Friday, July 22, 2011

Writing the Back-Cover Blurb

by Lucy Marsden

Inspired by Cali’s recent post on queries, I thought it might be fun to talk about that most helpful of pre-query writing exercises: the Back-Cover Blurb.

Anyone who’s ever read the back cover of a novel knows that the blurb is the essence of the book: a 100-word (or so) distillation of the characters, tone, and conflict of the story that should, if it’s effective, entice a prospective reader into plunking down hard, cold cash in order to learn more.

Thinking about it, this is not so different from the desired outcome of a query letter, right? Certainly, it’s in keeping with the constraints of a query letter, where we’ve got two paragraphs to showcase our hook and Act I of our story. Blurbing, because it forces us to articulate the essence of our stories, also hones our our ability to share that core in a concise and compelling fashion. Blurbing demands that we have a handle on the story that we are telling, so in addition to providing us a tool with which to “sell” our story, it illuminates the elements of our story that are fuzzy, or worse, outright missing. Some folks may even use a blurb as part of their pre-writing process, to determine whether they know their story well enough to begin writing, or as part of their revision process, to double-check important story elements. Bottom line, blurbing has a lot of potential applications for writers.

So how do we do it? How do we highlight and hone the elements of our story so that we can make those high notes sing in 100 words or less? One approach, which I’ve personally test-driven with my critique partner, is to use the 10-point “Art of The Blurb” brainstorming process developed by former romance novelist Suzanne McMinn. Although Suzanne has literally moved on to greener pastures, she has graciously granted me permission to reproduce those blurbing points here. Any gaffs in the elaboration of this content are entirely mine, so remember that Your Mileage May Vary, and feel free to ignore or challenge anything that doesn’t make sense for YOUR story. Here we go:


These are what they sound like--story elements that immediately grab a reader’s attention. It’s great if you’ve got something unique, but a fresh twist on a beloved trope can work too. Seeking Persephone by Sarah Eden, for example, is a Regency romance that’s mixes a Marriage of Convenience plot with a Beauty and the Beast story.

List both the external conflicts (zombie attacks, rogue asteroids, disapproving mothers-in-law) and the internal conflicts (survivor’s guilt, fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy).

Think in terms of the emotional state of your main characters (vengeful, determined, grieving), and the emotional tone of your book (a wild ride, a joyous romp, a gritty faery-tale).

Something is at risk for your characters--emotionally, physically, socially, or whatever. Something important to them is endangered. This is the place to define what’s at stake for your MC if they don’t achieve their story goal, OR what is being put at risk because they are pursuing their story goal.

Deb Dixon, in her fabulous book Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, gives some great tips on nailing the short-hand essence of your character. Although the descriptive phrase may use your character’s actual occupation, it’s more helpful to think in terms of their emotional “vibe” in the story. Examples Dixon uses are Princess Leia as a “royal rebel,” and Han Solo as a “cocky smuggler.” Throw out lots of descriptive phrases for your characters until you feel you’ve got a combination that sums them up perfectly. The punchier and more immediately evocative, the better.

Define the geographic location (real or imaginary), but also the emotional tone of the setting: lush jungle, bleak moor, treacherous Fey court, sparkling Regency society.

What concrete object or achievement are your characters pursuing in this story? What are they fighting for? Defining the characters’ story goals is a KEY aspect of creating a sense of the story stakes, which in turn, deepens the reader’s emotional investment. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example, Indiana Jones MUST get the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do.

Why MUST your character achieve their story goal? And don’t just define the concrete consequence of failure or success. Define for yourself what it will MEAN to your character to fail or succeed. In the movie Dodgeball, Peter LaFleur cares about his underdog clients; it matters to him that Average Joe’s is a place where they can feel accepted as their own goofy selves. Losing the gym means letting them down. Worse, Peter is someone who has built his life so that he will never have to deal with disappointment or failure. Losing to White Goodman of Globo Gym would mean trying and failing in a very public fashion.

Who (preferably) or what is blocking your main character from achieving their story goal? This is another way of looking at internal and external conflict, with an opportunity to focus closely on your major Antagonist.

Yes, I know, rhetorical questions are verboten in a query. Nevertheless, it’s important for you to be able to articulate (if only for yourself) your central story question. This is the question that summarizes the central element of tension or suspense in your story, the question that, once it has been answered “Yes” or “No” ends your story. And because you don’t HAVE to frame it as a question, you can use it in your query once you’ve articulated it for yourself. An example of a story question would be, “Will Indiana Jones save the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis?”

OK. These 10 points are a lot to think about, I know, so I’m going to return on August 10th to talk about how to assemble these elements into a blurb. In the meantime, please weigh in with questions or comments, because blurbing is always more fun with group participation. Enjoy!


Jemi Fraser said...

Those are terrific! It's a lot to get into 100 words - looking forward to part 2 to see your suggestions of just how to do that! :)

Kay Theodoratus said...

Am thinking these point relate to more than writing blurbs? Can't wait to share them. I'll be linking to this post ... unless you object.

Luce said...


Jemi: Thank you! And 100 words is a challenge, all right, but nailing the essence of your story makes all the head-banging worthwhile. I'll do my best to bring it home in Part Deux...

Kay: You're absolutely right. These points are KEY story elements, and articulating them is helpful for much more than back-cover copy. I'm so grateful that Suzanne McMInn gave me permission to share. Please--link-away!

Leslie Rose said...

Love this road map. I'm off to make an excel template with these points. Thank you.

Luce said...


Come back and share the results with us on 8/10--I'd love your take on the process. Good luck!

Mac said...

Great post. Makes me eager to finish my WIP so I can put this to use. ;O)

Ruth said...

Lucy you rock! I am forever grateful for all the times you've explained blurbing to me. Great post!