Monday, May 17, 2010

The Burble of Blurble

I don't know about you, but as a reader and as a writer I dislike the blurb that you find on the back cover of books. The blurb acts as a marketing tool to capture the reader's attention and persuade them to read the book. To do they need to be snappy and engaging, and there are two main ways techniques: to oversimplify the book to grab attention, or to give away key plot details. As a writer I can't say either thrills me, although as a self-publisher I've had to write my own. While a blurb may convince you to buy a book, it also weakens and cheapens the reader's experience.

Consider this:

Winter on the lawless plains of the Emmenrule. En route to her wedding in the fortified city of Croad, the beautiful Lady Isola is kidnapped. What is worse, her captor is the infamous Beauceron. But, ruthless as he may be, Beauceron is no ordinary brigand: it is his life's ambition to capture Croad itself – and he will stop at nothing to achieve it.

It's the start, of course, of the Macmillan blurb for The Dog of the North. As blurbs go it's not bad (and I was consulted on it) but it does give a carefully-crafted opening chapter away. Blurbs invariably do; the writer who tries to ensare the reader by creating and resolving a mystery in Chapter One is often undercut by the blurbmeister. It doesn't make too much difference to The Dog of the North, but have a thought for Ryan David Jahn:

Katrina Marino is about to become America’s most infamous murder victim.
This is Katrina’s story, and the story of her killer.

That's the whole plot of Acts of Violence given away in two sentences. It's a book I greatly admire, but how different would my reading experience have been if I hadn't known from the outset that Katrina Marino would wind up dead (especially as it takes her most of the book to die).
The question of blurbs was brought about when I read the first chapter of Neil Gaiman's American Gods online: divorced of blurb. I had the experience--almost unknown today--of reading a first chapter as the writer intended it to be read, uncorrupted by publicity. Had I chosen to read the blurb first, it would have said this:
After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the time until his release ticks away, he can feel a storm brewing. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But the storm is about to break... Disturbing, gripping and profoundly strange, Gaiman's epic novel sees him on the road to the heart of America.
Two points here: first, I wouldn't have bought a book based on that flaky-sounding blurb, but I was captivated by the first chapter; and second, the build-up to Laura's death is effectively controlled and shocking to the reader (and we don't learn about her adultery until about Chapter Four). That shock would be rather less for the reader who has read the back cover. You'd be left admiring the writer's skill rather than experiencing an emotional reaction.
Blurbs, I suppose, are a necessary evil. But an evil they remain.






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8 comments:

Frances Garrood said...

I rather like blurb (although I hate the word - it sounds like some indelicate bodily function), provided, as you say Tim, that it doesn't give away too much. It gives you an idea of genre, and some hint of what to expect. Having said that, it's impossible to sum up any book in so few words; a bit like the draded synopsis...

RDJ said...

Yeah, I don't read flap copy myself. Or those little episode synopses provided on DVDs of TV series. I like going in blind -- but of course that only works if I want to read/watch in the first place. Usually that means I like the cover and the first couple pages, or someone recommended a book to me.

Matt Curran said...

Hi Tim

When I was younger, the blurb was the quickest way of putting down the basis for a story without losing it in that great and occasionally stormy ocean of ideas.  As long as I captured the mood and the plot, then I could concentrate on the project to hand and look at it later.

I think that helped with regard to the blurbs for Secret War and Mhorrer; the former was written by me, while Will based the blurb for Mhorrer on the blurb on my website.  I tried my damnedest not to give away important revelations from the book - like yourself and Ryan I prefer the blind approach to all entertainment, books and movies, but then enticing a reader is a three step process in most cases: the cover, then the blurb, and finally the opening paragraph or page.  As long as the blurb is done well and is subtle enough, then I'm happy with it.  Having said that, Ryan's book is a big spoiler; unless like Lovely Bones for instance, the book is not so much about the death - the destination or the beginning - but more about the journey.

Tim Stretton said...

I think the blurbs that peeve me the most are not the ones which give away the ending (surely no-one would write one) but those which give away the beginning. There seems to be an attitude which runs "it's only the first chapter", but invariably this approach tramples over any subtlety the author may have introduced: the thrill of discovery is taken away from the reader.

In Ryan's book, you kind of know she's going to die, but she fights so hard to stay alive you get caught up in that. I do think my experience as a reader was tainted by not being able to hope against hope.

Having said that, publishers do need a way of telling you what the book is about. Genre covers are so identikit these days that they do almost the whole job without need for blurb.

Ryan's revolutionary trick of not reading the copy had never occurred to me...I can't see something without needing to read it!

Frances Garrood said...

I've just noticed the verification word - 'cutcod' - and thought wouldn't that make a wonderful brief blurb for Moby Dick?

David Isaak said...

I agree completely.

Over here, however, those teaser/summary bits are called "flap copy" or "back cover copy." The term "blurb" is usually reserved for approving comments from other writers or from critics.

The word "blurb" was invented by the writer Gelett Burgess (see http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/blurb/) and is intended to sound ridiculous.

Burgess's most famous definition of the word is "a sound like a publisher."

Alis said...

I completely agree Tim. As a reader, I've largely got around the spoiler effect by buying four or five books at a time (I like to have pipeline in my reading). So I will read the blurb, plus the first page or three before I buy, but by the time I get around to reading any individual book, I've forgotten what the blurb says and I make a point of never reading blurb once I've got a book home.

In terms of writing blurb, I'd like to just pose a series of questions that the novel asks and let the reader see if they'd like to see the answers. And I felt the same about RDJ's book - he did such a good job of making you feel that she might just survive that the fact that the blurb had told you she died numbed your emotional reaction to it.

Faye L. Booth said...

I'm not too unsettled by blurbs myself, although admittedly I don't tend to buy books based on them (I do the quick flick instead). I can only recall suggesting one change to one of my blurbs: originally the allusion to Molly's abortion in the blurb for Mirrors described it as "a decision she will regret for the rest of her life", which I had to quibble with as a) it implies an ideology I don't agree with; and b) isn't even true - she doesn't regret it. Will was fine about it though; he agreed that it was an example of dramatic wording being used at the expense of accuracy, and so it was changed.