17

My story is set in a sci-fi universe but it is less about genre tropes and more about the kinds of grown-up complicated characters I'd want to find in any story. I'm not bragging or trying to be highbrow, it's more like I don't want to promise a rip-roaring adventure and then bait-and-switch to my philosophical, unsatisfying ending.

I guess, like a lot of people, I'm not very good at marketing my own work.

The online advice tends to be:

  1. "Read the back of your favorite book. Copy what they did."
  2. "Keep the hype in hyperbole!"

I understand blurbs are totally subjective, and there's another question that talks about What are the elements of a good blurb? So I wrote a blurb that cherrypicked one character and made her opening situation sound saucy:

Alex earned a mentorship under the legendary robot general. Tracking him across the Gap proved her skill, her body bared evidence of her commitment, and she needed answers to her family’s past…. But she didn’t expect the first lesson would be to survive.

It could use polish, but you get the idea. It's trying to be all hook.

So my problem is while this blurb is true it's more a sub-plot and just the set-up for her character. It's not the tone of the story which is more political intrigue with some action. There are dozens of detours and also other main characters whose stories are perhaps better resolved. The situation I cherrypicked is just the first chapter. She is not "battling the robot general to survive" for the rest of the book.

When I try to summarize the story it is a very different description. Am I being dishonest or am I marketing?

  • 3
    Can you add a single sentence promise at the end like ' and this is just the start, as she gets sucked into political intrigue (etc).' (You are clearly marketing, and don't worry about the dishonesty too much - readers will look at jacket, then the first page, then decide based on whether they enjoy the start/writing/style/tone.) – DPT Mar 19 '18 at 17:12
  • 1
    Are you sure you mean "bared" (="made naked") rather than "bore" (past tense of "bear")? – psmears Mar 20 '18 at 13:53
  • 1
    If you have an image at the front (and either create it yourself or have enough choices), I would recommend focusing it on people, maybe sitting in a conference room with sci-fi gadgets on the table/walls or at the command deck of a spaceship, but not showing what's outside the ship. – Fabian Röling Mar 20 '18 at 18:46
15

As has been noted before in relation to several questions on genre, a genre is a promise to the reader of a certain kind of literary pleasure. A blurb is essentially an expansion on that promise. It indicates a little more of the particular flavor of the work within its genre.

Because a blurb is an elaboration on a literary promise, there is no one formula for all blurbs. Each has to be shaped to promise the particular kind of pleasure that the book provides. In a hard sc fi book, that might be a problematic technology. In a teenage angst novel, it is some particular mental, physical, or social affliction that the protagonist (and, we presume, the reader) is suffering from. In a fantasy quest novel it is a the protagonist, the antagonist, and the McGuffin. If it is about complex grownup problems, suggest what those problems might be.

Remember that your aim is neither to surprise the reader nor deceive the reader but to delight the reader with the promise of more to come. A book is an experience, not a puzzle, and the blurb should provide a hint or a taste of the kind of experience that is to come.

11

First of all, a blurb should be truthful. You don't want readers to buy your book for the wrong reasons, be disappointed, write bad reviews, and never buy another of your books again.

Second, a blurb should be teaser. It should contain:

  • the protagonist
  • their "weakness"
  • their goal
  • the antagonist
  • the stakes
  • the setting

Third, the blurb should not give away too much of the story. It is a bit of a difficult balance, sometimes, between being truthful and teasing the audience on the one hand and not giving away too much on the other hand. A good common practise is to sort of summarize the first quarter of the book in the blurb up until right after the "point of no return".


You may not find much good information about blurbs on the web, so when you attempt to write a blurb, think of it as an extended logline.

A logline is a one-sentence summary of about the first 25 minutes of a movie. The purpose of the logine is to pitch the movie to the director or producer, and later to sell it to the audience. The logline is the blurb of the movie. As it is extremely brief and only contains the bare essentials, mastering the logline is like mastering the basic structure of the blurb. The only difference is that the blurb has more sentences and you don't have to be so very concise.

There is a lot of great info on loglines in screenwriting books and on the web.

7

In writing a blurb (or a query letter), it's crucial to find the true core of your book. If you shoehorn your book as a high-octane adventure, that might draw in a different readership, but they're going to be disappointed pretty quickly. If your book's strength is complexity, maturity, philosophy, then those are what your blurb should be showcasing.

Here's the back copy from a recent favorite, Ada Palmer's Too Like The Lightning:

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer--a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world's population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competion is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life...

Being immersed in ideas and "a mad combination of heaven and hell" is the hook, and to plenty of readers, it's a much more enticing one than "WILL OUR PROTAGONISTS SURVIVE".

Or, here's the blurb for Nina Allan's The Rift, which has almost no plot at all:

Selena and Julie are sisters. As children they were closest companions, but as they grow towards maturity, a rift develops between them.

There are greater rifts, however. Julie goes missing at the age of seventeen. It will be twenty years before Selena sees her again. When Julie reappears, she tells Selena an incredible story about how she has spent time on another planet. Selena has an impossible choice to make: does she dismiss her sister as a damaged person, the victim of delusions, or believe her, and risk her own sanity in the process? Is Julie really who she says she is, and if she isn’t, what does she have to gain by claiming her sister’s identity?

This one pounds hard on the book's theme and underlying tensions. Which is great, because that's where the book's heart is. Note, particularly, how this isn't even framed as an investigation of "what happened to Julie"; the book's heart is in Selena's response to Julie's return, and so that's what the blurb focuses on.

Do note, however, that both of these books have some very vivid elements mentioned in their blurbs. Too Like The Lightning has outlawed publicizing religion and gender. The Rift has Julie's mysterious disappearance and return. These aren't all either book is about -- but those are good, eye-catching details to hang a story around.

Your story probably has its own central elements, too. The things that make it special; the things that make it interesting. That's what you want to be emphasizing in your blurb -- in a way that sounds enticing. As long as it excites you, you can probably articulate why -- and that's precisely what your blurb should have.

4

Tell the truth about the whole story. For example:

Alex trained under the legendary robot general. If her warrior body wasn't proof enough, her skill in tracking the general across the Gap was all the testimony any would need. But getting answers on her origin was barely a start on her true quest, and battle skill alone would never suffice to navigate her new path of political intrigue. To her this was a very different kind of battlefield, and one she had to learn to survive.

Of course, I think the blurb (to be honest) should focus on whoever most readers will think is the main character of this story. That will, most likely, be the character whose arc is completed last in the story (even if there is a wrap-up chapter after.)

So even if Alex starts the story, I would not focus the blurb on her; it is possible to have a villain, victim or supporting character begin the story. Many detective and mystery stories begin thusly; for example the old Columbo series (a rumpled Sherlock murder detective, always pretending bafflement and incompetence to trap the killers) nearly always began with victims or villains, and Columbo the hero showed up at the end of Act I.

To be a truthful blurb, focus on the character readers will most likely, when they are done, think the book was really about.

2

If your story focuses on several characters and Alex is not the main character, then yes, this is misleading. Maybe instead you could briefly introduce the main characters of the cast (with 1-2 sentences each) and then tie it all off with a teaser promising political intrigue.

Alex was mentored by a legendary robot general to become a fearsome warrior. Brian has spent years on the streets of [town], stealing to survive and has become really good at it. Clarice has been trained from birth with the goal to one day assassinate the leader of a cult. Yet when the government is overthrown, none of them is equipped to deal with the real threat.

Okay, that still sounds like the action romp you'd like to avoid, but I'm sure you'll find a better way to tease the political stuff.

Maybe something more along the lines of:

Together, they can defeat anything. Until, from one day to the next, their world is shaken to the core. Suddenly, it's unclear whom they can trust and they have to scramble to survive amongst political intrigue.

Basically, write something that promises fascinating characters but also hints that the story is about something bigger than them.

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