When Julie sent a pitch our way, I was immediately pulled in by the fun tone of its opening. But as I read on, I realized I wanted more–more details, more clarity, more focus. In this latest installment of our Pitch Slapped series, I’m going to talk about the two major challanges to writing a great blurb: clarity and structure.
But first, here is the blurb itself:
So what’s happening here? A lot.
It’s the future, and we get an alien species, a country wanting to clamber up onto a warpath, and a heroine with possible superpowers (does she get wings, I wonder?) with a Kill Bill sort of vendetta. Sounds perfect! But we did sight a couple potholes on this book’s blurb-road to bestseller-dom…
Setting up the Content
Here is a snapshot of some of the things that jarred us as we went through the blurb (click for a larger view!):
The good: The blurb does a great job in setting up the overall context for the story. We get the year, the location, and the political context with a bit of humor to spice it up (man, I love that em-dash use). By opening this way, the story promises us some great world-building that will frame Junco and Raubtier’s story.
Genre limbo: The first sentence sits squarely in the sci-fi genre. The second sentence, however, starts hinting that the story may have a tongue-in-cheek satire element to it (a rural Rural Republic). Characterizing Junco as foul-mouthed strengthens that impression (I just can’t seem to take the pairing of ruthless and foul-mouthed seriously…).
Details, details, where are my details? Father, questions, forbidden places, running from past, present and future? The blurb ends by hitting the reader with vague (somewhat dramatic) generalizations out of nowhere. She must fight. She can’t trust herself! Our ruthless assassin just wants to belong!
In fact, why can’t she trust herself? If she’s having blackouts or split personality issues, these would intrigue the reader a lot more than an oblique reference at trust. And what does “belonging” mean to a genetically engineered assassin? Does that suggest that hooking up with Mr. Elite Alien Commander Captain is on the table as a plot outcome?
We decided to tweak out the easiest issues first:
Here we’ve colored up some elements for clarity and made up a few others:
- Father has a clearly defined role in Junco’s life
- The effect of his death is implied more clearly
- The Avians are characterized a little more (winged aliens implies humanoid creatures, not giant birds)
- Commander Raubtier loses one of his ranks (Captain) and gains a first name so he is no longer a first-name-less evil. (If he is less of a legit character and more of a representative of the Avian desire to wipe Junco out, there’s no need for a last name either.)
- It’s still not really clear what kind of answers Junco wants, but it probably has something to do with those inconvenient questions in paragraph 2.
The result? The conflict and the novel’s promise comes across a whole lot more clearly. Instead of confusion, there’s intrigue. Instead of vagueness, mystery.
Setting up the Structure:
Now that the story’s content has a shape, it’s time to take a look at the blurb’s overall structure. The very way the pitch is put together (which information comes first, which comes second, etc) will do a lot to define the story’s genre and type. It is the nature of a blurb to emphasize some information and downplay other, less important, details. The way that the blurb is organized builds reader expectations in a more subtle, but equally strong, way.
For example, by dedicating an entire paragraph to setting up the world, Julie’s blurb suggests the future setting and political environment is important; when I pick up this book, I will expect a story full of political suspense/intrigue, strong world-building focus, and maybe even socio-political commentary.
At the same time, when I see two characters of opposite genders juxtaposed like this in a conflict, it hints to that part of me that loves romance that there just might be a Romeo-and-Juliet vibe happening here. And if that’s a stretch, then in the least, it suggests the story will be told from two points of views. The fact that Raubtier does not have a first name, though, detracts from the romance potential; he could just be a Darth Vader type character with a high likelihood of being killed off (as French-named characters without first names often are).
In fact, in my revision, I made the decision to give Raubtier a first name on the assumption that he will be a well-defined character. If he’s the passing-mention villain/antagonist and the main focus is on Junco’s struggle and her place in society, then a different approach is called for:
Suddenly, the main focus of the story is Junco and her little (read: gigantic genetic) problem. The rest of the blurb frames her struggle.
In fact, if Junco’s situation (and the belonging/family issue) really is the keystone of the story, it should be the focus of the blurb as well (as opposed to the political situation). The pitch might do better to lead with Junco’s situation, and only later introduce the conflict and setting. We can further move Junco in the spotlight by changing the order the information is given:
A little abrupt? Maybe. In this version, a few elements that worked in previous revisions (such as “inconvenient questions”) do need to be clarified (they are in the spotlight now). But overall, it’s clear that the story is all about Junco. In fact, this story is the likeliest of all the blurbs to be told from Junco’s point of view (with either third person limited or first person narration) and the most likely to focus almost exclusively on her journey and struggle against alien and human forces. The year, the setting, and her country’s political ambitions may certainly play into the novel, but they’ve been relegated to the backstory and background where they belong (in this version of the novel).
In the end, all the proposed revisions are analogous options, similar but certainly not interchangeable–each one shifts the focus to what the story may be all about. Because blurbs force authors to pick the most important elements of their story, the information the author decides to exclude is as important as the information he or she choses to include.
The very nature of a blurb is that it’s short, and you can’t afford to ignore any of the tools in the toolbox–and that includes style, tone, and structure.
Do you have a pitch or synopsis that you’d like to send to the sacrificial altar? Email it our way to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Pitch Article Submission” in the subject.
What do you think about the blurb, Canaries? Authors love input!