A Marketing Handbook for Writers: Part Fourteen - More About Blurbs
To sell your books, you need to make maximum use of the idea of incompleteness.
Firstly, you need to reduce your story or novel down to one sentence.
Try to craft a sentence which contains a contrast between a settled, ordered state and a messy, disordered alternative. You need to begin with familiarity and then swiftly introduce obstacles or threats to that familiarity.
A very basic one sentence pitch is:
‘When a big threat of incompleteness happens to a particular character, they have to overcome that obstacle to restore completeness.’
You are after a one sentence description of the plot - not the idea behind your novel. Your theme might be ‘the wrongness of racism’; your plot is 'what racist thing happens to an individual character that he or she has to deal with to achieve an end to racism'.
Try to add an element of flavour by introducing a couple of key details that give a sense of the character of your novel.
Here are some initial examples from famous books and films:
‘A working class young man and a well-to-do young woman are lovers separated by the sinking of the Titanic.’
‘Young farm boy Luke Skywalker gets caught up in the galactic rebellion and must decide between the Light and Dark sides of the universal Force.’
‘Atticus Finch decides to take on the hopeless case of defending a black man in the racist 1930s South, little knowing the danger into which that decision will throw his precious children.’
‘Frodo Baggins, hobbit from the Shire, chooses to take on the futile quest to destroy the all-powerful One Ring.’
Already, in the examples above, you can see the shadow of the Zeigarnik Effect: in all of them, there is the suggestion of incompleteness - love and unity, safety and security, are all under threat of never being completed.
A vacuum lies at their heart.
Devise something similar for your book.
Use the same principles when writing a headline for your book, any ad copy, in the metadata for your web pages, in any place you can think of.
You’ll be amazed at the power of this one principle.
Now expand this into the ‘blurb’ on the back of the book.
Most literary agents recommend that writers work on their ‘back of the book’ pitch – the blurb, the couple of hundred words that really crystallises what the book is about.
How do you put a good blurb together using incompleteness?
Remember from earlier, you have a group of ‘warm prospects’. They are familiar with the kind of categories of story into which yours might fit. You can best capture more of their attention by associating your story with other stories with which they are already comfortable, and then showing the gap or incompleteness that sucks in attention.
Try the following two steps to begin with:
1. Have a really good sense of your book’s genre. Where will your book sit on the shelves? Is it science fiction? Fantasy? Romance? Literary? Young Adult? Who are some authors with whom you would compare yourself?
2. Is it possible to view your story as the combination of two or more well-known stories or authors? Unforgiven meets Star Wars? Harry Potter meets Twilight? Enid Blyton meets Bram Stoker? It might not be possible to reduce your story down to simple ‘ingredients’ in those way, but looking at it like this will help you to isolate your genre and give your blurb a foundation.
This establishes a background ‘completeness’, a set of known parameters that make up a genre for your warm prospect.
A blurb is an ‘elevator pitch’, a concise ‘sales pitch’ that you can place in front of a prospect. But you only have a few seconds when your warm prospect glances at your blurb. In those few seconds, you have to hit them with maximum ‘vacuum power’, maximum concentrated incompleteness, against that familiar genre background.
Similarity and difference; fulfilment and vacuums; completeness and incompleteness.
All in about two hundred words.
That means that you must know your market. You must read a lot of contemporary fiction in your genre and sub-genre to be able to construct a blurb well.
If you don’t do that, you won’t know the market, which means you will almost certainly misunderstand what your warm prospects are looking for, what they feel comfortable with.
Look in bookstores – and look especially for recent successful debuts in your genre.
Your novel has to sell itself on its idea, its central concept. But its central concept, just to be clear, has to be an incompleteness. It’s that ‘hole’ which produces what the business calls the ‘hook’. Without a strong hook you’ll never get reader attention.
Look at these examples:
High-school student Bella Swan, always a bit of a misfit, doesn't expect life to change much when she moves from sunny Arizona to rainy Washington state. Then she meets Edward Cullen, a handsome but mysterious teen whose eyes seem to peer directly into her soul. Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.
The first couple of sentences establish this story as part of a romance genre: outcast girl meets strangely attractive boy. That’s the template for most romantic fiction. Then comes the hook, the thing that makes this book different, the gap or sense of danger or incompleteness which sucks in reader attention: ‘Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.’
A vampire who doesn’t drink blood?
Bella is ‘far from frightened’?
A dangerous romance?
Warm prospect becomes hot prospect. The Twilight series went on to sell over 120 million copies.
Here’s the blurb for the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:
Harry Potter is an ordinary boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs at his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's house, which he thinks is normal for someone like him who's parents have been killed in a 'car crash'. He is bullied by them and his fat, spoilt cousin Dudley, and lives a very unremarkable life with only the odd hiccup (like his hair growing back overnight!) to cause him much to think about. That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose! He is literally rescued by a world where nothing is as it seems and magic lessons are the order of the day.
‘Ordinariness’, the mention of Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon and the loss of Harry’s parents set this up to be a children’s story featuring a poor orphan, like many other children’s stories. Harry is bullied, but lives an ‘unremarkable’ life. The hook is the appearance of an owl with a letter addressed to Harry, after which all that carefully established ordinariness breaks down.
This first of the Harry Potter series also sold over 120 million copies. That’s a lot of warm prospects becoming hot.
One of the best-selling books of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Published in 1859, it is estimated to have sold more than 200 million copies worldwide.
Here is a blurb for it:
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
The first sentence seems to suggest a completeness: the ageing Doctor looks as though he is to be reunited with his daughter after a long ordeal. The introduction of Darnay and Carton as ‘very different men’, vying for the love of Lucie, opens up a vacuum. But the hook really comes when the men are drawn from the ‘tranquil roads of London’ against their will to the ‘vengeful. bloodstained streets of Paris’. Then the shadow of the guillotine threatens the greatest incompleteness of all.
It’s almost impossible to find a published book which has a bad blurb, because publishers know the importance of a powerful pitch in those few words on the back cover of a book. The blurb has to have an almost instant, grabbing, easily communicated incompleteness or it will fail.
Common mistakes made by writers composing a blurb include trying to summarise the story within.
That is not the function of a blurb.
It’s easy to think that it is, but it isn’t.
Dismiss and abandon the idea that the words on the back of the book are a guide to what happens in the story: they are not.
They are an attention-grabbing device to compel the warm prospect into reading further.
A blurb needs to say what is most exciting about the novel in the shortest possible space. You are looking to deliver a reason to read. A good blurb will imply what the ending of the story will be by stating almost the opposite.
i) Edward is a vampire whose family does not drink blood, and Bella, far from being frightened, enters into a dangerous romance with her immortal soulmate.
ii) That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose!
ii) From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
The romance in Twilight suggests a perilous relationship, even while readers of such books know that the couple will probably end up together; ‘all hell breaks loose’ in Harry Potter as a prelude, readers suspect, to everything being put right at the end; the shadow of the guillotine is a serious threat, but readers will be sure to feel that, in the end, good will triumph.
Incompleteness will lead to completeness; vacuums will be filled; fulfilment will occur.
But the product in the meantime has been to suggest maximum incompleteness in order to grab attention.
These rules about blurbs apply no matter what your genre. Even literary fiction has the same principles at work behind the scenes. look at this blurb for Jane Austen’s Emma, the book which students sometimes complain about because ‘nothing happens’:
Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected.
The first two sentences - apart from the ‘and single’ interjection - suggest wholesome completeness; the third suggests that everything will ‘unravel’ and lead to unexpected consequences.
Look at all the blurbs given above. Do any of them describe the plot? Do any of them attempt to summarise ‘what happens’? There is a suggestion of a descent into danger and emptiness in all of them. The greater that slope leading down, the more powerful the blurb. And that means the more power compelling your warm prospect to become a hot prospect and then a reader.
Here are some guidelines to help in constructing a powerful blurb:
1. Keep to a maximum of 70 words.
2. Pick out the central incompleteness of your book. This is the hook, also known as the angle, or the premise – the single most incomplete aspect.
3. Look it over. Does it sound weak or strong? Experiment with different wordings. See if you can add a little more vacuum power, something new, something suggestive of a total unravelling.
One sentence pitches and blurbs are statements of the core of your story.
A blurb is the heart of your book, whittled down to a few words.