Michaeline: The Art of the Blurb

Melissa Blue tweeted this week, “Pro tip: The point of the blurb isn’t to tell you the story, it’s to SELL you the story.” That sentence came to me just as I was already thinking about blurbs, and complicated the matter.

First, a blurb is the short summary of the book used to lure readers into the buying the story. Naturally, a good blurb is very useful to the reader in choosing a story to her tastes, but it is also a good tool for writers.

A Regency man in a caped riding coat stands in front of the mantle of an inn lecturing a demure young girl in sprig muslin with two hat boxes near her.
Via Wikimedia, this is the first edition cover of Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer.

For example, if you get stuck in the writing of your book, write the blurb for the book-in-your-head. Compare it to what you have in your draft, and see if you’ve drifted from the point, or if you are still on target.

This is a case where the blurb tells the story, and I think that’s an important part of blurbiness. A blurb should accurately portray the book, or it is just fooling the reader, right?

That said, it’s a hassle trying to fit 65,000 words into 100 succinct ones, especially if the writer plays with genre or tropes.

This month, I did a comfort re-read of Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, and it was satisfying and as comforting as I could have wished for. When I looked at the back of the book, though, I was shocked.

“Finding so young and pretty a girl as Amanda wandering unattended, Sir Gareth Ludlow knows it is his duty as a man of honour to restore her to her family. But it is to prove no easy task for the Corinthian. His captive in sprig muslin has more than her rapturous good looks and bandboxes to aid her – she is also possessed of a runaway imagination.”

Now, I’ve got to dive into spoiler territory.

Georgette Heyer is known as a writer’s writer. It took me three books to get hooked into her universe of early 19th century England, but once I was hooked, I could easily appreciate her madcap plotting, the way she makes the most ridiculous situations seem a matter of course (once you accept certain tenets of her Universe), and the way she plays with romance tropes.

The blurb describes a very common trope in romance: the strong and masterful hero (with a dead first love, as we discover in the first chapter) must tame a feisty younger lady and both must convince themselves to succumb to love.

But this ain’t that story.

The blurb doesn’t even mention the true heroine, Hester, who is a spinster living in camouflage deflecting the hurtful attitudes of her family. Gareth (our hero) decides he must fulfill his duty and marry to produce a heir (another very common trope), and decides to propose to gentle, seemingly-boring Hester because he gets along quite well with her. Hester likes Gareth very well, but is obstinately opposed to match and does a lot of mysterious crying in her bed chamber.

The Heroine of the Blurb is Amanda, and she is portrayed accurately. Her stunning good looks are a match for Gareth’s handsome, most-sought-after bachelor appearance, and she’s running away from home so that she can force her grandfather to let her marry HER true love – Neil of the Horse Guards. She’s only 16 years old, though.

In general, I don’t like many of Heyer’s feisty young heroines because they are so selfish and without foresight, so the blurb wouldn’t have persuaded me to read the book. (The book came highly recommended, though, so I did buy it and it was one of the first five Heyers I read.)

But Amanda does have a certain amount of common sense to go with that creative imagination. So, I like Amanda just fine. She belongs in the blurb.

The question is: Where is gentle Hester? The blurb doesn’t need to set her up as the heroine (that would spoil the twist in the story), but I think she needs to be mentioned BECAUSE SHE IS THE HEROINE.

“Leaving her with his good friend, Lady Hester, while he searches for her family isn’t enough to keep the impetuous beauty from running away yet again.” Or something like that.

But . . . while it tells the story, does it sell the book?

To be honest, I think Heyers get picked up mostly because of good word of mouth. Lois McMaster Bujold recommended Heyer to her mailing list, and several other fans chimed in with praise. I’ve since learned that many authors, men and women, read and love Heyer. Her anti-semitism in The Grand Sophy is a slap in the face, but it doesn’t appear in every book, and there’s much to learn from her.

So, is it OK to tell only half the story in the blurb if it sells the book? Or is it misleading the reader too much?

The blurb should answer who, what, when, where and most importantly, why the reader should buy the book. As for this blurb:

WHO: It gets Amanda and Gareth but completely drops Hester, the real heroine of the book.

WHAT: Madcap romance. Right on target there.

WHEN: Coded words (“Corinthian” and “sprig muslin”) and the writing style suggest the Regency period.  

WHERE: “Sir Gareth Ludlow” does suggest Great Britain.

WHY: It’s a younger girl and a man in the prime of his life love story! Well, no, it is not. But Heyer certainly leads the savvy reader to expect that this is the case, so I can forgive this little diversion.

I simply can’t decide if it’s a bad blurb, or if I’m being picky with the clear, 20-20 hindsight of a re-reader. What do you think?

4 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Art of the Blurb

  1. I think the publishing world has learned a lot about marketing in general and book blurbs in particular since the first edition of Sprig Muslin came out. And if the marketing folks back then wrote blurbs the way they write them now, they didn’t read the book. Now they read a “fact sheet” based on basic character descriptions, from which they pull together the 100-150 words they need to fill the space. They do their best, of course. But sometimes their best is none too good.

    Even so, it’s hard to imagine that they missed who the heroine was back then. Perhaps they thought they could do more with the feisty, younger character rather than the older, subdued one. Or maybe they didn’t understand from the fact sheet who the heroine was in the story. The publishers were probably a lot more paternalistic back then; maybe they just didn’t pay enough attention.

    So then I was curious and pulled out my paperback copy, which is from the first printing of the Jove edition, which was in 1981. The back cover blurb does indeed feature Amanda, although Hester is mentioned, not by name, but as the person Gareth thinks will make a “peaceful” marriage. Instead, he has to chase all over the countryside after Amanda. The impression you get is definitely that Amanda is the heroine. I wonder if they changed the text from the first printing in 1956?

    As for what should go in the blurb—the best advice I got on this was that all you need is three sentences: 1) who’s the heroine and what’s her goal, 2) who’s the hero and what’s his goal 3) how those goals conflict. Everything else is just window dressing. It works for me.

    • I haven’t read Sprig Muslin in years (although I’m 90% certain it’s one of the small collection of Heyers on my shelves) but I’m wondering who is the antagonist? That is, who makes Gareth, the protagonist, grow and change?

      Is it peaceful Hester? Or madcap Amanda? Because an alternative structure for the blurb is 1) Who’s the protagonist and what’s their goal? 2) Who’s the antagonist and what’s their goal? 3) How do they conflict?

      • This is very interesting, and I needed to think this through. To be honest, I don’t think ANYONE “arcs” in this book. Gareth’s feelings deepen from friendship into love (partly as a result of extended time with Hester as she nurses him back to health — nurse/patient trope). But there’s no fundamental change, and that deepening is a result of Hester’s actions.

        Hester experiences a huge change, and it’s the result of Amanda. But this leap takes place in a few pages. She goes from being peaceful Hester to Hester who will grab this moment and have an adventure of her own — prompted also by her deep love of Gareth, too. She can’t let him die in some cottage.

        Amanda does not change much. She learns a little bit about the way of the world, but Neil of the Horse Guards was the only one who could contr4ol her before, and he’s still the only one who can make her see sense now.

        Neil goes from wanting to be proper and respec\table and waiting for Amanda to turn 18 to wanting to get her out of her household before her wards spoil her rotten and let her get into huge trouble. (Heyer is kind of a caveman in that respect: she likes a good taming of the young one trope.)

        The person who grows the most in a gradual way from his first appearance in the book to his last is young Hildebrand, who is persuaded to rescue Amanda from Gareth and comes up with the idea of holding up their coach so he can reverse-kidnap her. (She consents eagerly, but begs him not to shoot anyone.)

        He accidentally shoots Gareth, which sets the action part of our story in motion. He grows from a naive young man who is easily persuaded by a pretty face to a stronger willed man with some sorrows, regrets, and a better regard for caution.

        As far as it goes, I would agree that Amanda is the antagonist (and the fount of a whole lot of trouble). Her goal is not explained. Gareth could be the protagonist. He’s the first guyu in the book. (Although Hester grows more than he does.) His goals are explained quite well: duty.

        It really is an interesting conundrum.

        Whenever I’ve seen Heyer’s being recommended (my Bujold List or over at Jenny’s blog), Sprig Muslin is invariably one of them highly recommended.

    • I was reluctant to name the edition because I was badmouthing the blurb, but I guess that’s a little bit r\idiculous. 2005 Arrow Books, Random House.

      If the blurber only got a fact sheet, that explains a lot. I think.

      I like your blurb advice. I think this is a special case, because Heyer herself is misleading the reader in the book, so Amanda NEEDS to be mentioned, and it’s probably OK that she’s centered in the blurb because she’s certainlyu the driving force in the book.

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