EIGHT BLURB TIPS BIG PUBLISHERS DON’T SHARE

Authors love to debate their craft, and few topics are more hotly argued than the humble blurb. I say humble, for it’s tiny compared to a book, and yet it’s the keystone that supports the relationship between reader and writer. Few people buy a book solely because of its cover. Most will read the first paragraph of the story, or some random pages. Some will look at reviews. But everyone reads the blurb. So, what makes a good one?

The people who know the most about blurbs – the big publishers, don’t share. Knowledge is power, and in this case it’s sales too.

Self-published authors share generously, but here lies a morass of personal preference, brilliance, naivety, truths and half-truths.

Anyway, the best place to start learning how to write a good blurb is with readers. Why do they choose one book over another? So, here are my tips – gleaned, both as a reader and an Amazon bestselling author, on what works. Some, I promise, you won’t have seen before.

1. Attention

The blurb has only a few seconds to spark interest. People are busy – even when they’re lazing around. Instead of reading your blurb they could be checking out cat videos. Or watching TV. Or texting a friend. Or, worst of the worst, reading someone else’s blurb . . .

So, make the first line count. It should widen the eyes of the reader and pull them in.

Here’s some research from the old brick and mortar days. Readers spend an average of 15 seconds on a blurb. Yes, you read that right – 15 seconds. If your blurb doesn’t draw them in from the get go, you’re leaking sales like a glass without a bottom.

And that’s in a physical book store. There aren’t many titles vying for attention there. Also, the book has to be placed back on the shelf and another one selected, and that encourages a potential buyer to hold off on their decision a little longer. On Amazon, it’s click click and you’re gone. Those cat videos are always calling. So are millions of other books.

So, how do you get a reader’s attention?

The literary world has a fancy name for one method: in medias res. But when we writers aren’t trying to impress each other, we use the term hook. In medias res is usually spoken about in relation to the first chapter of a book, but if you think it’s limited to that, think again.

I list a sampling of hooks below, starting with our fancy schmancy Latin term:

In medias res

This means “in the middle of things.” It works because something happening is more interesting than nothing happening. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first chapter or a blurb. You can set the scene if you want to, but a potential reader might be long gone by the time you get to the action. Action, of course, is a subjective term. The action must be appropriate to the genre. A thriller might start the blurb with physical action, and a romance some other way entirely. The important thing to do is to immediately confirm to the reader that they’ve got their hot little hands (or more likely their twitchy click finger) on the type of material that they like to read. Have a look at these made up examples:

Action: James Bond looked down the barrel of the Walther PPK leveled at his head. Death, one-eyed, unblinking, inevitable, met his gaze.

Romance: Lady Chatterley could not see the gamekeeper’s face. But she could hear his voice, and she knew that she would listen for it all the days of her life.

Make sure something is happening – something consistent with genre. And whatever that something is, it should suggest a whole string of other somethings to follow.

The Eyebrow Lifter

Curiosity is one of the great drivers of human nature. It’s one of the propelling forces behind science. It is, in fact, the basis of our civilization. Without curiosity, humankind would never have invented blogs, the internet, computers, writing, stone tools . . . or gazed at the stars and wondered what they were. Leverage this primal instinct to your advantage. It’s powerful.

Here are the first lines of some real blurbs:

Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone out to make sure you don’t live to see the morning? The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

The Capitol Building, Washington DC: Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon believes he is here to give a lecture. He is wrong. Within minutes of his arrival, a shocking object is discovered. It is a gruesome invitation into an ancient world of hidden wisdom. The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.

“I am Johannes Verne, and I am not afraid.” The Lonesome Gods, by Louis L’Amour.

These blurbs pose questions. Some, like the first one, are direct. Others are indirect. Either way, they act to stir up a person’s curiosity. They withhold information and make people want to know something.

The Statement

A hook is anything that gets attention. Questions are a great way to do it, but sometimes the complete opposite works just as well. By the complete opposite, I mean a statement of fact that doesn’t withhold information, but provides it. Newspaper headlines and magazine articles work like this. Consider these real headlines:

Sir Winston Churchill Dead

Obama Sweeps to Historic Victory

Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco in Ruins

These actually provide all the information a reader needs. Yet you can imagine the vast numbers of people, when these matters were fresh news, who saw the headline and went on to read the article. Why? Because the headline alerted them that this was a subject they were interested in, and they wanted the details.

Taglines for fiction often do the same thing. They use keywords that alert the reader to what the story is about. Here’s an example from New York Times bestselling author H. M. Ward. It’s from volume 5 of The Ferro Family series:

Money. Power. Sex.

Poetic

Poetry catches attention. By its nature, it stands out, otherwise it wouldn’t be poetry. But for our purposes, I’m not necessarily talking about something as distinctive as rhyme – I mean something more subtle such as alliteration or iambic meter. These are all natural modes of expression in the English language. They have the effect of standing out from ordinary language; they have a rhythm like a heartbeat that draws the reader forward. Dean Koontz says he sometimes uses iambic meter in his prose for that reason. Advertises use these techniques, sometimes including actual rhyme, as well. Here are examples drawn from famous movie taglines:

Whoever wins…we lose. Alien vs Predator.

Man has made his match… now it’s his problem. Blade Runner.

Chucky gets lucky. Bride of Chucky.

One ring to rule them all. The Fellowship of the Ring.

The mission is a man. Saving private Ryan.

Trust a few. Fear the rest. X-Men.

The say whaaaat?

There are no specifics for this one. It could be anything – so long as it startles for some reason. Here’s an example from John Marsden. It’s a book title:

Tomorrow, When the War Began.

This is a ripper. It messes with our sense of the normal order of things. Generally, we would expect something like, Tomorrow, When the War Begins. Or, The War Begins Tomorrow.

Contrast

Contrast is powerful. It works by bringing opposing ideas or imagery together, and the resulting tension throws each into a stronger light. The whole becomes greater than its parts. Want some proof? There’s a reason the following quotes are among the best known in the English language:

To be, or not to be? Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.

All for one and one for all. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas.

Like I say, contrast is powerful.

****

You may have noticed something about my examples. All of them use at least two of the techniques that I’ve listed. Each technique is powerful in its own right, but used in combination their effect snowballs. For instance, every single example under the “contrast” heading not only uses contrast but also alliteration and iambic meter – even the prose of Charles Dickens.

Another thing that you might have noticed is that many of these examples aren’t taken from book blurbs. Don’t limit your source of inspiration to books alone – ideas are all around you. Train yourself to spot them. Study them. Understand them. Incorporate them into your own skill set and make the techniques your own. Otherwise your blurb will read the same as ten thousand others.

2. Interest

There’s a lot of overlay between seizing a reader’s attention and stimulating interest. I think of the later as building on the first. Getting attention is all about the first sentence. If done successfully, the reader is compelled to read onward. This is where the blurb can really work its magic, but it doesn’t have to work quite so hard because momentum has started to build.

What most interests a potential book buyer is a book that the buyer wants to read. That’s pretty simple, huh? But people often forget something as basic as that.

So, what do people want to read? What interests them?

Well, the majority of people have a favorite genre or two. In my case, I read epic fantasy, but I also read sword and sorcery, crime and thrillers. That means there’s a lot of genres that I don’t read. For instance, urban fantasy. Now, a blurb should be signaling up front in its very first words what genre it is. Readers use that to decide if they want to read the book, and no fancy pants technique like the ones that I’ve listed above is going to make them read something they’re not interested in. You can’t appeal to all readers, so make sure the ones that you might appeal to know this is something for them. And do it from the word go.

But signaling genre isn’t enough. For instance, although I love epic fantasy it encompasses different nuances, moods and styles. Some that I like are: the hero (established or coming of age), a quest, a touch of magic, unsympathetic bad guys, high stakes, high styled prose. What I don’t like are anti-heroes, sympathetic bad guys or ultra-modern prose. And I have certain absolute turnoffs. If I’m reading an epic fantasy blurb and the main character is called Richard, or Derek, or some such name from the “real” world I click to the next possible purchase straight away. The important thing here is that what interests me may not interest others and vice versa. A good blurb gets this sorted quickly so that the disinterested can escape without time-wastage, and the interested are drawn ever deeper. Blurbs uses keywords like “quest” or “dragons” or “ancient evil” to give a sense of the specific nature of a story.

I said earlier that attention leads to interest. That’s true, but the reverse is also useful. Having gained attention, and then having stimulated interest by providing the true “flavor” of the book, you can compound interest by threading through more hooks in the prose. The middle sections of a blurb should pose a range of story questions. This heightens tension, increases interest and gives the potential buyer a reason to purchase the book – they want to find out what only reading the whole thing can tell them.

3. Desire

There’s a snowball effect in blurbs. Attention leads to interest. Interest to desire. This is where the earlier parts of your blurb work so well that the reader wants to know what happens. They can’t just put the book down and walk away. They need to know how things turn out for the character. Maybe they’re also fascinated by the setting. Perhaps they’ve fallen for the writing style. Whatever it is, or whatever combination of things are working on them, this is the time for a final twist or raising of the stakes – make the reader’s heart pound.

So, perhaps the most vital aspect of any blurb is the finishing sentence. This is where attention, interest and desire come to a crescendo. Or at least it should. Don’t let your blurb trail off on the final hurdle. Here is the place for the last hook, the last shot of adrenalin to electrify a reader’s curiosity. Make them desperate to know what happens next. I say this because…

4. Action

What happens next is the reader’s decision to move onto the next book or to buy yours. Or at least to check out the look inside feature or maybe the reviews.

If you’ve followed the preceding steps and got their attention, interested them, roused their desire, and then finished off with one last masterstroke, then the blurb reader will click the buy button/look inside feature, and they’re well on the way to enjoying your book and you’re on your way to earning another loyal reader.

What I’ve described so far is a set of principles for writing a blurb. It’s not a formula, because these principles can be used in any way, shape or form, only limited by the creativity and art of the writer.  What follows are some techniques that help make the principles shine even more brightly.

5. Clarity

The most common fault with blurbs is a lack of clarity. An author, trying to condense hundreds of pages of story into a few paragraphs ends up with a complex and confusing mess. They understand it, because they know the story. Others don’t have a clue what’s going on. This is blurb poison. Who buys a book if they don’t understand, in a nice easy read, what’s happening and why?

Here’s a tip. People read in an “F” shape pattern. Don’t believe me? Google “F shaped reading pattern” and then click on the images bar. A picture tells a thousands words. This means that blurbs should have lots of whitespace, especially at the beginning. If the blurb is strong, and you make the format clear and easy to read, you’ll find more readers. Simple as that.

I also advise simple words, simple sentences, and a perfect flow of logic. Everyone is time poor. It’s your job as a writer to make the language clear, not to throw dust in the reader’s eye.

6. A hero to cheer for

Put your main character at, or near the beginning of the blurb. Give the reader a chance to identify with them, understand them, like them, and have empathy for their goals. If a blurb can’t start that much of a spark, why would the reader try the book just on the off chance they might feel those things after a hundred pages or so?

7. Obstacles

An engaging hero is one thing, but there’s no story without obstacles. What problems does he or she face? Show the reader what’s at stake – not everything, just two or three of the most important things. Importantly, you should identify a villain. Put some kind of a name on them to bring the forces of opposition into focus.

8. Voice

This is that special something that lifts a good blurb to great heights. It’s rare. Only one blurb in a thousand has it. Voice will separate you from the masses. It will take things out of the bland “I’ve read that kind of blurb a million times before,” reaction into “wow!” territory. A few of the ways this can be done are:

An intimate conversational style

High style

A specific sense of humor.

These styles all comes from getting in the character’s (or narrator’s) head and bringing their voice from the book into the blurb. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it works. Before I leave you to check out some cat videos, here are two examples:

A Thirst for Vengeance, by Edward M Knight.

My name is Dagan. There are few alive with more blood on their hands than me.

I have lived a life of degeneracy. I have studied the teachings of the dark mage Helosis and walked the path of the dead. I have been to the shadowrealm and emerged with my soul intact. I have challenged the Black Brotherhood and ridden with the Knights of Valamor as a brother-in-arms. I have spoken to Xune.

I’ve killed indiscriminately—for money, for fame. For vengeance.

When I was young, I fell in love with a princess and was punished by her death. I have scampered, begged, and thieved. I have been homeless. I have ruled the greatest city ever built.

I began a succession war. I alone know who lifted the Seals of Regor—and how. I was there when magic was restored to this world. If I’d been born in a different age, I would have been the greatest sorcerer known to man.

My name is Dagan. This is my tale.

Chase the Dark, by Annette Marie

Piper Griffiths wants one thing in life: To become a Consul, a keeper of the peace between humans and daemons. There are precisely three obstacles in her way.

The first is Lyre. Incubus. Hotter than hell and with a wicked streak to match. His greatest mission in life is to get Piper into bed and otherwise annoy the crap out of her. The second is Ash. Draconian. Powerful. Dangerous. He knows too much and reveals nothing. Also, disturbingly attractive — and scary. Did she mention scary?

The third is the Sahar Stone. Top secret magical weapon of mass destruction. Previously hidden in her Consulate until thieves broke in, went on a murder spree, and disappeared with the weapon.

And they left Piper to take the fall for their crimes.

Now she’s on the run, her dreams of becoming a Consul shattered and every daemon in the city gunning to kill her. She’s dead on her own, but there’s no one she can trust — no one except two entirely untrustworthy daemons . . . See problems one and two.

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A HIGH FANTASY HIJACKING: JACKSON’S HOBBIT

I saw that the first Hobbit movie was going to be on TV recently. I decided to watch it (never having seen it at the cinema) and put aside my misgivings (accumulated through watching The Lord of the Rings movies) in order to give it a fair go.

I really, really tried.

It’s a mistake for a blogger, especially an occasional one like me, to criticize a popular movie franchise. Undoubtedly, there are masses of people possessing a sharply different point of view, and they might well express it. Forcefully.

But I’ll stand up for what I believe in.

And I believe this: if a book is worthy of being adapted to film, the filmmakers should respect it. Likewise the author who poured his soul into it.

I understand that the mediums of novel and film are different and require different treatments. I understand (but don’t condone) the commercial tactics of certain changes to enhance marketability. For instance, the appearance of Frodo at the beginning of the movie. He’s not in the book, and his appearance is nothing more than a marketing strategy to maintain continuity between the box office hits of The Lord of the Rings films and the Hobbit spinoffs. His unexpected, and plot irrelevant, presence also plays a part in stretching one short book into four films.

So, now to my claim of hijacking. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the meaning of hijacking goes something like this: to illegally seize (an aircraft, ship, or vehicle) while in transit and force it to go to a different destination or use it for one’s own purposes.

We can dispense with any legal definition, just as we can ignore aircrafts and ships. What’s relevant here is “… force it to go to a different destination…” To do that to a book is not to adapt it to film, but to break it and remake it according to the filmmaker’s own personal tastes and preferences.

I don’t deny Peter Jackson the right to his own tastes and preferences, but I would say this to him: if you want to express them, write your own story. Pour your own soul into it. If you dare.

Anyway, back to the adaptation.  The book has such a wonderful opening, but it’s all gone in favor of backstory drawn from the latter parts of the book and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.

So many things made me cringe. The worst of it was Thranduil, the Elven king, paying homage to the Dwarf king after the discovery of the Arkenstone. As if! And why, in the name of God, did Jackson think it was a good idea for Thranduil to ride a stag rather than a horse? That’s not adaptation. That’s hijacking.

I’m not even going to discuss Radagast caring for an ill hedgehog called “Sebastian”or Gandalf sending a moth to ask Gwaihir, Lord of the Eagles, to rescue him.

The worst sin of the lot though was this: it was boring – mind numbingly, yawn inducing, coma producing boring. As much as I hated what Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, at least those movies had narrative drive. I guess it shows what happens when you take a smallish book and try to spread it over four movies.

I didn’t watch to the end. It was nearly an hour before Bilbo even left Bag End to catch up to the Dwarves. That’s when I went to bed, being three quarters asleep already.

For me, it only had one redeeming quality. The rendition of the Dwarf song, We must away ere break of day. That was well done.

One final note.

I’m calling Jackson out for having total disrespect for Tolkien. He’s taken some of the greatest works of English literature, and, well, broken them. And he’s done it for financial profit. Not only has he disrespected Tolkien, but he’s disrespected the viewing public. We don’t need four Hobbit movies, where the story is dribbled out in unrecognizable bits and stretched like the life of a Ring-bearer. What we need is one good film. So, Mr. Jackson, not only have you disrespected Tolkien, but you’ve also disrespected the viewing public. At least this representative of it.

One day, sometime in the far future, another filmmaker will adapt Tolkien to the screen. Whoever that is, I wish them luck. In the meantime, I have the books – and that’s all I need.

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THE HUNGER GAMES: EPIC FANTASY?

The Hunger Games. You’ve got to love it. At least the first book, anyway. After that, it gets dark. Really dark. I suppose I should have expected that from dystopian fiction. But what was it about this dystopian story that pulled me into its world, avid fan of epic fantasy that I am?

First of all, the writing is good. By good, I mean that it’s clear, crisp and elegant in its simplicity. Although I do hanker after “high style” – a flow of prose where the very words come to life and sweep me into another world. One that pumps fear through my body when the hero is in trouble. One that makes me heady with breathless relief when the crisis is over. And most of all, one whose words transform letters on the page into vivid imagery in my mind.

For instance, although it’s years since the last time I read The Lord of the Rings, I can still picture the Red Eye of Mordor seeking out Frodo, and Gandalf, alone and trapped under the stars on the hard pinnacle of the tower of Orthanc. High style leaves the reader with potent mind-pictures that last a lifetime. And yet, The Hunger Games does very nicely without it.

There are times when Katniss, that oh so ordinary, but oh so remarkable girl,  brought tears to my eyes. Scenes where simple words and gestures shook the world. Moments of emotional honesty so clear, so true, so powerful, so heart-piercing that they may as well have been shot direct like a sure-flighted arrow from her bow. That’s reason enough to like The Hunger Games, but I found more.

What are the hallmarks of epic fantasy? What are the tropes that we’ve all read over and again, and yet still like when they’re presented to us in a fresh story, with a new author’s unique voice?

Well, the hero is often a peasant. A child raised in rustic obscurity, who turns out to be a prince in hiding or a magician of nascent power. At the same time, dark forces are on the move, and only the hero holds the key to defeating them. But the Dark Lord is aware of him and hunts him down. The forces ranged against the hero are staggering, and yet, aided by a band of scruffy rebels, (or a lone but steadfast companion) and a wise mentor, the hero undertakes a bold quest. One that will probably see them killed.

The company will of course encounter Strange People and trek through Strange Lands. That, in a nutshell, is epic fantasy. Or at least the tropes that good writers take, transform, and hammer into something uniquely their own.

But it’s also The Hunger Games.

Let’s look at Katniss. A grumpy (she has reason to be) hero. Where does she live? In District 12 – a place of poverty – a modern-day peasant village. And is there a Dark Lord? Well, President Snow comes pretty close. He’s a man of immense power and capable of unlimited ruthlessness to keep it. And Katniss does journey through Strange Lands. First, to the Capitol, (a very strange place indeed) and then the Arena. And what are her weapons? Her wits and a bow. She could almost be a lost elven princess struggling to survive in the woods, a place filled with the haunting calls of mockingjays like some sort of enchanted forest. It’s the kind of place where she’s most at home – except for the games going on around her.

And who becomes her trusted companion, Frodo’s Sam Gamgee? Peeta Mellark. And who is her mentor? Well she has two, a kind of practical mentor for day to day stuff, Haymitch, and another one, for the emotional side, the deeper stuff – Cinna: a man of wisdom and deep feelings. He might not carry a staff, but he’s Gandalf in another guise, for above all else he feels pity, and he kindles hope, when hope is lost.

You could argue that these are the characteristics of most fiction. Well, they are. But they run strongest in epic fantasy, and they run equally strong in The Hunger Games. If you’re one of the last people on the planet to read it, like me, check it out. But make sure you have a firm handle on what dystopian means. I wish I had when I started. . . If it’s not your thing, maybe leave it at book one, which is a self-contained novel.

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LORE OF THE LETHARN: HIGH OR EPIC FANTASY?

I don’t normally post about my own fiction in this blog, as I prefer to talk about fantasy in general and some of my favorite authors in particular. However, I’ll make an exception today, because my latest book has just been released.

The cover and blurb for Lore of the Letharn, book two of the Raithlindrath series, are shown below.

There’s certainly an old-school epic fantasy feel about the cover, which is exactly what I wanted, although the prose, at least in the latter parts, tends more toward high fantasy.

Whether my readers call it epic fantasy, or high fantasy, I hope they like it. It was a joy to write.

 

Cover Lore of the Letharn

Men hunt him. Magic stalks him. A hero’s heart drives him.

Lanrik’s enemies will stop at nothing to claim his legendary sword. He’ll do anything to keep them from it – until they poison Erlissa and give him an unthinkable choice.

In their hands, the sword will bring mayhem and ruin. But without the cure they offer in exchange, the girl he loves will die. Trapped by a soul-crushing dilemma, he fights back with a daring plan. It offers hope to save Erlissa, and a chance to prevent chaos, but at a price that few would pay.

He begins a quest to challenge fate itself, for it will lead him to the tombs of the Letharn – the very place where Erlissa foretold his death.

But fate and death are not the only powers in the world, nor the greatest. Even as he travels, ancient forces stir, and the land teeters on the brink of destruction.

An epic story spanning realms, empires, lands of beauty and peril, ten thousand years of history, the battles of men, the struggles of light against dark, the striving of courage against despair and the destiny of one man, born into an age when the very powers that form and substance the world vie for dominion. The Raithlindrath series…

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HIGH FANTASY: HOW BLURBS WORK

Reports on the value of global book publishing vary, but it’s worth several hundred billion dollars a year. In the time that it’s taken you to read these few words, hundreds of titles were purchased – most of them on the basis of the blurb. So, how does the book description work?

Some surveys show that book recommendations are the major factor in a person’s decision to purchase. This just proves that surveys are only as good as the questions asked.

Recommendations from family, friends, acquaintance and sites such as Goodreads provide visibility. A book can’t be purchased if the buyer doesn’t know it exists. But how many of us buy books on someone’s recommendation without looking at it? It’s hard to know, because the surveys don’t ask that question. I think, however, the answer is “not many.” Nor do the surveys ask how many people checked out a recommended book, and then decided not to read it after looking over the blurb.

At the end of the day, nothing is more vital than the blurb in the process of readers finding the sort of book they want to read.

I wrote here from an author’s point of view on how to write a blurb. The current post is for readers. It’s not a “how to read a blurb” as such, it’s more of an attempt to understand what happens subconsciously when you do read one, and it’s an interesting process. Don’t despair, writers: I’m willing to bet that this will give you something to think about as well.

Before we get to blurbs, let’s take a quick look at covers. Blurbs and covers serve a similar function – more so than is often realized.

Try this is an experiment: scroll through the thumbnail images of covers on Amazon as quick as you can. I bet you probably get an instant impression of what genre those books belong to in less than a second. Some of them just leap right out at you – epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal, thriller, crime, romance, horror. You can go back and look at them afterwards to figure out why, but it doesn’t really matter. Your subconscious picks up the visual cues and makes the leap without you even having to think about it.

Most people (most writers anyway) would say that a blurb should explain what the b0ok is about. It should provide enough detail to sketch out the basic plot. It should talk about the characters, and it should do all this in a way that intrigues the reader.

That’s standard blurb-writing advice. But I don’t think it’s what readers want, or what the best blurbs do.

Readers use the same sort of cues in a blurb as they do in covers, they’re just in the form of words rather than images. A good blurb doesn’t try to condense 300 pages of story into a few paragraphs. That can’t be done successfully. What a blurb can do, just like a cover, is to give the reader cues that say, for instance, epic fantasy. Not only that, it can narrow those cues down further. I think this is how the best blurbs really work. By “best,” I mean those that match the right book to the right reader.

Readers usually have a preference for certain types of epic fantasy. For instance, A Game of Thrones and The Belgariad are both epic fantasy. Their covers show them as such. Their blurbs show them as such, but the two books appeal to entirely different reader groups. One is dark and gritty, and the other an uplifting coming of age adventure.

Let’s look at their blurbs. They both share epic fantasy word-cues: long ago, time forgotten, quest, sorcerer, magic and prophecy etc. They both share a dearth of plot details. But what I’m interested in is how their specific cues set them apart. I bold these below, and it gets untidy, but a vivid picture emerges if you read them as a list.

A GAME OF THRONES (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

PAWN OF PROPHECY (PAPERBACK EDITION)

Long ago, the Storyteller claimed, in this first book of THE BELGARIAD, the evil god Torak drove men and Gods to war. But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West. So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.

But Garion did not believe in such stories. Brought up on a quiet farm by his Aunt Pol, how could he know that the Apostate planned to wake dread Torak, or that he would be led on a quest of unparalleled magic and danger by those he loved–but did not know…?

A good blurb gives a reader an instant (even if unconscious) cue, without trying to explain many plot details, as to the exact type of book that it describes. Words such as brutal, bastards, madness, protected, safe and loved are loaded with meaning – the kind that set a tone, and if our book-reading preferences are attuned to that signal, we pick it up.

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WHAT MAKES A BOOK WORTH REREADING?

I loved The Da Vinci Code. I turned each page in a fever of excitement that excluded thoughts of the outside world. When done, I placed it on my bookshelf, weary with the fatigue that only a long book read at breakneck speed can brew. It sits there now, many years later, just where I left it. It’ll probably stay there, untouched, until I sell it secondhand or give it to a friend. And yet I have other books on that same shelf, books that I do reread year after year. Some of them, decade after decade.

Why?

I have an answer. At least, I have an answer that applies to me. It’s nothing to do with the quality of the book, as such. Dan Brown is a fine author (I like all his novels). It seems fashionable in some circles to shoot him down because he’s had enormous success. Good luck to him, I say. He earned that success.

There are many reasons for his popularity. The aforementioned page-turning fever of excitement is one. He’s a master of suspense, and plot twists, and a bunch of other things that I (and as it turns out, a few other people around the world) like.

So, why won’t I read The Da Vinci Code a second time? Is it because I already know what happens, where the plot twists are and how it all ends? I don’t think so. I know the same things about all the books I reread, and that doesn’t stop me.

I do think it’s part of the problem, although only a small part. Dan Brown relies on these things more than most authors. Suspense, thrills, twists and theme are the chief attractions of his books. Once these elements are taken away, there’s not that much left.

So, what is left to any book when those elements are taken away? In Dan Brown’s case – a simple prose style. Clear, efficient and similar to most other thrillers. How does this differ from the books I reread?  These call me back by the sheer delight of their prose.

Good writing has a rhythm: each word, each sentence and each paragraph rings with music. It can lift me like poetry. It can bring goosebumps to my skin like a singer whose voice makes the air sweet. It can strike a chord in my heart like the glance of a girl across a crowded room. Good prose is a guide that leads me, step by step, without fault or jar, right into the heart of the story.

If a book has that, there’s something to fall back on when you already know what happens. Because while you’ll remember the details of the plot for a long time, the wording becomes fresh again in a matter of months. Prose of high quality works together with the story. Words, plot and character entwine and become one. Tolkien had that gift, and Ursula Le Guin, and David Eddings.

With some writers, the prose is a character, or it reflects the character’s dialogue so well that you don’t need to be told who’s speaking. There’s no mistaking Silk’s dialogue in The Belgariad: his deep intelligence, his dry wit, his bravado, the hidden but underlying depth of his feelings. All of these things drip from his every comment. It’s the same for Tolkien. He can convey a world of meaning by a simple name. Gollum. Moria. Mordor. Ithilien. You know who’s good or bad, what’s beautiful or fowl, just by the resonance of the name.

When prose, names, characters and story are one, there’s no limit to the number of times you can reread a book, because the reading is as much a pleasure as the story.

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DAVID GEMMELL, HEROIC FANTASY AND LITERARY FOILS

David Gemmell was one of the great fantasy authors. He chose to write heroic fantasy, rather than high or epic, and he mastered his preferred form. He remains, probably, the finest writer in that field. Nor is he likely to be surpassed. But what lifted him to the top of the genre?

Certainly, his books are page turners. Like any good writer, he knew how to hook a reader into a story and then to keep them in suspense. He filled the pages with excitement and then finished with a rousing bang. But many writers know how to do that.

He also deployed the full range of characters: good guys, bad guys, bad guys who turn good, good guys who turn bad – and most, just like ordinary people, aren’t really one or the other. They have traits of both. But lots of writers do this, too.

Regardless of the strong fantasy elements of his books, his stories are grounded in reality. In fact, he seemed to take great pleasure in grinding the reader’s face into it. Here, he’s a bit different from many, but hardly alone.

He also matches his characters external conflicts with internal counterpoints. That raises him a few rungs up the ladder, higher than many, but by itself doesn’t make him the master of heroic fantasy.

What sets him apart is that his stories resonate with depth. Not the depth of world building (languages, histories, appendices etc.) found in The Lord of the Rings, but something else that Tolkien also used: the power of contrast. They say conflict is king in storytelling. If so, contrast is queen, and she is an equal ruler.

In The Lord of the Rings, contrasts abound everywhere. Most things have a counterbalance – or an outright opposite. Think Gandalf/Saruman, Moria/Lothlórien, the hope of Théoden/the despair of Denethor. This is a trait shared by some of the great English storytellers. Shakespeare used opposites: comedy in tragedy/tragedy in comedy. Charles Dickens used contrast a different way in one of the best selling books of all time – A Tale of Two Cities. This is how it opens: 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . .

Small wonder that this is one of the best known literary quotes in the English language. It’s right up there with that other ultimate of opposites, “To be, or not to be…”

My point with all this is that contrasts (foils if we want to get technical) are powerful tools. They throw light on things in the same way that deserts taste sweeter after eating something sour.

Gemmell concentrates on his characters, which is fitting in heroic fantasy, and that’s where his contrasts are most at work.

Let’s take just one example and study how he uses the technique. I could choose any of his books and find a similar effect, but I think it’s most pronounced in Waylander.

The book takes its name from the main character. Waylander tragically lost his wife and children many years ago and has since lived the life of an assassin. Haunted by anger and guilt, he seeks revenge against his family’s murderers. In the process, he became a killer for hire. His last mission was the assassination of the Drenai king, and it’s shortly after this that the story begins.

Early on he meets the mystic, Dardalion. Dardalion is a Source Priest: kind, gentle, pure and a pacifist horrified by violence.

Waylander saves him from torture and death at the hands of outlaws. He achieves this with ruthless efficiency, for his skill at fighting is far superior to ordinary men. After the rescue, Dardalion travels with him, and they interact. Waylander’s ruthlessness washes off on the priest, and Dardalion’s goodness washes off on Waylander. Over time, he regains his conscience, though he loses none of his deadly skills. He puts them to use no longer as an assassin for hire, but to fight a great evil, and he transforms into a hero. And Dardalion, under Waylander’s influence, realizes that pacifism in the face of annihilation is not the only, perhaps not even the best, way to serve the Source. Ultimately, he forms a band of warrior-priests who also fight evil.

The two men are not only opposites of each other, but their futures are opposites of their past. They transform into something new, their change not only inspired by the other party but by the part of themselves that they realized was weak. They each find a balance – with the world and with themselves.

This is a kind of literary yin and yang. One force gives birth to the other. By their synergy, the whole becomes more than its parts.

The blurb to Waylander foreshadows this yin and yang contrast. Most tellingly in this:

Stalked by men who act like beasts and beasts that walk like men, the warrior Waylander must journey into the shadow-haunted lands of the Nadir to find the legendary Armour of Bronze. With this he can turn the tide.

Here, we have the men/beasts opposites, the shadow-haunted lands/(shiny) bronze armor opposites, and the tide, which is always in a state of flux; a perfect symbol of yin and yang harmony.

Gemmell could easily have told the story without Dardalion. But he was a master of his art, and he brought them together so that their contrasts would throw a sharper light on Waylander’s heroic struggle.

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SHANNARA AND ORIGINALITY IN FICTION

Terry Brooks is sometimes criticized for a lack of originality in The Sword of Shannara. Detractors claim it’s nothing more than a poor clone of The Lord of the Rings.  But is this fair, and what is originality in fiction?

Certainly, there are obvious parallels between the books in terms of character, setting and structure. Here are just a few:

  • The Shire / Shady Vale
  • Frodo and Sam / Shea and Flick
  • The Wizard Gandalf / the Druid Allanon
  • Elves / Elves
  • Dwarves / Dwarfs
  • Frodo begins his journey without Gandalf / Shea begins his journey without Allanon
  • Gollum / Orl Fane
  • Orcs / Gnomes
  • The Black Riders / The Skull Bearers
  • The Dark Lord / The Warlock Lord
  • Underground tunnels (Moria) / underground tunnels (Hall of Kings)
  • The siege of Gondor / The siege of Tyrsis

There are more, but what do shared plot points and archetypes really tell us about The Sword of Shannara?

Not much.

To appreciate a story, it must be experienced as a story, not broken down into a list.

Stories often appear similar on the surface. Just like a glass of Coke looks like a glass of Pepsi. But if you actually taste them (rather than merely note that they’re fizzy, dark and wet) you find that they’re not the same. Books are no different. Reading them, as opposed to summarizing them, is an emotional and psychological experience – one that’s created by the mind of the author and that sparks to life in the mind of the reader.

Terry Brooks is far a different person from Tolkien, and the emotional and psychological effect he invokes is different. This is because stories are more than character, plot and setting: they have a voice, the author’s voice, and this resonates (or fails to resonate) with the emotions of the reader.

So, what is originality in literature? Stories have been told since hunters and gatherers first sat down around a campfire – probably even before they discovered fire. Storytelling is based on real life, the emotional things that drive us such as fear, courage, hate, love, greed, generosity, resentment and forgiveness. Those emotions haven’t changed in the six thousand years of recorded history. And because there are only so many emotions, there are only so many stories. You can’t tell a story about a rock – inanimate objects don’t have emotions.  But you can tell one about a man who first discovers the secret of smelting iron ore and who forges weapons to protect his homeland from invaders.

Let’s examine one parallel between the The Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara, and see how it effects us emotionally.

Both stories have a wise mentor: Gandalf /Allanon. In both, their absence at crucial points allows the hero to grow. Otherwise, The Lord of the Rings would be a story about Gandalf rather than Frodo, and The Sword of Shannara would be about Allanon. In both books the mentors are hooded, wise, mysterious, secretive, sometimes grumpy, and more powerful than they at first seem. But these are all superficial characteristics. What are they like as people? What’s at their emotional core?

Gandalf has an overriding mission. He’s an emissary sent to help the inhabitants of Middle-earth resist evil. He has enormous power, but won’t use it to influence those he helps. He’s swift to anger, but shows kindness to the small and great alike. He’s a kind person with a massive task, and his heart has deep stores of compassion, mercy and pity.

So much for Gandalf, but what about Allanon? Who is he really? He could be all the things that Gandalf is. He probably is all those things, but fate and circumstance drive him down a darker course. He keeps a deadly secret from Shea. He does this because he must, because it’s ultimately what’s best for the Four Lands and Shea himself. But he’ll never be thanked for it. His burden is to serve, to do what’s right, and to be mistrusted for his personal sacrifice.

At heart, these two mentors transcend their superficial characteristics. Or rather, both authors transcend the common archetype that they use. As readers, we like and admire Gandalf; we marvel at his store of wisdom, understanding of human nature and his capacity to help those for whom he feels pity. Our reaction to Allanon is different. It’s for him that we feel pity.

Despite superficial similarities, Gandalf and Allanon are worlds apart, and their emotional effect on us is just as distinct. They speak to us in a different way. Originality is to take something and to infuse it with your own voice. For there is nothing new in storytelling, not since before that first camp fire.

I could say something similar about all of the parallels. Instead, I’ll finish on this point. The voice of both authors is entirely different. The Lord of the Rings is heavily laden with a sense of loss, of the passing of much that is good, even in victory. The Sword of Shannara is filled with fear that humankind might repeat their past mistakes, but also a quiet hope that they’ll rise above their baser emotions, and that the future is full of promise.

As I said, Tolkien and Brooks are as far apart from each other as possible. So too are their stories.

 

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ROGER TAYLOR: HIGH FANTASY EXCELLENCE

Roger Taylor is a fine author, and The Chronicles of Hawklan is probably the most underrated fantasy series going around. The books have the authentic mood and classic style of high fantasy, but manage frequent bursts of originality.

The series abounds with intrigue, battles, strange creatures, magic, even a Dark Lord. But there’s not an elf or dwarf in sight. It’s a potent mix of genre cliches and new perspectives. Best of all, the story has a thread of philosophy running through it. This serves to unify the whole thing, to give it backbone and (at the same time) subtle grace. That’s a masterful achievement.

Perhaps one of the reasons the books never broke out on a massive scale is that they’re patchy. It’s almost like they were written at different stages over a long career, although they were published close together. This patchiness exists in some of the subsequent standalone novels, too.

I’m willing to forgive an author a bit of patchiness. Even Shakespeare had off moments. The main thing (for me at least) is that a book should take me into another world, thrill me, move me, make me think, make me want to linger even when the last page is turned. Roger Taylor does that, so I salute him. It’s no easy task.

Perhaps some of his later standalone books are better written. However, most readers of epic and high fantasy hanker after a series, preferably a long one. His finest work might well be Arash-Felloren or Farnor. Farnor is a two book series and also serves as an entry point into the world of Hawklan.

At any rate, I don’t mind giving a shout out for an author who provided me with some great reading over many years. In fact, I think I might dust of my old paperback copies (already read multiple times) and immerse myself once more. To me, books that can be kept, treasured and reread, are the telltale mark of a great author.

 

 

 

 

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HIGH STYLE, POETIC PROSE AND ELEVATED DICTION

I argued here that one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is poetic prose. But how do the great writers achieve their “high style?” And what exactly is high style, or as it’s more officially (but less beautifully) called, elevated diction?

Fantasy stories (at least those of an epic flavor) are a natural home for this kind of writing. The genre tropes lend themselves to it: light against dark, heroes against villains, courage against despair and the great sweeps of time during which the fate of people, nations and even worlds hang in the balance.

I’ll give some examples of high style because it’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize when you see it. But first, I’ll run through what it isn’t.

David Eddings uses the term in his introduction to The Rivan Codex. He says, “Next came the question of how to tell it. My selection of Sir Perceval (Sir Dumb, if you prefer) sort of ruled out ‘High Style’. I can write in ‘High Style’ if necessary (see Mandorallen with his ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and ‘foreasmuche’s), but Garion would have probably swallowed his tongue if he’d tried it.”

I don’t want to disagree with a master of the genre, but in this he was wrong. Is Mandorallen’s speech archaic? Yes. Is it formal? Yes. Does it provide contrast to the earthy dialogue of Belgarath, the witty observations of Silk and the sarcastic tones of Ce’Nedra? Yes. But it’s not high style. It’s everyday speech from a few hundred years ago. Would the people who spoke that way have considered it high? Not at all. For them, it was ordinary. Something more than archaic formality is needed to lift writing to the status of “high.”

Some people group high style together with purple prose. According to Wikipedia, “Purple prose is written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context.”

Well, that sounds like a good definition. However, what does “beyond the requirements of its context” mean? It means nothing at all, for whether or not the context requires ornate prose is a matter of taste. It’s like saying good food is unnecessary because the human body can survive on stale bread and gruel. Apologies to stale bread and gruel aficionados.

The great pulp era writers like Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan stories) were sometimes accused of purple prose. But much of Howard’s writing was true high style (to my taste). And I suggest that his critics simply didn’t care for sensually evocative writing in any context. Howard was also a great user of adjectives, a habit mistakenly frowned upon by some critics.  My thoughts on that are here.

So, what exactly is high style?

High style is a simple style. It uses the right word in the right place. It uses specific nouns, shuns weak adverbs, uses active verbs, prefers an unusual verb to a common one and uses adjectives to invoke strong imagery. Above all, it’s terse. Actually, that’s just good writing. High style, in addition to all that, adds layers of poetic technique such as simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration and resonance. In short, the words have a ring to them, for words, whether spoken or read, are musical.

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything. An author wouldn’t use high style to describe two bugs crawling up a wall (although the writer in me is twitching at that challenge). Prose, like music, needs variation to work. It should rise to high style when the emotional impact of the prose reaches a crescendo.

Showing is better than telling, so here are some examples.

This is the beginning of Robert E Howard’s The Phoenix on the Sword.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Now, to my taste, that has a ring to it. It’s exquisite. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis (which would take far more room than I have here) but I’ll draw your attention to a few of Howard’s techniques.

Some of the most powerful phrases are personifications (the giving of human-like characteristics to inanimate objects): the oceans drank Atlantis . . . shadow-guarded tombs . . . the proudest kingdom . . . the dreaming west. Also, note some of the adjectives that provide vivid imagery: gleaming cities . . . dark-haired women . . . spider-haunted mystery . . . jeweled thrones . . . sandalled feet.

This is another example. It’s from Tolkien’s The Silmarrillion. Fingolfin has just challenged Morgoth to combat.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on-blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

This is the work of one of the great masters of the English language. The paragraph is thick with similes and at least one metaphor: like thunder . . . like a tower . . . like a stormcloud . . . as a star . . . glittered like ice. Not to mention the adjectives again: subterranean throne . . . black armour . . . iron-crowned . . . vast shield . . . And there’s personification in the rumour of his feet. Also, note some of the alliteration: feet, forth, black, before, clad, king, iron-crowned, cast, stormcloud.

Let’s rework that paragraph without the sensually evocative prose.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne. His feet trod loudly on the stairs. And he issued forth clad in armour; and he stood before the King, and his vast shield cast a shadow over him. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it, for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil. 

That just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? And I didn’t even remove the alliteration.

So, to all the haters of poetic prose who would have me eat only stale bread and gruel, a thousand poxes upon your houses, and may you be flooded by a ceaseless tide of ever-more-vivid adjectives. And if that’s beyond the requirements of context, I’ll find a way to live with it.

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