back cover copy

In case the featured image isn’t readable, here’s the text:

In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more. Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.

Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan. But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard and a paradox that holds the key to her fate:

How do you find a Finder?

(Spoilers for VOICE in what follows.)

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Since pretty much the first talk I gave in grad school, I’ve known I don’t have the knack for cutting to the chase.

This is not altogether a bad thing, especially as someone who makes his living analyzing data. Getting hung up on technicalities and weird patterns is a good way to spot errors, which in turn is a good way to stay humble about your work — and realistic about the work of others, who may exaggerate their findings. (You’d never do that, of course.)

But data analysts almost always need, at some point, to become data communicators, and that’s where this tendency can make you fall down. You can’t communicate every possible confound and caveat. Probably you can’t even communicate every substantive point. You need to concentrate on the absolute most important features of the analysis, explain them in the simplest language possible… then leave it alone for a few hours, come back, and sand it down even further. Then do it again. Then run it by someone who doesn’t know the problem too well, take their feedback, and do it again… and then maybe it will penetrate the 800 other things on the CEO’s mind and take root to do some good.

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This is not a post about data, exactly, but it is a post about compression. Traditionally published authors need to do it to sell to agents and editors; indie authors need to do it to sell to customers. As someone who’s attempted both, I’ve compressed various books in a variety of forms: Query letters, Twitter pitches, product descriptions.

And I’m not any better at it as an author than I am as a data scientist.

As an author, I suffer from delusions. I think my books are un-summarizable; I am proud that they are un-summarizable, that nuance and novelty and complexity are (in my mind) in fact a key feature of my writing. And, you know, maybe I’m right! At any rate, I try to write stories I’d like to read, and nuance and novelty and complexity are attributes I value and seek out in literature. But even books I like for these exact reasons, and try to emulate–say, the Book of the New Sun–have product descriptions, and most of them are famous enough that the product descriptions can safely be presumed to be doing some useful work. If a publisher can boil Gene Wolfe down to a gripping little ingot of back cover copy, I should be able to do the same for my own work.

Which is what brings us to VOICE.

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Carla Speed McNeil is a writer and artist of comics, but her writing has pretty well everything I could think to strive for in my own: Humor, heart, intelligence, care, world-building so solid you forget the book is nothing but black lines on white paper. (That’s leaving aside the visual storytelling, which is also really fucking good, but I digress.) Although she’s writing science fiction, and science fiction comics at that, her stories are intensely focused on emotions and relationships. VOICE is no exception. It is a coming-of-age story in some sense, but the coming-of-age ritual isn’t necessarily interesting in and of itself — it’s deliberately vapid, actually, its only usefulness in the purposes it serves…

And maybe this is where we start turning to the back cover copy.

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“In the domed city of Anvard, society is defined by an intricate network of clans: the stolid Medawar, the flamboyant Llaverac, and dozens more.” Function: Set the scene. It’s perhaps worth noting that most of this is strictly irrelevant to the story: Rachel is competing for admission into Llaverac; there’s nothing about the dome, almost nothing about other clans. In meaningful ways, not much about this story would change if the Llaverac were a weird cult instead of a clan with broad recognition. But we’re looking to interest people who might not understand the setting, so we zoom out a bit.

“Clan membership means status and security; the options for outcasts without the protection of a clan are few and grim.” Function: Delineate the stakes.

But this gets interesting, because it overstates the material consequences of Rachel’s bid. About the only thing that’s explicitly at stake is her sisters’ ability to go to school — which, as explicitly stated in the book, neither seems to want or need to do. Their mother was a member of Llaverac and life was still hard, and when (spoilers) Rachel is admitted to the clan at the end, she does win a house, but she can’t pay the servants. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the series, there are characters who seem to do all right who aren’t in clans.

Being admitted to Llaverac is a lot more about Rachel’s personality and desires than it is about her *needing* to get into Llaverac. But that’s hard to convey in a small space, because it’s hard to convey Rachel in a small space — and you’d run a strong risk of making her sound kind of spoiled and bitchy if you tried.

“Rachel Grosvenor has grown up straddling worlds. The daughter of a Medawar father and a Llaverac mother, half raised by her mother’s nomadic lover, Rachel has fought her way through the grueling contest for admission to the Llaverac clan.” The “grueling contest” is a beauty contest. Rachel has “fought her way through” in a sense — I’ve heard how hard it is to be a model, and I don’t doubt it — but this phrasing conjures up a more… shall we say, classical set of trials?

Presumably the bit about Rachel straddling worlds and being mixed-clan by ancestry is to accentuate how difficult the contest is likely to be? I can’t imagine why else you’d use up this many words on those biographical facts. (Which are interesting and important — but, recall, the problem we’re trying to solve here is how to get a reader to open the book.) Interestingly, prejudice doesn’t appear to have stood in Rachel’s way all that much at any point.

“But just as her social ascent seems inevitable — and her family’s future secure — the theft of an indispensable heirloom sends her spiraling into the dark underbelly of Anvard…” It’s probably worth noting that this all happens in Chapter 1. No deep analysis of all the crazy plot that occurs in the dark underbelly of Anvard, and there’s a lot of it… we just point Rachel in the right general direction, remove the safety, and leave the rest for the would-be reader.

“… and a paradox that holds the key to her fate: How do you find a Finder?

I suppose “holds the key to her fate” is one of those phrases that’s calibrated to maximize both portent and plausible deniability? Rachel is looking for a Finder, but she doesn’t find him. She finds help, but it isn’t really the right kind of help — at least, it isn’t her clan ring, which is what she’s looking for, the loss of which is what’s theoretically disqualifying her from clan membership.

It’s Rachel’s own wits and guts that ultimately win her acceptance into the clan. To me, that’s much more the “key to her fate,” even if looking for a Finder had something to do with bringing her to it.

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Is there anything we can learn from all this? 1300+ words in, there’d better be.

I’m proceeding on the assumption that this is a good product description. This doesn’t seem like a crazy assumption: The thing is brief, it’s intriguing; it has the principal, the problem, the setup, the stakes.

What it isn’t is accurate. In my view. In, shall we say, incomplete seriousness, I’ll go so far as to suggest that it’s intentionally deceptive*: It suggests that Rachel has “fought” for acceptance, that she needs a Finder to close the deal, that her family will be fucked if she fails. Whereas Rachel’s acceptance into the clan is contingent mostly on the results of a beauty contest, that she strictly fails at that contest and gets what she wants by an inspired bit of blackmail, and that her success is mostly important to Rachel herself, not her family, which by its own assessment is doing fine.

It would be a mistake to suggest that the hero’s journey is absent from the pages of VOICE; Rachel does literally venture into and return from the dark underbelly of Anvard, having learned things and retrieved things and walked unscathed away from encounters with monsters. But the cover copy doubles down on the Campbell notes, scanting the internal dimensions of the stakes, the quest, and the victory. And it’s not so hard to understand that shift in emphasis. VOICE in my “accurate” summary is the story of a vain girl out for herself; VOICE in the words of its cover is a plucky quest story about a hero whose family is in danger. VOICE in its fullness is a little bit of both of these things and a lot of something else… but, strapped for space, you can see the appeal of the plucky quest story.

There’s obviously a political dimension to that assessment, and I have neither fuel nor spark to interrogate it deeply, beyond acknowledging that, yeah, we want to be careful about saying that stories of women out to improve their own circumstances are intrinsically unappealing. But, to wax obvious: I think we are drawn to altruism, to real journeys to tangible dark places, to MacGuffins. They are fluent; we understand them easily, and so we like them.

I suppose there’s also an audience dimension. FINDER is a science fiction comic, two genres not known for their friendliness to the general reader, or to women. The particular distortions of this product description might have as much to do with making the pitch sound like science fiction, or at least congenial to science fiction readers, as anything else.

But if we can extract some general principles of product description design, maybe they’re these:

  1. Lay out the basics swiftly and clearly: Principal(s), setup, stakes, problems.
  2. Externalize. Stakes, journeys, conflicts: Make them exterior and therefore tangible.
  3. Emphasize the early part of the story, the setup for the start of the action. Don’t go far into the plot.
  4. You’re not trying to capture the spirit of your story; you’re trying to raise questions.

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And that’s probably all the blood that’s likely to come from this stone. Thanks for hanging on, and do seriously consider picking up a copy of VOICE. Or just go pick up the first volume of the FINDER library and start at the beginning.

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