Thursday, October 30, 2008

Writing Blurbs or How To Make Your Head Explode

So my editor and I were working on the front flap copy for my upcoming new book (Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist) and we spent the day struggling with something that I realized might be relevant for SVP readers.

Whether writing catalog copy, front flap copy, or a query letter, it is vital that we learn to be able to write a short blurb-y description about our books that will hook readers (book buyers, browsing bookstore customers, editors and agents.) But it’s also one of the hardest things to write. What do you emphasize? Which essence do you choose to distill down to? How few details can you use to establish character?

One of the things my editor and I were struggling with was whether to emphasize the micro/personal struggles that emphasize character, or the larger, plot focused struggles, which felt more hook-y.

There are a few essential elements that a hook/query pitch/cover copy have to include:
Character
Period/Mood (I don’t think you need both, but probably one.)
The Inciting Incident
The Struggle

One thing that can be helpful as you're brainstorming is to state your character’s internal goal, this can act as a great character hook in a blurb.

Another idea is to list all the elements of your book that make good hooks; what are the most evocative elements, the ones that would hook a reader?

Next, can you identify the Inciting Incident? What gets the external plot really rolling?

And then what is the conflict the protagonist struggles with throughout the bulk of the book?

If you can some up with a strong, evocative sentence (or two) for each of those four things, you will be well on your way to having a great blurb.

From some books off my shelf.

THE MAGIC THIEF by Sarah Prineas (Great book, btw).

Character and Period/Mood are combined in the first sentence: (Although actually, more of Conn’s character is revealed in the Inciting Incident sentence as well)

In a city that runs on a dwindling supply of magic, a young boy is drawn into a life of wizardry and adventure.

The Inciting Incident:

Conn should have dropped dead the day he picked Nevery's pocket and touched the wizard's locus magicalicus, a stone used to focus magic and work spells. But for some reason he did not.

The Ongoing Struggle/Conflict

Nevery finds that interesting, and he takes Conn as his apprentice on the provision that the boy find a locus stone of his own within a month. But with his wizard lessons and helping Nevery discover who—or what—is stealing the city of Wellmet's magic, time is running out for Conn to find his stone.

A second example is a much more character driven book, A DROWNED MAIDEN’S HAIR, by Newberry Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schultz (who apparently doesn't have a website as far as I can see) Is it legal to have back to back parenthesis? Not sure, but here goes....(Also a terrific book. LOVED the main character of this one.)

Note that you don’t have to have these elements in any particular order, as long as you get them all in there:

The Character – look how short and sweet that it, and yet so compelling!

Maud Flynn is “plain, clever, and bad,"

then this next bit sounds like an inciting incident, but it happens right away in the story so is actually more set up:

…so it comes as a surprise when she’s plucked from the Barbary Asylum for Female Orphans and adopted by the elderly Hawthorne sisters. Maude eagerly hopes to be pampered and cherished by the sisters, and life seems perfect—


Here's the true Inciting Incident:

...until Maud learns of the role she has to play in the high stakes “family business.”

And now they hit the reader with the Period/Mood and the Ongoing Struggle/Conflict, which is a very internally set struggle:

Set in the early twentieth century, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair takes readers into the shadowy world of spiritualism as Maud must decide just how much she is willing to do for the sake of being loved.

Anybody want to try it? Have a blurb their struggling with and want some direction? I'm game if you are. Or if you're feeling shy about it (SO unlikely on an introvert's blog!) you can email it to me.

8 comments:

Terry P. said...

Thanks for sharing this, Robin! This is a great breakdown of how to summarize a story down to it's very essence.

Shari said...

Great post, Robin! And yes, I'm too shy. I'll email you....

Celise said...

I'll take the challenge. This is the back cover blurb for Book One of my YA series: Draven Atreides, Teenage FBI: A Royale Pain. Advice, criticism and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
-----------------------------------

A day at the spa can be a “royale” pain.

CASE #1: Jean-Pierre Du’Lac, mad French chemist

My name is Draven Atreides and I’m 16-yrs-old. I’ve just started a new gig as an FBI informant and I’ve already got my agenda planned out: Adjust to new life…check. Make new friends…check. Enjoy a day of pampering at a new spa (what a hardship)…check. Try not to tell said new friends that I work for a certain well-known government agency…um…definitely a work in progress.

Famous celebrities are checking into hospitals–and it’s not for a rehab stint. French chemist Jean-Pierre Du’Lac is peddling his “specially formulated” products to high class spas and his latest target is celeb favorite, The Royale Treatment Day Spa. Unfortunately, his products cause some nasty side effects and the results are so not pretty. Just when I think I’m hitting a dead end (pun not intended. No death here, people), I get unexpected help in the form of Rader Deschanel. Can you believe this crap? Like this is the last thing I need right now, because I soon find out that he has an agenda of his own. Can I solve my first official assignment without Rader discovering my secret or will my cover be blown?

C’mon, come in. I’m on the case.

Robin LaFevers said...

Hi Celise!

I'm so glad you've posted another blurb to workshop. I've just sent Shari hers (and yes, I'll see if she can be coaxed to share it, but I make no promises...)

Just so you don't think I'm ignoring you, I just wanted to let you know that I'm pretty distracted today with the election and my own deadlines, but I'll get to it within the next couple of days. Pinky swear.

And thanks so much for "playing."

Mary Hershey said...

Celise, wow! What a compelling blurb. Thanks for sharing this. Can't wait to read it someday. I'm looking forward to seeing what you and Robin come up with as the revised copy!

:-)
Mary Hershey

Celise said...

Mary - I'm looking forward to the revised version as well. Now that I look at it, it seems a bit long. You'll be able to read it next year. The release date is Oct 2009 during Teen Read Week.

Robin L said...

Okay Celise. Sorry it took me a while to get to this. VERY breathless deadline approaching. ;-)

First, I don’t think you need the first two lines, they just slow down the introduction to the character. I’d also cut out your parenthetic aside, you don’t need to reassure people there’s no death here, and you cut the feet out from under your tension.

The character and mood and voice are very effectively conveyed here in this first paragraph.

My name is Draven Atreides and I’m 16-yrs-old. I’ve just started a new gig as an FBI informant and I’ve already got my agenda planned out: Adjust to new life…check. Make new friends…check. Enjoy a day of pampering at a new spa (what a hardship)…check. Try not to tell said new friends that I work for a certain well-known government agency…um…definitely a work in progress.

However, in the next paragraph, I’m not quite sure what the Inciting Incident is, whether it's the the stars checking into rehab or discovering she has unexpected help in the form of Rader. And I'm wondering if there isn't almost too much information. I might cut it down to:

Famous celebrities are checking into hospitals–and it’s not for a rehab stint. A French chemist is peddling his “specially formulated” products to high class spas and his latest target is celeb favorite, The Royale Treatment Day Spa. Unfortunately, his products cause some nasty side effects and the results are so not pretty. Just when I think I’m hitting a dead end, I get unexpected help in the form of Rader Deschanel. This is the last thing I need right now. Especially when I find out that he has an agenda of his own. Can I solve my first official assignment without Rader discovering my secret or will my cover be blown?

It’s not quite clear how Rader’s own agenda will conflict with Draven’s, because when she states her agenda above, she doesn’t say anything about trying to keep a secret from being discovered. Maybe that should come in sooner? So it’s clear that Rader will be a threat to that.

Is he a love interest? For some reason I sense that he might be, yet that's not mentioned and it might be good to slip in there.

Oh wait. Is Rader a threat because he’ll discover she works for the FBI? But if he’s unexpected help, is he not working for them also? Maybe that needs to be clearer, how he's threatening her and making her attempts to solve this case more difficult...

Celise said...

Thanks for this. I'll be sure to make the changes.