You Scratch My Back…

… and I’ll scratch yours. That’s how I’m feeling these days. I’m not sure I should admit this, but we need to be honest about this review-swap thing.

First of all, reviews are important. They make a difference in the books you pick to read, don’t they? Somewhere, somehow, someone reads a book and refers someone else to it. My theory is that a review is what gets that first reader talking.

Where and how to get reviews is covered all over the Web…. enough great ideas and sites abound that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I won’t cover all that here, but I will say that w hen I started gathering resources for my marketing plan, I saved some posts (you can save some Web pages to your hard drive — did you know that?) and recently went back to one that listed some places for getting free book reviews.

Some of them aren’t free anymore (they figured out where the money is, it appears) and I won’t get into that, either (except to say I’m not keen on handing over cold hard cash to get someone to read my book). There are probably others, but I did find one (“kindle bookreview“) and sent a request for my novel, Pea Body.

They agreed to provide a review for my book, if I would review one for them — essentially a “review swap.” That’s okay; I’ve done that before (haven’t we all — you love a writer’s book and before you know it, you’re penning reviews for each other). But here’s the thing: the book they sent me to review is pretty far outside of my “expertise.” It’s not a book I’d pick up and read if given the choice.

First of all, it’s a reprint. Originally published in the 1960s, it carries all the conventions of fiction from that time period, especially long, detailed character descriptions. Here’s an example: “He sighed and leaned across towards the wine bottle. The body he thus extended was a shade under six feet in length, was spare, leggy and unostentatiously muscular, was terminated at one end by expensive blue suede shoes similar to those celebrated by Mr. Elvis Presley and others of that ilk and was gracefully concluded at the other by a thick mop of dark brown and mildly bewildered hair. The face directly beneath the hair was pleasant enough and attractively suntanned but was otherwise quite undistinguished, unless one happened to find the eyes—an impossibly light blue in tone and of a curious soft translucence—worthy of note.”

Now imagine wading through that sort of detail for all of about a half-dozen major and semi-major characters. It’s not that they’re well-written, it’s just that — well, you know, you’ve been warned it’s why we don’t do it anymore — it breaks up the story. It interrupts scenes. It reminds readers we’re reading.

It’s an espionage-thriller plot (I think it’s supposed to be a thriller, but nothing much has been happening) — neither of which I read. So I’m lost as to the accepted conventions of that genre. It’s set in another country. I’m very USA-centric in my reading. I prefer books (fiction and non-fiction alike) set in places I’ve been or would like to visit. Familiarity is essential for me, rather than escapism to a place I’ve never been. So the setting leaves me feeling lost and groping for a tether of some sort that would anchor me.

On top of all that, the PDF file is chopped in some odd way… and for the first several pages, I could scroll, then the page would jump suddenly. I finally discovered I could scroll each page a bit, then at some unexpected point the last line will be chopped off (yes, along the tops of the letters) and I’ll have to click the down page to see the next page, where the bottom of that line appears. Ikes! Not the most comfortable reading experience when every few pages you have to fit the lines together in your head like some puzzle. So perhaps this rather technical issue got me off to the wrong start with this particular book. Not the author’s fault, to be sure, but it marred my reading experience nevertheless.

I’m not obligated to write this review. I can say “Thanks but no thanks” and walk away, but if I don’t write this review, I don’t get a review. And I can’t ask for a different book to review — no trades allowed. So if Iwrite a review for this book, some anonymous stranger will write a review for mine. Of course it occurs to me that reviewer could well be someone who writes slasher horror books and doesn’t see how Pea Body fits a cozy mystery — a murder without blood and guts, without deep forensics, without a terrifying evil at the heart of it, but reads a simple story with improbable sleuths and too little gore.

Still, I read on. The prospect of getting any review is a strong lure, to be sure, but I’m also doggedly determined to follow through on a commitment I’ve made, even if it’s a loose one, one I’m permitted to bow out of. In a few pages, I’m hopelessly confused. Is it that I’m distracted by the style? Other than the long character descriptions (and lack of evocative settings… which makes me think the writer assumes I know these places in Spain, so I struggle with feeling inadequate when it comes to my worldliness, all while trying to keep reading), the book does have some wonderful writing. Here’s a terrific bit of narrative, which is hard to do anyway: “SPECIAL Operatives, whatever their age, sex or nationality, are usually inclined to be fatalistic. Their professional lives are spent, for the most part, in striving to carry out weird and unlikely assignments which, in the absence of definite information, they must assume to form part of a Great Design shaped by the statesmen and governing bodies of their respective countries. Before long, however, they notice that the success or failure of their individual missions has singularly little effect on the Great Design as such, which seems to pursue its own wobbly and erratic course quite independently of all external circumstance.” Unfortunately, the paragraph goes on twice as long as that, and he nearly loses the benefit of those exquisite first sentences in this section, but it’s something to celebrate.

So I’m thinking this is what I will do in my review: I’ll admit my own shortcomings as a reader, and point out the positives of the book. I’ll assume the weaknesses in it are mine as a reader, rather than those of the writer, because — at the most fundamental level, the word-by-word level — the book is well-written.

And I’ll hope that whoever is handed my book to review will be as kind, as forgiving, and as willing to articulate more of what’s going well than of what might be at fault as I have endeavored to be for this author.

If you’ve swapped reviews and ended up in turmoil because of it, we’d love to hear about it!

More On Blurbs

Back in August, we (you joined in, if you read and followed the instructions in the post… remember?) dissected some descriptive blurbs about a few books to tease out their individual elements and learn how the way those blurbs were written can provide essential information all in a tantalizing few sentences.

At the start of that post, I mentioned the practice these days of using testimonials as blurbs, too. Here’s where we take a close look at a few of those and figure out what makes them effective.

Let’s say you’re scouting around for the next best horror book. You’ve read all the latest books by the big name authors. You’ve decided you’d like to spread the indie wealth and find something by someone who’s trying to break out — purchase an unknown’s book, just as you’d like someone to buy yours.

So you go to Amazon or Goodreads or your other preferred “What should I read?” sites and forums and start browsing. Seems like a million possibilities pop up in the recommended batch. How do you narrow them down?

Covers? Sure. Descriptions? Maybe. But after awhile, they all seem pretty much the same: young couple [or single woman or group of teenagers or two geeks camping or....] gets hunted down in the woods [or in a haunted house or in the center of the wrong part of town at 3 a.m. or in the hot summer desert or....] by some unknown assailant…

Now what? Oh, look. Quotes. Testimonials. Other people who’ve read this book say…. what?

One book has these quotes:

“Fantastic! Couldn’t put it down!” — Ree Der

“Don’t read this at night!” — Miss Terry Fann

Another book has these:

“A debut novel from a promising new voice — impressive.” — Stephen King

“The book I wish I’d written when I was starting out.” — Dean Koontz

Ohhhh…. I know which one I’d pick.

The first quotes were more emphatic about loving the book, but they were from unknown readers. Who cares what Miss Terry Fann has to say? Who is Ree Der anyway? But King and Koontz…. well…. even a mild compliment from one of those writers is worth more than exclamation marks and superlatives from unknowns.

There is one exception: unless there are a lot of unknown readers and reviewers praising the book. People tend to feel more comfortable following a path others have tread, so lots of thumbs-up from lots of readers can sway a potential buyer. It could make a difference for you, couldn’t it?

So when you’re looking for testimonials, think about those your ideal readers most respect, those whose footsteps they’re most likely to follow. You might not get Stephen King or Dean Koontz to read and write mighty praise for your novel, but there are other rungs in the ladder to success — pick someone you feel comfortable approaching somewhere up that ladder, and give it a shot.

Finally, think about people who have strong influence within your readership — these people might not be other writers. For example, my novel’s main characters are full-time RVers, a retired couple who live and travel in their recreational vehicle. My targeted readers are primarily other RVers — especially those who are also full-timers (as we call ourselves). I sent well-thought out and carefully written (though casual sounding!) e-mails to a few people who blog and produce newsletters for RVers — would they be interested in receiving a complimentary copy to see if their readers might be interested in hearing about the book? Sure, they said.

What this means is I might not have big-name mystery writers’ testimonies on my Web site or on the cover of the book, but I will have quotes from people whose names the targeted readers will recognize — and whom they respect. A few positive words from them mean a lot, and I’m grateful.

Give some thought to who those key influencers are in your world — and give it a shot. A strong testimony is better and a half-dozen from your friends and family, don’t you think? What have you tried? What works best for you?

Writers Roundup

Every now and we should yank our gaze from our monitors and keyboards to see what’s going on in the world of writing and publishing. To help with that, ellenbooks posts yet another roundup of stuff found around the Web that caught our attention, and we hope it provides you with some help or insight or — if nothing else — a distraction for a little while.


Love reading by the pool? On the boat? Worried about getting an e-reader wet? Worry no more. Kobo is debuting a “waterproof” (in quotes… we’ll believe it when we test it, right?!?) Kobo Aura H20 on October 1. Okay, my book is available on Kobo… I’m all for this. The new Aura might be a great gift idea for someone you know. Just sayin’. Details in this short article at Publishers Weekly.

Busted your book budget? Still feel the need to read? When’s the last time you stepped into your local library? Have you thought about marketing your book to libraries? Think they’re dead? (Have I asked enough questions?) Book Patrol posted this great infographic from Michael Lieberman. It’s amazing!


Can learning to write a solid short story help you as a novelist? Suzannah Windsor Freeman thinks so, and spells out just how in her post, “What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction” over at Writer Unboxed. As a writer of both, I’d say she’s on the money — working with fewer words to tell a full story means making sure every word counts; I’d add that no writer should forget that the two forms are also distinct in many ways. See what you think.

Should you follow the rules? Guest blogger Reen Collett tackles this popular question at Writers Village. The article is thought-provoking (you’re sure to have an opinion on at least one of the rules she cites and its example); the comments add even more dimension to the discussion.


If you yearn for publishing with a traditional house, you’ll need an agent. The Writer’s Relief staff gives you “Four Things You Must Know About a Literary Agent” in this great Huffington Post article. Think you know these tips? Well… is it better to get an agent who’s independent, or one in a larger agency? Do you know what the AAR is and why it’s important to you? If not, read this short but helpful article. Now.

Haven’t tried crowdfunding, although it’s tempting… and now there’s a handy infographic to help sort out the data. For example, about 26% of writing projects met their $$ goal (on the flipside, that means 74% did not meet their goal…). Take a look.

Speaking of funding, if you haven’t checked out Hope Clark’s site (and info-jammed newsletter) called Funds for Writers, you should. And if I’ve mentioned this one before and am repeating it, it’s well worth another mention.

Kindle Unlimited

Good for indie authors or bad? Philip Jones at The Bookseller interviews a few writers to see what they think in his “Doubts raised by indie authors over KU terms.” Are you in the Kindle Unlimited pool? How’s it working for you? Would you advise other writers to jump into this particular pool?


How possessive of your work do you feel? Would you put it out there for anybody to share, borrow from, even use as part of their own writing? Maybe you’re already doing it. I’m old school… share and share alike is a good philosophy unless you’re talking about MY story (!)… But if this idea appeals to you — and it does to authors of more than 300,000 stories, Wattpad is making it possible to search them and, well, exploit them… Find out more from this Publishers Weekly article, “Wattpad Adopts Creative Commons 4.0 Licenses.”

Wouldn’t you love to know which e-books are selling? Well, wonder no more. Mark Coker at Smashwords released the results of their annual survey and posted a link to the Slideshare summary so you can see more details. Don’t neglect to read the comments — you never know what might get asked or added that answers the question you had. A few key takeaways? “A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly… Longer books sell better… FREE still works great, but it’s losing some mojo… Preorders today are where free was five years ago… Series books outsell standalone books… Nonfiction earns more at higher prices….” Whew! A lot to get through but worth every word.


Have you been following the series on building and using an effective e-mail list at Your Writer Platform? If not, the fifth of its five installments is up, and it includes brief summaries and links to the previous five. (Hint: start with the first one and read them all.) Many thanks to Kimberley Grabas for this great series!

And I’ve saved the best for last. If you haven’t seen Kurt Giambastini’s “Self-Flagellation, Follow-Up” post at his SeattleAuthor blog, you must read it. I kept nodding my head: Yep, I’m sure I’ve met Ralph myself. See if you know “Ralph.” Most of all, don’t BE Ralph!

Name Game

Just read a summary of a book featuring five female characters (plus assorted male characters). Their first names? Karen, Sharon, Shirley, Linda, and Barbara…

Notice anything about those five names? Besides the fact that there are five female characters with enough to do in the book to be named, so adding the names of the male characters meant the book was laden with characters, a challenge in itself for a reader — but that’s another post, for another day.

Let’s get back to those five female names. Karen and Sharon have similar sounds (and share at least half the letters). Sharon and Shirley also sound similar, as do LindA and BarbarA.

I don’t have any proof of this, other than my own reading experience (and an article I read years ago, probably in Writer’s Digest) that said you shouldn’t give your characters names that are too much alike. If you do, you risk confusing your readers. And nobody wants that.

Let’s say Sharon and Shirley are best friends, about the same age. They live in the same town and they’re having lunch together in a little deli on Main Street. Sharon’s a bank teller and Shirley is a waitress, and what Sharon doesn’t know is that Shirley’s boyfriend is blackmailing her to so she’ll get information from Sharon to rob the bank.

Sounds okay, doesn’t it? In the meantime, Karen is Sharon’s best friend and says she has her suspicions about Shirley, who never seems quite on the level. Karen’s a hair stylist who works at a salon on Main Street. Her sister Linda owns the salon, and their mother Barbara comes in often, usually with stories about which men are suddenly single because she’s always trying to fix her daughters up with eligible but unattainable men in town.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should confess that I’ve been accused of this very offense. None But the Dead and Dying has a character named Contessa, who’s middle-aged but a bit of a nut job, and Crescent, a teenager antsy to get through the summer before heading off to college. The two characters whose names started with “C” confused a few readers, and if I were to write the book today, I would have chosen a different name for one of them. Or maybe given at least one a reason for her name so the reader could latch onto them: Crescent, born seventeen years ago on a night when the moon was just at that sharp edge of waning or something like that.

So where were we? Oh, that’s right. The five female characters with similar names.

No peeking. Here’s the quiz:

Which one owned the salon?
What’s her sister’s name?
What’s her mother’s name?
Who’s boyfriend wants to rob the bank?
Which one works as a teller?

Ahh…. see? Think I’ve made it too tough? Okay. Try the same scenario but use distinctly different names: Bonnie the bank teller. Wanda the waitress with the crooked boyfriend. Juliette the salon owner. Emily her sister the stylist. Chris, their mother.

This might not be perfect, but it’s a start. Notice the first letters of the names vary, that they don’t all have the same number of syllables, and that they end differently? I even made the Bonnie and Wanda even have names with letters that start the same as their jobs — bank teller and waitress.

Having a long roster of character names is a challenge to any reader, but it’s your job to make it as easy for them to keep straight as you can. The days of character lists (like those you find in play programs) are long gone.

Giving them little quirks helps, too. “Bonnie battled a lazy eye, so counting cash at the teller’s station got much easier for her when the automatic counting machines arrived.” Later, when Bonnie has lunch with Wanda, that lazy eye can play a role, too: “Wanda adored Bonnie. Maybe it was Bonnie’s lazy eye, the idea it gave you that she wasn’t entirely focused on you. It made doing anything that might jeopardize Bonnie’s job even harder; it had taken so much for Bonnie to get that job in the first place, and then keep it.”

It’s one thing if you use filler names while you draft — call your characters A, B, and C for all we care — but make sure you revise those names so they work in the story and your readers can keep all of them straight.

Those of us at a certain age remember the Bob Newhart TV show many years ago when he played an innkeeper. When three actors made their appearance and the first one said, “Hi. I’m Larry” then pointed to each of the other men in turn, saying, “This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl,” it always brought the house down. The actor delivered the line in deadpan, and the ridiculous idea of brothers having the same name always struck me as funny.

In real life, George Foreman named his five sons George. “It’s a great name,” he said once when asked why. As a fiction writer, unless you have a really good reason for it (and the only good reason is because it’s crucial to the plot) you’re not allowed to give your characters the same name.

You don’t want confused readers. Similar character names confuse readers. Confused readers give up. They put the book aside, never to finish it, never to recommend it to friends, never to post positive comments about it online. And you don’t want that, do you?

Writers Roundup

Is it hot where you are? Are you spending the hottest month of the year inside, where the air conditioning works full-blast 24-7? Isn’t that sort of like hunkering down in the depths of winter? Why not write? Why not get online and check out some of these resources? (Why am I writing this intro blurb in questions?)

Walking In Their Shoes?

New Balance is rolling out (walking out!??) a new line of sneakers based on the works of American authors. Although the shoes aren’t named for the authors, nor their works, isn’t it a great daydream to someday have accomplished enough as a writer to inspire footwear?!? Michael Lieberman, in “Sneakers for the literary set,” says he’d rather spend his money on books than the shoes… Good point.

Improving Your Writing and Creativity

Artist and writer Annie Weatherwax thinks being a trained artist has helped her as a novelist. Because I grew up in a family of artists and was trained early on to look at colors and shapes and detail, to appreciate how different watercolors are from sculpture, and to keenly observe my surroundings (among a billion other things), I’m in Weatherwax’s court on this one. See what you think.

Hard to believe there’s something you can learn about writing your novel by reading (and re-reading hundreds of times) “Goodnight Moon,” but Aimee Bender, mother of twins and novelist, gives an excellent explanation of how that happened for her in this Opinionator blog post from The New York Times.

More on Wasted Words

Awhile back, I posted an entry saying you never waste your words [], even if they get deleted. Every word you write feeds into those 10,000 hours you need to master your craft. So I was glad to see Ava Jae’s post, “On Writing Practice Novels.” Maybe you didn’t set out to write something for practice — who does? We all believe the first draft is brilliant…. Anyway, take a look at Ava’s POV on this.

Keep Going

Let’s say you’ve gotten over that “every word has to be perfect” mindset but you’ve hit hump in the draft: you know what comes after this spot, but can’t get from here to there. You need X, Y, Z, or ? inbetween, but don’t know those words quite yet. What should you do? You can do what Maria Murnane suggests (something I’ve been using and yes, it works; highlighting helps too): “Writing Tip: When You Get Stuck, Use All Caps and Move On.”


Hmmm… I’m reading a list of the top 25 best-selling ebooks, and you know what I’m not seeing? Self-published titles. All but one of these books was published by a traditional publishing company (I’m guessing the one that wasn’t was self-published). Know what else I’m not seeing — at least not very many of? Low-priced e-books. Twenty-three of the 25 are priced at $4.99 or above. For the list and more info, see Jeremy Greenfield’s summary at Digital Book World.

Pricing Models

What if you could charge your readers only for the pages they actually read, rather than for the entire book? If this sounds like a good plan to you, check out Total BooX. If a reader finishes 10% of the book, that’s all they pay for. Hmmm…. The data cruncher in me says this is a great way to find out how many readers are finishing the book — and if they don’t, where they’re dropping out. What do you think?


Frustrated trying to get appearances in bookstores? Weep no more. Penny C. Sansevieri at the Huffington Post’s The Blog has some ideas for non-traditional venues. Not only that, she provides suggestions for approaching them. See her “Beyond the Bookstore: Holding Book Events in Non-Traditional Venues.” All good!

Persistence is Everything

Years ago Andre Agassi famously said, “Image is everything.” Okay, it was a commercial, so he was paid to say it, but he get credit anyway. In fiction writing — and publishing — image isn’t as important as persistence, especially if you have a quality story or novel to offer.

Pursuing a traditional publisher can be frustrating. Each rejection is disappointing. Add up a bunch of them and a writer can get downright devastating.

Have hope. Here’s a spotlight on one writer’s journey. All true.

His first book, a short story collection, racked up 38 rejections over five years before a publisher finally said yes.

His second book, his first novel, was published four years later, after it was rejected 30 times.

Give up? Not this author. He and his agent persisted. They believed in his second novel, and despite 24 rejections, were rewarded with a publishing contract.

Most writers would be content to hear that ending. But there’s more.

Oprah took an interest, word spread, and the book hit bestseller status. It was made into a movie. The movie got at least one Oscar nomination.

You’ve heard of that book: “The House of Sand and Fog,” by Andre Dubus III.

But this isn’t the entire story. You also should know that Andre Dubus is the son of Andre Dubus (II) who had already established a very strong reputation for himself as a writer.

So no whining that “You have to have connections” or “You have to have a recognized name” is allowed. Andre Dubus III had both, and he still struggled.

What you need are three things to get traditionally published: a great manuscript, an agent who believes in you and will go the extra mileage on your behalf, and persistence.

Can you go it alone? Maybe. But an agent opens doors you can’t, and will take you down roads you don’t even know exist. What you need to share with that agent is a level of commitment and the willingness to persist, despite those 20 or 30 or 40 rejections. Because who knows what will happen next?


What’s in a blurb? What’s a blurb, anyway?

I’ve been hearing the word in this context: “Would you read my book and write a blurb for it?”

“Sure,” I say. “Tell me what you mean by ‘blurb’.”

“You know, a quote for my book cover.”

OHHHH! A testimonial. Something that raves about how wonderful the book is. That’s what they’re looking for. (And if the book is good, that’s what they get.)

This is a different use of “blurb” than I’d always heard, which is that little description that summarizes a book’s story in marketing materials. Here’s an example from my newest book, Pea Body:

Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

It appears on the back cover and serves as a teaser for readers considering whether to buy the book. Is it their type of story? Does it sound as though it has characters with whom they can identify or some other aspect that makes it familiar or intriguing?

You read them all the time. You’re in a bookstore or library, browsing, telling yourself you’re NOT going to buy another book until you finish the one you’re reading, then a title or cover draws your attention. You tug it from the shelf. You turn it over to read the description (the blurb) on the back cover.

Do you pick up those free newsletters in bookstores and libraries that tell you what’s new on the shelves? I picked up one — I’m not sure where (we are in so many places, after all…) — called Book World Page by Page. A slew of books in various categories are summarized in a few sentences each and a thumbnail image of their covers. Let’s take a close look at a few so you can see the same pattern I spotted in nearly all of them. [I'd give credit to the writers of these, but I don't know where they originated (they might have all come directly from the book covers or flaps, for all I know).]

Here’s the description for ‘Til the Well Runs Dry, by Lauren Francis-Sharma. The info before the description says it’s fiction, published by Henry Holt, available in hardcover and released in April 2014; it includes the cost and ISBN. But here’s what we’re interested in… the blurb:

In a village in Trinidad, young Marcia Garcia, a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress lives alone, raising two small boys and guarding a family secret. When she meets Farouk Karam, an ambitious young policeman (so taken with her that he elicits the help of a tea-brewing obeah woman to guarantee her ardor), the risks and rewards in Marcia’s life amplify. On an island rich with laughter, calypso, and cricket, the novel follows Marcia and Farouk from their courtship through personal and historical events that threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future.

Whew! Sounds like a good read to me!

How did this blurb make me want to hunt down the book? Let’s break it up into its various elements. (Ah! Yes! It is very strategically written, as you’ll see….)

Using just 102 words, the blurb manages to give us the following information:

The setting: Trinidad
The main character (MC): Marcia Garcia, “a gifted, smart-mouthed seamstress”
The set-up: She lives alone, raising two sons, and has a secret
The triggering event: She meets Farouk Karam who gets her to fall in love with him
Tease: “…personal and historical events… threaten Marcia’s secret, entangle them in a scandal, and endanger their future”

Wow! That covers a lot of ground — sort of like the trailer for a movie that gives you an idea of the mood and setting, what’s at stake and for whom.

Your Turn

Here’s the description for a teen novel titled Broken Hearts, Fences, and Other Things to Mend by Katie Finn. See if you can dissect it:

Gemma’s summer takes a turn when she gets dumped and finds herself back in the Hamptons after a five-year absence. Being there puts her at risk of bumping into Hallie, her former best friend (that is, before Gemma ruined her life). But people don’t hold grudges forever. Do they? Gemma wants to make amends, but a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago — like Hallie and her dreamy brother Josh — to think she’s someone else. Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?

Jot these down from the description above:

The setting
The main character
The set-up
The triggering event
The tease

(Answers at the end of the post.)

This second blurb is 94 words, and gives a bonus — the suggestion of a subplot (perhaps there will be a romantic interest in Hallie’s “dreamy brother Josh.”


You’ve heard it’s important to hone the description of your novel into a sentence or two, but just as important is how long those sentences are. I won’t quote the example here, out of respect for a fellow author, but when I paused by his table where he was selling his book, he handed me a postcard with an image of the cover and a two paragraph description. We’ll call the book The Boxy Brawler. It had just three sentences, but the first was 63 words long (!), the second ran another 42 words, and the third sentence 16 — a total of 119 words.

An extra 19 or so words doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re reading a 63-word sentence, you feel their weight like you feel those extra pounds after a holiday or a cruise (you know what I’m talking about).

Be Specific

What else do you notice about the two sample descriptions? Do you see how specific they are?

The main characters are named (Marcia and Gemma, in these examples). In the first, we aren’t reading about a novel featuring a “young single mother from Trinidad,” we’re reading about Marcia. And in the second, we’re not just tuning in to a teenagers summer, we’re reading about Gemma.

The settings are also specific and are mentioned early in the description. Nobody likes to feel lost, and we’re the same way when we read something — even if it’s a short book blurb. We need to feel oriented, so that what comes next makes sense. Be specific: cities or states or countries. If yours is a sprawling, multi-location tome, mention the key locales (London, Paris, Hong Kong…). The added bonus is that you might hit on a place in the world where someone who picks up your book at random feels a connection: “Oh! I’ve been there (or grew up there, or served in the military there, or have always wanted to go there…)!”

The Boxy Brawler failed on both of these counts. Types of characters are mentioned — a CEO, politicians, intelligence officers, and a sort of sorceress, among others — but no one main character is named. If the author can’t give me the name of a main character, then I’m wondering if they book is so scattered among the array of character types he mentions that I won’t care about any of them. (And you know what that means, don’t you?)

The setting is briefly mentioned in that 26-word final sentence, and though I’ve been to the small town it mentions, I was so cold to the book’s premise by then that it wasn’t enough to entice me to buy the book.

More on Boxy Brawler

I gave it this fake name, which is purposely puzzling, because the real title is a head-scratcher. I’m sure the author wanted an intriguing title, but without identifying the main character in his description, I have no idea who the title refers to. I’m not intrigued, I’m confused and disoriented about whose story I’d be reading.

The description doesn’t give us a a set-up, but it does hint at the triggering event — a corporate executive is approached by that sorceress character — but we can’t appreciate what that might mean if we don’t have the set-up.

Are you starting to see how these various elements in the description work together to build interest in a potential buyer? No? Okay… here’s more….

Use the Words Wisely

So how does the description of The Boxy Brawler use up all of those words, if we’re not getting essential information?

Despite a large, legible (good job here) image of the book cover and the title of the book printed at the top of the postcard, the first sentence repeats the name of the book, so that wastes critical wordage (and space). The description also spends most of its words on the “teaser,” using phrases like, “multi-faceted story about…” and “a compelling and momentous drama.”

Don’t tell me the book is “compelling” or “fascinating” or “wonderful” or “entertaining” unless you’re quoting some respected source. I’ll make up my own mind. Using descriptors like those sounds like a desperate attempt to get me to appreciate the book before I’ve read it. Just tell me what the book is about and I’ll decide on my own whether it’s compelling or fascinating or wonderful. I’ll know whether I was entertained or not. Did you see any of those words in the two examples above? Me, neither.


Be concise. Be specific. Tell the reader/potential buyer who the main character is, where the book is set, a sliver of the background (set-up) so the triggering event makes sense, and finish with a tease.

Would I submit my own blurb for the same dissection? Sure:

Betty and Walt Rollin are bird watching at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, avoiding Talkative Ted and Clingy Caroline, their overbearing neighbors at the RV “resort” where they’ve been staying. When Betty spots a very non-avian body at the edge of a far pond, she and Walt are drawn into the investigation. What they discover threatens to uncover long-held secrets that could ruin local reputations, and plunges these retired, full-time RVers up to their necks in the deep sand of local politics and passions.

Main characters: Betty and Walt Rollin
Setting: the Outer Banks of North Carolina, including Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Set-up: Full-time RVers staying at an RV resort who are out birdwatching (suggested subplot with annoying RV neighbors)
Triggering event: They discover a dead body
Tease: Their involvement in the investigation threatens respected local residents and puts themselves in harm’s way

How about your novel? Do you have a 100-word (or close) description that covers these bases? Could it do the job better? Go forth and edit those blurbs :)

Results of the Broken Hearts Dissection:

How did you do? Here’s what I found:

MC — Gemma
Setting — summer in the Hamptons
Set-up — Gemma has been away five years; at some point she “ruined” her best friend Hallie’s life
Triggering event: “a small case of mistaken identity causes the people she knew years ago to think she’s someone else”
Tease — “Can Gemma keep up the charade? Or will she be found out by the very people she’s been hiding from?”