Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Write a Great Blurb

This week, I finally read Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!, the screenwriter's classic How To Tell a Story book. As a non-screenwriter, I still found it very interesting, but the part I liked the best was definitely the chapter about loglines.

So a logline is basically the one sentence description of a movie you used to see in the paper back when people actually looked at news papers for movie times. Things like:

"The fight for the future begins when a computer hacker learns the world exists in the sophisticated alternate reality of a computer program called 'The Matrix'"

"A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship."

"Toula's family has exactly three traditional values - "Marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone." When she falls in love with a sweet but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée while she comes to terms with her own heritage."

These are loglines for The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding respectively, though I probably didn't even have to tell you that. We know these stories, because these were all loglines that sold movies. In the business part of Hollywood, that's a logline's job: to sell a script.

In this area, at least, we novelists have it WAY better than screenwriters, because we have blurbs. Unlike loglines, which have to be short enough to pitch in that proverbial elevator, blurbs (or query letters, which are basically blurbs personalized to an agent) are allowed to take up entire paragraphs. Compared to the loglines above, that's an embarrassment of riches in terms of space to lay out our stories, and yet we still struggle to fit it all in. How do you convey what your 100,000 word book is about in two paragraphs? That's barely enough space to lay out the main characters and a basic sketch of the plot.

Well, you're in luck, because telling the story isn't what blurbs are for! A blurb, like a logline, isn't meant to be a synopsis or a report or anything so heavy. Instead, it is the answer to the question, "What is your story about?" And as any author who's admitted their profession in public can tell you, when someone asks "What is your story about," they're not signing up to hear a book report. They just want to know what's the genre, and why should they care.

Once you understand that, you've taken the first step toward mastering the blurb, because blurbs, like the loglines above, aren't there to tell the story, they're there to sell the story. They're meant to hook, to tease, to excite, to get whoever is reading them to want to read more. That's it, that's the entire point, and once you realize that, writing blurbs becomes very simple.

Not easy, of course. Blurbs still have to be short, witty, tantalizing, and full of hooks, which is hardly a walk in the park. But with a few guidelines (and the knowledge that you're writing ad copy, not a book a report), blurbs can stop being things you hate and become fun writing exercises.

Years ago, when I was haunting the NaNoWriMo forums, I came across the best single line hook for a novel I've ever read. It was one of those "boil your novel down to one sentence" challenges, and the entry was "He broke the world, can he fix it?"

That's a hell of a hook. I think I actually asked out loud "I don't know, can he?!" If there'd been more, I would have read it right there. Now, having read Save the Cat!, I think I understand why I was so immediately snapped up. In his book, Snyder mentions that the two essentials for every logline are irony and mystery. "He broke the world, can he fix it?" is just these two things in their purest form, a giant, unbreakable thing has been broken by an individual (irony), can he fix it? (mystery)

This two pronged approach is most easily visible in loglines where the enforced brevity leaves no room for anything else. Looking back up at the logline for The Matrix, we see that our real world isn't real at all (irony) and that we're going to be fighting machines to get back (inherent mystery, can we win?). Blurbs, being longer, are a little different. They still rely on mystery and iron, which could also be called the ingredients for a good hook, but they have the space to pack in more: more characters, more intrigue, more hooks. The canny writer will use this to her advantage.

Take, for example, the blurb for Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews:
"Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren't for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…"
This is a fantastic blurb on all accounts. There's requisite the irony (how could a city with magic not be a nice place to live?!) and mystery (Why is there magic? Will Kate catch the killer?), but there's also about ten billion other amazing cool hooks waiting to grab us--magic and technology switching places! A ruined metropolis crawling with magic! Necromancers who mind control vampires! A kick-ass heroine! A killer on the loose! How could you not want to read this book?!

This is the power of a great blurb. The paragraph above tells us almost nothing about the actual plot. There's only one named character (Kate Daniels) and a single recognizable location (Atlanta). We don't know why magic came back or what the world is like or even what Kate actually does for a living, and yet I want to read it all RIGHT NOW, as do hundreds thousands of other people going by her regular appearances on the NYT Bestseller List. We all want to read because this blurb does a great job of selling the setting, characters, and voice of the book.

That last bit is really crucial, and one of the reasons why authors should never farm out their blurb writing. Unlike loglines for movies, blurbs are more than just a sales pitch. They're also a sample of the writing we can expect inside. If a writer can't write a good blurb, or at least an interesting, engaging one, I have to wonder if they can write a novel. Blurb writing is hard, yes, but it's still writing. When I see an overworked blurb full of awkward sentences, predictable turns, and cheesy stock phrases ("the fate of the world," "toughest challenge she's ever known," "Character's perfect life falls apart when"), I can't help but wonder if the book isn't just as bad. That's never what you want people to wonder! You don't want them to wonder at all, you want them buy/request sample pages with squeals of delighted glee!

So, if you're sitting down to write a blurb or a query letter for your book, or if you already have a blurb/query letter and you're not getting the responses you want, take a step back and ask yourself if your blurb is doing its job. Is it highlighting what's best and most interesting about your work? Is it only telling people what they will read, or is it showing them why they want to read it?

Again, blurb writing is not easy. I can write 1000 words an hour, but I've spent two days on a 200 word blurb and still not been completely happy. That can feel a lot like failure when it hits, but your blurb is worth that level of effort, because the blurb is the most important bit of writing in your novel. The blurb is the first impression, the foot in the door. It's the very first thing anyone will read of your work, and if that blurb can't convince a reader or agent to keep going, your novel will not be read. So never be afraid to take your time and never settle for a blurb you don't love. It might take dozens of tries, but a good blurb is always worth the work in the end.

I hope this has helped you get a bit more insight into the World of Blurbcraft! I wanted to put up a really terrible blurb as a counter example to the Ilona Andrews one above, but there's no writer I dislike enough to embarrass them like that. Besides, you know a bad blurb when you see one. Everyone does, which is why they don't work. So use that same gut instinct on your own blurb. It might hurt, but I promise it's a good, becoming-a-better-writer kind of hurt.

And that's my post on blurbs! As always, thank you for reading, and remember to pile those hooks high!

Happy writing!


Anonymous said...

Speaking as someone who has a blurb to write today, I couldn't have seen this post at a better time. Big thanks for helping me hone my focus. ^_^

Deshipley said...

...Aaand I hadn't actually intended to be anonymous, just now, but haha, butterfingers all over the keyboard. X3

Pam Stewart said...

I'm actually reading Blake's book right now as well. I've known about loglines for awhile. Known them, and hated them. This post is a great synopsis of why blurbs/loglines need to be spot on. I really am loving his chapters on beats, too. Great post!

Kai Herbertz said...

Hi Rachel,

Save the cat is great, glad to hear you got around to reading it.

I wrote a log line and a blurb for my submission to ABNA, but I also had a stock phrase about saving the world in there. Uh oh.

"I wanted to put up a really terrible blurb as a counter example to the Ilona Andrews one above, but there's no writer I dislike enough to embarrass them like that."
Kudos for not doing that - I really feel we should all highlight positive examples rather than harping on negatives.

All the best,


Russell Stoll said...

Nice post and a timely one -- I'm ready to launch my debut novel and the blurb is giving me fits. Thanks.

E. Kaiser Writes said...

Good points, Rachel! That blurb writing is a class A trick all in itself... not at all sure I'm happy with mine.
I liked your perspective: that a blurb should tell us why the book is interesting, not what it's about. I think that may help me!

Lege Artis said...

I find this really interesting and I'm not a writer. I actually found myself thinking about Intrigue and mystery formula and just how much can my reading choices relate to it.
Speaking oh her, Ilona did excellent blog post (several actually) on pitching a novel and writing blurb, where she was discussing these things. It randomly generated into writers offering blurb propositions and she was giving her opinion/suggestions. ;)

Denae Christine said...

I'm getting ready to write another blurb, and it's so tough! Thanks for the advice and encouragement. This is important; it should take more than a few minutes.

JMF said...

Thank you, Rachel, for reminding me of the purpose of the blurb--to sell not tell the story. I needed that today.

Anonymous said...

I've just drafted my blurb even thought I've only just outlined my roughest of rough plot line on post-its and begun making character notes.

I want it to act as a mission statement for my novel. Something to keep me focused. We'll see if it works!