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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Reprobate, a short novel? An insight into word count.

REPROBATE

I’ve had several people comment on how Reprobate is an excellent story, but ‘on the short side’. This comment puzzled me, since Reprobate clocks in at a word count of 111,932 words. This was one of the reasons why, when TOR editor Melissa Singer considered Reprobate for publication, one of her comments were that Tom Doherty Associates rarely publishes suspense novels over 100,000 words.

Reprobate’s original length was 127,000 words when the manuscript was entered in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) contest in 2010 (under the name Peccadillo), where it reached the quarterfinals and received this Publishers Weekly review:

Fast-moving and intricately plotted, this manuscript of Dutch intrigue follows assassin Katla, who’s renowned for her ability to cover up a job. When the U.S. DEA’s base in the Netherlands catches wind of a heroin ring within the U.S. military, they set up an undercover operation. When the heads of the drug ring discover the plot, they arrange for Katla to assassinate the undercover agents, but the assassination doesn’t go as planned. As Katla recovers from injuries sustained in the botched job, DEA agent Deborah Stern and her colleagues investigate. Violence, drugs, and sex abound in this intense story, and the plot is less farcical than a lot of the thrillers clogging the shelves.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

I bolded the first words. Even at its most bloated, Reprobate was considered ‘fast-moving’. So I checked what the average word count of suspense fiction should be, and I found this article on Writer’s Digest by Chuck Sambuchino, who writes:

ADULT NOVELS: COMMERCIAL & LITERARY

Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.

Now, speaking broadly, you can have as few as 71,000 words and as many as 109,000 words. That is the total range. When it dips below 80K, it might be perceived as too short—not giving the reader enough. It seems as though going over 100K is all right, but not by much. I suggest stopping at 109K because just the mental hurdle to jump concerning 110K is just another thing you don’t want going against you. And, as agent Rachelle Gardner pointed out when discussing word count, over 110K is defined as “epic or saga.” Chances are your cozy mystery or literary novel is not an epic. Rachelle also mentions that passing 100K in word count means it’s a more expensive book to produce—hence agents’ and editors’ aversion to such lengths.

In short:
80,000 – 89,999:       Totally cool
90,000 – 99,999:       Generally safe
70,000 – 79,999:       Might be too short; probably all right
100,000 – 109,999:    Might be too long; probably all right
Below 70,000:           Too short
110,000 or above       Too long

Chick lit falls into this realm, but chick lit books tend to be a bit shorter and faster. 70-75K is not bad at all.

So, if we take the above in account, Reprobate is ‘too long’ and, according to Rachelle Gardner, an ‘epic or saga’. So why do reviewers comment on Reprobate being ‘too short’ or ‘a short novel’?

Since Reprobate is available in e-book only, it’s difficult to assess the ‘heft’ of the book is, but considering that most novels are around 80-90,000 words, Reprobate is a whopping 25% thicker than the average paperback novel.

Next I went to a website where I could cut and paste the first chapter of Reprobate into a window and have the algorithms calculate the Readability Score. With these results:

Reading Ease

A higher score indicates easier readability; scores usually range between 0 and 100.

Readability Formula Score
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 79.6

Grade Levels

A grade level (based on the USA education system) is equivalent to the number of years of education a person has had. Scores over 22 should generally be taken to mean graduate level text.

Readability Formula Grade
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 4.7
Gunning-Fog Score 6.9
Coleman-Liau Index 9.9
SMOG Index 5.3
Automated Readability Index 4.3
Average Grade Level 6.2

Text Statistics

Character Count 20,500
Syllable Count 6,473
Word Count 4,694
Sentence Count 452
Characters per Word 4.4
Syllables per Word 1.4
Words per Sentence 10.4

So I can rest easily. Reprobate is not short, but my writing style evidently allows for quick reading and that makes the ‘epic length’ of Reprobate seem much shorter. If you have questions about the readibility of your own manuscript, go to Readability Score and take the test yourself.