Tips for Writing Back Cover Copy — Guest: Roz Morris

by Jami Gold on April 26, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Picture of Roz Morris

I’m excited to share today’s guest post by author Roz Morris.  After ghostwriting many bestselling books, Roz recently self-published My Memories of a Future Life, her first novel under her own name.

Roz’s decision to self-publish came about partly because this novel doesn’t fit into normal genre boxes.  However, even as a self-published author, she still had to write the back cover copy.

That’s right.  Whether we query agents for traditional publishing or self-publish, we have to know how to summarize our book. I’ve mentioned many times that I suck at queries and pitching and all things related to this “boiling down the essence” process, so I asked Roz to walk us through her tips for how to write back cover copy for even the trickiest books.

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How to Write Back Cover Copy—No Matter How Difficult Our Book Is to Describe

Back cover copy. A brace of paragraphs—sometimes called the blurb—to woo potential readers. If you’re being published traditionally, you can kick back and be grateful you don’t have to write it. But if you’re self-publishing, welcome to a world of woe.

Some writers have the knack of summarizing their own work. Most of us don’t, though, and are further paralyzed because they’ve spent months eye to eye with every syllable. The ethersphere regularly resounds to the cries of blurbing tweeps and bloggers, chirping, where do I start? What do I leave out?

Tips for Writing Back Cover Copy for Genre Books

I had a right old nightmare writing mine, so here are my tips for getting it done.

1.  Immerse yourself in other blurbs

Blurbs have their own language. Go on Amazon, Goodreads or your preferred emporium. Collect blurbs for novels that are like yours and soak up the way they sum up a novel in a brief sweep. Usually they mention the main character, what they want and what’s stopping them. Scroll down to reader reviews too, because sometimes these summarize as well, giving you another run at the same story.

2.  Hit your genre’s marks

Genres are about reader expectations. Your blurb must reassure the reader the book has the tropes they like—so notice how these are deployed in the blurbs you read. For steampunk, historical, fantasy, the setting is part of the sizzle. For action thrillers it might be the gritty ex-forces hero. For crime procedural it’s the puzzle.

3.  Use feedback from your editor and beta readers

You’ve probably been working with an editor. They won’t usually write your blurb, but their reports and emails are a useful outsider’s view of your book. Same with beta readers. Check back over correspondence to see if something they’ve said should go into your blurb. In particular, look at what makes your book fit in with the genre—and how it stands out.

Once you’re thinking in blurb language, have a stab at your own. You’ll probably need several goes, so after each draft read another batch of back covers like yours and refine. Bounce them off your beta readers if they’re willing.

Just because the blurb is short doesn’t mean it’s easy to write. It may well take a bit of to and fro—and anguished tweeting—to keep yourself sane. That paragraph has got a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The Difficulties of Summarizing Non-Genre Books

BUT… what if you’ve got a non-genre or difficult novel?

If genre is about expectations, in non-genre, anything goes. This causes you problems all over the place, from writing the book to selling it. And of course when writing cover copy.

I got myself in exquisite knots trying to blurb My Memories of a Future Life. It’s a hybrid of literary fiction with a splash of magic realism. Maybe. The other day someone argued for why it was contemporary women’s fiction. Whatever— writing it was tricky enough; blurbing it was murder.

Attempt to Write Back Cover Copy: Part One

Guided by sample blurbs, my first approach was to start with the opening events.

“Carol is a musician who may lose her career because of an injury. Her flatmate is miraculously cured of panic attacks when he is regressed to Victorian England and finds he was killed by Jack the Ripper. Carol gets drawn into a hypnotic journey to another life of her own.” etc etc  When I read it to friends, they looked like they’d sat on live electrodes. Result!

Unfortunately, they made the wrong connection. These events are important, but Jack the Ripper is a minor appearance and there’s hardly any other Victoriana. Although it pushed their buttons, it pushed the wrong ones.

Lesson: Every word in a blurb sets up expectations. Use them with care.

My next approach was to describe the first scene, into which I had condensed the themes and the character’s problem in oblique style. “It opens with a scene of yoga rage,” I said to another group of (tolerant) friends. Again, they zapped to attention. Again, for the wrong reasons. The yoga scene was what I used to introduce the character—a situation of enforced stillness she is hating—but it was a detail and misleading when given such prominence. When they heard it in isolation, they were expecting chick-lit. It shortchanged the book as a whole.

Lesson: When blurbing, it’s easy to think of a great soundbite and then become attached to it. Yoga rage is right for the scene, but gives the wrong idea about the book. Just as we have to kill our darlings in the main text, we have to kill our darlings in the blurb too.

Blurbs also need to give a flavor of the book’s mood, and ‘yoga rage’ is totally at odds with that. The story is actually yearning and melancholy.

Attempt to Write Back Cover Copy: Part Two

By this time I thought I’d never have the blurb finished in time for the launch. But all these false starts were leading me to what I needed—as false starts do.

The mood had to be right. I needed to bring out another level underneath the events. I asked myself this: What was Carol’s real crisis? If she couldn’t play the piano, she didn’t belong in her life. Everywhere else she went, she felt like an outsider.

Now we were getting somewhere, and I used this the first time I wrote anything to try to describe the book. How do you find where you belong?

It’s just a logline and it’s not bad, but I was sure I could do better.

Because there was one big, remaining problem. Good blurbs have to hint how the book will live up to its title.

So far, nothing I’d got lived up to the title’s witchy, metaphysical razzmatazz. If you take nothing else away from this post, take this. You snare the reader with the title, so the blurb must go with it.

So I scribbled something about my narrator, what her crisis was and how the title fit in with it all. Meanwhile I had the book out with early reviewers, who helped me fine-tune the blurb here.

Tips for Writing Back Cover Copy for Non-Genre Books

So here are my top tips for blurbing:

  • Push the right buttons—don’t lead the reader astray by a minor detail or a darling soundbite
  • Make sure your blurb communicates the mood of the book—is it gritty, wisecracking, gentle, melancholy?
  • Don’t forget your title does some of the work—make sure blurb and title fit together
Most of all, though, enjoy it. We’re all story lovers at heart. Blurb writing is still storytelling, gift-wrapping your book for new readers. Once you get the style in your head, it’s a lot of fun.
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Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs and has a double life on Twitter with writing advice and chit-chat. Follow her at @Roz_Morris.

Her books are Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available in print and on Kindle.

Her novel My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters.

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Thanks for the great post, Roz!  Read what she says here again: “[L]ook at what makes your book fit in with the genre—and how it stands out.”  I think that’s the key for genre books.

With non-genre or difficult books, we can’t use genre tropes as shorthand to set up reader expectations.  Instead, the words in our pitches, queries, and back cover copy must work harder to convey the mood and type of story it is and establish those expectations from scratch.  And we have to make sure we’re establishing the right expectations, as Roz pointed out here, “When blurbing, it’s easy to think of a great soundbite and then become attached to it.”  In addition, our words must also give enough insight into the plot and emotional journey of the story to entice readers.

It’s a tricky balance to be sure, and I haven’t found it with my stories yet.  *sigh*  But wish me luck because I’m trying to get a pitch ready this week.  Here’s hoping this post gives us all some new ideas about how to approach the challenge.

Do you have any questions for Roz?  Do you have any books that fall outside the typical expectations for a genre?  Do you struggle with boiling down the essence of your books?  Which piece is hardest for you—genre or story type, tone, or plot or journey details (or all of the above!)?  If you’ve tested your copy to see if it sets up the right expectations, how well did it match up?  Do you have any other tips to share?

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49 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee April 26, 2012 at 7:48 am

LOL, what is in the water? I’ve been putting together notes on writing blurbs, lately, too.

Anyway, I do my best to ensure my blurbs convey the elements, primary conflict, tone, and type of content in the story. For example, A Fistful of Fire is light with dark undertones, and the blurb is the same—and the blurb directly references the most objectionable element: the MC’s incestuous origins.

In other words, I try to make sure the blurb will hit the right buttons for the book to reach its intended readership: those who will enjoy it, not those who would dislike it or who would be squicked by it.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2012 at 8:41 am

Hi Carradee,

LOL! The timing of this post was all Roz, so she must be drinking the same water. :)

Good point! If there’s a negative “trigger” that might turn off readers, it might be better to include it to ensure we reach the target audience we want (assuming we can do so in a way that doesn’t go the other extreme and turn off everyone :) ). I think that ties in with what Roz was saying about genre and expectations. We don’t want to appeal to the wrong audience either.

Ooo, light with dark undertones. Yes, that’s the pitch I’m trying to write now too. :) Thanks for the comment!

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hi Carradee
You sound like you’ve got your blurb completely sewn up – great analysis. And Jami, that ‘s so important to appeal to the right people – negatives need to be considered too. Such a lot for a few little paragraphs to do.

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Carradee April 28, 2012 at 11:38 am

Thanks, Roz. :)

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Buffy Armstrong April 26, 2012 at 10:29 am

I picked up my copy of Nail Your Novel is morning. I have to admit, I’m a compulsive writing craft book buyer. I feel if I can learn one or two valuable things from a book, it’s worth the ten bucks. I’m looking forward to reading it. Ms. Morris’ novel sounds interesting, but I’ve currently instituted a fiction buying moratorium until I get through some of my TBR pile. I did add it to Goodreads as a reminder.

I think what is so hard about writing queries and pitches and blurbs is that as a writer, it’s all important to us. We’ve lived in that world with those characters for months if not years. It’s like: “Don’t tell me the fact that my heroine has a love hate relationship with her boss isn’t important to my story about alien invasions. It’s important to me. I spent months on that! Months, I tell you!” What is the old adage, it’s hard to see the forest for the tress? Or something like that. Yes, this is me butchering old adages.

Good luck with you pitches, Jami! I’ve got my fingers crossed.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2012 at 10:47 am

Hi Buffy,

Yes, I love craft books too. And I’m with you on the huge TBR pile. :) Thanks for the good luck wishes and thanks for the comment!

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Ooh, thank you, Buffy – hope you have fun nailing. I love your comment ‘It’s all so important’ – indeed it is, otherwise we wouldn’t have had to write 50-100k words to get it out. And such feelings are probably why we became novel-writers in the first place.

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Amanda April 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm

I am so with Roz on the whole non-genre thing…I just finished editing a MS that I can’t categorize at all. Is it a thriller? Is it literary fiction (or TRYING to be literary fiction)? Is it women’s fiction? GRRRR! Although writing the blurb for it was surprisingly easy.

Now I’m stuck trying to write a blurb/query for a MS I feel is ready to pitch, and I can’t for the life of me think of anything good! It’s like writing a cover letter for your resume: it has to be sassy, short, and informative.

I wonder if they run query letters through those search thingies like they do with job applications, looking for key words…

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 26, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Amanda, you must be a model of focus to have written your blurb so easily. I type in awe. (And I’m certainly hopping over to your blog right now to learn more..) Good luck with the query.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, I have one of those “what genre is this?” stories too–which is exactly why I wrangled Roz into this post. :) This post from Rachelle Gardner helped me figure out what to focus on. Thanks for the comment!

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Serena April 26, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I like this topic!

Hmm I get what you mean by meeting the readers’ expectations and setting up the right tone, but:

How do you make your blurb sound “strong”? You know, the kind that really compels you, excites you, or tugs at your curiosity? In contrast to the blurbs that sound flat, static, boring, or otherwise perfectly ordinary?

Is it to do with the word choice, sentence structure, images or associations conveyed, or something else? Any tips?

Thanks.

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Jami Gold April 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Hi Serena,

We’ll see if Roz has any suggestions for you, but I know I’ve used all of the above things you mentioned in my pitches/queries. Like everything else in writing, it comes down to voice, avoiding cliches, etc. :) Thanks for the comment!

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 27, 2012 at 3:23 am

Serena, that’s a very good point. The blurb has to pack a punch – and the right kind of punch for the material.
Again, the best clues are in blurbs for other books like yours. Look at word choice, how they present the hook, whether there are a lot of adjectives or images because that genre might look underdressed without them. But you can’t get that right until you’ve sorted out what you’re going to say – then you can fiddle with how you say it.

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Serena April 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Thanks! I need to pay more attention to how my favorite blurbs are worded.

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E.B.Pike April 27, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Thanks for the tips on back cover copy, Roz. And thanks for hosting, Jami! :)

I’m working on pitches right now instead of back-cover copy, but they’re pretty similar –so the advice seems to work about the same. I feel like I fall into that cross-genre/non-genre category too, so coming up with pitches has been a chore. I’m constantly dissatisfied with what I think up.

After reading Roz’s advice, I’m wondering if taking the time to figure out what I want (and don’t want) to convey might be a good new starting point.

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 28, 2012 at 7:16 am

Hi EB – that’s a good point. Establish what you do and don’t want to suggest about the book. Glad to have helped and good luck with your pitches.

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 9:16 am

Hi E.B.,

“I’m wondering if taking the time to figure out what I want (and don’t want) to convey might be a good new starting point.”

Great insight! Yes, I think that’s a great starting point. What do we want the reader of this blurb or pitch to know and understand? I didn’t get any confused looks when I gave my pitch this past weekend, so at least I succeeded on the clarity front. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jesi Lea Ryan April 27, 2012 at 9:26 pm

This is one of the most helpful guest blogs I’ve read in a really long time. Timely too as I will have to write my blurb really soon here. Oh, and my first novel was published by a small press and they made me write my own back cover blurb. It was daunting. :)

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 28, 2012 at 11:43 am

Thanks, Jesi. You had to write your own? Hope they gave you plenty of time!

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 9:47 am

Hi Jesi,

Yes, I think more and more publishers are having authors write their own back cover copy. And I’ve heard plenty of stories from large publishers where the back cover copy mostly comes from the editor massaging the cover letter the agent sent them about the book, which came from the agent’s massage of the author’s query letter–with many sentences identical all the way through. The marketing departments aren’t reading our books, so they rely on others (the author, the agent, the editor) to pick out the important stuff for them.

Good luck with writing your back cover copy and thanks for the comment! :)

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Debra Eve April 27, 2012 at 10:46 pm

I read My Memories of a Future Life, absolutely loved it, and agree it’s hard to classify. Not sure I would have used the word “soulmate” to describe Andreq, which implies romance. But other than that, the blurb does evoke the intriguing mood of the book and is one reason I bought it.

Another helpful question Roz brought up: What is the protagonist’s crisis? I think once you establish that on the blurb, the reader knows if she can relate or not. Thanks, both of you!

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 28, 2012 at 7:18 am

Hi Debra! Great to hear you think the blurb does the right job – and that’s an interesting point about the soulmate. I hadn’t thought of it that way… hmm, I shall give it some thought. Indies can always revise a blurb if they need to…

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 9:49 am

Hi Debra,

“What is the protagonist’s crisis? I think once you establish that on the blurb, the reader knows if she can relate or not.”

Fantastic insight! Yes, there are many books where I can’t stand the protagonist, and I think it comes down to this issue. *wheels turning* Thank you for this comment! :)

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Julie Musil April 28, 2012 at 10:29 am

This is such awesome advice. I especially like the part about matching the mood. I’ve learned to write a quick blurb before I even write the book. Sure, it’ll change, but that one line keeps me focused. Then I refine that line at the end, replacing stiff, boring words with better ones. We’ll see if that works!

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 28, 2012 at 11:44 am

Thanks, Julie. That’s a good tip about writing a blurb to guide you from the start. In fact, I’m blogging about a similar idea at Nail Your Novel tomorrow. Great minds think alike…

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 9:56 am

Hi Julie,

Yes! That’s what I’ve started doing as well. I write the one line, a query/pitch paragraph, and/or a short synopsis–all before I start the story.

I had a query paragraph for my pantsed novel, and that helped me remember the focus and the tone I was going for. And it did make it easier to focus on the forest when writing my pitch, rather than getting lost in the trees. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson April 28, 2012 at 1:29 pm

Hi Jami!

*waves frantically*

First an off-topic sentence! I have been reading your stuff for weeks! But i am usually on my phone and it is SOOOOOOO hard to comment on my iPhone! I just want you to know, I think you put out some of the BEST stuff in blogland when it comes to writers and the craft.

Okay, I love this. And I’m not even close to blurb-stage. I’m at closing the gaps of the puzzle, but at 80K, I’m starting to think ahead to – what’s next? Hmmm. And I knew it’s MORE editing from me (can you hear me grunting?) and I know I have to get my beta-fish. I have them. Good ones. And then MORE editing and adding jazz hands and pixie dust. And then probably working with an editor/agent to get it just perfect. But then… blurbs. And then back cover stuff. So thank you. This rocks. See you all over the place! ;-)

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 11:15 am

Hi Renee,

LOL! No worries. We can’t always leave a comment. :) And *blush* for the kind words about my blog.

Thanks for the laugh (jazz hands!) and the comment!

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Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson April 28, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Oh, and I know you didn’t write this one – so nice to meet you Roz. And I’ll bet you I suck at queries worse than Jami. ;-) In fact, I’ll bet I bite.

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 29, 2012 at 2:06 am

Hi Renee – waving frantically and wishing you good luck!

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 11:17 am

Hi Renee,

Ooo, a query-suckage challenge? *raises eyebrow* Hmm, I might have to take you up on that. :) Thanks for the comment!

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jeanelaine April 28, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for the great tips. This will definitely go on my tip sheet.

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rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy April 29, 2012 at 2:06 am

Thanks, Jeane – hope it helps.

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 11:31 am

Hi Jeanelaine,

I’m happy to wrangle Roz into this guest post. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Lynn Kelley April 30, 2012 at 9:42 am

This post is very helpful. I’m working on the back cover blurb for my children’s chapter book. I have a hard time writing them, so thank you, Roz. And thank you Jami for hosting Roz.

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Jami Gold May 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

Hi Lynn,

No problem. :) I’m thrilled to have these tips and help from Roz as well! Thanks for the comment!

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Taurean Watkins February 12, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Now that I’m contracted for my first book, I’m thinking more about this issue, I was before (3+ years of American Idol: Query Letter Edtion), but now that I KNOW for sure a publisher’s working with me (Versus hoping to entice one) you do see it a little differently. That’s fair to say, right Jami? Roz? Right?

I definitely have that difficult book to describe issue.

I don’t understand it, as hard as I’ve tried, Jami and Roz.

We can accept not all SF is “just like” Star Trek, Star Wars, and Aliens.

We know not all stores with wizards are HP clones.

Not all paranormal stories (At least BEFORE Twilight) had more angst and lust than a 90s music video.

Yet we expect Animal Fantasy to either be wholesome for preschoolers (Don’t get me wrong, I still watch little kid shows now at 25, and I have neither kids or students as cover, and I’ve NO more shame about it, though it is partly research now being a children’s writer) only or disturbingly raunchy like Ted (I do think the concept works, but the final execution is WAY too disturbing for me personally)

I believe there’s a middle ground. Something that’s not an overly saccharine fluff piece, but still has heart.

They can be mature without need to be pervy and provocative to do it.

Or go the ultra-violent route.

Finally, they also REALLY don’t have to follow the Redwall or Warriors model of either LOTR warfare, or clan-based antics, period.

Just like Jami and other writers of romance know there’s more to what they do than slam two people into bed. It has be something beyond cheap thrills. While many readers like cheap thrills, I CRAVE depth and substance. I don’t write explicit romance, but if I read it, if your only hook is sex and various innuendo, there’s no guarantee I’ll finish or even read that author again.

I respect Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I need to make that clear. But I don’t have to follow their trotters and paw-steps to tell great stories about pigs or mice.

I’m not saying MY way is better. It’s just MINE. Just give it a chance.

That’s the message I want to present with my style of storytelling. Warm without being unrealistically cheerful. Funny without intense snarky narrators (Yes, that’s STILL possible in our Post-Wimpy Kid World).

Serious when the story demands it, without going the way of Patrica McCormick’s “Sold” and I don’t say the to slight the book in the least, she and Ellen Hopkins deserves respect for facing subjects all too real and alive today, as much as every parent on Earth (Regardless of race, creed or country) wishes this weren’t still so.

Sometimes my animal heroes and villains adhere to the facts of natural science. Other times they won’t, and if you can’t accept it, I wouldn’t be a writer for you.

That said, and while it shouldn’t be the main focus, you can convert people to being fans, if not to your genre as a whole, at least of YOUR variant of it, and I think that’s a compliment ANY writer would love to have.

All that said, is it okay to just say “I HATE writing blurbs” even though you need to write them anyway?

I still do believe the process of writing ABOUT a story is not 1 to 1 with writing the ACTUAL STORY, and it’s the only way I personally retain an ounce of sanity, and those who struggle here as I do need to know that, if only to avoid downing a whole cheesecake soaked in your tears of rage, and yes, I actually did that once.

I did every goof you can with a synopsis. Well, I didn’t do the “Vein appraisal of my work” or the “My mother or kids loved it.”

I want my work to speak for itself.

My family aren’t big fiction readers, and as I’ve said often, I’m NOT a parent yet! (No offense intended to any parents who read this. Just making a point.)

But any other synopsis mistake I’ve made at least once.

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Jami Gold February 14, 2013 at 12:11 am

Hi Taurean,

It’s absolutely okay to say that you hate writing blurbs! :) I hope you find a good way to describe your unique story. I definitely sympathize. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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