Wednesday, February 29, 2012

No pressure

I’ve had to write a fair amount of back cover copy lately (it’s that time again), and it’s a task I always hate. Think about it. You’ve not only seen the manuscript—you hope—reach its full potential, but you’ve also seen the jacket through its awkward early stages into something everyone is proud of. And now it’s all on you to tie a textual  ribbon a round it all. No pressure.

Sometimes I watch movie trailers to get my head in the right space for enticing brevity. Sometimes they just end up being cautionary tales. I just watched this one, for one of my favorite gangster movies:

Get Carter, the original, not the Stallone crap.

Oh, this is a disaster. Get Carter is a tricky movie. The voiceover is right—Carter is an assassin and he does come home and things do get personal—but that’s not what makes the movie great. It’s all the things outside of the plot—Michael Caine’s portrayal of Carter, the wonderfully spare cinematography, the extraordinary score—that make it much more than a movie about an uncommonly well-dressed maniac. But you’d never get that from the trailer. The last line--“Get Carter before Carter gets you”--is the worst because at no point in the movie are you scared of Carter. The trailer sets up all the wrong expectations.

Then I moved on to another trailer for another great movie that’s really tough to summarize:

When I was a kid and my father would come across this on TV, he’d always stop to watch it, and I swear, it was always as long as the rest of the afternoon.

This one does a little better, but it still manages to get in its own way. Not only does it misidentify which character is bad and which is ugly, but it manages to make the movie sound like a Civil War epic but tacking on “the blue, the gray” to “the good, the bad, the ugly.” Look, when you’ve got a Morricone score and Leone visuals to play with, you don’t have to write much. In fact, your goal should be to write the absolute minimum possible. (And if you can’t see that saying “the gold” when the gold coins spill out of the bag is a unnecessary, then I can’t help you. No one can.)

And this is where writing BCC turns into karmic payback for query letters. You have to write just enough but not too much, and then you have to get the hell out of the way. Much harder than it seems.

If memory serves, the copy on the back of this jacket was spot on and worthy of an extraordinary book with a great jacket. It helped that it was the author’s own words: “I am here, Master. Command me.” Perfect.

(Hey, look at that, from bottom to top we have good, bad, and ugly.)