Monday, July 20, 2015

How To Blurb

How blurbing feels to all of us.... and then we end up explaining anyway, right?
Blurbs are weird. Some people swear by them; others don't even care about them ever at all. They can make or break a book; you notice when it isn't there much more than you notice when a book doesn't have one. 

Some of you, reading the above description, are kind of getting a sense of what I am talking about. For those of you who haven't got a clue, let me spell it out for you.

Blurbs are basically like a novel in a single paragraph. The veritable "first impression" of a book after the title. It's the summary of the book that you see either on the back cover, on the inside flap of the dust jacket, or sometimes even within the first few pages of the book.

How many books have you ended up passing over, merely because that one little paragraph didn't strike your fancy? How many times have you made assumptions based on a blurb, only to actually read the book and find those assumptions exceeded or dashed?

Before I sent "The Last Inkweaver" out to beta readers, I wanted to comb over the whole thing myself, and write a blurb for it. I read a lot of books, so I have a lot of experience judging blurbs. It is from assessing blurbs and writing dozens of my own (more about that later) that I picked up a few tidbits of information I'd like to share. 

APPETIZERS: 
Some Words of Advice

  • Start the blurb with something the reader can relate to, something in the real world that ties into the premise of your novel. This helps the reader start the venture into the book, because it gives them something they know to anchor to as they venture into the unknown.
  • Blurbs don't have to be detailed; they just have to be relevant
  • Use the blurb to "warm the audience"; a "cold" performance still works, but a good intro will enhance the performance
  • if your book can't be explained in at least three sentences, or less than ten sentences, it's too complicated to fit all in one blurb; you just need to pick the plot line that has the most potential and let the readers discover the rest.
  • Never EVER write the blurb on what you WANT to happen, merely for the sake of "poetry." I have actually read a self-published book where the author fashioned a blurb with all the buzz words... But upon actually reading it, I had to meticulously squint at every word to figure out if the actual story had anything to do with what the blurb was talking about. Another blurb almost sounded like a "skimmer", a summary that focused on the points that were of particular interest to the writer, to say nothing of the prospective audience... But as I read the book, I did notice that the "sensational" parts of the blurb did coincide with events of the actual story.
BEVERAGES:
The Breakdown of A Blurb 
If you're really having trouble coming up with a blurb, try using the "story arc map" as a guide: Introduction (1); Conflict (2); Inciting Moment (3); Rising Action (4); and Climax (5)
For example:
WIP: "The Red Dragon of Wales"

In the future, information is both currency and prestige. Knowledge is literally power. And the one man in Wales who knows everything is the Security Chief of the Welsh Assembly at Cardiff, Colonel Whitaker. But there is one man who knows the secrets Whitaker keeps from the world, and secrets the Assembly Members pray and pay dearly to be able to take to their graves:
Adam LaRouge, known professionally as Drake Ross. (1) Once a well-paid Mercenary for Members of the Assembly on each other and their spouses, now forced, through a change of fate, to roam the underbelly of Wales, hacking, spying, witnessing...and recording information. (2)
One night, a strange young girl comes to him with an odd request. (3) So begins a journey that will threaten Adam's beliefs about himself and his choices to their very core. (4) Can the Red Dragon defeat his old enemy, or will he himself be overcome by what he assumed would be an easy task? (5)
>>>>>>>

Seven sentences; roughly 160 words. 

Now for the breakdown.

"In the future, information is both currency and prestige. Knowledge is literally power." 
Referencing a well-known phrase or adage gives the reader something to relate to, a basis on which to believe the events of the ensuing tale. Also helps to signify that this is going to be cyberpunk science fiction.

"And the one man in Wales who knows everything is the Security Chief of the Welsh Assembly at Cardiff, Colonel Whitaker. But there is one man who knows the secrets Whitaker keeps from the world, and secrets the Assembly Members pray and pay dearly to be able to take to their graves:
Adam LaRouge, known professionally as Drake Ross." 
Two names (well, three...) and the location for the story. Setting the stage with all the necessary trimmings. Still not spoiling anything.

"Once a well-paid Mercenary for Members of the Assembly on each other and their spouses, now forced, through a change of fate, to roam the underbelly of Wales, hacking, spying, witnessing...and recording information." Establish current status quo, and use strong words like "forced" and "fate", contrasts like "well-paid" and "underbelly" get the readers in just the right mood for the beginning of the story.

"One night, a strange young girl comes to him with an odd request." 
Inciting moment—but I don't give it a name, and I don't reveal the request; this is only the blurb, and I want it to be just as much a shock for my readers as it is for my characters.

"So begins a journey that will threaten Adam's beliefs about himself and his choices to their very core." 
A little cliche, yes, but this is essentially the projected effect of the rising action. I imply their change; definitely the use of "threaten" gives an air of foreboding while neither confirming nor denying any kind of development. Also, these "beliefs" are never directly stated; the reader will have to read to find out what those are. The "very core" is at stake here!

"Can the Red Dragon defeat his old enemy, or will he himself be overcome by what he assumed would be an easy task?" 
Ending with a question is like dangling a carrot over the nose of the donkey: you have complete control over how and when the question will be answered, but the reader is obliged to plod along under the belief that "just one more chapter" will give them the "carrot." (And therein lies every writer's secret wish!)
If you are going to end with a question, make sure it is one that does not get completely resolved in one scene, or else make doubly sure that your readers are irrevocably attached to your characters when it happens...
Because if you don't do that, you run the risk of losing your reader as soon as the scene is over. If you're going to choose a question to answer in a scene near the end of the climax, but before the denouement, you want your readers to keep reading to find out how the answer is going to affect the characters, not set the book aside because "What's the point?"

Notice that in the above example, I summarized only about the first half of the "arc." The blurb should venture no further into the story than this. You want to leave some surprises for the reader!

ENTREE:
A 3-Step Process For Constructing A Blurb
Some of you who have been following me for a while know that I write a lot of fanfiction, and that blurbs are a necessary component. (More than just "Because Reasons" or "I Just Wanted This Thing To Exist" or even the overly-honest "I Want Reviews!!!") In writing my fanfiction, I quickly learned how invaluable blurbs were, not just in drawing the readers, but also in helping me stay consistent with my plot—because, really, nothing says "YOU HAVE NO PLOT DIMWIT" like the inability to write a sensible blurb. That was how I could figure out if I had a premise with a potential; if I could write a blurb, I could start the story. If not, I needed to think about it for a while longer before posting anything.

So how is it done? The same method I applied in writing all my fanfiction blurbs also works in writing any blurb. Hopefully these steps will make it easy for you.

Step 1: Assess the situation. 
(Reasonable length: approximately 3 sentences)
The business of writing a novel usually starts with two things: the premise, and the problem. The premise establishes the parameters of the world in which your novel will function; the problem is the circumstance specific to your main character or characters that they will have to resolve by the end of the novel.

Turns out these things are the basic components of a blurb as well. The premise is what will set your book apart from other genres by telling the reader which genre it is. The problem is what will set your book apart from others of the same genre by telling the reader why your book is different.

Step 2: Set the stage.
(Reasonable length: approximately 4 sentences)
Think about how you want your readers to feel when they read the book. The blurb is your opportunity to get them to open the book. It's the sight of the first backdrop before the lights go down at the play: context with only a hint of the content. You definitely want to use all of your strongest language here: vivid imagery, passionate actions, and (this is very important) HARDLY ANY CONTENT. Basically, everything you want in your blurb should not go beyond the "start" of the actual novel: one sentence for the premise, one for the character, one for the primary conflict, etc. The blurb is only telling as much as who the main character is and where he starts his story from. (If you reach the end of the novel and you can't tell the difference between a character from the beginning and the same character by the end, you may want to consider rewriting your manuscript before you venture on the blurb!)

Step 3: Clinch it with the conflict.
(Reasonable length: no more than 2 sentences)
Once you've covered the premise and set up the context, the next thing that should take a couple sentences will be describing and hinting at the impending conflict, the big problem that will either turn the protagonist's world on its head or be the solution to all the problems—
And DO NOT GIVE ANY INDICATION WHICH ONE IT IS. Leave your readers hanging; this isn't just something extra or random plastered on the back cover or inside the jacket fold; neither is it a comprehensive summary of your novel, like an abstract for a research paper. The title is the lure to get your book into the hands of your readers; the blurb is the bait to get them to want it—and the fishing line to pull them further into the book. And just like in fishing, you don't want to cast out all of your line at once, you don't want the reference to the conflict to get too wordy. Limit yourself; the hook is small, the bait is smaller.

DESSERT:
Five "Dos" and "Don'ts" of Writing A Blurb
The Quest—Basic premise that started the whole story
  • DO include the thing that is the main point of the story.
  • DON'T give away the whole beginning, middle, and end of your story.

The Quandary—The "BUT"
  • DO mention the first huge challenge your character will have to face. "The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step," so that first step is key to narrowing down your book into the space of a blurb.
  • DON'T list out every task your main character has to accomplish, including the climactic battle. This is important for two reasons: first, it would make the blurb too long, and second, you have just shot yourself in the foot because now your would-be-reader thinks he or she knows the whole story without actually reading any of the words that you painstakingly edited and tweaked and spent the last several months or years slaving over. You need to let the reader know, "Hey, if you think this sounds exciting, just wait till you read what else is going to happen!"

The Queue—Mention the one or two key characters that the reader will want to follow
  • DO limit the names in your blurb to two at the most (three if it's historical fiction and the third name is a well-known figure) because this keeps confusion to the absolute minimum. Besides, you want them to read the book to find out about all the other characters, right? If you decide to reveal the names of the protagonist and his sidekick, leave the villain nameless. If it is the villain and the protagonist, drop hints at the sort of characters the protagonist will encounter without actually naming them.
  • DON'T start name-dropping your entire character list and locations, no matter how pretty and clever you felt for coming up with these new-sounding words for your world. You don't want to confuse any potential readers before they've even gotten to the first page!

The Quirk—Throw in the crazy twist that is going to make it hard to predict the outcome
  • DO mention either the main conflict OR the first one; not both, and most certainly nothing else!
  • DON'T give away the Most Cleverest Twist Of All, and DON'T bother with any of the other twists outside of the criteria above. You don't want to make your book seem too complicated, any more than you want to spoil the Great Big Surprise that took you weeks to invent!

The Query—finish off with a lingering question that will bother the reader till the book is read
  • DO ask a question that is relevant to the story and pertinent to the reader.
  • DO make a statement thusly if you do not wish to ask a question... But still keep the outcome in the actual book!
  • DON'T spoil the outcome, whether it is a statement or a question; that's why they should be reading the book, right?
  • DON'T pair a rambling question with a straightforward blurb, any more than you should pair a straightforward query with a blurb that is randomly all over! The blurb should be leading up to the query, in much the same way (actually in exactly the same way, just a more condensed version) as the rising action at the beginning of the book is leading to the climax. If you build a great blurb that has all this mystery and mounting tension, and you end with a bland, cliche query, the tone of your entire blurb will suffer for it.
So there you have it, a veritable "menu" of advice for blurb-writing. (In case you were wondering, the "menu" thing came about because this actually my fourth attempt at writing a post about "How To Blurb", in which I opted to just combine the last three attempts into one post, as "menu" items... #BecauseReasons) Do you have any other words of advice to share with people who might read this post? Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!