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Writer’s Craft #9: The Blurb

February 27, 2011

It’s a weekday night and there’s a message in my e-mail from the publicist at Edge, the marvelous and energetic Janice Shoults, asking me for a “back of the book blurb” for my up-coming novel Healer’s Sword. She wants it yesterday (literally, I should check my e-mail more often), so I dash one off:

“Love and economics will complicate Ilse’s life as she dares to study medicine, riding the tides of change within the neo-feudal empire of the bio-engineered humans called Sevolites.”

Of course, I spend the next few hours re-writing it in my head, but it just doesn’t get any better. I think about making it shorter, first. Short is always good, right? Grab ‘em with the hot stuff.

“Ilse Marin’s undeniable lust for the wrong man threatens her claim to her father’s title.”

Except this makes it sound like a bodice ripper, and Ilse will hate me for it. I lean in the direction of a few more words with greater substance because I like people to know why my book is different.

“In a space-faring culture where swords settle legal arguments and medicine is distrusted, Ilse Marin must find her unique path through the prejudices of her own kind, the disruptive forces of change she is both repelled by and drawn to, and a passionate attraction to the one man whose love is bound to ruin her.”

Probably too long. Sigh. And who knows what will wind up on the back cover. In discussion with fellow writers, on the SFCanada listserv I frequent, I learned that at least two of the authors I consider both excellent and successful prefer to write their own blurbs. And sometimes they even get away with it.

So what about you? Give me the blurb that did, should have, or might one day appear on the back of your book, if you got to write it.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    February 27, 2011 8:37 am

    Oh Linda, ouch, how can you sum up years/months worth of work in 1-2 sentences? Just seeing your different takes gives me an inkling how hard this is. After reading all of them, I would be more likely to pick up the book and start thumbing through it with example #2. Curious to see what you end up with.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 27, 2011 3:56 pm

      Thanks Kari! It is tough. I think the one I like the most for brevity and ‘hook’ is a phrase that appeared on my first novel, The Courtesan Prince: “From two cultures that should never meet comes four people who do.” There’s so much more in the book than just relationships! Well, at least I think so. 🙂 But lots of that “more” is included, at least by implication, in the “cultures that should never meet”. Which is why it was particularly clever. I didn’t come up with it but I’m not sure the person who did wants the credit so I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    February 27, 2011 8:51 am

    “the disruptive forces of change she is both repelled by and drawn to” does not say much or particularly entice the reader, in my opinion, and could be taken out. The rest of it is great though.

    As for my own novel, even distilling it into a couple of short paragraphs for a query letter proved to be nearly impossible. Probably a bad sign…

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 27, 2011 4:00 pm

      Ah, I recognize that feeling Mishell! Of course you know a lot more about your story than you can fit in a query letter. I used to be SOOO bad at that myself. Maybe I still am bad at summarizing and writing hooks. I just don’t know. But I do know it helped me to realize the query letter and/or the blurb were not the book. They were invitations to the book. Just because writing the query or the blurb wasn’t something I was great at, yet, didn’t mean the book wasn’t good. I found it useful to as many blurbs as I could without going nuts and then looking them over the next day, or letting someone else do it and tell me which was most enticing.

  3. February 27, 2011 9:02 am

    Here’s my back cover blurb:

    When master gemsman Shay Bladen’s wife and children are murdered by thugs seeking a battleaxe created from a single black diamond, he’s forced to flee with the axe. A cryptic note with the axe invites him to the bloodstone pillars in the Crystal Mountains, where the secrets of the axe’s creation and its magic will be revealed, a lure he can’t resist. With the help of Bibi, a Sheethe warrior and tavern owner, he survives the thugs on his trail, led by the brother-in-law who believes the axe should be his, and the bloodthirsty assassin who manipulates him. But the greatest secret revealed is far more personal and will affect the rest of Shay’s life.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 27, 2011 3:52 pm

      Always relish personal secrets in fantasy. Liked the first sentence and the last one, although I’d pass on the “will affect the rest of Shay’s life” part. I’ve written similiar blurbs and been told things like “affect” are weak and don’t add much. But then there’s always counter examples. For example, I am more interested in this book because of the details such as a nasty brother-in-law and manipulative assassin. I don’t know how to weigh my personal preferences against the “simple and hot” advice one so often encounters but there ARE readers out there like me who like to know about the complicating factors. Quick tip: For a moment, I wasn’t sure who the bloodthirsty assassin was manipulating. I decided it was the brother-in-law, but had to read it twice. I’ve had that dilemna, too. To pack all into one sentence or risk making the blurb longer. Always a challenge. Thanks for sharing this great example with us!

  4. karintidbeck permalink
    February 27, 2011 10:04 am

    I unwittingly wrote my own blurb in blind panic late at night. It was supposed to be a presentation for the major book trade magazine here in Sweden (Svensk Bokhandel), as they do a feature of all debuts once per season. My publisher lifted a paragraph out of that presentation and stuck it onto the back of my book. It turned out to work pretty well. Here’s a (very) approximate translation:

    “The woman who becomes pregnant with a steam engine. The switchboard operator who has his own existence disproven. A colony of creatures imitating human life. In Karin Tidbeck’s short stories, we meet those who become witnesses when reality’s thin veneer cracks open.”

    I like it, except the first sentence is kinda sorta grammatically incorrect (in Swedish) which makes me cringe every time I see it. No-one’s commented on it so far though. Whew.

    Oh, and hi! I’m from the class of 2010.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 28, 2011 9:11 pm

      Great example of how sometimes breaking the rules works.

  5. February 27, 2011 2:00 pm

    Interesting exercise. This beasty is still a work in progress, I hope the first draft will be done soon. This is the first blurb I’ve written for it, at least it reminds me of what I’m trying to achieve.

    A generation ship containing unknown number of aliens with an unknown agenda is coming to earth. What will we say, how will we speak and how will we hear? Finding language will be the key. Thousands will die and the islands of Palamawe devastated. But how clear is the apparent threat? And will the aliens survive contact with humanity? The intersecting stories of a scientist, a diplomat, a security guard and a scared alien child in a world hope, open data and slow drowning.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 28, 2011 9:18 pm

      Interesting. You get a lot of elements into the mix in that blurb. Have another look at the last sentence, though. Do you mean: “The stories of a scientist, a diplomat, a security guard and a scared alien child intersect in a world of hope, open data and slow drowning.” Just my two bits worth.

      • March 11, 2011 11:56 am

        Excellent! Blurbs are such a challenge, especially in interstitial spaces. Love the restructure of the final sentence, it’s much stronger.

        Great post, this must be one of the most commented on posts on this website.

  6. February 27, 2011 2:14 pm

    I always ask the editor who’s just finished doing my book for her opinion and often get a much better blurb than I would have come up with. Sometimes a bit of distance does the trick.

  7. February 27, 2011 2:28 pm

    Your versions all seem awfully short, Lynda. Most back-cover copy I see has a blurb that runs about 100 words – generally 2 paragraphs – that’s intro’d by either a tagline or a high-profile author quote and outro’d by a couple of review quotes.

    Was your publicist asking, then, for a tagline or a log line hook only?

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 27, 2011 4:05 pm

      Good to hear Phoenix! Janice might chime in and tell me if I’ve got it wrong. And, indeed, most “back of the book” descriptions are longer so perhaps I have. I think I’m just a bit twitchy about the length issue these days. The pressures to make everything shorter and snappier sometimes feel as ludicrous as they are imperative, but I wonder if resisting is wrong-headed.

  8. Kari T permalink
    February 27, 2011 10:42 pm

    Aack.. I couldn’t help myself. This is nowhere near what I would end up with as a blub, but this is my first pass. It’s exactly 100 words. I can see how someone would obsess over htis.

    The struggle for the southern sea routes was tipping in Collective Island Trader’s favor; their competition was disappearing and plantations not under their control went up in smoke.

    A young merchant joins the company optimistically, hoping to build his fiancé a house and earn her successful father’s blessing. All goes well until his ship encounters a floating carcass. As the weeks pass more bloated sailors appear and vessels fail to return to port.

    As everything begins to slip from his fingers he meets a mysterious creature who offers him everything for just one thing in return: all that he has.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 28, 2011 9:25 pm

      ohh, provocative finale. I can’t help myself either! Have to suggest a tightening up of the first part to make it punchier. Well, IMHO at least. 🙂 Here goes. (And like Theresa says, the blurb writing thing is one game where getting other people to pitch in can sometimes give you a fresh perspective. ‘Course it can sometimes get the details dead wrong but that’s another story.)

      The struggle for the southern sea routes was tipping in in favor of the Collective Island Traders; their competition was disappearing and plantations they did not control were burning.

      [Hero’s name] joins the company hoping to earn the blessing of his fiance’s successful father and all goes well until his ship encounters a floating carcass.

      As everything begins to slip from his fingers he meets a mysterious creature who offers him everything — but first he has to give up all he has.

      • Kari T permalink
        March 1, 2011 9:48 am

        thank you thank you thank you!!!! I love it, I can’t say how grateful I am that you took the time to offer your advice 🙂

  9. February 28, 2011 5:29 pm

    “Ilse Marin longs to be a Healer…but the man she loves is a killer. Torn by the winds of both past and future, the merchant’s daughter struggles to forge her own destiny…and finds that love can be the strongest medicine of all…”

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      February 28, 2011 5:40 pm

      I love that! I would read that.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      February 28, 2011 9:26 pm

      Good one! See, I could never say that about Horth. But he IS a killer. I think this proves Theresa’s point about sometimes getting someone else’s input bumps you over the blockage.

      • March 1, 2011 12:01 am

        Exactly. I think there’s a reason that it’s easier to write one for someone else’s book.

  10. savantefolle permalink
    March 11, 2011 6:52 am

    I may have come a bit late to this post, but I like the first blurb. beware of too many hyphenated words, though, even if the English language does lend itself to it. An exception: in conversations, I use a short hyphenated blurb for my own YA series : “Space-faring super-gardeners!”

    • March 11, 2011 12:06 pm

      I love it. In conversation a few juicy nouns is what I want, something that’s fun to say, brings smiles to a conversation and encourages follow up questions. Whenever someone says something like this I know I’m going to have fun talking to them about their project – it’s a gift to the conversation.

      The stories of mine that I talk about the most are the ones that I’ve found the most pleasurable (and succinct) way to describe (Roller Derby Fairytale or Apocalyptic-webforum-timetravel-comedy). I hope (probably through trial and error) to be able to condense all my stories in such a way.

  11. March 11, 2011 11:42 am

    Space-faring super-gardeners certainly provokes the imagination. And says “this is something different”. 🙂

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