[Pitch Slapped] Blurbs and navigating the reader-infested waters

Author Elizabeth Krall sent us the blurb for her lighthearted romance novel, Ship to Shore. In her email, she told us that she had used a variety of blurb-writing tools to get the point of her story across as strongly as she could:

“I have tried to incorporate various bits of ‘blurb writing’ advice, such as the use of ‘power words’, keeping it under 175 words and posing questions.”

In this Pitch Slap article, we’ll dive into this nebulous world of blurb writing tricks and talk about what worked and what sank and what swam in this seaside romance. But first…

The Blurb:

Storms at sea and heartbreak on land. Betrayal and frustration. A forbidden journal.

Oh, and bagpipes.

This ‘ship to shore’ love story follows Sally and Dermid, who meet on a tall ship sailing across the Atlantic. Sally is drawn to Dermid, despite what she considers to be his unfortunate passion for bagpipes, but their brief romance ends badly. Very badly.

They are given a second chance when Sally accepts a job assignment on a remote Scottish island. The fact that Dermid is on a nearby island has nothing to do with it. Or so she says.

But when Sally’s assignment is over, will she leave?

Or will she find the courage to build a life with Dermid?

And could she ever learn to love the bagpipes?

Set against the tempestuous North Atlantic and the windswept beauty of the Hebrides, this is a wryly humorous story of two people who must learn to trust their feelings, and to trust each other.

So, initial impressions?

One of the most dangerous balancing acts in blurb writing is walking that tightrope between being general (to avoid drowning in details) and the vague (making a story so broad that it could be about anything). Here, the blurbs totters too far into the latter category. In fact, before I even talk about using power words or questions in the blurb, the blurb itself needs to say more. A reader who is trying to guess what the story is about isn’t directed towards any single premise.  All of the following example story summaries could apply to Ship to Shore:

Ship to Shore: Never Trust A Guy with Bagpipes

Or maybe…

Ship to Shore: Pregnant with the Mobster’s Lovechild

Or even…

Ship to Shore: My Bagpipe Rockstar

The fact that I don’t understand what caused the conflict between Dermid and Sally – or even who was to blame, if anyone – makes it impossible for me to understand Sally’s actions in the second section of the story. Sally tracks Dermid down, but why is she in denial about it? What went down between them? Also, why are the bagpipes such a significant part of the story? Are they simply there as comic relief and to highlight the culture clash, or are they truly part of the conflict?

Another thing that sets this blurb apart from some of the ones we’ve looked at in the past is, as I mentioned in the opening, that the author used some of the go-to tools for giving the blurb that extra kick: Questions and Power Words.

Posing Questions:

Now, the party line on question in blurb-writing is that these are effective in piquing the readers curiosity. The young protagonist is stuck in the attic. How will she ever get out? The dog is on a quest to find his master. What will he do when he discovers his entire life was a lie? The girl’s journal was stolen. What will she have to sacrifice to get it back?

The official CanaryTheFirst position, however, is that they’re the easy way out. Usually, if you set your story up well in the blurb, you won’t need to pose those questions. The reader will already be thinking them. Use questions sparingly.

If you do use them, as Krall had, make sure that you set the story up clearly, so that the things they question clearly make sense. Clarifying the conflict (as mentioned above) will not just let the reader know what he or she is getting into. Without a clear understanding of what the story is about, the questions at the end of the blurb become more confusing than intriguing. Does Sally need courage because she dumped Dermid and now needs to fight to convince him she loves him, or because she discovered he’s a Scottish werewolf? Why couldn’t they just stay together in the first place? Was Dermid married? Did Sally refuse his proposal because he had bagpipes, or was he just not ready for a relationship?

Power Words:

Power words are a great shortcut to grabbing the readers imagination. We all have key words that draw us to the book like moths to a delicious, cotton-candy-flavored flame. Words like “Betrayal”, “Plot”, “Escape”, “Tortured” are all but guaranteed to make me pause and take notice. Like genres and titles, they’re labels that flash out and tell the reader, “Read me.” And every reader has a set of words that are guaranteed to make them pick up the book and look a bit closer.

However, the use of power words/key terms either in the beginning of the blurb or at the end also create expectations. If I see “Intrigue!” at the top of the blurb, I expect to see the blurb elaborate on the delicious intrigue I can expect to see in the story. In Krall’s blurb, we expect the story summary to mention the following elements:

  1. Storms at sea
  2. Heartbreak on land.
  3. Betrayal
  4. Frustration.
  5. A forbidden journal.
  6. Bagpipes.

However, we only get a hint of 2 and 6. In general, when using power words, make sure they are at least somewhat touched on in the blurb itself, otherwise, they are very firmly entrenched in the too-vague category. Here is a sample blurb that addressed each of the six power-word elements (betrayal and frustration are implied).

Like the previous snippets, I don’t know whether the story told here is true to the book, but it holds together. And with these bare bones laid out, the author can add in questions and power words – but now, the reader will see why the questions are important, and why Sally’s proud heart is pulling her after Dermid, nevermind his crazy penchant for playing bagpipes.

In fact, give her time. She might begin to find them quite quaint after a while!


Do you have a pitch or synopsis that you’d like to send to the sacrificial altar?  Email it our way  to canarypost@gmail.com with “Pitch Article Submission” in the subject.

What do you think about the blurb, Canaries? Authors love input!


Read more slapped pitches here

Check out our sister series, Pitch Pecked, here.

9 thoughts on “[Pitch Slapped] Blurbs and navigating the reader-infested waters

  1. Pingback: A Scottish werewolf « elizabethkrallwriter

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