Guest blogger: Alan Baxter
1. expressed in few words; concise; terse.
2. characterized by conciseness or verbal brevity.
3. compressed into a small area, scope, or compass.
As writers we always try to be as brief and succinct in our writing as possible, while maintaining a clear voice and interesting, beautiful prose. It’s the eternal difficulty of not writing in too flowery a way, or using “purple prose”, yet still making our stories more than just a technical, clinical telling of a yarn. We want to be recognised for our writing style, for our ability as wordsmiths as much as for our ability as storytellers. The ultimate aim is to create a fantastic story, brilliantly told. Brevity in delivery, while waxing lyrical in the right places, is something of an elusive holy grail in writing. It’s something I constantly struggle with and constantly try to improve.
Then today I saw this post at Nathan Bransford’s blog. In the little video clip he talks about how important it is to know how to pitch your book. As an agent, he needs you to be able to explain the essence of your book to him thoroughly and succinctly; he says in 200 words or less. The thing he said that rang out loud for me was, “What are you gonna to tell people at parties that your book is about.”
Whenever I meet new people and we get to the inevitable “What Do You Do?” part of the conversation, I always end up talking about martial arts and writing – that’s what I do for a living. With the writing it always comes down to the fact that I have a couple of novels out and people always ask, “Really? What are they about?” I want to tell people. I want them to understand and stay interested, who knows, they may even go out and buy a copy later if I talk it up well. But even if it’s not their thing, that doesn’t matter. It’s part of a conversation, part of what I do and what I am and I want people to be interested. Folk’s eyes glaze over really quickly when you start um-ing and ah-ing, trying to nail the story.
Of course, it’s hard. For me to describe a 120,000 word novel in a few lines is quite an ask. But that’s what a pitch is. I’m lucky right now, as I have two novels out and don’t need to pitch them. But I’m working on a third. I’ll have to pitch that eventually. I have to be able to nail a short summary of every book I write. If I can get the one or two sentence “party description” down, then a 200 word pitch summary should be a piece of cake, right?
It’s a bit like the back cover blurb, which is always an arse to write. But that’s different, as it’s directly selling the book to an interested person that’s picked it up for a look. Here’s the back cover blurb for RealmShift, for example:
Isiah is having a tough time. The Devil is making his job very difficult.
Samuel Harrigan is a murdering lowlife. He used ancient blood magic to escape a deal with the Devil and now he’s on the trail of a crystal skull that he believes will complete his efforts to evade Lucifer. But Lucifer wants Samuel’s soul for eternity and refuses to wait a second longer for it. Isiah needs Samuel to keep looking for the crystal skull, so he has to protect Sam and keep the Devil at bay. Not for Samuel’s sake, but for all of humanity.
RealmShift is an engrossing Dark Fantasy thriller; a fascinating exploration of the nature of people’s beliefs and their effect on the world around them. Magic, action and intrigue, from dank city streets to the depths of Hell and beyond.
Here’s the MageSign back cover blurb:
Three years have passed since Isiah’s run in with Samuel Harrigan and the Devil. He has some time on his hands – a perfect opportunity to track down the evil Sorcerer, Harrigan’s mentor. It should have been a simple enough task, but the Sorcerer has more followers than Isiah ever imagined, and a plan bigger than anyone could have dreamed.
With the help of some powerful new friends Isiah desperately tries to track down the Sorcerer and his cult of blood before they manage to change the world forever.
In this long-awaited sequel to the highly acclaimed RealmShift, Baxter once again keeps a breathless pace and blistering intensity with gods, demons and humans entangled in magic and conflict. This is dark fantasy at its best.
Now sure, those paragraphs do a good job of describing the book from a back cover point of view, but can you imagine me suddenly blurting that out when someone says, “Oh, really, you’ve got a couple of novels out? What are they about?” I’d be sectioned.
I could potentially use them as a pitch, with a little tweaking, if I was trying to sell the books to an agent or publisher now. Thankfully that’s not necessary with these ones. But it got me thinking about that party description. I always feel like a dickhead trying to answer those questions, saying things like, “Well, it’s a bit hard to describe, but there’s this immortal dude that has to keep a balance among all the world’s gods… you see, this blood mage… well, the Devil, right, he’s a bit pissed off…” and so on. And that got me thinking, What if I could describe my book on Twitter? The 140 character or less description. So I’m working on fine-tuning my skills in describing both my current novels as an exercise in succinct pitching.
Here’s what I’ve got so far for the short, succinct party description. Or the Oprah’s couch description. Fuck it, aim high, I say.
RealmShift is the story of a powerful human called Isiah that has to shepherd an evil blood mage around the world to meet his destiny. If the blood mage doesn’t fulfil his destiny, humanity will suffer. The trouble is, the Devil is after the blood mage, so Isiah has his work cut out. There’s lots of magic, mayhem and fighting. It’s a dark fantasy thriller.
That’s just 65 words. Just like the back cover blurb would make me sound mad if I came out with it at a party, the description above would be weird on a back cover. It’s too conversational, but that makes it perfect for casual company.
For MageSign I have this:
MageSign is the sequel to RealmShift – they make a duology. In MageSign, Isiah decides to track down the teacher of the nasty blood mage from RealmShift and prevent him teaching any more evil prodigies. Only Isiah discovers that this teacher has a powerful cult of blood mages under his command and they’re planning something massive. Again, lots of magic and action, it’s a dark fantasy thriller like RealmShift.
That’s 69 words, again, conversational, relaxed, not too long. If people are still interested and asking questions after that then I can spend time going into as much detail as necessary. If, as is often the case, they’re “not really into all that sci-fi stuff” then fine. I’ve said enough and don’t look like a tool that has trouble describing books he wrote himself.
The Twitter description is much harder. Trying to distill those two paragraphs above into two 140 character bites is tough. The RealmShift one is currently 358 characters, and that was as brief as I could make it. The MageSign one is 425 characters.
So far, I have this for RealmShift:
It’s about a powerful human that has to shepherd an evil blood mage to meet his destiny, or humanity suffers. It’s a dark fantasy thriller.
139 characters. But it doesn’t mention the key aspect of the Devil chasing them around and it cheats by say “it’s” instead of “RealmShift is”, so without a question like, “What’s your first book about?” it falls down.
For MageSign there’s this:
Isiah tracks down the teacher of the blood mage from RealmShift and discovers that he has a cult of blood mages planning something massive.
Again, it presumes a question has been asked, which is kind of cheating. Another option would be working it like this:
RealmShift: A powerful human has to shepherd an evil blood mage to meet his destiny, or humanity suffers. A dark fantasy thriller.
MageSign: Isiah tracks down the teacher of the blood mage from RealmShift and discovers that he leads a cult planning something massive.
These sound more like ads and less conversational, but they do get the very basic essence of the books they’re describing. There’s so much missing, so much else I want to say about these 120,000 word things I sweated and agonised over, but in the first instance I need brevity.
I’ll revisit this subject periodically with these and all future books and try to refine these things. After all, it is fairly important for me to be able to accurately describe books I’ve written without sounding like an idiot. Plus, this exercise is very useful in developing my skills at pitching, which I’ll certainly need throughout my career as a writer.
What do you think? Have I nailed the descriptions well? If you’ve read them, how would you describe RealmShift and MageSign in 140 characters or less? And if you’ve written, are writing or are planning to write a book, do you know the essence of it well enough to describe it to someone at a party? Leave your own examples in the comments if you like and practice your pitching skills.
Alan Baxter is an author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.