The Map is Not the Territory:
The seven “shalt nots” of writing jacket copy
I’ve recently been writing my own jacket copy for Thief’s War and Goblin Wood, and also helping a friend revise copy for some of her books. So I started looking at jacket copy, particularly in indie-published novels, and I’ve discovered that, sadly, a lot of writers have no idea how to write jacket copy. I’m not sure I know how to do it right, either—novels are so different that what works brilliantly for one book might be a disaster for another. But I have observed some things you really shouldn’t do, and knowing what they are might help you avoid some of the catastrophic jacket copy failures I’ve seen lately.
First, a central premise we all need to agree on: just as the map is not the territory, the jacket copy does not need to be a complete and faithful description of the book. Because the purpose of the jacket copy is to make the novel sound interesting to potential readers. Granted, you can’t lie. You can’t put something in the blurb if it isn’t the book. But aside from that…see the central premise.
In fact, the number one sin of all bad jacket copy is that it makes the book sound boring. How do people make their books sound boring? Let me count the ways…
Thou shalt not Tell Everything About the Story. One of the biggest pitfalls in jacket copy is trying to reveal too much—a blurb has to be short, and clearly comprehensible on the first casual read, which means you can only cover one aspect of your plot. I used to think that jacket copy shouldn’t cover anything past the end-of-first-act plot twist, but the more jacket copy I write the more exceptions to that rule I find. You need to pick out your novel’s central conflict and present that problem (but not the solution) in an engaging way. If your main story problem has many interesting aspects, hey, that’s great for your novel. For the jacket you need to pick just one aspect, the one that makes for the most interesting blurb, and ignore the others.
The jacket copy is also not the place to rhapsodize about your novel’s setting or, unless it’s necessary to understand the plot, your protagonist’s backstory/family situation. If your protagonist is going to spend the book searching for her missing father, then by all means tell us that Father abandoned the family when she was five. If the protagonist is going to spend the story trying to get the first chair away from another violinist, the fact that her father abandoned the family may be relevant in the novel—but don’t put it in the jacket blurb. If your protagonist is searching for sunken archeological treasure then the place she’s diving may be relevant. But if she’s falling in and out of love with some boy, in a ordinary American town, whether that town’s in California, Iowa, or Texas may be relevant in the story…but it doesn’t belong on the jacket.
Thou shalt not Be Afraid to Give Too Much Away. I grant you, you don’t want to reveal solutions to the story problems…but don’t be shy about revealing all kinds of things that make the story harder for your hero. Even if it’s half way through the book that the plane crashes, stranding the US marshal and the criminal he’s escorting in the remote mountain valley—that’s the exciting part! That’s the event that sets up the conflict and the action. You may have wanted that plane crash to be a surprise to the reader, but you can’t leave it out because that’s the incident that makes the blurb reader sit up, take notice, and hopefully say, “Ooooh. Sounds interesting.”
You also can’t cheat by saying a startling event forces the marshal and the murderer to work together because…
Thou shalt not Be Vague Instead of Specific. A startling event, a terrible secret, and health problems that keep your heroine, who is also a general, from going into combat—these aren’t nearly as interesting as a plane crash strands them, because she was babysitting when her little brother downed, and despite her pregnancy, the general disobeys her doctor’s orders and goes to the battle front.
Thou shalt not Use Made-up SF and Fantasy Words, or Technical Jargon. If you’re writing SF or fantasy, frequently ordinary English phrases don’t quite describe the situation in your story, and making up words and phrases to cover that alternate reality is great…in the novel. But even if your world’s barren dormant time isn’t exactly winter, say winter in the blurb. Even if in your novel bondmating is different from bonding, say bonding in the blurb. The reader understands winter and bonding. Barren dormant time and bondmating leaves the blurb reader wondering what those things are, instead of focusing on your story’s characters and plot. Speaking of which…
Thou shalt not Put Character Arc Before Plot. Character arc is nice—even essential—but in the blurb, your characters’ actions matter more than their feelings. Although truly, the two tie together rather nicely, because the characters’ motive can and should precede the action. What’s-her-name’s father abandoned the family when she was five, but when her little brother comes down with a rare genetic disease, she must… If Whosit can’t get into Julliard, her mother has vowed to smash her violin and send her to work at McDonalds—but Julliard only takes first chair violinists, and Whosit is second chair. She resolves to… Also note that when you know the motive for their actions, it’s not usually necessary to tell us that What’s-her-name loves her brother, or that Whosit is passionate about music. But in the blurb, the fact that What’s-her-name despises her father, and must ultimately make peace with him, matters far less than the fact that she finds her father in jail, for a murder he swears he didn’t commit, and he refuses to donate bone marrow to save her brother unless she can figure out who really killed his ex-girlfriend. Whosit’s desperate love of music matters less than the fact that after she sabotages the first chair’s violin he tries to commit suicide. Overcome with guilt, Whosit confesses to the sabotage and is suspended from the orchestra. See how much more interesting the plot is? But speaking of characters…
Thou shalt not Call Any Character By Name Unless You Have To. You must name the protagonist, and there will probably be one or two other people you need to name as well—but an astonishing number of people can be referred to by their relationship to the protagonist, or their job. Bob’s mother. Cathy’s soccer coach. The head of the CIA. Unless you’ve got more than one king in the blurb, there’s no reason to say King Leopold instead of the king. And if you do have two kings, it’s easier to keep track of the king of Tasmania, and the king of Xanadu than King Ferdinand of Tasmania, and King Jerold of Xanadu.
Generally, three names is a reasonable number for a blurb, five at the outside—and place names do count toward that total.
Thou shalt not Write Long Dense Paragraphs When You Can Break Them into Shorter Ones. Shorter paragraphs look better, read snappier, and it’s easier to absorb knowledge if it’s broken into shorter bits.
See how well that worked?
I grant you, telling you some of the many things you shouldn’t do may not be much help in putting together a jacket blurb that does what it should do—which is to intrigue a reader into buying your book. But the things that make your novel interesting, exciting and intense will be completely different from the things that make another novel interesting, etc.—so the jacket copy that works so well for Lemony Snickett (and the Series of Unfortunate Events has brilliant jacket copy) will be useless to most of us.
I can tell you that good jacket copy will: Clearly reveal the novel’s central conflict, make the reader feel that conflict is important, and that its resolution will be emotionally engaging. But how to do that? The answer is probably as unique as your novel—and I wish you luck.