Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bookmarks: Nutshells

Frequently, writers must describe their works in a nutshell. For example, when seeking an agent or publisher for a novel, the writer sends a query letter. In the space of a single page, the query must describe your book's plot, main characters and central conflict. It must also convey your style, show off your credits, and tell the recipient why he should spend months of his life marketing your masterpiece.

Jacket copy is another form of nutshell description. When I browse through a book store, I read the jacket copy to find out what each book is about. The writer has to grab me in a paragraph or two.

Writers of essays and magazine articles have to write pithy pitches, too. They've got to sell that baby within the space of an email so short the editor won't have to scroll to read it all.

Although everyone has to write them, I'm not sure query letters are the best way to screen the good from the bad. There has to be some way, though, otherwise agents and publishers and their poor assistants would have to read through 500 novels to find one worth publishing (at least, maybe, after a long string of edits). I speak from experience.

Some people are good at query letters. But someone who's a genius at expressing herself in a 350-page novel can be clumsy at spitting it out in a single page. Too bad, pal! I've heard famous authors say it was easier to write the whole novel than the itty bitty query letter.

Then there are loglines. A logline conveys your entire story in a single sentence--the same nut in a smaller shell. Loglines are used a lot for screenplays, but every writer needs to be able to use them. When someone asks, "What's your book about?" you'd better spit it out, and it had better not take all day.

Think of it: you've spent X number of years squeezing your blood onto the page to tell the story in your heart. Now, describe that to me in a nutshell.

And you'd better get it right.


Kalei's Best Friend said...

And how many times do they get it right? Few words can give at times some gross interpretations.. The same goes w/small newspaper article titles. Case in point: "A Starry Heaven" Chris Erskine (today's Saturday of L.A. Times) on front page of this section.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I think 'titles" are the most micro epic of all nutshells

dive said...

I never read the blurb until after I've read the book. I like to make up my own mind before I read what others think (especially as they've been paid for copy).
Love the photo of the … er … coffee macarons in a hole in the wall.
And thank you for making my weekend complete with that superlative interpretation of The Wizard of Oz.

Petrea Burchard said...

I'll look that one up, KBF, but I'm guessing it has to do with a meteorite in Russia or the Oscar nominations.

Titles are tough, PA.

Often the author writes the cover blurb for a novel, Dive. The pithy description in the query letter can travel far.

Bellis said...

That's a fabulous photo, like an Andy Goldsworthy except you didn't compose it, it all happened naturally.

The cover blurbs usually put me off reading the books. They simply can't convey the emotional involvement/romance/gripping mystery within, as it takes time to develop that in a novel and can't be put into a couple of sentences. It's really bad when the blurb gives away the plot, but to avoid doing that, the blurb has to leave out the incidents that make the novel a page-turner.

John Sutherland's advice on choosing a novel is to turn to page 69 and see if you like what's there. ("How to Choose a Novel").

Desiree said...

Nuts--LOVE the photo!

altadenahiker said...

Oh, so sad, and oh, so true. (Another vote for your photo.)

Petrea Burchard said...

Nuts in a hole in the sidewalk. Lucky.

Book Dragon said...

Not lucky, amazing! I love seeing the world through your lens.

If I didn't know what Wizard of Oz was about, I'd never watch it now!

Adele said...

Love the photo, your thoughts, and that Oz Nutshell. Amazing, one and all.

TheChieftess said...

The Wizard of Oz certainly is a brutal movie!!! Love the "macaroons" in the sidewalk!!!

Petrea Burchard said...

Chieftess, that "macarons" comment explains your photographer's eye.

I probably should have added to this piece that (not surprisingly) many of us overthink the query, and freak out about it when we should just write the damn thing.

Shell Sherree said...

Love this photo, Petrea. That you even observed this little nutty trove in the pavement shows what a great eye you have. As for brevity, coming up with a witty Tweet in 140 or less drives me nuts, so heaven help me if I ever write a query.

Katie said...

Extracting the essence of a book for jacket copy or a query letter does indeed sounds like a daunting task. If I that talent I'd very much enjoy getting paid to read books and write blurbs! Cool photo; ignoring the nuts I see a fedora-wearing snowman carrying a club.

Margaret said...

I love that wizard of oz thing. Hysterical.

Ms M said...

Love your photo -- it reminds me of reading tea leaves. Is it prophetic?

Somebody had too good a time writing that Wizard of Oz blurb!

BTW, I like your new blog look.

Petrea Burchard said...

Shell, that's a great idea--how would you describe your work if you had to do so in 140 characters? It makes you get down to the pith.

Too bad, Katie, I don't think anyone gets paid to write blurbs. We'd be lining up for the job with our clubs and our fedoras.

I wish I'd written it, Margaret. We should try to think of more like it.

Don't mind that blogger behind the curtain, Ms. M. I'm just back here tinkering.

Dina said...

Your photo says it all.

Susan Campisi said...

More applause for your photo. I see a Mexican peasant with coffee beans.

I spent hours and hours (and hours) trying to get a screenplay log line just right. I never succeeded.

The Wizard of Oz blurb is hilarious!

Petrea Burchard said...

I see a long-nosed mouse with a full tummy.