Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Saundra: The Fine Art of Writing Blurbs

The fine art of writing blurbs is not really fine or art. It's the ability to punch people repeatedly in the eye with the most interesting aspect of your script, story or novel.

As writers, we tend to think about too much when we're trying to describe our work. There are so many elements! This part is especially meaningful! Oh, and the backstory, did you ever see such a poignant backstory?

Nobody cares.

Okay, I lie. People do care- and they will care, *when they read the book*. And how will you get them to read the book? By punching 'em in the eye. Take this blurb for example:

Tormented by his father's death, a young man is torn when his mother's infidelity comes to light and he discovers that his own future is in peril.

Which is all right. It hits the major points: dad's dead, mom's a cheat, kid's in trouble. That is a perfectly acceptable blurb- but not very exciting. Contrast to:

A father murdered, a family betrayed, a fall into madness.

Ahhhhhh, much better. They're both Hamlet, they both both describe the exact same highlights of the plot- but one is hot and one is buried on page 252.

Because we care about all our elements, we tend to try to shove all of them into a blurb. Well, this is a guide to help you avoid that. If you take just one thing away from this article, let it be this: blurbs are not synopses, they are not summaries. They are ads.

Yes, they really are. They're ads, like any ad you see on tv, like any ad you read in the newspaper. They're advertising, and they follow the rules of advertising. Don't think about it like an essay; think about it like a commercial. To get you in the right mindset to craft your blurb, here are 5 rules and an admonition to get you started.

1- Don't give them what they came for.

There's no incentive to read the book if the blurb says "Hamlet's dad was murdered, and he feigns madness to try to figure out what to do while his mom Gertrude tramps around with his uncle. Hamlet drives everyone in his life away until his descent into madness becomes real. Given up to it, he murders his mother, and he, in turn is murdered, and thus, ends the legacy of the throne to Denmark."

It's useless as advertising, because you told everybody how it goes. Sure, some die-hard fans might show up to savor the execution, but you're not selling to die-hard fans. You're selling to people whose initial inclination is NO, an inclination you're trying to turn into a YES. So give them just enough to say... whoa, dude, but then what happens??

2 - Poetry counts.

No, I'm not advising you to write your blurb in rhyming couplets, but the basic rules of poetics should apply to your advertising. The sounds of words, the assonance, the consonance, the rhythm of the words- these are important in any writing, but especially important here.

Use short sentences. Avoid compounds; avoid semi-colons. The prose should be quick jabs, boxing- not wrestling. Draw people into the rhythm- people respond positively to a rhythm they can feel, that they can nod along to- has a great beat, and you can dance to it. That's what you're shooting for. And another thing- repetition works really well in advertising, joined pairs and triads are very appealing to the ear.

A father murdered, a family betrayed, a fall into madness.
(A) Father [strong verb] (A) Family [strong verb] (A) Fall [noun]

Compare to:

I'm a Pepper, she's a Pepper, he's a Pepper, we're all Peppers
Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?

These work exactly the same way, taking advantage of the same poetic principles of assonance, meter and repetition.

You also want to pay attention to sentence structure. You can be a little more lyrical, a little more dramatic with a blurb than you can a straight up synopsis or summary.

3. Brevity Pwns

One of the main failings of a blurb is that it fails to be a blurb. It needs to be a bite, not a dinner. One of the best ways to limit your word count, to really focus on what's important, is to use The Business Letter Rule: say everything you need to say in three paragraphs, with room for your signature at the end.

Your blurb should fit entirely in a one page business letter, with all the headings and signature line intact. If you're writing more than three paragraphs, you're writing too much. You're delving into execution, rather than exposition. Stop it.

4. There is no formula.

Except in that way that there really is a formula. Who's this about? What gets this story started? How does the MC get in trouble? And hey, wouldn't you like to find out how s/he gets out? Here's how.

You can structure the blurb any way you want- put the conflict first; put the precipitating event first. Switch it all around. But hit those elements, BAM BAM BAM, and resist the temptation to get sidetracked. For example, this is the blurb I wrote for the book I'm working on now, Vespertine:

WHO: [Charlie Ray West can see the future, but she can't control her visions- they happen unexpectedly and only at dusk.] PRECIPITATING EVENT: [When she foretells the death of a travelling preacher, Charlie Ray is stunned when it sets a blaze through the other teens in their God-fearing farm town of Paragon, Indiana.] WHAT STARTS THE STORY: [Soon, girls all over Paragon are 'having visions' and baring the community's dirty little secrets.

At first, they use their new-found attention for good, driving a lascivious gym coach and a known date-rapist out of town.] HOW DOES THE MC GET INTO TROUBLE: [But when they run out of predators, they seek out prey- the unusual, the different- the innocent. As the spark who started the fire, and the only one among them who truly sees, Charlie Ray is the only one who can stop them now.] READER LURE: [But will she stand against the inferno, or allow herself to be consumed by it?]

5. Don't ask lure questions that allow people to decline the offer.

Although the lure question is a great way to open or close a blurb, make sure you're asking a question that 1) the reader cannot answer and that 2) doesn't offer the reader an opportunity reject. Questions like, "Do you want to know what goes bump in the dark?" may have a nice rhythm, but the reader could simply say, "Nope."

Keep your lure questions focused on your story, unanswerable by anyone except your MC (and the enlightened reader, once s/he is so kind to read your book, thank you so much, gentle reader!) The only appropriate lure question can be answered by, "I don't know- I'd better read and find out."

And now, I offer the admonition.

6 - Don't lie.

Yes, you probably could spin your blurb so your post-apocalyptic mermaid story sounds like light women's fiction- but why? The people who want to read mermaid stories won't buy it because you didn't tell them it was available, and the people who like women's fiction will be ticked they got spec fic instead.

It serves no one- and especially not you- to lie about your goods. Your blurb should reflect the tone and sensibility of the story you're trying to sell. You can be funny- you can be light. Or you can be serious and dark. Whatever you decide- it should honestly reflect the source.

And that's how it's done, duckies. Don't give them what they came for. Poetry counts. Brevity pwns. Use the unformula. Don't let them say no. Your blurb should be one perfect taste of what's to come. Your book distilled; an amuse bouche.

Or... one good pop in the eye.


  1. Thanks for that, lass - I've saved a copy of your example to refer to for guidance later. You're a gem :-)

    Have a lovely day! :-)

  2. Wow! Stuff I didn't know AT ALL. Thanks, Saundra. Very good info. Very well said.

  3. Oooh, Saundra, I love this! Thanks for sharing these fabulous points.

  4. You are SO brilliant.

    You need to sell this to some major writing magazine or something, it's beyond awesome

    (not that our blog isn't an important place...but...)

    Thanks, S!

  5. Thank you, Saundra! This is brilliant advice -- and well-put and fun to read, too. I love using Hamlet as the first example.

    I'll be rereading it whenever I have to write one of these....do you have any advice on blurbs for school visits?


  6. Iiiiiii... have yet to have my first school visit, so my advice would be to tailor this advice to your needs! :D

  7. This is so awesome!!! Thank you. I practiced on my blog.

  8. You need to sell this to some major writing magazine or something, it's beyond awesome
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