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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Dear (Jackass) Writer, Offering Your Book For Sale Every Other Hour Is Quite Enough

Dear (Jackass) Writer,

Yes, I know you wrote a book. Your novel, the first of many (you are sure), is a thrilling/scary/original/erotic/captivating/special story that only you could have written. It is sure to include thrills, spills, and some sort of romance. Probably “paranormal”. Unless you are, dear writer, of the male persuasion, in which case your hero will only find romance as a side note while he is doing thrilling and heroic things, probably including the saving of a romantic/erotic character at some point. Good for you. The world needs more horror/fantasy/erotic/paranormal/romance novels. I have no problem with the fact that you wrote the book. I have slightly more problem with the fact that you appear to have published it yourself, but do not appear to actually have had your novel edited by anyone. Well, that’s a personal choice, and one you’re free to make. I would never judge a book by its cover, as they say, unless of course your cover was created in some sort of computer graphics program, one which manages to make your artwork look as if it was drawn by a not overly-talented 9th grader. In that case, I will judge your cover, since if you can’t be bothered to pay for a professional artwork (or, let us remember, an editor), why should I pay for your book?
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You Should Read: Mira Grant’s DEADLINE

I have just finished reading the second in a series of zombie-novels by Mira Grant (or, depending on your perspective, a series of political novels that have zombies in them, or, alternatively, a series about cutting-edge journalism in a world were politics are just as nasty as ever and oh, by the way, there are zombies too). Following in the style of the first, DEADLINE has a mostly-reliable first person narrator, if you can accept his cracking sanity doesn’t interfere with his ability to do his job. Shaun Mason is a journalist, and brother to Georgia Mason, who was the narrator of the first book, FEED. If you’ve read the first you’ll recognize the same basic cast of characters, though individuals have been replaced. Occupational hazard. More importantly, if you haven’t read FEED yet, why not? Go, buy FEED, devour it, be shocked, be sad, be happy not to have zombie eating your brains, and come back when you’re done. Or, if you’d rather finish this review first and then go buy (and read) both books, that’s fine too, but take a moment to watch the official FEED/DEADLINE book trailer at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUXWlXK985U&feature=youtu.be. It explains some stuff. I’ll wait.

Ok then. Ready?

Ow, does this book have sharp edges. First, there’s the horrible thing at the end of the first book which Shaun is struggling to recover from. He’s failing pretty spectacularly, in case you were wondering. Then there’s the exciting knowledge that maybe things could have been done differently, which, btw, Grant? Yeah, that was mean. Brilliant, perfect for the story, and … hard to take. That the zombie situation suddenly gets worse isn’t helping the fact that once again, Shaun and his crew spend most of their waking hours trying to avoid the people who’re trying to murder them while simultaneously trying to crack open a news story that might just reveal enough to save the world. Grant moves into a slower arc with this book, allowing her characters to face a more certain kind of villain, and to endure fewer number of sudden shocks. This doesn’t mean she’s being nice to them, or going easy on you, because the shocks are still there, and when they do come, they’re massive. She remains an author I want to hug for being brave enough to do terrible (but necessary) things in the course of writing these novels. Also, I want to poke her with a pointed stick for the terrible but necessary things that she does, because, did I mention the ow?

BLACKOUT, the third in the series, isn’t due out til next year and I’ll have to wait, but with DEADLINE Grant has proven herself (again) a storyteller worth waiting for.

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.

Recent Publications and Submissions

My writing life has turned around in the last few weeks, and for you, an update:

I’ve had two stories accepted for publication. “Annabelle Tree”, 2500 words, is now available as part of the Southern Fried Weirdness: Reconstruction charity anthology (all proceeds benefiting the American Red Cross for the victims of recent tornadoes). It’s the story of a young girl, and who’s most important to you when the storms come.

When she was twelve, Annabelle’s Momma was pregnant again.

She’d known something was wrong from the way her Momma had been crying for a few months, in between getting the flu a whole bunch of times, and Daddy took more shifts at the plant and in between sat down by the creek bed, not even pretending to fish. The cool water flowing over his submerged six-pack kept the bottles cold, and it was hard to hear Momma yelling from all the way up at the house. Annabelle didn’t mind her Daddy sharing her hideaway spot, nestled into the curve of her tree, and he didn’t mind her being there either, mostly since he didn’t notice. She read her books, borrowed from the middle school library, and he drank his beer, and the tree’s thick branches moved a little in the breeze.

“Your hair’s turning green,” Jerrod Miller had told her at recess, one day in October. “Is that for Halloween?”

“It is not,” she said back, and walked away from him. But she went straight to the girl’s bathroom, and ignoring the heavy sighs and pouty faces of the girls putting on their makeup at the far end of the row of mirrors, Annabelle pulled a strands of her normally light brown hair and held them up to the light. It wasn’t much, but Jerrod was right – mixed in with all the brown were bits of green.

“You’re a freak, you know that?” one of the girls said.

“Yes, I know,” Annabelle replied, and left.

Now available for the low price of $2.99 through Amazon and Smashwords (Says the editor: “This collection of poetry and short fiction features 46 pieces from 40 different contributing authors.”)

The other sale was to an upcoming anthology of flash fiction about monsters, and my story is the tale of a fish man, told jointly from the perspective of both the creature and the scientists cutting into him:

Though it has a mouth and front facing eyes, it does not appear to breathe air, and instead has several gills hidden under heavy scales on its neck which are easy to miss. Kudos to Johnson for noticing them, or the thing might have drowned before we got its head and neck into a bucket of water.

I was born there, where the river flows into the deep lake. I have traveled upriver to mate, have seen water muddied by great hippos and in places a river lowered by heat and summer sun. I have crawled along the nearly empty river bed, me, who was born in a place so deep no light can penetrate it! I have seen all manner of fish and monsters and men. Everything has a place in the world, everything fits into each other and makes sense, except the men.

They shipped it to us in a crate filled with salt water and ice. Like a lobster, it became sluggish in water, almost paralyzed. Could it have other crustaceous qualities? Regardless, keeping the lab near-freezing was a stroke of genius on Kitteredge’s part, since it means we can open the creature up without having to euthanize it first. The boys are anxious to see its innards while the creature’s blood and bile systems are still active.

– “On the Methods of Preserving and Dissecting Icthyo Sapiens”

I’ll post a link to where than can be bought once I’ve got it.

I also have several shorts in the process of being finished, revised, or submitted. This week’s writing project has been to finish up my submission for Machine of Death 2. I wrote it, liked it, thought it came in at the low end of their suggested word count but still within the guidelines. Then I ignored it for a few days, dealt with day job and other life issues, and came back to find that now I think it needs to be longer. I’ve been working on getting that finished so I can get it out to my beta reader for this project.

That’s my writing news, and hopefully soon there’ll be more.