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As I was getting The Cross and the Dragon ready for publication, my editor had an assignment for me: write a blurb for the back of the book. In 100 to 200 words, tantalizingly describe approximately the first third of the plot.

No pressure. It’s only your readers’ first impression of your novel after the cover. Readers will only use this bit of information to decide whether they ought to spend time and money on the book.

Yet when it takes more than 100,000 words to tell the story, how does an author distill the essence of the novel into a mere 200 words–or less? Yet even though I’ve written teasers and headlines when I was a journalist, I found the process intimidating, and I couldn’t just recycle the pitch in my queries because it went much deeper into the plot than one third and contains a spoiler.

My quest to write the blurb that will work its magic involved reading current queries, older queries, the backs of the books that populate my nightstand and bookshelves, the Publishers Weekly review of the manuscript from the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, and the excerpt I’ve posted on my website.

Fellow authors, I hope you find this peek into my somewhat disorganized mind helpful when your editor asks you for a blurb.

First, a Headline

One commonality in the blurbs of published books is that many of them start with one sentence to capture the story, actually a fragment of a sentence. My older query letters call The Cross and the Dragon a tale of “an eighth-century Frankish warrior and his lady who are willing to sacrifice everything for love.” True, but that does not set this novel set apart from other love stories.

Riffing off a phrase from Publishers Weekly, I came up with “A tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds …” Did I mention many blurbs use ellipses?

OK. 12 words down. Only 88 more words to go.

Also element common to historical novels: dates. Pick a year in the 770s and a place. 86 more to go.

Next: Where There’s No Turning Back

I got to pondering the excerpt on my website and why I chose that scene–right after the villain realizes he’s been rejected–to tease readers to the book. The realization hit me: the scene is full of tension–and from that point in the story, there’s no going back. Eureka! That’s what I needed in the blurb.

Here is my first attempt at a blurb:

A tale of love in an era of war and blood feuds …

Francia, 774: Alda must escape marriage to Ganelon, a handsome count with a heart as black and twisted as a spent long in the hearth. Hruodland, the man she wants, is out of reach. After Hruodland rescued her from a beating at Ganelon’s hand a year ago, Alda thought she would never see him again. Yet here he is at her Rhineland home. And so is Ganelon.

As Alda and Hruodland’s love blossoms, Ganelon becomes more hateful by the day. And when Alda’s family decides Hruodland has the better offer, Ganelon explodes in rage and swears revenge.

What form will Ganelon’s vengeance take?

The above reveals how the story opens and the point of no return. But it feels too much like a summary, and it doesn’t give readers a sense of Alda’s character. Something was missing.

Step Three: Reveal the Character, Not the Spoiler

I again turned to my most recent queries and found that final piece. I could hint at the spoiler. Instead of revealing what happens, I could leave the situation open ended to build suspense and reveal who Alda is.

140 words later, I sent a draft to my editor. She liked it and made a few tweaks. Here is the final result, draft No. 5, as it appears on the back of the book:

A Tale of Love in an Era of War and Blood Feuds

Francia, 778: Alda has never forgotten Ganelon’s vow of vengeance when she married his rival, Hruodland. Yet the jilted suitor’s malice is nothing compared to Alda’s premonition of disaster for her beloved, battle-scarred husband.

Although the army invading Hispania is the largest ever and King Charles has never lost a war, Alda cannot shake her anxiety. Determined to keep Hruodland from harm, even if it exposes her to danger, Alda gives him a charmed dragon amulet.

Is its magic enough to keep Alda’s worst fears from coming true—and protect her from Ganelon?

Inspired by legend and painstakingly researched, The Cross and the Dragon is a story of tenderness, sacrifice, lies, and revenge in the early years of Charlemagne’s reign, told by a fresh, new voice in historical fiction.

If you like the blurb, I invite you to read the first chapter. Fellow writers, what techniques and sources did you use to craft that magical 100 to 200 words to entice your readers?