Three Dirty Birds on Blurbs

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Today we’re (finally) talking about something that isn’t Story Trumps Structure! This talk is all about blurbs. You know, those pesky things that go on the back of your book or your Amazon description that every author needs but most hate to write.

Kate: Blurbs are hard. I have a 100K word story, and I’m supposed to distill it down to two paragraphs? *squawks and sheds feathers*

Ana: You can make it four paragraphs but I’d probably fall asleep before reaching the end of it.

Zoe: Blurbs are hard, because you have to switch from telling the story to selling it. And, as the author, you’re at a huge disadvantage: you know too much!

Ana: Yes, it can be really tricky to figure out what doesn’t need to be in the blurb.

Kate: My first recommendation for blurbs is: don’t try to do them all by yourself. Get someone who can read it and tell you if it’s accurate, if it’s catchy, if they still want to read the book after reading the blurb. After your cover, this is the next major thing that will drive sales. But you also need to be sure that some of your help hasn’t read your book. Otherwise, you don’t know what the blurb’s true potential is as a selling tool.

Ana: I usually need someone to tell me if my blurb even makes sense. Trying to condense things, I sometimes cut too much.

Zoe: My recommendation is to not confuse it with a query. The blurb and the query (which you send to agents/editors) have two different purposes. You actually need to give more of the story in the query, and do more interest-raising and teasing in the blurb.

Ana: Also, if you’re writing romance, please don’t end your blurb with something like ‘will their love be strong enough?’ Duh, of course.

Zoe: Yes! Don’t ask questions readers can answer for themselves (thanks to genre).

Ana: You need to hint at the struggles the couple will face, maybe hint at your black moment. Tension is as important for a blurb as it is for the novel.

Zoe: Oh, that’s a great point.

Kate: Yes. In a blurb, you don’t want to tell too much of the story, because then what’s the point of buying the book if you already know the major plot points? Which makes it different from the query, because there you need to show that you can put together a good climax.

Ana: I think the best ending lines for blurbs are the ones that leave you with that dun dun dun feeling.

Zoe: You would think that. (Ana is a bird of the species Dun Dun Duneus.) Many writers have probably run across advice that gives them a template for blurb writing—the first sentence does this, the second does that. It’s helpful…but at the same time kind of stilting. So use it as a guide for your first draft, if you’re really at a loss, but then rewrite the “template” out of it before the final version.

Kate: KJ Charles has a couple of good posts on this. Here’s one: http://kjcharleswriter.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/the-art-of-the-blurb-how-to-write-back-cover-copy/  As a writer and an editor, she’s had a lot of experience with blurbs and the pitfalls of writing a good one.

Shall we dissect a blurb?

Ana: I’m always for cutting things open.

Zoe: I always have a scalpel at ready. (And a chainsaw. Just in case.)

Kate: Okay, I’m going to voluntell Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. It’s a good choice–I’ve read the book, but neither Ana nor Zoe have. So I’ll be playing the part of Diana in this conversation.

So, here’s my blurb:

Claire Randall is leading a double life. She has a husband in one century, and a lover in another…

In 1945, Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon–when she innocently touches a boulder in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding border clans in the year of our Lord…1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire’s destiny is soon inextricably intertwined with Clan MacKenzie and the forbidden Castle Leoch. She is catapulted without warning into the intrigues of lairds and spies that may threaten her life …and shatter her heart. For here, James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, shows her a passion so fierce and a love so absolute that Claire becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire…and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

Zoe: It’s fashionable right now, in query/blurb critique circles, to poo-poo hooks, but I think it’s because so many have been done poorly. In this blurb, the hook opening really works. It piques your interest, and you read on to find out more.

Ana: I agree, I like that first paragraphs. It makes you go on to read the next one. (I think in blurbs that’s really your goal, keep the reader reading to the end of it. Kind of like you do in your novel, only on a much tighter scale.)

Zoe: Keep the reader reading till the end…or get them to stop reading and click buy because they don’t want to know more from the blurb: they want to get it from the book.

Kate: So the hook worked. What about the second paragraph, the one giving the starting point and the first plot turn of the story?

Zoe: That’s the one where, if I haven’t clicked the buy button because of the first line…I thought about not clicking it—but only because personally, as a reader, I was turned off by “innocently touches a boulder.” But there’s no way around reader preferences: if that’s what happens in your story, that’s what happens. (But it probably could have been presented differently and got me.)

Ana: It didn’t turn me off, I just kept reading. (Although I still wouldn’t buy it because I don’t much like historicals. That’s another reader preference. But at least the genre is clear here.)

Kate: Okay, so I’ve hooked you in the first line, and made sure you got the genre. Anything else I could have done here to make you want to keep reading the blurb?

Zoe: I don’t know how you might do it, but I’d actually be more engaged if the third paragraph were the second (incorporating somehow enough Claire info to get my footing).

One thing I noticed when researching blurbs for Suckers was that in the 80s (during the horror boom, and when mass market paperbacks were much more common than today), blurbs were much shorter. Often just a paragraph, or two very short paragraphs. I’m not saying that’s better or more right, but it does minimize the number of opportunities for you to lose the reader’s interest.

Kate: A bit like writing flash fiction, then.

Ana: I do try to keep my blurbs short because I don’t think readers give you much time or attention when casually browsing. Personally when I start reading a blurb and ‘click to see more’ and like five more long paragraphs open up, I’m out. I don’t think the Outlander blurb is too long, though.

Zoe: No, it’s a good size—much shorter than some I was I thinking about. Some blurbs seem to take up the entire back of a 6”x9” trade paperback.

Kate: I think there’s a tendency in the romance genre to write these long blurbs, as if the authors are still so wrapped up in the story that they need to show you all the wonderful things about it. I don’t appreciate blurbs that tell me the whole plot. And I wonder if this isn’t a result of the ‘market yourself’ trend, where writers are left to figure out these marketing tools on their own, without advice from someone trained in writing what is essentially ad copy.

Zoe: Yes, more and more writers these days are left to write their own blurbs, either because the publisher doesn’t do it, or because they’re self publishing. (I’ve been considering paying an editor to write one for Suckers—someone who has the necessary distance from the story to look at it from the point of view of the potential reader.)

Ana: What I like about the blurb above is that it does a good job showing me the conflict, and it leaves me wondering how it’s going to be resolved. Is she gonna go back? Which guy will she end up with?

Zoe: Agreed. The blurb definitely starts and ends strong.

Kate: Soggy Middle Syndrome?

Zoe: Middles are tough, whatever you’re writing. You need enough information for it to make sense—but which information? In what order? We actually get nothing on the husband here—no name, no sense at all of who he is or what he does. (So I’m leaning toward she winds up with Fraser. I already feel a little bad for Mr. no-first-name Randall)

Ana: Haha. Good point. That’s probably what will happen.

Kate: I won’t spoil it on you. 🙂 So you think some of the tension is deflated by that? Or was it maybe deliberate on the part of Dell’s marketing?

Zoe: I’m sure it was deliberate. I’m not sure you can successfully sell an equilateral triangle in a blurb. The reader wants to be able to root for something clear.

Ana: I don’t read triangles because I always end up rooting for the wrong guy. Breaks my heart every time.

Zoe: So downplaying Mr. Randall was more a feature than a bug. (Also, I didn’t even really note that he’d been downplayed until my second reading. There are enough words in the blurb that I thought surely he’d been covered.)

Ana: And I guess the average reader doesn’t dissect the blurb before buying the book.

Zoe: I know I don’t.

Ana: Usually the first thing I do after reading a blurb I like is click the Look Inside feature.

Zoe: I don’t usually get to the end of the blurb. At some point before then I’ll click Look Inside, or I’ll close the tab.

Kate: So you probably wouldn’t  have made it to my smashing last line.

Zoe: I might have seen it—I may skip the middles of blurbs and check the last line. That’s probably more accurate than what I said above. (And having realized that, I really need to start looking at my own blurbs that way: what would someone get out of it if they only read the beginning and end?)

Ana: I always get to the end of the blurb, unless they’re too long. Then sometimes I peek at the reviews to get an idea of whether it’s worth it to try reading the whole thing. Yes, I’m that lazy.

Kate: I’m currently futzing around with two blurbs, and this is really going to help me.

Zoe: I have a few I’m playing with too. The really cool thing about online retailers is that now you can change the blurb after publishing. I don’t recommend putting up a bad blurb on the premise that you can “fix” it later. But you can do some testing of blurbs.

Kate: Which is a really cool twist that only came along with the ‘new publishing’. Like having your very own focus groups.

Zoe: Yes, you have much more control over how your book is categorized, what keywords you use for it. You can even update the cover with little fuss (and without losing your reviews—you don’t have to make a whole new edition).

Ana: It’s a brave new world.

Kate: Next week, we’re going to start talking about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King (second edition)

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