Book cover blurbs—what to include out of 80,000 words?

Maybe you can help me. This is about my literary obsession, We the Enemy, the “story of the heart” I wrote about here in May. While I’m still submitting to agents and an editor is taking a look at it, I’m pretty sure the only way it reaches the eyes of readers is to self-publish. 

So now I face the task of distilling something from the many things the novel is about down to a singular, comprehensible, enticing blurb for the back cover (this will be a trade paperback). It needs to reflect some aspect of the story and encourage a reader to look inside.

But I know too much

Here’s the problem, one I suspect you’ve faced in pitching your novels in query letters, blurbs, etc.—I can write a novel because there’s room to contain all that goes into it, all the stuff that adds up to the gestalt that makes it worth reading. Any novel is a complex weave of action and character and theme. For We the Enemy, the things I think it’s about include: 

The character arc of the primary protagonist, who starts the novel emotionally dead because of the way his little girl was killed (sorry, can’t say here, a spoiler). An ex Secret Service agent, he’s now a mercenary, an assassin for hire. Deep down, though, he longs for a return to being truly alive again, for being a whole human being. Will events and actions and his decisions get him there?

But then there’s the other major protagonist, a single mother dealing with the loss of her job, and crime on the streets and in her ghetto neighborhood. Events and her courage take her to a place where she has a chance for a good life for herself and her daughter, but the damage done by her tough road to survival prevents her from taking the final step. 

Do I include both characters? Just the primary?

And what about the overarching conflict in the novel, an attack by the president’s administration to sabotage an organization that’s behind eliminating lethal weapons in the Northwest—the organization is costing the president votes and he could lose re-election. Power is at stake, and he’s determined not to lose it. 

But what about themes? 

And then there’s one of the major themes in the novel—dealing with violence due to lethal firearms. We the Enemy explores ways to remove guns that kill from the hands of killers and a means to defend ourselves from the violence rampant in society. This is not the only, or most important, theme in the story, but it is the most identifiable and controversial. 

But wait, another important theme is the way the U.S. justice system works—or, as the novel posits, doesn’t really work very well at all. There’s an examination of the adversary system and a notion of how the Fifth Amendment could work differently in regard to testimony by an accused. If things were the way We the Enemy imagines, crime and punishment would be very different in the U.S.

The root theme is community, how our society is fractured into smaller and smaller hostile bits with an increasing lack of connection with others. The recent turmoil over the Muslim center in New York, mistakenly labeled as the Ground Zero Mosque, is an example.  But, frankly, community doesn’t sound all that dramatic, does it? 

Lastly, We the Enemy is an “issues” novel, as the topics of gun control, justice, and community might suggest. Most beta readers respond enthusiastically to that aspect of it, but try including that in a blurb—I can tell you for sure that it’s a turnoff when querying agents, who, perhaps rightfully so, only want gripping story. (Even though the issues aspect can provide a promotional hook that could generate buzz in both the media and with readers. For example, the problems of lethal weapons never seem to leave us and are always in the news.)

One beta reader, a woman, wrote to me, “I wish the world you’ve created existed.” So I believe that, in its totality, the story works. 

So how to blurb all that? 

You see my dilemma. All of those things are important to the worth and value of this story, and are what add up to a story that is not only a page-turner, according to beta readers, but also makes them think.

But I can’t say that in a blurb, I’m told. I’ve tried various pitches out on the readers of my blog, Flogging the Quill, and the notion that this will make you think has been soundly rejected. As I said, it doesn’t fly very high with agents, either. 

Argh. 

The blurb du jour:

I decided to try focusing on the primary character, the over-arching conflict, and the most controversial (interesting?) of the issue elements. Here’s where I currently stand for the back cover copy: 

Madmen, madchildren, and criminals kill us with terrifying firepower. 

In the Pacific Northwest, the Alliance is eliminating guns that kill—and a president desperate for gun-owner votes aims to eliminate the Alliance. The president’s weapon is Jake Black, a Secret Service agent turned cold-blooded mercenary after the killing of his little girl.

But Jake’s target, Alliance leader Noah Stone, brings hope for better lives to millions. When a murderous attack threatens to destroy the Alliance and the vision it offers the nation, its only chance to survive lies with the man sent to stop it. 

Jake has a chance to win a new life—or to lose what little he has left. And no matter which way he turns, he will betray someone.

This story hits home with any woman who has ever feared for her safety—with people on both sides of gun control—and with everyone affected by crime.

The idea here is to get a reader to look further—on Amazon, for example, to click the Look Inside link and read some pages. What do you think? Any insights, suggestions? 

As soon as the editor and currently submitted agents say no, the manuscript goes to a copyeditor (yes, editors need editors), and then to publication. So your thoughts will be helpful. 

Thanks.

0

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for addressing this essential element in book marketing, whether the back cover or as online summary. The uber blurb can ring the cash register or be the makings of a return to publisher. And, your statement that it is difficult precisely because you ‘know too much’ certainly resonates with me.

    0
  2. says

    This is exactly the problem faced by anyone writing a query synopsis. I have a little better success writing them, however. My advice is to focus on the people first, especially if they have a relationship. All the blogs I’ve read and all the comments to those blogs indicate that people want characters they can care about. Give them a chance to see themselves in the characters. The central conflict is “Jake has a chance to win a new life—or to lose what little he has left. And no matter which way he turns, he will betray someone.” What new life? With whom? Who will he betray? Put faces on this stuff.

    I would assume that anyone who would be interested in this book already knows about presidents and gun control, so broad-brush those into a single line, preferably at the end when discussing the threats they face. Issues and themes are good antagonists, faceless and amorphous, but I don’t think too many people would find an issue all that resonant, not something to root for. Get them hooked on the people facing a real problem and use that to make them resonate with the larger issue.

    Marc Vun Kannon
    http://authorguy.wordpress.com

    0
  3. says

    Hi Ray,

    If I were to read your blurb without knowing the backstory, I’d say it was solid. However, knowing the backstory, I now feel it doesn’t say quite enough.

    How to fix it? I’m not entirely sure, but I did jot down some thoughts as I read through your post. This story seems to be about dehumanizing connections–via guns, crippling emotional roadblocks, constitutional (problems?)–and how that can get people, communities, government, into trouble. So I might lean into that similarity and let it trickle down to inform the rest of the blurb.

    Also–and this is outside of the scope of what you asked for, so for what it’s worth–I did a quick thesaurus check on the word “dehumanize” and this popped up: STAIN. Hmm. I might like to see that word as the title for your book along with a different image; when my husband saw this one a few minutes ago (home sick today) he thought the book was pro-gun. Just my two cents. And my husband’s two cents.

    Good luck, Ray!

    0
  4. Evalyn says

    Speaking as a reader: In a blurb I want to know what the main plot is about, who the characters are and why I should care. I will find out the themes, etc., when I read the story. Your job is to make the blurb interesting enough that I will click See Inside on Yahoo. But if you tell me: “This story hits home with any woman who has ever feared for her safety—with people on both sides of gun control—and with everyone affected by crime.”, you are telling me what I think about the issues, and that turns me off. I won’t read the book.

    0
  5. Evalyn says

    What I meant was, based on the blurb, I wouldn’t read the book. It sounds like a great story that means a great deal to you. Good luck.

    0
  6. says

    You know I have zero publishing experience, so take this for what it’s worth. Here are my thoughts.

    As with the query letter, the purpose of the book’s blurb is to intrigue the reader, not provide full disclosure. The best way I know to do that is engage us at the level of emotion, not intellect. Allow the themes to come through by inference, rather than telling us.

    Very roughly, begin with the character who has most to lose. He wants XXX. But in his way is XXX. To fight for what he wants he XXX. Events escalate until finally he must decide/act/do XXX or lose XXX.

    If you follow that structure and infuse it with the book’s voice, you can show us the tension, have us relate to a particular person, and keep the MC’s quest active, rather than slipping into passive voice where he is acted upon.

    Hope that helps. It can be so hard to do this for oneself.

    0
  7. says

    Ray, Best of luck with your self-published book. I did the same thing a year ago for the same reason you did – and I really just wanted to get it out there to readers. As a first time author, I figured I would be marketing my own books anyway, so I’d better just do it.

    I think it can be tempting to look at all the subplots and characters – these all played integral parts to your story. But if you stand back and analyze it like a piece of artwork (which it is), what is the central plot? If you were looking at the back of the DVD or (better yet) the back of a book, what would be that main plot that would be at the focus of the story? All the subplots and additional characters can come later – synopsis, first 3 chapters, etc. What is the main thing? Mr. Main Character _______________________. (Use action oriented present tense verbs.)

    Hope this helps! Best of luck!

    0
  8. says

    This is why, when I get an idea for a story, I write the query blurb BEFORE I write the story. As you put it, once I know too much, it’s frightfully difficult to distill the essence of the story out of the final product–that initial concept all of sudden becomes elusive!

    Imho, I like what you’ve done with your blurb. I don’t think backstory is the way to entice readers so I wouldn’t make it too complicated by adding it. I’m not a fan of the last line, however. I prefer to be sold on the story line, rather than someone telling me it’s going to strike a chord with me because I’m a woman who fears for her safety. (I mean, don’t we all just a little bit?)

    Good luck!

    0
  9. says

    Here’s the problem I have with the last part of the blurb: by saying it’s for “any woman who has ever feared for her safety”, you’re automatically turning off men. The added “everyone affected by crime” feels tacked-on; my brain is still saying, “This is a book for women.” And that is likely to turn a lot of men off, and cut your potential audience in half.

    0
  10. says

    I have to admit, “guns that kill” stopped me right away, because I couldn’t help wondering, “As opposed to guns that don’t kill?” :P

    Anyway, I think Therese and Evalyn bring up good points and suggestions about how to focus your blurb. Good points for all of us to keep in mind. I think you’re right: it’s about “knowing too much,” and figuring how to distill that into short, compelling blurbs (or loglines). I’m struggling with that for my latest manuscript too, so thanks for posting about this!

    0
  11. says

    I’ve written back cover copy for self-published books for five years now (I started for a major self-publishing company, and now do it freelance for said company since they packed up shop and moved to another state). I’ve literally done more than one thousand of these things, fiction and non-fiction, and still I get stuck sometimes. There’s no magic bullet, unfortunately.

    One thing I would definitely change is your last line – it detracts from the power of your blurb. Delete it.

    The main thing about blurbs is catching the reader’s (and potential buyer’s) attention – and you don’t have to dump all that info (theme, subplot, etc.) into it.

    When I read your blurb, I was confused. Who is the Alliance? Is this sci-fi, fantasy, futuristic? I’m guessing it’s present-day, but starting out with the “Alliance” confused me. They are not the main character of your story – don’t start with them.

    I would begin with Jake – it is his conflict that we care about.

    Maybe something like this: It’s been X years since former Secret Service agent Jake Black lost his little girl to a vengeful killer (?). Now, the cold-blooded mercenary hides his pain by gunning down the parasites of society and blah blah blah.

    Just a suggestion. :-)

    0