Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Art of the Blurb

Or Why I Shouldn’t Try to Get a Job on Madison Ave.

You write a novel, and before you can publish it, you have to produce a blurb to go on the back. Seems simple enough, but for whatever reason, this is not my strength. I can dash off 450 pages without blinking an eye, but reduce those pages to three paragraphs? Ack. Shoot me now.

I didn’t realize my limitations at first. I felt quite proud of myself, in fact, having compressed the essentials of my soon-to-be-released Russian novel to a few telling paragraphs. I won’t burden you with the original version: it’s not important to the post. At the time, I was working on my cover (a story for next week’s post). When I thought it close to ready, I showed it to my friend Diana Holquist, who has not only published six novels and one nonfiction book of her own but used to work in advertising. She looked it over and said, “There’s too much information.”

Too much information? I’d left out 441.5 of the 442 pages. How could there be too much information?

Fortunately, Diana also included a couple of samples. And with a few tweaks from me, one of those samples gave rise to the following description, which will go to press in early September as the back cover of The Golden Lynx:


Russia, 1534. Elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will become their first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Amid the chaos and upheaval, a masked man mysteriously appears night after night to aid the desperate people.

Or is he a man?

Sixteen-year-old Nasan Kolychev is trapped in a loveless marriage. To escape her misery, she dons boys’ clothes and slips away under cover of night to help those in need. She never intends to do more than assist a few souls and give her life purpose. But before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

And so, a girl who has become the greatest hero of her time must decide whether to save a baby destined to become the greatest villain of his.

You’d think I’d learned my lesson. But if I had, I wouldn’t need to write this post. I could just send Diana a thank you card and move on. The Golden Lynx became just Act I of the story.

In Act II, my spouse—since I sometimes use the screen name Marguerite, we’ll call him Percy—decides to help me sell my first book, The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel. He’s very good at talking up my stuff, much better than I am, so I happily turn over my back cover copy and a list of reviews and links and let him go at it.

After a while, he wanders by and says, “Your reviews make the book sound interesting. I’d even like to read it.” A real concession, that, since historical romance is not his thing. I’m feeling good.

Then he hits me with the follow-up. “But the blurb—there’s too much information. If I picked that up in an airport bookstore, I’d have to drop it and run for the plane before I decided whether to plunk down my cash.”

Gulp. We’ve been married a long time, so even though my tongue tingles with the desire to say something rude, I don't, because I suspect he’s right. Besides, it’s not like I’ve never heard this feedback before. I pull out a shorter version I’ve written for the library reading I’m giving in a month and show him that. Problem solved. Right?

“Nope,” he says. “Still too much information.” He makes some suggestions for improvement.

By now, I’m feeling more than a little cranky. I think evil thoughts about who in this family writes fiction and who doesn’t. About where I got the idea of writing the blurb that way in the first place. About how other people liked it.

But I don’t speak them. The point of writing is to connect with readers, not to shove my fingers in my ears and guard my right to be obscure. Suppose the other people weren’t telling the truth, because they didn’t want to deal with me being cranky? Plus Percy was the one who came up with that line about the “greatest hero has to save the greatest villain” line for Lynx. Maybe I should trust his instincts.

I grit my teeth, go back to my computer, take his suggestions seriously, and try again. And again, and a few more times. By the time I finish draft six, Percy is hiding in his office, wishing I would go away and not ask him for any more opinions. He looks like he’s remembering that poison research I did a few weeks back and wondering if it’s safe to eat dinner.

After many trials, and much input from the spouse, I came up with this new version. Does it make you want to read the book? (Hint: You may not want to tell me it has too much information.)

Have you ever wanted to rewrite your favorite novel—fix the heroine’s mistakes, win the hero’s heart?
Nina Pennington does. It makes her day when she lands the plum role as the heroine of The Scarlet Pimpernel in a class assignment based on a computer game. She knows she can win—until she realizes her one chance for success requires an alliance with her least-favorite fellow grad student, cast as the Scarlet Pimpernel himself.
The game challenges Nina in ways she never anticipated, and that least-favorite fellow grad student starts looking better by the minute. But then, she has always had a soft spot for the swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel.

Now Nina has to choose: win the game, or take a chance on love?

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