I learnt to type in the mid-80s, aged eight, on a real typewriter. I asked to ‘play’ with the exciting shiny machine with all the letters, and my mum handed me a teach-yourself workbook. By the time I got bored, I’d learnt enough. Enough, specifically, that when I met my first computer shortly afterwards – a Sharp MX700 – I could use at least, ooh, eight fingers to type out BASIC programs, and, later, stories into the school Nimbuses. The typewriter, outmoded technology, returned to the loft.
Until, earlier this year, a writer friend mentioned that they’d acquired one, and were finding it useful. Not so much for writing once you were really getting stuck into a story, but for the stage before a first draft. For journalling, free writing, sketching ideas. Experimenting.
Always keen to try out something that might smooth the writing process (the same impulse that leads me regularly to experiment with writing, outlining, or worldbuilding software, not to mention to the purchase of fountain pens, shiny new notebooks and, once, an old-school distraction-free word processor*), I asked my parents to retrieve that old typewriter from the loft so I could give it a try.
The typewriter in question is my dad’s Remington Travel-Riter Deluxe, a 21st birthday present from his parents back in the 60s, and still in fine working order. Not bad for 56.
And the bell still works. Ding!**
But. Does it help?
Well, it depends what you’re after. My friend was right: it is very satisfying for getting ideas together. A bit like writing by hand – which I also do sometimes, so let’s hope I don’t get carried away and start a typewriter collection to go with the fountain pens – I find that there’s something about the act of putting words mechanically down on paper that focuses the mind. It feels more concrete, less ephemeral.
Writing by hand, though, is very stream-of-consciousness for me. With the typewriter, on the other hand, I find myself forming sentences more clearly before I start them, driven somehow by the rhythm of typing combined with the knowledge that I can’t just delete what I type.
Faster than writing by hand, slower than a laptop (apparently this is less true for desktop typewriters, but I couldn’t tuck a desktop machine away in a cute little travel case when I need desk space); it feels like a sweet spot for focused thought.
And it doesn’t have the internet. There is that.
On the other hand, typing is physically harder than on a keyboard and tends to make my back ache; and as above, you can’t edit. OCR software works pretty well (from my phone, no less; a glorious mingling of the modern and the…somewhat less modern) but still, it doesn’t make practical sense for long-form work once you’re fairly started.
But for ideas? For thinking? For the early stages of writing myself into something? It’s great. And it’s fun.
And perhaps, in part, I’m channeling eight year old me, who would have been utterly thrilled to learn that 40-something me has real live published books out there with my – our! – name on them.
* Yes, this is of course all basically procrastination.
** I wrote both the first and second drafts of this on the typewriter, and feel I should note that to type ! I had to type ‘ [backspace] . .
Juliet Kemp’s latest book The Rising Flood ( https://books2read.com/TheRisingFlood), the third in their Marek Series, is out now from Elsewhen Press. Their short fiction has featured or is forthcoming in venues including Analog, Cossmass Infinities, and Cast of Wonders, and they were shortlisted for the WSFA Small Press Award 2020. They live in London with their family and dog (plus a slightly excessive quantity of bikes, fountain pens, and yarn), and spend a lot of time looking at the river and drinking tea instead of writing.
There’s a sequence in David Attenborough’s insect series, Life in the Undergrowth, when he describes the annual life cycle of the bumble bee. The story of the queen bee founding her nest after hibernation, raising a whole society, producing new queens and finally succumbing to senescence can only be described as high drama.This was the initial inspiration for my aliens, the humbles, who appear in my new Science Fiction novel, Emerald to Ice.
Around the same time, I watched the 2011 Starmus talk of Astronomer and Queen lead guitarist Brian May. May was worried about the current state of humanity, and the implications for any expansion into space. “Suppose we find that intelligent life that we’re so excited about looking for,” he asked, “suppose we bump into it out there? How will we treat it? How will we behave?”
The answer Science Fiction often gives is: very badly.
In the 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ursula Le Guin wrote The Word For World is Forest, in part a parable of the US presence in Southeast Asia. In the book, humans arrive on an alien world, strip the forests, enslave the indigenous people. A similar story is told in the 2009 film Avatar. In both works, human beings are shown as basically exploitative.
I wanted Emerald to Ice to express something different. In the book, two distinct but allied human factions have arrived at the edge of a star system about a thousand light-years distant from Earth. The humbles live on one of the planets in the system. The humans have avoided contact for eighty years, but are then forced to break planetary quarantine.
Both human factions are significantly more enlightened than those we met in the earlier works. They’re well versed in postcolonial studies and are eager not to repeat the grim history of first-contact on Earth. But will the final outcome really be any better?
Abode, the name of one of the human settlements, was deliberately written as utopian. It’s a society where economic and social justice has by and large been achieved. Sexism, racism and homophobia are history. Governance is via sortition. Work is democratic. Diverse religions and secularisms co-exist peaceably. Crime, especially violent crime, is rare and policing is done by community volunteers. Abode is de-militarised and mostly disarmed.
And yet there’s something missing. The Abodans are exiles, trapped in their space habitats like goldfish in a bowl. Severed from the rich, nurturing biosphere of their home world, they exist in a state of sensory deprivation. And that state of sensory deprivation is gradually driving the Abodans out of their minds.
Humans in the 21st century seem to me in a comparable situation. Today, the bulk of humanity lives increasingly urbanised lives, mediated by electronics, extensively surveilled and walled off from the natural world. The resulting culture seems to me increasingly inward-looking, fractious, narcissistic. An exclusively human-centred outlook has become curdled, even toxic.
I believe that this would hold true even if we achieved the sort of just, utopian conditions that are yearned for in so much progressive thought. The exclusion of the more-than-human world can only result in a fatal impoverishment of human consciousness, a sort of critical myopia. The price paid is a lack of real empathy for other beings, even those one ostensibly wants to protect. And in my novel, this plays out as an initial failure to take the alien’s perspective.
Ursula Le Guin was critical of much science fiction that simply affirmed the anthropocentric attitude. She contrasted this with fantasy at its best. The “green country of fantasy,” Le Guin suggested, “verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important.”
The shock of first contact, for humans, is the understanding that we are not the be all and end all in the universe. This is an experience that we can have on planet Earth, right now. In the Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley suggested that “One does not meet oneself until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.” I felt this very much in 2018, when seeing pilot whales at close quarters off Tenerife. The encounter with other intelligences provides necessary perspective.
My humbles have little interest in human beings. Having a different evolutionary heritage, their strengths and weakness differ from ours. Their preoccupations are not our preoccupations. In a way, they’re emissaries, fictional representatives of the non-human intelligences that on this planet we ignore, exploit, kill on a daily basis.
The humbles, and their beautiful but often hostile world, open doorways of consciousness for my protagonist that help her understand just how small human life has become. This results in a transformed experience of the world, and an understanding that humans are not, and have never been alone. This is perhaps a lesson that 21st century humans need to learn, while there’s still time.
Matt Colborn is a freelance writer and academic with a doctorate in cognitive science. He has written for the Guardian as well as SFX and Interzone magazines. He writes across the spectrum of speculative fiction. He published a collection of short fiction, ‘City in the Dusk and Other Stories,’ in 2013 and is currently completing a novel. His website is at http://mattcolbornwriter.blogspot.co.uk
My new book, The Amber Crown is released into the wild today, published by DAW, and available on both sides of the Atlantic as a trade paperback (large format) and also as an electronic book (Kindle, E-book etc.). I’m delighted that it’s available on Kindle in the UK. My previous six books were only available in various e-book formats in the USA and Canada because the publisher only had North American rights. For the Amber Crown they have world rights, so distribution is international.
“An elegantly told story of intrigue, steeped in detail and rich character.” – Adrian Tchaikovsky.
I’m excited to welcome The Amber Crown into the world. This book has been a long time in the making. At the time I sold my first books to DAW (2013) I already had a first draft of this, but once I had my first three book deal, and then my second, I had to concentrate on finishing the books I had under contract. I write both science fiction and fantasy, so my first two trilogies were the Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways, and Nimbus) and the Rowankind trilogy (Winterwood, Silverwolf, and Rowankind). As soon as I delivered Rowankind I began to look at the first draft of The Amber Crown and dug deep into the editing process, restructuring, adding, refining.
A story is all about conflicted characters in difficult situations and this one has plenty of character conflict, with three main protagonists. Valdas was the first character who presented himself to me. As the story starts he’s captain of the High Guard, King Konstantyn’s bodyguard. He’s a good soldier, solid and responsible. He didn’t rise to his position by being ordinary. He’s a decorated hero of the battle of Tevshenna but that doesn’t help him now.
I usually start a book when a first scene pops into my head. In this particular case it was Valdas getting pleasantly drunk in a tavern in the Low City with his favourite whore, Aniela, on his knee and hearing the big bell tolling the death knell of a king, the one he was sworn to protect. Valdas’s world crumbles around him when he is accused of the assassination. From then on he’s out on his own, determined to find the real killer, but without any resources.
Lind, the clever assassin, dispassionate and cold blooded, presented himself to me next. His thoroughly professional exterior hides a mess of a man with more hangups than your average wardrobe. I really enjoyed writing Lind. He’s the character who goes through the biggest change, from a terrible childhood to… well I can’t tell you that, you’ll have to read The Amber Crown.
So where does the magic come in? Mirza is the witch-healer of a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s tasked by the ghost of the dead king, to travel with Valdas because he doesn’t believe in magic (which is unfortunate as it turns out). There’s a dark power rising in the capital city of Biela Miasto and Mirza is the only one who can stand against it – though she can’t do it alone.
The launch event will be on Facebook Live at 8.00 p.m. (UK time) on Tuesday 11th January. I’ll be in conversation with Tiffani Angus and we’ll be taking questions. If you’re reading this after the event, the video will remain up there, for a while at least.. https://www.facebook.com/jacey.bedford.writer
At the most recent Milford workshop in September 2021, I brought a (heavily, wildly) reworked version of a story that I’d first brought to Milford in 2011. The core of the story is an idea that I’ve been struggling with, trying to find the best story home for, and I was nervous.
I was nervous in part because some of the 2021 attendees had also been attendees in 2011, and the commentary back in 2011 had largely been that while the idea might be an interesting idea, the 2011 story was not a good story. Not at all. Even though I’ve been struggling overall with my writing over the past few years, I didn’t know what comments the assembled company would make.
In the end, the 2021 commentary was extremely positive. Yes, there is some revision work to be done, that I’m working my way through, but what I found interesting is that a couple of the 2021 attendees went to the trouble of digging through old emails to find the 2011 version of the story, because they were curious whether they’d misremembered that old version. (And they hadn’t; the 2011 version was not a good story.)
This got me thinking about the craft of writing and how we can improve in our craft. Yes, the basic practice of writing is to write, and I know that for me, I need to get a bit more regular in my writing. But I’ve also spent some time working through the process of commentary. I attend Milford every few years, and the week is a great week of focus, talking with writers at various stages of their writing lives and also watching how other people read and comment on stories. I find it fascinating how we each have our own points of interest, the things that catch our eye and attract our attention, and with each person I see another way of looking into a story.
Being in regular writing groups, in person and on-line (the BSFA Orbit groups in this case), and slush reading also provide practice in examining how a story works.
And all of this experience of examining the inner working of stories came together for me with this crazy idea of mine, which I hope you’ll all be able to read in the not too distant future. All of this came together in my quest to find the right home for this crazy idea, taking it on the journey from bad vehicle (an inside joke, for those few who read the original version) to a story that might well actually work. All of this came together in working through the various manifold ideas I’d had for this story, until I found a shape that works.
Jim Anderson is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Southampton, and is also the Associate Dean (Education and Student Experience) for the Faculty of Social, Human and Mathematical Sciences. Beyond mathematics, he practices the traditional Japanese martial art of aikido and writes science fiction and fantasy.
A poor shoemaker went out one night to snare a rabbit for the pot. He walked by the Silverwood and in the lee of a grassy hill he saw lights and heard music. Dropping to his knees and crawling forward he saw a sight of such unearthly beauty that it stole his commonsense away.
The Fae danced in the moonlight, dressed in diamond-dewed cobwebs and golden leaves. They danced so lightly that they left no footprints on the grass.
The shoemaker thought that if he could steal a pair of fae shoes and take a pattern from them that he’d be able to fashion shoes that would make the finest dancer out of anyone who wore them. So with no thought for his wife or three strong sons the shoemaker followed the Fae back under the hill–and that was the last anyone saw of him for seven years.
When he returned home triumphantly carrying a pair of the finest shoes ever seen he thought he’d only been gone for seven hours, but he found his sons all grown to men and all taken up the cobbling trade; and alas, his poor dear wife three years in her grave. But making the best of what he couldn’t change, he showed his sons the fae shoes and there was great celebrating and much shoemaking. Sure enough the shoes that the family firm crafted after that were not only the finest in the land, but also anyone who wore them could dance as graceful a measure as the Shining Ones themselves.
For seven years the shoemaker and his sons prospered. His sons married and had, between them, seven sons of their own.
But at the end of seven years the Shining Ones appeared outside the cobbler’s shop, saying that the shoemaker had stolen from them and now it was time to claim something of his in return. They demanded a payment that broke the family’s heart. They claimed his seven grandsons, and in an eye-blink spirited them away back under the hill to make their dancing shoes.
Once in every seven years the shoemaker and his sons were permitted to visit the land under the hill. The children never aged though they all became master cobblers, their tiny fingers working with tiny hammers and tiny awls to produce the finest work ever seen.
The shoemaker, whose shoes were no longer the best in the land, aged and died. His sons tried to carry on the family business, but no one wanted to buy their shoes any more. The sons’ wives all ran away, maddened by sorrow and fear, and the sons drank away what little money remained from the good years. One by one they died before their time. When the last son sickened and died of grief and drink, his coffin was carried as far as the churchyard gate, but no further, by seven infants wearing shoemakers’ aprons around their waists and with eyes as ancient as the earth.
Jacey Bedford writes fantasy and science fiction and is published by DAW in the USA. She also maintains this blog.
Her new book, The Amber Crown, is due out on 11th January 2022
The last instalment in Colin Brush’s series on how to write the perfect blurb for your book.
‘But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.’ – The House At Pooh Corner, A.A. Milne
And now we reach the end. Although the end of the blurb is (cross fingers) a beginning – the point of embarkation for the reader who has been convinced by the proposition they’ve just perused as they head for the till and many happy hours voyaging on a sea of words.
So without giving away the ending how do we finish our blurb in such a tantalising manner that the reader is sold? In other words how do we make the end of our little story irresistible?
We can start by making life easier for ourselves by having written a blurb with carefully weighed oppositions and our understanding of Hegelian dialectic (thesis/antithesis/synthesis). If our synthesis is powerful and resonant with our clashing thesis and antithesis then the end may already have written itself. The end, as they say, was written in the beginning.
However, we might want to add something to that or perhaps we’ve taken a different approach and we’re searching around for some new or more novel angle.
Broadly speaking, I think there are six main ways of sealing the deal on the back or flap of a book.
Make a Promise
‘Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men. All will play the Game of thrones . . .’
I found the above words on the back of a copy of A Game of Thrones. It wasn’t at the end of the copy but I’ve always felt that it reads like the last words you want to read before you dive in. Here, they insist, lies a world of adventure just waiting for you . . . Irresistible (says the person who has yet to read a word of the novels or indeed seen an episode of the TV series).
Or how about the below from David Gemmell’s Legend:
His name is Druss.
The stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled Drenai veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair.
His home is Dros Delnoch.
And it is the only route through the mountains for the invading Nadir army. Once the stronghold of the Drenai, the fortress of Dros Delnoch will now be their final battleground. And Druss will be its last hope.
His story is LEGEND.
Now there’s a promise to live up to.
Make them feel
Art wouldn’t be art if we didn’t feel it inside us. We want to be touched by it in some way. I’ve already spoken about the powers of emotion to engage readers and the final sentences of our blurb are our last chance to excite them. What’s appropriate? A joke? Something heartbreaking? The end of the world? What serves your blurb and your book best?
Here’s the blurb from a Penguin Modern Classics edition of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker:
‘Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddels where ever theyve took me and walking them now on this paper the same.’
Composed in an English which has never been spoken and laced with a storytelling tradition that predates the written word, Riddley Walker is the world waiting for us at the bitter end of the nuclear road.
If you grew up in the seventies and eighties those final words ‘bitter end of the nuclear road’ echo a bleakness that years of daily news reports carved into your soul.
Deepen the intrigue
‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .’
Perhaps your conflict says it all. The tensions of your story when laid bare have their own dramatic force and you don’t wish to temper them with some suggestion of peace or resolution. Or perhaps you are the kind of maniac who thinks nothing of turning the dial past eleven. Whatever groove you’ve been furrowing in your blurb why not deepen it? Go bolder. Cut deeper. Take your audience to the very brink – and push them over.
Here’s The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.
The future is small. The future is nano . . .
And who could be smaller or more insignificant than poor Little Nell – an orphan girl alone and adrift in a world of Confucian Law, Neo-Victorian values and warring nano-technology?
Well, not quite alone. Because Nell has a friend, of sorts. A guide, a teacher, an armed and unarmed combat instructor, a book and a computer: the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is all these and much much more. It is illicit, magical, dangerous.
And it isn’t Nell’s. It was stolen. And now some very powerful people want to get their hands on this highly desirable object. Nell is about to discover that the world can feel very small indeed . . .
I wrote this. I could have ended it at the bottom of the second paragraph but I wanted to add a further layer of intrigue, which then, pleasingly, allowed me to play off the opening.
Questions need answers
Pose a question. Or, better yet, pose three. The three question beginning to a blurb is a classic opening for non-fiction but its converse, the three question ending, is more typically used in the crime genre: who murdered Selma? How did they do it? And, goddammit, why? This can be tricky to pull off in both science fiction and fantasy where the questions often relate to multiple story threads and can seem to barely relate to one another. I try to make the questions I use build on one another, as if one leads naturally to the next with the final one being so tantalising you just have to read the book to get the answer.
Here’s Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, posing two powerful questions at its end:
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.
One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America. The world will never be the same again.
Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse. But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.
If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?
Raise the stakes
Entropy rules. Things fall apart. Everything goes to pieces in the end. And in a really good blurb trouble for our heroes should just get worse and worse and worse. The end of your blurb is a good point to raise the stakes. It’s not just our heroes’ lives that are at risk, it is the fate of all humanity . . . If the queen dies then the empire will fall . . . If the android ever falls in love, the kill switch will be triggered . . .
Here’s a book from my youth. Michael Moorcock’s The Blood Red Game:
Renark was born to wander under the diamond glare of a myriad suns. He was never alone because he sensed the power of the unseen hands which guided the ebb and flow of the universe. Then, after two years of watching and waiting, he was ready for the great journey to the rim of the galaxy – and beyond. There he found himself in the arena of the Blood Red Game. The stakes were high: for the human race it meant extinction – or rebirth.
You think this story is about a single man. Turns out it is about the future of humankind.
Add a twist
We’ve already discussed how wrong-footing the reader can be a good way to start a blurb. Equally good is to wrong foot them or put an unexpected twist in at the end of the blurb – just when they think they know what they’re dealing with. This suggests increased intrigue, narrative unreliability, that this story is not going to be straightforward. You may have to set it up so it feels earned.
Michael Moorcock and my youth again. This time it’s The Black Corridor:
The world is sick. The forces of Chaos have energized the planet. Leaders, fuhrers, duces, prophets, visionaries, gurus and politicians are all at each others’ throats. And Chaos leers over the broken body of Order.
So Ryan freezes his family into suspended animation and sets off for the planet Munich 15040, five years distant. There he will re-establish Order in a New World – and create a happier, healthier, saner and more decent society with the ones he loves.
But they are suspended, they cannot talk, and he is alone in space, unable to see his destination . . .
They don’t write them like that anymore (book or blurb). The twist here is that for all the grand conflict and high ideals of the first two paragraphs, this story turns out to be about a single man going slowly mad in space. (A formulation exactly the opposite of The Blood Red Game, almost as if I’d chosen them as a pair.)
What I’ve tried to outline here are a series of processes to help you write a blurb that connects your book to its readers. But don’t let these processes be a substitute for creativity. If you’ve a cool idea, go for it. Afterwards, you can go through the analysis stages and see whether you think the blurb does justice to your story and will connect with your audience. You can then modify it as necessary.
That’s what I’ve been getting at all along. A good blurb, like a great cover, forges a connection with the reader. In combination, they’re the brochure hinting at the journey author and reader are about to undertake together.
It is a journey reader and author alike embark on with some little trepidation but always a great dose of hope.
Colin Brush writes blurbs to sell other people’s books in order to buy food. He fears the day authors figure out there’s no great secret to this and decide to cut out the middle man.
The seventh in a series of how-to posts by Colin Brush
‘Poetry is precise a thing as geometry’ – Gustave Flaubert
We’ve looked at beginning our blurb and structuring it utilising opposites and tension and now we’re going to see how different blurb shapes can help us write different blurbs.
The physical shape of blurbs is generally not something anyone bar a designer considers. And a designer usually only considers it as a means of contorting the blurb around their design (it is at this point that I like to remind designers that the back of the book is first and foremost the blurb writer’s territory: the designer’s job is to encourage a reader to pick up the book (the front), the blurb writer’s job (the back) is to ensure it isn’t put down again).
But I’m not talking the layout shape of blurbs.
If we consider blurbs in terms of their scope then suddenly we find that they have hidden shapes. What do I mean by scope? By scope I mean its range or focus in any one line. Are we talking particular or general? A small or a big idea? Is the blurb focused on the protagonist (small, narrow POV) or the world/an overall situation (large, widescreen) at that moment? Are we talking plot (narrow) or overarching theme (wide)?
Once we’ve established that blurbs can be at different points wide or narrow in scope we can begin to examine their shape. Like stories themselves, some blurbs start small with a protagonist and get bigger as they begin to refer to the wider world: they are triangular. Think how The Lord of the Rings begins with the Shire and slowly reveals over a thousand pages the entire world of Middle Earth.
Others invert the triangle by beginning with the world (big) and narrow in on a protagonist and their problem (small). The opening crawl of Star Wars takes us from a galactic civil war to the Empire’s search for stolen plans to pursuing that miscreant Princess Leia. More complicated shapes are possible, but we’re going to look at just four which I think are a kind of Platonic ideal of blurb geometry: simple blurbs with clearly defined shapes.
Let’s explore them by looking at four ways to approach Nineteen Eighty-Four. (I have shaped these blurbs physically for illustrative purposes, to make clearer where I think the scope is small or large/narrow or wide. As you’ll see, the broad shape is not slavishly followed by every line.)
Here we start with a diary entry by the protagonist, Winston Smith. We learn what Winston does and his petty rebellion against it. We discover that his life is made miserable by the totalitarian society in which he lives. We learn how deeply those in authority control the populace, how even Winston falling in love is suspect and how the Big Brother Winston denounced in the first line punishes those who resist.
The focus gets bigger and bigger: from one man to the world he inhabits, from apex to base . . .
For this approach we start with the world (and to some extent the themes) and we progressively narrow all the way down until we get to one man, Winston. Since I knew I was taking this approach – wider, bigger to narrower, smaller – I wondered what it would be like to include the reader at the opening by making us all part of Big Brother, to in a sense collude with the regime. This then led, by the time I got to the end, to my turning the novel’s protagonist, our hero, into the blurb’s enemy. An intriguing approach and likely an idea I would not have thought of without taking this inversion.
This is actually the blurb I wrote for the Penguin Shepard Fairey-jacketed Orwells. We start with the world (borrowing the wonderful opening line) and our protagonist with his place in it. Then we focus on Winston and Julia’s needs and hopes in the narrow middle. But their act of rebellion draws the ire of the totalitarian world in which they live, giving this blurb its hourglass shape. It starts wide, narrows and widens at its close.
Here we begin with Winston and slowly expand outwards to take in his world (though the ‘heart rebels’ line is clearly narrow – not every line will follow the plan!) then we narrow again to focus on the lovers and their personal struggle and sacrifice.
Now we have four ways of looking at the same story. Which do you prefer?
The point about these simple blurb shapes is not that every good blurb should follow them (though many bad blurbs, by this analysis, have no obviously definable shape) but that they provide clear ways for you to take a blurb in a new direction. They allow you to take a blurb you’ve already written, analyse its broad shape and then have a go at rewriting it, with a straightforward and clear new intention: go wide, or narrow . . .
If you’re happy with your blurb as it stands, who cares if it does not adhere to any of these shapes? But if you are unhappy, examine its shape and then see what it becomes if you try and make it triangular or hourglass-shaped. Is it improved? What’s it doing now? Rather like the formal rules employed by poets, your line choices are limited by the form you’re adopting but limitations, as the best writers know, can free the imagination.
Colin Brush has written so many book blurbs over the last twenty years that he now imagines he can see geometric shapes in them. We can only hope that enforced retirement or people in white coats are waiting around the next corner.
‘Elric knew that everything that existed had its opposite. In danger he might find peace. And yet, of course, in peace there was danger. Being an imperfect creature in an imperfect world he would always know paradox. And that was why in paradox there was always a kind of truth.’ The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
Opposites, according to science and literature, attract. Or, in the case of matter and anti-matter, they annihilate one another. Either way, you get a reaction and that is the key to structuring your blurb. In any blurb I write I look for the tension: the two elements that are in direct opposition, that are most clearly colliding or pulling away from one another. The star captain torn between following orders and respecting the wishes of the planetary natives blocking her way. The sky war that must be fought to bring a lasting peace among the dragons. The planet-sized mind that lobotomises itself to fit inside a skull’s cranium just to satisfy their desire to feel truly human.
Opposition powers our stories. Generally, these opposites emerge from the protagonist’s problem: they want something and something or someone else is preventing them from getting it. So far, so beginner’s guide to writing. Take The Lord of the Rings. Let’s baldly state Frodo’s problem:
Frodo must destroy the all-powerful one-ring. But the ring’s maker Sauron will use all his power to stop him.
That’s fine and I’ve seen many fantasy blurbs saying pretty much that (usually at length). Yet, can we be a bit more interesting? Can we add some depth, a little human universality to our proposal?
Another way to think about these tensions is that of story versus theme. The story is generally what the protagonist wants to achieve. The theme, however, concerns what the protagonist usually (and the reader hopefully definitely) will come to understand over the course of the tale. Often the theme is in direct opposition to what a hero desires (though it is often what they really need – see most big-budget Hollywood movies).
Speaking of which, here’s The Lord of the Rings again: Story: Frodo wants to destroy the all-powerful one-ring. Theme: Power corrupts.*
You’ll notice that these aren’t conventional opposites, but they are in direct opposition to one another with regard to what Frodo wants/needs. So when we restate Frodo’s problem in terms of story versus theme we get:
Frodo must carry the powerful one ring to Mount Doom. But doing so risks destroying his soul.
For me, this feels like a hook I can really get my teeth into as a reader. I care more about Frodo’s quest potentially destroying his good heart than I do about whether he’ll overcome the evil Sauron. That’s an interesting story.
This is fine, but we as discerning readers still want more. We like our stories to have beginnings, middles and ends. And, often (but not always) so should blurbs – though blurb ends are usually a question or an uncertainty of outcome . . . (or indeed an ellipsis)
Which brings us to the Central Dramatic Argument, which I’ve shamelessly lifted from Craig Mazin over at Scriptnotes. And if you do any kind of writing it is certainly worth a read – particularly, I imagine, if you’re seeking to write Hollywood style.
Mazin takes the story versus theme idea and chucks it in the blender that is the Hegelian Dialectic. What do you mean ‘it’s early/late and your tired brain can’t remember what exactly is the Hegelian Dialectic’? It’s very simple. It is a three-stage development or process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The statement of an idea. A reaction that contradicts or negates the idea. And, finally, a resolution between our idea and its contradiction. Otherwise known as beginning, middle and end.
Or with our story versus theme angle for our blurbs: story, theme and promise/question. Colin, for the love of God, please explain yourself. Let’s take The Lord of the Rings again, and poor suffering Frodo:
Thesis: Good-hearted Frodo must bear the ring of power
Antithesis: But the ring corrupts all who bear it
Synthesis: Is a good heart proof against the ring’s power?
So now we have a three-part structure for writing our blurb. Before we’ve even written a word we know where we begin, where we’re going and where we’ll end. So let’s write it:
The day his uncle vanishes from the gentle Shire, young hobbit Frodo Baggins receives the strangest of inheritances. A golden ring which bestows invisibility on its wearer. The wizard Gandalf the Grey tells Frodo it is a dangerous gift: a ring of immense power that others have long sought.
Instructed by Gandalf to flee with the ring, Frodo is joined by a fellowship of dwarves, elves and humans. They pledge to help Frodo journey to destroy the ring before those who would return it to its evil maker can stake their claim. But the ring feeds the darkest thoughts, corrupting all in its circle.
And no one more so than brave Frodo. For the journey will be long, dangerous and terrifying, and every day the ring’s whispers will grow harder to resist . . .
Three simple paragraphs, broadly following our thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Notice how most of the detail supports the general thrust of each paragraph. We have one broad idea in each one. This keeps things simple for the reader. Three ideas bound by the tension between them. Change our ideas (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and you’ll change the type of blurb you are writing.
In summary, know the oppositions in your story and have them clash to bring drama to your blurb. If you’re looking for depth get your theme to clash with your protagonist’s story. Keep your structure simple to read by ensuring your blurb has a beginning, a middle and an end.
Next we’re going to have a look at blurb geometry to see how we can simply rework blurbs by bending them out of shape.
* There are other themes and so other approaches to take when writing a blurb for The Lord of the Rings. Its versatility is its strength.
As a publishing copywriter Colin Brush likes to think he’s sold a great many books over the years. Sadly, not a single one of them has been his own.
‘It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
We’re just over the halfway point in my guide to writing blurbs and you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get around to actually looking at writing a blurb. Finally, that moment has arrived. By now, we should know what story it is we want to sell. We have an idea in our heads of our audience. We also have our one-line pitch to emotionally hook in our reader. Now we need to grab their attention with a powerful opening. But what kind of opening do we want?
Beginnings, as anyone who has stared at a blank page or screen appreciates, can be paralysing, They tend to be leaps into the unknown – for writer and reader, alike. However, in this instance we have two distinct advantages. Firstly, you are likely to have already written the novel already – so we know what we’re writing about. And secondly, by having done some groundwork on who we are talking to and what they might like we have some sense of what we want our copy to do.
The single most important thing your opening line needs to do is grab your reader. I’ve watched people picking up books in bookshops. Intrigued by something on the cover (title, author, image, shout line or some combination) they pick up the book. They turn it over and within a handful of seconds they’ve put it down again and moved on to the next thing. What was the deal breaker? What did they read that turned them off? It certainly wasn’t the entire blurb. There wasn’t time to read that far. And that’s the awful truth. Most people never read the whole blurb.
Which is why we need to start with something strong and unignorable. You want the reader to want to keep on reading even if they’ve already decided this book isn’t for them. They have to keep going just because you’ve intrigued them, dammit. That way you’ve still got a chance to win them over. So how do we do this?
It is at this point that I suggest turning to the classics. But not the blurbs of classic novels (just yet). I mean classic opening lines to novels. What are those arresting lines that have stayed with us since the moment we first read them and which took us into another world from which we may not quite have ever left? What can we learn from these lines in beginning our blurbs.
Take the opening quote to this post. The first line of perhaps the most famous and widely read science fiction novel of the twentieth century. It is a brilliantly constructed sentence designed with but one purpose in mind and that is to draw in the innocent reader and then utterly wrongfoot them at the last moment. Everything is perfectly reasonable, recognisable and normal until the last word, ‘thirteen’, which loudly declares that something is clearly wrong with the world.
To my mind this line exemplifies one of the key aspects of a good opening gambit: it stirs your curiosity. By the end of the line you are asking yourself how can all the clocks be striking thirteen*? What is this place? What (and here is its real power) has gone awry? Emotions are triggered: confusion, uncertainty, bafflement, intrigue. Some people will not like them but for others they will be stimulating. What’s going on? Can clocks strike thirteen – how? What would a world look like in which this was true? If you’re stimulated by this counterintuitive line then you will likely read on. Job done, Mr Orwell.
Here’s another famous science-fiction opening line (from a book coincidentally published in 1984):
‘The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.’
William Gibson’s Neuromancer created a whole subgenre of science fiction. It came to define how many of us thought about the twenty-first century many years before the new millennium had even arrived. Gibson does not write dense thickets of prose but what he can do is sketch in with a line or two an entire mood or atmosphere. Suddenly a world is brought to life. Some people (including a well-known author I once had an argument with over this line) think it is meaningless: it does nothing for them. But for people like me it conjures the sights, sounds and smells of another place and I want to be there, to experience it, to live it (at least briefly, as a tourist, only a fool would want to live in this technodystopia).
Similarly, lines that make you laugh (‘Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.’) or fill you with dread (‘The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.’) or joy (‘I exist!’) or melancholy (‘Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.’) or wonder (‘The manhunt extended across more than one hundred light years and eight centuries.’), or any feeling that you are looking for, will pull you in as a reader. An emotional response has been triggered – you like it and hopefully want more of it.
Finally, I believe, there is a third kind of opening line. This is the immersive line, the one that drops you straight into the story. Take the start of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
You are immediately in the middle of something – though you do not yet know what. But you’ll have questions. Burn what? Why is it pleasurable? Who is making this disturbing statement? You have questions and questions need answers. And so you read on. It’s the oldest trick in the unburned book. Tell them something but leave them hanging. Answer their questions but leave them with further questions. Keep them turning the pages. Writing a blurb is in many ways the same as writing a novel – only you’ve got a thousandth of the word count to play with.
Curiosity, atmospheric/emotional and immersive: three different approaches for your blurb’s opening line that seek to hook the reader’s attention. So what do these approaches look like on actual books? Below are some of my favourite opening lines to science fiction blurbs. I’ve put them in the category I personally think they most belong in. You may well disagree!
Curiosity – you’re intrigued:
After the Internet, what came next? 
The mystery of Ryhope wood had obsessed George Huxley to the point of madness. 
The last story in the annals of the human race 
When aliens made all Earth a farm . . . 
At stake – the Earth . . . 
No one knows why the ice has come, and no one can stop it. 
Jackie and a group of fellow rebel women have escaped the Authority’s repressive regime, forming a militia in the far north of Cumbria. 
When a deadly plague devastates humanity on every planet in known space, only Grass seems untouched. 
Emotional/atmospheric – creates a specific emotional response:
What happens when old spies come out to play one last game? 
Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort he offered him a job. 
Prepare to believe. 
In a war of lies she seeks the truth 
Change or die. 
Immersive – you’re there, but you want to know more:
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. 
Mary Gentle’s magnificent tale of the gutsy and beautiful mercenary leader Ash will take you on an unforgettable ride through medieval Europe as it never quite was. 
Zinzi has a Sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. 
This be the tale of how I bring the cure to all the nighted states, save every poory children, short for life. 
In conclusion, I believe it is worth interrogating what your opening line is doing and whether it is the right approach. Whatever line you choose to begin with should depend on the story you’re selling and on what emotions you want to trigger in your audience. It is worth trying out these different approaches to see where they get you. Because this is our leaping off point for the rest of the blurb. It will send us down a certain route. One we’ll explore in our next post, on the power of opposites to structure your blurb.
* I wonder how much this wonderful line now resonates in a world that to some degree has replaced the twelve-hour analogue clock with the twenty-four digital one. Not to mention who now is aware that thirteen strikes of a clock was once an indicator of doubt . . .
 Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson
 Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
 An Alien Heat by Michael Moorcock
 The Genocides by Thomas M Disch
 The Game Players of Titan by Philip K Dick
 Ice by Anna Kavan
 The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
 Grass by Sheri S Tepper
 Spook Country by William Gibson
 Mort by Terry Pratchett
 American Gods by Neil Gaiman
 A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
 Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
 The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
 Ash by Mary Gentle
 Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
 The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
Colin Brush writes blurbs for a living. They are much shorter than novels, novellas and nearly all short stories. Sometimes he’s been known to haiku a book blurb.
Number 4/8 in a series of weekly posts on how-to write your own cover copy by Colin Brush reprinted from Summer 2020. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.
I never take on a client unless I can pitch their book in twelve words.’ UK literary agent
The pitch is perhaps the most crucial aspect of understanding and selling your book. It is how you connect it to other people. But we have very little time and space to get their attention. Everyone is busy and being constantly bombarded by information. So how do we make our pitch stand out?
Firstly, we should write short. One of the most well-known agents in UK publishing used to say he would not take on a new client unless he could pitch their book in twelve words or fewer. Most people react with horror when told this. It’s impossible! Ridiculous! Nonsense! But actually if you can’t say what a book is one sentence can you confidently say you understand it or know it? It was Pascal who said (I paraphrase) ‘I’d have written a shorter letter if I’d had more time’.
Concision does take time but it also focuses the mind on what is truly important. Pitching your story in one line forces you to keep only what matters and ditch everything else: is it the stakes, the world, the themes, a character, a journey? Just as importantly, your pitch becomes an anchor: a holdfast that will keep you from drifting too far from this central crucial idea when it comes to writing your blurb. This should be the kernel around which your story has accreted.
Secondly, to inspire interest in others a pitch requires some tension: it should fizz. The elements in it should resonate in some sense, whether in opposition or harmony or even happy disharmony or something that is just plain unexpected. This is where your word choices and structure become vital.
Thirdly, your pitch requires an emotional hook of some sort. Yes, we are treading into the murky waters of advertising terminology. But without engaging the emotions of your reader your book just a block of dead wood. Readers need to feel something, a connection of some sort to your story (mostly you hope a strong desire to read it!). The cover and title should have stirred their emotions enough to get them to engage with your book as an object. Thus sufficiently buttered up, they are ready for your pitch to bring the story alive.
But hang on. The pitch isn’t the blurb (not yet, anyway). It might form part of the blurb, but mostly it is the beating heart of your blurb: the hooky idea that brings it all to life. I’m suggesting we figure out our pitch before we begin writing our blurb (in the same way that we figured out what story we were selling and just who it was we were selling that story to).
Which twelve words or single sentence hookily describes our book? And just as we looked at story types, there are likely to be a few different ways in which we can do it. Below are some I’ve quickly written for some well known stories and/or movies.
Sometimes the smallest person must bear the biggest burden.
Whoever possesses the true ring can destroy a world, or save it.
Only the purest of hearts can resist the most corrupting of evils.
When plague strikes the citizens fight and die – but never surrender.
When the plague comes it is the end of everything – but hope.
You can’t fake being human – except when you’re living a lie.
Is the monster out there worse than the one hiding inside us?
As you can see they don’t tell you very much and some of them sound rather like film poster tag lines. Which, to some extent, they should do. They will almost certainly apply to other stories as well as the specific ones that inspired these lines. That doesn’t matter. What these lines will hopefully do – and your mileage may vary, this is not a science – is trigger some emotional recognition you (remember our archetypal story types), depending on your susceptibility to certain kinds of story.
For instance, I’m a sucker for stories in which characters face impossible odds (the end of everything) or tales in which the rug is ripped out from under you halfway through (you’re living a lie). As I said earlier we need to give the lines some frisson and that is why each one is constructed with some tension in it – small vs big, destroy vs save, pure vs corrupt, fight vs surrender. Opposites are attractive (or if you read science-fiction tales featuring anti-matter: they have a tendency to be explosive). Alternatively, you can try juxtaposing something unexpected or counterintuitive.
Of course, all the time you want to remain true to your story.
If you find it hard summarising your story in twelve words, write something longer and then start shaving words off it. Write long to write short.
Next time – now that we’ve determined our story type, our audience and what our pitch is going to be – we’ll finally get around to starting to write our blurb.
PS The seven stories I pitched in twelve words or under are The Lord of the Rings (first three), The Plague (four and five), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (six) and Alien (seven).
Colin Brush has now entered his twenty-first year working as a copywriter in publishing. Coincidentally, twenty-one is the exact number of blurbs he wrote for a particularly tricky popular novel before the editor allowed him to put down his pen.