What your flap copy has already given away

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It’s almost ConCarolinas weekend!  YAY!!  I’ll be there Fri-Sun and can’t wait to hang out with everyone from Magical Words!  You can find the schedule of events here.  Hope to see you there!

I think it’s important that when we start a book, we focus on the writing and the story and not all the extraneous stuff like the market, finding an agent, etc.  I know from my own experience that often times opening the door to all that other stuff can cause a sort of paralysis — a fear of making the wrong choices with the story that will doom the project forever.

However, at a certain point I do think it can be helpful to begin thinking about how a book will be packaged/pitched because that can actually significantly impact the reader’s experience.  Specifically, I’m talking about being aware of what sort of information might end up on a book’s flap copy and where those events take place in the book.  For example, the flap copy for Twilight begins with “About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire.”  So the reader knows from page one what Edward is which means the scene in which Bella whispers, “I know what you are” doesn’t have impact because she’s finally figured it out, it has impact because of the emotional implications of her confronting Edward with the information.  

Likewise, we know from the flap copy of Hunger Games that Katniss ends up as a tribute.  Therefore, the reader doesn’t want to spend hundreds of pages waiting for Katniss to reach that point — in the reader’s mind, this has already happened.  So those scenes in the book about Katniss becoming a tribute aren’t focused on the “will she or won’t she” question, but they’re there for other reasons: to show the brutality of the system, to show her love for her sister, to demonstrate Katniss’s character.  The “will she or won’t she” has already been answered by the time the reader picks up the book.

I read a book recently that had a similar setup in which a character had the possibility of being chosen for a certain task and she spends ages going back and forth on what decision to make. As a reader this became frustrating because there was no suspense in the answer — I already knew from the flap copy what the character would do and the scenes of her waffling didn’t add anything.  They weren’t setting anything up for later in the story — they only existed to create a “will she or won’t she” tension that was already resolved for the reader.

Of course, when you start drafting a book you have no idea what might end up on the flap copy (and in many cases the author doesn’t have control over the flap copy for their books).  But sometimes you can make a pretty good guess what will be on there.  If your book is about a girl who is the first astronaut on a mission to mars, the reader knows that at some point (hopefully quickly) your protag becomes an astronaut and is accepted into the mars mission and the rest of the book is about what happens after that.  Note that this is likely a different story from one in which a girl *hopes* to become the first astronaut on a mission to mars.  That story would focus on the process of becoming an astronaut and the tension of “does she succeed or not.”

One of the main reasons I think this is important is to make sure that as a writer you’re not belaboring a point that will already have been resolved by the flap copy.  Ultimately, this will just work to frustrate your reader.  Of course the text of a book has to stand alone and not every reader will read the flap copy, but if your book is about a cheerleader fighting evil, don’t spend ages going through every stage of the cheerleading tryouts hoping to create tension in the question of whether she’ll make the squad.  She will… or else the book wouldn’t exist.  The reader knows this.  So if you do want to show the tryouts, make sure it serves a different purpose for the book.  

As an exercise, think of some of the books you’ve read or movies you’ve recently watched and read the flap copy/watch the previews and then try to figure out how long it takes to learn that same information in the actual story.  How did that timing feel for you?  Too fast?  Too slow?  Think about what drove you to pick up that book in particular: what did it promise you on the flap copy and how quickly were you satisfied?  Notice how sometimes, if you give a reader information on the flap copy, you don’t have to spend ages giving them the same information in the book itself.  Rather, you can hit that point and then move on into the meat of the story.  After all, the flap copy gives the reader a promise but it’s the book itself fulfills that promise.

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18 comments to What your flap copy has already given away

  • Personally I hate it when the jacket copy gives away something that I think is important to the plot of the book. But it’s a delicate balance to walk, clearly, as you want to be sure to entice the right audience to a book.

    One interesting case, to me, was Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. The jacket copy made explicit that the main character (Quentin) would eventually discover that the magical land of Fillory is real, and will travel there. That event doesn’t occur until roughly two-thirds of the way through the book. It made for an interesting dynamic, because I kept waiting for the main character and his friends to discover and travel to Fillory, and it kept not happening, even though I knew it would. Far less of the story took place in Fillory than I expected based on the way the jacket was written.

    In general, I’ve figured that almost anything in the first quarter or possible first third of a book are fair game for jacket copy. That’s pretty much enough time for the author to set everything up and get the plot-ball rolling. After that, I tend to think things might be too spoilery.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you. This post provides excellent food for thought. I particularly like your point about not spending too much time/tension on a point that is central enough to the story it’s likely to be in the jacket copy.

    As perhaps happens too often with me, though, this leads me back around to the question of how to deal with multiple POV stories. The problem I keep stumbling over for my WIP is how to focus the readers in the beginning on the primary characters without sacrificing the nice contextual information that can come with using some non-primary POVs. If I *assume* that the reader *will* have read the jacket copy, then they’ll know that the main / one of the main character’s has shown up at the end of the first chapter (rather than at the very beginning). That jacket copy can be nice and grounding that way. But I really must not assume that every reader will read the jacket first. Plenty of readers don’t, or pick a book up to read a long time after they purchased it.

  • Stephen — I think you raise a good point and that’s about reader expectations. I think most readers only expect the flap copy to cover something in the first quarter/third of a book so if it doesn’t, they’re sort of wondering why it hasn’t happened yet. I remember worrying about that with my own book because the flap copy talks about the village in my first book being breached but that doesn’t happen until well into the book. Just meant I had to make sure the plot leading up to that point felt purposeful and necessary!

    I tend to think that flap copy should create the question that the book then answers. Of course this is always so much easier when the question is a high concept one which is why publishers are usually always looking for those.

    Hepseba — you’re right that not all readers will read the flap copy (I’ve started avoiding it with many books). I’m not sure I’m following what the problem you’re having in your book is. You have multiple POVs and is the issue that some main POVs don’t come into play until later? I do think that readers tend to glom onto the first characters they meet/have the POV of and will assume they’re important so generally I’d make sure to intro most of my main POVs toward the front of the book (I have a WIP with a dual POV and I have two short chapters from A’s POV before shifting to B’s POV).

    Even more generally, I’m interested in the idea you raise about the context other character’s provide. I’m curious what others think about this. Personally, if I have a POV character it’s because I’m telling their story, so the more POV characters I have the more stories I’m telling (which can get complicated and requires some plot-weaving). To me, if I add a character (whether POV or not) it’s because without that character the story will fall apart. But I know other authors who don’t approach it that way.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for your response comments. You’re probably right that I might need to re-do my intro to focus solely on primary POV characters. However, the story I’m telling really doesn’t belong to one or even a couple characters. The primary POV characters mostly have very particular roles in the larger story that I’m telling. One of those roles is as a soldier with honorable intentions but who is essentially in service to the main bad guy. Therefore, I currently start my book from a more common man’s perspective in order to provide contextual descriptions of and reactions to these soldiers and the larger conflict. Before the end of the chapter, I break and switch to my soldier’s POV, but the problem I have at the moment is that my intro POV’s voice is strong enough that beta readers tend to think the story is going to be about him…

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry, and so the follow-on (and related to your post) comment is that I therefore find myself wishing to provide something like jacket copy so that readers know they’re starting with a secondary character – which I know is *not* the solution.

  • Gypsyharper

    Definitely good things to think about.

    I can’t recall a flap copy on a book I’ve read that gave away details that didn’t happen until much later, but I remember one where the flap copy promised something the book never delivered. I can’t remember what the book was – I think it was even a good book, but the copy had me expecting something that never happened. I was annoyed.

    So as an as yet unpublished writer, I have a question. You mentioned that the author doesn’t really have control over what goes on the flap copy, and that when your flap copy talked about something that doesn’t happen until well into the book you had to make sure the stuff leading up to it was purposeful and necessary. My question is, at what point in the process do you know what the flap copy will be? Do you still have time at that point to tweak some things if necessary?

  • Good post-this is something I’ve never thought about as a writer. As a reader, I did have an interesting experience with the flap copy recently. When I read the flap copy of Raven Calls, I saw that it mentioned the MC going “through a slip in time.” When I first read it I was a little annoyed because it seemed like this was giving away something in the book–for some reason I thought the slip through time would happen late in the story. Instead, it happened much earlier, in chapter 2 I think, which meant that the flap copy was right. The slip through time wasn’t the result of the plot, but the first step in the plot. Worked out very well!

    I do have a question about ebooks. Do they have the same flap copy as physical books? Are they viewable by the browing reader/potential buyer? Is the concept of the flap copy likely to change as ebooks become more popular?

  • It’s like when the movie trailer reveals the entire plot- I feel cheated out of my money. Interesting post.

  • sagablessed

    At first I was unsure of what you meant by flap-copy. I am a newbie, lol. Upon reading this, I understand. My questions are the same as Gypsyharper. Almost word for word.

  • Interesting post, Carrie! I’m always intrigued by the different ways that authors’ careers work. In my case, I’ve always written a book first, then had someone (usually my editor) write cover (flap) copy. The timing has been such that I could never modify my novel to reflect the cover copy!

    More and more, I don’t read cover copy at all – I get very annoyed when plots are spoiled, and some houses definitely ruin more than others. My current preferred cover copy is an evocative line or two from the text and that’s about it! (For example, Garth Nix’s A CONFUSION OF PRINCES prints the first paragraph, without the “hype” copy that’s more typical.)

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  • Mindy makes a great point that I wanted to clarify — I don’t ever get my flap copy until very late in the process. So then, how do you still use this technique? I think you sit down and ask yourself what’s likely to be on the flap copy — often time it’s easier than you think. If you’re writing Hunger Games you know the flap copy is going to mention Katniss being a tribute — it has to because that’s what the book is about. Therefore, she doesn’t belabor getting Katniss to that point. If your book is about what happens after someone wins the lottery, then you know that’s going to be on the flap copy and that you don’t need to spend 100 pages setting up the character winning *unless* you’re doing so to contrast life before and life after. In that case, you’re not belaboring a point, you’re giving information necessary to the plot (without that info, the plot won’t work).

    This happened recently with a friend’s book. It’s about a character’s experiences as a member of an international dance school. When I read the first draft, the author spends a lot of time having the character try to convince her parents to let her join the troupe and those pages weren’t doing anything more than that (a topic for another post: having your scenes pull double duty). The only plot point in those chapters (which were substantial) was: will she or won’t she go to this school? But the entire book is about her experience at the school — there’s no way that won’t be on the flap copy. So as a reader I wanted to speed things up. I was promised a dance school, I didn’t want almost a hundred pages of a character convincing her parents to let her do something I already knew she was going to do. So that was my critique: knowing that most readers will pick up this book with the understanding she goes to this school, why are you making her spend so much time trying to convince her parents? Especially since her relationship with her parents isn’t a factor otherwise?

    Does that example help at all? Really, I think this is a thought that applies when you’re spending a lot of time setting up a plot and I think you always have to ask yourself: is all this setup necessary?

    In terms of tweaking flap copy: I do have input in my flap copy but often times the editor’s first attempt will end up online in various places. We went back and forth about whether to include the breach in the flap copy and I was initially against it because I didn’t want readers tapping their foot waiting for it to happen. However, I also hadn’t set the breach up to be some big secret — it’s not like it’s a big plot twist that necessarily must be kept secret in order for the impact to work. So I relented the point because the larger question of the book is: is there a world beyond the fences? To answer that question, a reader has to figure that at some point the characters will venture beyond the fences.

    Hopefully that helps clarify things — let me know if it doesn’t!

  • Razziecat

    My first thought was, hey, I’m writing the story, not the flap copy. Story first, flap second. But your comments- “Is all this setup necessary?” struck a chord with me. So I assume that the sooner I get to the main point, or “What’s this story about?”–the better.

  • Cover copy often sells me on a book, but I do find it annoying on a regular basis where the intent of the cover copy doesn’t match up to the intent of the book itself. Characters’ waffling is often a major cause of this mismatch, other times it’s just really bad timing. It can make the first part of the book a little boring.

    And yet I’ve never considered how it would affect my writing of my own stories. It’s probably a bit too early for me to be worrying about tat sort of thing right now, but it’s something I’m definitely keeping in mind for later.

  • Gypsyharper

    Thanks for the clarification, Carrie!

  • Interesting post, Carrie. I have been fortunate, in that my editor writes my jacket copy and then runs it past me. He has always been sensitive to my concerns not only about wording, but also about what is and isn’t revealed in the copy as well as in the tease at the front of the book. That said, I think that, as you point out, a well-constructed book (or movie) can overcome even the most extreme spoilers. Think about the movie APOLLO 13, which I absolutely adore. I knew going in exactly what happened and just how things work out in the end. And yet I found the movie utterly gripping. The storytelling was so well done that it didn’t matter what I knew and what I didn’t.

    Looking forward to hanging out with you this weekend!

  • David — I think that Apollo 13 example is key. I’ve talked to friends about this — you want the contents of the book to be compelling even if the reader knows the ending. Look at romance novels — everyone knows there’s going to be a happily ever after but readers still want to see the process.

    Razziecat — that’s the takeaway message, I think: is all this setup important? Often the setup isn’t really telling the story and you want to get into the story as quickly as possible. I can’t remember the quote or who said it, but I’ve heard that basically you want to start your book the minute just before everything changes for your character (which would be the inciting incident). While you do need to show some of the “ordinary world” so that you can present a before and after of the character, you don’t want to dwell in that ordinary world. I try to shove that inciting incident as close to the beginning of a book as possible.

  • Razziecat

    Carrie – then I guess it’s a good thing that the inciting incident happens on page two of my current WIP! :)

  • Elizabeth Poole

    Late to the party, but just saw this on Twitter.

    My friend and I talk about this issue a lot. We call it the Prisoner of Azkaban principle. The third Harry Potter book is about the deranged madman Sirus Black escaping from prison and presumably, coming after Harry. We know this from the back cover flap, so there’s no surprise that Black gets out. In fact, Rowling uses this knowledge to twist our expectations. We expect that Black is after Harry for nefarious reasons, and Harry will over come him with some tribulations. Rowling sets up the first third or so of the book to make it look like exactly that is going to happen, and then promptly defies our expectations and twists everything around.

    I try to do that with my own books. After all, we’d never reread a book if all there was to it was the reveals. As you said, there has to be more to the scenes than just the obvious goal.

    Great post! 😀