How to write “compelling” book jacket copy

by Robert Walker

The actual "copy" I wrote for the "back of the would-be book" when trying to sell it is below.  The process has been one hard-won over time.  Primarily it consists of really driving home the five W's in the copy after many, many, many readings of the backs of books.  A fiction writer has problems with making "compelling" statements about his or her own work; it verges on naked, brave self-aggrandizing to described one's own story in "glowing" tones, but a balance of providing all the salient information, the time, place, the who, what, why of the story, along with the unique twist or unique "platform" —that is the compelling non-fictional aspect of the story, whether this is the intricacies of basket-weaving as it relates to murder on a Navajo reservation, coin collecting, a space-age outlaw running from a sheriff on Mars, the underbelly of Disney World, or an insider's guide to casinos —it has to be in the copy.  Years ago, I sat myself down with hundreds of books and read back-flap copy.  This "style" of journalistic authorship is salesmanship and showmanship combined.  If you can teach yourself this knack, you have a leg up on the competition but more importantly, you have far greater chance of an agent or editor becoming intrigued on the high-concept details of your novel.  Even for a short story, in a cover letter, I'd insert a line or two such as:  What happens when a hitman is asked to murder a guy's iguana, but the hitman, taken with the creature, can't fulfill the contract?  The use of WHAT and WHEN in that single sentence already shoots down two of the five W's necessary to interest any reader in the tale.

Again, if you could write the back-flap jacket copy for your book, WHO better to know the "platform" and the salient five than the author?  This is a break from the narrative voice of the story and should be. You don't write this "throw-away" stuff as you do the novel itself, but consider it the shortest, most important story you will ever tell about your story, because it may or may not sell it via a "look see" from your maybe agent or maybe editor.

So work with your main characters on this short-short of importance, work with your platform or premise --high concept, whatever it is being called these days.  I'd urge you to read the back copy of books closest to your own and take great note of how the very characters' names are used, the detail of setting named, the time frame made clear, what's a stake, and why it is fascinating and compelling; why anyone getting hold of this notion will be shaken or awakened.  When doing this sort of writing put the word COMPELLING in your line of vision.

Here is the hopefully "compelling" book jacket copy for DEAD ON (July 2009, Five Star).

Title: DEAD ON, A Marcus Rydell, Kat Holley Mystery


Quote: “Walker’s prose cuts like a garrote; he is a master at the top of his game.”  —JA Konrath, author of Whiskey Sour, Dirty Martini

Private Eye Marcus Rydell is fighting to keep his hold on life in modern day Atlanta Georgia. He is a detective struggling with suicidal tendencies due to his having been disgraced and having lost all he holds dear four years earlier.  Marc’s suicidal gun to mouth is only stopped by his cop’s instinct and the promise brought to him by Dr. Kat Holley.  She makes him an offer at the point of a gun, one he can’t refuse, for it actually provides him a reason to live in the form of vengeance.  Rydell sets aside his plans of suicide to chase a killer who, four years previously, hurt both Kat and him in immeasurable ways.  The hunt takes them to the darkest regions of the Atlanta night and the Georgia forests where the monster they are chasing turns on them amid the spectacular Blue Ridge Lake region.

Our flawed heroes hunt a psycho marine who has the survivalists capabilities of a Rambo, but Iden Cantu is also hunting them.  The killer bundles people into square blocks.  Breaking every major bone, Cantu packages them up, hangs them on a tree, builds a fire below them, and watches as they die a horrible, torturous death.  This monster has eluded police and the FBI for four years—surviving in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Along with a sharp, black German shepherd named Paco, Marc and Kat—who fall in love along the way—must end the maniac’s life before he ends theirs.