Anatomy of a synopsis

One of the most challenging moments in the writing of a book and its preparation for publication is the creation of the synopsis or flap copy as it is often called also. The reason is easy to understand. It is a short blurb that will make all the difference whether a prospective reader will actually find the book interesting enough to continue and pay for it. Right after the cover the flap copy is easily the most important driver to turn curiosity into an a sale.

Publishing houses usually have dedicated copywriters to compose these flap copies for them. These writers are specialists in squeezing a maximum of intrigue out of a few sentences. Make no mistake: copywriting is an art upon which many millions of dollars can hinge.

Naturally, when the time comes for me to compose flap copies for my books I always try to spend some extra time on it. While creating the copy for “Terrorlord,” the latest volume in my “Jason Dark” series, I thought I’d put all of my resources to work and ask a few of my closest writer friends to chime in and help me massage the text.

Here is what I started with.

Conjured up from the bowels of the abyss by ancient spells, the Terrorlord has only one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash upon mankind a terror beyond imagination. He will do what it takes and kill anyone in his path remorselessly.
To save mankind from the horrors they don’t even know is upon them, the Geisterjäger Jason Dark and Siu Lin have to confront the evil darkness themselves and stop the Terrorlord before his reach is growing too far and his powers become unfathomable.

I thought it was pretty good but I would soon learn that I clearly made some cardinal mistakes.

The first comment was that there was clearly too much hyperbole in the description to the point that it became detrimental. Someone else also suggested that it was lacking depth. What is a Terrorlord, the question arose, and the consent that the description lacked a true emotional hook.

I could see all these points and reworked the text to this.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind and devour our world in his evil blackness.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control.

I did not elaborate further on the explanation of the name “Terrorlord” because I really felt that the name was enough to paint a picture, particularly if you take into consideration the cover artwork that would accompany the book. Take a look at the image to the left and judge for yourself. Apart from that, however, I definitely tried to make the synopsis stronger than before and to relay a bit more information – too much information, perhaps.

The comments on this one were that the first sentence in particular was too convoluted, running on with too many verbs – opening, unleashing and devouring. Yes, I could see that. It was a bit clumsy, indeed.

Complemented with the standard boilerplate second paragraph that provides information regarding the time period and setting of the story, I finally decided to go with the following text.

Conjured from the bowels of the abyss by ancient magic, the Terrorlord has one desire — to open the Seven Gates of Hell and unleash the horrors of the undead upon mankind.
Reliving the nightmares of his youth where an encounter with the Terrorlord left him scarred for life, Jason Dark must once again confront the powerful gatekeeper from Hell before his reach and power spiral out of control. With the help of Siu Lin, the ghost hunter will have to put an end to the Terrorlord’s dark reign before he can devour our world in his evil blackness.

This is the ninth volume in a series of gothic horror adventures where Jason Dark, a fearless and resourceful ghost hunter, follows in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes combined with Randall Garrett’s Lord D’Arcy. Written by Guido Henkel, the designer who brought Germany’s famed “Das Schwarze Auge” series to computer screens, this series is filled with enough mystery, drama and suspenseful action to transport you to the sinister, fogshrouded streets of Victorian England. Your encounter with the extraordinary awaits.

As you can see, I hope, creating a powerful flap copy is not as trivial as it may appear at first. Even though I may have ended up with a decent enough synopsis through this process, part of me truly wonders what a professional copywriter would be able to come up with.

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What’s your reading speed?

The other day I read a review of one of my “Jason Dark” books on a blog and it struck me that the reviewer remarked upon the length of these dime novels. He mentioned in his review that it was a short read that took him about an hour to complete. At first I did not think much of it but it stuck with me and a little later I thought about this passing remark a little more.

What bothered me was the fact that it takes me considerably longer to read the books as well as the fact that I would consider a book that offers a mere single hour of entertainment too short. Since I decide upon the price of my dime novels based on the entertainment value I attach to them, the $2.99 sticker price of a “Jason Dark” volume could be considered too high… or maybe not.

The stories in the series are usually around 23,000 words long. If someone reads such a story in an hour it means he has an average reading speed of almost 400 words per minute. If this means nothing to you let me just say that that is pretty fast. I wager that few people can actually read at a speed remotely close to that, especially if you take into consideration all the factors that play into this. In addition, it means that the reviewer read either with full concentration for the entire hour, or that his actual reading speed is even higher but sprinkled with moments of distraction that bring down the average speed. Be that as it may – it remains impressive.

Reading consists of three factors – the speed at which you read the words off a page, the comprehension of the material read and finally, the retention of it, which gets overlooked all too often. This means that even though someone might be able to read the words really fast, he may not be able to pick up the entire meaning of the text – skimming it rather than taking it in really – and in addition, the text that has been read might be forgotten in no time at all.

Sometimes I wish I could read faster – I am a fairly average speed reader – and I’ve been thinking about checking out some of the programs on the web to learn that, but I am honestly afraid that it might affect my comprehension and retention, which I do not wish to sacrifice. In addition, I simply don’t know where to start and how to go about it, but it is something on my mind.

If you want to find out what your own reading speed is, check out this website for a short test. I think it is not really representative, as the sample might be too small and generic, but it will nonetheless give you an idea where you are.

http://www.readingsoft.com

I just took the test a minute ago and my result was a reading speed of 247 words per minute at 100% accuracy, which means it would have taken me at about 2 hours to read the “Jason Dark” story – though I know from real life that even that is not correct, as it typically takes me 3 to 4 hours to read one of the volumes, if not more, given all the real life distractions surrounding us.

In regards to the reviewer mentioned in opening, it is unfortunate that the impression might have been created here that the stories might be excessively short – more like short stories, which they are not. For a casual reader of the review on that blog who might not be familiar with the fact that this reviewer is an incredibly fast reader the impression is undoubtedly one that the books are a whole lot shorter than they really are. A dime novel with 64 pages in print, it will typically offer the casual reader a few hours of enjoyment and with that in mind $2.99 might be the proper price point for them after all.

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The problem with “‘Salem’s Lot”

While I haven’t had as much time to read lately as I wished I had, I’ve been able to complete Stephen King’s “’Salem’s Lot” the other day. I used to be a huge King fan 25 years or so ago but have sadly lost interest in his writing after a number of consecutive books I read of his were becoming overly tedious for me to work through – namely “Insomnia” and “The Stand” come to mind.

I remembered that “’Salem’s Lot” used to be one of my favorites so I decided to reread the novel after all these years to see how I felt about it. It was an interesting experiment and the result was very different than I expected. I expected to find the book as great as when I first read it. Sadly that was not quite the case. From the beginning I noticed that even in this story King’s penchant for overly inflated prose came through. In fact, to my surprise, the entire first quarter of the book is dedicated solely to exposition. There is absolutely nothing happening and the reader is presented with details that, I felt, were absolutely redundant. Discussing the history of the Lot is all nice and good, but do we really need to know who owned a particular parcel of land 50 years ago and that the guy liked to be in his drink watching the sunset over a brook that meanders down a particular piece of forest before it reaches another parcel of land that used to be owned by this guy who once crashed his horse carriage in a barn because… Well, you get the drift.

All of this really didn’t do much for me and neither did the last third of the book which is made up of seemingly unrelated stories and events that have only marginally to do with the main plot and could easily have been omitted. Some of the material is interesting to read – other parts are not – but overall they add little to the main story of the book and somehow reminded me of deleted scenes and alternate endings you would find on DVDs, or maybe simple writing exercises to elaborate on the overall world of the book.

By the same token, I do love the main plot of “’Salem’s Lot” and think that King has an incredibly cool story on his hands there, but as so often, I really think he lets the way he is telling the story get in the way with the story itself. I don’t want to diss the book but “’Salem’s Lot” would have been a much more enjoyable read, in my opinion, if King would have tightened up his prose and would focus a little more on what is relevant. But at the same time, I have to wonder, of course, who am I to criticize Stephen King? Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that, but I know what I like and I can tell when a book bores me.  “’Salem’s Lot” did both…

Recently I’ve discovered a new series for me to read – that is, it is new to me. It is Naomi Novik’s series of Temeraire books. I stumbled upon it by accident, browsing the shelves at Barnes&Noble. The cover intrigued my and the flap copy immediately got me intrigued. Any book that mixes dragons with Napoleonic naval adventures is instantly getting my attention. As a result I looked into it a little more and found out that it is an entire series of books, at last count up to six volumes. With that in mind, despite reading the most current entry in the series I decided to start at the beginning with “His Majesty’s Dragon,” which now graces my Kindle. So far I do like it a lot. Novik has a very easy, fluid style that makes it very fun to read the book and lose yourself in the story. I have really high hopes for this series…

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