The red pen and the kitchen sink

Building on my previous posts on book blurbs, I realized I’m overdue to talk about a common issue all authors go through: kitchen-sinking.

A good blurb is a window into the story. It can’t, obviously, encompass everything about the story. Most of the characters and themes will be left out, as will many details of the plot. The problem comes when writers try to narrow this down to the parts that are most blurb-relevant. And we frequently get it wrong—not so much by leaving out parts that really are important, though I’ve seen that a lot, but more often by keeping in pieces that just don’t matter.

It’s no surprise why any writer has trouble culling down to a very small blurb—I’d say synopsis, but they’re not the same thing—because we’re all close to our stories. Heck, I’ll give you an example with one of my early blurb drafts for The Affix. I’m also going to give this the red pen treatment to explain just what’s wrong with it. I’ve found red-penning blurbs is a remarkably effective way to zero in on the issues.

Matt Kellogg has a few problems standing between him and his long weekend. His ex-girlfriend Liz is still stalking him. Angie, who just broke up with his best friend Mike (1), is spooked out of her apartment and needs a place to stay (2). And Mike, whose gambling habit has gotten bad again (3), has left him a mysterious package. Inside the package: a gem that glows in the dark, bends the laws of probability into taffy, and cannot be thrown away. (4)

The gem, known to paranormal folklore only as the Affix, has a bad tendency of racking up implausible coincidences while drawing in hordes of people out to get it for themselves (5). And now that it’s active, (6) it’s picked Matt as its new keeper. As the stone’s power grows, Matt must protect his friends while contending with a ghost-chasing website curator, hard-bargaining crows, a ruthless collector of supernatural artifacts, an erratic drug lord, a charming but dangerous senior citizen, an all-too-chummy freelance art dealer with a vile reputation, and a gun-toting supermodel—for starters (7). With conflicting advice on whether he should try to tame the stone or roll with the punches, he can only hope to figure it out in time to save both his friends and his own sanity. (8)

Not my best work. Here are the notes:

  1. Too many names. It’s getting confusing.
  2. A bit too wordy.
  3. Too much is going on already in this paragraph. These are all supporting characters.
  4. This part works.
  5. The wording here is kind of convoluted and weak. Maybe split into two sentences?
  6. Might be meaningful, but this is hurting the pacing.
  7. Kitchen-sinking! I get that there’s a wild cast of villains—maybe don’t list so many of them.
  8. This ending really lacks punch.

I’ve learned a lot about blurbs since, even after coming up with what I finally picked as the book’s blurb. This is the blurb as it stands now, and I should note that I’m still not entirely satisfied with it.

Matt Kellogg has a few problems standing in the way of his long weekend. His ex-girlfriend is still stalking him. His best friend’s ex needs a place to stay after a break-in. And he’s stuck with a strange gem that glows in the dark, bends the laws of probability into taffy, and cannot be thrown away.

The jewel, known to paranormal folklore only as the Affix, has adopted Matt as its new keeper and in the process put his friends in danger. Protecting them means contending with a ghost-chasing website curator, hard-bargaining crows, and a motley bunch of ruthless collectors and freelancers who each want to acquire the stone for their own ends.

Keeping all of his friends and most of his sanity intact may be an impossible task—or at least wildly improbable. Matt’s one advantage: Improbable is what the stone does best. His only hope is to learn how to handle  it, or get rid of it, before it tears his life apart—and everyone he cares about along with it.

It’s clear this is better; it’s also clear it could be better still, but that’s been a slow-churn process. The main thing things this takes care of are the first paragraph’s name soup, and the kitchen-sinking in the second paragraph.

The problems in my first paragraph stemmed from trying to introduce too many people. Only Matt is truly relevant to the blurb, at least by name. I wanted to keep some of his friend issues in there as a short list, because that helps convey some of the humor of his situation as well as his “I just want to be left alone” attitude. But clearly there were already too many details there, and the names were half of it.

As far as the villains are concerned, their kitchen-sinking in the original was way over the top. I listed five of them. Five! It’s not that they aren’t important characters; they are. But blurbs favor brevity and this got way out of hand. And it’s hard to list just one of the villains without listing them all, because there’s really no “main” one. So the obvious solution was to summarize.

But still, it’s not always easy to tell what’s going too far, or when too many details have been thrown in. I see this a ton. I have since discovered an awesome tool for handling that, which I mentioned somewhat in my last blurb post: Remember where the blurb lives.

Just by observation, I had the epiphany that most blurbs live where act 1 transitions to act 2. Their “now” is a very loose temporal place, but that’s right about where it is; I visualize it as a sort of fuzzy cloud on the timeline.

blurb

It doesn’t necessarily matter if you’ve used an act structure consciously in your work. I look at The Affix, in hindsight, as a five-act book (even though it’s fairly short). It could also be seen as a three-act book. But no matter: the point is to give the reader an insight into what’s going on right as the story picks up real speed, with most of the setup details behind them. This is (one reason) why future tense looks like crap when it’s used with a naked “X will Y” construct.

Knowing where the blurb lives means you have an instant rule of thumb you can apply to keep yourself from kitchen-sinking. Does the heroine become closer to her gruff guide as the story goes on? Sounds like a 2nd- or 3rd-act detail to me. Relevant to the story, yes, but not to the blurb, and if any of this makes it into the blurb it should be as extremely subtle hints. Remember, readers are smart and are plenty familiar with tropes. When you see Rapunzel next to Flynn Rider on the movie poster, you kind of get where their relationship is headed.

On this same subject, I’ve also talked before about story beats. When there’s a sentence in the blurb that says, roughly, “Then this happened”, it starts to make the blurb look like a chain of events. I see this happen very often in indie blurbs, and most times it happens because the blurb has lost temporal focus, sliding too deep into the 2nd act. When it happens with first-act details, it sounds like you’re writing up a synopsis rather than a blurb.

I did say this above, but it should probably be repeated for emphasis: A blurb is not a synopsis. A synopsis is a condensed retelling of the story. A blurb is a diorama. And because this too is another thing I’ve learned by going along, it shouldn’t be terribly surprising to learn that my file-o’-blurbs for The Affix is called affix-synopsis.txt. In fairness, I have some synopses written in there too.

Sometimes even when using the blurb’s place in the timeline as a guide, it’s still hard to tell what to pull out. My issue with the character soup above is just one example. Here’s another: Recently I went over a blurb with another author that mentioned the heroine was her boss’s tenant, which complicated an already strained relationship. This was the second book in a series. The landlord detail, however, just wasn’t working in the blurb. As relevant as it is to the story itself, it’s nothing that would sell it to a prospective reader. Anyone who read the first book knows this detail and doesn’t need it; new readers—who you still want to pull in, but direct them to the first book via a quick paragraph with the series info—won’t find this detail sways them one way or another. I count this as a kitchen sink detail, because there were so many other components to the blurb, so many things going on in the new book, that this little bit of setup was just weighing it down and pulling attention away from the conflict. And think like a reader: Wouldn’t it be so much cooler to get into the book and realize: “Holy crap, she’s living with this person she has trust issues with?”

What you think is relevant to your blurb may only be relevant to the story. No matter what, you’ll be presenting a distorted picture of the book, so the point is to keep that distortion at a minimum by capturing the essence more than the nooks and crannies. You may even discover that you’ve neglected a key piece of info that readers would find highly relevant, like the fact that Luke is a vampire, even when throwing in so many other bits of the plot that readers get lost. (Yes, this happened.) You could be leaving out something that keeps readers from mistaking it for a romance, and I’m given to understand there’s nothing worse than readers expecting a genre-typical romance feeling misled. And some details you do include via the kitchen sink approach could skew the tone of the blurb so much that they give people the wrong impression, as was the case recently when an author wondered why reviewers seemed to expect a grittier story; it was all there in the blurb.

Now for the bad news: There is no magic pill to cure your kitchen-sinking. You’ll still do it. I’ll still do it. The only reliable way to escape the trap is to get help from other people. Rules of thumb can take you part of the way, but it’s worth seeking out the opinions of others. Find a supportive writing community (shout out to the Writers’ Cafe at kboards.com), and see what they have to say about it.

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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One Response to The red pen and the kitchen sink

  1. Love that line “Matt’s one advantage: Improbable is what the stone does best”. The second blurb is a huge improvement — very instructive post.

    And thank you very much for your help with my blurb. Your suggestions made it so much better!

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