It’s Okay to Be Quiet

two matching butterflies on small flowers next to each other, facing each other

In a week I’ll be at the Romance Writers of America’s national conference. I was feeling nervous about it at work yesterday, and I told my coworker that I imagined arriving, and how I’d be surrounded by confident people talking assertively, for hours. My coworker pointed out that other people might like talking to someone more quiet. I’d been assuming that, because I’m not assertive, I was somehow less than.

It’s not true, and I’ve learned this lesson before!

Example #1: One time, my friend Loren and I took our dinner out behind our apartment building to eat on a hillside overlooking the park. Two guys were playing baseball, and after a while they came over to talk to us. One of them did all the talking, was loud, and made jokes, while the other one didn’t say a word. And I liked the quiet guy better!

Example #2: One time when I was at the Campbell Folk School, an Australian blacksmith was on campus the same week. I wanted to talk to him but was too scared to sit near him at meals. I assumed he would not want to talk to me; plus another woman who was boisterous was always hanging around him. On Friday night after the bonfire, when I got up to leave, he got up, too, and said he’d walk back to the dorms with me. On the walk, we totally hit it off! Why had I assumed he would not be interested in talking to me? We sat together at Saturday breakfast, the final meal of the week.

I don’t need to have the most conversations or impress everyone I talk to. All I have to do at the conference is be authentic and open to conversations happening, and I’ll find people to connect with.

Blurbs, Taglines, Pitches, and Queries

writing pad and pen on table with plant, with mug of coffee that reads "Go get 'em"
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

I’ve been preparing for the RWA 2019 conference, where I plan to pitch my fantasy romance novel, The Forest Bride,to agents and editors. After much reading and study, I finally (I think) have a grasp on the differences between a blurb, a tagline, a pitch, and a query.

Since I struggled with understanding these differences, I thought I’d share them.*

The Blurb

This is a catchy few sentences that aims to hook potential readers into wanting more. It is used in various ways (see more below), and you can have different versions of it to use in different places. It often ends up as the back cover copy when your book is published. As an example, here is mine for The Forest Bride:

When Princess Rose is sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, only one person can save her: Prince Dustan, the suitor she hoped for, and the one her father didn’t choose. But Rose learns that Dustan harbors a secret: he may not be a prince… or human. Can Rose trust Dustan? Or will his hidden agenda prove even more perilous than the marriage he helped her escape?

The Tagline

This is a brief one or two sentences to catch someone’s attention. You can have more than one. One often appears on the back cover of the book, before the blurb. When they make a movie of your story, this might appear on the poster. Here’s mine:

Her fiancé was a monster. Her rescuer may be worse.

The Pitch

woman with long hair in long dress, running down path in dark forest
Photo by Kenny Luo on Unsplash

The pitch is what you say when telling someone about your book. It varies depending on the circumstances. For example, a shorter pitch is needed if you meet an agent in the elevator and she asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with short time slots. A longer pitch might be okay if, over dinner, another writer asks what you are writing, or if you attend a pitch event with longer time slots.

The pitch includes some basic information, some variation of your blurb, and comparable titles. It should balance using precise wording with being natural (i.e., don’t memorize and read it). I’m participating in four-minute pitch sessions, so I planned a “one-sentence pitch.” (Run-on sentences seem to be allowed.) Here’s what I plan to say (note, I’ve never done this, so post-conference I might have a different view of this):

The Forest Bride is a 70,000-word fantasy romance set in the agrarian kingdom of Sarland.

It follows a princess, Rose, who’s sold in marriage to a repulsive brute, and the only one who can save her is Prince Dustan, who’s the suitor her father didn’t choose; but Dustan has secrets: he may not be a prince… or even human. 

The Forest Bride is Ella Enchanted, written by Sarah J. Maas. My target audience includes readers who enjoyed Jeffe Kennedy’s Mark of the Tala or Miranda Honfleur’s No Man Can Tame.

The Query

The query is a letter you send to agents (or editors) to ask them to consider your novel. This could be a first attempt at contact, or a follow-up to an invitation from an agent you pitched to. (If the latter, you begin the query by reminding the agent how you met.) The query letter includes basic information about your novel, some form of the blurb, comparable titles, plus some other possibilities. There are many articles online about how to write an effective query letter, plus some about what NOT to do.


I hope this helps clear up any confusion about the differences between these items. If you have a different understanding of how they work, please share it.

*I’m not giving advice here on how to write effective blurbs, etc., because I’d only be copying the advice of others. Many articles online give good pointers for pitching and/or querying. What really helped me understand the different was an online class with Linnea Sinclair, “Pitches, Blurbs, and Taglines, Oh My,” which I highly recommend. The class is also a great way to get the items written, while getting excellent feedback.

The terms may differ for non-fiction.

horizontal banner with pine tree trunks and a large birdhouse

May News Update

Happy May! Here’s what I’m up to this spring and summer.

Bread News

tables set up under tent with books for sale, dishes and containers with bread ad dough, labeled with signs
My booth at the bread festival

I had a great time at the Asheville Bread Festival on April 13. While I was sad not to teach, I really enjoyed staffing my booth throughout the fair and talking to bread enthusiasts. I always wish I could attend more bread gatherings (like the Kneading Conference in Maine), and hope that someday I’ll have the time.

I’m heading to the Folk School at the end of May for a week of “Making Traditional Breads.” This class is full, but I have two classes scheduled for 2020: Making Traditional Breads in late April, and the Science of Bread in September. Registration is not yet available, but should open for the April class this summer.

Book News: A New Cover

book cover

Over the past few months, I’ve been studying book covers and considering the cover of my bike trip memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere. I created my own design for a few reasons: to save money, because I thought I could create something not-too-bad, and because I didn’t know where to begin finding a designer. And, the self-made cover was never a problem with Bread Science.

I quickly regretted the decision, as I realized how much harder it is to market a memoir. A concept I’ve come to accept is that “No one wants to buy your book” and people are looking for any excuse they can not to buy it. Unfortunately, a homemade cover signals that the writing might be sub-par and gives people an excuse to pass up the book. And, readers are more likely to pick up a book that fits in with the genre, simply because they feel comfortable with it. While some cover designs break from trends and succeed, these designs often have huge budgets behind them, or an already famous author. So, much as we artists like to be unique, book covers are one time when it is best to blend in.

drawing of book with question mark on an otherwise blank cover

So, I’m having a professional cover designed! Initially I’ll use it with the ebook, and eventually it will be on the print version as well. I don’t have anything to share yet, but look for it this summer.

As for the back cover… I thought I had written some pretty catchy back cover copy. But I wrote it targeting a general audience—that same audience that is actively trying not to read my book. Over the past two years, I’ve felt very anxious about trying to promote Somewhere and Nowhere. I realized that I’d feel more comfortable promoting it to a more specific audience—the people I think will really “get” it.

So I rewrote the back cover copy to try to reach these potential readers. I blogged about this here: https://emilybuehler.com/2019/back-cover-take-ii/ I’ll debut the new book description along with the new cover this summer.

Romance Writing

white azaleas blooming under trees with a birdhouse on a pole in back
Here are some azaleas from a recent visit to the WRAL azalea garden in Raleigh

I’m registered to attend the Romance Writers of America conference in New York this July. I’ve decided to focus on my fairytale romance, Rose Fair, since it is more polished. I’ve been working on how to pitch it and trying to find comparable titles. I plan to meet agents and editors at the conference, to make connections and see if I can sell the novel. I’m not opposed to self-publishing, but am interested to explore the traditional route.

pink azaleas blooming under pine trees and a sunny sky
More azaleas

I haven’t been able to find good comparable titles yet. My book officially falls into the category of “paranormal romance,” unless the publisher has a separate fantasy category. Regardless, mine is much more “light” and happy than most of what I’ve found, where magic is full of darkness and violence. And certain things seem to be “in”: one reviewer was sure the dog would turn into the love interest. Nope, just a dog.

a pink rhododendron blooming under tall pine trees
Rhododendrons, too!

On one hand, I might not mind changes to help the book sell. But on the other hand, I believe there are readers for my book, even if publishers haven’t yet recognized them. I read a piece about Generation X, and how we don’t like our characters to suffer. But we’re sandwiched in between generations that do, and writing teachers are often from an older generation that promotes this suffering. I would like to write for my people. So I know that my book might not have a place in the traditional publishing industry, but I’m interested to find out.

ICYMI

Here are my other recent blog posts, in case you missed them. If you already saw these come through your inbox, just ignore this!

flyer for event with time and location, and cartoon of computer, papers, and coffee

Save the date for my free talk on “Old-Fashioned Self-Publishing” at the Orange County Main Library on September 22 at 2 PM. The talk looks at self-publishing with as few intermediaries as possible as a starting point, and then discusses where and why an author might value an intermediary. I’m working to streamline the talk so it will be a little shorter than last time. The slides from last time are still available, here: https://emilybuehler.com/miscellany/how-to-guides/

And finally, I’ll re-share the link to Michael Hilburn’s interview with me on the Sourdough Podcast, because I’ve had so many people tell me they enjoyed it: https://www.thesourdoughpodcast.com/episodes/2019/2/12/emily-buehler-author-of-bread-science

row of silhouettes of people, including people in suits and dresses, with one person highlighted with a checkmark

Back Cover, Take II

When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my bike trip memoir, I didn’t invest in the cover as I should have. In addition to wanting a professional design, I’ve been rethinking the back cover copy based on some things I’ve learned.

The Old Copy

crowd of Lego people

When I wrote the original back cover copy, I was trying to appeal to a broad audience: bicyclists, cross-country travelers, female travelers, memoir enthusiasts. I thought the copy was pretty catchy:

One summer, two young women head west on their bicycles from Cape May, New Jersey. In three months on the road, they battle 14-percent-grade hills, tornado-force winds, and 110 degree heat. They are sheltered by everyone from nuns to cowboys. They swim in the Missouri River, climb the Rocky Mountains, and cross the Continental Divide–three times. And eventually, they reach the Pacific.

Emily hoped to find peace and happiness away from the clutter of life. With nothing to do but ride her bike all day, life would be simpler… or would it?

I never felt comfortable promoting the book, though. Then I read Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing. His book describes reaching a small, specific audience. The readers who’ll be my book’s fans (I think) are people who struggle to be present and to calm the noise in their heads. I wanted to rewrite the cover copy to reach these readers.

The New Copy

row of silhouettes of people, including people in suits and dresses, with one person highlighted with an arrow and the words "My reader!"

I watched a webinar about back cover copy. I heard it said that no one is TRYING to find your book. People are so overwhelmed these days that they are actively trying NOT to read your book. Any excuse not to buy it will be enough to stop them. So your cover copy needs to convince them they must read it, by showing what the book will do for them. (This is easier to do with a non-fiction book. Memoirs by unknown authors are especially hard, as they’re competing with so many celebrity memoirs.)

Last weekend in the library, I saw a book called 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do. I walked past thinking, “I don’t need something else to read,” but then found myself going back to it. I thought, “I’ll just read the back cover.” The back cover listed right out the 13 things, and I wanted NOT to do them. I wanted to know how. I had to check out the book.

book cover with sunshine and bike lying on ground

I realized the book’s marketing had worked perfectly on me. So I tried rewriting Somewhere and Nowhere’s back cover copy in the style of the library book. I got feedback from friends. Here is the current version:

LESSONS OF THE ROAD:
-WORRY DOESN’T HELP.
-JUST WAIT AND SEE.
-LET GO OF THE TRIP YOU THOUGHT YOU’D BE ON.
-BALANCE SELF-IMPROVEMENT WITH SELF-ACCEPTANCE.
-BE PRESENT.

When Emily and Mary head west from Cape May, New Jersey, Emily imagines the peace she’ll find bicycling across the open spaces of America. With nothing to do all day but ride her bike, life will be simpler… or will it?

Emily battles 14-percent-grade hills, tornado-force winds, and 110 degree heat, waiting for the fun to start. As the women find shelter with everyone from nuns to cowboys, she clings to the best moments. And on the wide open plains, she comes face to face with the noise in her head.

But as she crosses the Mississippi and climbs the Rocky Mountains, she begins to discern patterns: Worries that hound her. Recurring thoughts that impede her happiness. Daydreams that remove her from reality. She discovers a path to transform herself, even as she begins to accept the present moment.

I’m still soliciting feedback and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. I’d also love to know any books with back cover copy you could not resist.

drawing of woman in old-fashioned dress reading a book, with word bubble that reads, His pandiculation caught her eye, and the pulchritudinous curve of his arms made her heart palpitate"; also book cover of How Not To Write a Novel, small and in the middle

Book Review: How Not to Write a Novel

Since beginning to write fiction, I’ve read numerous books on self-editing and the craft of writing. How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark is a different kind of book.

Most Books

Books on the craft of writing abound. Many present a strategy: a method of plotting the action, steps to develop the main character, or a structure the novel must follow. I classify these books into three types, which depend on their reader:

  • Books you totally “get,” and get a lot out of
  • Books that give you a few good pointers
  • Books that don’t speak to you at all
stack of books with bar sinister over them

Reading books on the craft of writing, trying to find the ones that resonate with you, seems like a good idea, if you can make the time for it. Similar information can be found online, in classes, or at conference sessions.

I’ve gotten more value from books on revising your draft. The two I always recommend are The First Five Pages (Lukeman) and Self Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King). Much of what is useful is what NOT to do: Don’t use adverbs when you could use a better verb. Don’t use multiple descriptive terms in place of “said.” This guidance overlaps with what I found in How Not to Write a Novel.

This Book

How Not to Write a Novel is a long list of what not to do, divided into sections (e.g., plot, characters) and sub-sections (e.g., beginnings, bad guys). The reason not to do the things listed is that an agent or editor will reject your novel because of them. So, the authors don’t argue that one method is better than another, simply that if you want to be traditionally published in today’s world, you should follow the advice.

drawing of woman in old-fashioned dress reading a book, with word bubble that reads, His pandiculation caught her eye, and the pulchritudinous curve of his arms made her heart palpitate"

Some examples:

  • From the plot section, “The Waiting Room”: Don’t begin your book with a long introduction of background information, so that the reader is waiting and waiting for the story to start.
  • From the character section, “The Clone Entourage”: Don’t introduce the main character’s five friends who are indistinguishable and do not have separate purposes in the plot.
  • From the style section, “The Puffer Fish”: Don’t use a huge amount of difficult vocabulary, which distracts the reader and makes you seem like a show-off.

Each item has a title, an example, and an explanation. Reading the example (using while cringing) really clarifies the “bad behavior” and motivates one to avoid it. The book is also very funny and an easy read.

book cover of How Not to Write a Novel, which shows gun pointing at kitten

The book’s only flaw is the final section, in which the authors discuss self-publishing. They make the good point that even if you plan to self-publish, forgoing agents and editors, you should still strive to publish the best novel possible. But they equate self-publishing with using a vanity press, and they contend that a success story in self-publishing is one that ends with the author getting a traditional publishing deal. These days, hundreds of romance authors are making a living with self-publishing. Some traditionally published authors are turning to self-publishing as a better way to make a career writing, due to the higher returns. One of the biggest self-publishing success stories is Wool by Hugh Howey; while he did eventually work with a traditional publisher, he retained ebook rights, and I’d argue his was a success story before the traditional deal. I was saddened that two people with so much knowledge of the publishing industry would have such a narrow view of self-publishing.

But other than that last section, this is a great book!

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Feminism and Romance Writing

Last weekend at the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers’ Monthly Meeting, Katharine Ashe spoke about feminism and romance novels. Katharine presented a list of “tropes”—characters or situations commonly used in romance—that she proposed writers leave behind.

But she recognized that some tropes might be “old favorites” that would be hard to leave behind. She used an analogy of a favorite chocolate cake her mom made. As she got older, the cake gave her headaches. At first she thought she’d have to stop eating it, or suffer the headaches. But she researched and eventually learned certain types of chocolate caused the headache. She started making the cake with different chocolate, and was able to enjoy it again. She asserted that we can change what we write while still keeping what we love about writing romance.

Setting the Stage

a man "playfully' choking a woman, both wearing medieval costumes
Ugh, not so sexy in real life

Katharine discussed the statement that “readers know the difference between fantasy and reality,” which is often given to justify including something in a book that might not be acceptable in real life. She gave some examples of studies showing that fiction can affect the brain and behavior, even if the reader doesn’t think it has. (She didn’t need to convince me; when I returned to Disney World as an adult, I realized what a warped sense of relationships I’d developed, probably as a result of too many fairy tales.)

She also made the point that her call to remove certain tropes from romance isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about creating books that display good behaviors, to ultimately make the world better. Heroines in romance should leave readers feeling stronger.

Feminism 101

Katharine gave her definition of feminism, which is simply a belief in equality. The word has been disparaged to the point that some people are uncomfortable with it, even if they believe in gender equality.

a stack of old, romantic-looking books with glasses on top

Someone asked about the reality of history, when women often didn’t have many rights. Katharine pointed out that today, women have legal rights but still lack power. In past centuries, they might not have had legal rights, but they still could have power; often the instances of this are not recorded in mainstream history. For example, Katharine wrote a heroine who’s a pamphleteer (like an 1800s activist blogger) in the Regency period; this was a real thing, but no one knows about it.

Tropes to Retire

Finally Katharine presented the list of outdated tropes. Here are some that I liked best:

a smiling male cartoon doctor, and an overly sexy cartoon nurse holding a needle
No more of this!
  • The hero is a misogynist who hates all women, until he falls for the heroine; wouldn’t it be better if he LIKED women and still picked her?
  • The hero is a villain whom the heroine tames into domesticity; wouldn’t it be more exciting if they were allies, and if both of them were part domestic and part wild?
  • The hero’s behavior would, in real life, be creepy harassment.
  • The heroine is exceptional, the only woman like her in the world.
  • The hero has more power or authority than the heroine (he’s the doctor, she’s a nurse), or more money while the heroine struggles financially. Why not try making them equal or flipping the traditional roles? Note that “power” doesn’t have to equal money; it can also be about the characters’ personalities.
  • The hero physically rescues the heroine, while the heroine emotionally rescues him.
  • The heroine is pitted against an evil “other woman” and must best her to win; it would be better for the heroine to have female friends.

Katharine concluded that yes, these tropes still work to create an appealing story. But authors can choose not to use them, because it would be better if they went away. And readers might like new stories better: A large part of the reason the old tropes persist isn’t that readers like them, but that large publishing houses keep putting them out, and the marketing budgets are spent convincing people they want to read them. This situation is slowly improving with the rise of independent publishing. 

two daffodils in early morning sunshine

Spring Is Here! Classes, Sourdough, and Romance Novels

Each year around the start of spring, I find myself making plans for the rest of the year. I value winter for the time indoors (i.e., without yard work), but it’s hard not to be excited when the daffodils appear and the weather warms. The year feels filled with promise.

Press (!)

Emily holding a heart-shaped baguette over her heart
Valentine’s Day bread

In February, Michael Hilburn interviewed me for the Sourdough Podcast. We talked about sourdough science and myths, among other things. The episode is here:
https://www.thesourdoughpodcast.com/
episodes/2019/2/12/emily-buehler-author-of-bread-science

I also cohosted with Sarah Cypher the Editorial Freelancers Association’s February #EFAChat on Twitter, which was about self-publishing. The archive of the chat is here: https://wakelet.com/wake/8b24c9cd-7cc6-43f9-89af-7ddbe4c2f22a

This Year’s Events (So Far)

artisan breads with logo for Asheville Bread Festival

Due to some scheduling complications, I’m not teaching at the Asheville Bread Festival (April 13). It turns out I am able to attend, however, so look for me outdoors at the Bread Fair with a bread science booth. Learn more and sign up for classes: https://www.ashevillebreadfestival.com

I’m teaching Baking Traditional Breads at the Folk School in May, but I believe the class is already full. If you want to get on the wait list, you can do so here. Tentative dates for 2020 are April 26 to May 2, 2020 (Making Traditional Breads) and September 20 to 26, 2020 (The Science of Bread).

I’m giving my presentation on “old-fashioned self-publishing” at the Orange County Public Library on September 22 at 2 PM. The talk looks at self-publishing with as few intermediaries as possible as a starting point, and then discusses where and why an author might value an intermediary. I’m working to streamline the talk so it will be a little shorter than last time. The slides from last time are still available, here: https://emilybuehler.com/miscellany/how-to-guides/

In other news, I am hoping to attend both the Romance Writers of America conference in July and the Editorial Freelancers Association conference in August. (The writer conference is what I need right now, but last time I attended the editor conference, I felt so much like “These are my people!” that I’d hate to miss it.)

My Writing Career

a construction sign that has folded over on itself so that it reads "Be Prepared", with a rainy roadside
I saw this as I left my office job one afternoon and it gave me a laugh

I’ve got a new plan for my writing endeavors taped on the kitchen cabinet. What I’ve gathered from classes and reading is that to have a career as a writer, I need to produce a lot of books that are in one genre. Readers will expect consistency, and I don’t want to let them down. At first this concept seemed stifling, but I looked at my favorite authors. For example, I’ll read anything by Sarah Dessen because I know there will be a teenage girl protagonist struggling with family issues and figuring out where she belongs.

So my current situation is, I have three manuscripts in three different genres. I need to pick which genre to focus on—which genre I think I can produce more books in, and which manuscript I want to pitch to agents at the conference this summer. (I’m not opposed to self-publishing but am interested to give the traditional process a try.) I’m currently trying to read as much as possible, to figure out where my books fit in.

single daffodil growing on a lawn in a neighborhood
The first daffodil of spring!

I’ve also become more clear-eyed about readers. Most Bread Science readers are not going to be interested in a bicycle trip memoir or women’s fiction. Even among women’s fiction readers, those who value one type of book may not be interested in another. Thinking about the inevitable one-star ratings and hateful reviews that every book gets on Goodreads made me imagine a book-sharing website where the ratings and reviews you see are from other readers who have the most “book overlap” with you, based on your own ratings. I blogged about this here: https://emilybuehler.com/2019/my-wish-for-goodreads/

an open book with the pages folded into a heart, with a pink rose

I’m currently thinking about the themes and character growth that are likely to keep popping up in my books. It’s kind of a relief to realize that I don’t have to come up with a brand new theme each time—I only have so many major life lessons to share! I’m wondering how to convey these themes to reach readers who’ll appreciate them. Two related bog posts:

Tips about writing back cover copy that hooks the potential reader, from a webinar featuring Lee Silber, https://emilybuehler.com/2019/cover-copy-tips/

Considering the “inciting incident” that led to a misconception I held as an adult: the time in middle school when a boy made fun of me for going to the school dance, https://emilybuehler.com/2019/the-legacy-of-middle-school/


That’s probably enough news for now. It’s nice that spring keeps returning each year to bring the feeling of promise, even as life progresses steadily on.

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby

Writing for My People

a couple in a coffeeshop, seen through the window; they are holding hands and she is wearing glasses
They’re on a date! And she’s wearing glasses!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the different communities of readers in the world. As a future published fiction author, I want to write books that readers will like. At the same time, I want to write books that I like.

A lot of book characters have different lifestyles than I do.* Which is fine, but sometimes I wish I could read about a character more like me. So perfect; I’ll write that character!

But I see these things so often… is this what readers want? Is my writing career doomed if I can’t muster the willpower to include these in my books?

Ugh I Could Never Write This

Here are some things you probably won’t find in my books:

a candy car with caramel and chocolate poking out of a wrapper
Delicious… or toxic?
  • Characters eating junk food constantly, with relish. I dislike how the sugar and corn (syrup) industries have so much power, and how their products cause major health problems.
  • Female characters wearing makeup and heels. Some women like to wear these—great. But other women wear them because they are expected to in their job or situation, which bothers me.
  • Characters wearing perfume and cologne. I have a hypothesis about scent: Studies show that scent helps humans determine who their compatible partners are. So wouldn’t wearing perfume or cologne confuse the issue? Blinded by fragrance, people will begin relationships that are less likely to work in the long run. Also I just find all cologne stinky.
  • And even if they’re not wearing cologne, characters always smell like random things (cinnamon, strawberries… sandalwood shows up a lot).
  • Characters who spend their free time shopping and watching television.

Things You Might Find in My Books

Here’s what I’m likely to put in a book. I’m hoping other readers would like characters with these habits:

crackers with hummus spread on them and raw peppers, plus fruit scattered nearby
And then they ate some hummus!
  • Characters eating a meal with vegetables.
  • Characters wearing practical clothes. And when they do dress up, flat shoes.
  • Characters who wear glasses. Even on a date.
  • Characters who smell like soap or clean laundry or vague, natural things like “the forest.”
  • Characters who read and go on walks in their free time.

*I’m not saying these things are wrong or that I don’t ever do them, just that I don’t want to promote them or encourage them to be the norm.

eight teenage girls in formal dresses outside a school, posing for a photo

The Legacy of Middle School

Each week I listen to Write-Minded, a podcast of “Weekly Inspiration for Writers.” The episode on January 28, 2019, was “Healing through Writing” featuring Francesca Lia Block. (You can listen to it here: https://podcast.shewrites.com/healing-through-writing/.)

During the episode, one of the hosts commented that everyone has an incident from childhood that results in the “flaws” we must heal as adults. This statement seemed too broad to be true—doesn’t anyone just have a nice childhood that leads to a healthy adulthood? But at the same time, I immediately knew what my incident was.

The Backstory

Let me set the scene: I was shy and still friends only with girls. When I started middle school, school dances appeared. I decided I had no interest in them: I didn’t want to dance with a boy, so what was the point? So while all my friends went, I stayed home. Really, I was just scared of going to a dance, of moving into new territory with boys and who knew what else.

eight teenage girls in formal dresses outside a school, posing for a photo
Here we are! Actually, this photo was from the last dance of middle school, in eighth grade.

The last dance of sixth grade was on my birthday. I wanted to have a party, but I knew my friends would want to go to the dance. “Why don’t you have a party,” my encouraging friend Kelli said, “and then we’ll all go to the dance together?” That sounded manageable, plus I didn’t want to let her down, so I agreed.

And it turned out dances were fun! There was very little dancing, at least among my crowd of friends. There was a lot of giggling, talking about who was cute, and running to the girls’ bathroom when any boy looked your way. Toward the end of the two hours, a few brave souls ventured out for a “slow dance,” which looked awkward, dull, and not much like actual dancing.

After that, I was in. I was going to the dances from then on.

The Inciting Incident

Emily in a flowered dress on a deck, with and without a white jacket
I would still wear this dress. I would not, however, pair it with a white Miami Vice jacket.

I remember the boy involved. But he could be a lawyer now, so I will withhold his name. Let’s call him M. It was seventh grade, and I left the cafeteria to buy a ticket for the dance that Friday, from the ticket booth set up in the hallway. I was heading back to my table when he struck.

“Why did you buy a ticket for the dance?” M asked from his seat as I passed.

I knew he was about to be mean, but felt I had to answer. I don’t remember what I mumbled back, maybe “Just to go” or “They’re fun.”

“No one wants to dance with you,” he said, his whole face cringing in disgust.

And he was right, it seemed. No one did ask me to dance. Never mind that no one asked anyone else to dance either, or that I hadn’t wanted to dance, or that slow dancing looked pointless and stupid. No one asking me seemed to prove M right. I didn’t dance with a boy until the end of eighth grade, when Valerie decided she’d had enough of everyone standing by the bleachers and started dragging boys over to us and pairing us off. I remember that boy’s name, too. The song was “Open Arms” by Journey. Slow dancing was just as unpleasant as I’d expected.

The Aftermath

two women with loaded bicycles under a tall sign that says "Welcome to Idaho" with evergreen trees in back
Mary and I at the top of Lolo Pass on the bike trip

I think of my cross-country bicycle trip as the major event that began my healed life, but probably writing about the trip was what actually did it. The memoir of the trip, Somewhere and Nowhere, explores a few themes, but the general idea is that getting away from the noise and busyness of regular life enabled me to see my patterns more clearly, the first step in overcoming them.

A few scenes come to mind when I remember the middle school dance incident:

  • Becoming extremely self-conscious because of the cute barista in the coffee shop in Powell, Wyoming. While writing this scene, and struggling to figure out what “becoming self-conscious” actually meant, I realized all the thoughts I’d had during the moment, such as thinking the barista would be repulsed if he knew I thought he was cute (because I was so romantically repulsive—thanks, M!).
  • Talking to Ryan at the Jackson Hot Springs in Montana, and how I’d been acting confident, but felt sure that I could never pull off a whole day in his company.
  • Making up elaborate daydreams about Scott, the ranger on Lolo Pass. I was prone to daydreams because they helped me avoid any real-world actual dating, which was sure to fail because of my flaws.
two log structures with an American flag flying and a parking lot, alongside the road, with a backdrop of evergreen trees
The Lolo Pass ranger station

Writing these scenes helped me realize the negative patterns I had internalized. (One of my early beta readers called Somewhere and Nowhere my “search for Ranger McDreamy,” which made me laugh. But the book has other themes as well, I promise!)

What I’m Writing Now

a view down Lolo Pass with a road and a bicyclist in the distance, mountains beyond, and evergreen trees lining the road
Onward! Heading down Lolo Pass

Since I’ve been writing fiction, I haven’t settled on one genre, but I have identified my mission as a writer: to show characters overcoming beliefs about themselves like the ones I harbored for so long. Even if the story begins with an adult character, it’s helpful to identify the inciting incidents that led to her being the way she is in the story. So maybe I should thank M for giving me such a clear example of how an incident can be internalized, festering for years before it’s exposed and overcome.

shelves filled with books

Cover Copy Tips

cartoon book with blank cover

Last week I watched a webinar from the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA): “Back Story: Back Cover Copy That Sells” with Lee Silber. The recording is available free to IBPA members here: https://www.ibpa-online.org/page/pubuniversityonline. (Non-members were able to sign up for the live webinar, so there may be a way for them to pay for the recording as well, but I don’t know.)

I had thought writing cover copy was simply about creating a good hook to snag readers, but the webinar introduced many more factors to consider. Here are some that I found particularly useful.

Main Points

people looking at books on a table in a store

Some of the points stressed in the webinar are ones I have heard before. But I had heard them in other contexts, like writing blog posts. I had not considered applying them to a book’s back cover.

  • Put the most important information at the top, in larger text, then work your way down
  • Focus on one main idea, and let your excitement shine through
  • If you use bullet points, 3 is best; otherwise use 5 or 7
  • Keep things simple and clear
  • Focus on the reader and what the book can do for the reader

Consider the Audience

an open book with the pages folded into a heart, with a pink rose

Lee brought up some interesting points about audience, such as the following.

  • Baby Boomers value status and credentials, so you’d want to include a bio on a book targeting them; but Millennials generally don’t care about credentials
  • Emotional words (e.g., heart, kiss, sweet) appeal to women*, so if your target is women, find ways to use these words (e.g., “Kiss procrastination goodbye”)
  • Right-brained readers are hooked by teasing and creative wording, while left-brained readers want a clear problem and solution

Design

The webinar briefly touched on design in a way that was helpful.

  • Design trends change with time; if you’re trying to fit in today, you’d want a minimalist design with less words
  • The cover sets the tone of the story inside
  • Remember your brand and stay true to it
  • Different colors compel people more or less, or convey certain feelings or ideas
  • The headline should be readable in a glance
  • Use a sans serif font for the headlines, and serif font for the copy
outdoor bookshelves in a store, filled with books

The webinar ended with the reminder that books are for people, and your cover copy should make people feel something and show you care about them. There were a lot more details, tips, and examples in the webinar. I recommend watching it if you are interested in learning more about effective back cover copy.


*Lee used the terms “men” and “women” for gender, but the fact that gender is non-binary was addressed. I’m not sure how to properly categorize: maybe “people who are more emotional like emotional wording”? Also note that some viewers may not care for Lee’s humor; to his credit he seemed to realize that his jokes were problematic, mid-webinar.