“I am wondering if I lost something in the whittling down of this blurb.”
If you’ve gotta ask…
From that sentence alone, I know author David Wozniak totally knew in his heart of hearts what would happened when he cut his 200-word blurb to his 50-word elevator pitch and sent it into our merciless canary claws. The skies grew dark, women wailed in the streets, old men grew sorrowful and still.
Because, let’s face it, there’s nothing harder than trying to distill the essence of a 50,000+ word story into a few pithy sentences.
But let’s back up and take a look at David’s elevator pitch:
“Each year, Master Voider Democryos sends his brightest student into the war-torn countryside to work magic. But when the young Lady Marine leaves him for another man, he finds his own life ravaged. Forsaking the comfort of the citadel, he seeks to find her–not to gain her back, but to gain understanding.
Nothing goes as planned.”
First thought: The fewer words, the more each word matters.
In such a short piece, every word carries huge weight. Protip: Avoid using words that have no meaning to the reader. An easy example of this is “Master Voider” – I don’t know what it is, and that’s distracting.
Is there another commonly used word to describe what Democryos is? If he’s a magician, use that. Or mage. Or headmaster. Or powerful spell-crafter. Or whatever he is. It doesn’t matter that in this alternative world mages are called “Voiders,” because this is blurb-world, and blurb-world don’t have the luxury of footnotes.
Another example: the blurb chooses “young” as the single word used to describe Lady Marine. She could have been beautiful, clever, fierce, old, silly, flighty, passionate, blonde, vampiric, two-headed, tall, or any number or important or trivial things. And each word choice has consequences.
In a world where Democryos has students and a relationship with young Lady Marine, my first thought is “Wait, he’s sleeping with his students?”
Age gap at best, lecherous impropriety at worst. If that’s an intentional choice, it works. If not, then that’s the reader’s mind going in a wrong direction.
In fact, the very choice to give Lady Marine a name is a big deal. Why name her at all in the blurb?
Next Thought: What’s the story about?
So the hero seeks to find his lost love…to gain understanding. Frankly, that sounds kinda boring. It lacks urgency.
The blurb also fails to explain why finding her is such an undertaking. Just go to her new dude’s place and knock on the door or something. It’ll be awkward as hell, but you do you, Voider Democryos.
To find the answer to that, let’s see the original 200-word summary:
“The Voider Democryos has lived a comfortable life in the citadel as the wealthy head of the university–even before the war started to the south, four years ago. Since then, all voiders from every graduating class have been drafted into service to the king, except one. For an agreement has been made: Each year, Democryos handpicks his brightest student, and sends them out into the countryside, since a voider can truly work magic in an impoverished, forgotten world.
But when Democryos’ young love, the Lady Marine, mysteriously leaves him for another man, his own world becomes impoverished and forgotten. Driven by his idealistic nature and need for closure, he leaves the comfort of the citadel to find the Lady Marine–not to gain her back, but to gain understanding.
And nothing goes as planned.
Democryos journeys south through the same forgotten lands he previously sent his four brightest students. One after another, he finds them, yet not in the way he envisioned. Instead of accomplishment, there is failure. Instead of triumph, there is heartbreak.
But in each forgotten village, Democryos also picks up a stranger, each of them missing something from their broken lives. As a group, they head into war-torn territory, to discover a key–not only to the war, but to the nature of immortality itself.”
Okay, so here it’s clear that Lady Marine’s purpose is to serve as the plot device that gets Democryos off his ass and into the real world. And then the real shit hits the fan. Okay, this I can work with…
Here’s a go:
“As the head of Magic University, Democryos has everything –wealth, prestige, the ear of the king, and the heart of the beautiful Lady Marine. But his idyllic peace is shattered the day Marine leaves him and disappears into the war-torn countryside. Crushed, he sets out to find her. Instead, he finds his star pupils – the ones he had sent over the years to heal the land. Instead of accomplishment, there is failure. Instead of triumph, there is heartbreak. ”
It feels incomplete at the end there, but overall, a bit more focused on the story and takes a stab at bridging the two plots (lost love, lost students). For those following along at home, this short blurb roughly follows the first part of a hero’s journey.
- Sentence 1: Setup
- Sentence 2: The crisis/call-to-action
- Sentence 3: How the hero reacts to crisis.
- Sentence 4+: The challenges that arise.
This version still has that self-reflective, literary and philosophical edge. The last sentence says that there will be emotional/moral growth. The body implies philosophical heft, rather than adventures. Whether that’s true to the story depends on what the story is about. Is this a message story, or a story that just happens to have a message?
Another approach to this blurb is to start at the crisis.
“One of the most powerful men in the empire, Lord Democryos life changes forever the night his lover leaves him for another man and disappears into the war-torn countryside. Desperate for answers, he will abandon everything to track her down. But as he ventures beyond the capital’s walls, he sees for the first time the legacy of the last decade of his own policies. Instead of accomplishment, there is failure. Instead of triumph, there is heartbreak. Instead of answers, he finds demons.”
Okay, so I took the story in a different direction here. And then I ramped up the drama with the last sentence. (I’m still don’t truly know what happens, so I’m staying vague, yet dramatic.)
Finally, what about just forgetting Plot Device Lady Marine, and diving into what seems to be the meat of the story? Lady Marine might have been what got Demo out into the world, but it sure doesn’t seem like the story is about her. The students. The Key. The War.
“Lord Democryos knows loss. For years, he has sent his brightest magic student into the war-torn countryside to heal the land, only to have them disappear without a trace. But when his own beloved companion jilts him for another man with no explanation, Democryos he needs answers. Democryos journeys south to find his lover, or his students, or, perhaps, himself.
Instead, he finds just how little he knows about loss.”
Again, you can feel the story go vague in the last few sentences.
There’s something there, just out of reach.
Gimme more, oh author.
What do you think, Canaries?
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Guess what? Today happens to be my birthday, and your pitch slap is the best birthday gift I can think of. Thank you so much for your witty and insightful commentary. A few thoughts:
1) I love how you talk about “blurb-world”. For authors of speculative fiction, this is so important, because our books are steeped in world-building. Basically, your advice is to leave the world-building for the novel, and I agree. There is no room for my book’s “private language” here. Use general terms that anyone can immediately understand.
2) You correctly picked up on the themes of loss and disillusionment. The loss of Lady Marine and his former star pupils are instances of the same general theme. There is no need for her proper name. The thought is good enough.
3) You ask: “Is this a message story, or a story that just happens to have a message?” It’s the former. I tend to market my novels as “literary speculative fiction.” I am more concerned with prose, character arcs, themes, and setting, more so than action. So it’s important that this comes through in the blurb.
4) I liked your last attempt (the one that starts “Lord Democryos knows loss…”) but it’s technically incorrect. Dem doesn’t realize his star pupils are missing/dead until he comes across them during his travels.
5) My favorite is your first attempt (the one that starts “As the head of Magic University…”). It is nearly perfect. Except I feel that it’s missing a final sentence that speaks to the larger scale of the plot. What do you think about this?:
“As the head of the university, Democryos has everything–wealth, prestige, the ear of the king, and the heart of the beautiful Lady Marine. But his idyllic peace is shattered the day his wife leaves him and disappears into the war-torn countryside. Crushed, he sets out to find her. Instead, he finds his star pupils–the ones he had sent over the years to heal the land. Instead of accomplishment, there is failure. Instead of triumph, there is heartbreak. Instead of attaining closure, he stumbles upon a key–not only to the war, but to the nature of immortality itself.”
The only thing that bugs me… too many “insteads”!
What impeccable timing! Happy Birthday! Couldn’t have timed it better if I’d known.
I see what you’re doing in your rewrite of the first attempt, but there remains that big gap between the first part (wife/loss/students) and the second part (war/immortality). We have Demo with his wife, him losing his wife, him searching for his wife, him finding his lost students instead, and then war! immortality!
You’re throwing the hook and bait…without the fishing line. One approach to these things is to think about sentences as interlocking pieces. A to B. B to C. C to D. (Wealth to wife, wife to loss, loss of wife to searching for wife, searching for wife to finding students instead, etc). Problems arise when a blurb makes the leap from A to B. B to C. And then from C to M to Z.
There needs to be an intro of war and immortality at beginning or middle, or the story in this blurb world needs to start differently and focus exclusively on students/war/immortality so it doesn’t come out of left field for the reader.