Don’t Let Aunt Edna Write Your Book Description

When Aunt Edna is telling a story, I have to make sure the guns are safely locked away.

Aunt Edna: Did you hear about the Smith’s dog?

Me: Who are the Smiths?

AE: Remember that nice couple who lived on Oak Drive? The blue house. Awful color, looked like one of those toilet bowl cakes. I thought about leaving them a note. A nice note, not mean or anything, just a hint that paint is cheap and I’m sure the neighbors would be more than happy to help paint the house on a weekend.

Me: Huh? What does this have to do with a dog?

AE: They painted the house when they moved in–

Me: Huh? What? Who moved in where?

AE: The blue house, dear, aren’t you listening? I was talking to the doctor the other day about Uncle Henry’s hearing. We set up a test for him. Have you thought about having your hearing tested? You say what and huh an awful lot. Henry started doing that, too, and it’s irritating. If he can’t hear me, he should just admit it…

Around this point in the conversation, I’m digging through drawers for the key to the gun safe. Or for the liquor cabinet.

Bless her soul, Aunt Edna is not trying to drive people crazy. It’s that she has a story to tell, and it excites her and she wants other people to understand how exciting it is, so she needs to explain all the backstory and who the characters are and, of course, every story relates to another, so Uncle Henry’s hearing problems are important, too.

It’s those Aunt Edna-ish impulses that give many writers fits when they try to write book descriptions. They love their book, they’re excited, they want others excited, too, but they know too much and they’re emotionally involved. Browsers on Amazon or B&N won’t look for the key to the gun safe, they’ll just click the “next” button.

Copy writers who create blurbs and book descriptions for publishers tend to work off synopses, rather than the read the books. Why? It’s not their job to love the book or get involved or excited about the story. Their job is to entice readers into buying the book. A synopsis hits the high points of character and plot, providing all the information the copy writer needs with none of the emotional investment.

(sidenote: This article is for indie writers who are writing book descriptions for self-published titles. But, if you are going the traditional route, your ability to write a great synopsis will increase your value. Not just because it will make the editor more inclined to read your manuscript, but because a great synopsis means she doesn’t have to write one for the art department or the copy writer or the sales department. She can use yours. You just saved her (or her assistant or intern) a few hours of work. Learn to write great synopses. Trust me, do it.)

The copy writer’s advantage is that she isn’t emotionally invested. It would be ridiculous for me to tell a writer to get uninvested and work off a synopsis. That’s silly. One option would be to hire a copy writer, give them a good synopsis and pay them to write the book description. If that option isn’t feasible for you, then your other option is to learn how to write a good description. A few pointers.

  • Study. Go through your shelves or head to the bookstore or browse Amazon for descriptions written by pros. Find mass market paperback novels that are similar in genre and tone to your novel. After you read about ten or twenty, you will discover there is a formula. Copy writers use that formula because it works. (The Formula for a Novel Blurb)
  • Put yourself in the right frame of mind. Aunt Edna’s real problem is that she’s so caught up in her storytelling, she doesn’t notice when people are gulping down Jack Daniels in an effort to numb the pain. What I do is pretend I have to convince the old man to take me to a movie. He doesn’t care much for movie theaters, which makes him a resistant audience. The challenge is, convince him he needs to see the movie.
  • Know your audience. Do a little market research. Hop over to Amazon or GoodReads, find the ten most popular novels that are similar in genre and tone to yours. Read the reviews and look for buzzwords. If for instance you wrote a fantasy novel, look for whatever readers are mentioning. The characters? The setting? Use of magic? Dragons? Tricky plots? Battle scenes? What are readers getting excited about? Seriously, make a list of the buzzwords. Readers who liked those popular titles will be looking for similar titles to enjoy. To help them find yours, focus your book description on what the readers are actually looking for. (Example: your fantasy novel has dragons in it. So you read the reviews for the top ten most popular fantasy novels that have dragons in them.  You notice a lot reviewers like friendships between people and dragons, and they get very excited about aerial dragon battles. You say, hey, my story has a strong friendship between a person and a dragon, and I wrote some kick ass aerial battles. Bingo. There’s your focus.)

(sidenote: But Jaye! That’s so calculating and mercenary and, and… it’s cheating! My story is about a magic well and a legend and the rise of a young prince to save the world. Uh huh. I’m sure you and Aunt Edna would love to tell me all about it. This is not about you. It’s about enticing your readers. You write on your terms, but you sell on theirs. Once they read about your magic well and the rise of the prince, they will love it. Unless you hook them with what they want–dragon friendship and battles–they’ll never read the story to find out how much they love it. When I’m trying to entice the old man to the movies, it doesn’t do me any good to tell him about juicy dialogue or tricky plot twists. I tell him about car chases and stuff blowing up. He’ll love the great lines and the twisty plot when he sees the movie, but it’s the car chases that lure him into the theater.)

  • Write your description, then go back through it and strip out all the adjectives and adverbs. Every. Single. One. (Jaye, are you out of your freakin’ mind? No. Bear with me.) I see this all the time. Writers panic that if they do not tell readers their stories are exciting or magnificent or sweeping or breathtaking and how everyone will love it because it’s the best story ever written, readers won’t understand. In the first place, that’s just flat out wrong. In the second place, any time you give a potential buyer the chance to argue with you, you risk them walking away. When you tell people how to feel, many will want to argue. You, the writer, will lose the argument and the sale. (Honey, this movie is better than the A-team. Yeah, right, says who? I’ve blown the chance to the see the movie.) If you find after stripping out the adjectives and adverbs, your 300 word description is now 89 words and makes no sense at all, it is time to start over. In this draft, no opinions, no hyperbole, just the facts. The good facts with strong nouns and verbs and specifics. (Honey, in this movie they blow up bridges. Explosions like in the A-team? Now I’ve got him hooked.)
  • Think journalism. Get your important facts in early. Who, what, where, why. Your book cover will tell part of the story (or should). Make sure the genre is clear. If the setting plays a big role in the story, you might consider a short lead that sets the stage: “In the land of Wyrm, where unicorns graze next to sheep and everyone owns a pet fairy, trouble brews in the Ice Mountains. The dragon-lords prepare for war.” Then start a new paragraph, and write about the characters and their struggle.
  • Think brief. You have seconds to catch browser attention with your cover. A few seconds more to intrigue with your first sentence or two. A reader will then decide if they want to read more. So you have to lead with your very best. Don’t blow it by presenting a mass of text. Blurbs on the backs of mass market paperbacks tend to run between 100-250 words. Usually closer to a hundred. You aren’t limited by physical space restraints, but keep in mind that dense blocks of text can turn off readers. If you find yourself going over 250 words, consider some serious trimming, or break up the description into paragraphs.
  • Polish. Polish! POLISH! Readers are judging the quality of the writing. Every typo, misused word, or clumsy sentence gives the reader an excuse to say, no thanks, and click on another page. This is where you have my permission and blessing to go absolutely nuts and even drive your friends nuts in your quest to make your description shine.

So sit Aunt Edna in an easy chair and give her a magazine, put on a pair of earphones to tune her out, and write a description that will actually sell your novel.

(and in case you’re interested, I managed to talk the old man into taking me to see SHERLOCK HOLMES. He loved it. And no, I never did find out what happened to the damned dog. I got drunk before Aunt Edna finished the story.)

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20 thoughts on “Don’t Let Aunt Edna Write Your Book Description

  1. As a former copywriter: yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    I think your Aunt Edna is moonlighting writing Amazon reviews. Next time I see one that attempts to give me a novel synopsis including who a) falls in love b) is suspected of murder, or 3) dies, I might just drop-kick my laptop.

    • One of the reasons I find it painful to read Amazon reviews. (my suggestion writers look to them for market research is only a tad, tiny, wee bit sadistic)

  2. Confession. I had to change “Aunt Edna’s” name to protect the guilty (namely me). If she ever found out about this blog post, she’d… shudder, let’s not go there, shall we?

    I will add this. Do NOT, if you value your sanity, ever ask Aunt Edna for driving directions. You’ll have forgotten why you’re going where you wanted to go by the time she’s finished telling the life story of the family who live on the corner where you’re supposed to make your first right.

  3. Writing my book description was one of the most difficult things i had to do. I’m still not convinced I got it where it needs to be, but this is great advice for me to go back and take my 115th look at it 🙂

    Actually, even though I’ve self-published, I’m still seeking representation so I just revisited my complete synopsis and trimmed about 350 words from it. THAT was a challenge.

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

  4. Jaye,

    Loved this post – reminded me of asking my uncle for directions to Boston (he and my aunt live about an hour away). My partner (who was driving) had stopped listening about a quarter-way through. A lot of: “If you miss that exit, you can always get off on the XXX, then take a left and a quick right…anyway…” Yikes.

    I definitely think writing synopses and book descriptions are painful for all writers, for the reasons you discuss. My description’s fairly brief so hopefully it serves the purpose.

  5. “Get your important facts in early. Who, what, where, why.” Yes!

    Fantastic advice, Jaye. I’m still a few months away from publishing, but I started to play with the book description while I took a break before plunging into my revisions. I shared my blurb with my writers group and will polish, polish, polish (as you say), and will definitely bookmark this page for future reference.

  6. Char, if you trust your writers group and they have a fairly good idea what your story is about, ask them what THEY think are the three best selling points for your novel. You might be surprised by their answers.

  7. I keep saying this…Oh Jaye, I love you! Will you be my wifey? Please? God, Aunt Edna is my mom! She and I can spend an hour on the phone and when the conversation is over, I have no idea what she said. And all I said was, uh-huh, um, yeah, oh….
    Dear God, just kill me!
    Okay so, here’s my exercise. Got a pencil handy? First I write a great 500 word synopsis. Then I cut it to 250 words and then 100 words and then to 50 essential words. Really makes you decide what you need and what is extraneous (i.e. Aunt Edna) material.
    Please please please marry me?

  8. “You write on your terms, but you sell on theirs.” That’s one of the main reasons going indie is a challenge, and probably why many notable works go unnoticed by a larger audience. Not only does the writer have to be creative, she also has to have a bit of the mercenary-marketing vibe working for her, too. The hints on checking out Goodreads or Amazon for the product descriptions of similar books is excellent, applicable advice.

  9. That is one of the big reasons writers should weigh very carefully just how independently indie they want to go. It’s tough as hell selling to one editor. Selling to multitudes of readers is even harder. The benefits are higher, though. So worth it? Only the individual can decide.

  10. Pingback: Don’t Let Aunt Edna Write Your Book Description | The Passive Voice

  11. Great post Jaye.
    Most book descriptions are so boring I skip them and go straight to the reviews, if there are any.
    The reason they are boring is, I see a huge blurb of unreadable text, ending with the line “…this is a hilarious / heart touching book”. Umm, is it really? Doesn’t look so from your description.

    Writers spend years revising their book, but less than ten seconds revising their blurb. Sadly, I see the same problem in traditionally published books as well…..

    • Hi, Shantnu. Yes, there is definitely an art to it. You have to be able to step out of yourself and your attachment to the book in order to figure out what readers will be looking for. I have noticed with certain publishers, especially on their hardback editions of literary fiction, the flap copy is long-winded, boring and focused too much on the theme. Maybe that is how to write for that particular audience. I don’t know. I do know the best blurbs are on the backs of mass market paperbacks. Short, punchy, exciting.

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