Why Writers Suck at Writing Their Own Jacket Copy

Writing the actual book is the fun part. It all goes downhill from there.

I’m often reminded of this when I peruse the feeds of all the online writing groups I belong to. Writer after writer posts their query letter or back jacket copy for critique, and it becomes obvious that for some reason the person who cobbled together eighty thousand words of a novel is exactly the wrong person to write the teaser paragraphs that are intended to hook an agent or publisher, or a reader in a bookstore.

We’re just terrible at it. I include myself in this without embarrassment.

I saw an example of it this week. A writer in an online group posted his potential jacket copy for the group’s help. It was a great character study that told us a lot about the main character, but basically nothing about the plot of the book. We had no idea what struggles she might be facing or what stakes would befall her if she failed in whatever she was trying to accomplish. In short, we got a great look at what makes the character special, but no clue at all what makes the STORY special.

So that’s what pretty much everybody told him. And he took it to heart.

Today he posted another version.  This one is an exhaustive look at the plot, event by event. I’m sure some of those events are super-interesting, but now it’s way too much. It’s just a plot synopsis, and if you are a writer, you’ll know that “synopsis” is the single most horrible word in the English language.

This got me thinking about why we’re all so bad at writing jacket copy for our own books, and often so good at writing it for someone else’s. I think it’s because we’re way too close to our stories.

If you ask a writer what’s great about their book, they’ll likely tell you, “Everything.”  We think every word, every plot point, every character and motivation are absolutely perfect. Otherwise we’d never let it get published.  But this is a huge problem when you’re trying to distill your book into two or three paragraphs for a query letter or ad copy.

If I ask you why your child is great, chances are you could give me an hour-long laundry list of all the things you love about your kid.  But what if I ask you what your kid does better than almost any other kid? You’ll think for a moment and come up with something like, “She’s on an all-star soccer team, and last week she gave half her lunch to a kid in her class that forgot his lunch money.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Instead of “All-around greatest kid ever,” we have, “athletic and compassionate.”  We’re drilling down to the “specialness” of this kid.

This is what we have to do with our books.

Jacket copy should be a burlesque show, not a hardcore XXX money-shot-to-the-face adult film. It needs to show us just enough to make us scream for more, but not so much that we already know the whole plot. We should be left wondering, “What’s under that feather?” and not, “How’s she going to get that stain out?”

I’m convinced that most of the time, someone else is better at finding those feather-covered bits than the author of the book in question. We either want to give you the hardcore-everything-right-now version, or we leave things so vague that you aren’t sure if you’re going to see a burlesque show or an actual Canadian Goose.

I always have someone else help me with jacket copy, and I  enjoy helping other writers work on their own. Finding the balance of “just enough feathers” is a tricky walk, but the end result should be an audience that can’t wait to hit “Buy Now” and see what all that shimmy is about.

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