Going Indie For Dummies — But what is it ABOUT?

Yeah, I know I was going to give you a checklist today.  I have altered the deal.  Pray I don’t alter it agai–

Oh, what the heck, listen, I’m doing this for free and it occurred to me there was something I must tell you before we get to your checklist and putting your work up for purchase.

As we all know our very own Dorothy Grant, aka Fynbospress, is the crowned queen of synopsis (synopsidi, synopsides, synopsosaurus — whatever the plural is) aka “blurbs” for your novel on Amazon.  I have just demanded she do a series of posts on them (what?  Some days you wake up imperial!  No, not imperious.  I know whence I speak.  Where is my crown?  Footmen, bring the captive before me and make her write posts on blurbs.  Ahem.  Let me see, where was I?  Oh, yeah)  Until then you can start off with  Dean Wesley Smith.

Selling copy is ENORMOUSLY important; as important as your cover is, in selling your book. People who see the title and the cover and think that this is something they might like to read, then go to the actual book page and read the description.

Several things about what this description should be:

1- it should be truthful.  Remember when I whined (or was it on my blog?) that I’d bought a book thinking it was about star travel but it turned out to be about male pregnancy and kinky stuff?  Yeah, you don’t make friends this way.  This is why your blurb needs to tell us what the book is actually about and have the more controversial elements up front.  You don’t want to “trick” people into buying your book.  (But Sarah, Witchfinder doesn’t tell us one of the characters is gay!  Oh, true, but since he’s not the main character and there are no sex scenes in the novel, nor is the theme “gay love as she’s never been seen before”, and since, whatever the people who WERE born yesterday say, gay characters are not that rare in SF/F,, it doesn’t necessitate a big flashing warning which would cause people to overestimate the importance of Gabriel’s romance to the plot.  Of course I of course, I could be wrong.  Mind you, if he were the main character I’d find a way to give warning in the blurb, without overemphasizing the importance of the relationship.)

2- Amazon takes your description and filters it for keywords to know where to put your story.  This is why Sword and Blood is in horror.  I didn’t put it there, because it’s not.  It’s at best dark fantasy.  But I only actually put it under “historical fantasy.”  However, the word “vampire” is in the description, and this will put it in horror.  (Um… Amazon DOES need to update its categories.  It’s the one thing Barnes and Noble did better and, as a reader, I’m sick and tired of having to filter through ENDLESS paranormal romance to find a decent science fiction novel.)

3- It must be brief.  And to the point.  And as catchy as you can make it.  Why?  Because you don’t have a captive audience.  First, if most people are like me, they have twelve tabs open, and are looking for ONE book to read that night.  Second, because if you meander and get lost, and give them a ton of irrelevant details, they’re going to think your novel, too, is written like that.  And having suffered through a lot of such novels, they won’t want to do it again.

So, it turns out most people don’t actually know what their novels are about or the relevant facts that someone needs to know about them.

I found this out years ago, while trying to get a friend to tel me about his novel, to get him to come up with an elevator pitch, and he started with “So, they’re on a train, and they’re going into the mountain, and she says to him.”  He went on to tell us, with tears in his eyes, that there was this scene where “she slaps him.”  Since I had no idea who “he” and “she” were, (Yeah, he’d given me names, but I still didn’t know who they WERE) and what the conflict was, I was somewhat flabbergasted.

I still get this routinely in the side line as a cover designer.  I will get something like “So, it’s an adventure set on Mars.  Here’s what my characters look like.  Here’s the scene I think should be on the cover.”

Since my art skills are somewhat short of cover level, what I mostly use if altered free images.  For that the character description is somewhat useful, as I might end up finding say an elfin blond wearing purple.  It could happen.  However, the scene is not useful at all, and I’m still missing the most important part of all: the feel of the book.  Since it’s on Mars, I assume it’s SF.  So, the sky will have a flying machine or two.  But is it straight sf or steampunk?  Is Mars Terraformed?  And is it an adventure or a slow, pensive story about leaving the Earth.  Because the cover should have the “feel” of the book.

But more importantly, a cover is not a REPRESENTATION of your novel, it is an advertisement for it.  The image should fit in order Genre, feel, time period — and only after that worry about details.  Because if you don’t match the genre and feel they’re looking for (and possibly the time period, particularly for mysteries) you’re not going to make that sale.  And details should remain vague enough to fit in a cover — because the more you put in, the more likely you are to end up with a muddled image.

Why am I talking about covers?  Because the process is almost exactly the same for blurbs.  Only with words, instead of pictures.

First, you must signal genre, feel and time period.  Second, you must tell us what the story is about, but NOT what the story IS (i.e. if you tell us the whole story right there, why buy it.)  And third, you must not muddy it with details which will confuse the reader.

Sure, you can spend your time thinking about that scene in the middle where SHE slaps him, and which is SO important.  And you know what?  Once your readers et there and know the characters, it will be so important to them too.  (I think.  I was literally crying and had my nose running when I wrote the death scene in Draw One In The Dark, but I don’t know if I managed even a tear from readers.  Writers are… closer to the  characters.)  BUT first you have to get them to read the d*mn thing. And going on and on about this scene is NOT the way to do it.

In another life, long ago and far away — and besides, the wench is dead — I wanted to be a journalist.  This means that as part of high school, I took a bunch of journalism courses, and even worked for school newspapers.  Even interned in a real newspaper at the end of 1979.  Also, when I decided to take a writing course in the US I couldn’t afford the Writers Digest one, so I took the Writers’ Magazine one, which was geared to writing articles.  (Yeah, okay, stupid.)

You should think of your blurbs as a journalist thinks about a news article.  First and foremost it should answer the questions: Who, what, when and how.  Only of course, the order these are in is different for every “genre” or slant.

I’m not absolutely sure I can EXPLAIN it to you, but I can show it.  Let’s go with a story everyone knows.  Erase from your mind the fact that you know precisely how Cinderella ends.  These blurbs won’t give it away.  Now, let’s suppose it’s a brand new story, and I just wrote it.  Now I’m putting it on Amazon.  Yeah, the scene where the prince comes with his slipper is REALLY important.  And we all tear up when the Fairy Godmother makes it possible for her to go to the ball.  But that’s not what your readers want to know.  So I’ll slant it for several genres (more at request in the comments) and give you a general idea of what a blurb should look like.

Now, mind you, these won’t be perfect.  I’d take the day to polish them if they were really selling blurbs.  But they’ll give you an idea.

Fantasy: It’s hard to be an orphan in a fantasy world.  You know you’ll be the ones who has to go out and find her destiny.  Cinders doesn’t know how to do this when her stepmother and cruel stepsisters keep her in the kitchen, covered in rags, doing all the menial work.

But when the prince of the land sends out an invitation for all young ladies to come to a ball, Cinders’s fairy godmother appears to her for the first time.  Now caught in the coils of magic and destiny, Cinders must learn to control her fate and meet her destiny.

Science Fiction: Cinders should never have left the Earth.  However, the choice was not really hers, as her father decided to immigrate, then died shortly after arriving to Chimera5.  Alone and working for the cruel colony governor and her two spoiled daughters, Cinders knows she can never get to meet the Earth ambassador and lay her case before him.  Then the aliens come and propose a deal.

Thriller: Cinders almost managed to lay her case before the special investigator of the FBI, but knowing her crazy, mass murdering step mother was on her trail, she had to run off, leaving behind her shoe.  Now, he’s trying to find her with the shoe as his only clue.  Can she stay alive long enough and arrange to meet him, with proof of her stepmother’s crime?

(Cozy) Mystery: Who killed Cinders’ father?  The old man was doing quite wll when he married the Widow, Mrs. Cruelstepomother.  But within two days, he’d died leaving Cinders in the power of her new stepmother and step sisters, who keep her in the kitchen and doing all the housework, so that she can neither talk to the neighbors, nor find out who inherited her father’s fortune.  And yet, she must investigate, before she too is killed.

Romance: How do you find love when you’re just a kitchen wench?  Though Cinders is of noble birth, her father’s death made her fall in the power of her cruel step mother and stepsisters who keep her in the kitchen as a cook.  It is not till she catches a glimpse of Prince Hotstuff that she realizes she must do whatever it takes to attend the royal ball and met him in person. But even should she manage it, can they overcome the difference in their upbringings and fortunes, and the mistrust of those who’ve been betrayed before, to find lasting happiness?

Those aren’t works of art, and they’d need to be polished, but you see that they’re to the point and hit all the clues, right?

Now: what’s your story about?

48 thoughts on “Going Indie For Dummies — But what is it ABOUT?

  1. I wrote a blurb, which was fairly ho-hum. I also went back and changed the category offerings. But…
    This morning I got one of those wonderful letters Amazon occasionally sends me: “Would you like to share information about your new book with your Amazon followers?” Followed, so help me, with a choice between yes and no. I chose…duh…aw, you guessed.
    The good thing about this is you can write a SECOND blurb, and the standards for this one seem to be more loose. It’s not going to strangers, it’s going to people who already bought/borrowed/read your books. Anyway, it was longer, and I mentioned things not included in the original Blurb in the interest of brevity. If Amazon sends you one of those messages, I recommend you do what I did, write a different blurb instead of including the same one they’ll find if they locate your original blurb via Google or Amazon’s search bar.

      1. Amazon always liked me best? 😀
        I’ve gotten three. I was discussing this with a fellow writer named Blair Howard; he’s never gotten one either.
        It may be that I’m getting hem because I triggered Amazon’s free email promotion when I published The Ship. That one not only sold well, it kicked the KU borrows into high gear; I got more than 900,000 pages read in March, more than 750k pages in April.
        I don’t know, but I’ll love it as long as it lasts! I don’t think it’s a ‘forever’ thing; if my books stop producing, I’ll turn into a hot rock.
        And you know what happens to hot rocks!

      1. I never had either, Celia, until I released The Ship in December and NFI in March. When NFI (catchy title, no? Guaranteed to convince a reader to buy just to find out what it means! 😀 And the next book is NEO.) was published, I got one, then a week or so later, a second.
        Keep plugging away. Some get accepted by BookBub (not me!) and some get goodies from Amazon.

  2. This is another area I tend to suck at (okay, sometimes I think every area is an area I suck at, but that’s a topic for another day). What I’ve found useful is the “Starting Line Up” idea from Swain’s “Techniques of the Selling Writer”. It’s primary purpose is to make sure you have a story rather than just an idea before you start writing, but I find it makes at least tolerable sales copy.

    Two sentences, the first a statement that gives main character, situation, and goal. The second a question that gives opposition and disaster (bad thing that happens if goal not reached):

    Plague station:
    Doctor Susan O’Bannon on Space Colony 42 attempts to find a cure for a new disease that’s putting people into comas. But when people wake from the comas driven by rage and hunger, can she survive the onslaught, let alone find a cure?

    Sometimes the individual wording from that “starting line up” with it’s strict two-sentence format is particularly awkward so I’ll break it down a bit more or expand on it a bit until I’m reasonably happy with it:

    The Spaewife:
    A young mother hears the Norns. They tell her of terrible things to come. When Ulfarr wants her gift of prophesy to serve him, he takes her and steals away her children. Can the young mother escape from Ulfarr’s clutches and save her children from him? Only the Norns know.

    Treva’s Children:
    Baroness Talisa leads the last few surviving members of her household through the mountains in the dead of winter, fleeing the changeling hordes that have destroyed the kingdom. In that world of white and gray she stumbles on an oasis of green, a garden, sacred to Treva, goddess of the wild things of the world. There, Talisa encounters the enigmatic guardian of the place who possesses great and mysterious magical power and who claims Talisa’s life as forfeit for trespassing in Treva’s Garden.

    As for covers, my hard, space-based SF is easy. Some spaceships. Maybe a planet in the background. Some weapons and explosions if appropriate for the story. Done. For the fantasy? That’s a bit harder, particularly since I’ve seen so much variation in fantasy covers that I’m not even sure what to make of one.

    1. I is working on the cover. I have a highly symbolic one, and one that we’ll need “fantasy” somewhere written to give away not medieval combat…
      We’re getting there.

    2. Reading your description of a hard SF cover started me thinking of which planet to put in the background. Which led me to thinking it would depend on the range of the story. Which then led me to Mars, since it’s close, and less inhospitable than Venus. Which THEN led me to thinking how many books have had the title, “Red Planet”.

      Which path culminated in a title: “Again, Red Planet”. But I have no idea what to do with it. Free to good home?

    3. The Swain story queries are perfect for blurbs, too. In the first place they test whether you have a story idea. In the second instance, they let you share it on an elevator, an escalator, in a box, or with a fox. All good.

    4. Applying Swain to my most recent, Sleeping Duty:
      Gilead Tan and Andrea Fielding survived their stint in the military, got married, signed up to emigrate to a terraformed colony world, and went into cold sleep for the journey from Earth. While they slept, the starship got lost and settled for a different world, a wild world. Three centuries after the founding of a colony on the uncharted planet, Gilead awakens to find humanity slipped back to medieval tech and a feudal structure. Worse, the king who wants Gilead awake won’t let Gilead awaken his wife.

      1. I like to end with a question as a bit of psychological ju-jutsu to raise questions in the reader’s mind that they’ll hopefully want to answer by reading the book. 😉

    5. For fantasy covers, the key is the type of fantasy you’re doing. If it’s principally about one person, the current thing seems to be a closeup of the face with other elements (sword, tree, etc.) to indicate fantasy. If it’s epic fantasy, a movie poster-style montage of faces could work, or an action scene (two knights fighting over monochrome battle scene.) If it’s fantasy about the Fair Folk, natural elements will predominate. And so on.

  3. “Who, what, when and how.”
    This is ringing a bell for me. I remember having to answer these when I did research papers in High School.

    “what’s your story about?”

    This is what we sketched out for our novel: ( I think we got 3 of the 4 W’s)

    Alicia Chaves has been looking for her son, who vanished on his way home from school, for a year. In an act of desperation, she goes to the office of The Four Winds detective agency. A small independent agency owned and operated by Robin Yokama and Astara Price.

    Robin Yokama, the daughter of a sheriff’s deputy who was killed in the line of duty. She refuses to carry a gun, preferring to out think or out maneuver her opponent rather than duel with them.

    Astara (Star) Price, a part Cherokee Veteran of the Middle East War, has no problem carrying a gun, much less using it.

    The detectives quickly learn this is not a typical missing person case and that the winds that blew Alicia to their door may have brought something else with it. Fortunately, the unusual is normal for them. They also belong to the Collegium Custodius, a worldwide organization of paranormal specialists sworn to protect the world around them. Robin is a Clairvoyant and a Journeyman Adept with an interest in demonology and Star is a Empath who possess the rare gift of being able to move between the dimensional plane we live in and the ones surrounding it. It may end up taking their skills as detectives and paranormal specialists to find this missing child.

    1. This answers questions, but also sucks up “energy”. You want the reader frantic to read the sample after the blurb, so no passive constructions. Leave out any unnecessary information, like Alicia’s last name. I’d avoid complex, multi-phrase sentences too. Example:

      “Alicia searches for her son, who never returned from school one day. After a year her increasing desperation takes her to an unusual detective agency–Four Winds. Haunted by the death of her sheriff father in the line of duty, Robin Yokama shuns guns. Star Price, a veteran of the Sandbox, rarely goes unarmed. But their true secret will come to the fore when they take the case–for the disappearance has a deep connection to the paranormal world Robin and Star have sworn to defend against. Will a clairvoyant Adept and a dimension-hopping Empath have the skills to find the missing child…before it’s too late?”

      [cue dramatic theme music, over the words ‘tune in tomorrow’….]

      1. {nice example, considering what you had to work with.}

        Brevity – not one of my stronger points, but doable with a lot of effort.

        I’ll take another look at it and see what I can do. Or maybe get my sister/partner to try since she is better with the emotional (strong) words.

      2. From here, I’d narrow this even further: whose actions and choices drive the heart of the story? From the sound of the blurb, the story is really about the detectives, not the mother. Similarly, the character quirks and backstory should be minimized, because they won’t care until they know what the character is trying to get, and what the stakes are.

        Robin Yokoma is an Adept of the Four Winds detective agency is on a missing child case that’s anything but simple. The tangled and broken trail is pointing to the paranormal world that she and her empathic partner, Star Price, have sworn to defend against. If they don’t find the child before (time limit), then all hell is going to break loose!

  4. Worst blurb I ever saw was from a traditional publisher long before eBooks.

    The book was Coils by Saberhagen and Zelazny, and the big secret in the very last chapter of the book was that an unknown Artificial Intelligence was helping the protagonist all along.

    No, I didn’t put a spoiler warning there. I figure if the blurb writer can plaster that secret right on the back cover, there’s no sense in a spoiler warning.

  5. When I’m trying to write a book review or tell someone why they should read a book, I always try to come up with a description that gets their attention and tells them something without revealing too much. I suppose I could apply that same thinking to blurbs.

  6. I know you know it’s “synopses.” Although some are “synopsides” – sounds like something to put you to sleep. Alas, those are mostly mine, right now. Working at it.

    Checklist anticipated – although I had forgotten the promise. Probably why I need checklisties…

  7. Having seen his home invaded, his father killed in combat and his own worth questioned, Delpris sets out to prove himself. If he wants ti claim his title as Clag Magnate and his spot on the Council of Dwarven Elders he has no choice. Accompanied by two Halflings a human and other assorted friends he sets off to find and slay those that ordered the attack against Rausturk.

    (Yes? No? Too long?)

    1. Okay, redact: His father was killed, his home invaded, his self-worth destroyed. Now Delpris must prove himself. To claim his title as Clan magnate and take his place on the council of Dwarven elders, he must find and slay those who ordered the attack on his home. (? assumption it’s his home. We don’t need the name.)

      1. Or…

        They killed his father. They invaded his home. They destroyed his self-worth. Now Delpris must…

        and so on. Dean always says to get rid of is, was, has been.


          1. My big weakness in blurb writing is the dreaded descent into plot. During the blurb workshop, Dean constantly exhorted me to pull up and out of the plot. But I’m good at avoiding ‘is.’ 😉

  8. A mistake on chromosome 16 changes the world as children genetically engineered for hair color begin showing telepathic abilities. When Kate finds out she’s not alone, she sets out to save her kindred from camps, pogroms, and forced labor. She and her brother have the resources, but do they have the skills and the will to save the world’s telepaths?

    Not like. This is hard.

    1. This worked on me until the bit about having resources. It made the task sound not hard. Maybe something like, “Can she and her brother save the world’s telepaths when faced with [something really bad, possibly awful, maybe even dire].?”

      1. Good point. I made them rich to avoid problems with gallivanting about being heroic and offering sanctuary – it’s not free after all. It’s also pretty easy to be a good corporate leader when you can read your competitors’ (and subordinates’) minds 😉 That doesn’t need to be in the blurb, though.


  9. Most Indy covers, I buy the book despite them. A good rule to live by is KISS (writes the woman who adores fiddly bits and secret details).

    So, if you cannot be good, be accurate.

    Meanwhile, if you want to learn, the quickest way to get better is to steal from the best: By which I mean look at movie posters, book covers in your genre: graphic designs that make you want to pick up the product. Breakdown the elements: where is the title? What kind of font? Where in relation to the image? How much detail? The good news is that graphic design is a different skill set from artist, so “I can’t draw” is no barrier to entry.

  10. Shiki Meioujima was raised in the wilderness to be a swordsman. Now his deranged old man is comatose, and his next guardian has sent him to Shikashima Grounding Academy. More than loathing being at a girls’ school, Shiki has no intention of spending any time around other people. Little does he know that alone he is no match for the horrors whose objective is the Academy!

    This blurb was written to a general description of Japanese Light Novel. Might be a harem romcom, might not.

  11. Blurbs are tough. I have a longer action-oriented “back cover blurb” with more detail and a shorter “elevator pitch blurb” that’s more thematic to try to capture the reader’s attention in two sentences. I assume the longer is more appropriate for Amazon?

    Back Cover Blurb:

    Discover The Hidden Truth!

    A ruthless high-tech conspiracy rewrote scientific history.

    A young man in Appalachia finds a forgotten book in an old library – a book that could unlock The Hidden Truth.

    The conspiracy suppressed a crucial paper by Oliver Heaviside. Three other scientists, Maxwell, Hertz, and FitzGerald, died – or were killed – before they could complete their work. Once is happenstance, and twice is coincidence, but three times is enemy action.

    Who is this enemy? How have they corrupted, not just science, but also society? And what will happen when the conspirators become aware that someone else is seeking…

    The Hidden Truth?

    Elevator Pitch Blurb: Set in an alternate timeline where the 9/11 attack killed President Gore and the government instituted comprehensive surveillance on steroids, The Hidden Truth tells the story of how a young man discovers subtle hints and clues of a cover-up in the history of science – clues that are actually present in our own timeline as well. Ultimately, The Hidden Truth is about a young man’s discovery that sinister forces are corrupting the world, and how he, his friend, and his family fight back.

    I’d appreciate any feedback. Thanks!

    1. Is there something specific about what the young man wants to get or stop? As the blurbs read now, the sensible thing for this fellow to do is to put the book down and quietly walk away and hum nonchalantly while he does it. What is his specific, personal stake that make him take up this gauntlet? I think you should tell us what makes it all matter to him so that it matters to us, too.

      Also, the alternate timeline seems very interesting and served as its own hook. I’d put that in the Amazon blurb to situate your readers.

      I’m on vacation and away from my Swain, but if I remember it right, we need to know:
      1. The circumstances: discovery of a mysterious book
      2. The main character: a young man who…
      3. What he desperately wants/needs:
      Can he do so when:
      4. Opponent: the secret cabal and its murderous leader
      5. Causes big disaster: threaten all of Connecticut? [this can be a very general description and something we learn early in the book to avoid spoilers]
      (except correct to your book, of course)

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