Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Boosting Your Blurbs

So you’re the best novel ever written. You’re bursting with adventure, memorable characters, wit and charm. Your author put every ounce of love she had in you, and now it’s your turn to shine. You’ve hit the bookstores, and you wait, surrounded by other novels—so many other novels! Oh! Someone’s coming!

He noticed you! He picks you up, turns you over, and after a few seconds, leaves you back on the shelf. That’s okay, maybe he’s not the right type for you. You can wait a little longer, someone will come along, someone ready to appreciate all you have to offer.

But as the days go by, the same thing happens again and again. People scan your shelf, pick you up, and after a few moments put you back down. Everything was going so well—what put them off? Your title is catchy, your cover is appealing, so why is nobody taking you home? Then it hits you. Oh no! Can it be? Are you infected with the bad blurb blues?

If that’s so, don’t fear, for in this article I will give you the basics to turn your blurb around and really make the most of it. Let’s start at the very beginning (because it’s a very good place to start!).




What is a blurb and why do you need one?

A blurb is a short piece of text used to advertise creative work; it is a descriptor as well as a sales pitch. In the publishing world, blurbs appear on the back cover of your book, on Amazon (the book description), on your website if you use it to promote your work, on reviewers’ websites if they are discussing your book…


So blurbs are important business. The reason for having a blurb is to draw people’s attention and to increase the chances of your book being bought or downloaded. The title of the book, the cover, and finally the blurb are the key points a person will look at when browsing bookshelves. These three elements are information at first glance, your book’s presentation card, so they must be carefully designed. Fail on any one of these, and you cut your novel’s chance of being read.
A good blurb gives potential readers an idea of what your book is about. It offers essential information in a way that tickles curiosity. It raises questions and promises to reveal the answers in the pages of the novel. A good blurb makes the potential reader curious enough to buy the book.
So let’s take another look at our novel friend up there, waiting on its shelf at the bookstore. Why did nobody take the poor little book home? Well, let’s turn it over and have a gander at its blurb:
But just how short is a blurb?
Here are some examples from different articles on blurbs. As you will see, opinions vary:
Here are some examples from different articles on blurbs. As you will see, opinions vary:
Joanna Penn says: “Most seem to be 100-150 words long as the blurb text itself, not including about the author if included. That is also a nicely spaced blurb, not a squashed one.”

So it seems that a blurb can run from several paragraphs to just a few lines. A good way to check typical blurb lengths is to go on Amazon and look at the blurbs for several of your favorite books. My recommendation is to make the blurb as short as you possibly can, while including all the essential information to draw in potential readers. And what exactly is this essential information? Keep reading to find out!
Joanna Penn says: “Most seem to be 100-150 words long as the blurb text itself, not including about the author if included. That is also a nicely spaced blurb, not a squashed one.”
So it seems that a blurb can run from several paragraphs to just a few lines. A good way to check typical blurb lengths is to go on Amazon and look at the blurbs for several of your favorite books. My recommendation is to make the blurb as short as you possibly can, while including all the essential information to draw in potential readers. And what exactly is this essential information? Keep reading to find out!
So it seems that a blurb can run from several paragraphs to just a few lines. A good way to check typical blurb lengths is to go on Amazon and look at the blurbs for several of your favorite books. My recommendation is to make the blurb as short as you possibly can, while including all the essential information to draw in potential readers. And what exactly is this essential information? Keep reading to find out!
First of all, it is important to tell potential readers who the story is about. An interesting protagonist is a great hook, so do your best to show off your hero, characterize him, and tell readers what his goal is. By starting off with an appealing character, you engage your potential readers, and thus make them more inclined to find out what the story is all about.
Characterizing your protagonist means explaining something basic about him which defines him—while keeping it interesting. For example:
Tristan Cross, a repenting space-age assassin.
Robert Harwood, raises the dead when there’s nothing good on TV.
These short descriptions can be serious, fun, or downright ridiculous—it all depends on the tone of your book. If done well, they will draw potential readers further into the book (“What do you mean, raise the dead? Literally? How does he do that?”), and make them curious as to why the character is that way (“How did Tristan become an assassin? What made him repent?”).
Here are some examples of blurbs which introduce the protagonist while raising questions and sparking interest:
“On her way to work, secretary Docia Waverley hurtles into a crashing crossroads, and she quickly begins to suspect that things will never be the same.” Forbidden, Jacquelyn Frank
“With wings of midnight and an affinity for shadows, Jason courts darkness.” Archangel's Storm, Nalini Singh
“Case had been the sharpest data-thief in the business, until vengeful former employees crippled his nervous system.” Neuromancer, William Gibson





The male lead is an interplanetary pilot who decides he needs to change his lifestyle and leave the company he works for. He teams up with his brother and they have many adventures as they cross the Solar System on their journey back to Earth. They also meet some people they don’t get along with, and will have some problems along the way.*

* Note: this is not an actual, published blurb, it’s just a horrible example. To see examples of real blurbs gone askew, pay a visit to Terrible Blurbs or Good Writers, Bad Blurbs.

This fake blurb is insipid; it’s vague (“they have many adventures”—like what? Who’s the protagonist? What company does he work for? Where/when does the story take place?), and doesn’t offer a strong conflict to hook the readers (saying that the protagonist will “have some problems along the way” is not strong enough to make someone want to follow his adventures).

Unlike the above example, a successful blurb will be short, informative and interesting. It will spark potential readers’ interest and hook them, drawing them into the book and hopefully pushing sales.



Above, I described a blurb as “a short piece”, and gave an example of a (bad) 63-word-long blurb. But do all blurbs have to be that short—or that long? What is the average blurb length, and how do you know what length is just right?

Marilynn Byerly says: “A blurb is the book description you find on the back of a book or online to describe a book's contents. Most run several paragraphs, but some publishers want them shorter or in a special format so be sure to check with your publisher's guidelines before you begin work.” Her article is especially interesting if you’re looking for help on how to tighten your blurb. It is well worth a read.
Sarah Kent recommends blurbs shouldn’t exceed 250 words.

Tips on writing successful blurbs
For this section, I have relied on articles by Amy Wilkins, Sarah Kent and Joanna Penn. You can consult the originals by clicking on the author’s name, or going to the list of links at the bottom of the article.

So let’s have a look at the elements which must appear in a good blurb.



Characters and characterization



Setting

To make the blurb more interesting and anchor the action, you should give a quick nod to the story’s setting. Where does it take place? And in what time period? Does the action take place in a typical corner shop in the heart of a big city? Or do your protagonists travel to distant planets in a quest to find the meaning of life?

If the setting is conventional, just a hint at it is sufficient for potential readers to form an image of the surroundings. If, however, you are writing in the science fiction or fantasy genres, chances are that you created an entirely new world. If that is the case, you can use your setting to your advantage: a unique world can also act as a hook to draw readers to buy your novel. For example, the blurb on Terry Pratchett’s first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, immediately sets the scene:

“On a world supported on the back of a giant turtle (sex unknown), a gleeful, explosive, wickedly eccentric expedition sets out.”



The plot

No blurb would be complete without mentioning the book’s plot. Incorporating the plot into the blurb can be tricky, as you can easily fall into the temptation of summarizing the entire story. A blurb is not a summary—think of it instead as a sales pitch. So how should it go? Of course, you want to hook readers from the beginning, so hint just enough at the plot to make them hungry for more. Giving too many details can bore or confuse your potential readers.

Giving away the plot twist or conclusion is practically synonymous to giving away your book. Very few people will be interested in reading a story whose outcome they already know because it was scrawled on the back of the book. If your story has a great plot twist, or a great secret, that you’re just dying to tell, stop and take a deep breath. Hint briefly at it instead of blurting it out. That will pique potential readers’ curiosity, making them want to read more to know exactly what the twist or secret is.

On how much of the plot you should reveal, Amy Wilkins proposes you ask yourself the following questions: “Does your reader really need to know that (and be harsh)? Could it be considered a spoiler? Are you telling the whole plot, including how the conflict will resolved?”



End the blurb with conflict

What better way to end your blurb than leaving the readers dying to know what happens? Ending with conflict is an effective way to hook readers, as they scratch their heads and wonder “How the heck is the protagonist going to wriggle out of this one?” To achieve this, you can end on a question, hint at a lurking danger or, in romance, remind readers what is keeping the lovers apart.

Here are some examples:

Hinting at danger:

Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner:  R. Daneel Olivaw.  Worst of all was that the "R" stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!” The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov

Ending with a question:

“As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister, Margo, at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?” Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

A question and conflict which threatens to keep the characters apart:

“When Aleksandr finds Charisma under attack, he rescues and cares for her, and hope stirs once more in his heart...and in the world. But in the secret recesses of his soul, he knows the truth. A woman so exceptional could never love a beast...could she?” Wilder: The Chosen Ones, Christina Dodd

Introducing the protagonist, the setting and the plot are the major points you should bear in mind when writing a blurb for your book. However, that’s not all! Here are some more nifty tips:



Rhetorical questions

Asking your potential readers rhetorical questions can be an effective way of jogging their curiosity, but include too many and you can easily turn people off. It’s best to stick to one or two important questions, as they will be more effective than turning the blurb into an interrogation process. For example, in the following excerpt from a blurb, we finish with a rhetorical question and conflict:

As the epic battles rage, Lucia struggles to understand the messages of The Black One, while Caio wrestles with his conscience: Can someone who only wants to heal the world bring himself to kill another man?” The Black God's War, Moses Siregar II



Use lines from the manuscript

Amy Wilkins affirms that sometimes using opening lines from your novel as a blurb helps give the reader a better idea of what to expect. She offers the following example, the opening paragraph for The Hollow House by Janis Patterson:

“I decided to use the name Geraldine Brunton. It’s not the name I was born with, nor the name I married, but it will hide who I really am…and what I have done.”
This example is a tightened version of the novel’s opening, and it is an effective blurb since it presents the protagonist and hooks the reader as well as offering a sample of the book’s tone.



Shoutlines

While a blurb is a short summary of your novel, shoutlines are those bolded little bits of text at the beginning of a blurb or placed between paragraphs or on the front cover. They must be very short and catchy, unique and fresh.

If you decide to include a shoutline, first of all ask yourself if you really need it. If the answer is yes, then make sure you do not use clich├ęs, that the shoutline itself is not excessively long, and that it has something of value for the potential reader.

Example shoutlines:

“A devilishly thrilling comic fantasy.” Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, Jonathan L. Howard

“An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson.” Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom

“The robots ruled with gentle hands—but men’s minds were enslaved.” The Humanoids, Jack Williamson


Blurb pitfalls

A good blurb is like a little gold medal gleefully tacked onto the back of your book. But a bad blurb can jump right out and poke potential readers in the eye.

Always remember that a blurb deserves the same respect as the contents of your novel. This means you have to proofread it, edit it, spellcheck! A blurb containing errors in grammar or spelling won’t say much about the quality of your writing, so do your best to make it interesting and flawless.

It is also important to remember that a blurb is not a book synopsis. Don’t fall into the temptation of writing a summary of everything that goes on. Blurbs hint at the plot, they don’t give it away. Blurbs act as hooks, sparking readers’ curiosity. A blurb which is in reality a summary will sound like a high school book report. For more help on how to shorten blurbs, check out How to Write a Blurb (Back Cover Copy), by Marilynn Byerly.

Finally, I would like to mention Ben Galley and point out that a blurb is not supposed to be just a well-written block of text. You can be creative with your blurb: try out different layouts and font sizes, increase spacing, split sentences. You can see an example of a creatively spaced blurb in Ben Galley’s article. What effect does it cause? Is it more entertaining to read than a simple paragraph of text?



Conclusions

Blurbs are an important part of the publishing world, and they must be treated with the respect they deserve. A good blurb will present the protagonist and their world, and hint at the plot and a point of conflict in order to draw potential readers.

Hopefully, this article on blurbs will help you plan your own. Before I sign off, I’d like to offer one more piece of advice: don’t be too shy to ask for help. Writing groups such as Critique Circle allow members to post questions in the forums so other members can lend a hand. When in doubt, ask; test the waters before you dive in. Post your blurb to the writing community and see if others find it interesting, if they would buy your book based on your blurb, or if they have any advice on how to boost it.

Happy blurbing, everyone!



Resources

Terrible Blurbs by Kureopatora
Good Writers, Bad Blurbs, by Greg Zimmerman
Building a Blurb, by Ben Galley


Thursday, August 23, 2012

How to Write Action

So you finally made it happen. You set all the pieces in place, tension mounts, your villain gives your hero the major stinkeye... and the action begins.

But how?

How do you successfully convey a whole flurry of action on the written page? I mean, it's not like we can watch it happen on a big screen? Or can we...? Imagination plays a major role in all fiction writing. Tickle it the right way, and it will carry you along page after page of adventures. Tickle it the wrong way, and you might get slapped. There’s nothing worse that being engrossed in a story and—what the heck is that?—something doesn’t make sense, something sounds just off, and it pulls you out of the adventure.

There are many reasons why this might happen: awkward word choice or phrasing, unbelievable circumstances, or even an unfortunate typo which went overlooked in the editing process. In action scenes, the reader might be jerked out of the story if he stumbles across a passage of description in the middle of a fight. Or maybe he feels there is something off with the fight itself; maybe your villain’s nonchalant triple back flip and perfect landing onto the seat of his purring Harley while lighting a cigar has made him lose credibility in the scene. Whatever the problem, whenever the writing pulls the reader out of the story, you risk not being able to draw him back in.

Because of the importance of the action sequence, it’s best to have an idea of the basics. This is why I’ve put together a compilation of tips from various online resources. So let’s start at the beginning.


1) Preparation

First off, before beginning the actual writing, you must go through the preparation for the scene. What’s that? You wanted to kick some alien butt? Get out there and shoot some cannons? Slice some throats? Well, that will have to wait because, as Philip Palmer beautifully explains in his article, How to Write Action SF:

“[…] action scenes are of course not the same as scenes of violence. Violence is just killing; action is killing + THINKING. A dumb hero who kills is not a hero at all, he (or she) is just a murdering psychopath.”

So you, as the creator of action, have to think a little before you write. As Linda Adams states in her article, Thriller: Writing the Action Scene, the key is to plan the scene in advance. Make sure the characters are prepared for what will happen. This doesn’t mean that the characters must always be ready for an ambush, but that they should know the skills you want them to use in combat.

For example, if you want your heroine to show off some mean karate moves, make sure she learned karate first! If the talent suddenly materializes in the middle of combat, you risk having your scene sound contrived and, well, not credible. (Deus ex machina, anyone?)

Another important part of preparation is to make the most out of the character’s existing skills. If gracing your characters with sudden hidden talents is contrived, it is equally bad—or possibly worse—to build up a character with many abilities, and not have him use them in an action scene. You can see an example of this in Linda Adams’ article (link provided below).

Philip Palmer points out that establishing a protagonist with an attitude is also an essential part of action writing. Whether he’s the all-around good guy, the lovable troublemaker, or the bear-chested space commander, the hero must have an attitude, and his actions must be consequential to who he is.

And what about the bad guy? Regarding the villain, Linda Adams reminds us to keep the stakes believable. A villain who murders hundreds, blows up buildings and goes after the hero many times cannot simply be doing it because of the money. There must be stakes to go in proportion to the damage being done.

Once we have the background for the heroes and the villains, we must build up the story to the action scene per se. But it doesn’t all stop there. We might like movies where one bomb goes off after another, bridges collapse, and that’s pretty much the plot (I myself am a fan of the Terminator saga). But in writing things don’t work that way. Every scene must have a goal, and action scenes are no exception.

So what will the outcome of your action scene be? What is its purpose? How does it add to the continuity of the novel or story?

Once all these matters have carefully planned out, we can begin to write the scene.

2) Punching and kicking and shooting—oh my!


So you sit down… and stare at the screen. You write a sentence, go back, erase it. Is it supposed to be this hard? Maybe, but then there’s only one thing left to do: practice!

A helpful website to go to for information on what steps to follow in writing action is About.com. What I love about this site is that at the bottom of each article we can find links to further reading and related topics. The article by Ginny Wiehardt, Writing Action Scenes, offers sound tidbits of knowledge on what to do when putting together a successful action scene. Let’s take a look at the first three tips they offer us:

1) Perform the action (if possible)
2) Pick up the pace
3) Keep dialogue short

Performing the action for fight scenes—whenever reasonably possible—will give you a better feel on how the characters might interact in their fight. You might discover that when you perform a certain movement, your foot ends up here, not there, or your hair, which happens to be the exact same length as the hero’s, falls into your eyes obscuring your vision—you might want to tie it back.

Once you have an idea of the choreography you want to carry out, it is very important to try to transmit a sense of speed on the page. You can achieve this by writing in shorter, choppier sentences, by cropping dialog to a minimum, and by shortening or obliterating descriptions.

Rayne Hall writes, in the article Fast-Paced Fight Scenes, that “[t]he length of your sentences creates the pace of your scene. In a fight scene, sentences need to be short, especially when the action speeds up.”

Hall then goes a little further, and comments on the importance of using the right words in action scenes:

“Short words create a fast, sharp rhythm, so use the shortest available word for the job. Words with single syllables are best. Two syllables are ok, three syllables are so-so, and anything longer doesn't belong in a fight scene.”

So the key is to keep it sweet, short and simple, to avoid weighing down the page with longwinded words or descriptions which, honestly, would be better off somewhere else.

The article Writing Action, by S. B. “Kinko” Hulsey, offers a good example of how we can speed up action. We start out with a rather clunky scene. The sentences range in the 15-word field, there are various descriptions plopped throughout, and the action just doesn’t do it. Luckily, Hulsey works through the text, dumping descriptive, selecting more appropriate words, shortening sentences and paragraphs, and tweaking the overall structure of the scene. The end result is quite different from the clunky, slow paragraph we started out with.

3) But it just won’t come out!

As I mentioned above, Hulsey goes through an entire revision process in order to achieve a successful action scene. Sometimes, however, it’s better to get the action down in any way you can, and then worry about revision later.

How many hours have you spent in front of a computer screen, beads of sweat forming on your forehead, because those darn perfect words just won’t come out? As Pace J Miller puts it in his article Writing Action Sequences:

"A common problem with action scenes is the struggle to find the right verb to describe a particular action. My advice: stuff it."

This is sound advice, no matter how you look at it. Get the action down, complete the scene—you’ll have time to revise and consult the thesaurus later. Just type down the scene now that it’s tingling your fingertips. Inspiration might be gone in a few minutes, so why waste it by trying to come up with the perfect words? Perfection takes time, so “stuff it” and keep working.

And while I'm on the topic of the perfect action verbs, here is a very interesting blog entry from Hillary Homzie, Action Verbs for Fighting Scenes. Don't miss the photographs of the classroom whiteboard! There's material for inspiration right there.

In conclusion, writing action is not an easy task, but it can be done. Preparation, structure and revision are the key to happy writing. There are many more sources on writing action available on the net, and I have listed the ones used in this article, as well as a few more, below.

All in all, I hope this introduction has helped you understand the basics of a good action scene, and the preparation required to successfully pull one off!

Happy writing!

Mentioned links

Writing Action Scenes – Ginny Wiehardt on About.com
Fast-Paced Fight Scenes – Rayne Hall
Writing Action – S. B. “Kinko” Hulsey
Writing Action Sequences – Pace J Miller

Further information

Action Sequences – Jed Hartman
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