THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES II: COVER COPY

This series of posts was inspired by an edit. Cut out of the final edition of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction was a short appendix that began with this paragraph:

We’ve learned a lot over the last few hundred pages or so, and I know you’ve been paying close attention all along. But just when you thought you were done, now comes the hard part—actually doing something with the wisdom you’ve gathered here. In order to get the creative juices flowing, here are some exercises designed to help you put some new ideas and skills into practice. Don’t wait until after you’ve finished your novel to start on these—go ahead and write a log line, a cover letter, and so on for a book you think you might want to write, or something you’re making up off the top of your head, then do it again when you have something specific to talk about. You might be interested to see how different they are.

There were only so many pages in the book, but on the infinite elbow room of the internet there are homework assignments:

Write the cover copy of your as-yet-unpublished masterpiece.

Surely you have something you’ve written already—even if it’s only the first chapter or first few pages of a novel, or part of a short story. Even an outline will do, but take something you’ve written and imagine that you’re your own editor, and it’s time to write that all important cover copy.

Cover copy is an art form all its own, and one most authors never learn. It can take even very talented editors years to hone their craft, so don’t be afraid if you struggle with this, but struggle, people. No one ever said this was going to be easy.

Here’s some advice:

Less is more.

Don’t write a separate book for your cover copy, and by a separate book in this case I mean more than maybe a hundred words or so. Microsoft Word and other word processing applications will count your words for you, but you can also count up to a hundred the old fashioned way. And that’s not a hard and fast rule. A hundred and eight words doesn’t require cutting eight words, but two hundred words is two times too much. You want people to read this copy and think, Wow, that sounds cool. So write with confidence and don’t be shy about selling your story. Use active language, and simple declarative sentence. Go back to The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction and re-read the section on log lines (page 17). Can you sum up your story (character and conflict) in about twenty or twenty-five words? You should have a solid log line—go ahead and use it in your cover copy. That new movie Predators has it’s log line embedded in the TV commercials. Adrian Brody says it aloud: “This planet is a game preserve—and we’re the game.” Never think you can’t learn something useful from Hollywood.

Avoid spoilers like the plague.

In the world of media in general, that should be more like “Avoid the plague like spoilers.” The plague only kills about 80% of everyone it touches, spoilers kill with 100% efficiency. Spoilers—revealing the ending or other surprises (I am your father! Bruce Willis was a ghost all along. The butler did it.)—are the bane of every author’s existence. I kid you not, I once read a book that had a huge spoiler right on the back cover, which I didn’t notice until I was halfway through the book. I honestly don’t remember the title but it was from a very small independent press, a novel about a bus full of school children that goes missing in a blizzard. Halfway through the tense narrative—it was a fine book—I happened to read the cover copy and there it was, something to this effect: “. . . and even when it’s revealed that the children are safe, the story still has some surprises.” I was all like—what they F@#*! I stopped reading then and there and practically lost it. I’m glad the fictional kids were okay, but why on God’s Green Earth would you tell me that on the cover? Cover copy is about set-up: This is the hero, this is the villain, this is what they’re going to start fighting over. Could be by the end they’re fighting over something entirely different, but let readers discover that as they read.

Banish clichés.

How many times have how many comedians made fun of the movie trailer guy starting out with, “In a world . . .” That’s a cliché, and there are plenty more. Even if your villain is an evil genius bent on world domination, don’t say it like that. At Wizards of the Coast we used to sometimes have to write cover copy for books that hadn’t been written yet—that was a challenge. The joke was: “An ancient evil awakens after millennia of slumber and the fate of the Realms hangs in the balance.” That was funny because, well, pleading guilty, we did that ancient evil thing more than once, and if the fate of the Realms isn’t hanging in the balance, what’s the point? Still, you want to find a way of saying that that points out what’s unique and fascinating about your story, not how it could be reduced down to it’s genre archetypes.

People like people.

Time and again I’ve advised you to think it terms of characters first. People like characters more than they like books, and they even like characters more than they like authors—most of the time. Readers like Harry Potter, Drizzt, and Captain Kirk more than they like J.K. Rowling, the Forgotten Realms world, or Star Trek. Make sure your cover copy is clear that your book is about interesting people doing something interesting—heroes and villains alike.

Gather inspiration from what everyone else is doing.

If everyone else jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you jump off too? I hope not, but you should at least be curious as to why all these people are jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Look at new books (cover copy from the 1950s won’t help you sell a book in the 2010s) by going through your books at home, at a school or public library, or a bookstore. Not everything you see there will be particularly good copy—as I said, it’s a peculiar talent all its own—but if you look at published copy with a critical eye you’ll start to get an appreciation for it. Look at copy on books you’ve read and both liked and disliked. Was that copy “accurate”? Does it hint at a greater story or reduce an otherwise complex tale to a simple hero vs. villain trope? Then look at books you haven’t read and ask yourself what about that copy either inspires you to buy it or allows you to set it aside.

Even if this copy never sees the light of day—I can virtually guarantee it won’t, actually—consider the exercise in terms of how you think about your book, where you feel it fits into the genre, and how you think it should be, might be, or better not be sold. Then when your book is published, be prepared to sit back in respectful admiration while somebody who does this for a living writes something you never would have thought of in a million years—for better or for worse.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES II: COVER COPY

  1. Perfect timing, I’ve been looking for some guidelines on this.

    I won’t hold it against you if you don’t reply, but I had worked up a short pitch for my book a while ago, and I wonder if you think it’s good cover copy?

    Her father-king wants war. Her messianic brother wants peace. The black god wants his due. She suffers all the consequences.

    That’s only twenty words, though. I guess a longer follow-up would be good, then?

    • Philip Athans says:

      I think you’ve got a great start there–the short, headline-like sentences tend to please art directors and readers alike. You’ve teased me with characters, put them at odds with each other, now I’d then spend another 20 words or so telling us about the setting: What makes this a WORLD we want to inhabit for x-hundred pages?

  2. Brilliant. Thanks for the suggestion, Philip.

  3. James Babb says:

    Just found your blog. So glad I did!
    I love writing fantasy, so thanks for the tips.

  4. Pingback: IN SEARCH OF THE FIRST PARAGRAPH « Fantasy Author's Handbook

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