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Posted on 23 Mar, 2012 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 4 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on writing endorsements

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From time to time writers are asked to give endorsements for forthcoming books. These are called straplines in the trade. You know the sort of thing: ‘This out-swashes and out-buckles Bernard Cornwall’. Often the publishers make the request on behalf of a debut writer, because they have no previous reviews or straplines to cite.

I recently received one such request from a publisher who shall be nameless. I refuse when I’m busy or have misgivings about the book, but I wasn’t busy and you never know when you might need a publisher. I agree to look at the book, due to be published in July, but with certain provisos.

First, I undertook to endorse the book only if I was genuinely enthusiastic about it. Then I made a stipulation about length. This was a crime story and in my opinion a crime novel much over 300 pages is padded. So no 500-page door-stopper, please. I put books back on library and bookshop shelves if the font is too small or the print too faint, so I insisted on those two points. Finally, I admitted to a couple of prejudices. I dislike books with unconventional layouts and styles – dashes instead of inverted commas for direct speech for example, or characters with initials instead of names. I detest the rendering, except in one or two passages to give the flavour, of colloquial or ungrammatical speech phonetically – ‘I wos gunna tell ya later,’ for example.

The invitational email had been very polite so I replied similarly, apologising for all the reservations and hoping that they hadn’t given offence. In reply, the editor said that my conditions presented no problems. A proof copy was not available and a bound printout at 14 point would be posted, but I was assured that the finished product would not be in a small font or faint print. I was further assured that the novel was conventional in presentation.

No mention was made about characters with initials and phonetic rendering of slang, but I felt that enough of my points had been covered and I agreed to look at the book.

I’ve had some good straplines in my time; early on, Stephen Knight offered, ‘Peter Corris is undoubtedly a major figure in our time’. Later, I had from James Ellroy, the self-styled demon dog of American literature, ‘Corris’s portrayals of Australia stand out uniquely – forceful, hard-driven, compassionate’.  It behoves a writer to do as he or she would be done by.

The transcript arrived promptly – 307 pages, neatly spiral bound. As judges of literary competitions and readers of publishers’ slush piles know, ten pages is usually enough to tell whether the rest is worth reading. This manuscript passed that test easily. It was a period police-procedural set in Melbourne – not an easy thing to pull off. There must be a balance between the evocation of time and place and the thrust of the narrative. Above all, the writer must avoid anachronism – an expression, a word inappropriate to the period, can kill off that essential ‘suspension of disbelief’. It didn’t happen; I read it from end to end, no skipping. I spotted a few literals and punctuation in some passages of dialogue needed attention. There was time to fix those things.

There was one more major problem, I thought. The manuscript had the same title as another very well known and highly regarded book. I pointed this out to the editor but she said not to worry. Then I happened to have a drink with my publisher, who remarked, quite out of the blue and without me mentioning writing the strapline, that the existing book with that title was going to be reissued as a tie-in to a forthcoming television version. I let the editor know. She thanked me profusely and changed the title. But whatever they call it now, the book will still appear with my wholly positive endorsement on the cover.

4 Comments

  1. I love hearing about the birth of a strapline, and of course now I’m ridiculously curious as to what book we’re talking about!

    I was lucky as a debut author to have a widely read writer in my genre give a wonderful quote. I look forward to being well established enough to be asked to do the same. I’ll remember your tips when the time comes!

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Kim — Yes, Peter’s being very discreet! Knowing that it’s a book that has the same title as another book doesn’t really narrow it down … I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
    As a publisher I always found it nerve-wracking approaching authors to give endorsements. You are asking someone to give up their time — and for no money — so it can feel as if you’re imposing on their good will. And of course the fact you love the book and think it’s a perfect match for them doesn’t mean they’ll see it the same way… Though I have to say in my experience writers are amazingly generous when it comes to these things.
    Linda

    • Super discreet. You will have to review the book here when it comes out and link back to this post!

      I think most authors are pleased to be approached for an enforcement. It’s like a date. You might say no, but it’s always cool to be asked!

  3. Stephen King endorsed The Books of Blood with the strapline: ‘I have seen the new face of horror, and his name is Clive Barker’. The rest is history.

    I got into Barker based on King’s endorsement and would have been mightily disappointed, if he hadn’t indeed, turned out to be ‘the new face of horror’. Luckily, the endorsement was justified …

    Goes to show how much a reader is influenced by straplines and how important it is not to let them down. Good on you, Peter, for refusing to endorse anything you’re not genuinely enthusiastic about. Above all, it shows respect for the reader.

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