The Blurb Doctor Is In

The Doctor Is In.
Don’t worry, this won’t hurt a bit.

In my last post, I grumbled about mistakes commonly made in book descriptions/synopses. If you missed that phenomenal piece of curmudgeonly brilliance, you can read it here. This week, I pony up and come through as promised – the Blurb Doctor is in. Trust me, this is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you.

Writing a book description or “book blurb” can be the most difficult part of the process for some authors. I don’t know why I have a knack for it. I also don’t know how some people have figured that out (before I came out of the closet with it just now) and have approached me to help them with theirs.

If you’re just getting started, you should check out our Book Description Basics article.

I tried to devise a formula that could be used by anyone for any book of any subject. Would you like to know how that went? Well, it looked something like this: 

Line 1: Hook.
Line 2: Something about the book.
Line 3: Something about the book.
Last Line: Reel ’em in with a juicy question.

Yeah, it didn’t go so well. I discovered that writing the blurbs – for me, anyway – is intuitive. And without a blurb to doctor, well, that made it nearly impossible for me to advise what should be done. So, I dissected one of my own book blurbs and formulated the following pointers and guidelines.

#1 – Keep your book description between 100 and 200 words. A reader’s time is valuable. Don’t make him/her work to figure out if your book is interesting.

#2 – Stay on point and true to the story. Your book description should be like an express lane on a highway which leads the reader quickly and directly to Sale City. The express lane should be a straight line, and there should be no detours. Detours may cause the reader to lose interest and pull off to the “people who bought this also bought” rest area.

#3 – Less is more. Who, what, when, where, why and how is really all you need.

#4 – Third person. ALWAYS. I find being bombarded with I, I, I  to be annoying. Also, it reminds me of the Frito bandito which makes me hungry.

#5 – A question is acceptable as your final “grabber.” Too many questions may result in the reader thinking “how should I know?” or “I really don’t care.”

I understand authors don’t enjoy summarizing their 300 page novel into two paragraphs. Because every word they wrote was perfect and worthy of attention, I’m sure. It’s really not that bad when it’s approached logically. The best method for writing a book description/sales blurb is to make a list of the major conflicts, the pivotal points, and the most important characters, in the order in which they happen and/or appear. If you mention a new character, briefly explain who they are and how they relate to the story/other characters – but only if they’re necessary. Weed out the details of lesser importance…until you have what you want.

Introducing too many characters will confuse the reader. Adding them to the mix without explaining who they are (and when they’re not really necessary) is even worse. The other day I read a book description that went like this (I’ve changed everything to protect the author here): “Serena, a half-koala/half-woman, who falls in love with Jasper, a werewolf, and they hang out with his friends and then suddenly a friend of Jasper’s is murdered by Walter so they all go searching.” Searching for what…or whom? And since Walter is never mentioned again, why even bring him up? They hang out with his friends? This sounds more like an episode of Glee than a book I’d want to read. Where’s the conflict? And why isn’t that a grammatically correct sentence? How about “a friend of Jasper’s is murdered, which brings everyone together in a man-hunt for his killer”? Short and sweet: Who, what, when, where, why and how.

You never want potential customers to walk away with more questions than they had when they started. The only question they should ask at the end is: how do I get this book NOW?

Okay, now let’s look at a book description. Here’s the one for my most recent novel, Night Undone. The book itself is 272 pages. The book description is 158 words:

NightUndone AwardFormer Special Agent Kathrin Night is not adjusting to civilian life. More than a year after her career-ending injury, she still can’t get the hang of it. This is wearing thin on her lover, Russian FSB Agent Aleksey Khovechkin, who tricks Kathrin into seeing a psychiatrist specializing in post-military/espionage patients. The therapy doesn’t go exactly as Aleksey hopes, but before he can react, Russia recalls him to make him an offer he can’t refuse. Prior to his departure, Aleksey reveals his deepest, darkest secret to Kathrin. Had he, in fact, used her to escape his duties in Russia, or was his allegiance to her genuine? Determined to see justice served, Kathrin hatches a scheme to help Aleksey while at the same time reviving her career in espionage. The Vancouver Winter Olympics could be the perfect venue for her plan, but can she pull it off without destroying their relationship, causing an international incident, or getting either of them killed?

Okay, yes, there are two questions in there. So sue me.

Now, let’s pick it apart. The first sentence is always your hook, no matter what you’re writing. In this case, it’s the most prevalent theme in the book. You immediately know who the main character is, as well as the main conflict. Career-ending injury? – more internal conflict. Introduce another major character, and the conflict he brings. Straight line to what happens next in the story. Notice there’s nothing about the psychiatrist (Dr. Scully) as in her name or what is discussed in the sessions with her. There’s no backstory about Agent Night, or Aleksey. It’s just not necessary.

We’re still heading in a straight line – directly into what happens next. Clearly, something goes wrong in therapy, but the blurb reader doesn’t know what. They don’t need to know – that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it? You can be vague without being cryptic. On the same note: Aleksey’s deepest, darkest secret is revealed. This is a pivotal point in the book. It unleashes even more conflict. Still moving forward…

Night Undone is a character-driven drama. So, up until now, the conflict is mostly psychological. Then there is another shift in the story – when the action becomes physical and the level of suspense gets turned up a notch. So, you bring the story, the blurb and the suspense to a crescendo with your final question.

A few points: There are plenty of other key characters in Night Undone, but mentioning them would bog down the book description. The story is the focus here – not the international agents involved or the Chinese food or the fact that Agent Night starts having flashbacks. I actually had the flashbacks in the book description at one point, then edited them out because although they make the book more interesting, the storyline would be the same without them.

If you want more examples, there are nine of them on my Author Central page. I don’t feel right giving out the book descriptions I’ve written for others. Now go for it. I know you can do it. Trust me, I’m a doctor.

Author: K.S. Brooks

K.S. Brooks is an award-winning novelist, photographer, and photo-journalist, author of over 30 titles, and executive director and administrator of Indies Unlimited. Brooks is currently a photo-journalist and chief copy editor for two NE Washington newspapers.  She teaches self-publishing and writing topics for the Community Colleges of Spokane, and served on the Indie Author Day advisory board. For more about K.S. Brooks, visit her website and her Amazon author page.

32 thoughts on “The Blurb Doctor Is In”

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I didn't actually give myself that nickname. It came from someone I wrote a book blurb for – and it just stuck. 🙂

  1. Fantastic. Thank you for all this great advice! If I may add one more bit? Proofread and edit the daylights out of the thing. Get fresh eyes on it. It's usually the first piece of information a potential reader sees about your book. Typos here are deadly.

    1. Exactly. My bad for making the assumption that people would automatically do that. Then, when everyone else is done poking and prodding it, PRINT IT out. Then read it one more time. I always catch things better after major edits if they're on paper. Thanks, Laurie!

  2. Great post. And I agree with Laurie — you need to copy-edit the hell out of your blurb. If you can't get through a two-paragraph sales pitch without a misspelling or grammar/punctuation error, the reader is going to wonder how much of a mess your book is.

    *I* would, anyway. And I'm a reader as well as an author.

    1. Absolutely, Lynne. I see a lot of blurbs every day. And a typo in one is a BIG red flag that there may be more of the same in the book.

  3. I HATE the question at the end… as a reader. So many blurbs do not set up for the question well and when I get to it, honestly, it makes me think um well "I don't know."

    My own blurb used to end on this question:

    Now Johnathan's too distracted to keep up at work, wondering if the baby is his, and if so, exactly how does he tell Alexis?

    It's been changed to:

    Now Johnathan's too distracted to keep up at work, wondering if the baby is his, and if so, he's stumped for a good way to tell Alexis.

    To me, the change takes the burden off the reader and it's accurate about what the book is about… a man letting his personal life make his work life suffer and struggling to fess up to his fiancee that a one-night stand from before they started dating is pregnant.

    It might just be a personal thing, but the question thing isn't what I want to leave my readers with. I want them to feel confident with my work, that I KNOW what's in there. I've read too many books with a question at the end of the blurb that surprise, wasn't ever addressed in the book!

    1. Each author has to do what works best for them. I try to make sure the question is set up perfectly, and that it is in fact answered in the book. I think questions work well with suspense novels, and maybe not as well with other kinds of books.

      As far as your book goes – the possible ramifications of Johnathan telling Alexis could present a whole new set of problems – and what if the baby isn't his? That's another way you could end it, but again, it's what works best for you.

  4. Another great post, Doc. My first blub was 280 words. Eeekkk. When I change the cover, I knew the blurb needed a re-write and I found someone who I think is pretty good at making them short, sweet and to the point with the who, what, when, where, why and how and it is now only 130 words. Small enough for print on the back so I was able to add a small bio with my pic, a two line review from the Romance Reviews and the tiny: Recommended Read by Happy Ever Blog on USA Today! I am happy with the way it turned out and I will probably always ask for help on writing blurb. I wrote the first one and it definitely needed to be rewritten.

    1. Oh, and mine does end on a question even though it is a contemporary romance: Lyn is not happy — just how much is a confident, independent woman supposed to tolerate?

    2. Thank you, Ma'am! That sounds great. The shorter blurbs do give you room for other good stuff on the back cover – like what you did. 🙂

  5. You mean like this? "Amy knows she wants just one man's attention, just one to unleash her passion and connect with, but which one? There's Tom, her best friend forever, whom she's had a crush on since they were just kids. Then there's Dr. Grant Graysen, the veterinarian that took over her father's practice, but wait…Is that Kent, her ex husband, the most passionate man she has ever known, what's he doing here?"

    1. Hi Karen…is there more to the story than that? Also, what genre is your book?

      I'd probably go with something like this (keeping in mind I don't know your story or genre, of course): "Amy is ready to settle down with the man of her dreams. The problem is – there are three of them. There’s Tom, her best friend forever, whom she’s had a crush on since they were just kids. Then there’s Dr. Grant Graysen, the sexy veterinarian who took over her father’s practice. And now Kent, her ex-husband, the most passionate man she has ever known, has come back to town. Which one is truly Mr. Right?"

  6. Book blurbs – ugh – the worst. I love writing and adore words. However this part of the storytelling process trips me up every time. Think maybe I'll have to give the Doctor a call next time around. 😉

    1. It's really not that bad. Just make your list and hack away. Read some blurbs for books you liked and see what worked in raising your interest. Then make it happen. You can do it! 🙂

  7. I have to say that I agree with Elizabeth Ann West regarding ending a blurb with a question. I know the blurb is designed to make the reader want to find out more, but, as a reader, I find a question to be too much like the salesman's "question" to obtain "commitment" from the potential buyer, and as a result I feel pressured into buying something I'm not sure I want.

    The example in Elizabeth's own book is quite good, because at least it concerns the character's conflict. The very worst questions, e.g. "Can James Bond save the world before it's too late?!" will only elicit a groan.

    I go much more for blurbs that describe the story – what happens and the protagonist's problems – and then leave it with me if I want to find out more.

    1. Hey Chris, and as I said, it's what works best for the author. I find, especially at the end of Night Undone, that there is a lot hanging in the balance, and sometimes a question can pull those things together better and in a more compact fashion than listing them in a sentence. I think if the blurb is good – it will describe exactly what you said – the story AND the protagonist's problems – I think the Night Undone blurb does that despite the fact that there is a question at the end. 🙂

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