Trying too hard: How to lose the reader before she opens your book

I am not sure whether this is a rant about one of my personal bêtes noires or good advice about what not to put in a blurb. I guess that will depend on how many people share my jaundiced reactions to the examples.

The particular style of “trying too hard” I’m thinking of today is the supposedly humorous novel whose author beats you over the head with how funny! it all is before you even have a chance to open the book. I assume we’ve all encountered the sort of sad-sack fiction in which the author makes sure you know that a character’s dialogue is hysterically funny by having all the other characters fall over themselves laughing every time Mr. Funny says, “Good morning.” Excellent way to get a book walled before the end of the first chapter.

The recent discussion of Bob Honey reminded me of the many ways in which a writer can make sure I don’t open his book at all. And no, I’m not going to take examples from that book; it’s needlessly cruel, like nuking fish in a barrel. I trawled through Amazon’s blurbs and reviews for Fiction – Humor and found plenty of material.

There are certain words that pop out like red flags when I see them, especially if they’re bolded at the top of the blurb.

Laugh out loud! Hilarious! Zany!

Sorry, but Ms. Grinch here immediately asks herself, “And just why are you so desperate to convince me that what follows is so funny? Haven’t you ever heard of show-don’t-tell? One line that actually cracks me up would be worth a thousand of these attempts to persuade.”

When this kind of hard sell goes over the top, as in This sometimes raunchy, sometimes cringeworthy comedy, I am completely unsold. Keep your raunch and your cringes; I’ll read somebody who doesn’t feel the need to tell me how I should react.

 Unfunny names

P. G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett were Grand Masters of the hilariously evocative name. Most of us are not in that class.  If you feel the need to tag your characters with names you find side-splitting, do yourself the favor of glancing over their oeuvres first. You should notice that “Gussie Fink-Nottle” and “Ponder Stibbons” suit their characters without falling into the trap of being pushily descriptive. I will not read books that feature an eccentric butterfly collector named Flutterby, an incompetent pickpocket named Butterfingers, or a blonde ditz named Titsy McBoom. (I’m not sure whether this sort of thing comes under Trying Too Hard or Not Trying Hard Enough. It may be a case of taking the first ‘funny’ name off the shelf.)

 These people!

An opening that introduces us to a gloriously eccentric cast of characters can be a great start to a comic novel. A blurb that attempts to do the same, while dialing up eccentricity to twelve… not so much. When I read,

“a Las Vegas cocktail waitress, an ineffective jihadist, a Grand Dragon of the KKK, a creationist and his very extended family, a pill-popping doctor, a drop-dead sexy clepto-nympho-suicidal-maniac, and a rogue Illuminati mastermind,”

the effect is not, “Ooh, amusing group of people,” so much as, “random selection chosen for shock value.” The stench of desperation is strong here. Also, learn how to spell kleptomaniac before you try to use it.

Here’s another actual, straight-from-the-official-blurb example:

“This funny world of action & adventure connects Professor Harry Dandruff, a wealthy inventor with hair problems and a questionable past; his six clones with abundant problems of their own; a run-of-the-mill everyman-loser who’s just officially died and has nothing left to unofficially live for; a humorous, lazy, and leering President of the United States, trying to do the minimum for his legacy in the history books; a megalomaniac with a fake Ph.D and a plan to control the world’s religions by cloning their symbolic mascots; a comedy rivalry between the Gay Brigade and the Lesbian Lineup for world domination – or world apocalypse.”

That’s right, this gem combines Unfunny Name Syndrome with Cast of Thousands. And no, I did not make this one up either. I’m not naming titles/authors because I don’t like holding people up to public obloquy, but I am quoting directly from the blurbs because they are so much worse than anything I can invent

No, this is not a comic romp. This is throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting.

“Billy, a recalcitrant seven—almost eight—year-old, fed up with his mom, runs away. The SuperMart manager, Mitch Spooner, locks down the store, but refuses to call the police, lest they discover just how much he has been embezzling. In the locked down store, Sandy, a YouTube preacher looking for her big break, finally gets her chance to preach to a captive audience. Lee Rigg, just an average guy, if a little bit dumber than most, misinterprets Sandy’s sermon and takes it upon himself to apprehend the scumbag he thinks must have kidnapped Billy. And a red squirrel named Rusty plans to outwit all the humans to steal the newly arrived shipment of roasted, salted nuts that will put him on easy street.”

Pass.

And the Golden Club (the better to beat your reader over the head with) goes to:

“What could possibly happen when a gloriously dippy millennial becomes the right hand of an equally clueless playboy billionaire? Be prepared to face-palm as you follow Isa Maxwell on a dizzying ride through the world of corporate intrigue; roll your eyes at the dubious business advice of Mr. Hue, the owner of [REDACTED]; cringe as you are sucked into the Maxwell family drama. 

Praised as “not only a hysterically funny romp through corporate practices but an astute satire on current American culture,” [TITLE REDACTED FOR PROTECTION OF THE GUILTY] offers a hilarious escape from reality.”

Lessee. I’ve just been told to face-palm, roll my eyes, and cringe. In addition, I’ve been informed that this is a hysterically funny romp, a hilarious escape from reality and an astute satire.

Definitely award-worthy. And definitely not going to pollute my Kindle any time soon. “Free” is way too expensive in this case.

58 comments

  1. Not about “Humorous” books but related to “bad blurbs”, there are blurbs that tell us how “awoke” the author is and that if you want to be “awoke” you have to read the book.

    Oh also related to “bad blurbs” are when the blurb tells you nothing about the plot or the situation the characters will be in but only lists the people who think this is a “Very Enlightened Book”.

  2. Ow. No, none of those sold the book. In fact, I’d probably avoid everything else by those authors, just in case they might be contagious.

  3. And then there’s the unintentionally hilarious blurbs:

    Once guilty of the deadly sin of gluttony, thousand-year-old Viking vampire angel Cnut Sigurdsson is now a lean, mean, vampire-devil fighting machine. His new side-job? No biggie: just ridding the world of a threat called ISIS while keeping the evil Lucipires (demon vampires) at bay. So when chef Andrea Stewart hires him to rescue her sister from a cult recruiting terrorists at a Montana dude ranch, vangel turns cowboy. Yeehaw!
    The too-tempting mortal insists on accompanying him, surprising Cnut with her bravery at every turn. But with terrorists stalking the ranch in demonoid form, Cnut teletransports Andrea and himself out of danger—accidentally into the tenth-century Norselands. Suddenly, they have to find their way back to the future to save her family and the world . . . and to satisfy their insatiable attraction.

    It’s something like the seventh in a series published by a major outlet. I showed it to a librarian friend of mine and she was interested in acquiring a copy for the library on train wreck grounds.

    I haven’t obscured the details because I figure with a full series, there’s plenty enough fans to keep it going. But oh my. Wouldn’t an indy writer be destroyed for that kind of blurb?

    1. Oh. my. God. I read through that thinking, “It’s not really fair to make up something that off the wall.” You mean it’s REAL? Demonoid terrorists and all? Pass the brain bleach!

        1. Okaaaaay. I looked it up. “Vangel” is now indelibly written into my vocabulary.

          You people are VEVIL.

        1. Viking? Fine. Even if it’s a bit more of a job description, if he started out as a Viking or just looks like the stereotypical Viking, big and blond, fine. Vampire? Fine. Vampire angel? What the hell? What could that be anyway? Or is angel just supposed to be something like “oh he’s such an angel, he really saved my ass” kind of angel?

          That blurb really tells me nothing of the story or of the characters, except that “Cnut” seems to be some sort of vampire (but is he a vampire angel or a vampire-devil?) and was fat while alive but is now lean, the story starts in Montana but there is time (and distance) travel and some sort of love affair between the whatever once fat viking and some chef. Does she tempt him with food?

  4. If you have to TELL somebody you’re good-looking, you ain’t. If you gotta TELL somebody you’re intelligent, you’ve lost . If you gotta TELL somebody you’re funny, you are most certainly not. Don’t get me started on people touting how “Woke” their work is.

  5. Other genres, if done badly, can be unintentionally funny and amusing in an odd sort of way.
    But bad comedy is just painful.

  6. Trigger words in a blurb. Raunchy and cringe-worthy are more the type of things one expects in a review. If I see it in the blurb, its back on the shelf.

    Zany evokes an image of a pencil-necked Millennial trying to be funny. I don’t think anybody has successfully pulled off zany since the Marx Brothers.

    Then there is the classic Do Not Read! warning: “THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS…” because now I know that what lies within is disgusting people doing disgraceful things to each other in Hell, and it all ends in tears. Meh.

    1. The Pythons did a fair bit of zany back in the day, and I think that Blackadder may have zaned a bit. Then, there’s the insanity of the “Excel Saga” anime.

        1. No—all of the principal characters have names after hotel chains in Japan. So you have Il Palazzo, Excel, and Hyatt. But he’s not kidding about the “zany” quotient. Each episode parodies a common style—the first episode starts off with a direct spoof of how a famous anime ended by having the heroine getting hit by a bus. (No, really. A long-running anime about high school ended exactly that way, and the fans are still traumatized.) Another episode spoofed war movies, including “low-budget shots.” Another parodied alien invasion movies. And the very last episode is entitled “Going Too Far” and… well… they do.

          1. The English dub burned out the first voice actress, who had a hard time with Excel’s extra rapid fire lines.

  7. I found one by accident on the same page as the above Whatsit Award winner. Yes, this is a real blurb:

    “A cult-classic comedy so zany that its wacky characters, farcical situations and off-the-wall travel-writing could almost be a SCI-FI cosmos”

    Wow. I am so not reading that.

              1. *reads* *giggles like mad*

                *giggles even more*

                They sound like they could’ve been related! Except that the Russkie pilot was quite pleased with being Russian, and was quite willing to share his vodka.

                I wonder now if it’s simply an expected trait of a certain breed of cargo pilots.

        1. I knew a bomb disposal specialist who could have been accurately called “Eight Fingers.”

  8. “…interplanetary sex appeal…” I think that was the jacket line on the not-heroine. It was about 60 years ago, almost. But who was the author?

  9. I make it a rule not to tell the reader the quality of the work in the blurb. Not thrilling, not funny, not dramatic. . .

    It does mean you have to suggest the tone.

  10. The blurb for the hilariously funny The Mouse That Roared:

    In Leonard Wibberley’s classic political satire, a tiny backwards country decides the only way to survive a sudden economic downturn is to declare war on the United States and lose to get foreign aid – but things don’t go according to plan.

    1. That’s the nice thing about a series and a fan base (well, you have at least me): The blurbs no longer matter. If you publish it, they (I) will buy it. Hmmm. Maybe the early ones need special attention to set the hook.

      That used to work for Mercedes Lackey, but I am no longer a fan (all the books are the same: Sympathetic kid in horrible situation becomes a hero; I got bored).

  11. For me, it’s not always the content of the author’s blurb but sometimes the author making the blurb that turns me off. There’s a Certain Famous Sf/F Author whose name I’ve seen on so many books of such (and I’ll be polite here) varying quality that I’m pretty sure a more accurate blurb from them would read either, “Hey folks, I’ve got no taste and I think this book rocks!” or, “The nice people who publish this book sent me a check for this blurb, so please read it!”.
    Either way the contents of the book seldom reflect the enthusiasm of the blurb.

    The flip side of that is the book whose cover copy (am I using the right phrase here?) and flyleaf text is ALL blurbs, no actual clue of what the book is about. You’re left with a title, an author, a cover painting that may or may not have a bloody thing to do with the actual text, and half a dozen goombahs enthusing about how much they liked the book. When I see that, I wonder if the reason nobody wants to say what the book is actually about is because they’re afraid nobody would buy it if they did.

    1. Oh, that’s too cynical. It’s not about sales; the Famous Authors don’t say what the book is about because they didn’t actually read it. After all, if they read everything they praised, when would they have the time to farm out their own fiction to be written by sharecroppers?

      1. What? Nah, much older than that. Someone I was reading in junior high, and Nixon was President when I was born. I’m just withholding identification because there’s probably some… well not necessarily fans, but people who have fond memories of Author’s first three books and I don’t want to start a bunfight over the issue.

  12. If your blurb doesn’t mention the story, that’s kind of a red flag.

    Kentucky Fried Movie was zany, raunchy, and hilarious. But if you’re imitating a satirical parody (especially if you don’t know *why*) you’re doing it wrong.

  13. This can definitely apply to the author’s self-description as well. There’s one author in particular whom I’ve been curious about checking out, but his grandiose claims about his own importance really turn me off. When I first discovered him, he had published one novel, a sci-fi card game tie-in, yet proclaimed himself “the leading hispanic voice in science fiction.”

    Granted, I realize that people like Sarah Hoyt and Larry Correia don’t exactly go around wrapping themselves up in their ethnicity, so maybe he could claim the title of “leading hispanic voice of anyone who actually gives a crap.” Either way, though, it reeks of someone desperately trying to convince everyone that he’s much more important than he actually is, and makes me skeptical about the quality of his writing.

    His stuff does look like it would be up my alley, so I might give him a shot, but he’s certainly not doing himself any favors with all the posturing.

    1. If it’s who I think it is, he’s a good guy, and seems to be mainly calling himself that to tweak certain puppy-kickers noses.

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