea to the stranger. If he/she is bored, you have more work to do. If he/she says “When can I read it?” you’ve got something good.

    And you do all this before you write a word of the actual work. Interesting, isn’t it? BTW, I suggest Blake Snyder’s books to all fiction writers. I don’t write screenplays but I still got a lot out of his books.

  7. Anonymous said:

    To Anon @6:58

    I feel for ya, I really do. I did the exact same thing last summer! But don’t bury it too far, maybe someday you can use it for parts.

    : )

  8. Kristin said:

    Well, I must be ahead of the game, because I already do this. Usually I can’t write it before I’ve begun the book…because I’m an organic writer (pantster). However, I always open up a file for my ‘blurb’ and keep adding to it and changing it as I write. Sometimes I come up with just the right phrasing, and I have to capture it before it’s forgotten. Sometimes I cut a bunch of what I have…but typically a lot of it stays.

    I think because if you haven’t finished the book yet, you aren’t bogged down by all the details in the story. You aren’t thinking, “How do I condense 400 pages into just 4 or 5 sentences?” you are thinking about big huge plot things and big huge character things.

    Very good advice!

  9. Jolie said:

    I started reading pub-industry-related blogs such as yours at about the same time I started planning my first novel. (Actually, yours was the first blog I found because I read Sarah Rees Brennan’s LJ, and then I continued on via your “Cool Blogs & Stuff.”) Hooks, pitches, and query letters are a frequent topic on agent/editor blogs, and they’re the first step in finding an agent, so I paid special attention to posts on how to condense a novel into a handful of sentences.

    So I’ve been composing my query letter for months now, even though my novel exists only as a file called “brainstorms”! It’s been very helpful for focusing my story.

  10. Chumplet said:

    I always work on my blurb before I write the book. It helps to inspire me to finish the damn thing.

    It isn’t always the final version, but it’s at least a start.

  11. Kimber An said:

    Jacqueline is good. Jacqueline is wise. Listen to Jacqueline or I’ll poke you in the eyes.

    P.S. We’re throwing a Cyber-Launch Book Party for Linnea Sinclair at the Enduring Romance blog today, August 7th, all day long. Everyone is invited, but watch your step. The Klingon females are drooling over the goblins.

  12. April said:

    This is a great idea! Thanks, Kristin! I always just want to jump on in and being writing. I get an idea, I do some research, and I get so excited that I want to do is begine Chapter One. But this would keep me focused a bit more, and as you said, give my novel something to live up to from the moment I type that first word.

  13. Jackie Barbosa said:

    Darn it…I have an entire proposal for a presentation at next year’s convention on this very topic.

    Any chance you and Jacqueline would join me on my panel? LOL!

  14. Wakai Writer said:

    I’ve done that before, actually…gone back and revised a novel after writing the cover copy for it. It really did help focus things and I think it’s a great way to go about writing. Not to go about generating ideas or stories, but to focus on which ideas and stories need to go in what order in your book.

  15. Anonymous said:

    It should be noted that it’s entirely possible to write fantastic jacket copy but not be able to follow through with the whole ms. Agents know this, which is why they get mad if you query them with a “query hook,” which they request only to find out that it hasn’t been written yet….

    But it’s a good way to find out which story ideas are worth pursing, isn’t it? Set up a fake name and email addy you won’t use for anything else in the future, along with a fake title (or else leave it untitled) then query every agent in your genre with each idea, saying it’s completed in the query. When they request it, simply reply politely that you’ve withdrwn the ms. from consideration.

    Then after 30 days, whichever ideas have gotten the most requests for partials/fulls, that’s the book you write.

    This has worked well for me in the past, and I continue to use it even though I’m already pubbed.

  16. Chris said:

    I’ve done this before, there isn’t anything wrong with it as a vague device or inspiration but I must say I am alarmed at the enthusiasm with which this was picked up on.

    Part of the difference between the publishing industry ad the film industry has been (thankfully) that the writer isn’t expected to have the story laid out ahead of time, he isn’t expected (necessarily) to have a formula. This book blurb idea smacks a bit too much of formulaic writing for my comfort and I really don’t think the industry needs more of that. (That’s another tangent.)

    Certainly a writer isn’t bound by the book blurb (nor are the real blurbs bound by the actual content of the book, alas) but it still seems to me, to be a case of starting out on the wrong foot and containing and pruning what is often better served as an organic process.

    Of course, if you’re writing genre, maybe this is just the way to go about it.

    I just hate to see yet another constraint on free form development so lauded by professionals and aspirants alike. The world of narrative is already suffused with book blurb plotted tedium.

    Or maybe it’s just me?

  17. Jacqueline Lichtenberg said:


    I was surprised to see you had referenced me on your blog and I marveled at the comments readers posted.

    I just wanted to add that I didn’t make up that bit of advice about writing the cover blurb first. I learned it when I was about 16 from I think WRITER’S DIGEST, learned it again and again as I studied writing, and encountered it yet again in Blake Snyder’s two books on screenwriting as well as in a screenwriting course I took recently.

    I’m currently converting my Romantic Times Award winning novel DUSHAU (a Questar mass market pb which is out of print but was indeed written to fit a 3 sentence “pitch” before I’d written a word of the trilogy!) into a screenplay using Snyder’s books, and learning from that process.

    I think your lecture on blurbs coupled to Lois McMaster Bujold’s quoting me on Action Plotting in her Guest of Honor Speech
    sparked an insight I hope to convey in one of my blog posts soon where I’ll need to reference this blog entry of yours.

    People can follow me on Twitter as JLichtenberg — and a list of my social network memberships is on

    Oh, and I’d be absolutely delighted to do a panel with you and Jackie Barbosa and anyone else, especially Linnea Sinclair, on any topic.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

    PS: you paraphrased me exactly. That’s difficult!