Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How To... Write a Killer Blurb

By JJ Marsh

Authors swear the blurb, or back cover copy, is ten times harder than writing the novel it describes. Which is understandable. You know all the nuance and detail of 100K words and cannot possibly reduce its essence to 250.
Or can you?

Having written cover description for all kinds of material – from cookbooks to crime, from erotica to executive summaries – I have a few tips.

Here’s a ten-step plan to creating an effective blurb for fiction.

Ready, Steady...



Start with bare branches. In Techniques of a Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain offers the basic framework for a blurb. Write one sentence and one question, containing character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. It works for every genre.
Eg: When humans begin to grow to twelve-feet tall (situation), John Storm (character) must find out why (objective). But can he defeat traitors in high places (opponent) who want to fake an extra terrestrial plot and will kill anyone in the way (disaster)?
Research I. Read the blurbs of similar books in your genre. (Yeah, I know, yours is unique, but bear with me.) If you had to describe it in the most reductive terms, would it be Anna Karenina meets Bridget Jones (as Adele Parks described her first novel to attract her agent)? Or Hotel Rwanda meets Million Dollar Baby? Choose your comparisons well. You may not use them in the blurb but they might still be useful for your elevator pitch.

Research II. Key words. Which words will help your target reader find your book? Which words do they search for? Look again at those blurbs. Make a mind map of all those vital clues. For Rise of the Golden Aura by Chanrithy Him, I had a hit list: vampire, Asia-America, romance/love, myth, supernatural, underworld, beauty pageant, queen, series. We got every single one into the final draft.

Mood, style and tone. Cover copy reflects the book within. If is wise-cracking, hard-boiled noir, so must be the blurb. I always ask clients for three chapters of their book so I can get a sense of the way they write. On reading, I make notes: ethereal and whimsical / sardonic and dry / cosy and humorous. When you begin to write the text, keep these words in front of you.

Patterns. Be aware that blurbs, just as much as covers, are part of your brand. Jane Davis is not writing a series, but readers keen to discover more of her work will appreciate the similar style across her entire canon. So I kept notes on length, format, style and phrasing to avoid repetition but enabling the maintenance of a 'Davis' tone.

... Go!

Add leaves and flowers. With all the ammunition above, take your Swain frame and start expanding. Use powerful nouns and verbs. Avoid the passive voice. Vary sentence lengths. Aim for the essence. Pack every sentence tightly and make every word earn its place. Remember the power of threes. Here's a sample extract from an upcoming novel by Luna Miller.
Gunvor may be in her sixties, her hands might be too shaky to continue performing operations and her body complains every time she works out. But her mind is as sharp as ever. She’s curious, intelligent and experienced – perfect qualities for a private detective.

As the agency’s rookie, she gets a surveillance job. A straightforward case, they said. A domestic. Suspicions of infidelity. Follow the husband.

Rewrite. Keep paragraphs short and remember how it looks online. You need some white space for ease of reading. Aim for five paragraphs and around 200 words. End each sentence and each paragraph on a high-impact word. Here's the opener to The Beauty Shop by Suzy Henderson.
England, 1942. After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. Circumstance brings three people together, changing their destinies.
Sell. Tell the reader how this book will make them feel. Don’t be afraid to use an element of drama. This is your punchline. David Baddiel makes this point in Time for Bed. His character Gabriel is choosing a video. The review on the back of Beaches says, ‘And at the end you cry, goddamit, you cry real tears’. Gabriel wells up right there in Blockbusters.

Tagline. Read the blurb again and sum it up in one line. Think film posters.  
‘In space, no one can hear you scream.’ 
‘The true story of a real fake.’ 
‘She fell in love with him the day he decided to marry someone else.
I find it helps to try them out in the voice of Morgan Freeman.
When you've got it, put it right at the top of the blurb, but check it doesn’t clash. My tagline for my own Book 2 was 'You Never Know Who's Watching'. Lovely! Until I noticed the word 'watching' in the first line. Not lovely.

Puff quote. Ideally, end your blurb with an endorsement from a well-known writer or enthusiastic reader. Choose carefully and don’t be afraid to edit out cliché. A current client has this: “What an amazing capture of unadulterated raw humanity, in all its shades of light and darkness. I read it over a few days. Couldn’t put it down. Really, really enjoyed it.” My advice was to trim. The stuff in bold is where the power lies.

Read the whole thing aloud. If you stumble, there’s a reason. Polish, rewrite and hone till it sings, then share with respected opinions.

This may sound like a lot of work, but your blurb and the cover are what sell your book.
So take your time and get it right.


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  2. Excellent advice. I start with bare branches too then pick at it, inserting strong words, emotional punch and usually a nice fat disaster. After all, who wants a heroine whose worst disaster is waiting in the queue at Waitrose?
    (Actually, that queue could turn out to be pretty dangerous...)

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