3 Steps to Enticing Backcopy or Summary

After the title and cover art, readers turn to stellar backcopy to answer the question “What is this book about?” No doubt about it, writing engaging copy for the back cover or book description is a special type of skill altogether. It will draw the reader in or push them away, or make them think and drift through the pages.
These two examples are pulled directly from M.K. Hobson’s site, and I think that they work best together for the sake of understanding how to write backcopy for a series. My reason for these particular books? Pretty simple: The description gave me the itch to buy the books, and for me to seriously consider purchasing a luxury good over buying groceries is a pretty hefty accomplishment. It is my aspired goal.

The Native Star

by M.K. Hobson

Book One in the Veneficas Americana series. Published August 2010 by Ballantine Spectra

It’s 1876, and business is rotten for Emily Edwards, town witch of the tiny Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine. With everyone buying patent magicks by mail-order, she’s faced with two equally desperate options. Starve—or use a love spell to bewitch the town’s richest lumberman into marrying her.

When the love spell goes terribly wrong, Emily is forced to accept the aid of Dreadnought Stanton—a pompous and scholarly Warlock from New York—to set things right. Together, they travel from the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, across the United States by train and biomechanical flying machine, to the highest halls of American magical power, only to find that love spells (and love) are far more complicated and dangerous than either of them could ever have imagined.

 

First, so you may better understand the lesson, let me explain what I have done. I am not naturally gifted with oodles of talents. I have to work at it. I have to see examples and analyze, getting into the grit of why this or that thing was successful. I have to experiment. Thus this post was created.

Step One: Discover and Analyze.

I found a few descriptions I adored in a genre similar to my own, read them over a time or two, and then I looked at. I made notes in bold. It looks like this:

 

The Hidden Goddess

Book Two in the Veneficas Americana series. Published April 2011 by Ballantine Spectra
Title
How it sets in a series/what series it is. Publishing information.
Being engaged to a socially-prominent warlock in 19th century New York can be daunting—especially if you’re a witch from a small town in California who’s never sat at a dinner table with more than one fork. Introducing the main character and overarching problem and implied goal: Initial problem which copes with social pressure and awkwardness, amplified with an embarrassing commonplace complication.

A month has passed since the adventures that brought Emily Edwards from Lost Pine to New York City, but navigating New York magical society is as taxing and treacherous as anything she’s faced so far. Body paragraph point one: History, a one sentence summary of the previous book. Emily’s future mother-in-law is a sociopathic socialite who is not at all pleased with her only son’s choice of a bride.  Body Point two: An external issue that will make her life difficult; Another easy to identify with complication, as well as the anxiety of having a mother-in-law at all. Dreadnought Stanton—Emily’s fiance—has a dark past which has by no means given up all its secrets. Body Point Two, this one more dangerous and closer to peril: Now to the person she’s going to marry, and the unknown danger of his secrets whose problems she will inherit by wedding him. And Emily’s own past may hold answers that a shadowy group of Russian scientists will give anything to possess. Body Point Three: The immediate physical peril: As if that weren’t bad enough, now she has people after her, too.

Emily will have to brave all these challenges—not to mention an ancient sect of Aztec blood-sorcerers bent on plunging the world into apocalypse—if she and Dreadnought are to have any hope of living happily ever after. In conclusion, she’s sort of screwed. Want to see how she’s going to find her way to happily married?
So you see, what this really is is a new rendition of the classic 5-paragraph essay, except every paragraph has morphed into a sentence. There’s the introduction, the “arguments” with each one becoming more visceral and threatening to the life of the character, and a concluding statement.

Step Two: Make a three-column list.

One will be the example sentence, the other will be its role, and the last will be a rough sentence of your own to match. At this point, really rough is fine, you just need to get everything put down before you. In this case I just made a 3-column table and dropped the information into it.

Example: The Hidden Goddess Purpose of Sentence Rough Draft: Bloodstone
Being engaged to a socially-prominent warlock in 19th century New York can be daunting—especially if you’re a witch from a small town in California who’s never sat at a dinner table with more than one fork. Introducing the main character and overarching problem and implied goal: Initial problem which copes with social pressure and awkwardness, amplified with an embarrassing commonplace complication. Being slave to a domineering queen fond of chaining people up for rats to eat can be risky enough—particularly if you’re used to entertain and spy upon castle guests and diplomats during the nights.
A month has passed since the adventures that brought Emily Edwards from Lost Pine to New York City, but navigating New York magical society is as taxing and treacherous as anything she’s faced so far. Body paragraph point one: History, a one sentence summary of the previous book. Alternately, a description of the setting. Years ago, Belle tended to a dying prince and received the ring which would crown a new king in White Cliff Kingdom, but little did she know then how dangerous and important of a task she had accepted, let alone how far the wrong people would go to get the bloodstone.
Emily’s future mother-in-law is a sociopathic socialite who is not at all pleased with her only son’s choice of a bride. Body Point two: An external issue that will make her life difficult; Another easy to identify with complication, as well as the anxiety of having a mother-in-law at all. Queen Isabella is not descended from royalty, but she would turn the kingdom over to see her son upon the throne, no matter how this would curse the kingdom.
Dreadnought Stanton—Emily’s fiance—has a dark past which has by no means given up all its secrets. Body Point Three: this one more dangerous and closer to peril: Now to the person she’s going to marry, and the unknown danger of his secrets whose problems she will inherit by wedding him. Tides of fortune bring the leader of their enemy, Bloody Prince Reinard, into their city while Belle mistakenly attracts the attention of his right-hand man and assassin, Shadow.
And Emily’s own past may hold answers that a shadowy group of Russian scientists will give anything to possess. Body Point Four: The immediate physical peril. As if that weren’t bad enough, now she has people after her, too. Belle walks a thin line between revealing that she possesses the bloodstone, and discovering the heir to bestow it upon, putting not only her life, but the entire kingdom at risk.
Emily will have to brave all these challenges—not to mention an ancient sect of Aztec blood-sorcerers bent on plunging the world into apocalypse—if she and Dreadnought are to have any hope of living happily ever after. In conclusion, she’s sort of screwed. Want to see how she’s going to find her way to happily married? Belle will have to unearth the truth carefully guarded by not only the queen, but her own family, and delve into the secrets locked away in the dead king’s letters—while dodging the surly distemper and bullying of the queen’s sole surviving son—if she has any hope of freeing the kingdom from the curse, and disengaging herself from a hastily-made promise.

 

So when you take it out of the funky table and lay it out on page, it looks like this:

 

Being slave to a domineering queen fond of chaining people up for rats to eat can be risky enough—particularly if you’re used to entertain and spy upon castle guests and diplomats during the nights.

Years ago, Belle tended to a dying prince and received the ring which would crown a new king in White Cliff Kingdom, but little did she know then how dangerous and important of a task she had accepted, let alone how far the wrong people would go to get the bloodstone. Queen Isabella is not descended from royalty, but she would turn the kingdom over to see her son upon the throne, no matter how this would curse the kingdom. Tides of fortune bring the leader of their enemy, Bloody Prince Reinard, into their city while Belle mistakenly attracts the attention of his right-hand man and assassin, Shadow. Belle walks a thin line between revealing that she possesses the bloodstone, and discovering the heir to bestow it upon, putting not only her life, but the entire kingdom at risk.

Belle will have to unearth the truth carefully guarded by not only the queen, but her own family, and delve into the secrets locked away in the dead king’s letters—while dodging the surly distemper and bullying of the queen’s sole surviving son—if she has any hope of freeing the kingdom from the curse, and disengaging herself from a hastily-made promise.

 

Yep, that’s my first-draft rendition of the set-up from Bloodstone. It’s rough in some places, and actually might work better if I switch the content of the first two sentences. You can see how in some ways the content has shifted from the example document, yet the basic points are still made. I can see here that the “relatability” of Bloodstone’s copy is not as good as The Hidden Goddess, and that is one thing I’ll note and work on in the polished copy, which brings me to…

Step 3: Polish

For this, I might suggest reading over several more examples, then fiddling with the words and contents. Make another table if you must, and try out a different sentence or two. If you have a writing group, see if you can’t toss the copy around with another writer to really make it shine. Ideally this part should take up most of your time, since it really didn’t take me too long at all to scratch out the above. Perhaps thirty minutes, and that was including commentary. If you really don’t like the way one version turned out, try the process over again with another example blurb, and then pick the one you like best. You’ll notice that the first book The Native Star wasn’t written out exactly like it was for the second book The Hidden Goddess.

For the sake of showing another example, I’ve picked a more adventuring-style book to make a sample backcopy…

Example: The Native Star Purpose of Sentence Rough Draft: The Shepherd’s Daughter
It’s 1876, and business is rotten for Emily Edwards, town witch of the tiny Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine. With everyone buying patent magicks by mail-order, she’s faced with two equally desperate options. Starve—or use a love spell to bewitch the town’s richest lumberman into marrying her. Setting and intro to the character and problem. This is technically three sentences, but they’re all working together to form the same point. We have an intro sentence, a complication sentence, and a course of action sentence. Before there were knights in armor, before all the sorcerers fell into hiding, the villages sent pure maidens to placate the beasts of the world, and these maidens they guarded with jealousy. With too many sisters and no talent in the trades, Melody is faced with a cold life as a spinster, a burden upon her family. Until the day the lord’s man comes to her father’s hovel take a virgin sacrifice.
When the love spell goes terribly wrong, Emily is forced to accept the aid of Dreadnought Stanton—a pompous and scholarly Warlock from New York—to set things right. Consequences of the main character’s desperate action. Melody fights for the chance to be one of Lord Richmond’s sacrifices, even as she doesn’t know what dangers she will encounter or why the dragons want virgins.
Together, they travel from the seedy underbelly of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, across the United States by train and biomechanical flying machine, to the highest halls of American magical power, only to find that love spells (and love) are far more complicated and dangerous than either of them could ever have imagined. A sweeping panoramic of the landscape, much like the brief flashes of movie clips you see in the trailers for upcoming films. And it ends in certain disaster.Pay particular attention to specific images as a way to establish the setting and prepare the reader for what style of journey they can expect. With only a mule for company, Melody travels from the wilds of dragonhaunts, across lonely merchant roads, to halls of stone and rich delicacies fit for a king, only to find that the liberation she seeks might take her against all she’s ever known to be true.

 

Out of the table, this adventuring-style backcopy looks like:

Before there were knights in armor, before all the sorcerers fell into hiding, the villagers sent maidens to placate the beasts of the world, and these maidens they guarded with jealousy. With too many sisters and no talent in the trades, Melody is faced with a cold life as a spinster, a burden upon her family. Until the day the lord’s man comes to her father’s hovel take a virgin sacrifice.

Melody fights for the chance to be one of Lord Richmond’s sacrifices, even as she doesn’t know what dangers she will encounter or why the dragons want virgins.With only a mule for company, Melody travels from the wilds of dragonhaunts, across lonely merchant roads, to halls of stone and rich delicacies fit for a king, only to find that the liberation she seeks might take her against all she’s ever known to be true.

Oh-kay then…you can see how the last sentence is going to be very particular to get right. I’m not certain that this ending will stand up to the final cut, but hey, it’s a rough draft and those are allowed to be kind of sucky. I actually rather liked this style of back copy, until I reached the final sentence. That right there is why the polishing step is vital.

Well, that’s it, really. Those are the mechanics behind reverse-engineering a book whose back cover you love. The rest is all art and practice, but I think these are better guides than just asking “What is your book about?”

While we are on the subject, what is your favorite product description/back cover copy?

Your Dearest

Nicolette

 

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