This is the beginning of a series of weekly how-to posts by Colin Brush reprinted from Summer 2020. Follow this blog to get all the instalments.
‘If you think you have a book evolving, now is the time to write the flap copy – the blurb, in fact. An author should never be too proud to write their own flap copy. Getting the heart and soul of a book into fewer than 100 words helps you focus. More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your own head.’ Terry Pratchett, Guardian
You’ve spent months, even years, writing and editing your book. The intricacies of story, characters, plot and theme interlock like the pieces of a jigsaw. You’ve polished and polished until the words shine. You’ve got the perfect title. The cover is coming along a treat. You’ve even garnered some advance praise. Everything is looking good for publication and then, almost as an afterthought, the matter of the copy – the blurb – rears its head. Can you sum up your book in a paragraph or two? More importantly, can you sell your book?
Of course, you’ve just written many thousands of great words. How hard can a couple hundred more be?
To read the blurbs on some paperbacks and (too many) hardbacks, the answer appears to be pretty damn difficult.
Blurbs aren’t easy. I’ve been working as a publishing copywriter for twenty years and I’ve written blurbs for over 4,000 titles – ranging from classics to the latest contemporary fiction, prize winners to supermarket thrillers, short story and poetry collections to multi-volume histories, self-help books to celebrity autobiographies – and it’s clear that many often struggle to find the right words to make their books stand out. I know I frequently do.
This isn’t helped by a publishing peculiarity: blurbs are mostly written by editor and/or author. This is unsurprising since editor and author know the book better than anyone else and both are expected to be good with words. Yet such truisms ignore the fact that there are many different kinds of writing. Writing a good blurb doesn’t just require being good with words. It means thinking as much about the book’s audience as it does about the book itself. Who do we want to buy it? What are they looking for? What are their reading desires? What elements does the book have that will excite them most? What emotions do we need to tap into?
To write a persuasive blurb we have to connect our book’s strengths to our audience’s wants and needs.
This, in my experience, is made harder for editor and author alike because of their closeness to the book. They have spent so long among the trees it can be difficult to remember what the wood looks like from the outside. I rarely read all of a book I’m blurbing – I don’t have the time, sadly – but if I do it is always harder to write the blurb. My head is filled with ideas, images and emotions and it can be paralysing knowing what to put in and what to leave out.
That’s why I developed a process to help me craft my blurbs.
Over the next few posts I’d like to share with you some of these techniques and strategies. We’ll work out what kind of story we’re trying to sell. We’ll think about the reader (our audience). We’ll see how both audience and story inform our pitch or emotional hook. We’ll look at turning that pitch into a simple blurb structure. We’ll discover how understanding blurb geometry (yes, I believe they can have geometric shapes: triangles, diamonds, hourglasses) helps you to more easily write or rewrite a blurb. And let’s not forget about the words themselves: how we can use them to best effect.
Just like there are no correct novels, there are no correct blurbs (though we can argue that incorrect varieties of both are legion). Each blurb is a creative response to a story, seeking to connect that story with its readers. And like novels, some blurbs will seem qualitatively better and some will seem qualitatively worse and not everyone will agree on which is which. But my aim here is to help us all understand the choices available to us so we can make better and more informed decisions about the correct words to sell our stories.
Because when you’re sweating over a blurb after writing a book it can be hard to see the wood for the trees.
This is what this series of posts will be about. Stepping back from the trees to rediscover what drove you into the wood in the first place, so that others will be tempted to follow you.
Colin Brush has worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty-five years. At some point he might think about following his late father’s deathbed advice and get a proper job.