Many authors struggle with the task of summarising a book-length project, whether it’s the one-page synopsis we need for submissions, the 10-second elevator pitch ready for the dreaded what’s-it-about question or the blurb to entice browsers at bookstores or online. How do you condense the twists and turns of a 300-page novel into such a small space? How do you tease out the key elements when you’ve lived with those characters for years? Sometimes, it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees.
Another pair of eyes can provide the necessary distance; likewise the passage of time. Almost four years on from the publication of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, I’ve agreed with my publisher the blurb we worked so hard to perfect could be sharper. To get it right, we need your help.
I think we’ve got it about right with the blurb for my second novel, Underneath. There’s an inviting first line which gives a suggestion of the story to come. The opening paragraph establishes the main characters and their relationship; the second sets out the core conflict and ratchets up the tension with a hint at a calamitous climax. It also, with questions about fatherhood, positions this as psychological suspense rather than a straight thriller. Finally, it ends with a cliffhanger: hopefully readers will be sufficiently intrigued by the question to want to find the answer.
He never intended to be a jailer …
After years of travelling, responsible to no-one but himself, Steve has resolved to settle down. He gets a job, buys a house and persuades Liesel to move in with him.
Life’s perfect, until Liesel delivers her ultimatum: if he won’t agree to start a family, she’ll have to leave. He can’t bear to lose her, but how can he face the prospect of fatherhood when he has no idea what being a father means? If he could somehow make her stay, he wouldn’t have to choose … and it would be a shame not to make use of the cellar.
Will this be the solution to his problems, or the catalyst for his own unravelling?
Compare that with the blurb for Sugar and Snails. It’s only 24 words longer, but it feels more of an effort to read. Like Underneath, it contains seven sentences, but the average (mean) length is 21 words as opposed to 17.5. According to word counter, it’s at college student level, taking 33 seconds to read. Whereas Underneath is pitched at 9-10th grade and takes 27 seconds. I think we can make it tighter without losing key ingredients. We can also make it clearer, without giving away the character’s secret.
The past lingers on, etched beneath our skin ...
At fifteen, Diana Dodsworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.
To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance... until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.
Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.
On the subject of wood for the trees, Charli has put out a call for tree-seeking 99-word stories. Mine’s based on a childhood memory from Sugar and Snails. As it’s for her daughter who, based in the Arctic, is missing trees, a gallery of tree-based photos from yesterday’s Peak District patrol follows mine.
Swinging my arms, I followed him up the slope towards the spinney. Casual. As if a country walk with my dad were an everyday thing.
He pointed out the ash and the spindly silver birch, its bark like alligator skin. I showed him a squirrel, scampering across the path, up a tree trunk shelved with bracken fungus.
At a sudden tapping, he grabbed my shoulder. Though we strained our eyes and necks to scan the treetops, the woodpecker eluded us. It didn’t matter; the shared not-seeing made me feel close to him. For the first time, he’d seen me.