This time, I’m going to tell you how a really good job making bad copy led to discovering the Consortium Formula for promotional copy. But before that, you have to understand what I was working on that turned out so poorly and how the kinds of books I read and write polished me into the senses-shattering copywriter I am today.
Taming Fire Burned Us
Before Aaron became a bestselling author of a fantasy trilogy, he was an author prepping to publish the book that would (unbeknownst to us) turn him into a bestselling author of a fantasy trilogy. Before we had any kind of Consortium Books process to measure it against, we wrote what we thought was some strong back-cover copy for Taming Fire. But while we were happy with it, something was tingling Aaron’s spidey-sense and, no matter how much we tinkered , he couldn’t shake that uneasy feeling. So I did a little instant-message-focus-group and ran it past some friends of mine who I know to be fantasy fans.
Turns out Aaron’s spidey-sense did indeed warn us of danger. None of them loved the copy.
They all had various reasons for this, but all their issues tied into extraneous details. These details that we thought added color and were integral to getting a feel for the novel either didn’t make sense outside the context of the novel, seemed to contradict each other, or diluted the most interesting bits.
We were deeply thankful to these guys because, not only did they help us with Taming Fire, but their feedback was the first step in realizing what we were doing right.
Pulp…And Not Just Caught In Your Teeth
See, when it comes to my books, I tend to get the promo copy right. I’ve been known to nail the promo copy of a novel before I’d even written one single word of it.
I didn’t ever set out to do this, not exactly. It’s just that when I fill out the Unstressed Syllables Tested-and-Approved Pre-Writing Package (patent pending), a synopsis is the second thing you do. And synopses should be pure plot-distilled-to-weaponized potency.
This isn’t hard for me because I typically write in a very neo-pulp style. Some of the stories I’ve written are teen girl agents in a spy-fi setting, a science-hero crime buster, a Viking god-killer, and a cowboy that fights demons and monsters.
Now, there are emotional aspects to each of these stories because one-dimensional characters are boring. But at the same time, these are definitely plot driven stories…just like old school pulp was. Lemme give you some examples.
- Doc Savage fights John Sunlight over super weapons stored in the arctic.
- The Spider has to stop a herd of rabid animals from destroying a town at the behest of a madman.
- Texas Air Ranger Gerry Frost has to storm a floating fortress to bring in murderers and thieves.
Now that’s only three, but each is totally typical of the old pulp magazines. These are not emotionally fraught, claustrophobic, matches-arranging stories. They are plot thrown at you like lead from a .45. I’m happily drenched in this style.
At the time, I had shared a couple of my synopses with Aaron in his role as my writing coach. Every time I sent him one, he surprised me by greatly enjoying just the summary of the proposed novel. About the third or fourth time I did this to him, Aaron pointed out I had already written the promo copy for my books because that little snippet would totally make him read the book.
We’d weaponized the plot.
Somewhere between the focus group and talking about my synopses, we hit the formula:
Promotional copy has to be about the plot and nothing but the plot.
Take the most exciting surface details of the plot. Then marry that with a few clever turns of phrase and/or clichés turned on their head.
Lastly, finish with the Story Question or the Story Question restated as an affirmation (ie, “Hero must save the girl!”). Stir it all up and bake it in the crucible of cruel people who are willing to tell you if it doesn’t work.
Lemme give you an example:
It’s the wedding of the century for world renowned crime buster Ajax Stewart and Shiarra, Queen of the Enigma Isles. But when Ajax’s archnemesis, Arkady Androvich, kidnaps the bride-to-be, Ajax is forced into a series of contests to prove his superiority to his old foe. Ajax and his heroic friends must now quest for something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue to save Shiarra’s life. Their travels will take them across the globe, to the bottom of the oceans, and to the end of time itself. Can even the Engineer of the Impossible outsmart the world’s maddest scientist and make it to the church on time?
Sounds exciting, right? Thrills, chills, and all that stuff. But I leave out all kinds of details that are really fun and interesting but would not, on their own merits, add reasons for a potential reader to check out the book. In fact, without the context of the story, a potential reader might find the details confusing.
Describe Your Product (Creative Writing Exercise)
This is key: I take the plot and boil it down to the most essential, most interesting elements. I don’t talk about how Arkady and Ajax used to be best friends but turned bitterest enemies in their teens. I don’t talk about how the Enigma Isles are a lost land where dinosaurs live. I don’t even talk about the Roaring Corsairs who are vicious air pirates and the crux of one of the contests.
All that stuff is probably at least as exciting as what made it into the final product, but it would take too much explanation to make it work for promo copy. Promo copy has to sing while also punching a potential reader in the face. It should also make that potential reader want the same singing and punching to happen for several hundred pages.
You can’t do that by putting in every single clever idea you came up with.
But it can be done! Most of you reading this have finished novels or works-in-progress, right? Give it a shot. Take one of your stories, maybe one you did without a pre-writing synopsis, and create some promo copy for it.
Try to distill its plot down to the simplest but hardest-hitting essentials, and then put it together in the cleverest package you can. Then show it to people who will be honest with you about it. If it doesn’t sing, try again until it does.
If you’re having trouble with this exercise, targeting a specific genre or category can help with the focus. In the coming weeks, I’ll give some advice on how to do that.
Joshua Unruh is the Marketing Czar for the Consortium and author of the grim fantasy Saga of the Myth Reaver: Downfall. Every Thursday he shares an article about marketing, sales, and product promotion in the new book market.