Friday, June 24, 2011

Talking Up Moi

Writing about oneself is an extremely hard thing to do, yet more and more these days, an author has to self-promote. I suppose there will always be room for quiet, recluse geniuses in the literary world (I hope so), but for the rest of us, it has to be all about moi.

One of the hardest things to do is to write the blurb that appears on the jacket flap or the back of your book. Typically your editor has this onerous task, but I have found that it often helps to prime the editor’s pump by sending in what you think the flap material should say. This makes sense for two reasons: you get to put your slant on the book and you get to make sure that nothing will be said about your book that you don’t want said. Or, if you are self-published, you may be saying, “What editor?”

Writing jacket flap material is not really that hard. I think of it as a mini-review, the kind you see, when you’re daydreaming, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. In fact, this is a good place to start. Daydream a bit and jot the ideas down that come to you. You might surprise yourself and say, “Damn, author, you’re gooooood!” Okay, we knew that.

Now with all these great points you want to make about you and your book, you need a formula, a format for writing your blurb. I’ve looked at a lot of them and basically, they all seem to have four basic parts:

the lure:  What is a quote from the book or succinctly what is the main, surprising, burning question your book will answer? You know, which sentence in your book is the best and most intriguing. Why did you write the book in the first place? If the idea grabbed you, it has to grab the reader, doesn’t it?

the story: What can the reader expect to find in this book? You need to come up with one nice sentence that tells it all, something quotable in reviews.

the author: What special talent does the author bring to this book? How did the author accomplish this miracle? Come on, remember you were the only one in the world who could have written this book.

the reader: What will the reader feel reading the book and what will the reader take away from this book? Think what Oprah would have said.

Lure, story, author, reader—this is all you need.

Here is an example from my book Rain School. It starts with a quote.

[1] It is the first day of school in Chad, Africa. Children are filling the road.
“Will they give us a notebook?” Thomas asks.
“Will they give us a pencil?”
“Will I learn to read?”

[2] But when he and the other children arrive at the schoolyard, they find no classroom, no desks. Just a teacher. 
“We will build our school,” she says.
“This is our first lesson.”

[3] James Rumford, who lived in Chad as a Peace Corps volunteer, fills these pages with the vibrant colors of Africa and the spare words of a poet [4] to show how important learning is in a country where only a few children are able to go to school.

This next example is from my book Chee-lin. It begins with the main premise of the book.
[1] Eighty years before Columbus, China sent ships to explore the world. The Chinese discovered many marvelous things, but one discovery stood out above the others: the chee-lin.

[2] This chee-lin was just a giraffe, but to the Chinese, it was an omen of good fortune so rare that it had appeared only once before—at the birth of Confucius.

[3] In a storybook of chapters, in which each page evokes the richness of far-away places and long-ago days, James Rumford traces the chee-lin’s journey from Africa to Bengal to China, weaving a tale not just of a giraffe but of the people he meets along the way.

[4] Based on the life of a real giraffe, Chee-lin is a story for all time: of captivity and struggle, friendship and respect.

This final example is from my soon-to-be-published book From the Good Mountain:
[1] What was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds . . . what took a mountain to make?
[2] For the answer, this book will take you back to the fifteenth century—to a time when books were made by hand and when a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented a way to print books with movable type.

[4]Written as a series of riddles and illustrated in the style of medieval manuscripts, From the Good Mountain will intrigue the reader, no matter how old, for on every page there will be something surprising to learn about how the very thing you are holding in your hands came to be.

You have noticed that part 3 is missing. This flap material has not been totally approved yet; so maybe my editor will want to mention me on the front flap. In the meantime, I have put part 3 on the back flap: 

It has taken award-winning author James Rumford over two years to write the text and complete the illustrations for this book, an introduction to how the first printed book in Europe was made. A papermaker, letterpress printer, and binder, he brings to most recent work not only his love of the printed book but also his knowledge of a craft fast disappearing.

The back flap is as important as the front flap. This is where you get to write even more about yourself: where you live, why you are so talented and, most important of all, why you feel you are the one to write this book. Maybe you are an expert about Lindbergh, if it’s a biography about the aviator. Maybe you are a librarian or a teacher or a grandmother or a dad or mom. Put it down and tell the prospective buyer or reader why they should spend time with your book.

Front flap, back flap. This might not be an option. If you plan to do print-on-demand or some Kindle-like thing, you probably won’t have a dust jacket.  All the information has to be together, either outside on the back cover or in a couple of paragraphs on or

If you still can’t seem to get into self-praise, trick yourself. You didn’t write your own book, your best friend did and you can’t say enough good about it.

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