Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Query Blurbs

After I wrote my first book (which I was sure was going to be snapped up immediately – ha!) I attended a writer’s conference. It was the first time that I’d ever talked to an agent. A real, live, breathing agent. And he couldn’t run away, at least for ten minutes, because I’d paid to talk to him. *grin*

So this agent (bless his heart) looked at my query and said, “I can tell you have plot problems.”

“Um, what?”

“Plot problems, see here,” he pointed to my query, “you spend way too much time telling me the little details of what’s happening rather than giving me the big picture. Plot problems.”

In that ten-minute meeting I learned a valuable writing lesson: your query/blurb is a reflection of your manuscript. If your manuscript is tight, well planned and executed with finesse, your query will reflect that. However, if your manuscript could stand about ten more edits, your query is going to reflect that too.

I made it my mission to figure out this query business. I studied it, much like I studied how to write. And it helped me to understand that at the heart of every book is an if/then question. The “if” is the setup (the first chapters) the “then” is the meat of the book.

Recognizing what this if/then question is helps to keep the book on track. If you already know up front, there should be no rambling chapters that have nothing to do with the plot.

When writing a blurb you’re going to focus on the “if” – the setup. You are also going to give an illusion to the “then” – not the whole thing!

You can write a blurb a few ways. The two ways I use most is:

Character 1
Character 2
Conflict

and

Character
Book set up*
Conflict*

*or if this is easier to think of as story 1 & story 2


The first way is more for romance novels where the plot revolves around two people rather than the world around them. The second is if you have a novel that is more plot driven.

I’m going to give an example of both.

I guess the only way to do this is to show my thought process. I’m going to make up two novels. Two novels that I would never write, so no comments about the lameness of the plot, please. We’re focusing on the blurb and not originality. :)


EXAMPLE 1:

I’ll start with the first one. I decide I’m going to write a romance novel about Penny and Jack. Penny and Jack knew each other in high school – where they hated each other.

What’s the if? What’s going to throw these two together? What is our plot?

Years later Penny is desperate. Her business is failing. She’s one step away from bankruptcy. She has one last opportunity to win a huge contract if she can convince the client that she can do the job.

What’s the then? The problem?

Enter Jack. He’s the owner of said business. He’s not too fond of Penny. He remembers her as the girl in high school who made his life miserable.


I’m going to use the character 1 / character 2 / Conflict:


Penny Preston has a problem. Her business is failing – the one she gave up her life for – when it’s gone, she’ll have nothing to show for it except debt and an empty apartment. Penny has one last chance to convince a buyer to invest in her company. Too bad it’s Jack.

Jack Smith is local boy made good. He has everything he ever wanted and then some. Trouble is, he never got over that embarrassing incident in high school -- the one where Penny Preston said that he’d never amount to anything, and if he did, she still wouldn’t be interested.

Now that they were face to face, he should walk away. He doesn’t trust her. She couldn’t possibly be less spoiled than the girl he knew. Then why is he so attracted to her?


EXAMPLE 2:

For my second example, I asked Deb, “Hey, give me a plot idea I can use for an example. One you wouldn’t use.”

She gave me:

Darcy Miller is sure she has a brain tumor. She has become sensitive to daylight, can't sleep at night, and has no appetite. Unless you count rare meat. She hasn't hit the gym in months yet she just flattened the weirdo who tried to snatch her purse. And what was going on with her front teeth aching like a son-of-a-bitch?

My first thought was: Hilarious! My second thought was: I did a good job teaching her how to write blurbs! Ha. This one has sassitude.

Sassitude is important in blurb, especially if you have sassy writing. The level of sassiness in the blurb needs to be directly related to the level of sassiness in the manuscript. Nothing will kill you faster than creating a sassy blurb only to deliver literary fiction.

This is why I purposely left out any trace of sassiness in Example 1. At the core of a blurb you do not need sassiness. You need facts. Sassiness is like using fancy Malaysian honey with herbs on your toast instead of store-bought honey. Both get the job done, the flavor is just different. Don’t substitute sassiness for competency.

Let’s break down what Deb wrote and add to it so that you can see what the whole query would look like because if you notice, what she gave me is not finished. It’s just a character description.

Her character, Darcy, is turning into a werewolf.

What is the if and then? What’s the book set up and conflict?

How about… Darcy is a flight attendant. And because of her change not only can’t she take certain shifts but the undercover federal martial thinks she’s part of a terrorist plot.

The blurb using the Character/ Set up / Conflict would look something like:

Darcy Miller is sure she has a brain tumor. She has become sensitive to daylight, can't sleep at night, and has no appetite. Unless you count rare meat. She hasn't hit the gym in months yet she just flattened the weirdo who tried to snatch her purse. And what was going on with her front teeth aching like a son-of-a-bitch?

Fifty-thousand feet above ground is the last place Darcy expected to fight her own war on terror. A federal martial thinks she’s behind a plot to take the plane she works on down. She’s not, but who is?

Darcy had better find out before the plane explodes or she turns wolfy. Either way, it’s a hairy situation!



… Actually, that one is pretty dang funny. Heh.

Anyway, the point is, blurbs are pretty straightforward. They’re not about the plot points, they’re about the plot as a whole. Conceptualize the book, don’t break it apart.

Any questions? I’d be happy to answer them.

13 comments:

  1. This is great! You should give us another scenario / plot to blurb and then you can tell us what we're doing wrong. LOL. I'm so confident in my blurbing abilities, can't you tell?

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  2. Ha! That could be fun. I didn't realize how hard it was, though, to think of plots I wouldn't write. LOL!

    That last one I thought, "I should write that!"

    We could try something like this on Flashy Fiction where once a month I'd post a plot and then spend time in the comments helping people.

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  3. That would be a nice change of pace over there from time to time!

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  4. You are SPOT ON. I didn't really realize it until I had a query ninja destroy my pitch.
    I found I stumbled through a decent query when I wasn't sure what the problem was and how my story was different. When a better story was written with strong plot and characterization, it was natural. Not easy, but naturally written.

    Ever considered dissecting other people's queries on here?

    ReplyDelete
  5. The problem with dissecting other peoples queries is it's nearly impossible. The reason the queries are bad relates back to their manuscript...

    ... lack of characterization
    ... lack of plot
    ... over written
    ... you need a writing class

    You can't write a good query for a bad book. You just can't.

    And I don't want to put myself in a position where I have to say... "Um, you need to look at your plot again." People don't want to hear that. They're ready to query NOW. So all it will do is hurt feelings.

    Plus, I've noticed that having someone help with a query does two things for a newbie writer:

    1. Gives the query a different flavor than the book. The query begins to take on the flavor of the experienced writer who changes it to make sense.

    and 2. The new writer doesn't take the time to ask him/herself WHY is this not working?

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  6. This is such a good point. Writing the query can make you step back from the details and ask yourself, what is the meat of this book?

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  7. Ah yes! CONCEPTUALIZE the plot. Very nicely stated.

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  8. Hi Heather :)
    Thank you very much for the writing advice. You made it straightforward and easy to remember. I love learning how to write better. Thank you again!

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  9. I think that's the first time that has ever made sense. :)

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  10. I'm so glad it resonated with you guys!

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  11. Quite interesting... And to think I ended up here via the random blog thingy! :)

    Thank you!

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  12. Thank you for helping writers understand what a query blurb is! And how important your pitch needs to be! Cheers!!

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  13. Thank you for that insightful blog on blurbs. It's important for writers to understand how to "pitch" to agents in their query! Cheers!

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