BLURB WRITING B Y MCA HOGHARTH
I love blurb writing.
I know, it sounds crazy. But blurbs, like movie trailers with those fantastic voiceovers, are a mini-genre of their own, one short enough that you can practice and improve quickly. The dividends of these efforts are great… a good blurb attracts the right kind of readers to your book (the primary reason, certainly). But learning to blurb also makes you sensitive to what makes your story special, and it’s fun… a chance to make your art sound as exciting to strangers as you feel it is to yourself. Since so many of you here are writers, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on how to tackle this marketing mini-genre.
I apologize in advance for all the examples I’m pulling out of my own work, but it was faster than finding perfect examples of them elsewhere…!
Like most genres, blurbing is amenable to rules! Also like most genres, the rules that work best for a particular person vary. Here are the ones that work for me:
1. Keep it short. (I aim for 4-8 sentences. No walls of text.)
2. Keep it punchy—now is not the time to downplay the conflict.
3. Identify the most important conflict and the character grappling with it and put them on center-stage.
4. Give enough setting information that the conflict makes sense/feels urgent.
5. End with a question/invitation to find out more.
I tend to boil these down to a template that goes like this:
“Story is about someone, who faces a problem, in a place, and the problem gets worse—then, last leading sentence! Probably a question! Optional: ‘if you liked X,Y,Z, you will like this.’”
Since a lot of people here are readers and writers of SF/F, you might need to modify the template to offer enough context to the reader that the conflict makes sense:
“Some words about the world this story is set in, and now let me tell you about someone, who faces a problem, and the problem gets worse—then, last leading sentence! Probably a question! Optional: ‘if you liked X,Y,Z, you will like this.’”
A long time ago I was given the advice that the last sentence should contain one of the following words: love, heart, dream, journey, fortune, destiny. I don’t always follow the letter of this advice, but the spirit is on target: you need your story to feel like it matters, and these are Big Question words that excite interest and speculation, and promise your reader that the story tackles themes that matter.
I mentioned in the intro that blurbing makes you think about what makes your story special. I love this part, because who doesn’t like thinking about why what you write is cool? In this case, what you want to show potential readers is why they should care about this particular story. I usually start with this set of prompts:
Universality: The story is interesting because its events could happen to anyone. (An innocent man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit! A woman is lonely and meets an interesting man!)
Novelty: The story is interesting because it involves elements unfamiliar to many readers. (This explains perennial interest in true crime genres, but things like ‘the main character is an orchid hunter’ or ‘this book is about competition cross-stitching’, which really is a thing, also apply.)
Inherent conflict: The plot is interesting because the world in which it’s set has built-in conflict. (Think of Dune, and space travel being controlled by access to a rare item.)
Originality: The plot is interesting because it’s unexpected: offers a new angle on an old subject; combines unusual elements; reverses expectations. A lot of our hostess’s works sit here (vampire musketeers? Shakespeare and real elves? How do you even describe the Witchfinders? Gloriously unusual.)
Gut Emotional Appeal: The story is interesting because it touches on subjects that are inherently affecting. Home, family, children, space flight. (Okay, maybe the last one’s just me).
Spend some time figuring out what differentiates the particular story you’re blurbing from others like it, or others you’ve written, and once you’ve got those in hand, return to the template.
Blurbing a First Book or Standalone
Blurbing a first book is one of the easiest exercises, I think, because the later the installment, the more context is necessary to understand the conflict (unless you’re writing an episodic series). Here’s one of mine, for Even the Wingless, a character-centric space opera that starts a series:
The Alliance has sent twelve ambassadors to the Chatcaavan Empire; all twelve returned early, defeated. None of their number have been successful at taking that brutal empire to task for their violations of the treaty. None have survived the vicious court of a race of winged shapechangers, one maintained by cruelty, savagery and torture.
Lisinthir Nase Galare is the Alliance’s thirteenth emissary. A duelist, an esper and a prince of his people, he has been sent to bring an empire to heel. Will it destroy him, as it has his predecessors? Or can one man teach an empire to fear… and love?
The first paragraph gives the worldbuilding context and describes the problem (this empire is so awful no one survives negotiating with it). The second paragraph tells us who the story’s about (Lisinthir) and why he’s interesting (psychic and a fighter), his problem/task (he’s the next ambassador) and how it could get worse (he will probably end up dead like the others). Then we get our final question: will he succeed? But wait, we thought the point was that he was going to be an ambassador, and maybe a kick-tail one because Fighter-Prince in a court of savages! What the heck is the right turn at the end there about love?? Read the book to find out!
Here’s one of the hostess’s:
Athena Hera Sinistra never wanted to go to space. Never wanted see the eerie glow of the Powerpods. Never wanted to visit Circum Terra. Never had any interest in finding out the truth about the DarkShips. You always get what you don’t ask for. Which must have been why she woke up in the dark of shipnight, within the greater night of space in her father’s space cruiser, knowing that there was a stranger in her room. In a short time, after taking out the stranger—who turned out to be one of her father’s bodyguards up to no good, she was hurtling away from the ship in a lifeboat to get help. But what she got instead would be the adventure of a lifetime—if she managed to survive….
In the first sentence we get who (Athena) and a leading statement (that she never wanted to do something, which suggests, uh oh, that she’s about to, or why write the book?). We get a succession of ‘nevers’ that only intensifies the height of the cliff we sense we’re about to fall off of. Then we get a problem and place (she’s been kidnapped) which gets worse (now she’s on a lifeboat escaping her kidnappers). The final sentence gives us the leading question: will she survive and have the adventure of a lifetime??
Blurbing an Installment in a Series
When I do series books, I usually dedicate the beginning of the blurb to the existing book’s conflict, and then add a concluding paragraph tying it into the rest of the series. Here, for example, is the final book of the Her Instruments space opera, Laisrathera:
The Queen of the Eldritch has offered Reese Eddings a life out of a fairy tale, one beyond the imagination of a poor girl from Mars who’d expected to spend her life eking out a living with a rattletrap merchant vessel. Unfortunately, the day Reese reached out to accept Liolesa’s offer, Hirianthial’s enemies betrayed him–and his entire planet–to a race of sociopathic shapeshifters with dreams of conquest. Now the only thing between Reese and a castle of her very own is a maniacal alien despot, his native quisling and all the Eldritch dead-set on preventing the incursion of aliens at any cost, including the ousting of their current usurper, who happens to be an alien himself…
Reese, Hirianthial and the crew of the Earthrise have been battling these pirates since Hirianthial’s capture inspired their fateful meeting, but to beat them Reese will have to own the power she’s always denied herself, and Hirianthial must make peace with his bloody past and uncertain future.
The stakes have never been higher, and this last time will count for all. The final battlefield awaits.
In the first paragraph, we get the particular book’s conflict, again following the template: Someone (Reese), in a situation (about to inherit a castle!) has a problem (their enemies betrayed them), and if she wants that castle she’s going to have to run the gauntlet of problems (despots! Quislings! Stubborn natives!). It’s in the second paragraph that we get the series context (Reese and her friends have been dealing with these problems for two books), and some hints of that greater conflict and what it will take to resolve it. The final sentence is another invitation even though it’s not a question: the conflict the readers have been waiting to see resolved, finally, is about to be settled on a battlefield, and they are invited as witnesses.
Blurbing a Collection or Anthology
When blurbing collections or anthologies, I decide first what the collection’s overall reader experience is intended to be: fun? Uplifting? Challenging? Is this a diverting Saturday afternoon popcorn read? Is there a theme uniting the stories? Once I get a sense for the book as a whole, I brainstorm teasers for individual stories, choosing the ones that are most amenable to being shortened to intriguing statements (“a false diviner whose prophecies turn out to be true”, “a xenoanthropologist on the wrong side of mythology”). I also make sure to mention the number of stories, and if it’s an anthology, pull out the authors in a separate paragraph.
Here’s an example for the last collection I did, In the Court of Dragons:
LOOSE ENDS DON’T TIE THEMSELVES
Sweeping cultural changes sound very good on paper. But in the lives of normal people, even the ones who stand to benefit, those changes can be a challenge… one they might not have even asked for. In the Court of Dragons collects eight stories of the period after the events of the Chatcaavan War, focusing on changes both personal and widespread: old favorites return and new characters make their debut as we follow the effects of the war on everything from the imperial harem to the nascent Eldritch newsroom. What are the Faulfenza up to in the capital? What was the fate of the palace castrates? And who taught an Eldritch to… bungee jump?
This reader-commissioned collection includes stories written by the author at reader request. Come home to the Alliance with these tales of hope, renewal, comedy, and romance.
The first paragraph establishes the theme of the collection (cultural changes). We learn how many stories are involved (eight), their context in the setting (they’re after a war covered in a different series), and we get hints of what those stories about. I left the funniest one for last, because it’s supposed to wake the reader up with a ‘what the…’ moment (space elves bungee jumping!). The last paragraph tells you some meta-context (these are stories readers requested/commissioned), and since I buried the usual ‘entice the reader’ question in the final sentence of the first paragraph instead of saving it for last, I used the last sentence of the blurb to make an invitation.
I like this one for Dragon Blood, by our hostess, which is brief and intriguing:
From the trenches of WWI where the Red Baron just can’t help turning into a dragon, to the desert sands of a future world where humans have become something else, from a coffee shop between worlds where magicians gather, to a place where your worst nightmare can love you, let Dragon Blood take you on a series of fantastic adventures.
As you can see, it accomplishes most of its goals in one sentence! With teasers for individual shorts that show the breadth of the stories’ themes, and ending with the invitation that gives you a sense of what you can expect from the book as a whole.
The same strategies that blurb a collection, I’ll note, can be used as strategies for blurbing books with multiple plotlines. When I did the final book in my galactic war series, From Ruins, I had so much going on I turned to the ‘treat everything like a short story’ strategy to give a sense of the scope of the book:
A spy dying on the wall of a palace.
An Emperor turned rebel through the power of a psalm.
A shapechanger on the cusp of an enormous discovery.
A woman riding to battle in the vanguard of her enemies.
The known worlds are about to convulse in a cataclysmic war; time is running out. Can the Eldritch, the Chatcaava, and their Pelted allies turn the tide? Or will it all go up in fire?
Is there hope in ashes?
The sixth and final installment of the Princes’ Game series brings the threads from five epic novels to a stunning conclusion that will change the shape of the Peltedverse forever.
Side Note: Teasers
I didn’t do this until I started designing book covers, but I’ve found it useful to come up with teasers (usually a sentence or clause) to start a blurb. My model for this was (believe it or not) the early Star Trek pocket books. If you look at the numbered pocket books, there’s usually some kind of leading statement over the title:
“Stranded in a hostile galaxy, the Enterprise is caught up in a deadly interstellar conflict!”
“The Enterprise is caught between its own survival—and the destruction of an innocent, isolated world!”
“The Romulans turn kidnappers—to shatter the Federation from within!”
“A mission of pace could trap Spock halfway across the galaxy… forever…”
I loved these encapsulations and liked the way brainstorming them gave me a sense for what was urgent about a story. In some ways, they can function as blurb titles (more in the way that poetry can have titles than books, though—less obvious, more oblique).
Most of the time I put these teasers on the front covers of books, but I sometimes use them as blurb titles in the descriptions, or on the backs of the paperbacks.
“An unwinnable war demands impossible choices”
“They expected a residency. They got a crucible that would either forge their friendship… or kill them”
“The Alliance failed a colony at its worst hour… can the Stardancer crew redeem the honor of the Fleet?”
“Who could have known space elves could be so much trouble?”
You can amuse yourself by doing dramatic readings of these, because they’re awfully fun to proclaim.
Two Blurbs, One Book
As a final curiosity, I offer two blurbs written by different people for the same book. When the sequel to Flight of the Godkin Griffin came out, both Sofawolf (the print publisher) and I wrote blurbs for it without consulting one another. Our task was to make a Book 2 (concluding the series) make sense and sound interesting. We handled it in very different ways! Here’s Sofawolf’s:
Sent to oversee the most recent territorial acquisition in the Godson’s empire, Mistress Commander Angharad finds herself in an unexpected position. Rather than smoothly assuming control from the outgoing governor, she finds herself in opposition to violent factions of the occupying forces, the corrupt governor she is replacing, and unexpectedly even the Godson himself.
No doubt her unplanned adoption as the champion of the conquered province of Shraeven and the chosen vessel of its many native Gods has something to do with her sudden fall from favor.
Certain that Shraeven holds the final key to the empire’s goal of breeding a God of their own, the Godson himself arrives to regain control of the province. Angharad knows that a lasting peace will only come from a diplomatic solution, but with the Godson’s behavior becoming increasingly erratic, she is no longer sure he is capable of reason.
The Godson’s Triumph is the conclusion of the fantasy military adventure started in Flight of the Godkin Griffin, and takes Angharad to the brink of war with her own country on her way to truly understanding the Gods and the empire’s dedication to emulating them.
My feeling about this version is that it has more in common with a synopsis (intended to tell an editor exactly what happens in a book, point by point) than a blurb. Giving context is important, but spending too much time on it drains the blurb of interest. A blurb is marketing: it’s a movie trailer, it’s a carnival barker piquing your interest, it’s supposed to be more mystery than revelation. Your goal is to explain as little as possible while making it intelligible enough to make people want to know more.
Meanwhile, here’s the one I wrote:
Mistress Commander Angharad Godkin hates politics… so of course, her ruler the Godson sent her to replace the Governor of barely tamed Shraeven province. She hates religion, so naturally, the native gods began to plague her the moment she arrived. And since she hates both, the gods started playing politics—and the politicians began playing at godhood. In Flight of the Godkin Griffin, Angharad, a creaky old veteran of the Godkindred Kingdom’s many wars of conquest, was dragged out of retirement only to discover her newest assignment—to rule a province in peace—might finally be the death of her. She certainly wasn’t expecting to face off against her own monarch in a battle that will decide not just her own fate, and not just the fate of Shraeven Province… but of the world itself.
The Godson’s Triumph returns us to the world of Angharad Godkin and her comrades and concludes their epic journey. But who will be left standing when the fires burn out?
My goal for this one was to use contradictions to excite interest (look again at the Darkship Thieves blurb, where we start by saying all the things the protagonist doesn’t want, and how it sets up our expectations for everything that she’s going to end up dealing with anyway). In the first few sentences, I use contradictions to explain the conflict thematically rather than literally to prevent the over-explaining issue. I do it again when I mention the first book (a general who fights wars might finally be killed by the peace she’s supposed to oversee). And again in the following sentence when it’s made clear that another thing that should be on her side (her king) isn’t.
The final sentence assures the reader we’re going to wrap up the story started in book 1, and asks the question: what will happen? Who will win? (This is especially urgent because the book’s title makes a strong suggestion that the person we’re assuming is going to win, the narrator, might not!).
Even if you don’t think blurb writing’s fun, you can get better at it, and quickly, with practice. Try using the rules (‘make it short and punchy, tell us who’s in trouble and why it matters, and invite the reader to find out what happens’), and the template (“somewhere, someone has a problem, and then it gets worse—oh no, what next?”) on existing book blurbs and see how they fit and where they deviate. Read blurbs to see which interest you and try to figure out why. And above all, enjoy it! The purpose of a blurb is to communicate the excitement of your story to someone who might want to read it. This is one of the few chances an author will ever have to be as over-the-top and excited about her own work as she secretly wishes she could always be… so seize the chance! Who knows? You might find end up on a path that will change your writing… forever….