I’d finally got progress on The Chapter of Stuckage (it went a lot faster once I sat down, and said “who is with whom this chapter? Ah, and what issues are there that they’d need to resolve between them, while they’re out of the way of Main Plot Movement?”)
Before I could finish it, though, a friend I love dearly tagged me with a cry for help. She had gotten the latest book up, but after a night’s sleep she could see the blurb was not being all it could be. She’d sent her book out into the world to go earn a living, and it was standing on the street corner in a mumu instead of a miniskirt.
First thing I did was tell her I would get on that, so she wouldn’t fret. But the second thing? The second thing was I finished The Chapter of Stuckage, and went to bed.
The next morning, I got up and looked at the alpha reader comments on the chapter of no-longer-stuckage, and edited better. Then, I sat down, and went over the list of things needed to write a better blurb.
What does the main character want?
What is in their way?
What will happen if they don’t get it?
Being me, and it being a few years since I read anything by her, I had to pull up the series and look at the blurbs for each book to refresh my memory. The project morphed into two blurbs at that point, although unusually enough, I’d read both books. (Look, you get to know an author really well, to the point that you’re both bemoaning the hairball count from the cat today, and it’s really, really hard to do suspension of disbelief when reading anything in their author voice. I don’t read most of my friends, because they are my friends; hazard of the profession.)
Once I’d done that, I read the book sample. (I own it, but the function of the blurb is to hook you in to start reading the book, not to be a plot synopsis. Usually the blurb will only cover things you learn in the sample… with pages left over. So I downloaded the ebook sample to refresh my memory and give me the sample size to work with.)
Then, I set to work – first with the hook.
The hook has gone in and out of style since Ad copy was first written. Back when you had a single line on the mail order form in the back of the paperback, it was supreme. Later, it was passed up for diving into the meat of the blurb. These days, some people use it, some don’t – but if you can come up with a catchy hook, it makes the reader attention stickier, and more likely to continue below the fold to read the rest.
Second paragraph time! Show the world. If the inciting incident changes the character’s world, well, we need a glimpse of that world in order to know what impact this change is. In Hallmark movie terms, this is showing us she’s the high-powered city girl with the corner office before she’s forced to go home for Christmas. It makes the change matter.
But here’s the kicker. If it was pure worldbuilding the audience wanted, it’d be easy…. but even in SF/F, where fans want the strange new worlds? They really want the characters. So how do you make the world and the change matter? By showing how the character feels about it. Establish emotion.
This, by the way, is a great place for tropes. Because tropes are shorthand notations that carry a lot of connotations in the reader’s mind, and you’re space- and attention-limited. Space cowboy! Plucky starship crew scraping by! Cozy hometowns! Opening a bakery! (That’s a major trope in sweet romance, I have learned.)
Once we’ve set up the world, why it matters, now we’re turning everything upside down with the inciting incident. Not the climax. Not the larger plot arc. No, the inciting incident. Why? Because we’re not doing a book report, we’re trying to hook the reader into downloading the sample, where the story itself will entice them into buying the whole thing. (Ideally, to hook them so strongly they just buy it unread, and then enjoy, but I’ll settle for the reader giving me the first 10% of the story to convince them.)
You want the highest stakes here. Why? Because you want to hook them hard, and they’re not going to do that for a poker game or another magical sword unless the stakes involves death, love, drastic social rise or fall, chance of a lifetime, end of career… something that matters.
Stakes alone won’t sucked in a reader, though. Emotions will. How does the main character react to the inciting incident? Show how they’re struggling or grappling with it, not just what actions they take.
Third Paragraph time! Now for the next plot point – what is the Yes, but… / No, and… that’s keeping them from their obstacle? What are the stakes if they fail that?
This is another great place for tropes and keywords or categories you didn’t chose in your metadata. (Blurbs are also indexed by the Amazon algorithm.)
Don’t forget emotions! High stakes! No, higher than that! Drama! Strut your book’s stuff! Throw in a vague mention of the stakes in the third act without giving away how it turns out!
Now is not the time to be all embarrassed about “I wrote this, but it’s not what I wanted, and it’s got this flaw, and…”, now is the time to act like you’re a publisher who’s out to make your author’s work make lots of money, so you’re perfectly willing to say it ranks right up there, and if you liked this you’ll like that, and this should be the next one to go viral.
Now, read it out loud. Do you hear yourself skipping words, running things together, saying it differently because that sounds awkward? Turn to a new sheet of paper, and write it down how you want to say it, not how you wrote it the first time. This is your second draft. Try again, like you’re trying to talk a friend who you know will like this into going to see it as a movie with you tonight. Did you just pitch it differently? Grab a clean sheet of paper, write down your third draft.
Shorten it up; it’s got to be shorter than one bored attention span long.
There, that’s a good start. Now, try again, from scratch, with a second attempt. You might do this 3-5 times in order to get a workable blurb.
(And this is why it takes me 6 hours to write two blurbs. Because I don’t do it regularly, so I’m always out of practice when I start. As well, I like to take brain-recharging breaks and do things like… laundry, cooking, cleaning. The stuff that has to get done whether I have a chapter or a blurb to write.)
Final Caveat – nothing in here is set in stone or an inflexible rule. The second blurb I wrote that day, because of the way the book was written, I actually had to read about 10 chapters in and structure the blurb to focus on later events… because it’s almost a secondary world sort of book, and with those you have to talk about what happens after he crashes through the portal to hook the reader into the book.
Want an example? Here’s the blurb for John Van Stry’s new hard-scifi book that’s coming out tomorrow, Summer’s End:
SOMETIMES A DARK PAST CAN HAUNT YOU. OTHER TIMES IT JUST MAY BE THE ONLY THING KEEPING YOU ALIVE.
Fresh out of college with his Ship Engineer 3rd-Class certificate, Dave Walker’s only thought is to try to find a berth on a corporate ship plying the trade routes between the many habs, orbitals, and moons in the Solar System. The problem for Dave, however, isn’t his straight C average; it’s that his stepfather, a powerful Earth Senator he’s never met, now wants him dead.
Forced to take the first berth he can find, Dave ends up on the Iowa Hill, an old tramp freighter running with a minimal crew and nearing the end of its useful life, plying the routes that the corporations ignore and visiting the kinds of places that the folks on Earth pretend don’t exist.
Between the assassins, the criminals, and the pirates he needs to deal with, Dave is discovering that there are a lot of things out there that he still needs to learn!
(You can see how it’s done slightly differently than I just told you, but all the bones are there. (Also, I have a soft spot for this book; it’s one of the few that is by a good friend that I actually have read, much less prior to release. On the other hand, John wrote me and another MGC member in there, so curiosity worked on this cat just as well as an unattended open box… (For the record, I not only giggled, I am waiting impatiently for my husband to read it, so I can say “I would never do that!” just to get the delightful expression on his face as he assures me with full dry British understatement that he and John both know I would always do that, every time.)))
What’s your latest blurb?