You’re going to have to have patience with me. I’m about to give directions for how to do something that I am good at doing, but am not sure why I’m good at doing it.
And it’s something of life and death importance to a writer, too.
See, it all started when I got the blurb for Truth in the Dark. It looked, well, they didn’t seem to get the nuance here… and this was sort of a spoiler here… and I wanted people to know how dark it was… and…
And I rewrote it, from beginning to end.
And my editor liked it.
And I revised the next blurb I had, from stem to stern.
And my editor thought it was good.
And for my next few works, I got a “*poke* Hey, how about you write this one first!” and it took me a while to realize that I was writing all of my blurbs from scratch.
And then I got a request to write other people’s blurbs, and so, for a while, I was doing that, for fun! (And yes, before you all freak out—it was fun! But only in small quantities, which is why I turned down the actual job.)
I still get the occasional “Hey, can you give us a hand?” e-mail, and I’m proud of that—of all things, I did not know that writing blurbs could be a superpower. But as I read around to other people’s blurbs, I’m starting to think that maybe I should spread my superpower around a little—because it’s important. People, the blurb on the jacket is a reader’s second intro into your work after the cover picture, and it never ceases to amaze me that writers who will agonize with an artist over their cover art will accept a blurb that does nothing for the sales of their book. Folks, if your publisher presents a blurb to you and says, “What do you think?” they are asking for your feedback, and you owe it to your book to think about whether or not that blurb suits your needs.
A good blurb has the following things—character, setting, mood, conflict and trope.
Now notice I didn’t say plot! While it’s true that the plot of your book is important, the plot of your book is about twelve-zillion tiny discrete happenings between characters and events—trying to put all of that into two hundred words is an unholy nightmare of disjointed events. Don’t even attempt. What you’re looking for is the type of plot you’ve used. Now, while we all strive for a completely original work, every damned time, the fact is, there are certain elements in books that we all recognize, and that readers recognize, and we want to clue them in to whether or not those things are in our stories. That is where trope comes in. There are types of plot—sometimes many of them blended into the same work—that some readers either love or hate. While you don’t want to give away the ending, you do want to include those things in the blurb.
Pessimist that I am, I like to think of the blurb as a big fat warning sign for stuff that pisses readers off.
An example? The blurb for Chase in Shadow.
Now, Chase in Shadow was a painful, painful book to write. It is, as I call it, Code Black Angst. And, let’s face it, sometimes readers just aren’t in the mood for that crap! The reader who picked up If I Must for the cute kitten and loved the alpaca with the hat are not necessarily going to want to read about this suicidal kid with the dark porn secret. I needed to put that in the blurb.
And even the readers who eat the angst up with a spoon—those people who read Locker Room, popped up, blew their noses, wiped their eyes, and said, “Is that all you got, bitch? Bring that shit on!” – even those people aren’t going to be all pro with the whole “cheating on the girlfriend with the many dudes in porn” scenario. I needed to put that in the blurb.
That blurb went back and forth between my editor and I about twelve times, each one of us tweaking a word here, a verb there, and an adjective everywhere. We needed it all—the attempted suicide, the cheating, the multiple partners on camera—but we needed to do it subtly, without giving away the spoilers. What we ended up with looks fairly simple—but, dammit, nobody who hated that book could claim they walked into that scenario blind. And that was all done by including the tropes I knew readers looked for, so they could decide whether the characters, setting, conflict and mood made up for elements they don’t usually like.
Now, closely related to tropes, the conflict is also damned important to state in the blurb—but it needs to be stated in broad terms. Chase’s conflict was almost completely internal—so we needed to talk about “bitter personal demons that love to watch us bleed.” A lot of the conflict in Under the Rushes was external so we needed to frame that as “a world’s fate hangs in the balance”. Look into your old high school English notes, folks; you’ll see your basic conflicts in there. Man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. machine, man vs. supernatural, man vs. nature, man vs. fate—if you identify your main conflicts, the internal and the external, in your blurb, along with your tropes, then your reader has a clear roadmap into what they can expect from your book. That doesn’t mean your fine writing won’t throw your readers some surprises, but it does mean they’ll know what to expect in terms of choosing a book that suits their mood!
And speaking of mood… Setting up the mood in a blurb is where your word mastery comes in. This is the place to pull out your power words. If your book is in the realm of “Code Black Angst”, you’re going to want to go a phrase like “bitter personal demons that love to watch us bleed” over something like, “shadows of the past” or “inner conflicts”. If your book showcases your dry humor, you can pull out your amused Jane Austen narrative voice for the blurb, and if it’s a twelve-hankie weep fest, you can make multiple plays on the words “excruciating heart-rending agony”. (I suggest you be subtler though. Once you club your victims over the head with an idea, they’re less susceptible to the careful nuances of paper cuts and lemon juice that are salted through your prose.)
No matter what the tone or mood of your story, there are power word and grammar choices to make in the blurb that will cue readers to what to expect—and to anticipate--before they open their Kindles.
And that leaves us with setting and character—and because it’s simple, I’m going with setting first.
A setting is a time and a place. The end. However, the setting can also be your mood, your trope, and your conflict, and since your space is limited, be sure to combine functions when you have the chance! In Truth in the Dark, the only setting I offer is “village”—but since I also mention magic and curses, that one word takes us to some sort of Alternate Universe setting, with a pre-industrial time-frame. In Gambling Men, all you had to know about Quent and Jace was their profession—business men—and that puts us in the modern day, and, odds were good, some sort of major metropolitan area. In Chase, the two settings that were really important were the GFP porn site and his own tortured noggin. So yes—make sure your readers have a clear setting in their minds, but you don’t need to just sort of throw this one out like a boulder in the road. Just knowing that it’s a paved road as opposed to a dirt track might be enough.
And now, character. Of course, the blurb-writer’s two best friends in this case are the character epithet and the appositive.
A character epithet is a brief combination of adjectives and nouns that describe a person quickly. “Hunter of the supernatural”, “young student”, “single father”, “prodigal son”, “reckless libertine”—see? A noun, an adjective, and a clear picture of who this person is.
The other best friend of the blurb writer (and the epithet’s younger brother) is the appositive. An appositive is a grammar construct, and it’s simply the reframing of the person mentioned, usually set between two commas. “Shepherd, Angel of Repentance, and Jefischa, Angel of the Fourth Hour of Dark,” puts both our character epithets into appositive form. A combination of these two ideas can condense your two leads into a very concise sentence, and that is very helpful in blurb writing.
An example would be this: In a perfect moment of cold November sunshine, pudgy accountant Kit Allen realizes Jesse, his new office assistant, is everything he's ever dreamed about in a man.
See? Right there, you’ve got two epithets, one in appositive, a setting, and a conflict all rolled into one sentence. If you figure that “pudgy” is sort of a playful word, you also get tone, and all that’s left are a few flourishes to include the tropes. Ta-da! A not-bad blurb.
And there you go—some pointers in writing an acceptable two-hundred-word blurb.
Now many of you are thinking, “Hey—isn’t it my publisher’s job to provide me with a blurb?”
Well, yes. But like I said in the beginning—they’re as fallible as we are. This is a tricky process, almost as much magic as science—but the writer is the original magician. If you get your blurb back and think, “Well, I wouldn’t read that book!” most of our publishers will let us help tinker! And like I said, your blurb is at least as important as your cover art in attracting readers. If you get your blurb back and it’s cluttered, or you don’t like the prose choices, or you think, “Well, they got the plot points, but that’s not what the book is about, really,” by all means send back an alternative draft. Half the time when I was writing blurbs, I’d look up the books I’d written for and find that the blurb had been changed. That is the nature of a collaborative effort, and sometimes it really does take a village to write a blurb. Just don’t settle for, “Okay,” or “Decent,” when you get your blurb back. If you wouldn’t let something confusing or irritating happen on your cover art, you’d better make sure your words are just as in order as your pictures.
After all—this is the entry way to your own work. Make sure someone else’s words aren’t obscuring the open door.