Tuesday, January 24, 2012

K is for Knowledge

The idea that knowledge is power is as true for writers as it is for politicians. Writers need to know their characters, their character motivation, the conflict and the resolution. They need to know their books and the people who populate them as well as they know themselves; sometimes even better. If we don’t know our characters and why they do what they do, we can’t write our stories. Well, we can, but the stories won’t make sense, they won’t go anywhere and readers will immediately see the holes.

We all know this. Every class, every how-to book, every other writer tells us this. Why then, is it so hard to describe our book, especially when we have to boil it down to a “30-second elevator pitch” or a 75-word back cover blurb? Maybe it’s just me, but I can have an entire 50,000+ manuscript in my head, know what every character looks like and sounds like and be practically living the plot, but if someone asks me, “What’s your book about?” I stare at them blankly as I scramble to come up with something.

We’re told to try to relate our stories to a “big picture theme,” like Beauty and the Beast or Romeo and Juliet, and then to try to show how it’s different. Classic literary or romance themes are fairly easy for me, and I know why and how my book differs. But there’s always more I want to say.

For example, my current WIP is a contemporary romance with Jewish characters. It’s based on the holiday of Purim and involves hiding one’s identity. Sure, that description is short and sweet, but it really doesn’t tell anyone very much. It doesn’t provide any character flavor—“Jewish” is not a flavor (ask Baskin Robbins) and certainly doesn’t sound enticing enough for even me to read, much less someone else!

I want to describe klutzy Samara with the beautiful voice who drops or spills something every time she’s near the hero; noble Nathaniel who’s a single dad and who hates being the center of attention; perfect, but flawed Josh, who’s so busy trying to “save” Samara from herself that he ends up almost ruining everything. But that would take too many words. And describing the hilarious and tragic holiday of Purim, which provides the backbone to the story? Well, that’s an entire book in Judaism, and I don’t have enough time in an elevator or space on the back of the book to do that.

So for now, until I can whittle all this knowledge down into 30 seconds or 75 words, I’m going to be stuck. Hopefully not for long though!


  1. I know just what you mean, Jen. I took a class on this, and it really is hard work. But the feeling when you 'get it' is wonderful.

  2. I hate condensing my story into a short blurb, or even into a longer synopsis. It's so hard to skim the surface of all the depth you've worked so hard to develop in your story.

  3. You're right, Ana, I love that feeling too. It's very satisfying. Paula, I think what I really hate about it is the pressure. If I'm so limited in words, am I really getting the right message across?

  4. Agree, you have to be very succinct. I had real problems reducing my 'blurb' from His Leading Lady down to 'no more than50 words' for one of the front pages of my new book. Actually it was 51 - but I don't think the editor counted them!

  5. We've had several programs at my RWA chapter meeting dealing with 'elevator pitches'. It is definitely a difficult thing to master.

  6. I'd love for our chapter to revisit that--although I'm so infrequently at chapter meetings that for all I know they've already covered it.