Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ch 4.3 Blurbs That Grab You

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)

Ch 4.3 Blurbs That Grab You

I have great respect for my readers’ time. They have busy lives, and if I want them to spend hours and hours reading my novel, I need to show them, up front, that it will be worth their time. A great (professionally designed) cover is required to visually draw people in, but readers are literate creatures—they want words that beguile and speak to them, and it is your words that will hook them.

Make A Tag Line. Seriously.
I’m a big fan of tag lines, those pithy nuggets of story that light up the curiosity centers of your readers’ brains. If you blanch at the idea of distilling your novel into a paragraph-long blurb, try writing 12 words or less that describe it. No, seriously, try. Even if you do not use the tag line in your marketing (but you will), the exercise will encapsulate the key reason to read your novel. Your tag line should work alone, as well as coordinate with your title. It will take time to craft, but it will be worth it in the end. I’ll use one of mine as an example to deconstruct how/why it works:

When everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.

From just 12 words, the reader knows the novel is science fiction/paranormal (“everyone reads minds”), there’s tension between the (unnamed) character (with a secret) and the world (where everyone reads minds), it’s specifically intriguing (a telepathic world— how does that work?), and it’s high stakes (“dangerous”). So I’ve communicated genre and conflict with a specific twist. It coordinates well with the title (“Open Minds, Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy”) to provide even more specificity to intrigue the reader (How are the minds open? What is mindjacking?).

A tagline is like your premise: it's a promise to the reader. Like a good premise, it will spring up all kinds of questions that the reader is eager to have answered (and that you better deliver in the book). Even more importantly, you’ve whispered into your reader’s ear, I can intrigue you in just twelve words—imagine what I can do with more.

How can they resist?

A Blurb That Grabs The Reader
I'm a fan of short, succinct blurbs (95-130 words max). If you've ever queried, it's about the length that your book description should be within a blurb - because the idea is the same. You're pitching this story to someone with enough information to compel them to read on.

This should not surprise you: writing a blurb is like writing a story.

The difference is the blurb doesn't give away the ending. 

In a way, it's the flash fiction version of your book. You have to introduce the character, set up the stakes, say what inciting incident has upset their carefully ordered world, maybe add a complication or two, then leave us with a choice the character has to make, something that isn't an easy choice. In fact, the choice is so horrifically difficult we have no idea how the character could possibly make that choice (and survive it). We have to read the book to find out, because we just gotta know.

That's grabbing the reader.

Example - Open Minds (Mindjack #1)
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can't read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can't be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf's mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she's dragged deep into a hidden underworld of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.

Sentence by sentence, this is what the blurb does:
1) Identified the character and her basic conflict with the world
2) Given a secondary conflict, also a subplot (the love story).
3) Gives the inciting incident that upsets her world, and sets up a third conflict.
4) Gives yet another conflict, and then the choice (my choice in this example is somewhat implied: she can either try to hide her ability or mind control the people she loves).

Why It Works
Lots of conflict; all the story basics are there; we have tons of specificity to intrigue the reader; the final choice is compelling and sympathetic. In fact, one of the many taglines I use in promoting Open Minds is taken straight from the blurb: What would you do if you had to mind control everyone you loved?

(I have people actually answer this question, which makes for its own entertainment!)

Be Specific
One of the most common mistakes I see writers make in their blurbs is not being specific. They make sweeping statements like, "It's a tale of love lost and won, hearts broken and mended." The problem with generalized statements like this is it doesn't say why this particular story is one I want to pick up - basically, the author is telling me it's awesome, rather than showing me (via specific power words). Also, it tells me the ending (hearts are mended!). If instead they said, "It's a tale of a mermaid in love with a human," I'm instantly much more intrigued. I can immediately see the broken heart, and it's not at all clear that it will mend, or how.

Don't be afraid of "giving too much away" in your blurb (with the exception of don't give away the ending). There's a whole lot of information in my blurb for Open Minds - in theory, you could skip the first half of the book after reading the blurb. But people forget the blurb specifics by the time they actually pick up the book to read it - all they remember is that it intrigued them.

Make Your Choice Compelling
Lack of a compelling choice is another common thing that weakens blurbs. Or sometimes the choice makes the ending obvious: "She has to choose between letting go of her past and embracing her future." Unless you're writing a tragedy, of course she's going to let go of her past. Otherwise, there would be no story. This goes back to specificity - show exactly the choice and why it will be hard. Make us wonder how she'll survive it.

You may have to search for the right choice to use in the blurb – I find it’s usually either the essential conflict of the character or the climax choice. Occasionally it may be one of the earlier choices the character has to make- say, at the break into Act II or Act III of your story.

It Might Be Your Story
If you can’t identify a strong choice your character has to make, it may be a problem with your story, not your blurb-writing skills. Readers make this judgment, too: if the blurb is weak, they suspect the story will be as well. In fact, writing the blurb early on can help you strengthen your story – or help you decide that maybe it needs a few more revisions before it’s ready to release into the wild.

Guidelines, Not Rules
Of course, blurbs don’t have to follow these “rules” – but the ones that do generally work better than the ones that don’t. Like any “rule” in writing, if you master it first, then you’ll know when you can break it. Just like queries, blurbs have only one job: hook the reader. If you accomplish that, it doesn't matter if you've followed any rules or guidelines.

Between a great cover, a catchy tag line, and a tightly scripted blurb, you’ve hooked your reader. Next, we'll talk about the Hook, Line, and Sinker of selling your story.

(This is an excerpt from my Indie Author Survival Guide, available on Kindle and Nook.)


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers