{For Writers} Guest Post on Crafting Cover Copies by Mark Penny

Wednesday, May 21, 2014
In the indie world, I'm kinda known for writing good cover copies (back synopsis). A big part of that is trial and error and hundreds of trashed attempts. The other part is Mark Penny. I first met Mark while struggling to write a cover copy for Witch Fall, and he taught me so much about how to write good back matter, that I ended up rewriting most of the cover copies for my other books. 

This first post is the base knowledge you'll need before you start writing your own cover copies. I'm not ashamed (blatant lie) to admit that I have to have a dictionary on hand when conversing with Mark (he's a professor), but I promise it's worth the intellectual squinting. 

How to Write a Peephole, Part One: Function and Qualities

Imagine you’re looking for a house. You’re interested in a new subdivision—
all empty houses and none of them sold yet. You call the agent and she says to help yourself, just walk up to any house you like the front of, take a look through the peephole, note the address if you like the view, and call her for a tour. You pick a few homes you think look promising and you start your round. You walk up onto the porch of the first house and put your eye to the lens. The lens must be in backward, because you’ve got a clear fisheye view of a front room and three doorways leading off it. Through the doorways you can make out the color and quality of the furnishings and d├ęcor. When you finish the loop, you’ve got a short list of homes you want to explore and you dial up the agent again.
That’s pretty much what happens when you browse for a book. You look at the title, the cover art, maybe the author’s name. If that all looks okay, you flip the book over to read the back. If the author’s famous, an award-winner, or in good with someone whose opinion you might care about, there’ll be some blurbs about that. But the thing you’re really looking for is that fisheye view of the contents—the cover copy. The question is why? What are we looking for in that tight little peek on the back of the book? What is its function?
All but the weirdest or most incompetent narratives (by which I mean instances of storytelling, as opposed to the stories from which they are drawn) divide nicely into three Acts, four Stages, eight Sequences and nine Milestones. I know this because I’ve read some good books on the subject, developed a Unified Paradigm of Narrative, and tested the Paradigm on scores of stories of various lengths in various genres, including litfic. I’ve also hand-typed around four hundred samples of back cover copy onto my hard drive, so I know another fact: Good BCC (back cover copy) sticks to the Setup.
In my Paradigm, the first quarter of the narrative is Act I, Stage 1, Sequences 1 and 2, and the first three Milestones. Act I I call Country. That’s because it’s where we learn everything we want to know about the story and the people in it before we decide whether to hang around for the parties and cultural displays. Stage 1 I call Setup, because its job is to set up the rest of the narrative by introducing the world, the genre, the characters and the kinds of disruptions the protagonist might have to deal with. Sequence 1 I call Initial State, because this is where we see the protagonist living life as usual. Sequence 2 I call Imminence, because this is where we experience anticipation for a specific predicament. The Hook, which begins on page one, lures us into the narrative with stuff we find cool. It varies with genre and the narrative’s particular focus (think MICE quotient), but its job is the same no matter what. The Inciting Incident, which occurs halfway through the Setup, signals to the reader (and maybe to the protagonist) that the antagonistic force is about to pounce. At Plot Turn 1, which occurs at (or just after) the end of the Setup, it pounces and the story really begins.
All of that is what we want to get a glimpse of through the back cover copy.
In order to fulfill its function, back cover copy has four important qualities: honesty, accuracy, brevity and restraint.
Honesty. Tell the truth about your book. Don’t try to make it look good. Make it look like itself. If that’s not good enough, fix the book and try again.
Accuracy. Know what you’ve really written. The book you’ve run off the printer may not be the one you had in your heard—even if you wrote an outline.
Brevity. Keep it short, sibling. The ratio of words in the BCC to pages in the book is always in favor of the pages.
Restraint. The Setup, the pertinent elements of the Setup, and nothing but the pertinent elements of the Setup—unless it’s for kids or for college. The only reason to give more than the guts of the Setup is to reassure people that the story will or won’t corrupt their minds or damage their psyches. Or that it will do them some kind of good, like teach them correct morals or make them erudite.
Here’s a peephole I threw together for the bedtime story I’ve been telling my children—ages eight, ten and twelve. So far there are seventeen episodes, each about seven minutes long. The word count is in parentheses. In my next post, we’ll see whether this specimen has the four qualities and serves its function. Then we’ll talk about The 11 Ps of Narrative and how this specimen has them all.

When Neb tells his parents he's taking the bus to a neighboring city to attend church with his friend Steven (so he can sneak off to go camping with the beautiful, mysterious Rukalala and her family), he thinks he's only being a little bit deceitful and disobedient. But when Rukalala takes him for a moonlit walk, transforms into a werewolf and bites his neck, Neb knows he's gotten himself in far greater trouble than he'd ever imagined possible. And when Rukalala and her werewolf troops start killing Neb's family to force him to help with a werewolf invasion, he realizes that seemingly harmless errors in judgment can have very harmful consequences. (111)

Mark Penny is the author of one novel in revision, a dozen novels in prewriting, a bunch of short stories and a lot of poems. His poetry has appeared in Sunstone Magazine and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and on Wilderness Interface Zone and Everyday Mormon Writer. His short fiction has appeared on Everyday Mormon Writer and Lowly Seraphim. He is currently working on a collection of his own Mormon literary speculative fiction and three stories for the 2014 Mormon Lit Blitz, which he intends to win with no survivors.

*Layman's translation: you need to pull plot points from your book and deposit them in your cover copy. Got it (And yes, I really do translate our conversations in my head).
Thanks so much for the information, Mark!


  1. Amberfox said...:

    This is really helpful- and true! :)

    ~This part is a little off topic, just a note for Amber~

    Dear Amber,
    I would just like to thank you for creating the wonderful books that are the Witch Song series!

    First off, the books are hooking and thrilling, even heart -breaking at times. I felt an instant connection to Senna, but even more so to Lilette during her section of the story (Although I am only half-way through the third book) I just can't wait to find out what happens to Lilette and Chen!

    Secondly, I would just like to say that you are the main reason I am now inspired to write a book of my own (It is completely different to your books- don't worry, I won't plagiarize) and my family thinks that my writing is so good that it might even get published! I hope so! And if I had to give anyone credit for my book, it would be you. You are the one who is making me persevere and believe that I can write as good as you. Though I thoroughly doubt it!

    So thanks :)

    Lucy, age 12, budding writer

  1. Aw, thank you for writing me, Lucy! Good luck with all of your dreams. I love your name, BTW. It was on the short list for my daughter's name. :)

  1. Glad it's helpful, Lucy. And I'm glad you like Amber's books. I've read a couple and they were pretty good. Not my style, 'cause I'm a he-man, but well-written and not too lovey-dovey. Maybe not lovey-dovey enough, actually...

    While I was writing this guest post, I remembered that when I was a kid, I wrote quite a few specimens of back cover copy to get myself psyched for the novels I was trying to write. Maybe that's why some people think I'm good at it now.

    Good luck with your writing, Lucy. But make sure you get some readers who love reading more than they love you. Family members are great for support, but they generally suck at constructive criticism, especially if they gave birth to you. Friends are pretty much the same (without the birth stuff). It's just a sad fact of literary life. Suck it up.

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