Thursday, March 02, 2006

Q: What's Harder to Write than a Synopsis?

A: Catalog or jacket text!

In the last few posts, I’ve been writing about the process of bringing out the Bleak House Books’ reprint of my novel, The Immortal Game. One of the least pleasant tasks in the process has to be development of text used to describe the book in distributors’ catalogs, Amazon.com listings, and on the cover itself. It’s unpleasant because you have to convey the essence of the book in a fashion that: a) entices, b) uses even less words than the typical synopsis, and c) doesn’t give too much away.

As an illustration of how difficult this can be, check this (slightly camouflaged) text from the first edition of a popular novel:

[Character] is a knock-out detective and yet, personally, he cares not a hoot for the law; so little so that constantly is he just on the verge of being pulled by the [city] cops. When [he] goes out after anything neither lead slugs, women, nor the [devil] himself can stop him from landing it. Here he sets himself to outwit three contending factions who all want the same thing which he also wants and it is only natural, therefore, that many murders strew his winding wake, that several persons suddenly fall doped and a great liner burns mysteriously to the water’s edge.
Ring any bells? Make you want to run to the bookstore and buy the book? The only thing I really like about it is the alliteration in "winding wake."

Well, turns out it's the jacket text from the first of The Maltese Falcon--perhaps the most popular mystery novel of all time. Note that there's no mention of the falcon, no mention of the murder of Spade's partner and no mention of a beautiful femme fatal. And if it were being written in today's post Da Vinci Code world, you would certainly expect a big plug for the Knights Templar.

It's easy to sneer at somebody else's efforts, but the sneer fades quickly when you attempt to do better--especially with your own book. Authors don’t always have the opportunity to participate in creation or review of catalog or jacket text, but Alison Janssen, my editor at Bleak House, has been good about including me in the decisions made about the book.

Below is the text that was used for the first of The Immortal Game. I had a hand in the development of it, too, and reading it now, it sure seems l-o-n-g.
Meet Edwin Bishop: a multi-millionaire entrepreneur who has founded and taken public several very successful software game companies. Highly intelligent, arrogant, yet unschooled in social graces, Bishop lives an eccentric life in his Silicon Valley mansion with several paid female companions.

Bishop has developed a software program to play chess against human opponents that he claims is the most advanced ever written, but before it is released, he finds that the software has been stolen when he stumbles across a vendor demonstrating the game at a trade show.

Enter August Riordan: a jazz bass-playing private eye who is cynical, irreverent and given to speaking his mind with unreconstructed candor. Although Bishop wants to hire a discreet private detective with a strong sense of professional ethics, as Riordan says, It was his tough luck he happened to pick me.

Riordan careens through the very modern milieu of Silicon Valley in his quest for the chess program, enmeshing himself in more than just high technology. Jazz music, the underground world of S&M and an unlikely partnership with Chris Duckworth, a smart aleck gay man whom he meets at a bar called The Stigmata, are all part of the intriguing adventure.

Full of well-drawn, idiosyncratic characters, fast dialogue and compelling and realistic portrayals of many San Francisco Bay Area locales, The Immortal Game is a very fresh and entertaining mystery in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
Alison rightly wanted something shorter and snappier for the Bleak House edition. This was her opening volley:

The source code for the world's most innovative computer chess game is missing, stolen by the designer's jilted, drug addicted, ex-lover. August Riordan just got hired to find it. Sifting through a city peopled with nasty, ex-NFL henchmen, a female-impersonating techno geek, and rough and tumble S&M "trainers," Riordan's got his work cut out for him. Surely a computer game can't be that hard to find? But with a smart-ass attitude like Riordan's, nothing is easy.
And a good volley it was. It's refreshingly different and carries a lot of punch in a few lines. I suggested that we mention San Francisco explicitly and try alternative descriptions for the "female impersonating techno geek" (Chris Duckworth, Riordan's sometime partner) and the "S&M trainer" (Terry McCulloch, Bishop's paid companion). I also wanted to add something hokey about Rice-a-Roni ads, but Alison wisely declined to take the bait on that.

Here's what we come up with the end:

When the world's most innovative computer chess software is stolen, wisecracking, jazz bass-playing PI August Riordan is hired to find it. Sifting through a San Francisco peopled with bruising, ex-NFL henchmen, transvestite techno geeks, and alluring, drug-addicted dominatrices, Riordan has got his work cut out for him...surely a computer game can't be that hard to find? But with a smart-ass attitude like Riordan's, nothing is easy...

Since we're closing in on the date of the book's publication, I'm looking forward to seeing it on a draft copy of the book very shortly.

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