Once again, I have had the opportunity to read someone’s blurb for their fantasy novel. You see these things all over the place–on advertising materials at conventions, on the back covers of books, on blogs or in emails asking you to support the author. All too often I’m thinking, “Jeez, man, I’d love to support you–but first you gotta write some copy worth selling!”
If you are an author, whether you are writing your query letter to send to agents, or writing the copy that goes on websites to promote your indie-published book, you must remember that that blurb is the first writing sample your audience is likely to read. That blurb must be freakin’ brilliant–it might even be the most important thing you’ll ever write related to that book, including the book itself.
I am a fantasy writer. I am a fantasy reader. And one of the first things that many people who avoid fantasy will tell you is that they don’t like a lot of unpronounceable names. Here’s a little secret: even readers who love fantasy can get turned off fast by the same issue.
During the course of the first few chapters, the typical fantasy novel will introduce a series of names for people, places, countries, various novae (like magical concepts or local plants and animals). For the fantasy junkie, that’s cool–because those unusual names are introduced in context–they relate to other things on the page, other elements of the story, and begin to build the sense of other-worldliness we enjoy. The name isn’t just a bit of decoration, it is a handle for a person, place or thing with other individual attributes which find a place in the mind of the reader.
This is not the case with the blurb for a fantasy novel. In a blurb, you have one paragraph, a few sentences, to get the reader’s attention and convince him or her to read the book. Again, it doesn’t matter if that reader is just a person looking for their next book, or an agent looking for their next best-selling author–the impact is the same: you need to inspire the reader to want to read more. And a series of strange names is highly unlikely to do so.
Here’s an off-the-cuff example:
Ga’thorna of Trigyrra travels to the Phonerevon Mountains to study the mystic skill of Pacheira which will allow her to control the weather, but when Trigyrra comes under attack by the Acherides with their malevolent hipponychus, Ga’thorna must hurry home to defend Trigyrra against the threat that might change Malfsion forever.
In all seriousness, ANY series of names is unlikely to inspire the reader. Because those names (whether they are Ga’thorna of Trigyrra, or Jennifer Stone) don’t relate to anything. The names themselves are meaningless without the context of the book. There is no reason for the reader to care about the handles when they have not been introduced to the thing the handle refers to. Fantasy novels are merely the most extreme example of the problem–even my romance-writing friends have the tendency to throw a bunch of names into a query, wasting most of their precious blurb-space.
Instead, focus on the protagonist and the conflict that he or she faces. Suggest the setting (which may require a place-name, but might be more effective with a more evocative handle) and move on. You may also need to suggest the antagonist or the love-interest, but that character probably doesn’t need a name. Instead of filling up your blurb with handles–much less unpronounceable ones–fill it up with phrases that capture the essence of the place, time, problem, or magic. . . Show what will make your book worth reading, and your characters worth caring about, by displaying the heart of the story, not by referring to things your reader does not yet understand.
Here’s the blurb above, substituting specific phrases or images for most of the names:
A gifted young mage, Ga’thorna, leaves her island home for a distant monastery in the mountains to study weather-magic, but when the island comes under attack by an ancient enemy with an army of flesh-eating seahorses, Ga’thorna hurries to defend her home against a threat that might change the world forever.
Sure, “hipponychus” is a cool word, and it evokes the concept I have in mind, but compared with “an army of flesh-eating seahorses,” it says nothing to the reader. Removing the strange words has also encouraged streamlining the prose so that the new blurb reads much better (and might even be something I could remember if I needed an elevator pitch for this imagined book).
When they have the chance to explore your world and meet your characters in the context of the novel, readers are happy to learn their names, but when you need to catch someone’s attention and do it fast–leave the names in the book and deliver the impact of your story instead.
What are some of your pet-peeves about the marketing of fantasy?