One of my most important tasks as an editor is to write flap copy for my books. This is the copy that goes on the inside front and back flaps of the jacket, describing the book in the front and providing a brief biography of the author in the back (usually; with sequels we might put review quotes for the previous book in the back). In the book-buying process, flap copy serves as a useful adjunct to the hand-seller, or sometimes as the salesperson's stand-in altogether: After the potential buyer has been attracted by the book jacket, tempted into picking the book up, the flap copy has to justify and deepen that interest -- convince the buyer to flip to the first page or better still, take the book to the sales counter.
So we spend a lot of time thinking about and writing and rewriting flaps. Good flap copy has a voice the reader can trust, ideally a voice similar to that of the book itself. It doesn't give away too much, but it shows enough leg in both the Action and Emotional Plots that the reader is intrigued by both the characters and the story. And it should end on a positive or suspenseful note to leave the reader wanting to know more, wanting to say yes to the book. It can be hard to write, especially for a book you love, because you know so much about the book and you have to remember the reader knows nothing; and because you love so much about the book that it's difficult to pick out only those things that are most likely to appeal to the reader -- that mythical person in the bookstore holding the book. And that means in turn that you have to try to construct that reader in your head: Adult or child? Male or female? How old? What elements will interest them? What will turn them off? And because you want more than just that one reader: How can you incorporate as many of the interesting elements and as few of the unattractive ones as possible for the whole probable range of your audience, AND still make the whole thing sound good?
(All of the previous paragraph also applies to query letters, by the way, with the exception that you should know enough about the literary tastes of the specific editor/agent to whom you're appealing that you have a decent idea of what would attract him or her, and you write that accordingly.)
I just completed this process for most of my Fall 2009 books, as we're readying their covers right now, and I did three different drafts for one of the novels: Sara Lewis Holmes's Operation YES (formerly known as The New Recruit). While it is clearly impossible for me to analyze these objectively (and, for the record, I'm posting this for informational purposes, not for your criticism), I thought you all might be interested to see my drafts, with a little explanation of the choices that formed them. So here we go:
“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.”I actually really like this copy: The beginning gets at the magic of the Taped Space, it describes the plot of the book and the characters well, and the last paragraph is true. And it incorporates the "Be kind" line, which is one of the key thoughts of the book and a good key thought for life, so its use in the flap tells the reader that this book says true things (which it does). Altogether, this draft pretty much follows the formula I laid forth in this blog post: intriguing opening situation + main characters' concerns + plot twists leading to cliffhanger, with adjective-filled summary paragraph for extra credit. It's classic talking-to-the-adults style of copy -- in fact, I originally wrote this draft as the catalog copy, which is read solely by librarians and booksellers. And there's nothing wrong with that style of copy for some books. . . . I've written many, many flaps like that over the years.
It’s just a rectangle of tape on a plain linoleum floor. Ten feet long, four feet deep, at the front of a sixth-grade classroom on an Air Force base in North Carolina. But when Miss Loupe steps into the space, it becomes a putting green. A prison cell. A stage. And she teaches her students how to make that magic—theatre—happen as well.
Bo loves the improvisation exercises: They focus his restless energies and distract him from his father’s impending deployment overseas. But Gari has more important things to worry about—like getting her mom home safe from Iraq. When Miss Loupe’s brother goes missing in Afghanistan and Miss Loupe herself breaks down, Gari, Bo, and the rest of the class have to improvise their way through their own “great battles” . . . and find a way to help their teacher fight hers.
The first middle-grade novel about the home front during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation YES is a poignant, funny, and generous book about an amazing teacher and the students she inspires.
But in this case, I wanted something with a little more energy and less formality, something to signal the unpredictability of the book and the interesting things it does structurally and stylistically. That desire led to the next draft:
Hey you! New Recruit!This does the fun talking-to-the-reader thing, which happens a little in the book as well, and I've always wanted to write a flap like that. (This flap may yet still happen.) But I pretty much drop that conceit after those opening lines. And this starts out all military and matter-of-fact, then turns lyrical by the end, losing sight of the characters in the process. It's still fun, and I probably could have corrected the errors. But I happened to be developing this approach at the same time:
Yeah, Person Holding This Book. I’m talking to YOU.
Here is where you are: Reform, North Carolina—home of an Air Force base, an old school, and one Ugly, Ugly Couch.
Here are three people you need to know:
• Bo—the son of an Air Force colonel, he’s moved so much that he doesn’t know where he belongs.
• Gari—her mom just went overseas with the Army, but she has a great big PLAN to get her back to the States.
• Miss Loupe—the teacher who can turn that Ugly Couch into a boat, a hammock, a dinosaur, a stage.
Here is what happens when they come together with the rest of Miss Loupe’s class: Making stuff up. Writing it down. Finding the cracks. Saying “Yes.”
A theater troupe. A food fight. Art with little green Army men.
A loss, unimaginable. Friends, unforgettable.
And a new plan called Operation YES.
And I liked this one best of all. The book is structured in three Plans, which are as intriguing in the text as I hope they are here, so it gets points for reflecting the book. The differing styles of the bold and (parenthetical) statements created automatic tension between the two, just as tension is created by the mere existence of Plans B and C, so it hints at conflict and also some humor. I got to work in the tattoo, which was one of the details that caught my eye and heart the very first time I read the manuscript. And the way Miss Loupe's statements disrupt the pattern set by Bo and Gari's statements reflects the way she shakes up their lives in the book.PLAN ABo is going to behave for his new teacher.
(His father, an Air Force colonel, says so.)
Gari is going to live peacefully with her cousin.
(Her mother, an Army nurse, says so.)
Miss Loupe is going to teach her class language arts, social studies, math, and science.
(What’s supposed to stay secret: the improvisational theatre—and her tattoo.)PLAN B
Bo stages a food fight.
(His father isn’t pleased.)
Gari stages a protest.
(The Army isn’t pleased.)
And when something happens that none of them could plan for . . . Miss Loupe goes missing too.
And what comes out of that is . . .PLAN C
It involves misbehaving—and working together.
Protests, fighting—and making something amazing.
Not for themselves. For everyone they know.
It’s a plan so big, so daring, so life-changing, that it can only be called
(Digression: People interested in voice might note that the big central space in this draft steals a trick I've used before, in this post back in January. The irregular spacing serves to signal an emotional shift: in the January post, that I stopped writing to daydream about George Clooney; in the flap draft, that Miss Loupe's disappearance causes a rift in the steady forward motion of the characters' lives, as signaled by the rift in the flap text itself. This is not a device original or unique to me, certainly, but the fact that I've used it multiple times means it's become part of my writing voice, one of the techniques you might watch for if you were trying to identify something written by me. Not that I expect any of you to be doing that! But if you read a writer long enough, it's a fun game to play. . . . I bet I could identify a good eighty percent of the current New Yorker staff writers based on two paragraphs from their articles.)
Back to the flap: The line in blue was originally "And when Miss Loupe's soldier brother goes missing in Afghanistan . . ." In talking the copy over, Sara pointed out that that gave away one of the big surprises of Act II, and that was probably something we ought to try to preserve for the reader. I remembered how shocked I was when I hit that point in the ms. for the first time -- I think I said "Oh no" right out loud. (I expect all of you to scrub this blog post from your minds as soon as you finish reading it, so you can preserve the surprise for yourselves when you read the book.) So I changed the line, with Sara's approval. (Authors always get to approve their flap copy, by the way, at least in our office. It's the one time they get to edit me! And I strongly suspect many of them enjoy it.)
Finally, the Plan C section brings together a number of the threads set up earlier in the flap in very much the way the actual Operation YES brings together the motifs of the novel. And it will round the flap off visually with one last centered word -- the title. So this last option was the clear winner, and what will appear on bookstore shelves when the book is published next September.