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Friday, 7 February 2014

Writing the Blurb

It’s possible some of you won’t know what the ‘blurb’ is, so let’s define it.
Technically, it’s the selection of words you use to appear on the back of the book with the intention of persuading the reading public to commit to it.
With nonfiction, this may be any one of a number of things. But I’m a fiction writer and that’s what I’m discussing here.

Ask yourself a simple question: What do I want my blurb to achieve?
The answer should be that it hooks the reader to the extent that he/she makes a decision to purchase (or borrow) the book.

How do you do that?
Consider the usual circumstances: that potential reader is in a library (which is a less challenging place for many reasons) or, hopefully, in a bookshop. What’s going on in there? Other people, possibly background music, staff hovering, ready to pounce on the promise of a sale, but, most importantly, there are books. Shelves and shelves of books. Books in competition with yours for the customer’s money and attention. Some of them have the dubious advantage of celebrity status (though why the name of a celebrity should sell a novel is a mystery to me: most of them seem vacuous and uninteresting). Some will be by authors already accepted as both entertaining and absorbing. Some will be part of a special deal, offering 3 for the price of 2 or half price deals. So, not only do you have to compete with all these external influences, but you have a limited amount of time to do so.

The purpose of the blurb is to sell your book. You don’t want a synopsis (save that for the agent and/or publisher who need to have more detail to determine the genre and potential market for your book). What you do need is a pithy, short piece of description that will intrigue, fascinate, tempt and impress the reader. Length will be determined either by the publisher (in which case, the blurb may well be written by a staff member anyway), or, more likely, by a combination of genre and design. You may, for example, have excerpts of quotes displayed on the back cover.

So, what can you say in 50 to 150 words that will clutch at the reader’s imagination and make him/her want to explore the interior, flick through the pages, and perhaps, just perhaps, part with ready cash? Use of strong verbs, avoidance of adverbs, and language that says precisely what it’s meant to convey are essential.

A question often works; citing the major dilemma in the book and suggesting some sort of possible conflict/danger/ambition achieved (depending on the genre).
‘Will Susan’s obsession with chocolate stop her turning the rivalry between her and siren sister, Ophelia, to her advantage when it comes to attracting ruggedly handsome Martin?’  (superficial romantic fiction)

A hint of the challenges facing the protagonist(s) will often act as a hook: ‘When James opens an envelope surreptitiously placed on the passenger seat of his locked Bentley, he begins a journey that will ultimately threaten not only his business but the reputations and lives of those he most loves.’ (thriller)

I was recently asked by Fantastic Books Publishing to provide a blurb for the first volume of my fantasy trilogy, which they’re publishing in spring. 50 words in 3 sentences was the brief. Here are a couple of examples:

‘Hatred between a corrupt leader and the rightful heir flares when a crucial prophesy is misread.
Regardless of cost, a fanatical disciple feels compelled to right a decisive wrong in a key ritual.
Against overwhelming odds, a young hunter sets out to rescue his adored betrothed.’


‘A false prophesy forces a corrupt leader to menace the rightful heir and start a dangerous mission.
Only the reckless kidnap of the leader’s daughter by a fanatical disciple might correct a vital wrong.
A charismatic young hunter braves hostile seas and unknown lands to free the gifted maiden he loves.’

I’ve no idea whether either of these will be used. But, for me, they illustrated the difficulty of encapsulating the essence of a story running at 200k+ words, with 3 intertwining stories, into so few words. Not, as I say, a synopsis, but a flavour, a taster, a teaser that will encourage readers to read on.

Do they hint enough at potential challenges and conflicts? Do they insert questions into the mind of the reader? Do they, most importantly, encourage the reader to open the book?

I’d love your observations and comments.
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