Why Book Descriptions Matter
To fully understand and appreciate this post, you’ll need to think about why book descriptions matter. Often it seems like the book blurb is an afterthought. It’s not the fault of the writer, after spending weeks, months, or years on producing memoir content including researching, writing, revising, and editing – it makes sense that they might not want to spend more time trying to concisely break down the contents of their book. The belief seems to be that if they vaguely summarize the content that the work will speak for itself.
In a perfect world, that would be true of all books. While nice in theory, it is pitiful in practice. It simply doesn’t work. That is why crafting a book blurb, though it may turn out to be somewhat time consuming, is absolutely vital.
At some point I’m confident you’ve heard of the “elevator pitch“. These succinct sales pitches are supposed to convince companies to hire you, buy your products, or utilize your services over the course of sixty seconds. The intention is the same as a book blurb – to pique the potential boss/client’s attention. (Though in our case, they are the reader.) Think of the book blurb not as an annoying step between you and self-publishing, but instead as an opportunity. It is your sales page, your elevator pitch, and your best shot at making a potential reader click the “buy it now” button rather than darting off to something else.
The Hard Part: Writing it Out
Fortunately for the fiction writers out there, writing a book blurb for a memoir is incredibly similar to writing a description for a fictional story. You should have the following goals and ideas in mind:
- Introduce the situation and characters
In the case of a memoir, you are likely to be the main character. Refer to yourself in the third person, and let the readers know who you are and what to expect. Make sure you’re setting the stage and preparing readers for what’s beyond the cover of your book.
- What is the conflict or problem?
Although this is some part of your life, ideally there is some moment, scenario, or circumstance which is the focal point or theme of the book. Share it with your potential reader in the blurb. Don’t make them dig for reasons to read your book – put it out in the open! You’ll lose readers more times than you’ll keep them if you make it hard work to understand the theme.
- Leave them hopeful and wanting more
Offer the reader a glimmer of hope that whatever your conflict is will be resolved, and that everything will turn out okay. Does everything need to work out? Not at all, but the hope needs to be there to offset the conflict. By doing this you’re making readers care about the outcome of your memoir. People who care are people who act.
- Be sure the tone is right
Are you telling the story of a scrappy underdog overcoming the odds? Are you sharing how you triumphed in spite of a troubled childhood, lousy career, bitter divorce, or terrible illness? Do you want to educate, empower, or entertain your audience? Keep these questions in mind when reviewing your potential blurb. If the description doesn’t match the book, you’ll end up with unhappy readers and negative reviews. You’re setting the expectation for the book in the blurb, so make sure that your themes, ideas, and issues match.
In addition to the example provided in Lesson One of a well-written book blurb, I’m including a few examples from best-selling memoirs which have their blurbs perfected.
Kimberly Rae Miller is an immaculately put-together woman with a great career, a loving boyfriend, and a beautifully tidy apartment in Brooklyn. You would never guess that behind the closed doors of her family’s idyllic Long Island house hid teetering stacks of aging newspaper, broken computers, and boxes upon boxes of unused junk festering in every room — the product of her father’s painful and unending struggle with hoarding.
In this dazzling memoir, Miller brings to life her experience growing up in a rat-infested home, hiding her father’s shameful secret from friends for years, and the emotional burden that ultimately led to her suicide attempt. In beautiful prose, Miller sheds light on her complicated yet loving relationship with her parents, which has thrived in spite of the odds.
Coming Clean is a story about recognizing where you come from and understanding the relationships that define you. It is also a powerful story of recovery and redemption.
Breaking it Down: We know who the narrator is, we know what the circumstances are that she’s facing as well as the primary conflict, and it’s obvious what the tone is. The promise that the reader will find a better understanding of how to recognize where they, themselves come from and witness a powerful recovery and redemption fits the bill for not only offering a glimpse of hope, but sets the tone for the book in a meaningful way.
BREAKING NEWS: Amanda Lindhout’s lead kidnapper, Ali Omar Ader, has been caught.
Amanda Lindhout wrote about her fifteen month abduction in Somalia in A House in the Sky. It is the New York Times bestselling memoir of a woman whose curiosity led her to the world’s most remote places and then into captivity: “Exquisitely told…A young woman’s harrowing coming-of-age story and an extraordinary narrative of forgiveness and spiritual triumph” (The New York Times Book Review).
As a child, Amanda Lindhout escaped a violent household by paging through issues of National Geographic and imagining herself visiting its exotic locales. At the age of nineteen, working as a cocktail waitress, she began saving her tips so she could travel the globe. Aspiring to understand the world and live a significant life, she backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, and emboldened by each adventure, went on to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. In war-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq she carved out a fledgling career as a television reporter. And then, in August 2008, she traveled to Somalia—“the most dangerous place on earth.” On her fourth day, she was abducted by a group of masked men along a dusty road.
Held hostage for 460 days, Amanda survives on memory—every lush detail of the world she experienced in her life before captivity—and on strategy, fortitude, and hope. When she is most desperate, she visits a house in the sky, high above the woman kept in chains, in the dark.
Vivid and suspenseful, as artfully written as the finest novel, A House in the Sky is “a searingly unsentimental account. Ultimately it is compassion—for her naïve younger self, for her kidnappers—that becomes the key to Lindhout’s survival” (O, The Oprah Magazine).
Breaking it Down: This book description takes a unique approach, did you catch it? It has a micro-description, within the description. We learn about the main character, main conflict, are offered some hope and learn the tone of the book all within the first paragraph. The writer opted to elaborate more, but the mini lead in description is a great tactic to catch even the most impatient readers. Are they likely to finish your manuscript? Well, that depends on how effectively you hook them in after they begin to actually read your book.
Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation. Rex and Rose Mary Walls had four children. In the beginning, they lived like nomads, moving among Southwest desert towns, camping in the mountains. Rex was a charismatic, brilliant man who, when sober, captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and above all, how to embrace life fearlessly. Rose Mary, who painted and wrote and couldn’t stand the responsibility of providing for her family, called herself an “excitement addict.” Cooking a meal that would be consumed in fifteen minutes had no appeal when she could make a painting that might last forever.
Later, when the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town — and the family — Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home.
What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms.
For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
Breaking it Down: This description introduces several main characters and describes each of them effectively. It represents not only the negative sides, but embraces the positive and offers hope where there might not have been any, otherwise. It captures the spirit of Jeanette Walls when it goes on to describe a woman who is committed to regarding her parents with affection despite her upbringing.
Still Not Sure You Have it Down?
It’s okay if you aren’t feeling confident about your blurb yet. It can be difficult to let a book go out into the world to fend for itself, especially when it features such intensely personal subject matter. Have friends, family, and any fellow writers you know look over it for you and evaluate it. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your support network and tribe.
Alternately, if you aren’t sure that your friends and colleagues will provide thorough feedback, I am willing to evaluate book reviews and provide detailed, constructive book blurb feedback for a small, $15.00 flat fee. — Sometimes all it takes is another set of eyes to look over your content in an objective way. I’d love to help you iron the kinks out of your book description.
So What’s Left?
We’re coming to the close of this post series, which means that an ebook with additional content is in our future. The final post that I have planned as of right now is on why outlining is important when constructing a memoir. Why is this last? Well, I bumped the blurbs post up because of a comment from a reader which said they were delaying publication until they read this post (talk about pressure!), but I do want to highlight the importance of developing a cohesive chain of events and thoughts in a memoir. Sometimes following the natural progression of time just doesn’t cut it, and an outline will help you see that before most of the manuscript is written.
Additional Posts in this Series: