More blurb dos and don’ts

No writer is good when it comes to writing their own blurb. It’s unreasonably hard to take your own work and distill it down properly. It just is. You can know everything there is to know about blurb writing, and still hem and haw about doing it right yourself. I’ve seen bigtime “blurb doctors” need plenty of help with their own blurbs. But at least the blurb doctors tend to know what to do and what not to do. Where they struggle is in wondering whether they made the right choices out of hundreds of possible right choices, and whether the language they chose is slick enough, concise, flowing, and gets the mood across. But where there are so many right choices, there are so many, many more wrong ones.

Let’s explore some of each.

First, I’ll introduce two posts on blurbage. The first is by Matthew Kadish, who offers nine terrific tips on blurb writing, and one steaming turd (#6). I like to point people to his post because in spite of #6 being so terribly wrong, the rest of his advice is spot-on. He just loses it when he suggests posing rhetorical questions to the reader (something I’ve already pointed out is a bad idea), because among other problems it also violates one rule he jumps on repeatedly and rightly: never break the third wall. The rest, though, is all sound. He goes over some stuff that all falls under the heading of classic rookie mistakes, like comparing your book to another author’s work. Is he an expert on the subject of blurbs? Probably not, but nine of his rules are really good, and they’re worth absorbing.

Now here’s the other post. I was just recently shown this one, which mind you is from a publishing professional. With one exception, this is more an example of what not to do. Beth Bacon offers four tips for an irresistable [sic] blurb, which are not as such tips at all, but a general formula she follows for structure. There are good bits to pick out of her post, but you should notice that the blurb she uses as an example is a mess.

Rather than quote the blurb, because you should see the whole post for yourself, I’ll just sum up what’s right and what’s wrong with it. Starting with what’s right:

  • Most of the language is tight, well-chosen, and evocative.
  • The main character and love interest are introduced well enough.
  • A pervasive sense of magic and adventure comes across.
  • The conflict sentence does a passable job raising the stakes.

Now what it’s doing wrong:

  • It’s a bit too short.
  • The conflict has only one sentence, which isn’t nearly enough.
  • It suffers from the cliché of “when”, which is even worse when followed up immediately by “must”.
  • The last sentence makes high claims about what the book is and what readers will get out of it.
  • The last sentence talks to the reader instead of telling a story.

I’ve mentioned the “when” thing before. It’s honestly the first thing I look for if I want to tighten a blurb. I winced when (ha!) I saw that here. It’s a crutch. It’s almost always a sign that a blurb writer hasn’t tried to do better. And it makes the blurb look cookie-cutter.

As for length, well, I’m not generally a fan of one-paragraph blurbs. I prefer two or three. They needn’t be long. This book almost cries out for two paragraphs in its blurb: one for characters and setting, one for the conflict. The fact that the conflict got only a single sentence meant it couldn’t go as far as it had to to sell the story to someone who cares more about plot than setting.

But the absolute worst thing the blurb is doing, as you’ll recognize from reading Matthew Kadish’s tips, is that after it spends three sentences telling a story, it turns, looks the reader in the eye, and tells them they’re going to see suspense, magic, enchantment, etc. Tells them. I understand newbies making this mistake, truly, because they don’t know any better and frankly they’ve probably seen a number of blurbs that squeaked by just like this. But it’s horrible on a very, very obvious level to anyone who’s written more than two blurbs or who’s seen strong ones next to weak ones. A professional should absolutely know better.

The blurb violates several of Kadish’s tips: Size matters (#4), focus on the conflict (#5), and don’t speak to the reader (#10). The last one almost deserves to be #1, because it’s so important. Start with the premise that you should never, ever talk right to your reader in the blurb; it breaks the flow and takes them from being enchanted by a teaser to being shouted at by a sales pitch. I make an exception when a last paragraph is set aside for notes on where the book stands in a series, or a little note about word/page count and the like, because it’s clear that’s set aside from the blurb proper.

But then look at what that last sentence is saying. This blurb makes the claim that the book is suspenseful, but doesn’t sell that with the language of the previous sentences; what it does sell is that it’s “awash in Native American magic” and that it captures the enchantment of its setting. Hence that last sentence has parts that are either redundant or grandiose. The braggadocio is a huge problem. You can’t just say your book is a page-turner, or that it’s life-changing, or a tour de force. Those are things reviewers say; not the author, not the publisher. Good gads, no no no!

Now this isn’t actually about savaging the blurb Beth Bacon helped write. It has a lot of really strong qualities up to the end, where it falls apart. The way words are chosen up to then really do set the tone (except suspense), and make the absolute most (except via when/must) of a questionable choice to use only three sentences of meat, only one of which is conflict. Though the above sounds like a backhanded compliment, I really mean it when I say that the writing in that part is mostly very taut, well-considered, and a good example of professional writing. It’s just that all those good qualities are smothered by the bad ones. The good parts may well be enough to do the job a blurb sets out to do, which is to sell books; but it could be so much more effective without all the bad.

But more than that, Beth does have one useful point, one that Matthew Kadish didn’t get to and I haven’t mentioned yet either: Blurbs need a good structure.

Beth’s four-point blurb skeleton is: situation, problem, hope, mood. It’s a start, and mostly a pretty good one. Mostly. Mood is not, should never be, part of the skeleton. Mood is something you establish by the word choices and phrasing you use throughout, marbled like fat into a beautiful piece of steak. Her blurb actually uses mood correctly in spite of that ham-fisted last sentence. When reading it you get the feelings of adventure and big open spaces and magical possibility (but not suspense—sorry, I’ll stop beating that horse). But the other three prongs, those are decent bones for a blurb.

I read awhile back that romance novels tend to have a certain formula for their blurbs: heroine, hero, conflict, one paragraph for each. Obviously that can be changed around a little, especially if the main character is male. But reading that made me look at blurbs a totally different way, and I think that’s part of the underlying truth Beth is getting at. Structure is everything. There are a number of formulas I think would work just fine for most blurbs:

  • Protagonist, conflict
  • Protagonist, protagonist, conflict
  • Protagonist, villain, conflict
  • Protagonist, villain & conflict
  • Setting, protagonist, conflict
  • Setting, protagonist, villan & conflict
  • Setting & protagonist, conflict
  • Setting & protagonist, villain & conflict

I don’t believe there’s one universal choice, nor even that this is the only generic family of skeleton suited for a blurb. But I do believe they’re good choices to try. Beth Bacon’s “situation, problem, hopeful possibility” formula (I left out mood because it’s not structural) is pretty close to this concept. She’s on the right track even while flubbing some of the implementation.

If there’s one positive takeaway from all of this, it’s that you can write at least a really killer first-draft blurb by deciding on a format—a paragraph structure—and then telling a very abridged portion of the story in that format, while being mindful of all the things you shouldn’t do. Heck, even write it with a “when” in there, and then just try to change that afterward. By first draft I mean the blurb you first show to other writers to get their opinions and advice, because odds are some other writer will be able to see ways to improve it that you can’t. We all have this blind spot. Before you get to the point of seeking that advice, play around with some different formats and see which ones work best for you.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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