So You Want to Write an Author Blurb? Readercon Edition, With Advice from Ken Liu and Don Pizarro

We all know the first step toward getting yourself invited to talk on a panel at a convention like Readercon is to have a really outstanding author blurb. The kind of run-on sentence (or three) that not only conveys your vast experience in talking out loud but that also implies your great range of knowledge*.

Picture it, if you will.

Actually, I did take a picture. Don (left) and Ken (right) in the Marriott bar, July 16, 2011

One hot afternoon in Boston I found myself sitting across a table from Ken Liu and Don Pizarro, brilliant authors and Men of Experience. We were sitting in the hotel bar, like you do at a convention, talking about how awesome I am. Well, how awesome I’m not. See, I’d jokingly mentioned something to my day job boss about my positive attitude and wide set of skills, and while he didn’t seem to be sure if I was kidding or not, I felt a bit embarrassed. I mean, who goes around telling people they’re awesome unless it’s a joke?

But no, these men assured me, I was on the right track. Once they got done laughing hysterically at my faux pas, I was informed that this was the beginning of an author blurb that was sure to get me noticed. Ken had been on a panel earlier in the day, and both Don and I aspire to be on panels in the future (Don also aspires to be famous enough to say terrible things when he’s really old and get away with it, so I think I’m going to need to stick around and write his apologetic morning-after press releases for him). Don stopped giggling long enough to pay attention at what was about to be a very serious conversation.

“You have to start with that,” Ken advised me. “Carrie Cuinn, author, editor, publisher. Then, ‘I’m awesome’.” He made air quotes with his fingers as he said that part. “Or maybe put, ‘I’m awesome’ first.”

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Your Book Synopsis Should Never Be This Bad

Searching through my Netflix instant viewing options, I was struck by the similarities between a movie blurb and a book blurb. When we’re pitching our novels, especially in person, we often have to be able to explain our brilliance in only a few sentences. Even when talking about our work with other writers, it’s helpful to be able to give a quick “this is my book” speech. Reading movie blurbs can help give us a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.

Below are some of my favorite bizarre, disturbing, and completely unnapealing choices:

MUTANT HUNT, 1987. “When a corporate executive named Z comes morally unhinged and unleashes an army of cyborg robots on an unsuspecting New York City, there’s a lone mercenary who can save the Big Apple from complete and total annihilation.” What is it? Are they mutants, or cyborgs, or robots? Pick one!

NARCOSYS, 2000. “The world is ruled by the heartless IT Corporation, which controls citizens through manufactured drugs and a destructive virus that’s spread through the streets. Can a gang of cyber-punks stop the mammoth institution bent on domination?” Aside from the awful plot, the grammar makes this blur read like there’s a diseased street out there, citizens, so watch where you step!

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It’s the wisdom of our elders, so listen up.

Over the last three weekends I’ve seen three different documentaries about famous writers. Done in dissimilar styles, I think all three were worth watching.

The first one was two weeks ago. I watched PUBLIC SPEAKING, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and put out in 2010. It’s primarily a conversation with Lebowitz, interspersed with a few clips of speeches or performances of people she found inspiring. I love that sort of context, uncovering pieces of the foundation that makes a writer’s perspective and language and education. I know I am made up of the writers I associate with, the books I have read, the stories I’ve been told over a cold beer in a hot bar right before last call. We’re all a collection of our bits. Lebowitz makes no apologies or excuses for her opinions and why should she? She’s brilliant, insightful, funny and above all appreciates brilliance in others. My kind of person. I would happily spend an evening handing Lebowitz cigarettes and refreshing her drink as long as she kept talking.

Last weekend I watched Harlan Ellison’s DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. Directed by Erik Nelson, put out in 2008, it’s a mix of Ellison’s cheerfully sharp ramblings and interviews with his friends, which includes Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Harlan’s got a nasty reputation but oh the man can write. Talking the documentary over with a friend, the question came up: does his writing excuse his being an ass? I think that no one is strictly one thing, and Ellison is clearly a nuanced character with a history and a sense of humor and a comfortable familiarity with his role as a “cranky old Jew” (as Gaiman keeps pointing out). Still, does his writing excuse his behavior? I think it doesn’t matter what I think of the man. I doubt very much he would care. What will endure, after he’s gone, after we’re all gone, is his writing, and his writing is brilliant.

This weekend I learned something completely new. I watched TRUMBO, a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers blacklisted in the 1950s. I admit, I didn’t really know who he was before this. Put out in 2007, it includes some footage of Trumbo himself, some interviews with the children of his friends, but also the most beautiful readings of his personal letters. Trumbo was fabulously prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and thousands of these letters, which have since been archived. Famous actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland) lend their voices to Trumbo’s 2 am missives to friends and family, musings on his political and economic situation, and even a couple of snarky letters to the phone company over the price of their intercom systems. There’s another about masturbation, but you’ve got to hear that for yourself.

In all three cases we’ve got smart, sharp, witty, individuals, unafraid to be themselves, who’ve had their lives strongly affected by that bravery. I think this, more than anything else, makes a writer unforgettable.

Be bold, young writers. Learn from your elders (and maybe even from me). Be who you want to be. Be kind, be thoughtful, but be bold. Write stories that speak about something you think is important. Bring to life characters that live their lives, deeply, fiercely. Frankly, don’t be boring, don’t be dull, don’t be afraid. What good is that going to do you? Fear keeps us in dead-end jobs, bad relationships, makes us stay friends with people we outgrew twenty-years ago just because there’s safety in numbers. Be like Fran, and respect art, respect genius, respect real individuals. Be like Harlan, and be unafraid to be brilliant, and to demand that the people around you are also living up to their potential. Be like Dalton, and stand up for your beliefs.

And above all, keep writing.

We All Have Our Own Languages, or, Why I Need Editors

I talk about being a writer here because that’s how I primarily see myself. I write fiction and non-fiction, creating stories on spec for open markets and writing essays and articles by request for a couple of different places, so that makes sense. But I also work as an editor, both for Dagan Books and for (more recently) another publisher. I’ve edited newspaper articles, academic essays, short fiction pieces, novels, book-length anthologies, poetry … As much experience as I have, when it comes to my own work I try very hard not to be my own editor.

Most writers will tell you that having someone else read your work is an absolutely necessity, a thing which must happen before you submit it to a market. This is because a new pair of eyes will often catch things that you missed. A common problem for writers is that we know what we meant to say, so we don’t always notice if it isn’t what we did say. Leaving a word out of a sentence? I do that. Using the wrong word, dropping off a letter (I did that tonight, using “to” instead of “too”) or starting one word but ending it with the end of the next word. Well, that one might just be me.

This is the obvious use of an editor – read and fix. This isn’t the main reason that I need one. Continue reading