Trying too hard: How to lose the reader before she opens your book
I am not sure whether this is a rant about one of my personal bêtes noires or good advice about what not to put in a blurb. I guess that will depend on how many people share my jaundiced reactions to the examples.
The particular style of “trying too hard” I’m thinking of today is the supposedly humorous novel whose author beats you over the head with how funny! it all is before you even have a chance to open the book. I assume we’ve all encountered the sort of sad-sack fiction in which the author makes sure you know that a character’s dialogue is hysterically funny by having all the other characters fall over themselves laughing every time Mr. Funny says, “Good morning.” Excellent way to get a book walled before the end of the first chapter.
The recent discussion of Bob Honey reminded me of the many ways in which a writer can make sure I don’t open his book at all. And no, I’m not going to take examples from that book; it’s needlessly cruel, like nuking fish in a barrel. I trawled through Amazon’s blurbs and reviews for Fiction – Humor and found plenty of material.
There are certain words that pop out like red flags when I see them, especially if they’re bolded at the top of the blurb.
Laugh out loud! Hilarious! Zany!
Sorry, but Ms. Grinch here immediately asks herself, “And just why are you so desperate to convince me that what follows is so funny? Haven’t you ever heard of show-don’t-tell? One line that actually cracks me up would be worth a thousand of these attempts to persuade.”
When this kind of hard sell goes over the top, as in This sometimes raunchy, sometimes cringeworthy comedy, I am completely unsold. Keep your raunch and your cringes; I’ll read somebody who doesn’t feel the need to tell me how I should react.
P. G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett were Grand Masters of the hilariously evocative name. Most of us are not in that class. If you feel the need to tag your characters with names you find side-splitting, do yourself the favor of glancing over their oeuvres first. You should notice that “Gussie Fink-Nottle” and “Ponder Stibbons” suit their characters without falling into the trap of being pushily descriptive. I will not read books that feature an eccentric butterfly collector named Flutterby, an incompetent pickpocket named Butterfingers, or a blonde ditz named Titsy McBoom. (I’m not sure whether this sort of thing comes under Trying Too Hard or Not Trying Hard Enough. It may be a case of taking the first ‘funny’ name off the shelf.)
An opening that introduces us to a gloriously eccentric cast of characters can be a great start to a comic novel. A blurb that attempts to do the same, while dialing up eccentricity to twelve… not so much. When I read,
“a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, an ineffective jihadist, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, a creationist and his very extended family, a pill-popping doctor, a drop-dead sexy clepto-nympho-suicidal-maniac, and a rogue Illuminati mastermind,”
the effect is not, “Ooh, amusing group of people,” so much as, “random selection chosen for shock value.” The stench of desperation is strong here. Also, learn how to spell kleptomaniac before you try to use it.
Here’s another actual, straight-from-the-official-blurb example:
“This funny world of action & adventure connects Professor Harry Dandruff, a wealthy inventor with hair problems and a questionable past; his six clones with abundant problems of their own; a run-of-the-mill everyman-loser who’s just officially died and has nothing left to unofficially live for; a humorous, lazy, and leering President of the United States, trying to do the minimum for his legacy in the history books; a megalomaniac with a fake Ph.D and a plan to control the world’s religions by cloning their symbolic mascots; a comedy rivalry between the Gay Brigade and the Lesbian Lineup for world domination – or world apocalypse.”
That’s right, this gem combines Unfunny Name Syndrome with Cast of Thousands. And no, I did not make this one up either. I’m not naming titles/authors because I don’t like holding people up to public obloquy, but I am quoting directly from the blurbs because they are so much worse than anything I can invent
No, this is not a comic romp. This is throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting.
“Billy, a recalcitrant seven—almost eight—year-old, fed up with his mom, runs away. The SuperMart manager, Mitch Spooner, locks down the store, but refuses to call the police, lest they discover just how much he has been embezzling. In the locked down store, Sandy, a YouTube preacher looking for her big break, finally gets her chance to preach to a captive audience. Lee Rigg, just an average guy, if a little bit dumber than most, misinterprets Sandy’s sermon and takes it upon himself to apprehend the scumbag he thinks must have kidnapped Billy. And a red squirrel named Rusty plans to outwit all the humans to steal the newly arrived shipment of roasted, salted nuts that will put him on easy street.”
And the Golden Club (the better to beat your reader over the head with) goes to:
“What could possibly happen when a gloriously dippy millennial becomes the right hand of an equally clueless playboy billionaire? Be prepared to face-palm as you follow Isa Maxwell on a dizzying ride through the world of corporate intrigue; roll your eyes at the dubious business advice of Mr. Hue, the owner of [REDACTED]; cringe as you are sucked into the Maxwell family drama.
Praised as “not only a hysterically funny romp through corporate practices but an astute satire on current American culture,” [TITLE REDACTED FOR PROTECTION OF THE GUILTY] offers a hilarious escape from reality.”
Lessee. I’ve just been told to face-palm, roll my eyes, and cringe. In addition, I’ve been informed that this is a hysterically funny romp, a hilarious escape from reality and an astute satire.
Definitely award-worthy. And definitely not going to pollute my Kindle any time soon. “Free” is way too expensive in this case.