This is Part 8 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-7 can be found here.
Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain.
I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.
“Figuring out what’s truly special about your story, and expressing that ina compelling way–this is the toughest part of writing the query. I recommend you start with one of the following prompts:
- What does your character want, why does he want it, and what keeps him from getting it?
- State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”
(The Business of Being a Writer, page 108)
For this post, I’m going to try an experiment, and then I’ll give you an exercise. I’m going to de-engineer my debut novel into a query hook. The book’s been out for over two years now, so I’m at the point where I’ve forgotten some of it, maybe enough for me to approach the thing with fresh eyes. I’m not even going to reference the jacket cover. And then I’ll decipher what’s working and what isn’t working for each of the things I’ve written.
Really? *Rolls up sleeves*. Here we go.
“What does your character want, why does she want it, and what keeps her from getting it?”
Marty Wu wants to open a tiny costume shop of modest bearing, just to see what it’s like to have something of her own, but even though she can front the shop by herself, even in rent-crazy New York City, her desire to be a good daughter and do something her overbearing mother is proud of is smack-dab in the way. Before it’s too late, Marty must find a way to bridge the gap between what she wants and what she thinks she should do: Stuck as she is between two cultures, there may not be a middle ground for this heroine.
“State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”
Marty Wu is a hot mess. She’s making bank at a job she hates, but her utter terror of upsetting her overbearing mother prevents her from making any significant moves. Her dream of opening a boutique costume store seems far out of reach. But when a bad career mistake jeopardizes the only livelihood she knows, Marty must make the choice between what she’s always been told is her filial duty and what she really wants, and she must take the right steps before her dream slips away from her entirely.
In the first selection, I use a lot of specificity. As I noted somewhere before, specificity is king no matter what you’re doing. It adds texture, color, access to emotions.
In the second selection, I mirror the style of the actual book much more closely. There’s the “hot mess” reference–I have yet to meet a person whose lips don’t quirk upon hearing that phrase–and “making bank,” and there’s also a hint of added tension here, as I give the reader something to worry about, with the added hint of drama and a bad career move.
What’s not working?
In the first selection, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. There aren’t any stakes, to use a common term in fiction: there isn’t anything for the reader to concern herself with. Will she, or won’t she? It’s hard to care, since Marty doesn’t seem to be fighting against anything but an idea.
In the second selection, I can hear the voice of the movie-trailer voiceover guy with every sentence. In short, it all seems very dramatic, but really there’s a lot of grey area: She needs to “find the dream she wants to pursue.” Here, some more specificity would allow me to up the ante quite a bit.
What’s the answer?
In this case, I think a nice blend of the two would work well. And here’s what my publisher came up with, for the back cover blurb, which, essentially, is what you’re writing:
Here, you can see my publisher came up with a succinct listing of all the things that are in Marty’s way, and also plays on Marty’s biggest obsession–her self-help books–to help get readers interested in her journey. She also underpins the book’s dual existence–Taiwan and America–and gives us a hint that things may not work out entirely well for Marty.
Instead of some tips this time around (Friedman’s questions are a great place to start), let me suggest this exercise:
Pick one of your favorite books, one you know well. Write both versions of Friedman’s prompts, above, for the book. Don’t cheat by looking at the back cover. Now do the same for a recent read, one you’ve just now gotten to know. Compare your version to the back cover of each, and see where you deviated and where you met up with the eventual back cover. And dissect each, based on what’s working and what isn’t.