What it’s about: How to write enticing back cover copy for your novel

So, what's it about?
You stand at the doorway of your favorite coffeehouse, scanning the area for your friend. Julie is tucked away at a corner table, reading a paperback. She doesn’t notice you until you take the seat across from her.

“Oh, sorry!” she says. “I’ve been completely engrossed in this novel. It’s really good!”

“Cool. What’s it about?” you ask.

“It starts out in Baltimore, when Lisel—that’s the main character—is fourteen. Her parents pretty much ignore her because they’re so focused on her older brother. The brother’s name is Carl, and he’s really smart. All he’s ever wanted to do when he grows up is become a doctor. The parents are immigrants, and they’ve done okay given that their English isn’t great, but they really want Carl to achieve the American dream.

“Okay …”

“Lisel resents this a little, but it’s the way it’s always been, right? So she doesn’t think about it much. But then the whole family takes a trip to Boston so Carl can do a college interview, and while they’re driving there they get blindsided by an out-of-control driver. Carl ends up with permanent brain damage. He has to relearn how to tie his shoes.”

You nod, grateful that Julie has gotten to the point. “So it’s about how the family copes with this.”

“Well, not exactly. The book skips ahead to when Lisel is in medical school. See, her parents transfer all their ambitions for Carl onto her, and she doesn’t want to disappoint them. She gets into Harvard, and she meets this guy who seems perfect …”

Your friend tells of Lisel’s struggles to get through medical school, her painful breakup with the aforementioned guy after she discovers he’s been cheating, and the challenges of building a practice. Your mind begins to wander as she describes, in intricate detail, Lisel’s attempts at a love life.

“So she agrees to a blind date set up by her mom, and she totally doesn’t want to go,” says Julie. “But he actually turns out to be really cool, maybe someone she can trust. She tells him she used to like acting in high school, before the thing with her brother, and he convinces her to audition for this theater group really close to where she lives—”

“Okay, okay,” you say, waving your hands desperately. “But what is the book ABOUT?”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you for the last seven minutes.” She blinks a few times, clearly mystified. “Hey, I’ve gotta use the restroom. Could you watch my stuff?”

As Julie cheerfully makes her way to the other side of the coffeehouse, you pick up the book, flip to the back cover, and read this:

Most of Lisel’s childhood was spent in the shadow of her brilliant and ambitious older brother, Carl. When a car accident left Carl severely brain damaged at the age of seventeen, she quietly took on the dreams he would never fulfill in an attempt to ease her parents’ grief. She went to medical school, graduated with honors, and now maintains a thriving practice.

But cracks appear in Lisel’s seemingly perfect life. The only human beings she interacts with on a regular basis are her patients and the men she meets on disastrous Match.com dates. When she joins a community theater group, she finds that rekindling her interest in acting only magnifies her dissatisfaction with everything else.

Should the choices we make in high school determine the course of our entire life? Are parental approval and the trappings of success enough to sustain us? In turns heartbreaking and hilarious, A HAND-ME-DOWN LIFE is a deeply satisfying story about one woman’s quest to find her own path.

Here’s the million dollar question. Assuming this is the kind of book you might enjoy, which description is more likely to make you want to read it: the blurb on the back cover, or the blurb as Julie might have written it?

* * *

I’ve encountered many authors who are capable of penning interesting books, but become absolutely lost when it comes time to create the promotional copy for those books. Too close to their own work to know how to sell it, they often fall back on Julie’s rambling monologue approach to plot summary.

If you’ve run into the same problem, take a few deep breaths and relax. I’m here to help.

The key thing is to keep it simple. Pare it down. Don’t tell the entire story in your blurb.

That’s great, you say, but how do I know what to leave out?

Good question. There are actually many ways to summarize any given plot, and the one you choose should depend on who you think will read it.

For instance, the Hand-Me-Down Life blurb is geared toward readers who like stories about quarter-life or mid-life crises. If we wanted to hook people who are into family dramas, we could play up the pressure Lisel’s parents put on her to fill her brother’s shoes. If the overall tone of the book is light and humorous despite the serious subject matter, we might emphasize the romantic interests—neither of whom even get a mention in the current blurb.

Obviously, you shouldn’t make your book out to be something it’s not. You just need to focus on certain elements of what it is so you can present a coherent narrative.

Still don’t know which plot points to highlight? Try writing different versions of the blurb. Put the samples up on your blog (if you don’t have one, you should) and show them to friends. Which version makes people want to flip open to the first page?

If you’ve done your job, then readers will want to know the whole story. And to find out, they’ll read the whole story!

* * *

An earlier version of this article originally appeared on the Wheatmark blog.

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5 Responses to What it’s about: How to write enticing back cover copy for your novel

  1. Sally Milo says:

    As I’m in the middle of writing my first (e-)book, this will sure help in my promotions of it! Thanks! And thank you for a really informative, attractive site!

  2. Don Martin says:

    I do two things. first, I use the one-half approach, the same as I do with my reviews. I only talk about things in the first half of the book. The reader can discover the rest on their own. The second thing is use questions. I spell out the conflict, and then ask something like “Will Liz be successful…?” What makes good back-cover copy is some mystery. If you explain the whole book, down to the resolution, there really isn’t any reason for someone to buy the book any more.

  3. susanedits says:

    The half approach is a good one, but you don’t even have to reveal half of the action. Set the scene, describe the conflict that disrupts everything, and then rely on the questions method.

    Depending on your audience, you might *hint* at part of the resolution. Suggest that everything turns out OK in the end if you think your readers won’t stick around for a sad ending, but don’t let them know how the characters get to that happy state.

  4. Pingback: What it’s about: Blurbs and the character-driven novel | Cover to Cover LLC

  5. Andy says:

    When I wrote the query letter for my recent novel, I agonized over one. Simple. Word. One word. I agonized over that Word for two hours. I re-read the section of the novel this Word might have appeared in for inspiration, but no such luck. I even tried the synopsis, which was even easier to write than the frigging query! I finally had to look at some advice from Miss Snark on a query’s framework:

    1) Who is the protagonist?
    2) What dilemma does he face?
    3) How does it get resolved?

    Okay. Since the main story was a love triangle, I identified the three characters. I defined what each one was looking for and from whom. Finally, I asked the rhetorical “how DOES it get resolved?” (“…and what about Naomi?”) in the blurb without answering anything, which is really hard because that’s the synopsis’s job. Once I had the query, I knew I had the blurb.