Another round of blurb don’ts

Again I’m amazed at all the stuff I see in blurbs that has no place there. Not just indie blurbs mind you, but at least we indies have the excuse that a lot of us are new to this, and as everyone has said, blurb writing is hard. Building on the lessons from my first post, and the one after that, these are more things that I see a lot in blurbs that writers really, really need to stop doing.

All of these cases fail the eye roll test. I see these and I wince. Not all readers will react with such strong disgust, but that’s not really the reaction you want anyway, is it? So don’t use…

Future tense

“Along the way, Bob will discover that…”

Stop! Stop right there. Blurbs have room for two tenses: past and present. Mostly present. Think about why this is: The blurb is basically a window into the early part of your story, the hook that will make the reader want to buy the book and invest in the second and third acts—or more, depending on how many acts you have, but let’s go with three. The best blurbs are always told from the perspective of giving you a very brief summary of the first act, and/or a brief insight into how the second might begin. Think of them as being temporally very loose, with a very nebulous definition of “now”, a cloud hovering somewhere around the close of the first act and maybe spilling into the second a little bit. When you see past tense in blurbs it’s usually reserved for back story.

Why is it this way? The first act is basically always just setup; no story comes into its own until the second act. Readers are most drawn to this moment of transition, when the events leading up to the awesome thing they’re about to read (or heartwarming, or poignant, or what have you) will really begin to unfold. That’s what will tell them what sort of story it is, so the blurb basically ultra-compresses the setup and dangles some tempting carrots to suggest what might be in store next.

Future tense looks weak. Seeing blurbs from this perspective, it’s easy to see why: It means you’ve succumbed to the temptation to throw late-book spoilers into the blurb. If late-book elements need to be in the blurb, they should be very vague, set up as goals or possibilities rather than things that will happen. This is also a really good indicator that you’re kitchen-sinking. It’s so tempting to throw anything into a blurb that ends up being a really big part of the story, but surprisingly very little of the book will ever be blurb-relevant. If you can’t express a possible plot point without “will”, it almost certainly doesn’t belong there.

Kitchen-sinking is a topic for a whole other post, but really it’s such common sense that I’ve never run across an author who was unaware of the need to trim things back. It’s just that it’s difficult for them to decide what should stay and what should go. Where something occurs in the story arc is a good tool for choosing what to keep.

Too many tones

This is one that doesn’t come up too much, but it’s worth mentioning. One writer was trying to work out a paranormal romance blurb for a book that was serious in tone, but had lots of funny moments. She tried to capture both the funny and the serious in the blurb, and it did not work.

Honestly, any reader is going to expect that a serious story will have moments to make them laugh. A book that can’t evoke laughter, even just a mild internal chuckle, probably sucks. If humor’s not the main point of your story, then it shouldn’t be in the blurb. You may find a way through clever phrasing to allude to it, but it’s better to pick one major tone and stick with it. If you can find a way to imply it’s not all “The world is at stake!” with very minor touches, go for it.

Blurbs are very much like poetry this way. It’s about economy of words and using them to say everything they can. Only most people suck at poetry. If you can’t find just the right words to imply there’s a little comic relief—or perhaps, a little more than normal, since the reader should assume there’s some—then don’t try. If your book is more serious than funny, go with serious. Reviewers and your preview will handle the rest. Just maybe don’t go with too serious. Try to find the book’s “median” tone and go with that.

“This book is about…”

Robot Love is a story of bittersweet romance set in a dystopian future.”

Remember what I said about talking to the reader? Well go back and read it again. It’s in my first two posts on blurbs. Remember now? Good. Suffice it to say we don’t do that here. That’s for amateur hour.

Saying the book is about X is talking to the reader. Therefore, you don’t do it. Now you’re allowed to do a form of this (by which I mean it works, as opposed to not working) when you’re simply saying how many words are in the story or if it has a place in a series, as I’ve mentioned before. Saying “Robot Love is the sequel to Tinker’s Dam” at the very end of the blurb is utterly legit. But saying what it’s about? No, not so much. That’s the job of the blurb proper.

Is there bittersweet romance? Blurb’s job. Is the setting dystopian and in the future? Blurb’s job. If the blurb didn’t say this already, even indirectly, it’s broken; fix it. If it did say these things already, why are you breaking the third wall just to say them again? This is also where writers love to say things like how their book is fast-paced, exciting, heartwarming, etc. Again, bad move. Imply that in the blurb or give up on it.

There are other forms of this, too. “Blue Dawn follows Emma as she learns to cope with the collapse of her engagement.” (In case it wasn’t clear, none of these are real quotes.) Again this is telling the reader, directly, what the story is about instead of saying what’s going on with Emma. “Emma is still trying to cope with losing her fiancé to another woman.” So much better! The first way is: “Hi, I’m the author, and I’m here to tell you about what a wonderful book I’ve written.” The second way begins by telling a story—in brief—and wants the reader to feel compelled to learn more.

In fact, you might just want to keep the “Hi, I’m the author” test handy. Anything that sounds remotely like it in tone is bad for blurbs.

Unbeknownst to the princess, but knownst to us

“Little does she know her life is about to change.”

The same writer I just mentioned did this too. Not to pick on her, but she kept inserting this horrible cliché back into her blurb repeatedly. I literally said “Kill it with fire.” Still it kept coming back. No really, kill it with fire!

“Little do they know” is not a horrible phrase, but it’s staler than three-week-old bread. Can you honestly read that without rolling your eyes? Even if you can, it’s not effective, is it now? No, it looks like the writer fumbled about in a grab bag for something to say, some kind of segue, and this rotten little chestnut is all they got. Keep digging! There are pistachios in there somewhere.

It’s hardly the only terrible cliché to disgrace many a blurb. But the point is they stand out; if you can’t see it, seriously heed the advice of someone who can, and learn how to hone your eye against more. Cheese is for eating, not for blurbs.

This is really worse than the dreaded “when”. It’s almost worse than…

Care Bear moments

“Together they will discover the true value of friendship.”

What I said about future tense still applies. This is bad on a whole worse level. Are you writing a kids’ book? Okay, then. But if you’re not, then don’t do this, ever!

Blurbs trying to tell me the moral of the story are like stumbling across a bad ’70s cartoon where a bill wants to become a law and it’s all set to awful proto-country folk music. (If you don’t remember Schoolhouse Rock, you have my envy.) It’s lame. Lame lame lame lame lame. How lame is it? It’s lamer than a redneck tow truck operator on a pseudo-reality show making up fakey backwoods similes to say in the TV promos. Lamer than the laugh-freeze-credits moment at the end of every show in the ’80s. Lamer than the school scenes in Star Trek: TNG. Even lamer than that stupid Buzzfeed article about 40 things every self-respecting man over 30 should own.

This is no place to be lame. The end of a blurb is where you really need to set the hook. That’s where the stakes are raised, the goals are set, the protagonist has a job to do or die trying. The curtain is going up on the second act. Make the reader want this moment! Yes with an exclamation point! But not really; don’t use an actual exclamation point. That’s the level of tension you want to project, though.

If you can ask yourself if this is something you’d see in a blurb geared towards kids—I mean young kids (whose parents will read the blurb) or middle grades—and the answer comes out yes, you’d better actually be writing for that age group. If not, the blurb has some growing up to do. It will have to strike out on its own, meet new friends, and learn that gathering an audience is every bit as important as having a story to tell them. (See? I told you it’s lame!)

So many blurb mistakes are ones I see writers carry forward from the days they read voraciously in school. Those blurbs are hopelessly outdated, and what’s more, they’re geared to children. Now granted I see many mistakes in traditionally published blurbs too, but you can hang that on the publishers just not caring enough to get it right. They have certain stock formulas they use, and they just wing it. You can do better.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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3 Responses to Another round of blurb don’ts

  1. Marina says:

    Hi! I came over from kboards after seeing you give great blurb-writing advice on a couple of threads lately. Thanks for these posts on blurbs — they’re very helpful.

    • Lummox JR says:

      Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad this was of use to somebody. A lot of this stuff I’ve picked up as I went along—much of it from kboards. It’s a great community.

  2. Tasman says:

    I have also come over from kboards after seeing your excellent blurb advice. May even find the courage to post my blurb for a critique!

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