As I’ve probably stated before in my writing reference titles, articles and workshops, I’m not a big believer in hard-and-fast rules, and even the ones stated in this lesson can be legitimately broken. I break them all the time myself–if you take a look at the blurb examples on my Blurb Service website. The short list here includes things that are best to do or not to do and there’s good reason for treading carefully when defying any of them. That said, if something works, it just works and who cares about rules when it does? But be careful in any case. Let’s go over some tips to think about when it comes to crafting and revising blurbs.
A Rose By Any Other Name
A main character’s name (first, not always surname) is considered important in a blurb almost always, especially if more than one main character is brought up in the back cover blurb (naming names avoids confusion). While a series or high-concept blurb can be generalized, the back cover blurb isn’t and should never be. Name your main character(s) in your back cover blurb. Don’t call them the unspecified “a driven cop” or a “distressed mother” for two paragraphs. Think “ingenuous Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon”, “fearless wizard Harry Potter”, “plucky, boldly curious amateur sleuth Nancy Drew”. Allow readers a glimpse into the world of the character that’s distinctly personalized.
As a kind of humorously exaggerated example, let’s read the back cover blurb for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone entirely devoid of his name, with just unspecified generalizations instead:
An [eleven-year-old boy] has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified [the kid] will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when [this guy] is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, [the little dude] finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny.
We’re all laughing here, but I’ve read so many back cover blurbs where it almost seems like the author went out of his way to avoid naming his character, like the name is attached to a curse or something (yes, another Harry Potter reference). When unspecified characters are referred to in this way all through a few paragraphs of blurb, the result can be a feat of hilariously-written acrobatics.
Right Place, Right Time
The main time period(s) and setting(s) are also worth including, especially if they’re a focus of the story. Most modern stories don’t require specific references to either in the back cover blurb. But do try to include this information in the same way we described in the last paragraph–in a setting descriptor punch, so you can have the most impact with very few words used. You can even combine them, such as “Manhattan socialite”. Let’s look at an example of a setting descriptor punch from Stephen King’s It:
Welcome to Derry, Maine, a small city as hauntingly familiar as your own hometown…
only in Derry the haunting is real.
The time-period can usually be drawn from the blurb without the need for overt declarations, as you can see they were in most of the high-concept blurbs we looked at for movies and books in Chapter Two, and in this example from The Scandalous Flirt by Olivia Drake:
Aurora Paxton was once the belle of the ball, the most sought-after debutante of the season―until a scandalous mistake ruined her. Shunned by her family, Rory was banished to the country to live in disgrace.
Be In Control of Your Hyperbole
Embellishment, overkill–it’s the stuff of blurbs and that’s not a bad thing, though you don’t want to tip right over the edge into pure melodrama. If the stakes aren’t high enough, then you risk not having an irresistible lure, as you see in these:
“A terrible virus has spread across the planet and turned the human race into bloodthirsty monsters. Mankind’s only hope for survival is scientist Robert Neville, the one person left unaffected by the epidemic.” (I Am Legend, Richard Matheson)
“Langdon is instantly plunged into a clandestine world of Masonic secrets, hidden history, and never-before-seen locations–all of which seem to be dragging him toward a single, inconceivable truth.” (The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown)
“En route to London from New York, Flight 305 suddenly loses power and crash-lands in the English countryside, plunging a group of strangers into a mysterious adventure that will have repercussions for all of humankind.” (Departure, A.G. Riddle)
The right hyperbole, controlled and decisive, can have incredible impact. Don’t neglect the oh-so-subtle art of hyperbole in describing your story.
Enough With the Questions Already
Don’t flood your back cover blurb with questions. One or two in just the right place can be effective, but remember the reader doesn’t know anything about this book. If you’re asking questions, one after the other, relentlessly, he’ll be forced to freak out and scream, “How in the heck am I supposed to know? Stop badgering me!” Goodbye, dear reader. Let’s exaggerate again a bit to get the point across, using Landfall by Jerry Aubin. Below, I’ve replaced most of the original, second paragraph of the blurb with a string of relentless questions:
Launched as the last gasp of humanity, the Ship set out to preserve the species by seeding the universe with one billion colonists. Generations of Crew, trained to be either Flight or Marines, have spent 5,000 years protecting the Ship and its civilian cargo from the constant threat of alien violence.
Fifteen-year-old Zax has always had trouble fitting in with the other cadets, but is he finally on the cusp of attaining his dream and gaining entrance to the Pilot Academy? Will catching the eye of the Flight Boss and winning him as a mentor guarantee Zax a top spot? Will the shocking discovery he makes along the way destroy not only his career, but also the Ship itself?
The focus and suspense in this story is entirely lost in the onslaught of badgering questions.
Pardon My French, But Blurbs Need to Use Strong, Visual Language
Use words that evoke vivid images in your blurb–strong, direct, sharp, intriguing, compelling, powerfully impacting, proactive words that will resonate with readers. But also keep in mind that a blurb is the wrong place to have long sentences. Short and to the point will motivate a reader better than long, complicated sentences. Take look at this example of fairly short sentences and extremely vivid word usage from The Gender Game by Bella Forrest:
A toxic river divides nineteen-year-old Violet Bates’s world by gender. Women rule the East. Men rule the West. Welcome to the lands of Matrus and Patrus. Ever since the disappearance of her beloved younger brother, Violet’s life has been consumed by an anger she struggles to control. Already a prisoner to her own nation, now she has been sentenced to death for her crimes. But one decision could save her life. To enter the kingdom of Patrus, where men rule and women submit.
Everything about the patriarchy is dangerous for a rebellious girl like Violet. She cannot break the rules if she wishes to stay alive. But abiding by rules has never been her strong suit, and when she is thrust into more danger than she could have ever predicted, Violet is forced to sacrifice many things in the forbidden kingdom … including forbidden love.
In a world divided by gender, only the strongest survive…
Also, keep in mind that short words can become “keywords”–literally. Relevant keywords are ones that search engines can index. Your blurbs could be indexed with keywords, and that’s good promotion.
Good Fiction: Character, Plot, and Setting. Always.
You better believe that characters need to have characterization even in a short back cover blurb and their internal and external conflicts need to be as evident as their goals and motivations in that place. What is a back cover blurb if not a summary of the character, the plot, conflict, the reason to read? What are the stakes? If there aren’t any, then your blurb (and book) isn’t strong enough. Give the reader someone and something to root for. Setting doesn’t need a lot but a hint always enhances. Just like with a character, you can personalize a setting within a blurb in just a few words. All three elements of good fiction need to be included in a blurb. Always. Concisely. Intriguingly, with tension.
Here’s an example taken from a bestseller with all the review-slanted and overinflated comments removed. Pay special attention to how this has strongly described characters, plot and setting in a small amount of space:
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
History has all but forgotten…
In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.
Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.
But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her…
Does your blurb make sense? Is there anything confusing in it? I revised a blurb once that had me scratching my head until I made sense out of it:
Embrace of Memory by Vicki McElfresh
The past stalks Cree Lin in dreams of fire, pain and power he cannot control, but he doesn’t remember the events that left him scarred and shamed. He knows his out of control magic left a village in ruins. He knows people died, but he remembers nothing except fire and pain. He’s forsworn all magic, except his gift with animals. He returns to the village he destroyed, hoping to recover the memories he’s lost and somehow make restitution for his sins.
In the village he meets Benjamin, a blacksmith who should hate him, but who seems determined to help him make peace with his past. Benjamin convinces him to seek out Mirayla, the healer who had treated his wounds years earlier. Finding Mirayla means facing his past, including the dark memories he’s shared with no one, memories that hold the key to unlocking his untapped potential.
Some of the original blurb confused me and seemed contradictory (i.e., if he can’t remember, he can’t have memories, dark or otherwise…) so I tried to remove that where I saw it and work around the suggested premise. I did delve into a few assumptions near the end of this revision because it seemed to need a greater punch there. Also, I took out the mention of his magic with animals only because what form that took was necessary to including it–can he talk to animals? heal them? something else? As is, it was confusing to include that. I think my revision turned something that originally had a lot of potential (and I’m sure the novel itself is wonderful) into something clear and exciting:
Cree Lin is being stalked by his past in dreams of fire, pain and power he’s unable to control. Upon waking, he can’t remember fully the events that have left him scarred and ashamed, but he does know that his reckless magic use brought ruin to an entire village. Innocent people died, and he’s to blame. For that reason, he’s sworn off all magic. Desperate for closure, he returns to the village he destroyed, hoping to recover what he’s lost and somehow make restitution for his sins.
In the village he meets a blacksmith who should hate him, but instead Benjamin seems determined to help him make peace with his past. At the blacksmith’s urging, Cree sets out to find the village healer. Locating Mirayla means forcing himself to delve into the dark recesses of his mind…places he fears hold the key to unlocking his potential for unequalled power–and even greater destruction.
Needless to say, the very last circumstance you want to confuse a reader is with the blurb because that book will be dropped faster than a hot potato. Make sense of your story in plain English.
Save Your Bullets
Bullet lists, that is. In a blurb, it’s never permissible to include a bullet list of events that happen in the story in place of actual fiction summaries (though they can be effective in nonfiction blurbs). If the book blurb isn’t fleshed out enough, readers won’t be drawn in–and they certainly won’t be lured by itemized lists of plot-points. For instance:
In The Most Amazing Story Ever, the mystery of the kid with the panpipe is finally unraveled, the true power behind Blah-Blah’s Legacy is revealed, the jaw-dropping fate of the barefoot girl is unveiled. This and many other discoveries await the reader within this mind-blowing tale of suspense.
I’ve seen this so often in blurbs, it isn’t funny. Imagine if we actually put in a bullet list, as this blurb implies:
In The Most Amazing Story Ever:
- the mystery of the kid with the panpipe is finally unraveled
- the true power behind Blah-Blah’s Legacy is revealed
- the jaw-dropping fate of the barefoot girl is unveiled
This and many other discoveries await the reader within this mind-blowing tale of suspense.
Have we actually learned anything about the characters, the plot, the setting from this bullet list or what’s before and after it? A fiction reader doesn’t want a shopping list of things he’s going to pick up only by reading the book itself instead of a proper summary.
A Blurb is For the Reader
Obvious, huh? But most authors seem to think the blurb is for someone else–themselves, a publisher, the characters. But the reader is your audience. The blurb is your sales pitch, a love letter, a means to tell the reader what to expect, a promise that you make that this is just a taste of something even better. You’re not explaining something or informing the reader of anything (that’s boring); you’re enticing them to come in and join you for adventure. You give away enough without giving away everything. The blurb is where you ask questions (though usually not in the form of question), where you raise questions in the minds of readers…but you don’t answer them in the blurb–you answer them in the book. To raise those questions without actually asking questions is a phenomenally clever feat that all authors should learn to master.
With a blurb, you set a scene so compelling, it’s like the door that leads the reader into your world. Either the door gets opened or it doesn’t. The purpose of the blurb is a-three-fold C for a reader: capture, (to provide) content, (to give a reason to) care.
Above all, realize that every single word matters in a blurb. Picture readers in a bookstore browsing books or online at a computer they can be called away from at any second. You have about ten seconds (the “10 Second Elevator Pitch” you may have heard about!) to get them hooked. Arguably, these 250 or so words may be the most important you write because they’re the ones that either make or break you.
Please, Sir, I Want Some More
A blurb is a summary of the story that’s rife with suspense, intrigue, a reason–every reason–to want to keep reading! If the reader isn’t left with the desire to read more, the blurb isn’t effectively good and it’s time to start over.
But a back cover blurb is only one kind of blurb that authors need to learn to perfect. Two others are also important: The high-concept blurb and a series blurb (if your book is part of a series). Equally important is branding with blurbs and creating them in a variety of sizes for different applications.
Join Karen March 4-10, 2019 for her workshop titled “Writing Blurbs That Sizzle–and Sell!” based on her new writing reference Writing Blurbs That Sizzle–And Sell!, available now. The workshop will cover the need for high-concept blurbs, back cover blurbs, and series blurbs and simple, effective ways to craft them, along with creating blurbs in a variety of sizes for different applications. Karen will also critique the blurbs of registrants during this busy week.
WRITING BLURBS THAT SIZZLE–AND SELL!
by Karen S. Wiesner
Writing Reference/Nonfiction978-1-723857-20-1 (trade paperback); 978-1-925191-65-3 (ebook)from Writers Exchange E-Publishing
Make your book fly off the shelves!
- Are you an author who dislikes or dreads trying to write back cover blurbs for your stories, or have you started one and want help making yours sizzle with intrigue and impact?
- Would you like to utilize a series blurb but you’re not sure where to start in covering all the books in your series in one succinct, powerful paragraph?
- Would you like to have a short, punchy version of your blurb that can be used in your marketing and author/series branding?
- Are you a publisher with a stable full of books that need blurb overhauls?
Every author knows what a back cover blurb is, given its high-profile placement on the back cover of every book. At its crux, a back cover blurb strives to be a concise, breathtaking summary of the entire story that includes the major internal and external conflicts and the goals and motivations of the main character(s).
Unfortunately, crafting an effectively good back cover blurb is no easy task, and many writers outright dislike writing them or dread the process because so much is at stake if the blurb fails to engage. A sizzling back cover blurb needs to convince readers they absolutely have to read the story inside the pages…or they’ll set the book down without ever opening it. Additionally, a powerful series blurb can sell not just one book but all of them in that set! High-concept blurbs are necessary in every author’s marketing to provide intriguing “sound bites” for books and series’.
Buy this book!
Coming soon from BN.com and other distributors