Tag Archives: epic fantasy

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.

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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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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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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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HIGH FANTASY: HOW TO WRITE A BLURB

I promised in my last post to share my ideas on how fantasy blurbs attract readers. The best way to do this is to take a single blurb and examine it in detail. As I know how I write my own blurbs, I’ll use Renown of the Raithlin as an example. It’s climbed high on Amazon’s Epic Fantasy Bestseller List, so I know the blurb works.

A marauding horde. A famed city. A lone man who stands between them.

This is often called a tagline. Taglines are more of a crossover from movies than a traditional part of book blurbs, but they’re useful and quickly ground readers in the story – no lead-up or explanation required.

The first three words do a lot of work. Horde acts as an indicator that this is a fantasy novel of the high, heroic or epic kind. Readers deserve to know as soon as possible what type of book they’re looking at. If it’s not to their taste, they can move on without wasting time.

Not only is there a horde, but it’s marauding. This implies action. And not only action, but it lets the reader know who the bad guys are. Nice people don’t maraud . . .

A famed city.

This lets the reader know what’s at risk. It’s not an evil city, or a dark city, or a cesspool of a city. Famed implies that it’s large, wealthy and grand. Now we know where the good guys live, and not only that something is in danger, but a very specific something, and all the people who live in it.

A lone man who stands between them.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero. And we find him in a seemingly impossible fix. The marauding horde is opposed, and although it’s not clear what one man can do to defy and army, it’s apparent that he has a plan of sorts, although it must obviously involve great risk. Fertile soil in which a story can sprout.

So, a tagline covers a lot of ground in short order. In fact, it can set up the whole novel – not bad for a few measly words. And they’re right up the top so that a potential reader is either hooked into the rest of the story or can decide straightaway that it’s not for them.

Can one man defy an army? Only one of the legendary Raithlin would try. But trying is not succeeding – or even surviving.

This second line, again short to aid easy reading, builds on the tagline. It amplifies some of the same information and adds specific details. The lone man is now identified as one of the legendary Raithlin. Who or what they are isn’t clear – but they’re legendary for a reason, so the hero has something going for him, even if he’s outmatched.

Lanrik is confident in the time-honored skills of the Raithlin scouts. He tries to slow the army long enough for a warning to reach his home city, unaware that political intrigue, duty and ties of loyalty will test him more than the enemy.

Here, we’re introduced to the hero by name. His background and skills are mentioned, and we get an idea of how it might be possible for one man to try to achieve a near impossible task. But just as we learn that, we also discover that the marauding horde isn’t his only problem. The stakes are raised and we realize that Lanrik is in an even greater fix than we thought . . .

He enacts a bold plan against overwhelming odds to protect all that he loves. But his choices lead him ever deeper into a life-changing struggle. Dark forces of sorcery and witchcraft are on the move. So too are the powers that contend with them. The conflict draws him into a quest for the safety of the whole land and toward a girl who comes to mean more to him than anything. He enters a world of magic: sometimes beautiful, often perilous and always unpredictable.

Now, having given the reader a firm grounding in the story, it’s time to really open up about what’s happening. It’s safe to do it here, because if a reader has come this far the story resonates with them. They’re ready for a long and detail-heavy paragraph – the sort that would only have confused and turned them away had it appeared earlier.

At the same time as giving details, the stakes are raised still further. It’s no longer just about the city, but the whole land. The blurb, so far plot driven, now enters a character driven phase. The emotional components become clear: protect all that he loves . . . life-changing struggle . . . a girl who comes to mean more to him . . .

Above all, blurbs must foreshadow the story. It isn’t possible in a few paragraphs to explain hundreds of pages, and authors shouldn’t try. They need to invoke a feel for the book in the same way that the smell of good food attracts passersby into a restaurant.

Anyway, that’s the breakdown of one of my own blurbs. Other authors might do it a little differently, but at heart the recipe that most follow is this: ground the reader, give them a hero to cheer for, pose enticing story questions, add ever-deeper layers of intrigue, constantly raise the stakes, show the emotional impact and, most important of all, foreshadow the feel of the story.

Looking at that, it’s no surprise that a good blurb attracts readers, because the recipe for a good blurb is also the recipe for a good book.

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EPIC FANTASY AND AUTHOR BRANDING

Branding is important. It’s important in the commercial world of buying and selling. It’s important in politics. Religions have been doing it for thousands of years. Sports stars do it. Your local bakery does it. But what about epic fantasy authors?

First of all, what is branding?

A brand is something that represents a product. It might be a gimmicky logo, or perhaps a pithy catchphrase. More often than not, it’s both at the same time. Whatever it is, the best ones have an instant recognition factor. You see it, and it invokes a feeling for the whole product: what it stands for, how it’s different from its competitors and what it means to you emotionally.

There are two sides to this, which are often confused. The brand, and the brand experience. The two work together, and the more seamlessly they do so, the better the results.

S0, the brand of an author includes things like their name, the titles of their books, the look of their covers and, most of all, their blurbs. The brand experience starts from the first sentence and continues through to the last page. And more than that, it also includes an author’s website, newsletter, their correspondence with fans and comments during interviews.

To an author, the brand is important. It helps fans discover a newly released book from a writer that they like. It’s also a vital part of attracting new readers, especially if it can trigger that sudden recognition that this might be the type of book they like. More on that later.

Once purchased (or borrowed) the most important thing for both author and reader is the brand experience. This is the feel of the story, the mood and emotions it invokes. Most of all, it’s the author’s voice and how the reader reacts to it.

The voice of David Eddings is unique. So too Robert Jordan. They both wrote classic epic fantasy, reveling in its archetypes, plot cliches and tried-and-tested tropes. And yet they’re cheese and chalk.

Here’s a question. If the most important aspect of author branding is the brand experience, and a reader doesn’t know what this is until they’ve read at least some of the book, how can an author capture it in a few pithy words?

Well, blurbs do it all the time. So do leitmotifs and epigraphs. Whether you’re scanning a product description on Amazon or the back cover of a paperback in a store, those tantalizing few paragraphs foreshadow the brand experience. The better they do that, the better they give insight into the author’s voice and the mood of the whole book.

For now, I’ll have a look at how some of the great fantasy authors used recurring leitmotifs for their books. I’ll tackle blurbs in a future post.

 

A magnificent epic of immense

scope set against a history

of seven thousand years of the

struggles of gods and kings

and men – of strange lands and

events – of fate and a prophecy

that must be fulfilled!

This appears on the back cover of all five books of The Belgariad. At least, on my paperbacks bought in the 1980’s. The current editions have lost it, much to to their detriment.

Now, I can actually remember one bright morning, on the way to school, stopping at the local newsstand and looking for something to read. I found Pawn of Prophecy. It was the leitmotif that sold me – I didn’t have time for anything else. It sold me because, having read The Lord of the Rings for the first time only a few months previously, I recognized that this new book was the kind of epic story I wanted. That’s a brand at work. And as I read the series, waiting eagerly for each book to come out, the initial foreshadowing was met. The brand experience lived up to expectations.

Now, how about this?

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and go, leaving

memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and

even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth

returns again . . .

This appears on the back cover of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time books. At least, just as with David Eddings, on the paperbacks I bought in the 1990’s. Once again, the current editions have lost it. I can’t help but think that great authors know how to sell books better than publishers. Anyway, once again, it screams epic fantasy – and that was just what I was after.

And the high master of them all?

Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky. . .

No need to quote Tolkien’s ring verse in full. Most of the English speaking world has heard it. Just like the others, this serves to foreshadow the entire story – to give a feel for it: elves under the sky, dwarves in their halls of stone, mortal men doomed to die, one ring to rule them all. In its own poetic way, it’s a plot summary.

So, the next time you’re looking for a new author to read, have a think about how they handle branding. Does it foreshadow the story and the author’s voice? Does its mood resonate with you? If so, you could be onto a winner – just as I was one morning before school in the early 80’s, on a day that was full of promise.

 

 

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EPIC FANTASY: THE MAGIC OF ADJECTIVES

Stories of epic fantasy bring the reader to another world. There may be dragons, strange beasts, combat between dark sorcerers and hard-pressed wizards. The land itself may be enchanted, and several moons might hang in the sky. In short, magic is at play.

But all stories bring the reader into the world of the main character, no matter that the setting is Middle-earth or Manhattan. In order to work, fiction must make that world come to life, and the author has to conjure a sense of reality from mere words on a page. Magic indeed.

An author might write, “The dragon lifted its head and eyed the warrior.” But the reader is entitled to ask, “What sort of dragon? Is it winged? Is it long and sinuous? Is it reptilian? Is its tail barbed? Does flame flicker deep in its cavernous mouth? Or is it a cold drake?” But if the reader has to ask those questions, the spell is broken, for they are no longer seeing images in their imagination, but trying to construct a picture by rational thought. That is the death of epic fantasy – or any fiction.

Writing experts, writing teachers, style guides and the self-appointed literati advise to avoid adjectives. But if you read the above paragraph again, and remove the adjectives, you’re left with little more than the dragon.

If I had to construct a mental picture myself, I would make him a winged creature with two curls of smoke rising from his long snout. You, on the other hand, might see a barbed behemoth never to be airborne, hard-plated scales undulating as he writhed over the ground like a snake. All very good until the author has your dragon take to the sky, and then the spell is broken.

So, while the experts proclaim rules, the best writers go about telling stories their own way and working a spell on readers. Few would serve as a better example than Tolkien, so I’ll quote The Lord of the Rings. The scene is in Rohan, and Gandalf is speaking to Wormtonge.

“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.”

If that doesn’t convince you of the magic of adjectives, nothing will.

A word of warning though: not all passages should be so epic, even in epic fantasy. Adjectives are potent, but the magic soon fades if used too much, or worse, when the noun they modify doesn’t need it. For instance, saying, “They walked over the green grass,” is superfluous.

Try not to prove the experts right.

 

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