I’m still a member of the SFBC, partly because it’s been interesting to watch it change over the past decade or so – it is far less focused on science fiction and fantasy, for one thing; now it offers lots of thrillers and nonfiction – and partly because I still find out about some interesting books from their mailings, and partly because I like seeing my own books in those mailings.
Anyway, I was looking through the materials sent in the most recent mailing and some of the blurbs – the back cover copy – caught my eye for various reasons. I want to show you four of those blurbs and see what you think of them.
1) Okay, the first blurb that stopped me was for Louise Penny’s latest Inspecter Gamache novel, Glass Houses. I liked the first couple books of the series, though I haven’t gone on with the series. Here’s the back cover blurb for this one:
When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a November day in Three Pines, Quebec, Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache knows something is seriously wrong. Legally, he can only watch and wait – and hope his fears are not realized.
From the moment its shadow falls over Three Pines, Gamache suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. When it suddenly vanishes and a body is discovered, it falls to Gamache to discover whether a debt has been paid or levied.
From the early days of the murder investigation to the day, months later, when the trial begins in a Montreal courtroom, Gamache struggles with actions he’s set in motion. And regardless of the trial’s outcome, he will have to face his own conscience.
…And I thought: What?
So I read that again from top to bottom. Honestly, I think it is possibly the most confusing back cover blurb I have ever encountered.
A mysterious figure . . . a creature. That “appears on the village green.” Huh. Legally, Gamache can only watch and wait? … So, like, he is legally prohibited from trying to figure out who put the “creature” in place? Well, whatever. Debts paid or levied? That’s a nice phrase, but what could it mean? Are we genuinely unsure whether this “creature” signifies one or the other? Gamache set things in motion, rather than the creature? Or its, presumably, creator? I’m assuming it’s more something like a scarecrow than something like, I don’t know, a living creature made by one of the evil witches in The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy. “Creature” encompasses quite a few possibilities for those of us who read SFF as well as mysteries.
Honestly, many sentences in that blurb seems disconnected from the sentences that precede and follow them, and many seem to introduce an idea that is disconnected from everything else in the blurb. Far from intriguing me and making me want to investigate the book, this particular blurb just leaves me baffled. It is trimmed down from this description at Goodreads, but even the (slightly) longer version is just as confusing.
Here is what I think might have worked better: if the blurb writer was trying to avoid giving stuff away or getting into complicated details, he or she should have stopped trying so hard and been more specific about the “creature.” Further, the blurb as written seems to give agency to the “creature,” though I can hardly imagine it is animate. Also, the writer of this blurb should have drawn a connection between the “creature” and the concept of debts. Also, he or she should have drawn a further connection between everything else and the dilemma(s) Inspector Gamache encounters with regard to his conscience, or else left that part out.
Having looked up reviews on Goodreads to figure out more about the “creature,” I would suggest something more like this:
Two hundred years ago in the Pyrenean Alps, someone who felt he had been wronged might set up a cobrador, a tall hooded figure robed in black, signifying the existence of the debt and an intention to collect. When such a figure appears on the village green of Three Pines, quickly followed by the discovery of a body in the church basement, many of the town’s inhabitants begun to question their own past actions and possible guilt and the debts someone might feel they owe.
Inspector Armand Gamache…and so on; I don’t know enough about the rest to tackle the part about his conscience.
What do you think? Thumbs up or thumbs down on the blurb being more specific about the “creature” and the initial situation?
2) Okay, here’s another one, for a book by Stephen King / Owen King called Sleeping Beauties. To me, in this blurb, some of the sentences seem to have been chosen at random by a blurb-generating robot:
In a future that’s all too real and too near, something happens when women go to sleep: They are shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep, they go to another place.
The men of our world are left to their increasingly primal devices. However, one woman, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the curse—or blessing—?—of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain?
Set in an Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, this is a wildly provocative, chilling collaboration between Stephen King and his son Owen King.
Okay, does anything about this situation as described strike any of you as a description of a “future that’s all too real and too near”? That would fit Persona by Genevieve Valentine just fine. It absolutely does not fit this weird gauze thing in any way.
How about “wildly provocative”? What about this could possibly be described that way? Several things about this description fail to appeal to me, but it sure doesn’t help that the blurb appears to have been written with someone’s brain switched to “idle.”
3) Next, in contrast to the previous examples, I think this blurb, for a novel of Claire North’s, is not bad. It definitely put North’s book,The End of the Day, on my radar, which is fundamentally the function of back cover copy.
At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does. You might meat Charlie in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of a traffic accident. Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets around. Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says? Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.
Despite all the benefits – travel, vacation time, decent pay, and meeting interesting people – Charlie’s job is about to get much more complicated. The end of all things is coming and Charlie’s boss, along with his three associates, are riding out. It’s Charlie’s job to get there first.
Now, this also has some confusing elements, plus awkward phrasing in one sentence (top of second paragraph; it should have been “a chance to meet” or something like that). Nevertheless, the initial setup is clear and fascinating. There’s no problem leaving the “gift” mysterious; that mystery is a feature, not a bug, in this description. Those first two sentences are certainly not the least bit generic. In fact, they’re so catchy, they make up for any flaws that might be noticed in this blurb. Plus the last two sentences are pretty darn catchy as well, even though we have to wonder where “there” might be. “All things” covers a lot of territory.
Okay, one more that I think is quite good:
4) This blurb is for a book by Mike Bockoven called FantasticLand.
Since the 1970s, FantasticLand has been the theme park where “Fun is Guaranteed!” But when a hurricane ravages the Florida coast and isolates the park, the employees find it anything but fun. Five weeks later, the authorities who rescue the survivors encounter a scene of horror. Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. How could a group of survivors, mostly teenagers, commit such terrible acts?
Presented as a fact-finding investigation and a series of first-person interviews, this chilling and thought-provoking novel probes the consequences of a social civilization built online.
First, that’s very clear. Every sentence works to establish the story and draw in the potential reader, provided the reader is into realistic horror. One sentence does strike me as somewhat awkward: Photos soon emerge online of heads on spikes outside of rides and viscera and human bones littering the gift shops, breaking records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. I might have written that more like this: As soon as photos appear on social media, the images of heads on spikes and viscera draped across dolls in gift shops break records for hits, views, likes, clicks, and shares. But the blurb basically works well, I think.
Also, the thing about the “consequences of a social civilization built online” seems topical and relevant.
For certain values of “realistic” and “relevant” anyway. We’ve all seen recently how social media in Houston enabled efficient rescue efforts, directing efforts toward the people who needed help the most. I’m sure we’ve all seen those pictures of the nursing home residents, first in water up to their waists and then, following a Twitter and Facebook call for attention, of the residents safe and warm in a new location. I understand the authorities later began using social media extensively to help direct rescue efforts, and no wonder. Also, we’ve definitely seen how heroic and selfless and caring people are in emergencies.
So the thesis of FantasticLand, where I suppose a horribleLord of the Flies thing happens instead, seems a trifle iffy to me. Whether you’d call it realistic and believable or not, I hate that kind of scenario, so I don’t think I’m likely to read this one, even though the format sounds like something I’d like. Regardless, I would say that is good back cover copy. Especially when contrasted with the first two examples above.
Okay, what do you think? Which, if any, of the above examples would work for you?
I’m also particularly curious about whether awkward phrasing in blurbs bothers you or whether you pass right over it. I don’t tend to consciously notice it unless I’m typing in a blurb, and I don’t think I’d be inclined to judge a book harshly for that kind of thing. Back cover copy is hard to write, and for traditionally published books, the author probably didn’t write it anyway.