Writing blurbs is both an art and a science. Happily, I’ve long been a fan of both endeavours. Even so, writing the blurbs for my own books is always a challenge. The blurb needs to instantly captivate the reader. Every word needs to pull its weight. But, what should you highlight? What should you include as a teaser, and what should you omit for fear of giving away too much too soon!? What follows are my musings on how to write a blurb for your book.
Actually – pardon the interruption – before we get into the nitty gritty of it, can I just say how unpleasant I find the word ‘blurb’? It’s just… blah, and er, and not at all an enticing way to describe a key tool in the book promotion toolkit. ‘Back cover copy’ is a bit cumbersome though, and doesn’t really apply to eBooks, and synopsis sounds overly academic, so I guess we’ll stick to blurb for now.
Ok, let’s dig in.
How to Write a Blurb that Works!
1. Research! Research! Research!
If you’re writing in a particular genre, this part is pretty easy. Simply identify a few of your favourite authors or books in that genre and track down the back cover text or online promo blurb. Pour yourself some coffee and study these blurbs carefully.
What is it about them that made you want to read the book? How long is the the text? Which of the characters do they introduce, and how? Do they spotlight certain themes in the novel or is the focus on characters? How might that distinction apply to your own novel?
Having read the book (presumably), you can also look at what the blurb gives away and what it holds back from the potential reader. You want to give just enough away to whet the appetite, but not so much that there’s little point reading the novel.
2. Craft Your Book’s Pick-Up Line
The opening line of your blurb is absolutely key. No pressure, but if a reader doesn’t find that first line compelling, you’re probably not going to get a sale. Some blurbs start out with a line identifying the main character’s predicament. Others outline the location, time, and setting, offering atmosphere and intrigue.
Some blurbs let the novel speak for itself, starting out with a brief quote that lays the scene and offers a taste of the novel’s style. This is what I opted to do with Colony as I (tooting my own horn here) really love my opening sentence. It was one of those magical sentences that just fell out onto the page and felt absolutely right:
They would face at least two winters here.
Who are they? Where is here? Why would they have to be there for at least two winters? And why focus on that particular season of discontent? The intrigue! My goodness!
3. Avoid Clichés
When you’re short on space, it can be tempting to rely on shortcuts to let the reader know what to expect from the novel. Unfortunately, this can quickly veer into cliché after cliché. And, unless you’re writing a novel specifically meant to annoy the reader, a blurb packed with these pre-fabricated phrases is likely to lead a reader to drop the book like a…
hot potato devilishly slippery poisonous gecko that just jumped out of your chia pudding.
Some examples of clichés include a crime novel whose main character is a ‘hard-drinking detective with a score to settle’, or any mention of a ‘race against time’. Also, it’s probably best not to start your blurb with ‘In a galaxy far, far, away’, or anything similar.
4. Tell the Truth
Plenty of readers choose their next book because it fits the particular mood they’re in right now. If you want gore/mystery/sex/romance/legalese/adventure/fantasy, it’s a great feeling when you stumble upon a book that aligns perfectly with that desire.
Conversely, many a time I have started reading a book where I can see that the writing is great, only to put it down after a few pages because it’s just not matching my mood (don’t worry, I keep these books to read again later!). And, I knowingly buy books that I’m sure I’ll love, on the understanding that even though they’re not right for my current mood, at some point (in weeks, months, or even years sometimes!) I’ll be in exactly the right frame of mind to read that specific tome.
So, all this being said, write your blurb so that readers can have a reasonable expectation as to the style and content of the book. If it’s dripping with gore and horror, don’t focus on an incidental romance plot. And, if your novel is mainly about the humorous struggles of a taxidermist working on a particularly tricky giraffe, it’s probably best to avoid suggesting that it’s a serious political thriller.
5. Consider Your Audience (the audience you want might not be the audience you get)
Following on from the point above, this next consideration is especially little tricky for me as I have this ongoing battle between loudly and proudly exclaiming “THIS BOOK INCLUDES QIPOC!” and just letting that slide and allowing readers to discover that for themselves. So much so that I’ve decided to write a separate blog post about it! Watch out for that in the next few days.
6. Keep it Short
For many writers, summing up your entire novel is a Herculean task. You have so much to say! Clearly. You just wrote 70,000+ words after all. One rather important thing to keep in mind when considering how to write a blurb is to be careful not to rewrite your novel. Keep it to 100-150 words or thereabouts. Any longer and you’ll lose the reader’s interest.
Every word matters in a blurb. So, if your first draft runs at 300 words, spend time tinkering and agonising over every word choice. Can a single word effectively replace five or six? If so, do it. If you just like how something sounds but it’s not necessary to communicate to a prospective reader, it’s got to go.
When you think you’re about there, tinker some more until it is just right. You might want to create a word palette just for your novel: think about which words you use throughout the book to create its specific atmosphere and style. For Colony, this would include words like ‘resistance’, ‘howling dust’, ‘radiation’, ‘strange’, and so forth.
FYI, the blurb for Colony runs at 151 words without the initial quote, and 195 with the excerpt. Any longer and sites like Amazon would cut off the blurb and require potential readers to click on the ‘read more’ link, which is a barrier to sales.
7. Use Your Agent/Publisher Query
This one might not be applicable to every writer, but if at some point you sent out queries to literary agents and/or publishers in the hope of landing a book deal, remember that you’ve already done a chunk of the work needed to write an effective blurb. That elevator pitch you used to try to sell your book can prove a pretty fantastic first draft for a blurb. Even if it didn’t reel in a contract with a major publisher, some tinkering can make it appeal directly to your target readers, especially if you’re writing in a niche genre.
If you do try this approach, be careful not to give everything away or entirely summarise your book. Also, avoid saying how wonderful your book is or comparing yourself to writers you believe to be comparable in style, substance, or merit.
8. Eschew Ellipses….
While enigmatic… alluring… intriguing… ellipses can be downright annoying when used to excess. Sure, you might have a character that contains multitudes, but commas are fun and practical punctuation… trust me.
That said, if your book is a mystery, and you can safely set up that mystery right from the get-go, a final ellipsis can be a good way to make your reader anxious to find out what happens next.
9. Use a Three-Act Structure
Just like with a traditional novel, a blurb works rather well with a set structure. Go for the backstory first, then introduce the characters, and wrap it all up with the conflict. Just don’t include the denouement as a fourth act.
In practice, this can look a little like what I did with the blurb for Colony:
(text excerpt and backstory)
They would face at least two winters here. The howling swirl of dust wrapping them in an ever tighter cocoon. It hadn’t been like this at first. No windstorms or unexplained power outages. No sense that the planet itself had begun to speak.
The year is 2036, and Project Arche – an international endeavour to create a self-sustaining settlement on Mars – has sent the first wave of civilians to the planet. Silver Antara, Flight Engineer aboard the interplanetary transport ship, Octavia, has spent six months on the inhospitable planet, maintaining a roaming fleet of exploratory rovers looking for signs of water and, potentially, life.
Almost thirty-four million miles from home, Silver has learnt to shelter from solar storms and guard against radiation, but when an unexplained accident occurs at the settlement’s quarry, followed by the strange disappearance of a colleague, Silver and Chief Engineer Aliyaah Diambu begin to question the behaviour of some of the station’s residents and the wisdom of Project Arche as a whole.
Are the doubts in Silver’s mind just a result of fatigue, or radiation sickness, or is she somehow hearing the planet itself resisting colonisation?
And, finally… (yeah, ellipses)
10. A/B Test
The beauty of online promotion and publishing on demand is that you can A/B test to your heart’s content. Your book blurb is no longer printed in perpetuity on hundreds of books that may end up langushing in warehouses or under your bed. Instead, you can start out with one blurb, see how that goes, then tweak it online, monitor sales, and consider tinkering with how to write a blurb on the printed books themselves.
Some sites, such as ManyBooks, actually allow you to set up two different blurbs and see which one gets the most attention and conversions. You can also set up split testing on your author website (if you don’t have one, I can make one for you!) or social media pages; set up Facebook ads with different opening lines.
You could also try split-testing using AWeber or Constant Contact to email your reader mailing list, friends, family, and colleagues (as appropriate). And, if you’re so inclined and have the right kind of audience, consider taking a straw poll of readers on your blog or in social media feeds to see which of two, or three, blurbs entice readers. SurveyMonkey and other plug-ins can help with this.
If you have control of the blurb on specific sales sites, such as at Createspace and Amazon, do the same thing: monitor any changes in traffic and clicks when using slightly (or radically!) different blurbs.
Readers, do you have a favourite blurb? Writers, any tips on how to write a blurb to end all blurbs? I’d love to hear from you!