WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book

From a discussion on writing blurbs (also known as the pitch), I’d like to share some of my ideas on a ‘formula’ for writing a pitch.

The difficulty with writing a pitch is that most novelist have trouble figuring out how to ‘sell’ their book. I’m taking the blurb of my novel Reprobate as an example on how write a pitch:

First things first, the blurb is not a synopsis of the book, but the blurb has to provide incentive for the reader to read the book.

What is also useful if you write the blurb like a pitch, with three different stages:

Stage one, the elevator pitch: Describe your book in one sentence, preferably less than could be spoken in one short breath. For example: Hungry white shark terrorizes beach community. Lone undercover cop battles terrorists in highrise office building.

Stage two, the story pitch: Try to tell, as succinctly as possible, what happens in the first part of the book that sets up what will happen next.

Stage three, the promise: This book is X genre and part of a series. The author is a gynecologist and therefore qualified to write about this subject. This book is highly recommended for easily excitable readers with short attention spans.

If your three stages work well, the first stage poses a question that is answered in the second stage with another question that is explained in the third stage.

My ABNA pitch (in 2010) for Reprobate was:

REPROBATE is the first novel in a series featuring female commercial assassin Katla Sieltjes, a specialist in making homicide appear as ‘deaths without suspicious circumstances’. The setting of the story is the Netherlands, in particular Amsterdam.

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience Katla Sieltjes views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her alias Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with principals through electronic means, all to protect her identity.

Resigned to remain single for the duration of her career Katla meets the enigmatic blind musician Bram Merleyn when he enters the gallery where Katla has just killed the owner. Deciding that the blind man won’t make a reliable witness, Katla spares his life. After stalking the blind man to gain information whether he is truly harmless, an opportunity presents itself for a new introduction and Katla becomes intimate with Bram who is unaware of her real occupation. While the relationship between Bram and Katla blossoms and starts to affect both their lives, the suspense mounts to exciting heights as Katla accepts a difficult high-risk assignment from an unreliable principal – not only her possible exposition and fragile relationship with Bram are at stake, but her very life is in peril as Katla scrambles to get back to zero.

Through the developing romance between Katla and Bram, and their interaction with a supporting cast of unusual characters, the reader gains insight in the business of a commercial assassin as well as detailed knowledge about the life of session musicians; local information about the famous Dutch capital; the narcotics trade; motorcycle gangs; mehndi bridal tattoos; martial arts; and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The strength of REPROBATE lies in authentic details and psychological depth of the characters, mixed with fast-paced action and a realistic plot.

My final description for Reprobate follows my formula, but uses text from the pitch:

Assassin Katla breaks her own rules when confronted with an unusual witness…

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, computer hacking, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, the psychology of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

This e-book features a glossary.

You can see the repeated elements. And it’s a lot shorter, because pitches to agents are 150 words max, while ABNA pitches are (were?) 300 words max.

Analyzing your pitch/blurb:

Take the first part of the blurb from Reprobate:

Blessed with an almost non-existent conscience, Katla Sieltjes, expert in disguising homicide, views assassination as an intricate and rewarding occupation. Hidden behind her male alter ego Loki, Katla receives anonymous assignments, negotiates the terms with clients through electronic means, all to protect her identity. Her solitary existence satisfies her until she meets a blind musician whose failure to notice a ‘closed’ sign causes him to wander in on Katla’s crime scene. And Katla breaks one of her most important rules—never leave a living witness.

If you analyze this blurb, you see:
Who is the protagonist? Freelance assassin Katla Sieltjes, who considers herself ‘blessed’ by being unburdened by a conscience. So she kills without remorse, which is not a common trait in a protagonist.
What does the protagonist do (what is the status quo? She lives a solitary life, apparently enjoys killing for profit, and takes great pains to remain anonymous
What is the conflict that changes the status quo? A blind man walks into her crime scene, and Katla breaks her own rules and spares his life. And Katla becomes dissatisfied with her solitary existence.

That ‘conflict’ happens in the first of fifty chapters. So, you don’t need to ‘tell the whole story’. Just give a reader enough that they may think, ‘hey, this might be interesting’.

The second part of the blurb is:

Reprobate is the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. With authentic details and fast-paced action, featuring an uncompromising heroine and a supporting cast of unusual characters, Reprobate gives a rare glimpse in the local Dutch culture, information on the famous Dutch capital, the narcotics trade, motorcycle gangs, mehndi bridal tattoos, martial arts, computer hacking, the art of social engineering, and the brutal effectiveness of disciplined violence.

The second part is the ‘promise’. What can the reader expect? The first book in a series (so if they like it, there is more), the heroine is unusual (a remorseless killer is often the antagonist, but rarely the protagonist), and she’s not the only unusual character.
Amsterdam is famous all over the world, but the blurb offers a rare glimpse in the local culture and information on a host of other topics, which may or may not be unknown/interesting to the reader. And it contains brutal violence (so the reader won’t think it’s chick-lit and complain about the violent bits).

What the blurb doesn’t do is tell what happens after Katla breaks her rule. Breaking rules is always a risk, and the reader can figure out that there’ll be consequences. Only, to know the consequences, they’ll have to read the book.

If you apply the analysis to your own blurb, see if you can figure out what you’re telling and what not.

Other articles on writing blurbs:

Four Easy Steps to an Irresistible Book Blurb.

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5 Comments on “WRITING: ‘What the hell is a blurb?’ or pitching your book”

  1. Lummox JR says:

    Talking to the reader, as in that second paragraph, is ill-advised in blurbs. This breaks the third wall and takes the reader out of their window into the story. (See Matthew Kadish’s mostly excellent post, but skip tip #6, the question cliché.) But it’s also full of author boasts: things said about the book that lack credibility coming from anyone but a reviewer. Most of the items you listed that the book says the reader gets a glimpse into would be better off being mentioned in the blurb proper.

    As an editor pitch, I think this is great. But a blurb is not the same animal. Pitches are hard-sell, intended to crack the defenses of jaded editors who’ve seen it all; blurbs are soft-sell, meant to hook the browsing consumer. An editor pitch and a blurb may have many things in common and can share much of the same text, but this difference in tone is one of the major reasons that talking to the reader doesn’t work in blurbs. It all comes down to the intended audience.

    Beth Bacon’s post has some similar issues; she makes the mistake of assuming mood is something you tell the reader about directly rather than marbling it through the language of the rest of the blurb. What I like about her post is that it hints at the need for structure in a blurb, since most people never know where to start and that leads to a lack of focus. Her formula, sans mood which should be an aspect of the word choice rather than an afterthought, isn’t a bad one for structure.

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    • Thank you for your opinion. I hope I did make a clear distinction between the blurb that ends up with the book, and the pitch for the ABNA, which isn’t a blurb but an ‘editor/selling pitch’ aimed at the ABNA judges who read 5,000 editor pitches to select 1,000 excerpts to be read.

      That, by the way, was a major source for discontent during the ABNA 2010 discourse on the boards–many writers whose pitch failed to draw the judges’ interest complained about even having to write a pitch, since ‘writing pitches is not the job of an author’. I disagreed, because the pitches for the ABNA were about the same as the pitch you put in the query letter to an agent. Except that query letter pitches shouldn’t be longer than 150 words and ABNA pitches could be up to 300 words.

      Many authors still fail to distinguish between summary, synopsis, pitch, blurb, elevator pitch, just as many authors don’t know the difference between proofreaders and beta readers.

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      • Lummox JR says:

        To be honest I thought you were conflating blurb and pitch a bit, partly because of the title, and also because you said right off the bat that a blurb is also known as a pitch–but it isn’t, which on closer examination I see you tried to clarify below. That opening sentence muddies the waters a lot, though. And the blurb still comes across as a pitch because of the hard-sell “Hi, I’m the author and I’m here to tell you a few more things” part.

        I completely agree that pitch, synopsis, blurb, etc. are all different things. Confusing a blurb for a synopsis is what gets a lot of writers lost, and many people mistakenly use the terms interchangeably.

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  2. Christina says:

    Very useful. Thank you for taking the time to explain.

    Liked by 1 person


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