23 Aug

How to Write a Great Blurb (Warning: Giganormous Post)

Banner - TypewriterI’ve written several hundred blurbs, for myself, for other authors, and for non-authors, mainly academics.

That’s right, there are blurbs in academia. They’re called abstracts, posters, or one-slide presentations, but if it works like a blurb, and functions like a blurb, it is a blurb.

That’s my view. Don’t tell it to any academics. Also, when I say “blurb,” I mean “back cover copy.” That’s the correct term. Nobody I know uses it (OK, some pundits in the self-publishing sphere do, but most of us just say “blurb”.) I’m going to say blurb. So there.

Anyhow, blurbing (which is five characters shorter than “blurb writing” and I’m a lazy bastard) is not a writing skill. It’s marketing, and while you use your keyboard for both, they’re essentially different skill sets. And no, one of them won’t leave a trail of slime on your pristine, artistic soul.

Let me explain why, and how you go about writing an effective* blurb.

(* Please note the “effective.” The key point of a blurb isn’t style, information capacity, or ego, it’s effect – unless you’re writing to stoke your own ego, in which case feel free to skip the rest of this post…)

Oh, and this is a bit longer than my usual posts. As in “about 1500% longer.” Yeah, it needs a table of contents:

Table of Contents

The Goal of a Blurb

So you’ve decided to write a blurb. Why?

To sell your book, right?

Wrong.

The goal of a blurb isn’t to sell your book. It might do it, especially if you have a high-premise novel, but that’s not its goal.

No, the goal of a blurb is to, in conjunction with the cover, the author/brand name, the store placement, the also-boughts, the reviews, and all other theme, content, and genre markers, convince the reader that the novel is something that will deliver what they expect and want.

Wow, that was a mouthful. Let’s unpack.

The blurb is only one part of a sales funnel. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the entire sales funnel.

Imagine a reader who just found out about your book. How?

Maybe they searched for your brand (your author name, or your world’s name, ie. “Star Trek” or “Anne of Green Gables”). If so, they’re already half-sold on it.

Or maybe they saw the cover in a genre list on a retailer platform. Maybe they read a “Best of…”-list (congrats on placing, BTW), or clicked on an ad. No matter how, they’ve entered your sales funnel. They’ll now proceed in an orderly, disorganized manner. Usually, they’ll look at the cover. If they’re in a physical store (that rarest of creatures), they might feel the heft of your book. They might them glance at the number of stars, or the price, or read the blurb. Or jump to the reviews, without ever reading the blurb. (That’s what I do with non-fiction: cover -> 3 * reviews -> preview. Works for me.)

Going from awareness to sale is a process, and the blurb is only one part of it.

Read that again. The blurb is a single part of a process.

This means that the primary function of your blurb isn’t to be a lone, shining star. It is to support all the other parts of the process.

Your blurb must be a seamless part of the whole. Its function isn’t to be brilliant. Its function is to reassure your potential reader that they’ve found something that is comforting yet new, known yet unique.

Basically, what a blurb does is heighten interest by simultaneously giving the reader a dopamine hit from recognizing something they’ve read before and like (ie genre conventions, tropes, and/or characters) and titillating them with something new (ie fresh adventures, interesting takes on common tropes, and unexpected-yet-interesting settings.)

In other words, your blurb is there to be a comfort blanket with a novel (pardon the pun) element. You don’t front-load your plot into your blurb, or your character’s tragic back-story, or the cool plot twist on page 227.

Your perfect blurb tells the reader: “this is what you were expecting, and look, a cool, new, shiny thing, too.”

That’s it.

This is why your blurb shouldn’t showcase your limericking skills, or your past as a grammar-Nazi, unless that’s what’s expected, based on the genre, theme, sales venue, and all those other factors.

What does that mean in practice?

It means that you shouldn’t stress too much about the blurb.

Make sure that the feeling the blurb gives, its promise to the reader, matches the rest of the things you can control. Just like your cover should follow genre conventions, then add a little bit of originality, your blurb should follow conventions, too, then add a bit of your voice and mood.

Don’t try to be a Picasso of blurbs. Be the McDonald’s of blurbing. After all, there is only one Picasso, but there’s a McDonald’s on every corner.

Which is a long and convoluted way of saying “chill, dudes and dudettes.” Write your blurb, avoid the worst mistakes, and you’ll be fine.

Levels of Blurbing – Pattern, Form, and Function

Having said that, you’ll need the tools to create a decent blurb. There are two sets of them, the abstract, analytical ones, and the practical, hands-on, let’s-get-writing ones.

Bastard that I am, I’m beginning with the abstracts. Skip them at your own risk (although if you are an intuitive writer, like me, you might want to start with the parts of a blurb below, then come back to read this part later.)

When learning to blurb (or anything else for their matter,) you’ll go through three stages (or five, or ten, or however you want to split it up, but I like three.) I’m calling them “pattern, form, and function” in but I might as well have said “imitation, partition, and understanding.”

Pattern

Pattern is the first step. You need to know the patterns that blurbs, especially blurbs in your genre, follow.

If have an analytical mind, take some of the blurbs of the almost bestselling books in your genre and cut them to pieces using the practical building blocks I haven’t told you about yet.

The reason I’m saying “almost bestselling” is that bestsellers, those authors who have fanatical fan bases, can get away with things us mere mortals can’t. So scroll down a bit in the bestseller lists when doing your studying. (OK, do read the blurbs of mega-hits, but don’t try to emulate only them – unless you’re a Sanderson or Patterson or Atwood, you don’t get to do Sanderson or Patterson or Atwood, you need to do genre and reader expectations.)

One caveat – if you’re an intuitive writer, like me, the whole taking-it-to-pieces thing likely won’t work for you. My best advice is to do what I’ve done: read a metric ton of blurbs, and get a feeling for what you like and what you don’t like. Yeah, it’s a hokey way to learn. It also works.

Either way, you’re building awareness of the patterns (note the plural “s” – there are many) that blurbs follow, their general shape. Once you’re done, you can follow a mold. Think of it as having a set of cookie cutters to blurb with. You’ll be able to do the underdog orphan blurb, and the team heist blurb, and the gingerbread-man blurb.

I made that last one up, but it tastes great.

Form

Next step is to understand the form of each shape. Basically, you can see what happens when you change out particular parts of each blurb.

This means that you need to understand where each part begins and ends, and what makes it sticky. Sticky is a term that I stole from Chip and Dan Heath (read their “Made to Stick,” it’s a great way to learn why certain ideas work and others don’t.) It means something that sticks in people’s minds, a blurb-meme if you want.

As a corollary, the opposite of being sticky is being boring – you read something and start to skim, passing it by. There’s nothing there to hook you, nothing to keep you reading. After a while, you put the book, text, article, or whatever it is you’re reading down, and likely never pick it up again. If you want an effective blurb, you need to keep the reader engaged. You need stickiness.

Each part of a blurb has its own stickiness, as well as the whole blurb being sticky (if you’ve written it right.) Knowing what makes it sticky lets you switch out the part for something else, and still retain the overall stickiness.

For example, the three-item hook is sticky because it’s a listicle (or rather, because our minds search for patterns, and when presented with a list, it immediately forms associations between the list items.) Help the reader to build the pattern, and you can switch out the single items for paragraphs, or turn the hook into a presentation, or mirror it, or…

And now you’re wondering how to learn that, or possibly what a hook is (it is the grabber at the beginning of the blurb, see below.)

If you are of an analytical bent, my best advice is to approach it like a craftsman, and start with the pieces themselves, asking lots of questions – what type of hook is this, what makes this particular hook work, what are the psychological underpinnings of that (remember, selling is psychology, we’re trying to make the reader feel things, to engage their emotions and subconscious) and so on. Then, once you have a basic understanding of the parts, start mimicking them. Copy the forms and fill them with your own words.

When you’ve got that down, start moving the parts around and see what happens, or duplicating them to have more, or removing them. Basically, you’re experimenting using the tools you’ve learned so far.

For intuitive writers, all I can say is a repeat of the metric ton of blurbs advice above. Write, write, write. Read blurbs until you think that you have a feeling for what a certain type of blurb does, and then set out to write one in the same style. Maybe you’ll succeed. Likely you’ll almost succeed. Get feedback, get your friends engaged, try again.

When I started out, I would think along the lines of “all right, I’m going to take this blurb that I liked, and I’m going to write five new hooks for it.” Or three, or two, or one. Key point here is to do, and see what happens. Get your subconscious to consider what you’re doing, then write. (Also, keep reading, blurbs change over time. What sold i970 is ancient-beyond-quaint by now.)

Yeah, it’s still hokey. It’s also deliberate practice, to focus on a detail and repeat it over and over and over again.

If it works, don’t knock it…

Grokking blurbs

So then you reach the last part of the process, what Robert Heinlein termed “grokking” it. It’s when you understand the process on a fundamental level. You no longer need to think about it, you just do it and it comes out right.

It’s like writing in flow. Things just come out perfect. Magic.

How do you learn it?

No idea. I’m still hit-and-miss at this level. Sometimes, I think I’ve got it. Other times, I know I haven’t. How much of either is true, I have no idea. But I’m practicing, and I’m getting better, and closer to grokking it.

One thing to consider, when you start to reach this level, is that your internal critic may not be even close to it. People are loving your blurbs, but you still think there’s something missing. I get hit by my infernal critic all the time, both when it comes to blurbing and to writing. You need to get past that. Focus on the facts.

Get feedback. Look at your sales numbers. Try doing A/B testing on your blurbs and see what converts better. Yeah, we’re getting outside the scope of blurbing and into marketing 201. If you’re at this level, congratulations. Likely, you’re earning enough to hire people to blurb for you. Or you think blurbing is so much fun that you want to keep doing it yourself anyhow. Either way, you don’t really need to be reading this post.

Kind of you to read anyhow.

Dissecting the Blurb – the Three Parts

Now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of blurbing. This is the part where I give you the secret sauce of blurbishiousness to slather freely onto your artistic creations so they will soar upon the fire of their own burning taste buds.

OK, maybe not. But we’re going to split the blurb into three main parts, all based on the function they’ve got. These are:

The Hook

The Presentation

The Call to Action

Yeah, I love them capitalized terms…

Writing the Hook

The hook is the first part of the blurb. In some ways, it’s the most important part. Its the thing that gets your reader reading. It’s like fishing – hook them, then reel them in.

I can’t define what makes a great hook, because it differs between genres and readers. “There I was, nude, surrounded by three gorgeous hunks…” would work great in erotica. Use the same hook for your sweet Christian romance and watch the one-star “didn’t-even-bother-reading” reviews mount up. It’s all relative.

What I can do, is give you a series of hook archetypes, and tell you why they work. Then its up to you to experiment with them.

One thing to consider about hooks, is that they’re short. Your hook isn’t your presentation where you tell the reader about your book. Your hook is only there to grab the reader and get them reading. It pulls the reader into your blurb, nothing more.

This means that hooks should be short, easy to read, but above all, it should look “light.”

Light, or airy, is stolen from graphic design. It basically means that something looks short and inviting. Ad copy is airy. Academic papers aren’t. If you have massive sentences compounding into giganormous paragraphs, you don’t have light hooks.

Think negative space. That’s designer-talk for “nothing.” If you’ve got lots of nothing around a point of color, or line of text, that line will stand out. It will catch the reader’s eye. Try it.

Write a line of text on a blank piece of paper. Then write the same line of text on a an old newspaper page. Which one is easier to see and read? Which one catches your eye? (FYI, you can use colors, weight, and font choices to make the line stand out on the filled page, too, but usually you don’t have that luxury in blurbing.)

As a rule of thumb, go with no more than six words per line. If you need more, break the line up into two, with an ellipsis at the end of the first one, like so:

He was a blurb writer…

… until life decided otherwise.

The reason you want six words or less is that this is the amount that your average reader will be able to read in a fixation or at most two. (Fixations are the little motions of the eyes we use when we read.) Keeping the number of fixations low ensures that the reader can get hooked fast, and requires them to think less.

Remember, we’re trying to reach reader emotions, to reassure them that this book is something that they like, but with a novel twist. The faster we can do that, the better. Also, when I say “ellipsis” you can usually substitute “dash” for a similar but slightly altered effect. Try it.

Thus, in no particular order, your beginners guide to writing great hooks:

The 3-list

A Wall Street broker with a heart of gold.

A cruel, greedy dragon.

A world that needs their cooperation.

A 3-list is a hook with three parts, each of them a short item. It works by either presenting two linked items followed by a conflict, or by presenting three linked items in escalating order.

Key here is “linked”. Your reader needs to be able to create a sense of continuity between the items. If they can’t, the hook fails:

Wonder Woman.

1959 Chevrolet Biscayne 4-Door Sedan.

A bag of half-eaten carrots.

True to the form of a 3-list, but not quite as good as the first hook, right? (Not that the first hook is great, we’ll get back to that.)

Still, if you’re anything like me, you started to wonder what Wonder Woman has to do with an old car. Maybe you pictured WW driving a VW. Or you have some kind of relationship to women in classic cars (perv!) That’s how our minds work. Given two points, we want to draw a line between them.

Then comes the carrots, and they fall all over the line. No order.

Imagine the last line being “A love made in heaven.” Yeah, we’re going with the women in classic cars theme. That love ties the previous two items together. It all becomes linear.

Or shift it.

Wonder Woman.

Her arch-nemesis, Dr. Psycho.

A road trip in 959 Chevrolet Biscayne.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you? It takes the line created by the first two points, then pulls it in a perpendicular direction. It leads us to expect something (a fight, hopefully) then switches that to its opposite (yay, road trip!)

Knowing these forms, what could we do with the opening 3-line? We’ve got the broker and the dragon, let’s continue in the same vein, making the last line:

A king determined to use them both.

or

The billion-dollar court case that pits them against each other.

Both of these go with the theme of money and power. I’m sure you could figure out others (in fact, do three more, as an exercise).

Or let’s go with something perpendicular:

The man they both love.

or

The orphanage that unites them.

Here, we’re twisting the expectations of money and power onto a third theme, that of love, or past history.

So now you know.

The Question

Would you destroy the world to save your love?

A Question hook works by giving the reader a choice between two irreconcilable goods, or two equally horrifying bads. If you’ve ever asked a five-year-old the question of “chocolate or vanilla, but you can’t have both,” you know how a Question hook works. It’s that, taken to the extreme.

The key here is balance. You can’t have “Would you destroy the world in order to eat an ice cream?” That’s just silly (unless you’re doing parody, in which case anything goes.)

You need equal levels of good. You need “chocolate or vanilla,” not “chocolate or raw-horseflesh-licorice”. The same way, you need equal levels of bad: “destroy the world or lose your love” not “destroy the world or shave your head”.

This makes the Question hook very dependent on your genre and readers. If you’re writing YA, choosing between your friends and a new car/great college/summer internship can be perfectly fine. If you’re writing thriller, that won’t work.

Note that there’s a subset of Question hooks that focus on the unexpected:

What would you do if…?

Here, it’s usually not a choice that’s on the line, but a situation (usually uncomfortable). What if your new boss was the man who left you fifteen years ago? What if you borrowed your rich uncle’s car without asking – then crashed it? What if you won a million dollars, but had to spend it all in 24 hours?

There are also the rhetorical Question hooks, which really aren’t question hooks at all but arc or character hooks:

Cinderella’s evil stepsisters gets to go to a ball. Why shouldn’t she?

Which nicely brings us to:

The Split

Cinderella lived in squalor…

… but now she’ll get her revenge!

The split is simply taking a longer line of text, and splitting it into two.

There’s a bit more to it than that, though. You’ll need to have the two parts contrast against one another. Unlike in the 3-list, we’re not looking to create a pattern, but we’re using a pre-existing pattern in our readers’ minds to create a hard hook by the end of the second line.

So in the above hook, Cindy’s poor. Thus we need to switch her situation around, give the reader something unexpected. We can’t use her poverty in the second line, or the hook will fizzle out:

Cinderella lived in squalor…

… and worked every day.

That just isn’t sticky, or hooky. The split is like one of those stand-up comedian jokes from the 1970’s: setup and payoff. You can’t have two lines of setup, because then you have no payoff.

The Character

Jules Leverne had it all…

… until love came in the way.

Character hooks present a character, then either give them a problem (plot-based) or turn what we know about them on its head (character-based), like so:

Jules Leverne had it all, money, love, a beautiful house…

… and hated every moment of it.

If you write character-based stories, a character-focused hook should be easy for you. If you don’t, maybe use some other form.

Just remember that your hook can’t be too long, so you can’t cram all your juicy character details into it. One or two salient tags that make the reader think in tropes, then a twist or alteration to that trope is all you need.

One thing to note about character hooks is that they’re about content. The 3-list and Question hooks, those are about form. The Character, and the following hooks, are about content, what’s inside the hook rather than how it looks.

And if you’re thinking that you could take any content hook, and put it into any form, then you’re absolutely right. Which means that you’ve got a lot more cookie-cutters for your hooks than you had a second ago!

So let’s go with another one.

The Situation

The Situation is a character hook, but without a character. Or at least without a character being central to the hook:

In a world where donuts devour cops, a rogue baker can turn pastries back into chunks of dough.

That could have been a real hook. Ever seen “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes”?

It’s not a great hook, though, because it’s too long, but it presents a situation (donuts eating police officers, which is the first seven words, and thus almost a single fixation) and a hero as secondary information. If we’d been writing this as a character hook, we’d reverse them:

He used to be a baker…

… now he has to stop a gang of rogue donuts.

That’s all there is to say about a situation hook: take something unexpected, painful, amazing or fresh, and package it into a single sentence.

The Reversal

The Reversal is a hook that’s great for Split line hooks, as it relies on upending a situation:

They threw him in jail…

… now John Rambo’s coming for them.

Basically, first line gives a situation, second line gives a hint of a different and opposite situation. You don’t need to use a split for it, either:

They tortured him.

They threw him in jail.

Now John Rambo’s coming for them.

3-line, giving a bit more detail. Important is that the reversal is the final part of the final line. You want it to be a hard hit, right at the end, not a drawn out mush:

They threw him in jail.

Now John Rambo’s coming for them.

And he’s gonna get them.

Not quite as impactful, right?

Also, you can combine the reversal an both situation and character hooks, but it takes some finesse so you don’t make it too long.

The Arc

From rags to riches…

I don’t like arc hooks. Mainly because I don’t write very arc-y stories, but also because I feel they depend too much on the readers knowing what you’re talking about, and feeling the right way about it.

Yet in certain genres, Arc hooks work great (romance, *cough-cough*)

An Arc hook gives the character’s arc. Rags to riches. Damnation to redemption. The fall from grace. Outsider becomes accepted. Loss to insight. There are as many Arc hooks as there are character arcs.

You can do plot arc hooks, too, but it’s a bit harder since in plot-heavy books you won’t want to reveal the resolution.

Either way, figure out what your arc is, then promise it in six words or less. Remember, light and airy…

And if you need more space, use the presentation to flesh out your arc. Don’t clutter your hook.

Non-Fiction Hooks

In addition to the above, non-fiction has got a few types of hooks that don’t work for fiction, and both of them are content hooks. Content being important for non-fiction. Go figure.

Like the problem hook:

This book is about pain, constant pain.

A problem hook defines a problem the audience has. It’s a pure content hook, and can be of any form:

Do you suffer from chronic pain?

Chronic pain destroys 800 000 lives each year – but it can be mitigated.

(That’s a 3-line hook, BTW, using a dash instead of a line break. Same idea, slightly different presentation.)

The key to the problem hook, as well as the benefit hook, is to use the type of language your audience uses to describe their problem. No one will buy a beginner’s investment guide that promises to “maximize your long position ROI through a comprehensive yet knowledge-efficient strategy” but the same book can sell if it promises to show the reader “simple techniques to make money.” Know your audience. It’s important in fiction, but crucial for non-fiction.

Then there’s the benefit hook, which is the exact opposite of the problem:

5 easy techniques to stop chronic pain.

Stopping chronic pain – the easy way.

Again, content hook, fits any form. (In all fairness, those would work as blog titles, or book titles, and aren’t all that hooky.)

Again, find the words your readers use, and plug them in. Use the readers’ language and you’re home free. Only difference is that here, you’re focusing on the solution to the problem. You’re highlighting the benefits, and trusting that your readers are deeply enough engaged with the problem that you don’t need to state it, or remind them of it.

Filling your Presentation

The presentation is the meat of the blurb, the blurb proper, if you want. This is what most people think of when they think of a blurb. It’s also the part you can’t omit.

Skip the hook, and you’ve still got something like a blurb. Less effective, but a blurb. Cut the call to action, same thing. Cut the presentation, and you’ve got nothing.

Too bad that this is the part where most people muck it all up…

But let’s take it step-by-step. What’s in a presentation? The book content, obviously. A brag sheet, if you’ve got one. Comps, if possible.

That’s for fiction. For non-fiction, you’ve got some special ones as well, like testimonials, or graphs. But for fiction, those are the big ones: content, author brags, comps. Nail those, and you’re home free.

Comps

We’ll start from the end: comps. Basically other novels that are like yours.

Including comps in your blurb fills two vital functions, selecting readers, and giving them confidence.

See, when you write the blurb, you’re not only looking to entice the maximum amount of readers. You’re also looking to reach the right readers. If you weren’t, you could make up any claims about your book, just to sell a copy.

But that’s short term thinking. You want to find the readers that will love your book, and become fans so they’ll buy your other books. And leave glowing, 5-star reviews.

And in order to do so, you need to be selective. You need to tell your readers “this is this kind of book, if you don’t like that, stay away!”

Stay away. It’s the best advice you can give readers. If you don’t, you’ll end up with the wrong readers and a slew o-star reviews. And reviews sell copies.

Just not th-star reviews.

But back to the comps. The comps, assuming your reader is familiar with the them, let’s the reader self-select. If they liked those books, they’ll like yours. If they didn’t, they won’t buy it. Simple as that.

How do you present the comps? Like this:

My Wonderful Book is a fantasy mystery in the style of Big Name Author’s Blockbuster Novel, Other Brand Author’s Super Novel, and Big Name Movie/TV Show. If you enjoyed them, you’ll love My Wonderful Book.

You can also use your own books as comps, especially if they, or you, are a brand name.

New Book is the fifth installment in the hugely popular My Amazing Series. If you enjoyed Series Starting Novel or Previous Novel, you’ll love New Book.

Note the final sentence. It repeats the novel title. Pretty pointless, considering that you’ve already stated your novels name, right?

Wrong. Because our brains love being lazy, and recognizing patterns is one way of being lazy. Seeing something we expect, like a name that we just read, gives your brain a tiny squirt of dopamine. That’s the brain’s learning and reward hormone. The same one that’s artificially induced when you snort cocaine (not that I’m implying anything.) It makes you feel good, and, in our context, makes the reader feel a tiny bit more positive about the novel.

Cheap trick, but cheap tricks sell Buicks. And books.

Onward to brag sheets.

Brag Sheets

A brag sheet is a list of author accomplishments.

Firstname Lastname is the New York Times bestselling author of Hugely Successful Novel, International Bestseller, and Somewhat Unpopular Novel Beloved By The Critics.

That’s about it for fiction. You can omit it if you like, or don’t have anything to brag about.  For non-fiction, the brag sheet is often crucial as it states the authors qualifications to be a subject matter expert.

Dr. Firstname Z. Lastname is the Mechatronics professor of Subdermal Hemotoma at University of Very Famous.

(BTW, mechatronics = mechanics + electronics = robots and stuff. Sub = below, derma = skin, hemato = relating to the blood, oma = tumor-like. A bruise. Classical languages FTW.)

Non-fiction brag sheets often include awards, which fiction brag sheets might, too, and famous people talking the writer up, which I’ve never seen in fiction.

You don’t really need a brag sheet in fiction, but it can be good to mention any famous awards, like the Hugo, Nebula, RITA, or Nobel prize. And yes, I do write spec fic.

Another thing about awards and positive reviews: they’re social proof. They tell the reader that someone thought that your book/you/someone’s grandma you once knew are great. If you’ve got social proof, use it.

Just don’t use unknowns for social proof. Getting a blurb (BTW, a blurb, in the correct-dictionary-approved-type-of-way, means a short quote from someone famous) from your mom isn’t worth much. Getting Stephen King to blurb your novel, that’s a stamp of approval (in most genres – use people famous in your genre!)

Contents

Which leaves us with only one part left, the book contents.

Which just happens to be the single most misused part of a blurb. Do note that I’m saying “book contents” not “synopsis” or “plot” – those have no place in a blurb. I’ll get to that in the common mistakes section. For now, let’s look at what the contents section has to do, and why.

The book contents flesh out the hook, making the reader go from curious to intrigued. They give the reader a feeling for what type of book this is, and reinforce the genre by highlighting the right tropes, and possibly introduce a theme, if theme is important in the genre and novel. (Note the “and” there, if you’re writing in a genre where themes aren’t appreciated, don’t mention the story’s core of post-Freudian teenage angst.)

So what do you put in you contents?

Not plot. Never, ever plot.

If you want to relate you novel’s plot, you write a synopsis. That’s a different thing from a blurb.

Let me repeat that. A blurb is not a synopsis.

That’s the most common error by far, trying to squeeze 00 000 word novel into 00 word blurb. Won’t work. Can’t be done. Don’t try it.

Instead, you put in the most important one of situation and main character (note the most important – don’t try to cram in both in your blurb.) Which you choose depends on your genre coupled with the way the story is told. If it’s a personal arc of a single main character, go with that character. If it’s a team heist, go with the situation. Neither should be longer than a single, short, paragraph.

But what if I’ve got a great way to combine character and situation, and throw in some setting, too, and-

No! Down! Bad writer!

Here’s the thing. Even if you somehow have figured out a way to introduce character, setting, and conflict (the situation is often setting and/or initial plot problem) in a single paragraph, and keep it both short and readable (yeah, right,) you still won’t be able to give the reader the mental space to assimilate it all.

Assimilate. Wonderful word. Gives you all sorts of alien invasion vibes.

But that’s what the reader needs to do. Assimilate your character or situation. It’s not enough to decode it, like someone trying to learn a foreign language using a dictionary, they have to make the image contained in those words their own to the point of it generating emotions. Very hard to do that if you’re stumbling over a wall of text.

Stick to either character or situation. It’s better that way.

Whichever you choose, you then use one sentence to present the inciting incident. That’s the “however” part of the blurb:

Cinderella spends her life slaving for her evil stepmother. However, when a fairy godmother appears, she…

Those ellipses (yes, ellipses is the correct plural of ellipsis) are where you stick the stakes at the beginning of the book. For Cinderella, that might be “she has a chance to turn her life around.” Not great, because it’s too abstract, and cliché to boot, but better than “she has a chance to catch the prince’s eye.” Why? Because the prince doesn’t show up until late in the story. Your readers will wonder why they should care about the magic and ballroom gown hijinxes when you’ve promised them a prince.

And no, you can’t elaborate. You get one paragraph to set the action and then your readers are skimming and picking up the latest competing blockbuster instead.

But shouldn’t you use the best thing in your novel to sell it? Shouldn’t your big finale/set piece/hero/battle/other be the thing that gets readers excited?

Maybe. Usually not.

Go back to Cinderella’s prince. Mr. Rich-and-Hunky isn’t the key to the story. Cinderella using magic to go from rags to riches is. Hunky is just the vessel to get her there, just like the fairy godmother is another vessel. Don’t tell her I said that or she’ll cut off my muse allowance.

Let’s take a look at an example.

All Luke Skywalker wants to do is fly a starfighter. But when he discovers that the Empire he wants to serve is Really Evil, he must decide whether to abandon his dreams, or serve the Rebellion – and lead a fighter attack to destroy the biggest battlestation in the galaxy.

Congratulations. We’ve just downgraded Star Wars into Luke wistfully looking at Tatooine’s two suns ten minutes into the film, and then the five minutes of the final battle sequence. Is that an effective blurb? I’ll let you decide…

But back to what you should do. Let’s express it as a mathematical formula, just because we can:

Book Contents = (Situation or Character) + (Inciting Incident or Initial Problem) + Stakes

Oh, we haven’t talked about stakes yet?

Stakes are the most important part of the contents. Without stakes, the “however” part won’t work. You need to show your reader why the character needs to act, or why what you’re writing about is important, whether in the real world, in the fictional world of the book, or for the reader.

“But wait,” you say, “I’m writing experimental poetry, with a strong visual element. I don’t have any stakes.”

You do. Stakes for the reader, that your experimental poetry will be just as beautiful as the reader dreams it should be. Those are the stakes. It might be hard to present them in a traditional format, and I’d likely recommend you writing a poem for your blurb and laying it out in a visually attractive manner (look at Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like and Artist” for examples of visual poetry), but you still need to show the reader why they should care, either due to their own aesthetic (or other – you might be writing erotica) yearnings, or due to their ability to identify vicariously with the character or situation.

Stakes. They hammer home the book.

Yes, that was a Dracula pun. Doesn’t make it any less true. If in doubt, go back to our formula.

BC = (S/C) + (II/IP) + S

I’ll figure out how to draw those nifty equation symbols one day, and make it official math. Until then, remember the stakes.

Remember, too, that you can’t only have the stakes. The stakes come at the end for a reason. Without a character or situation, or a problem in non-fiction, or some kind of context which gives the reader a way to relate to the stakes, the stakes are just sticks.

So, we know what should be in the book contents portion of the blurb. Why those parts?

Because the goal of the book contents is to reach the reader’s emotions. You want the reader to feel intrigued, interested, excited and safe in the knowledge that this is a book they’ll enjoy.

How do you do that?

By providing your reader with context through shortcuts and relevant, specific details.
What does that mean?

Shortcuts are anything that lets the brain rest. Known characters. Known settings. Tropes. Anything that, in one or a few words will convey more meaning that should be possible by those few words by tapping into the reader’s previous experiences.

Shortcuts are great at transmitting lots of content. They’re also dangerous, because if you use shortcuts that the reader has no experience with, you’ll fail. Imagine a shortcut like this:

Now Luke has to battle the Death Star before it can destroy Yavin.

If you’ve seen Star Wars, you instantly know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you might deduce that the Death Star is a bad thing, and capable of destruction (because Death + Star, duh!) How much destruction? You haven’t got any idea, because you don’t know what, or who, Yavin is.

You could surmise that a star is a big thing, so a Death Star should be big. But maybe it’s like a rock star, and has some kind of mental powers? For a Star Wars-fan, that’s ludicrous. For someone who’ve never encountered that part of pop trivia, it could be quite logical.

Does that mean you shouldn’t use shortcuts? Not at all. Just make sure you check them with your target audience. Feedback, FTW.

But there was a second element to our proscriptive book-contents-writing sentence: relevant, specific details.

Specific details are anything that makes what you’re describing physical or unique. Simple as that.

Relevant is harder. Relevant limits what details you can use, and when you know your book, relevant can be very difficult to sous out. Let’s go back to Luke:

Now Luke has to battle the Death Star before it can destroy Yavin.

Is “Yavin” a relevant, concrete detail?

It’s a name, marking it as unique –  it’s not “a planet” or “a place”, it’s “Yavin,” a specific place. But is it relevant?

No, it’s not. Here’s why:

Now Luke has to battle the Death Star before it can destroy Snugglebunnies.

(That’s the Snugglebunnies Test. I just invented it. Feel free to steal it.)

“Snugglebunnies,” a completely nonsense word, is just as relevant as “Yavin.” Because until we’ve seen Star Wars, Yavin doesn’t mean anything. It may be specific, but it’s not a shortcut. Check this:

Now Luke has to battle the Death Star before it can destroy New York.

“New York” is both specific (it’s the Big Apple, not Moscow or Mumbai) and relevant (it’s something that your readers likely will know).

See, relevance depends on the readers knowing what you’re talking about. If they don’t, they won’t have any internal images in their memory to connect to the word you’re using. We’re back to the dictionary. (Reminder: mental fluency – good, blurbs requiring a dictionary – bad.)

So, what do you do if you have a specific detail that isn’t relevant? Like so:

Now princess Muff-Muff has to defend Snugglebunnies before the evil Lord Chancellor destroys it.

Is Snugglebunnies relevant here? No, because we don’t really care if it’s called Snugglebunies, Yavin, or BuyMyAwsomeBookis. We have no context. We don’t know what it is.

Cut it.

That’s always Attempted Solution No. Every word you can cut from your blurb is a win.

But removing Snugglebunnies won’t work here. The word “defend” needs an object to defend.

Solution No. 2: tropify it.

Now princess Muff-Muff has to defend her kingdom before the evil Lord Chancellor destroys it.

“Kingdom” is a trope in fantasy. We don’t know anything about Muff-Muff’s particular kingdom, yet we have an image (assuming we read fantasy) that it’s got land, borders, castles, peasants, men-at-arms, delicious donuts, all those things that come with the trope. They might not all be right, but a blurb doesn’t have to be exact, it has to be specific. You’re not describing how the magical frogs in the castle pond sing like wind-chimes, you’re giving your reader a feeling for your world. The trope of “kingdom” will do just fine, thank you very much.

But what if it’s not a kingdom, or anything that can be transformed into a trope?

Enter Solution No. 3: unpack it.

Now princess Muff-Muff has to defend her magical, lie-detecting bunny rabbit before the evil Lord Chancellor destroys it.

It’s not Snugglebunnies. It’s a magical rabbit, because your readers will have a concept of what a rabbit is, and having a pet in danger puts Muff-Muff in the position of defender of the weak, fighting to save Snuggles from becoming a pile of meat on the dinner plate.

We want to make her stakes high.

And now we’re done, because I’ve used up my pun allowance for today.

Hammering it home with the Call to Action

You have to have a call to action. That is not negotiable.

I know that many writers feel strong unease at this point – the call to action is so… sales-y.

Non-negotiable.

For those of you who don’t know what a call to action is: it’s an active verb that tells your audience what you want them to do.

You’re surrounded by calls to action. The “push” or “pull” sign at the store door. The stop-sign at the crossroads. The “Look inside” button on Amazon. They’re all calls to action. And they’re different from the “Entrance” sign at the door, the speed limit sign, and categories list on Amazon.

One gives you a description of a function or limitation. The other tells you what to do.

Psychologically, being told what to do makes it easier to comply.

We like to let other people decide (even if that other person is a future or past version of ourselves – look up plane crashes caused by plan completion bias, known as “get-there-itis” in aviation circles, if you don’t believe me.) Not having to make a decision saves resources – mental energy – and our brain is a great believer in being lazy.

Making a decision is also socially dangerous. It might make someone yell at you, or call you a stupid wastrel for buying that twenty-eight furry erotic romance. Following orders is much easier (look up the Nuremberg trials for perfect examples of this – not the famous ones, but all those lesser officials.)

That’s why we want to have a call to action. It makes things easier for the reader.

And we do want to make things easier for our readers. Even Amazon wants to do that, why else would they have patented the one-click buy button? But I digress.

So, what’s an effective call to action?

“Buy it now!”

Or “Get it now!” if you feel that “buy” is too pushy. “Read it now!” works, too. Anything that tells the reader what you want them to do. Which is read your book, right?

If you still doubt me, consider this: what if your reader was your friend? You’ve just told them about a great book you’ve read. What do you do at the end? Ask whether they want to borrow it. Or give it to them. Or tell them to get it themselves because there’s a sale on Kobo and it’s just until midnight so hurry, hurry, hurry!

It’s a service we do. By calling attention to something we loved, that we believe our friends will like, and telling them about it, then encouraging them to get it. It helps them decide on a course of action that we believe will be beneficial to them.

Same thing with our readers.

The fact that calls to action increase engagement levels (read “number of books sold”) is pure bonus.

On a side note, you don’t have to put your call to action last. You can weave it into your comps. It takes a bit of practice, though, so you might want to write a simple “Get it now!” first, then go experimenting.

You can also have several calls to action in a blurb, as long as they each have a different form. But that’s beyond the scope of this introductory article. Google “call to action tutorial” and you’ll find plenty of resources.

Putting it all together

I learned to write in the newsroom. Print media, to be exact, which has a very high hookiness.

First, there’s the headline. Clickbait was the norm before clicks even existed. That’s because if your reader doesn’t get hooked by the headline, they won’t read the paper. Take a look at the so-called “yellow press” of the lat9th century. Those are some serious click-baity, hooky headlines.

(For their times, that is. Today, they’d be on the level of a governmental report, but that’s due to the culture and language use changes, mostly.)

After that, you’ve got the image caption. In fact, image captions that don’t work as hooks are pretty useless in print. Lot of people look at the image, read the caption, and then decide whether to read the article. (BTW, the “decision” is purely emotional – instinctive, if you want.)

And, of course, you’ve got the lead itself. It tells enough of the story to be a hook, but not enough to cause the reader to feel satisfied that they know what happens next.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a training ground for hook writing.

What does that mean for you?

It means that my way of writing blurbs comes from a particular way of training myself to write blurbs. There are other ways, both when it comes to learning how to blurb, and to the contents of the blurb itself.

For example, Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” (which I haven’t read), uses a blurb that first describes the contents of the book using adjectives:

Hyperkinetic and relentlessly inventive, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is Haruki Murakami’s deep dive into the very nature of consciousness.

Then it dives into the structure of the book itself:

Across two parallel narratives, Murakami draws…

Then it tags on a list of recognizable elements (recognizable for readers in the West, at least):

Murakami draws readers into a mind-bending universe in which Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters…

After which it drops back to the adjectives extolling the books virtues:

subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect. What emerges is a novel that is at once hilariously funny and a deeply serious meditation on the nature and uses of the mind.

No hook. No call to action. Barely any plot or character. Lots of diffuse praise by the blurb writer (blurbist?)

But is it a good blurb?

If I were to analyze, I’d say that it first wants to use Murakami’s name for name recognition, assuming that the reader had heard of him (likely) but maybe not read anything by him (possibly). It stresses the inventiveness and structure twice, and uses some quite disparate elements in the list, suggesting that the blurb writer wanted to highlight the different style and content that Murakami might have compared to your average Harlequin romance, to self-select the audience. Ending with more adjectives is a way to give assurance to the reader that this is a book worth reading. The cover also uses three testimonials (one on the front, and two prominently on the back) to increase this social proof (yes, you making a statement in your blurb is social proof, too.)

But is it a good blurb?

I don’t know. It doesn’t make me want to read the book, but then again, I’m not a fan of Murakami, and the short snippets I’ve read didn’t entice me at all, so likely I’m not the target audience.

But the structure of the blurb (extolling adjectives, structural composition, component list, more extolling adjectives) certainly is different from the way I suggest you write a blurb.

Different might mean better. Different might mean worse, or better for some, worse for others. Different might mean worse overall. I have no way to tell. I don’t possess the sales numbers for Hard-Boiled Wonderland, nor am I able to do A/B testing on its blurb (if you are, do so, and let me know, I’d be fascinated.)

All I can go on is my gut feeling.

Which is what I’d suggest you do, too.

Write your blurb, either using my method or some other. Show it to a slice of your audience (5-10 people or so) and ask them “did you read the entire blurb?”

Do not ask them if they’d buy the book. Remember, the goal of the blurb is to be a part of a seamless sales funnel. Ask them if they read the blurb, and if anything about it turned them off.

Ask them to point out all the parts that didn’t work. They’ll likely point out all the positive parts on their own. We’re created that way. But don’t let them get away with it. Press them. Ask them that you want to know one thing you could improve with the blurb.

Not because you want to improve this blurb, but because you want to learn how to write better blurbs. And the only way to do that, is to get feedback, positive and negative, and the negative feedback is a lot harder to obtain.

Especially when you need it the most.

A note on publisher blurbs

How many blurbs have you written that are great? None?

Don’t worry, you’re in good company. A lot of the books published by established publishers don’t have great blurbs.

That’s because blurb writing is a different skill from general marketing. Or maybe a subset of. Either way, you can be a great writer, or a great ad-copy writer, or a great marketer, and still write bad blurbs.

Does that mean you shouldn’t read blurbs for comparison?

No.

You need to read as many blurbs as you can, but use your gut. If a blurb feels boring to you, if it makes you want to skim or put it aside, chances are it’s not a great blurb. Doesn’t matter if its published by Penguin Hachette MacCollins. Just because you’ve got a famous logo on the spine doesn’t make the blurb automatically great.

At the same time, if you come across a form of blurb writing, or a form of hooks, or any other recurring element in blurbs that you don’t like, take note of it anyhow. It might be that this is something that’s coming, or something that’s effective with a particular segment of the audience.

Read. Study. Learn.

Don’t worship anything, just because it’s done by a great writer/editor/publisher/other. But don’t discount anything, either. Figure out what you can learn from it, then move on.

That’s how you become good.

Beginner mistakes

Now we’ve come to the part of this post where I point fingers, ridicule, and turn into a troll, shoving the authors I’ve helped through the mud.

No, not really. None of the blurbs I’m going to be using in the examples are real. I’ve created them using fake details to fill a pattern that I’ve seen again and again amongst the blurbs I’ve been asked to help out with.

Some of them are exaggerated. Most aren’t. Most of these range on a scale, and you can have tendencies toward them. Yes, even if you don’t think you’re doing a particular mistake, you should have someone you trust look it over, and tell you that you aren’t.

Feedback – never leave home without it.

Dis/claimer over, here are the problems:

The Synopsis

Sometimes, a bite can change a life…

When geeky teenager Peter Parker is bit by a radioactive spider, he gains superpowers. Now he can shoot sticky, super-strong webs from his wrists, and has an amazing trouble bump.

This, coupled with his uncle’s death at the hands of criminals while Peter is goofing off with his new powers, turns Peter into a crime fighter, causing him to quit his school’s academic decathlon team.

But when his best friend Ned discovers that Peter and the mysterious Spiderman are the same person, Peter…

I’m going to spare you the rest.

It’s not a blurb, it’s a synopsis. Remember the part about trying to squeeze your novel’s content int00 words? This is the result, an un-engaging retelling of the plot, with little going for it.

What do you do if you’ve written one?

Two options. Number one – throw it out and try again. If you’re a pantser like me, this might be your best bet, just note what you’re doing wrong, and tell yourself to do something else.

Or option two: figure out the salient details (in this case the geekyness which sets the character, the radioactive spider that sets the story in motion, and uncle Ben, which is the inciting incident for Peter’s Hero’s Journey), and write a formulaic blurb based on them.

Don’t worry about it being formulaic. Blurbs are like apples, you can always polish them, but you can’t polish the manure they grow out of.

The Mystery

A secretive orphan.

A beautiful princess.

A mysterious fate.

Aladdin isn’t one to care for politics, when his stomach is rumbling with hunger. But when a mysterious stranger approaches him, offering riches beyond his wildest dreams, Aladdin has to listen.

However, the stranger isn’t what he seems to be, and the riches are dangerous. Now Aladdin must figure out a way to escape before the stranger destroys the one thing Aladdin cares more about than life itself.

Aladdin is an exciting fantasy novel.

Get it now.

See the problem?

Often, the writers of blurbs like this have fallen for the advice to not give away too much in the blurb. Which is good advice, you don’t want to end up with a synopsis.

It’s also terrible advice when taken to extremes.

Your reader needs relevant, concrete details in order to relate to your story. The mystery blurb lacks those, replacing them with generalities and empty tropes. An empty trope is a trope that could have been replaced with something more specific, like “mysterious stranger” with “the shah’s vizier” in the above blurb. Often, empty tropes will have an adjective modifying them in order to make them more specific (it doesn’t work – the “mysterious” doesn’t tell us anything concrete about the mysterious stranger.)

When I help out with these kinds of blurbs, they become full of brackets (I use brackets to mark where something needs to go, but the specific information isn’t available in the blurb.)

Often, what’s needed isn’t even a particular name, but a specific trope. “Vizier” is just as much of a trope as “stranger,” but it gives a context – it’s not any kind of stranger, it’s a rich, powerful, politically connected stranger.

It might also be a question of missing tags. Tags are the particular descriptive shortcuts that get appended to a trope or character: a beautiful princess, a mysterious princess, a kick-ass warrior-princess.

Note that tags can be empty the same way tropes can: how is the princess “mysterious?”

So, what do you do if you’ve written a blurb like this?

Go through it, and replace every instance of an adjective-noun combo with something more specific. It’s not a “fantasy novel,” it’s a “modern retelling of the Arabian Nights.” It’s not “riches beyond his wildest dreams” (that’s cliché, BTW), it’s “enough gold to buy a palace with ten thousand chefs” (or donuts, echoing back to Aladdin’s hunger. Not that I’m craving a donut right now or anything.)

The mystery blurb is a failure to fill your blurb with relevant, specific details.

So make sure every concept you put in your blurb is working to establish the setting, the character, or set the reader emotions. Make it specific. Narrow it down. Just don’t be so narrow that your readers will need a dictionary to understand you.

The Brick

I didn’t want to get involved.But I crashed my ship on a remote mining world.It might have been a good place to hide. Then the Syndicate pirates came, their dirt mage blowing my wards, their troops invading my ship.Now I’ve lost the most valuable thing in the galaxy, and I want it back. It’s time to pick up my guns. In a galaxy where dragons are real, mages ward faster-than-light engines, and corruption is everywhere, a lone gunslinger must decide what is more important: freedom, or the life of a friend. The Warded Gunslinger is the first short novel in the Warded Gunslinger series. If you like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian, or Joss Whedon’s Firefly, you’ll love The Warded Gunslinger. Get it now.

Pretty darn bad, right? It’s big, it’s heavy, you can’t really get into it.

That’s because it lacks air. More importantly, it lacks entrances.

When I was doing my internship in a daily newspaper, way back in the time when nights were long, days were endless and I was young and hot (that last one might have been my imagination, though), a grizzled page-maker (that’s what they were called, and I’m translating from Swedish – another way to translate it would be “sitter”) took me aside and said:

“Son, you’ve got the gift of words, you prose shines, your metaphors can lift the spirits of a dead man – but your layout clobbers them with a brick.”

(OK, that might have been a bit of self-glorifying mis-quoting, but the brick part is true.)

Basically, every hole, every gap, every bold letter, emphasis, bullet list – anything that breaks with the standard form, anything that’s different – draws the eye. It gives the reader a chance to start reading.

No one starts reading in the middle of a paragraph. No one. If your blurb is a single paragraph, you give the reader exactly one entrance: the start, at the upper left corner.

Insert a line break, and you give them another entrance. Two chances to catch their eye instead of one.

And yes, this can be taken to the extreme. If every line is a single word, none of the lines stand out. You want to have a mix between short and long(-ish) paragraphs. Here’s how that blurb I used above really looks (it’s from my Space Magic Western “The Warded Gunslinger”, TBA):

I didn’t want to get involved.

But I crashed my ship on a remote mining world.

It might have been a good place to hide. Then the Syndicate pirates came, their dirt mage blowing my wards, their troops invading my ship.

Now I’ve lost the most valuable thing in the galaxy, and I want it back. It’s time to pick up my guns.

In a galaxy where dragons are real, mages ward faster-than-light engines, and corruption is everywhere, a lone gunslinger must decide what is more important: freedom, or the life of a friend.

The Warded Gunslinger is the first short novel in the Warded Gunslinger series. If you like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian, or Joss Whedon’s Firefly, you’ll love The Warded Gunslinger.

Get it now.

Seven entrances. And, depending on how how the styles are set at the vendor, I might insert double row breaks between the lines, to make them stand out even more.

Remember, don’t make a brick. Make a blurb.

Examples from the Wild

So, let’s take a look at some sample blurbs, and how I analyze them.

Note that these are my analyses. They may or may not be what the blurb writer intended. They may or may not work.

Always do your own work. If you disagree with me, so much the better – it means that you’ve figured out something that I haven’t.

Always try to be better than you teachers. That’s the way you learn.

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. From the mind of Chuck Wendig comes “a magnum opus . . . a story about survival that’s not just about you and me, but all of us, together” (Kirkus Reviews,starred review).

This part is bolded in the original blurb. It’s a four-item list, followed by name recognition (Wendig’s name is his brand) and social proof (the Kirkus quote), all packaged as a billboard.

(A billboard is a part of the text that is graphically highlighted to make it stand out as a separate entity. Think blog posts that have a line of text with a Twitter button next to it.)

The first four lines are pure hook, a listicle presenting intriguing tropes. Then comes a rather heavy quote, which I don’t like, but that’s needed for the next paragraph:

NOMINATED FOR THE BRAM STOKER AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • NPR • The Guardian • Kirkus Reviews • Publishers Weekly • Library Journal • Polygon

This is pure social proof: “look, mom, all those people in those prestigious newspapers loved it, and it’s got awards, too!” Is it good to have? Well, when you’re swinging such a heavy sledgehammer as Wendig’s blurbist is, yes, I’d say that it sells.

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For as the sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America, the real danger may not be the epidemic but the fear of it. With society collapsing all around them—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

This is the content part of the blurb. First paragraph is character and setting, a bit long for my tastes, and I’d like to have more entrances in it, but it works. I don’t know how much of the book it depicts, but knowing Wending, I imagine this is just he first pages/chapters.

The second paragraph sets the stakes on a national level. We’re already involved (hopefully) with Shana, so now the camera zooms out to show us the consequences for all of us, the civil war brewing, and the possibility of redemption.

It’s a bit on the mystery side of things, but there are some clear tropes (society collapsing, ultraviolent militia, epidemic, terror and violence in our midst) that speak to the apocalypse genre, so I’m going to give it a pass.

In development for TV by Glen Mazzara, executive producer of The Walking Dead • Look forthe sequel in 2022

This is interesting, because it uses namedropping (The Walking Dead) to hook Wendig’s book to a pop phenomenon. I’d say this works.

“This career-defining epic deserves its inevitable comparisons to Stephen King’s The Stand.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”—Harlan Coben,#1 New York Times bestselling author of Run Away

“A true tour de force.”—Erin Morgenstern, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Circus

“A masterpiece with prose as sharp and heartbreaking as Station Eleven.”—Peng Shepherd, author of The Book of M

“A magnum opus . . . It reminded me of Stephen King’s *The Stand—*but dare I say, this story is even better.”—James Rollins, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Crucible

“An inventive, fierce, uncompromising, stay-up-way-past-bedtime masterwork.”**—Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and The Cabin at the End of the World**

“An American epic for these times.”—Charles Soule, author of The Oracle Year

And a whole pile of social proof again.

Now, I know a bit about Wendig, because I follow his blog and writing advice (it’s good advice, and fun to read, but definitely NSFW), and he hasn’t written a lot of post-apocalyptic novels. This might even be his first.

Thus it makes sense to focus on the social proof – it’s taking an unknown writer and telling readers “no, this guy isn’t unknown, its just that you haven’t heard of him before.”

Does the blurb make me want to read the book?

Not quite. I’m interested in it from reading Wendig’s blog, where he does an excellent job of pushing it, but I’m not that hooked by the social proof, or the contents. There’s no ramping up of the stakes, and there’s no final stakes for the main character (Shana), and the final sentence of the contents hint that this might be an ensemble cast, but the blurb is written as for a solitary hero.

Overall, I’d say that this is a decent blurb, but it exhibits publisheritis. It’s written for a book cover, where the social proof (the true “blurbs”) can be used to highlight the title, tag line, and cover copy. Online, I’d rework it.

But yes, if you’ve got such an impressive recommendations list as Wendig, putting it right at the top makes sense.

Cadia Stands by Justin D Hill (a Warhammer 40K Novel)

This is an interesting case, because it follows a template set by the Black Library (the publishing arm of miniature gaming company Games Workshop) as transposed to Kobo.

Here’s the original blurb, as presented on the Black Library site:

Book 1 of the Cadian series

The storm has broken and the forces of Chaos batter against Cadia’s defences. Lord Castellan Creed leads the defence of the fortress world, but for how much longer can they hold out. Cadia stands… but will it stand forever?

This is short and sweet. You can view it as a one-sentence hook, followed by a one-sentence character-and-setting combo, and a one-sentence stakes and plot question.

Or you can view it as a whole-paragraph hook.

It could work either way. But the key point to recognize is that it’s talking to an existing fanbase. Anyone who visits the Black Library site will already know 40K, Cadia, Chaos, and likely Lord Castelland Creed. They might even know how the story turns out from the miniature game sourcebooks. It doesn’t matter – they love the world, they want to be immersed in it, and this promises them exactly that.

READ IT BECAUSE

Justin D Hill follows up his Ursarkar Creed short stories in Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum with the tale of the hero’s finest – and darkest – hour.

This is a standard thing on the Black Library, where they laud the writer, and give the book some of the writer’s cred. Once again, this talks to an established fan base.

Here’s the books blurb on Kobo:

Synopsis

Under almost constant besiegement by the hosts pouring from the Eye of Terror, Cadia acts as a bulwark against tyranny and death. Its fortresses and armies have held back the hordes of Chaos for centuries, but that grim defiance is about to reach its end. As Abaddon’s Thirteenth Black Crusade batters Cadia’s defences, and armies of the Imperium flock to reinforce this crucial world, a terrible ritual long n the making comes to fruition and the delicate balance of this brutal war shifts… From the darkness, a hero rises to lead the beleaguered defenders, Lord Castellan Ursarkar Creed, but even with the armoured might of the Astra Militarum and the strength of the Adeptus Astartes, will it be enough to avert disaster and prevent the fall of Cadia? While Creed lives, there is hope. While there is breath in the body of a single defender, Cadia stands… but for how much longer?

This is the Story description section of the Black Library site, verbatim, and I don’t like it.

First, it starts with the word “Synopsis,” which is a no-no in my book. You start with the hook, not a heading promising that this is going to be a boring read. Unfortunately, “Synopsis” is what Kobo calls the blurb, at least on the Swedish-in-English site. If you’re presented with a limitation like that, there’s not much you can do, other than make sure you have a short and very hard hook following it.

But here, there is no hook. The first sentence is indirect, the main object, Cadia, coming in the middle. On my screen, it ends up on the second line of the description.

The whole thing is a brick, and if you don’t already know the world, the stakes, and the characters, you’re lost. Tell me, ye who’ve never played Warhammer, who or what is Abaddon, and what is the Black Crusade?

I should say that as extra content on the Black Library site, this works wonderfully, because there, you’re selling to the choir. On Kobo, you’d have to expect that at least some people who encounter it will have no knowledge of what this is all about. And for them, it does nothing.

Read it because

Justin D Hill follows up his Ursakar Creed short stories in Legends of the Dark Millennium: Astra Militarum with the tale of the hero’s finest and darkest hour.

And the cred paragraph talks to the fen (that’s plural of “fan”).

Also, no call to action, no comps, no nothing. This isn’t a blurb of a publisher who wants to sell books through an independent platform.

Archangel Down by C. Gockel

I haven’t read Archangel Down. I don’t know who C. Gockel is. But I do love the blurb (which I found when blurb-hunting.)

In the year 2432, humans think they are alone in the universe. They’re wrong.

Setting hook, with a hard twist at the end. Might be a tad long, when skimming I wanted to jump from the year to the next sentence. But it’s enough to get me reading.

Commander Noa Sato plans a peaceful leave on her home planet Luddeccea … but winds up interrogated and imprisoned for her involvement in the Archangel Project. A project she knows nothing about.

Character presentation and situation, with another hard twist at the end, this one promising mystery rather than possible exploration. At this point, I’ve got enough concrete, relevant details to start forming an image of the world, and get a feeling for the type of book this is going to me.

The hook could have gone in many directions, from horror (think Alien – we’re not alone in space,) to discovery, to political thriller. The second paragraph settles it into military-with-a-strong-mystery-content in my mind.

Professor James Sinclair wakes in the snow, not remembering the past twenty four hours, or knowing why he is being pursued. The only thing he knows is that he has to find Commander Sato, a woman he’s never met.

Presenting a second character, with equal amount of space and description. This tells me that this is a two-POV novel, likely following a romance structure (bouncing back and forth between two characters, with cliffhangers at the end of every chapter.) Note that you don’t have to write romance to follow a romance structure – it’s applicable to almost every genre!

A military officer from the colonies and a civilian from Old Earth, they couldn’t have less in common. But they have to work together to save the lives of millions—and their own.

Restating the characters, and reiterating their problems, as well as upping the stakes (there haven’t been anything about millions dying before.)

Every step of the way they are haunted by the final words of a secret transmission:

The archangel is down.

And another hard mystery hook at the end.

You’ll note that there isn’t any call to action or any comps, which I would have added. While the genre and sub-genre is fairly clear to me from the contents of the presentation, I don’t get any social proof from comparing it to books I know and love. That would have hammered the blurb home for me.

I should note that this was surrounded by bestsellers by famous authors in the Kobo SF list, and likely for a good reason, if the blurb is anything to go by.

Battle Royal by Lucy Parker

“Lucy Parker writes deliciously fun enemies-to-lovers perfection!” — Tessa Bailey, New York Times bestselling author**

Beloved author Lucy Parker pens a delicious new romantic comedy that is a battle of whisks and wits.

This is a blurb that suffers from publisheritis, but only to a small degree. The social proof and blurb (that’s the true meaning of blurb – a short quote by a famous person) above, and description of the author and tag line should come at the end – unless Tessa Bailey is way, way, more famous than Lucy Parker. (I don’t know, haven’t read her books.)

I’d replace this with a hook, maybe using the witty “battle of whisks and wits” line.

The rest of the blurb is brilliant, and follows a romance structure to a T.

Ready…

Four years ago, Sylvie Fairchild charmed the world as a contestant on the hit baking show, Operation Cake. Her ingenious, creations captivated viewers and intrigued all but one of the judges, Dominic De Vere. When Sylvie’s unicorn cake went spectacularly sideways, Dominic was quick to vote her off the show. Since then, Sylvie has used her fame to fulfill her dream of opening a bakery. The toast of Instagram, Sugar Fair has captured the attention of the Operation Cake producers…and a princess.

Presentation of character and conflict disguised as backstory.

When you do it this way, setting up the conflict through a summary of previous interaction, you have to follow it up with the antagonist or the resolution, which the blurbist does:

Set…

Dominic is His Majesty the King’s favorite baker and a veritable British institution. He’s brilliant, talented, hard-working. And an icy, starchy grouch. Learning that Sylvie will be joining him on the Operation Cake judging panel is enough to make the famously dour baker even more grim. Her fantastical baking is only slightly more troublesome than the fact that he can’t stop thinking about her pink-streaked hair and irrepressible dimple.

Here’s the contrast between the romance leads, free-spirited (that’s the way I read it) and inventive Sylvie and formal yet successful Dominic. Both MCs are now introduced, as well as Dominic’s passion for Sylvie. Note that we don’t know how Sylvie feels about Dominic, but we can suspect that she isn’t very happy about getting voted off the show – just backstory, but oh, so much conflict!

Match…

When Dominic and Sylvie learn they will be fighting for the once in a lifetime opportunity to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding of Princess Rose, the flour begins to fly as they fight to come out on top.

The bride adores Sylvie’s quirky style. The palace wants Dominic’s classic perfection.

In this royal battle, can there be room for two?

And the stakes, followed by a paragraph of conflict (the preferences of bride and palace) and the plot question.

It’s a classic structure, and it works. It’s also written in a way that highlights the quirky cover and, likely, the quirky tone of the novel. Whomever wrote this blurb is a genius blurbist!

Now, there’s no comps and no call to action, which is common in publisher blurbs (this novel was published by Avon). I’d add them, and add the social proof after them.

Shattered Palms by Toby Neal

Paradise is fighting a battle of extinction.

And someone is hunting the hunters.

The hook is bolded in the original blurb, and the second line is italicized, too.

There are several power words here (paradise, battle of extinction, hunters), which carry the hook forward, but to me it lacks enough details. However, I’m not all that familiar with the genre (police procedurals), so I might have missed clues obvious to avid readers.

Also, this is the sixth book in the series, and the fans will likely already know who it’s about and the setting, so those wouldn’t need to be repeated for them.

A poacher’s death in the cloud forest on Maui draws Detective Lei Texeira into a bizarre case in a rare setting highlighting the peril of Hawaii’s native birds.

They deserve to die for what they’ve done.

A killer with a conscience will stop at nothing to save the lives of birds on the brink of extinction.

This is short, and intriguing, but once again, I feel that I’m failing to grasp what’s going on – I don’t have enough relevant details to follow the plot problem, and the “deserve to die” paragraph doesn’t tell me who deserves to die – poachers? The birds? Someone else?

Lei pursues the case with her usual leap-first, look-later style, but can she catch a killer and still make it to her own wedding?

Character presentation, that works for both fans (recognition) and new readers (descriptive tags), but the wedding comes out of left field. Yes, it adds a bit of color, but at the same time it leaves me wondering what’s going on, and why the wedding’s important for catching the killer. Right now, it feels like an inserted time bomb.

“Toby Neal creates a captivating balance between the beauty of the islands contrasted with the ugliness of murder, and complicated by the trials of Detective Lei’s personal life. A must-read!” Thomas K. Matthews, author of Rejection

Social proof, at the end.

Grab this fast paced mystery with a twist of romance, and take a trip to Hawaii with the series that’s sold more than a million copies!

And a call to action, woven together with more social proof so it hits home while still being subtle.

So how do you write the !”#¤”#!!! thing?!?

So now we’ve come to the end of this, frankly, way too long post, and you’ve got a blurb to write.

How?

I’m assuming you already know what your book is about. If you don’t, well, you’ll need some other kind of help than what I can provide. But you’ve got all the data. All you need now is to translate it into words on paper.

Gee, if there only were a kind of person that did that for a living/hobby/ego/other. Oh, wait, we’re all writers.

And we’ve all got our systems for writing.

You know how your brain works. You know how you wrote your book, and what works best for you. Writing a blurb is just applying the systems (and do note that I say systems, not skills) you use to write your books to writing a blurb.

If you’re a analytical type, who outlines your books, then sticks to that outline, start out by creating an outline. You know what needs to go into it, the hook, presentation, and call to action. All you need to do is choose which templates you like, and fill them up.

On the other hand, if you’re a pantser-slash-discovery-writer like me, sit down and write ten blurbs for the same novel.

Why ten? Because it will give you practice, and because, unless you already have that practice, your first blurbs will be horrible. Or possibly amazing, and create a completely new standard for writing blurbs – that is possible so don’t throw them away just because they feel uncomfortable. Feedback is king!

Also, when you start writing your blurbs, the first four or five will be very similar to each other. Your brain is locked into a certain pattern of thinking about your book, and you’ll be regurgitating that pattern. So your job is to write ten different blurbs.

How different?

Completely. Different hooks, different contents, different calls to action. You can’t do much about the comps, but try to come up with more than you need, and switch them around in your test blurbs. Then test them. Show them to people. Or, if you’re really courageous, upload them to your vendors and see what happens. A/B test them live. You might be surprised by the results.

Good luck! Now go blurb 🙂

Still need help?

If you still feel that you want a bit of help, I do blurbs for other authors. Check out the details and contact me about it, or look in the Wide for the Win Facebook group, where I post about it on a semi-regular basis.

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