This is gonna be a long and bumpy ride, so buckle up. Hot Tuna was a spinoff band created by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane. The rumor at the time (this was nigh unto fifty years ago) was that they wanted to call the band Hot Shit, but the record company wouldn’t let them.
As I prepare to release the first two volumes of my fantasy epic, I’m writing blurbs — those short, snappy descriptions you find on Amazon, or on the back cover of a paperback, that entice you to read the story. I put one of my proposed blurbs up on the Facebook writers’ group to see what other people thought of it, and I found it not so easy to process the responses. In an effort to triangulate — what makes a good blurb? — I strolled over to Amazon and read a few. Copied and pasted them into a file so I could study them. I tried to avoid the obviously self-published $0.00 on Kindle titles in favor of titles that had a little more marketing push behind them, figuring those would probably be the better blurbs to study.
To be perfectly frank, after reading some blurbs I’m asking myself, “Why on Earth did I ever bother writing a fantasy epic at all? This stuff is garbage!” Quite possibly some of the books I chose are not garbage, of course. Maybe it’s just that the blurbs make them sound like garbage. I’m not going to read the books to find out, but at this point I’m thinking seriously about writing some anti-blurbs — you know, a blurb that says, “This is not like those other books! Let me tell you why.” That would be marketing suicide, of course. But at least it wouldn’t be hot tuna.
Let’s look at a few blurbs. You can find lots more like them on Amazon if you’re feeling masochistic.
I’ll excerpt the highlights of the blurb for Exhumation, by S. A. Chapman: “War has turned his entire world upside down. He’s riddled with hallucinations of someone else’s life, or are they? Can he keep it all straight long enough to save the people he loves? … he embarks on an unwilling journey of self-discovery … his city is under attack from those inside and outside of the walls…. He’s on the cusp on unraveling his damaged and forgotten memories, but in doing so he will bring down the fabric of a city he serves; he loves. This is a tale of loyalty and betrayal. Of truth and lies. Most of all, this is a story of survival … [he] becomes entangled in webs of deceit and estranged from the society he protects. Will you foil the plot before it’s too late? Can you follow the clues and unravel the many mysteries begging to be solved? Will you dare ask the questions that require answers? Believe nothing that you hear and half of what you see. More importantly … [ellipsis in original] trust no one!”
There you go — hallucinations, an unwilling journey, a city under attack, damaged and forgotten memories, betrayal, lies, survival, deceit, estrangement, and then some provocative questions that suggest that all is not what it seems. Oooohh!
Here’s the teaser for A Court of Wings and Ruin, by Sarah J. Maas: “Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin’s maneuverings and the invading king threatening to bring Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit — and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well. As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords and hunt for allies in unexpected places. In this thrilling third book in the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling series from Sarah J. Maas, the earth will be painted red as mighty armies grapple for power over the one thing that could destroy them all.”
That’s concise, at least. We have an invading king who is threatening to conquer Prythian, that being presumably a nation or a kingdom. There’s a deadly game of deceit, doom for an entire world, war, lethal High Lords, mighty armies grappling for power … is your pulse pounding yet?
Let’s have a look at Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo: “Soldier. Summoner. Saint. [Boldface and italics in original.] Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold―a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed. Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite―and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift. As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation. Welcome to Ravka . . . a world of science and superstition where nothing is what it seems.”
To summarize, we have a soldier who’s worried about dying, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters, a regiment being attacked, dormant magic, intrigue, a notorious leader called the Darkling, a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold, an untamed gift, a mounting threat to the kingdom, unlocked secrets, a dangerous discovery that threatens everything important — and to conclude, like S. A. Chapman, Leigh Bardugo is warning us that things are not what they appear to be. Deceit, in other words. We’re three for three on deceit.
Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, is blurbed as follows: “Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.”
Defiance, death, blood, execution, destruction, a brutal world, poverty, treason, rebels, Laia risking her life, an unwilling soldier, tyranny, and some unspecified changes in the fate of the Empire. I think I need to sit down and catch my breath.
The thing that is desperately wrong with these blurbs is that they attempt to seduce the reader with the promise of a debased and one might almost say subhuman experience. I searched my file of blurbs (which contains a few other items besides those quoted above) for the words “thoughtful,” “glorious,” “beautiful,” “exciting,” “visionary,” and “noble.” None of those words is used in any of the blurbs. “Sensitive,” “humorous,” “light,” “happy,” “friend”? Nope. To be fair, the word “love” is used repeatedly. We have forbidden love, the execution of loved ones, and love that violates ruthless laws. Even the love in these stories is tainted, degraded, festering.
It’s all so very wrong. Wrong all the way down to the bone. The rich tapestry of human experience — which is, one would hope or imagine, the stuff of which fiction is woven — has been reduced to a lethal stew of blood and thunder.
That isn’t the story I’ve written. My story (a single narrative that takes up four volumes) has bloodshed in it, to be sure, but there are no sword fights and no pitched battles. It also has flashes of humor. It has passages about friendship — and not the kind that involves danger or betrayal; just friendship, damn it! It has a few scraps of mythology here or there, and an environmentalist theme, and young people who have hope for the future. It has, I hope, scattered bits of decent prose.
And how can you even mention any of that in a blurb on Amazon?