Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Write a Great Blurb

This week, I finally read Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!, the screenwriter's classic How To Tell a Story book. As a non-screenwriter, I still found it very interesting, but the part I liked the best was definitely the chapter about loglines.

So a logline is basically the one sentence description of a movie you used to see in the paper back when people actually looked at news papers for movie times. Things like:

"The fight for the future begins when a computer hacker learns the world exists in the sophisticated alternate reality of a computer program called 'The Matrix'"

"A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship."

"Toula's family has exactly three traditional values - "Marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone." When she falls in love with a sweet but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée while she comes to terms with her own heritage."

These are loglines for The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding respectively, though I probably didn't even have to tell you that. We know these stories, because these were all loglines that sold movies. In the business part of Hollywood, that's a logline's job: to sell a script.

In this area, at least, we novelists have it WAY better than screenwriters, because we have blurbs. Unlike loglines, which have to be short enough to pitch in that proverbial elevator, blurbs (or query letters, which are basically blurbs personalized to an agent) are allowed to take up entire paragraphs. Compared to the loglines above, that's an embarrassment of riches in terms of space to lay out our stories, and yet we still struggle to fit it all in. How do you convey what your 100,000 word book is about in two paragraphs? That's barely enough space to lay out the main characters and a basic sketch of the plot.

Well, you're in luck, because telling the story isn't what blurbs are for! A blurb, like a logline, isn't meant to be a synopsis or a report or anything so heavy. Instead, it is the answer to the question, "What is your story about?" And as any author who's admitted their profession in public can tell you, when someone asks "What is your story about," they're not signing up to hear a book report. They just want to know what's the genre, and why should they care.

Once you understand that, you've taken the first step toward mastering the blurb, because blurbs, like the loglines above, aren't there to tell the story, they're there to sell the story. They're meant to hook, to tease, to excite, to get whoever is reading them to want to read more. That's it, that's the entire point, and once you realize that, writing blurbs becomes very simple.

Not easy, of course. Blurbs still have to be short, witty, tantalizing, and full of hooks, which is hardly a walk in the park. But with a few guidelines (and the knowledge that you're writing ad copy, not a book a report), blurbs can stop being things you hate and become fun writing exercises.

Years ago, when I was haunting the NaNoWriMo forums, I came across the best single line hook for a novel I've ever read. It was one of those "boil your novel down to one sentence" challenges, and the entry was "He broke the world, can he fix it?"

That's a hell of a hook. I think I actually asked out loud "I don't know, can he?!" If there'd been more, I would have read it right there. Now, having read Save the Cat!, I think I understand why I was so immediately snapped up. In his book, Snyder mentions that the two essentials for every logline are irony and mystery. "He broke the world, can he fix it?" is just these two things in their purest form, a giant, unbreakable thing has been broken by an individual (irony), can he fix it? (mystery)

This two pronged approach is most easily visible in loglines where the enforced brevity leaves no room for anything else. Looking back up at the logline for The Matrix, we see that our real world isn't real at all (irony) and that we're going to be fighting machines to get back (inherent mystery, can we win?). Blurbs, being longer, are a little different. They still rely on mystery and iron, which could also be called the ingredients for a good hook, but they have the space to pack in more: more characters, more intrigue, more hooks. The canny writer will use this to her advantage.

Take, for example, the blurb for Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews:
"Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren't for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…"
This is a fantastic blurb on all accounts. There's requisite the irony (how could a city with magic not be a nice place to live?!) and mystery (Why is there magic? Will Kate catch the killer?), but there's also about ten billion other amazing cool hooks waiting to grab us--magic and technology switching places! A ruined metropolis crawling with magic! Necromancers who mind control vampires! A kick-ass heroine! A killer on the loose! How could you not want to read this book?!

This is the power of a great blurb. The paragraph above tells us almost nothing about the actual plot. There's only one named character (Kate Daniels) and a single recognizable location (Atlanta). We don't know why magic came back or what the world is like or even what Kate actually does for a living, and yet I want to read it all RIGHT NOW, as do hundreds thousands of other people going by her regular appearances on the NYT Bestseller List. We all want to read because this blurb does a great job of selling the setting, characters, and voice of the book.

That last bit is really crucial, and one of the reasons why authors should never farm out their blurb writing. Unlike loglines for movies, blurbs are more than just a sales pitch. They're also a sample of the writing we can expect inside. If a writer can't write a good blurb, or at least an interesting, engaging one, I have to wonder if they can write a novel. Blurb writing is hard, yes, but it's still writing. When I see an overworked blurb full of awkward sentences, predictable turns, and cheesy stock phrases ("the fate of the world," "toughest challenge she's ever known," "Character's perfect life falls apart when"), I can't help but wonder if the book isn't just as bad. That's never what you want people to wonder! You don't want them to wonder at all, you want them buy/request sample pages with squeals of delighted glee!

So, if you're sitting down to write a blurb or a query letter for your book, or if you already have a blurb/query letter and you're not getting the responses you want, take a step back and ask yourself if your blurb is doing its job. Is it highlighting what's best and most interesting about your work? Is it only telling people what they will read, or is it showing them why they want to read it?

Again, blurb writing is not easy. I can write 1000 words an hour, but I've spent two days on a 200 word blurb and still not been completely happy. That can feel a lot like failure when it hits, but your blurb is worth that level of effort, because the blurb is the most important bit of writing in your novel. The blurb is the first impression, the foot in the door. It's the very first thing anyone will read of your work, and if that blurb can't convince a reader or agent to keep going, your novel will not be read. So never be afraid to take your time and never settle for a blurb you don't love. It might take dozens of tries, but a good blurb is always worth the work in the end.

I hope this has helped you get a bit more insight into the World of Blurbcraft! I wanted to put up a really terrible blurb as a counter example to the Ilona Andrews one above, but there's no writer I dislike enough to embarrass them like that. Besides, you know a bad blurb when you see one. Everyone does, which is why they don't work. So use that same gut instinct on your own blurb. It might hurt, but I promise it's a good, becoming-a-better-writer kind of hurt.

And that's my post on blurbs! As always, thank you for reading, and remember to pile those hooks high!

Happy writing!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Cost of a Professional Quality Book

UPDATE: After talking to Brian McClellan and rereading his blogpost, The Cost of a Good Book, I realized I misinterpreted what he was trying to say. His point wasn't that $32k was what you should spend, but what Orbit had spent on his book as part of his argument that publishers do a lot for authors in the whole Amazon/Hachette debacle.

I'm not actually sure how I read this so wrong. Apparently I'm illiterate, or at least comprehension impaired. But correct information is what this blog is all about! So I've removed the parts of this post that refer to his because, hey, I was very wrong! (And in this case, I'm really happy about that. Seriously, I couldn't understand how an author I liked could be saying these things. Now I do, because he wasn't. Durrr.)

I've left my own numbers in, of course, because those actually are correct and hopefully still relevant.  Mea culpa, Brian McClellan! Sorry about all the hub-bub and fuss! And to the rest of you, sorry about the confusion. That'll teach me to get my britches in a bundle.

Carrying on!


When I decided last year that I wanted to self-publish Nice Dragons Finish Last, the very first thing I knew I wanted was that my self-published books should be indistinguishable in quality and production from my New York books. I wanted my readers to be able to move seamlessly between my series without even noticing who published what.

To achieve this level of quality control, I knew I would need:

1) A high quality, custom illustrated cover from a professional artist. ($1100)
2) Thorough content editing from an experienced genre editor. ($1400)
3) Serious copy editing. ($480)

After a lot of research into the costs of the services above, I settled on a production budget of $3000. If that seems lower than a lot of numbers you've heard, it's because I made decisions that deliberately kept it that way, lowering my initial risk and hopefully ensuring a successful future for my book!

So what are these decisions? Well, to start with, Nice Dragons is currently ebook only. The reason for this is simple mathematics. Looking at all my royalty reports for my Orbit books across two series, I could see that the print percentage of my sales has been steadily dropping. By 2013, the majority of my books were sold as ebooks. This is critically important. Even with a New York publisher getting my books onto bookstore shelves, I was still selling more ebooks than print copies. Also, ebooks are easier to sell, higher profit margin, and cheaper to produce than print editions. Seeing this, I decided the initial Nice Dragons release would be ebook only, which saved a huge amount of money on the initial production cost.

Does this mean Nice Dragons will be ebook only forever? No way. I still love print, and I know my fans do, too, but data doesn't lie. Every number I had told me that print wasn't where the money was, so I made the decision to put off a print release (and all the type setting and back covers and expenses that go with it) until I had numbers proving Nice Dragons Finish Last could sell enough copies in print to justify the cost.

I also decided to forego an audio book edition.

Just like my decision not to do an immediate print release, this was a personal choice to save money on the initial production cost of my book. Audio books are awesome, and they can make you a lot of money, but they are enormously expensive--$2800 by Mr. McClellan's report, which sounds right to me. This struck me as something I could pursue after Nice Dragons was "earning out," and since self-publishing is a long game, I knew I'd have the time to pursue this later on if I chose.

Again, print books and audio editions and all the other bells and whistles that might seem necessary for a book release are, in fact, not needed to produce a professional quality book readers will buy and enjoy. For that, all you need is a high quality, professional cover, professionally edited text that is free from errors, and, of course, an actual good book.

Again, even leaving these out, my book still cost $3000 to produce, which is actually a lot by self-published book standards. But I was determined to make sure my readers got the highest quality reading experience, and I put my money where my mouth was. That said, I have read absolutely lovely, well edited books with very nice covers produced for less than $1000, so your millage may vary.

Just speaking for myself, Nice Dragons has already made enough money to cover all its costs and justify a print edition (which I will be adding soon!), and it hasn't even been out for a full thirty days. It's also my best received book to date, so I think $3000 was right on the nose--just enough to ensure maximum quality, but not so much I'd have to wait forever to earn it back and try other things I wanted to do, like print and audio.

Is $300 a good cost for you? I can't say, because I'm not you, and your book is not mine. I do, however, feel that $3000 is a realistic price for a professional quality self-published book put out by an established author. Again, YMMV, so always be sure to make a budget you can stick to and price out your freelancers first! The KBoards Yellow Pages for Authors is a great place to start.

Thank you as always for reading. I hope you enjoyed the post. Again, sorry about the edits.

Good luck and happy writing!