How to Punch Up a Blurb or Query — Guest: Julie Glover

by Jami Gold on March 5, 2015

in Writing Stuff

Fist punching into water with text: Punch Up Your Blurb!

I’ve spoken before about how no matter how we publish, we have to come up with a great book description—either for use as the query or the back-cover blurb. If we go the traditional route, we might have an agent, editor, or copywriter from the publisher help us improve our blurb before we’re in stores. But if we self-publish, we’re on our own.

For those of you who might remember my struggles with writing queries that didn’t suck, this was a problem for my release last week. *smile*

I’ve read countless blog posts about how to write a query. I’ve had Roz Morris here to share advice about how to get in the right mindset for blurb-writing. I’ve had Marcy Kennedy here to give tips on writing blurbs for romance stories. But still, I struggled.

Once I decided on my publishing path, I had to find a way to overcome that issue. Period. No more excuses.

So I went through the same editing steps with my blurbs as I did for my stories. In addition to asking my beta readers (and sometimes my readers here) for help, I asked my editors at each stage of the editing process to give feedback:

  1. Developmental Editor: Capture the gist of the story and make sure I’m not leading readers astray with what the story will be about. (Beta readers might be able to help with this step too.)
  2. Line Editor: Nail down the right flow and highlights to make the blurb interesting.
  3. Copy Editor: Punch up the word choice for more emotion and tighten the sentences.

Most blog posts about queries and blurbs focus on those first two steps with advice about what to include or how to structure our book’s description. But it’s that last step that can often take our blurb from good to great.

So today we have Julie Glover, who’s an expert at that last step. She’s here to share tips on how to make a blurb or query stand out. (And yes, she’s the one who stepped in to help me with my blurbs at that Step 3 phase—and was a genius!) Please welcome Julie Glover! *smile*

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How to Write a Tantalizing Book Blurb
(Without Slamming Your Head Too Many Times)

It’s time to write the blurb for your novel. Do you:

  1. Read everything you can find on writing blurbs until your head feels like exploding
  2. Tackle it with fervor but sit back hours later to discover your “hook” is a ridiculous four pages long
  3. Grab the big box of Kleenex, head to the closet, and weep in the corner
  4. Flip through your “black book” of contacts looking for someone—anyone—you can persuade or cajole into doing it for you
  5. All of the above

Whether you query for a traditional path or self-publish, at some point you need to write a blurb for your book—that description that grabs the attention of potential readers and buyers. Your blurb is to the book what a trailer is to a movie, giving your target audience enough of a glimpse at your story to know this is something they really want to see more of.

Yet, it’s no shock we writers dread writing our book’s blurb. How do you summarize an 80,000-word novel into a 100-word must-read-this-book summary? It’s like asking to squeeze yourself into a string bikini two sizes too small. How can you pull that off and make it look pretty?

I guarantee it can be done. (The blurb. Not the string bikini. Don’t try that one.) So the question is how do you write a tantalizing hook for your novel, without slamming your head repeatedly?

Start with Nuts and Bolts…the Basics

Most blurb resources focus on structure. There are different formulas, but the basics are something like this:

  1. Set up the main character and what they want
  2. Introduce what obstacles stand in their way
  3. Define the exterior and interior conflict
  4. End with a will she or won’t she? question

You definitely need the basics, and I encourage you to Google away for good resources on how to structure your blurb. One great place to start is Jami’s post on Pitch Writing, with useful tips for pitches and blurbs. Then write all that down and make it your first draft.

Dangle Me Like a Fish

Nope, you’re not done. If you’ve tried this before, and have wadded globs of Kleenex to prove it, you know you can write perfectly to structure and still be left with a flat blurb. Nuts and bolts do not scream Read Me! And you need your blurb to create a severe case of book lust.

You need a hook—something that catches the reader’s attention so much they’re dangling like a fish and the rest of the blurb just reels them in. Which is why your first few words matter so very much. They set the tone, hint at the genre, and plant a come-hither character readers want to know more about. Too often, we use those first sentences for backstory. Blah, blah, blah.

So let’s take a well-known book: the first Harry Potter. You know the story is an 11-year-old orphan boy living with his cruel, adoptive parents who gets this letter from a wizard school and then… Yeah, whatever. Here’s how the back cover blurb starts:

Harry Potter has never played a sport while flying on a broomstick. He’s never worn a cloak of invisibility, befriended a giant, or helped hatch a dragon.

Now, I’m a middle-schooler. Am I reading more? You bet I am!

Or take another book I pulled off my shelf, Somewhere in Time (originally published as Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson): “He had met her and loved her, years before his birth.” Well, that’s intriguing. Because isn’t that impossible? That initial line hints at what’s different about this novel, what the focus will be, and why it should be read.

The Heart of Your Story

The most difficult challenge is paring your blurb down to the main thrust of your novel. What must you include in the blurb, and what can the reader learn later, after they purchase your book and open its pages?

A few tips:

  • They don’t need the full setting when a mood hint will do.
  • They don’t need more than 2-3 characters because that’s confusing.
  • They don’t need the main character’s backstory when a simple adjective like “reluctant” or “headstrong” will get it done.
    (Interruption from Jami: I bolded this last tip because this is why Step 3 is so important—word choice and tightening.)

Go back through your blurb and put every bit of content to this test: Does my potential reader need this information right now, or can it wait? You might be surprised how much can wait. It may be important in the story, but not to the story’s setup. And that’s what a blurb conveys. If your main character discovers something a third of the book through, don’t put it in the blurb—let your reader discover it then too!

You know what’s not in that Harry Potter blurb? Dumbledore, Voldemort, or even the word Hogwarts. Because the heart of this first story is a boy learning about a brand new, magical world and how he fits in.

Zip, Zap, Make Your Words Snap

Know what a “power word” is? It’s a word that conveys an emotional punch on the page—something that elicits a gut reaction. You know these words when you see them:

  • Not power words: from, the, walk, feel, should, what
  • Power words: grief, murder, mother, lost, love, triumph

See the difference?

While your novel should have plenty of power words, your blurb should be packed full of them. Your reader shouldn’t go more than a few words before another power word jumps out and beckons them to buy the book already.

Just look at the opening of this blurb for Jami’s recently released short story, Unintended Guardian, with power words emphasized:

A shapeshifting gryphon cursed to eternal darkness

Sunlight shouldn’t be deadly to Griff Cyrus. Determined to break his curse, he follows an oracle‘s bizarre instructions to have a magical package shipped to his apartment. Since when do brown trucks deliver mystical cures?

Make word choices that emphasize the crux and feelings of your story. If a word’s not pulling its weight, find another. Make it zip and zap!

Voice Matters, or Barbra Streisand Is Not Beyoncé

Barbra Streisand and Beyoncé—both good singers. But if I sat down anticipating and wanting a Beyoncé concert, and Barbra Streisand walked on stage?

Likewise, your blurb sets up expectations for voice. A potential reader should be able to tell the novel’s genre, tone (dark, intense, lighthearted, funny, etc.), and writing style. If your book is an intense thriller, don’t get cute in the blurb. If it’s young adult, use words that appeal to teens. If you’re a laugh-and-a-half on every page of your story, make me chuckle reading the blurb.

Two quick examples to illustrate different voices. The first is from urban fantasy author Jaye Wells and her novel Dirty Magic:

MAGIC IS A DRUG. CAREFUL HOW YOU USE IT. The Magical Enforcement Agency keeps dirty magic off the streets, but there’s a new blend out there that’s as deadly as it is elusive.

And from Tracy Brogan, The Best Medicine:

Everyone in Bell Harbor thinks career-minded plastic surgeon Evelyn Rhoades needs a husband. Everyone, that is, except for Evelyn…sort of.

Which one is your beach read? Which one is a thrill-ride with intense situations? You know immediately even from a couple of sentences. Why? Voice.

Approach your blurb with the same voice you used on the pages inside. Use that opportunity to whet your reader’s appetite for your brand of writing.

Good Feedback Is Golden

Since you know your story backwards and forwards, you likely don’t have the ability to see your blurb objectively. So get feedback from someone you trust. Ideally, that’s someone who knows your genre and style but hasn’t read this particular book. You want this person to approach your blurb the way a potential reader would.

If you have a trusted critique partner or friend, you might get great feedback from them. Alternately, you can hire someone to give their professional perspective. Regardless, put your blurb in front of others and see if it tantalizes. If you get more shrugs than shivers, you still have some work to do.

But don’t pull out the Kleenex or start slamming your head! I believe in you. You can write a tantalizing blurb that gets others clawing to read your book.

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Julie GloverRaised on Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Julie Glover spent much of her childhood—and let’s be honest, way beyond—making up stories in her head. She now writes young adult fiction and has two short stories available: My Sister’s Demon and The Vampire Exclusive.

She also offers copy editing and blurb revision services. Find Julie online at her website and on Twitter.

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My Sister's Demon cover

Introducing My Sister’s Demon:

Every teenager thinks her older sibling is possessed, but Courtney’s actually is. When big sister Nickie shifts from sweet homecoming queen to evil mischief-maker, Courtney alone discovers the true source of change—demon possession.

With Hell invading her home and no one to turn to, is she seriously the only one who can exorcise her sister’s demon?

*****

Thank you, Julie! I’m so glad to have your expertise available for punching up my blurbs. *smile*

I want to give a quick example to show the difference tightening, word choice, hooks, and “punchiness” can make to our story description. Here’s the “before Julie” and “after Julie” of that opening paragraph for Unintended Guardian mentioned above:

Before:

Determined to break the curse making sunlight deadly to him, Griff Cyrus follows an oracle’s bizarre instructions to have a magical package shipped to his Los Angeles apartment. Since when did brown trucks deliver mystical cures?

After:

Sunlight shouldn’t be deadly to Griff Cyrus. Determined to break his curse, he follows an oracle’s bizarre instructions to have a magical package shipped to his apartment. Since when do brown trucks deliver mystical cures?

Julie’s tightening suggestion led me to cut “Los Angeles” for being unimportant. But even better were her suggestions to break up that first sentence and rearrange the words for a punchy “hook” at the beginning.

If we mess up the first stage of editing our blurb, it likely won’t make sense, or it might not give the right impression of the story. If we mess up the second stage, the blurb might not flow from one idea to the next. If we mess up the third stage, our blurb might be okay or even good but lack the “punch” that grabs readers’ attention. Punchy is better. *smile*

Have you gone through editing stages with your blurbs? Which stage is hardest for you? Have you brought in outside help for any of the stages, from beta readers to editors? How much do blurbs affect whether you buy a book? Have you seen blurbs that are okay but lack punch?

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17 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Sasha March 5, 2015 at 7:53 pm

Love this post! The key take-away for me was your Barbra/Beyonce analogy. Use your blurb to reflect the voice of your narrative! – SD Wasley

Reply

Jami Gold March 5, 2015 at 8:49 pm

Hi Sasha,

Yes, we have to get across our story, our characters, their dilemma, and our voice–all in about 100-150 words. No wonder this is so hard! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Julie Glover March 6, 2015 at 10:51 am

Thanks, Sasha! Yes, that voice is so important. It’s often the heart of why we enjoy our favorite authors–a writing voice we love!

Reply

Tamar Hela March 5, 2015 at 8:47 pm

This was a really great and helpful post! I have been creating and/or copyediting blurbs for clients for the past year. Since I’m a trained copywriter, I have learned how to tweak a few words here and there in order to create a stellar blurb. It can be such a tedious process if you’re not used to creating book blurbs, but a great book blurb will hook a potential reader, even if the book itself is so-so. I find that, like making a sales pitch or writing ad copy, a book blurb must have the same amount of urgency. If a reader is fully intrigued, then you can almost guarantee a sale. 🙂

Reply

Jami Gold March 5, 2015 at 8:52 pm

Hi Tamar,

“Urgency”–great word! 🙂 Yes, once we get an agent to look at our query or a reader on our book’s page, we might never have another opportunity with their attention for this story. So urgency is required to get them to jump on it at that moment. Thanks for sharing your insights!

Reply

Julie Glover March 6, 2015 at 10:52 am

So beautifully put! I love that bit about “urgency.” Thanks so much!

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Julie Musil March 6, 2015 at 8:38 am

Jami, you read my mind. This is exactly where I’m at in my next process. I wrote a draft of the blurb, tweaked it, polished it, etc. When hubby read it he said, “Now I don’t need to read the book. I already know everything that happened.” Ugh! He was right. I hadn’t enticed the reader to read the book, I’d given them the entire story in two paragraphs.

I set it aside. I’ll use this post to help rewrite that blurb. These were excellent suggestions.

And your blurb is awesome!!

Reply

Jami Gold March 6, 2015 at 9:07 am

Hi Julie,

Yes, my line editor and I had gotten the blurb really close in most respects (as you can see from the changes Julie suggested), but one thing we’d done was leave the last sentence of the blurb too informative. LOL! Julie helped me figure out a last line that left the story more “up in the air.” 😉

I liked Julie’s description of comparing a blurb to a movie trailer. I know I’ve seen movie trailers that left me with that “now I don’t have to see the movie” feeling, so even the “experts” mess this up.

We want to give readers enough of a taste to intrigue them and then leave them hanging. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

Reply

Julie Glover March 6, 2015 at 10:54 am

Good luck, Julie! Keep at it, and you’ll know when it clicks–when you not only feel done but truly excited about your blurb.

All the best!

Reply

Julie Glover March 6, 2015 at 10:55 am

Thanks so much for having me, Jami! It’s always a pleasure to read your blog and a true honor to post. Best wishes with your beautifully “blurbed” book!

Reply

Jami Gold March 6, 2015 at 11:54 am

Hi Julie,

Thank you for the great post! 🙂

Reply

Kym Lucas March 14, 2015 at 10:19 am

Hi, Jami,
Thanks for all the great posts.
I’m keeping a copy of this one because I know I will refer to it again and again.

Reply

Jami Gold March 14, 2015 at 11:18 am

Hi Kym,

I’m happy to help. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

Reply

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