Blurb is a weird word. It sounds like a fish trying to talk. Blurb. Blurb. Blurbitty-blurrrrr-blurb.
Quirky as the word itself is, the ability to write an effective one is a vital marketing technique. While studying effective query letters and back covers can help us develop a sort of sixth-sense regarding blurb writing, a lot of authors struggle because of the profound similarities and differences between back cover blurbs and query letter blurbs.
The queries I critique tend to fall into one of three camps:
Camp #1: Reads like a synopsis, listing almost every major event in the story, often in laundry list “and then” fashion. Literary TMI.
Camp #2: Reads like a back-cover blurb. Often contains vague, and clichéd language.
Camp #3: Gets the level of detail spot-on, making my job way easier (yes, this actually happens, and yes, I sometimes weep tears of joy when it does).
I’ve seen authors complain that some agents ask for queries that are “more like a back cover blurb,” but when they try to mimic that style, their queries still fall flat. It’s my belief that understanding the similarities and differences between a back cover blurb and a query letter blurb, can make or break a querying author.
|Back-Cover Blurb||Query Blurb|
Meant to intrigue/entice the reader.
Meant to “sell” your book.
Contains plot, character, and world-building elements (to name a few).
Doesn’t reveal the resolution of the ultimate climax of the story.
Is written in present tense.
|Back-Cover Blurb||Query Blurb|
|Avoids spoilers as much as possible.||Spoilers galore! Many secrets revealed!|
|Generalized language.||Specific details all over the place!|
|Attached to a published book. Does not need to prove it can be a book, because it already is.||Attached to a manuscript that might or might not be ready to be a published book. Needs to prove itself worthy.|
|Aimed at readers.||Aimed at publishing industry professionals.|
One of the biggest differences between the back cover blurb of a published book, and the query blurb of a query letter, is detail-level. Back cover blurbs are secretive creatures. They have to be vague. They have to avoid spoilers. Their goal is to intrigue with just enough information to entice the reader, but little enough that the reader will still be thrilled and surprised by the story itself.
Your average author has read far more back-covers than they have query letters. When we try to describe a story in blurb-format, Back-cover-ese is the language we automatically translate into. Also movie trailers. Our brains tend to be big fans of movie trailers.
Back Cover Blurb: “In a race against time, young Owen must delve into his secretive past and learn the truth, or lose his newfound brother who he’s already beginning to love!”
Query Letter Blurb: “Ha! That’s not what I heard. My author told me Owen was adopted, and that his newfound brother Jimmy lives with his bio-mom—who kept Jimmy but not Owen!—and his birth family is super screwed up because his bio-dad cheated on his bio-mom with her sister, then robbed both women blind! And while he’s dealing with that hot mess of emotional overload, Owen’s got to track dad-dude down because he’s their last hope of finding a bone marrow match for Jimmy!”
^^^Don’t write your blurbs like this. This is terrible writing. The story idea is kind of cool though. Someone should maybe write that.
Query blurbs, as you may have noticed, are the loud-laughing, secret-sharing gossip at the party. They spoil almost everything. But they do it for good reason. Agents and editors read more query letters than we can probably imagine. They understand story structure. They get it on a deep, bedrock level. To appeal to them, to show them ours is a story worth giving their (very limited) time to, we need more than just the basic surface-level of the story.
Details. It’s all about those specific details.
When writing your query letter blurb (or anything, really) please, for the love of words, avoid phrases like:
- “Or her whole world will be turned upside down.”
- “Or everything he thought he knew would fall apart.”
- “Or everything would change.”
Back Cover Blurb: “She must race against time to prevent a catastrophe!”
Query Letter Blurb: “She must defuse the bomb or a school bus full of children is going to blow up!”
If a phrase in your query could be used to describe literally hundreds of other stories, it doesn’t belong there. You’re not going to hook agents or editors with generic lines like “They must master their new ability or the world will be destroyed.” The world is always about to be destroyed. Main characters always have new abilities that need mastering.
What makes your story special? What’s unique about it? What does your story have that the other 724 queries in the agent or editor’s inbox don’t? A main character who uses graffiti art to make incisive social commentary, but secretly dreams of being an accountant some day? A clever novelization of Westside Story, but with mermaids? A murderer who puts a chess piece in the mouth of each of their victims, and the clever young waitress who figures out why?
Querying authors, find those details, and then share them! If you sacrifice clarity for the sake of mystery, you sacrifice your best chance to show agents or editors what your story is actually about. Make sure your query letter is that talkative gossip at the party*.
*But aim for the 250-300 word sweet spot, okay? Agents and editors have tired eyes and tired brains. Be nice to them.
Kimberly VanderHorst is a YA author who cherishes a love for all things quirky and strange. Claims to fame include running Prism Editing, co-hosting the annual Pitch Slam contest, and serving on the committees for the annual LDStorymakers Conference and The Whitney Awards program. Despite being a city girl with a tendency to cuss a lot, Kimberly is married to an LDS minister and lives in rural northern Canada. There, she helps raise their four lovely daughters while pretending not to be afraid of the neighbour’s chickens.