Friday, March 6, 2015

Nailing the Art of the Book Blurb

Dana Delamar, By Your Side Self-Publishing

Want to make a writer cry? Ask for a tight, exciting 150-word bit of back cover copy for the book he or she has been working on for months and months, if not years. You'll be met by whimpering, whining, and big puppy-dog eyes, along with "Do I have to?" Aside from the dreaded one-page synopsis, writing back cover blurbs is some of the most hair-pulling work a writer will ever do. And yet it's the most crucial piece of work that writers ever produce.

The blurb is what sells your book. To readers, to editors, to agents. The blurb is your book's calling card. A good blurb gets a reader to open the book (or the online sample) and see what it's about. A great blurb may even get a reader to buy on the premise alone. Along with top-notch writing and a professional cover, an exciting, well-honed blurb is essential to selling your story.

Speaking from my own experience, it helps enormously if you try to develop your blurb *before* you write the book. Boiling down what you're writing about into 150 to 200 words helps distill your ideas and make them clear to you. I've found that writing the blurb helps me nail down the major themes and determine the big hooks for the story. Additionally, if you're writing a series, particularly one that is tightly linked, having the blurbs written early will give you a sense of the scope of each book, the major conflicts in that book, and how much of the overarching story will be covered by each book.

What elements should be part of a great blurb? 
  • The protagonist and antagonist. For romance, that means the hero and heroine; if they're facing an antagonist together, you may also need to mention that person or thing.
  • What's the big story question that the leads face? Do they have to work together to save the world from destruction? Do they need to learn to trust each other? Does one have to defeat the other? (In other words, what’s the journey the characters go on?)
  • Is there an ironic twist to the story? Irony is an excellent hook. Are the leads complete opposites? Are they on opposing sides of an impossible situation? Do they have a fierce attraction, but mutually exclusive goals?
  • Focus on goals, conflicts, motivations (GMCs) and the stakes. What will happen if the leads don’t resolve the central story conflict? 

You can also think of writing a blurb this way: you're stepping back from the story and giving the view of it that a bird soaring overhead might have. Two people in conflict. Over what? 

I wish I had an easy formula for blurb writing, but it's really something you have to do again and again to get the hang of it. (At least that was the case for me.) The best thing I've found to do is to try to write the traditional two-paragraph (150-200 word) blurb first. Then chisel that blurb down to 100 words. Then 50. Then one sentence. (You can use these shorter descriptions in various types of advertising.) Make every word count.

Think of that single sentence as your high-concept logline--in other words, it's the "hook" you'd give someone who asks you what your book is about. The logline gives the gist of the book, including the twist/irony in the characters' situation. Even though it's directed at screenwriters, Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! has some great tips for developing your pitch and your logline.

Once you've got these versions of the blurb put together, give yourself a pat on the back, and possibly a glass of your favorite alcohol. Because you’re not done yet.

Now you need to punch up what you've got and make it as exciting as possible. And this means using power words. Not sure what I mean? Read the back covers of a bunch of paperbacks you have lying around. Try to pick out the words that evoke some kind of reaction from you. These are power words, such as "danger," "kill," "death," "passion," "jealousy," "vengeance"--you get the picture. Also make sure you've chosen the strongest verbs you can. And think about what kind of mood your book has--is it fast-paced? Slow burning? Steamy? Intellectual? An intricate puzzle, or a race against time? And then try to mirror what kind of experience the reader is going to get through your choice of words, syntax, and style.

Another thing to consider: your target audience and your genre. What appeals to your readers? What elements are they looking for in a story?

For example, if you’re writing romance, your audience will be ninety percent female, so you may want to highlight the appeal of your male lead. Let's say your book is a romantic suspense story about a female cop who has to team up with a male private investigator to solve a crime. If your story is very steamy and the PI is super rugged (ex-military perhaps), you might describe the PI as "lethally sexy" or "ruggedly handsome." If he's movie-star material, you might describe him as "drop-dead gorgeous." If he's constantly trying to get her in bed, he might be "sinfully sexy." If the story is less steamy and more light-hearted, flirty, and full of banter (think "Castle"), you might describe him as "irresistibly charming." While you certainly could describe him as "good-looking" or "attractive," those are generic descriptions that could apply to anyone. The more specific you can get, and the more that description conveys the tone of the story, the better.

Here are the log lines and short descriptions I've come up with for my romantic suspense book Retribution. I've highlighted the power words in bold.

Log line:

An undercover Interpol agent falls for an alluring Mafia princess while playing a deadly game of deception and betrayal--but is he the one getting played?

50 words or less version:

Intent on imprisoning his Mafia don father, Nick Clarkston poses as a dirty agent and allies with another mobster. But when he falls for the man's alluring daughter, will Nick's unrelenting drive for justice get them both killed? (38 words)

200 words or less version:

An Interpol agent playing a dangerous game. A Mafia princess desperate to escape. A man determined to exact retribution…

Nick Clarkston, a young Interpol agent, threatens to undo the fragile peace between the Lucchesi and Andretti families when he tries to take down the Mafia don father who abandoned him. He allies with his father’s sworn enemy, a mobster both devious and ruthless. The mobster's alluring daughter helps Nick negotiate the murky criminal underworld, but he soon learns she's using him. Trapped, and with nowhere to turn, Nick makes a tragic mistake that plunges him further into danger.

Delfina Andretti appears to be the typical Mafia princess--but this princess wants out. Delfina dreams of being a fashion designer, and hooking up with Nick is her ticket out of an arranged marriage. Her feelings for Nick are genuine, but he's leery of her. Even worse, his heedless drive for justice threatens to get them both killed and to put everyone Delfina loves behind bars—unless she and Nick can forge a new future for their warring families. (177 words)

Bear in mind that it will take you hours (and hours) to develop these various blurbs and loglines the first few times. However, practice does make perfect, so the more you work at it, the better you'll get. You may even someday enjoy it!

Looking for more? These articles contain some great tips on blurb writing:

If you're still not sure whether your blurb really sells your book, contact us at By Your Side for a blurb polish!