If you read my earlier post on writing the back cover of THE CONTENDERS, then you know why I think it’s a smart move to write your book’s back cover FIRST before you write your book. I also mentioned in that post that it takes me many, many, many drafts to get the back cover copy just right.
In today’s post, I’m going to give you a peek into the challenges of writing this confounding summary. I’ve rewritten it about twenty times for my suspense novel, SEVEN DUDES. Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to all twenty versions. Just five.
Here’s one of my very first drafts, written on February 15, 2016.
Doc Osbourne is a loner. He trusts no one. He loves no one. He depends on no one. On his own since age 15, he’s squirreled away money for 20 years to buy a cabin in the woods where he can tend to his rare collection of bonsai trees in solitude. But on the eve of reaching his goal, a beautiful immigrant woman named Sahar moves into his apartment complex. Despite Doc’s best efforts not to get involved with anyone, they become friends. Over time, Doc discovers she is on the run from someone in her past. When Doc comes home one day to find Sahar poisoned and in a coma, he rallies his misfit neighbors in the apartment complex to help him find the attacker, not realizing that he must face his own tragic past in order to save Sahar and save his own soul.
I love the first four sentences, but the rest of this is way too detailed. Too much to digest and remember. Nix that. Try to winnow it down.
Here’s another one, drafted March 2, 2016.
Doc Osbourne just wants to be left the hell alone. On his own since age 15, he’s squirreled away money for 20 years, dreaming of the day when he can move away from his crazy housemates to a place where he can tend his rare collection of bonsai trees in solitude. But on the eve of reaching his goal, a beautiful housekeeper named Sahar moves in. Everyone is drawn to her, even Doc. Too late, Doc discovers Sahar is on the run from someone. He comes home to find her brutally attacked and in a coma. With help from his motley crew of housemates, Doc sets out to find her attacker, not realizing that the clues to saving Sahar’s life lie in his own tragic past.
A few less words, but still way too long and detailed. Too much plot, girl. Try again.
Another draft written on April 6, 2016.
Doc Osbourne, plagued by nightmares and a misanthrope at age 30, just wants a quiet place to shape his bonsai trees. Impossible since he lives in a noisy house with an actor, a cook, a taxi driver, a foreign exchange student, an ex-con, and a dwarf. But when a beautiful housekeeper named Sahar moves in, everything gets turned upside-down, especially Doc. With Sahar’s help, there is harmony in the house. But not for long. When Doc comes home one day to find Sahar assaulted and in a coma, he and his housemates set out to find her attacker, not realizing that the clues to saving Sahar’s life lie in Doc’s past.
Is my main character Doc really a misanthrope? I’m not so sure about that. Is it really important that we know that he’s a bonsai tree enthusiast? I don’t think so. Do we really need to know the occupation or profile of each dude that lives with Doc? No! Again, too much plot. Get it down, for God’s sake.
Yet another draft written on May 14, 2016.
Doc Osbourne just got fired. Again. Sacked from every job he’s ever had, and late on his rent once again, Doc needs to find another gig fast before his landlord kicks him out of the house that he shares with six misfit dudes that are like family to him. But when a beautiful housekeeper named Sahar moves in, everything changes: the house gets crystal clean, the dudes stop squabbling, and Doc finds his dream job. All seems well until one day the dudes come home to find Sahar assaulted and in a coma. Doc risks his new job to find Sahar’s attacker, not realizing that the clues to solving this crime lie not just in the present, but also in his dark past.
The plot’s starting to change and so my back cover had to change. But it’s still way too much plot. I need to stand back and paint the back cover with broad brush strokes. I need to give just enough information to tease the reader and make him want to open the book. That’s all. Nothing more.
My most recent draft, written yesterday on June 16, 2016.
In a ramshackle boarding house full of dudes, three lives collide:
a man haunted by his past,
a woman hunted by her past,
and a man who wants his past back, no matter what.
When their paths cross, each must face their greatest love and their greatest fear,
and not everyone will survive.
Eureka! Way shorter! Way less plot!
This time, I did what I set out to do: paint broad brush strokes describing the setting (“ramshackle boarding house full of dudes”), the three key characters (Doc haunted by his past, Sahar hunted by her past, and Robbie the hunter), and what generally is going to happen (they each must face their greatest love and fear and not all of them will survive). My first version had their names in it but I decided to take them out because it’s not important.
I might change my mind in a few weeks, but for now, I’m happy enough with my back cover copy to move on with my writing. I finished writing Act 1 last week, but I could not move on to Act 2 until I got my summary in a good place. It was just nagging at me. I knew it would become harder to write as I wrote more and more pages of my novel.
I’m glad I stopped this week to step back and take a big picture look at my story. Sweet relief. Now, no more excuses. Back to writing!
Peg Cheng is the author of The Contenders, a middle-grade novel centered on the question, can enemies become friends? She is currently writing another novel that is a re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale set in 1980s Seattle. Peg is also the founder of Prelaw Guru, a law school application consulting company, and the author of The No B.S. Guides for prelaw students.
Books on table photo by brewbooks.
The first four drafts, I read and thought about. The last one, I reacted to, viscerally. So I think you found it.
Actually, it’s probably closer to a movie poster (remember writing those?). But as a guide for your writing, it seems perfect–the plot isn’t over-determined–it gives you the heart and bones of the story, while leaving you the freedom to flesh it out.
I’m fascinated by the timeline of your attempts–the word count shrinks over time, rather than growing. You’ve ended up with a dramatic, windswept bonsai. Nice work!
Peg Cheng says
Edgy, that’s so great to hear that you found the last one to be more engaging. Visceral reaction. That’s what I want. Yes! And your compliment about my back cover summary being like a windswept bonsai went right to my HEART. Thank you so much! You know about different kinds of bonsai too? We’ll have to talk about that sometime. 🙂
Edgy Cosgrove says
Oh, don’t get me started on bonsai–I taught Masahiko Kimura everything he knows.
Actually, Cubby, a good rule of thumb is to assume that I know about 1/10 of what I appear to know, and cut that in half again for anything having to do with plants. But I’m glad my comments resonated–you’re doing hard shovel work in the vast cabbage patch of language, and I’ve heard that novels are particularly thorny. Keep going!
Peg Cheng says
Ha ha! Okay, Edgy, I’ll take everything you post with at least five good pinches of salt. 😉
It is thorny out here and mucky too. Got my gum boots on and am plowing forward day by day. Thanks, as always, for the encouragement!