Tag Archives: The Belgariad

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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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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