Anatomy of a Book Blurb: Kimberly McCreight

“Part coming-of-age story, part riveting mystery, Bittersweet is a tantalizing tale of an outsider thrust into a glittering world of immense privilege and suspect morals. With a narrator torn between uncovering one family’s dark secrets and protecting her own, Bittersweet brilliantly explores the complicated question of what price any of us would pay to seize the life of our dreams.” -Kimberly McCreight, author of Reconstructing Amelia

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I’m thrilled about the quote that just came in today from my friend Kim, who I know originally not from writing, but from fellow Brooklynite mommydom (my sister also made her book trailer). Kim’s someone whose perseverance I greatly admire (Reconstructing Amelia is the fifth book she’s written and the first she’s sold); her road to publication was a long one, but she kept at it, nose to grindstone, and that determination has translated into unbelievable success (Nicole Kidman, anyone?).

Of all the people I’m asking to blurb my book, Kim is the closest friend, but that didn’t in any way diminish my nervousness (in fact, I find asking friends for professional favors makes me  jumpy; I’m always sure they’re going to reveal some hidden loathing for my work, which, you know, makes friendship a bit awkward from then on out). Also, what if she said yes and then I just never heard from her? How would I be brave enough to prompt her? What if she just replied, “I hated it?”

Luckily, it sounds like she didn’t! Beyond that, she was prompt and quick and just as friendly as ever. I’m counting my lucky stars that I have two such great quotes from writers I so admire this early in the game. Thank you, Kim and Kate!

How To Ask for a Book Blurb

My friend Shirley Showalter inspired me to write a bit more of a how-to on approaching fellow writers about book blurbs. I’m by no means an expert, but it turns out I have some opinions (go figure)!

1) Meet/ approach/ let those you admire know you admire them. This can be at an event, or on social media. Subscribe to their blogs. Send them an e-mail that tells them you appreciate their work, that it has made you think, that you are a better writer/ thinker/ reader because of the work they’ve put into the world. Don’t wait to do this! You don’t need permission or a book contract or anything else. Chances are, they’ll appreciate and even remember you, because it’s so rare in this world to have someone approach us to simply say “thank you.”

2) Again- this next one can start at any point, the sooner the better: read! Simple as that. Read the books of your contemporaries. Read the books you know (or want) your book to be compared to. Write down what, specifically, you loved about the book, what spoke to you, and, if you know your own project well, how your book and theirs intersect. This specificity is important, because you won’t just be writing a fan letter when you ask for a blurb. You’ll be saying, “we are colleagues, and here’s why.” It’s hard to say a blanket “no” to that kind of in-depth thinking.

3) Once your book is finished and revised, and your editor thinks it’s time to begin soliciting blurbs, you’ll already be prepared. Because you will have read and reflected and reached out, and you’ll be able to come to your editor and say “here are some solid possibilities of people who might really say yes.” Now keep in mind, just because you’ve emailed someone, or even had a personal exchange with them doesn’t mean they’ll remember you or feel moved to blurb your book. But if you’ve been humble and honest and appreciative, chances are they’ll at least give you the time of day.

4) We are nine months from the publication date of Bittersweet. We don’t have a galley yet (aka an ARC or an Advanced Reader’s Copy), but my editor has been super generous about creating bound copies of the manuscript . Kate Christensen’s blurb (and hopefully at least one more) will grace the galley, which will in turn (hopefully) encourage other writers who may have been on the fence about blurbing, as well as reviewers/ booksellers/ etc. It’s crazy how much time all of this takes, and how far in advance you must begin! I feel so lucky to have an editor who is eager enough to authorize printing of bound copies, and I’ve noticed that it really seems to be making a difference. It also means that we have an easy way to “nudge” folks we haven’t heard back from, by sending them the galley in a month or so- which feels much more natural than simply sending them email after email.

5) Some folks want to be contacted by an email listed on their website. Some folks will have a protective agent/editor who your editor will have to go through. Yes, these gatekeepers can seem ominous, but they can also be your allies. Especially if they like what they hear when they get a look at your…

6) …Fantastic letter. It all comes down to this (and if you can write it by hand on nice-looking stationery, all the better- just write a draft on your computer first). What should your fantastic letter say? Well, only you can decide that. But this is why you did all that work I mentioned in #1 and #2, because that genuine connection is what you’ll be referencing here. Here’s the general outline of how I craft a blurb request: I (re)introduce myself, and am upfront about what the fact that I’m asking a favor; then I write about what I deeply admire about their work, and how I believe that work connects to my own, with a clause-long synopsis about what the book is about, and then I get down to business (when we’ll need the blurb by, how to contact me, etc). It’s work, I’m not going to lie, because the goal here isn’t simply to ask someone to do you a favor, but to extend a favor to them, by speaking honestly about how their work has impacted your own. This is impossible to fake! No shortcuts! Just being warm and generous and hoping you get the same in return.

7) My last piece of advice is to try to have a good attitude about all of this. It’s a lot of work, I know. And most of us writers wish it was work we didn’t have to do. But it is- it just plain is. That’s the reality these days. I find when I’m feeling grumpy about this state of affairs, that I need to put down my fountain pen,  take a walk, and remind myself how lucky I am to be soliciting blurbs for my book that someone is publishing. Also, not to sound ridiculously cheesy, but my   attitude is definitely reflected in the letters I write. I want to present positively to those I’m asking to help me. No more bashfulness or grumbling. Just reading and writing and asking for help, with fingers crossed someone else will say “yes.”

 

Anatomy of a Book Blurb: Kate Christensen

“Gripping, beguiling and beautifully written, Bittersweet is a page turner that chills as it intoxicates. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has created a family so dangerously enthralling that the more we learn of their greed and bloodlust, the more we aspire to belong.” –Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man and Blue Plate Special

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As you know, I’ve been reading lots of books since mid-August in the interest of deciding who to ask for book blurbs, and what I’d like to say to them about their own books. In some cases, I’ve only been able to read the most recent book (or an earlier book that directly interacts with Bittersweet for some reason), but I do think it’s important to read at least one of someone’s books before asking them to do the same for you. I want each writer to know exactly why I am asking them to write the blurb for me (which usually translates into what I admire about their book/s), not just because I want to flatter them, but because it’s also a way to signal what might be compelling to them about my book, to provide language or ideas they might want to use. I find we writers are so busy that anyone making our jobs easier is seen as an ally; and since I’m asking them to do me such a big favor, it’s really the least I can do.

Still, the whole endeavor can be incredibly discouraging, especially when you’ve spent a day reading someone’s book, then another half day crafting the perfect letter on your computer, then copied it out with a fountain pen on expensive stationery, only to hear back the next day that they simply don’t blurb anyone. I chuckled knowingly at this blog entry by Shane Jones, recounting his painful experience trying to get blurbs for his novel (he ended up with 5/26, which is actually pretty good odds in this business).

Then there are days like today, when you not only hear back from an author you admire so tremendously that you kind of see hearts in the air when you think about her, and not only does she say yes of course she’ll blurb you (and within the week at that), but then she says the most awesome things about your book that you think you couldn’t actually love her anymore than you already do. I’m talking, in this case, about the wonderful Kate Christensen.

Okay, but back up. How did I “get to” Kate? This is a question I found myself perplexed by with my first two books. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I hadn’t gotten my MFA, and hence didn’t have colleagues or professors who I had naturally networked with. Also, I was timid, and much less brave- it seemed so challenging to write to someone I admired and ask them for a favor, nigh impossible that I’d ever be able to get someone I adored so deeply to read, let alone write nice things about, something I’d written.

And yet- this is something Dan writes about so much- I’ve learned that “getting” to someone can actually be less challenging than I first imagined. Creating a relationship can be as simple as telling someone you admire them. Social media can be a huge boon to this, because writers are much more accessible than they ever were, via their websites, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And my relationship with Kate is a perfect example of creating a lasting connection, one that, up until now, has existed only in the ether of the web, but that still feels real and true.

I first fell in love with Kate’s writing when I read The Great Man, which deservedly won the PEN/Faulkner prize in 2008. When I found out that my friend Victor LaValle was on the awards committee, I asked him if he would feel comfortable putting us in touch. He did, and I sent her an email telling her how much I admired her. That was years ago. In the interim, I friend requested her on Facebook (she accepted), I subscribed to her mouth-watering blog, and started following her on Twitter (and she followed back). I wasn’t trying to squirrel my way into her world, and (I can only guess that) because I had initially written such an honest appreciation of her work, she knew I wasn’t interested in getting anything from her. I simply was doing what I would with anyone whom I admire- sidling up, chin in hand, interested to hear more.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous to ask her to blurb Bittersweet. I had no idea she’d even know who I was. But I knew I had to ask her- I knew I’d be mad at myself if I didn’t. So I sent an e-mail both to the address I’d used in 2008 and to her Facebook account, crossing my fingers but not holding my breath. Instead, I heard back from her in two days. And not only did she know who I was, but she remembered me well enough to say that in spite of the huge amount of work she has on her plate (teaching and writing), she’d be thrilled to give me a blurb, and to do it as soon as possible.

Kate is incredibly generous, and I’m incredibly grateful. I owe her a tremendous favor, not just for writing me the blurb, but for reminding me that it’s important to step out of one’s comfort zone every once in a while. Now I feel as if we know each other, that we might even be friends, or at least friends to each other’s work. Her writing inspires and engages me, and I am so moved to hear her say such lovely things about my writing too.