I should know; I flunked out of rocket science as a major, but I manage to do okay at writing blurbs!
Consider the following a basic primer in blurb writing; I am no master or guru, but while all my author friends are putting out their 5th or 15th story, I am putting out my 35th blurb attached to it. And with enough practice, you can get skilled at something.
Now, I want to build a primer you can use to write your own blurbs. Not because I refuse to write more, but so you know how and can do them on your own, and don’t ever have to wait on me. Because waiting on me is usually a 3-month lag time, between health issues and everything else I have going on. (My husband and J L Curtis** cheat; they give me looks over the dinner table to guilt me into trying harder and making it a higher priority, even as they feed me tasty food.)
So, to start, what is a blurb? Blurb used to be synonymous with “pull quote”, as in “This book is the best thing since sliced bread! -Famous Author In Same Genre”, that would get slapped on the cover, and used in ads. Now they’re universally used to mean Ad Copy, or the one to three paragraphs that hook readers whose wandering attention was arrested by your cover image (or title), and they stopped long enough to pick up your book and flip it over / click on the amazon page and read the ad copy.
The blurb is the answer you give when someone asks “You wrote a book? What’s it about?” It is not the same as the elevator pitch, which is a creature specifically designed to attract the attention of a mind evaluating intellectual property for market potential. Elevator pitches, and loglines, function like the cover; they’re only designed to get the attention long enough to ask for the blurb.
But the blurb isn’t what the book’s about. It is not a synopsis or a book report. It’s an advertising function designed to get the reader to go “What happens next?” and to pick up the book and open it to find out.
1.) Blurbs shouldn’t go past the first 3 chapters, or for a short story, the first 30% of the book.
This is not a hard and fast rule, and if you have an ice monster prologue or an epic fantasy, the rules are different. However, you want the reader hooked into to find out what happens next; you don’t want them to slog for 16 chapters to find out what happens after the big reveal / dramatic plot point / character death that was in the blurb.
2. Blurbs will generally contain the following structure:
a.) A Character
b.) wants something
c.) But something opposes them.
d.) The stakes if they fail are: —-
e.) The first plot twist
If the first plot twist happens in the first chapter, you may hit the first pinch point or possibly the second try-fail cycle, because if the “What happens next?” is answered in the first 5 pages, it’s harder to keep the reader engaged. Not impossible, but the author does have to work harder.
3.) The first name mentioned in the blurb will be the protagonist. “In the house of Rlyeh, Cthulu lies dreaming until Captain Carter disturbs him while searching for lost treasure!” If the readers don’t know Cthulu, that makes Cthulu sound like the protagonist, and possibly hero. “After finding lost civilizations on six continents, Captain Carter is close to solving his biggest mystery yet: the location of the lost temple of R’lyeh! But dread Cthulu lies inside, dreaming…” Makes Captain Carter the protagonist.
4.) Therefore, the protagonist should be introduced right away, or right after the catchy intro. No matter how interesting your world, people won’t care until you give them a person to care about. This is one of the essential paradoxes of science fiction and fantasy: people are attracted to the genre for the setting and the ability to work out scenarios of “if this goes on”, but they stay and come back for the characters.
“After two hundred years at war, the Empire of Man has come to a stalemate with the Scourge. Each side is deadlocked, seeking some advantage, and sending teams to scour dead worlds in search of lost tech left behind by the forerunners. Blah blah setup setup infodump….” is not how to start a blurb.
instead, try “Captain James Carter of the Go Lightly is scouring the ruins of dead races in search of any lost technology that could turn the tide of interstellar war. When he contracts the virus that killed an entire race, Command orders him to become a suicide bio-bomber! Will one man’s search for survival put all humanity’s star systems at risk?”
5.) You must display agency on the protagonists’ part. Have the characters go places and do things, they don’t just have life happen while they’re there. Blurbs must reflect this agency – they must show your character going and doing and plotting. The shorthand for this is “Don’t use passive voice”, because nothing kills agency faster (and adds length) than putting the action verb on something other than the character. But it’s not solely grammar. “Bob had survived the war, and was hiding on the sidelines as conspiracies rose in the court to entangle him” is very passive. “After surviving the war, Bob is hiding out as a mere florist in the court’s staff. But when he uncovers a new conspiracy…” that has agency.
6.) If it’s mentioned in the blurb, the reader will assume it’s an Important Plot Point. Which is why we want to go light on specifics, and cliches become powerful if double-edged swords. “ancient relic” “evil empire” “plucky young hero” – you don’t want to flat-out state the trope name, because then people start groaning and rolling their eyes, but if you can use the resonance right, readers will bring a lot more to the blurb than you wrote on the page
7.) What are the 3-5 most important unique names involved? Use 3 of them. Because people’s attention wanders after 3-5 unfamiliar terms, depending on the reader (and frankly, the mood they’re in.) So, if you start with “Xaarath Fthagn of Marakis Prime is a gleeple of the Tuurathi”… you’ve already lost a chunk of readers.
Often it’s not that obvious, though. “Eric Friedman of the pirate ship Fortune has lived in the Reach between the Protectorate and the Confederacy his whole life until…” Is still an extremely steep learning curve for a casual browser looking for entertainment.
8.) Length – 300 characters is optimal. Why? Because you’re fighting for eyeballs, and shorter is better. Most ad companies want something short and punchy – indeed, banner ads descend to logline/elevator pitch territory. But email ads like BookBub, EBookSoda, etc. Usually ask for a 300-character blurb so they can stick it in their email to subscribers, and why do the work twice?
Also, Amazon will let you write a longer blurb, but if you notice, after so many characters, they stick a “read more” tag. You can reliably depend on losing 25% of your traffic with every click you make them do (the main reason Amazon poured millions into creating the one-click-buy button.) So shorter is better.
9.) Revision tip: when you think you have a good piece of ad copy, try reading it out loud, and then saying it like you’re answering the question “What’s it about?” from a favourably inclined stranger at a con.
You’ll probably find yourself hesitating before words, dropping them, changing phrases, possibly even skipping and combining entire sentences. This is normal and good. Write down the spoken version, and it’ll be smoother on the reading as well as the delivery.
Now, on to examples. Riffing on Sarah’s post on blurbs last year, these are all Cinderella variants. I warn you, they’re going to be rather rough, because composing a blurb usually takes me two to three days, and I needed to get this done by Saturday night for the post to go up. (Like newspapers, sometimes you don’t have to have it done perfectly, you have to have it done Saturday.)
Ella’s sheltered world died with her father, leaving her a refugee on her step-mother’s estates. Now exiled to kitchen servitude to hide the reminder of the unpopular and doomed marriage alliance, she must dodge her increasingly paranoid sisters and parlay old ties with the Fae to win back her rightful place in the palace. Unfortunately, every gift from the Fae comes with a cost, and midnight is coming all too soon…
It’s just a temp job, right?
Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella and her shipmates must cater to the increasingly bizarre demands of the galactic upper class, while seeking a new captain, contracts, and alien allies to find a way back to the stars!
Romance – Science Fiction
Stranded on Chimera5 among the indentured servants, Ella must move among the galactic upper class while avoiding being fined . Getting back to the stars never seemed so far away, until a favor given freely to the local aliens is repaid in the oddest way. In the middle of a ball, Ella’s won not just the prince’s assistance, but his heart.
With freedom in her grasp, she must choose between the stars, or love…
Time is ticking away…
Caught between a malevolent murderer and an enigmatic conspiracy, Ella must find out who killed her father. All signs point toward something happening at the palace ball, and the prince may be the author of the conspiracies – or it’s next victim!
A few notes – if you’re going to have more than four lines of test, break it up into multiple paragraphs. When viewed on a small screen (kindle fire, iPad, phone…), even a normal-looking paragraph becomes a wall-o-text.
Taglines- sure, knock yourself out.
I’m at work today, but I’ll be checking in. What are your blurbs?
*(Link to the last blurb clinic, for examples, here: https://madgeniusclub.com/2017/10/15/blurb-clinic/ )
**The featured image is one of the books Jim threw at me for a blurb a few years ago – a modern day western with cowboys vs. drug smugglers, where all the shooting and the cow wrangling is correct! It was supposed to be a trilogy, not unlike hitchhiker’s guide was supposed to be a trilogy…