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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How to Write a Killer Blurb

A blurb is the book description you find on the back of a book or online to describe a book's contents. After your cover, blurbs are the second most important selling tool you have for your book, so you want it to grab the reader's attention. The blurb is the essence of the book, a distillation of the characters, tone and conflict of your story that should, if it’s effective, lure a reader into wanting to read more.

Most run at least two paragraphs, but some are longer, roughly a minimum of 100 words to a maximum of 250. How can you condense all that important information? 

Here are some examples from some classic novels:
"When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.... When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out." To Kill A Mockingbird

Guy Montag was a fireman whose job it was to start fires...
The system was simple. Everyone understood it. Books were for burning ... along with the houses in which they were hidden.
Guy Montag enjoyed his job. He had been a fireman for ten years, and he had never questioned the pleasure of the midnight runs nor the joy of watching pages consumed by flames... never questioned anything until he met a seventeen-year-old girl who told him of a past when people were not afraid.” Fahrenheit 451

Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.
Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.
Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.
Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.
The Help

There are a number of commonly accepted elements to creating a good blurb:

The Hook
The story element that grabs the reader’s attention, something unique, a fresh twist, or just the emotional core of the book.

Conflict
Both external – world is coming to an end – and internal – the H/H isn’t sure they can do what needs to be done.  (H/H - hero, heroine)

Emotion
What drives the H/H, the tone of the book. The driving force – love, vengeance, retribution. The tone can be light, a romp, or a dark fantasy.

Risk
Emotion, physical, societal or whatever. Something important to them can be lost.

Characterization
The essence of the main character(s)

Setting
Both geographic and emotional – lost in a harsh desert, fighting through a lush jungle, romance in a small town

Goals
What are they trying to accomplish? Just surviving? Winning the day? Clearing their name? This is an important element.

Motivation
Why are they doing it? Particularly, why for your characters? Why does Frodo keep struggling to reach Mordor? To save his people? Or to live up to Sam’s view of him?

What’s stopping them?
Who’s the bad guy? Or is it a massive earthquake with the attendant destruction?

Will they succeed?
You don’t actually have to answer this, but you must introduce the element of doubt or leave the question open. Too much information is a blurb’s worst enemy.

In each of the examples, you have a piece of all of these individual elements, sometimes in a single sentence. There’s obviously conflict, risk and characterization in the first– how did Jem get his arm broken? (those of us who’ve read that novel know, of course) ‘enable us to look back on them’ – there’s the emotion. The voice of the blurb sets the tone, setting and characterization, and the goal is to make Boo Radley come out. Nothing, though, is said of the central conflict of the book.

Notice, too, that the first two are considerably shorter, but The Help was a more complicated novel.

Keep in mind that genre matters, too. If you’re writing a terse thriller, you want to keep your blurb terse, too.

From Barry Eisler – The Detachment
When legendary black ops veteran Colonel Scott “Hort” Horton tracks Rain down in Tokyo, Rain can’t resist the offer: a multi-million dollar payday for the “natural causes” demise of three ultra-high-profile targets who are dangerously close to launching a coup in America.
 But the opposition on this job is going to be too much for even Rain to pull it off alone. He’ll need a detachment of other deniable irregulars: his partner, the former Marine sniper, Dox. Ben Treven, a covert operator with ambivalent motives and conflicted loyalties. And Larison, a man with a hair trigger and a secret he’ll kill to protect.
 From the shadowy backstreets of Tokyo and Vienna, to the deceptive glitz and glamour of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and finally to a Washington, D.C. in a permanent state of war, these four lone wolf killers will have to survive presidential hit teams, secret CIA prisons, and a national security state as obsessed with guarding its own secrets as it is with invading the privacy of the populace.
 But first, they’ll have to survive each other.


An epic fantasy may require more information or you can just set the scene…
G.R.R. Martin – A Game of Thrones

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.


Here’s one of my own, part of my epic fantasy series, and one of my bestselling books – Not Magic Enough
For Delae, a lonely landholder on the edge of the Kingdoms, a frantic knock at the door on a stormy winter's night brings more than a cry for help. After centuries of war Elves have little contact with the men, but Dorovan can't bring himself to ride past those so obviously in need. And so begins a tale of love, honor, duty and determination...

Very short but it's a novella and all the elements are still there.

And for one of my romances – Director’s Cut - the emotional content needs to be emphasized in romances:
Once the golden boy in Hollywood, Jack Tyler's life and career are on the skids. Struggling to find some direction, a visit to an old friend brings him to Millersburg, and the community theater group there. He's fighting his demons, hoping to rediscover his roots and his love of theater, through them.
He also discovers schoolteacher Molly Brighton.
Molly, though, wants no part of the sexy new director. He's too handsome, too charming, too dangerous to her heart.
The attraction is difficult to ignore, especially when aided by Jack's old friend, an unrepentant matchmaker with his own reasons for bringing them together.

Last and finally, the purpose of a blurb is to get the reader to want more, to open that book up and answer the questions each blurb asked. 
How did Jem's arm get broken and why was it so difficult to talk about? Guy Montag was burning books, why? What will happen to the three women when they cross those defining lines? Will Rain and his team of irregulars succeed in their mission – and who is it they’re supposed to kill? What happens to the Starks? Or when Dorovan meets Delae? Will Jack overcome his demons or will Molly walk away?

And that's what a good blurb should do...