It all starts innocently enough. You’re going along about life, and you mention to someone that you’re getting close to finishing your next book. “Oh?” They say, with the faintest spark of passing interest. “What’s it about?”
What is it all about? It’s about this girl, except it’s also about this guy, and it’s about love, and life, and the human condition, and how sometimes our enemies are better friends than the people we think our friends, but really it’s about the attempt to install a weather station, but it’s on a planet with a failing attempt at terraforming, and about how statist societies rewrite the past at the expense of the future… if you want to know what it’s about, the author says, that’s why I wrote 60,000 words! But you have only a scant few seconds before the interest passes, and somebody else makes a funny remark, or the ads end and the football game resumes. Or the browsing person on the internet, having been briefly distracted by your cover long enough to click on it, moves on. So, how do you answer this question?
At the heart of every story, there is this: A person, who wants something, but a force opposes him. This is important, because of these stakes. Either they get it, or they don’t.
Take the first and second sentence of that paragraph. (Not the third; you don’t give away how it comes out in the blurb.) Who is your person? What do they want? What opposes them? What are the stakes?
Simplify. If you have two or three main characters, pick the one whose wants or needs drive the story the most. Unless you’re writing epic fantasy, where the browser will be disappointed if you don’t introduce at least three sides, stick to one protagonist, and one opposing force. Generally, that’s the first opposition they meet in the story, not the one they meet in chapter 3, and definitely not the one revealed in the twist in chapter 20.
Your description should not, as a rule of thumb, reveal any information past chapter 3.
Who is important? When and where are they? What do they want? What are the stakes? Why? This is far more important than what happens. If any of your sentences could be summed up as “And then this happens”, cut them out. Your audience won’t care what happens until they care about who it happens to, and why they want their goal.
For a good exercise, go to a promo place, like ebooksoda. Pick your book’s category, and start checking the blurbs on books for sale. Any one that sounds interesting enough to check on Amazon, open in a new tab. When you have ten or so books that are interesting enough you might download a sample, go back and look at the blurbs that hooked you. (I recommend a promo site because they’re likely to be first in series, and books you haven’t seen before. Also, because they require a shorter character limit than retail markets, they often force authors to rewrite the original blurb into the shorter, punchier, more eye-catching hook it should have been in the first place.)
Here are a couple examples – as you look through, break it down by who, where, what they want, what’s opposing them, and what the stakes are.
The grid is down, the world’s in flames, and FEMA is demanding his ship and cargo, but Captain Jordan Hughes isn’t buying it. Stranded far from home with a priceless cargo, faced with a near-mutiny, and worsening violence ashore, Hughes doesn’t think things can get much worse… then they do.
Benjamin Travers and his friends have woken up in the past. As they search for a way home, they realize they’re not alone. There are other time travelers, and some of them are turning up dead…
Lalla’s beloved great aunt wants to bar-b-que dad’s new sidekick, Bruce the goat, and her man-hungry cousin has her sights set on her number one pilot. What else could possibly go wrong? Oh yeah, her new pilot is really a Las Vegas CPA hiding from a vicious hitman.
Butterscotch Jones thought that living in the far north provided enough peril until a private plane crashed outside her hometown of McIntyre’s Gulch in Canada. The treasure inside the plane attracted both the RCMP and the Russian Mafia. For a town built upon isolation was about to be exposed…
Can true love conquer all, even a centuries-old curse? Rancher turned ghost-town restoration expert, Sawyer, is falling hard for the red head next door. But when a dangerous man from Mia’s past arrives in town, Sawyer finds himself drawn into the eerie legend of Lonesome Point.
One thing you’ll note about these: they’re short. Short is harder to write than long, because every word has to count. (In this, it bears a resemblance to poetry.) Short is better to read, though, because you’ll never catch the attention of a listener after they get bored, or enthrall a reader after they put the book down. Catch ’em up front, hook their interest so hard they want to know what happens, and download your sample (or flat out buy your book) to find out what happens!
Senior Lieutenant Steve Maxwell’s dumped into a war zone on a peacekeeping mission, without enough people, equipment or information. Nobody else is following the rules of engagement, the bodies are piling up, and he’s going to have to choose between his duty and his men’s lives…
Can you write your blurb in fifty words or less?
I might also suggest writing more than one version. I’ve run across book promo places that want a unique version for their site. Also, it lets you try them out on friends for comparison. Giving your test market group only one choice is likely to result in a lot of that’s great but people are more willing to critique if they have choices.
Easy project: repair an antique quilt. Until the quilt fights back. The three sister-owners of the Kwilt Korner and Knitters’ Nook will need all their tricks and a little bit of luck to clean up this mess.
This is a good one, pretty intriguing, especially the “until the quilt fights back”. It sounds like either a comedic fantasy or a cozy-mystery-style fantasy – I’d depend on the cover to tell me which. Is that what you intended?
Mystery-style urban fantasy with a touch of humor.
I’m probably going to release it as a two-story set with another urban fantasy short story, since both are less than 7000 words.
Stephen Silk always wanted to be an ambassador. Suddenly, he is one. But he’s not happy. His predecessor was assassinated. Shooting politicians is legal on the planet New Texas. Which is probably about to be invaded by the alien z’Srauff. And the “secretary” the SecState provided for him seems to know more about pistols than paperwork. (For H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet.”)
This is a bit longer; my goal was to answer the question, “What is your book about?” in less than 30 seconds:
“I’ve always been fascinated by how celebrities choose who to marry. Pride’s Children is about a reclusive best-selling writer who is irresistibly drawn to an Irish megastar, and thinks she’s safe because she will never see him again. To complicate matters, a beautiful young actress has already decided that she and the actor will make the ultimate Hollywood Power Couple.
“Book 1 tells the story of the development of a beautiful relationship – that can go nowhere.”
Actually opening my mouth and saying these words is, for some reason, incredibly hard. Which is weird.
Not weird at all. The blurb is, at the heart, not actually the answer to a question. This is a sales pitch, in response to an opening. It has to be practiced; it will never be spontaneous and natural.
I will suggest a few changes to consider. First, when pitching your book, it’s about hooking the reader, not about your own reactions. Second, the object of the blurb is to make the reader want to find out more – it’s about questions, not answers.
Kary Ashe, a reclusive novelist, meets the man of her dreams when she’s dragged into a national television show. Unfortunately, Andrew O’Connell’s a movie star, and life around him is anything but private. To make matters worse, Kary’s competing with a starlet who’s already decided he’s going to be the other half of a perfect Hollywood power couple…
Interesting – the approach I’m using was highly recommended by someone else. There is no one way. He said to make it PERSONAL first, and then you’d have someone’s attention, and they would listen better to what you had to say.
As a shut-in who rarely gets a chance to try these things, which I choose is relatively unimportant.
But I’m turned off by most pitches like the one you’re suggesting; even if it works for most people, if something turns ME off, I won’t be able to do it!
For some things, you can just tell yourself to get over it and do it the ‘recommended’ way. For this, because pitches are so personal, I’d say your method is probably good – but not for me.
I’ve tried a bunch – read extensively on Dean Wesley Smith’s site on blurbs, so this isn’t a decision taken lightly (even if I don’t get to use it much).
I’m such an outlier, all the standard methods will not work. I’m aware of that, and constantly looking for the different things.
Thanks for taking the time to work up a pitch for me!
Aging captain must choose between the ship that is his life and the fate of a world he’s never seen. A telepath rebels against the tyranny of her fellows. And a wounded warrior is force-marched towards an unwanted battle…
Those are three great starts, but unless you’re doing an epic scope, it’s far better to expand on one of them instead of hoping that a reader will find “aging captain” or “wounded warrior” sufficiently compelling. If it is epic, then you still need to introduce the unifying theme, opposing force, and setting.
Take the aging captain. Who is he? Where is this story placed? A name not only gives the reader someone to root for, it conveys a lot about your world and setting just by itself. “Senior Commander Bremmen of the star destroyer Dauntless” is a far different character than “Kith S’rrrow of the trader Chasing Tails”.
What does he want? Who or what is opposing him? Is he looking for a new trade lane, but this one will eventually destabilize a star? Is he given a cargo of stolen vaccines by a criminal, to pay off a debt? Is he looking for the milk run that’ll let him settle into a regular existence instead of scratching a living, only this cargo turns out to be a diplomat who’s out to start a war?
What are the stakes? “the fate of a world he’s never seen.” – how will it help / hurt the world? Why would he care?
How important is the blurb?
Generally, I make my first selection pass on the title, which is what impels me to tilt the book out of its shelf or click on a link.
The cover? I’d be just as happy if it was black and white with block characters. There’s nothing about a cover that is going to persuade me to buy your book, but there are any ways it can make me shove the book back into the shelf or click away to something else. Ugly fonts, ugly art, prominent endorsements by people I never heard of or think are idiots. Covers are festering masses of fail. All you can do with the cover is mitigate the fail. Yes, I know giant cartoon boobies sold a zillion copies of “Friday” to people who probably never bought a Heinlein book again… this is the Century of the Anchovy; cheesecake covers are passe when you can click your way to anything your perverted heart can imagine.
So, I flip the book over to the back to look at the blurb. If there is only a big picture of someone’s face, it goes back on the shelf. If it’s mostly a list of endorsements, back on the shelf. If the blurb is so generic it could apply to any of two dozen books, it tells me it is either so bad, or was so little valued by the publisher, that they couldn’t even justify fifteen minutes to write a blurb before shoving the stinker out the door.
So, if I’m mildly interested by the blurb on the back, I’ll flip to the inside front page. Generally, I expect either more blurb or an excerpt from the book. If it’s just endorsements for other books by the author, the back cover blurb has to have been very good to prevent me from putting the book back.
Online it’s a bit different, but if I have to find and click a link to get to the blurb, *and* 90% of the page is the vendor’s ads for other things, or telling me how much money you make, how many sales you have, or what a party animal you are… I’ll probably click away.
If doesn’t matter how great your book is; if your blurb can’t get me interested, you just lost a sale.
Are blurbs important? Only if you’re competing for any of my discretionary spending funds.
The blurb for my first book still drives me crazy and has undergone numerous revisions. I will try this approach:
It is the 22nd century and a generation has passed since asteroid scares led to the creation and launch of a single interstellar starship. Calvin Tondini, a new lawyer with the U.S. Administration for Colonial Development, must watch from the sidelines as the starship’s return sets off a political extravaganza. Can someone who has no business in the matter unearth the secrets that will allow the rest of humanity to reach for the stars?
Remember that readers love agency and action: they want things to happen, and they want the people they root for to make things happen, by making choices and following through.
While this is usually represented by saying “Don’t have any verbs be passive”, I’m going to emphasize not having people be passive first. Strike “must watch from the sidelines” – because we wouldn’t watch a character on the sidelines for a book any more than the television would focus on a couple players and people in the stands to show us the football game.
How would you change this?
Calvin Tondini’s first year as a lawyer in the near-defunct US Administration for Colonial Development is plunged into chaos as the first and only starship launched a generation before suddenly reappears in the solar system. In the middle of bureaucratic back-covering and mass movements demanding emigration, can he win the patent case and unlock the key to FTL travel?
Very good point on the agency. My version doesn’t actually make clear he overcomes that sideline thing. I will go amend accordingly.
Blurbs – endlessly tinkered with, although I think I came out with some amusing short ones for my books – probably better suited to Twitter, though.
To Truckee’s Trail – “The Anti-Donner Party”
Adelsverein Trilogy – “Barsetshire with cypress trees, and lots of side-arms.”
The Quivera Trail – “Mrs. Gaskell meets Zane Grey. ” That one is, alas, hampered because no one who isn’t an enthusiast for Victorian woman writers even gets the allusion.
Napoleon’s occultists have called forth many fearsome things, but the most terrible has fallen down to a island in the South Pacific. Grand Admiral Navier’s fleet is coming to take it, and to sink Britannia beneath the waves. Only Captain James Stokes and the HMS Viscous can stop them.
That sounds mighty interesting indeed! One minor suggestion: change the order of introduction, if applicable. The first person introduced in the blurb (Grand Admiral Navier ) is assumed to be the hero.
Perhaps “Now Captain James Stokes of the HMS Viscous must race to find and defeat it before Grand Admiral Navier’s fleet can sink Britannia beneath the waves!”
No wonder my first effort didn’t sing enough. “Now Captain James Stokes of the HMS Viscous must race to defeat Grand Admiral Navier’s fleet before Britannia is sunk beneath the waves!”
That works better.
Navier-Stokes… Viscosity… Hmmmmm….
Book Title: The Edge of Empire
Blurb: The war is over. A new Emperor sits upon the throne of Terra. Peace descends upon humanity.
But Duncan Rutherford is about to find out that when you’ve annoyed the wrong people, and if your luck is bad enough, sometimes a new peace is harder to survive than an old war. Especially out on
(big text)The Edge of Empire(/big text)
While you have a good ending hook, the opening is a little weak. I would personally lead with Duncan himself, going straight to the hero you want someone to root for. Opening with the emperor and the throne gives the impression that the book will be set around the emperor and the throne, not the edge of the empire.
Also, this isn’t necessarily a dealkiller, but there’s a star war RPG called the edge of the empire. Anyone searching for your book is going to get a lot of star wars hits instead. You might consider changing it, you might not, and just take that in advisement.
Duncan Rutherford has survived the end of the old Empire, and the war to establish the new emperor on Terra’s throne. Now he’s out on the edge of the empire at (place), looking forward to (hero’s goal). All he has to do is survive (first enemy stated in book)’s vengeance…
Sorry, I know that needs work, but I don’t know enough about your book to break out of the cliches and into specifics that’ll interest readers in learning more.
Hmm . . .
When the war rolled over his home system, Duncan Rutherford lost everything. Grieving, he fled to the edge of known space, to a system that wasn’t worth anyone fighting over, to rebuild his life.
A decade later, the war is over, and peace descends upon humanity. But Duncan is about to find out that when you’ve annoyed the wrong people, and if your luck is bad enough, sometimes a new peace is just as hard to survive as an old war. Especially out on
(title)The Borders of Empire(/title)
A writerly friend of mine sent me a book on how to find an agent (written pre-indy days; the advice works equally well for submitting directly to a publisher.) There were some format guidelines, but the key was the three-paragraph sentence where you describe your book. Three sentences at MOST.
The author gives some samples, and some advice (like not wasting space on character names unless it’s highly relevant; you should use a very specific and relevant description instead.) It’s hard. It’s extremely hard. But it’s very useful as an exercise, because if you can sell your book in three sentences or less, you’re gold. Think of it as an elevator pitch—you’re in an elevator with the person who might buy your book, but you’ve only got two floors of travel to sell it to them.