I've been thinking about blurbs recently, and how tricky they can be. A blurb is the few lines on the back of a book that's meant to act as a teaser to get your attention and (hopefully) make you want to buy the book. They're also meant to give you as much information, in as short a time as possible, without ruining the ending. Readers needs and expect to know things like genre, protagonist, theme and style before they're willing to purchase.
It might seem odd, but in the digital and Internet age, I would argue that blurbs are more important than ever. Online retailers can offer a lot of information, but the physical process of buying a book is one that allows you to flip through the pages and read as leisure. Buying online, this is often not the case, and so it falls to the blurb (and user reviews, of course) to really make the sale.
And yes, I know that shops like Amazon are increasingly offering a few samples pages and 'See Inside!' features, but this is neither universal nor within limitations. While a bookshop gives you the chance to read chapters, flip to the end, or even check out the font if that's yo' thing, Internet sales - for all their great aspects - have restrictions.
Short or long, they pack a lot of stuff into not many words. Let's look at a couple from some of the biggest books of recent years.
Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy - until he is rescued by an owl, taken to Hogwarts school for witchcraft and wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The reason........ HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
I like this one. You can't say it doesn't get the point across, and it's a definite draw for kids. The collection of images makes the story seem epic even if it doesn't give you a specific plot for this book. This blurb goes in the Good Blurb box.
Coraline is not the kind of girl to be put off by a sign of danger read in some tea-leaves or indeed a message sent to her by some very talented mice! No, she is the kind of girl who faces a challenge with bravery, intelligence and a lot of determination. Which is just as well because she is going to need all those skills and more, in this wonderful, spooky tale of a girl caught on the wrong side of a door, with counterfeit parents who have buttons for eyes and who clearly do not intend to set her free. Read it if you dare!
Much more information here, at first glance - but, of course 'the wrong side of a door' is wonderfully ambiguous. Personally not a fan of the final line - seems a bit cheesy? - but the whole thing seems to work for me. It draws you in but gives you a rough idea of the book. The button for eyes is a good clue that it's mild horror - something it's important to communicate in children's books. Good Blurb.
What makes a bad blurb, then? What's to be avoided?
- Ambiguity ('Charles has adventures and learns a lot of things')
- Inaccuracy ('Harry Potter might be an angel!')
- Too much revelation ('But, with the help of a talking cat, Coraline is able to defeat the Other Mother by trapping her hand in a well')
- Too little revelation ('Harry Potter is special. Read it now')
- Unsubstantiated boasts ('This book will make any child love reading and any atheist into a believer')
You'll also see this called an 'elevator pitch', the idea being that in as short amount of time as possible you should be able to sell your book - give a gripping, intriguing account without giving away too much. That way, editors / agents / readers will Want It Now.
Tricky, right? Summing up your book needs thought before you tr to do it. What's the angle you want? What is the one focus - and remember you just can't have two or three. A sentence about the plot needs to give a rough idea without you then needing to explain more and more.
EREN is about a boy who finds a monster in his attic, but the monster eats stories. Well, actually, it's about how the boy's father seems to be in trouble, but no one will tell him why, so he turns to the monster - that's Eren - instead, and agrees to tell him stories. But the thing is Eren is kind of like a vampire, I guess? So when the boy - he's called Oli - tells him all these things it acts like it's making Eren stronger and Oli gets weaker. That's kind of what it's about.
Not so good, eh? Babble, really. Feeling the need to explain more is the biggest indication that the short summary has gone off the tracks and into La La Land.
In the end, I'd go for something more like this:
My children's book, EREN, is for eleven to thirteen year olds, and is about a boy who finds a monster in his uncle's attic - a monster who needs to hear stories to live. Slowly, the boy agrees to share his life with it, but as he tells his tales, the monster only grows stronger and begins to demand more and more.
People are keeping secrets from Oli - about where his father is, and why he hasn't come to join them at his uncle's house in the country.
But Oli has secrets too.
He knows what lives in the attic. Eren - part monster, part dream, part myth. Eren who always seems so interested, who always wants to hear more about Oli's life. Eren, who needs to hear stories to live, and will take them from Oli, no matter the cost.One for saying, one for reading. Perfect? No. Feel free to tell me if you think they don't give enough, or if the focus seems off. Please, do! But it's important, at least, to think about these things before the moment comes about when you're asked, on the spot, to share or explain your story. After all, it's your story, and no one's going to sell it apart from you, in the end.