Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Write a Shelf-Talker

Ever since reading Blake Butler's piece in Vice; a piece designed, I suppose, to give me pause about my predictable and humorless taste in writing by a fresh and privileged crop of spoiled Anglo-Saxons, I can't stop thinking about my own work, namely that which permeates the store: I'm talking, of course, about shelf-talkers. Those unassuming sheets of paper you see dangling off of bookstore shelves, designed to draw a reader in and leave them wanting more.

My early work was on fire: 

This novelization of the Civil-War, written from the perspective of a 16-year-old nurse, 
is mostly fact-based. -Colin

But lately, something's missing. It's like I've lost whatever spark it was that made me want to write about books in the first place. Take, for instance, my latest in-store effort, which one student bookseller from Macalester called "a really funny joke," giving me the thumbs up from across the store as if the two of us were in on it together. 

Seriously? You're reading this? She won the Man Booker Prize. Twice!
Fine, go ahead, read what the Guardian had to say about it, see what I care. -Colin 

My writing needs a facelift. Or a page-lift, rather. But in a way so you can still read what it says. I need to make my pithy blurbs pithier, I need to make my zingers zing, I need to help check-out this customer, one second... To help me get inspired, I took a walk around the store to read the blurbs from famous authors and see how the big guys get the job done. Here's Stephen King on Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse:

Excuse me, that's a picture I took of a robotic recycling bin, apparently racing the gentleman on the right at last week's Robotics Alley Conference, featuring author Daniel H. Wilson. Here it is:

"Terrific page-turning fun."
Stephen King 

"Terrific page-turning fun." How do you like that? It's almost as if King was responding to a question asked by someone sitting by him on a plane and wanted to make clear he wasn't up for small talk. It's as if he excerpted fragments of a blurb he'd written previously and cobbled together the words "terrific," "page-turning," and "fun." And maybe the word "amazed," but it didn't make sense. For Pete's sake, it's like the guy was losing money per word. Or the literary opposite of that Keanu Reeves movie where the bus has to travel at 50 mph in order to... take part in some kind of incomprehensible math equation, I think. I never saw the movie, but it sounded pretty high-impact if you're really into math.

I went outside for some fresh air and smoked Gouda and soon found myself in line at the St. Paul Cheese Shop, where I came across this charming little shelf-talker about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the Greek islands. Not bad. And the writing was good, too. Informative and to the point, with a kind of homage to humor, as if to say it plain, "We are joking about cheese," as opposed to my usual habit of beating readers over the head with a joke and asking for a raise of hands to see who got it. Reminded me a bit of Martin's emails, come to think of it. The last of which, written in response to my inquiring about a raise, said simply, and hilariously, "No." Ha! Oh, Martin.

On my way back to the shop, distracted by the smell of Kachaloo and Classic Aloha Pineapple radiating in the alley between Khyber Pass and Jamba Juice, respectively, I took a left instead of right and came across a sign I'd never thought of as a means of drumming up excitement, but has always caught my eye.

Talk about concision! I don't even think they're attempting to make a joke. Maybe if there wasn't any traffic and the sign was hanging out, wasting power in the middle of nowhere-Minnesota or something. That would be funny.

I sat down to the task at hand, determined to sum up David Foster Wallace's The Pale King in a sentence or two as crisp and strictly professional as the cold November air, minus the smell of spicy lamb and strawberries mixed together, when Bookseller Joe stepped out of the back office dressed in mittens and a scarf, and either blowing on his hands or pretending to play the harmonica, asked if I'd read Donald Ray Pollock's latest blurb about the collected works of Scott McClanahan. Which I hadn't and proceeded to, and thus abandoned everything I thought I knew about how--the hell--to write a shelf-talker. Listen to this:

"...the overall effect of reading his deceptively simple stories is like getting hit in the head by a champion cage fighter cranked up on meth that was cooked in a trailer without running water in some Kentucky backwoods where people sing murder ballads to their children to put them to sleep." 

Is that even a blurb!? The first line's a keeper but once he gets going it's not even clear if the guy realizes he's talking out loud. "Murder ballads to their children"? Seriously? Is that in the book or something? Just a hunch, but I'm pretty sure "Cranked up on meth that was cooked in a trailer without running water..." is less in reference to Scott McClanahan's short stories than an overzealous exercise in dactylic tetrameter.

I say do what you want, write what you feel, mean it or don't, forget about forgiving and just move on, exclamation points or no exclamation points! I'm fairly certain one of those is a quote from Grosse Pointe Blank, come to think of it, which leads me to my last bit of advice: Take your time.


scott mcclanahan said...

I do sing murder ballads to my children. One day I will sing them to your children. It will happen. It is true.

scott mcclanahan said...

I will teach you lessons. Soon.