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Literature

THE ART OF BLURB WRITING

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WHEN Longman Zimbabwe (now CPS Publishing) decided to publish my debut novel, The Haunted Trail, sometime in 2005, the company’s then Commissioning Editor, Lorraine Nyamapfene, asked me to write the blurb for the book.

Well, let me not speak in tongues and break this down for you so that we are on the same page. 

What is a blurb? Blurb is one of the literary terms you want to familiarise yourself with as an author. 

Every subject or discipline of study has its own language, or technical terms. If you spend time with those in the medical or legal field, you will notice they speak a certain language that is easily understood within their professional circles, but may be unfamiliar to outsiders. 

In my early years as a journalist, I was a court reporter for several years, so I picked up a lot of court procedures and legal jargon. If you read the court scenes in my books, you can easily tell it’s quite a familiar terrain. 

In the study of Linguistics, this is referred to as Language for Academic Purposes, which is a specialised vocabulary in a specific discipline. It could be in the field of medicine, law, commerce, mathematics, education or history. 

Anyway, when you look at the back cover of almost every book, there is often a write up that attempts to give hints or brief insights into the book’s contents. That is a blurb. 

Although I have heard some people call it a summary, in essence, it is not a summary. By definition, a summary is more the condensation — or concentrate — of ALL the details in the story, whether it’s a play, short story or poetry collection, novel or even motivational book. 

But a blurb, specifically, is designed to whet a potential reader’s appetite or thirst so that they are inspired to read the book rather than break down the entire story. 

Whereas a summary is a complete overview of the book, a blurb usually deliberately doesn’t tell-all, because if the story is given away like that at once, some potential readers may quickly lose interest.

So, in essence, you can classify a blurb as a teaser. It is designed to tease the reader. 

There is a form of entertainment called strip tease, whereby a woman strips off pieces of her clothing, painfully slowly, and deliberately, just to sweetly agonise the usually all-male audience hoping for the moment when she would bare all — but then she often doesn’t go all the way! (Pardon my example. I just want to use a graphic picture so that you get it).

A blurb should function as a hook of sorts, designed to lure even the most reluctant of potential readers into grabbing your book and reading their way through it. 

Beyond the letters, I believe every book carries a spirit, and it is that spirit — which gives life to your book — that you want to capture in the blurb. This is something that the author is often best suited to do because the story or book is conceived in their mind. 

I have noticed, however, that a lot of authors do not want to bother themselves with writing a blurb, but would rather have the Editor or some other third party do it for them. 

Nothing wrong with that, of course! In fact, blurb writing is one of the services that we offer at Royalty Books. Many publishers, actually, do the same. 

Blurb writing is often considered an area of speciality, just like Copy Writing. 

When an advertising agent requires to employ a Copy Writer, they usually go for an insanely creative writer who is able to write precisely, with a cutting edge, but in very few words, and still capture and deliver the essence of the product or service on offer. 

Many of you (I guess the ‘older generation’ perhaps) remember a milk product advert that went something like: “It’s not inside; it’s on top.”

At face value, the statement looks simple and innocent, but carries what we call in Literature a “double entendre” or two interpretations: the literal and the metaphorical meaning. 

Many commercial adverts carry sexual innuendo (I don’t know why… Maybe it’s because of the notion that sex sells). 

So, here you have a husband looking for something, and calls out to his wife, “Honey, it’s not in the fridge” and she responds, “It’s not inside, it’s on top!”

You could also consider the following phrase designed for a desk on sale…An antique desk for a lady with good legs and large drawers.

Well, I was digressing… but this is something to think seriously about.

 I often encourage authors to present a draft of the blurb, highlighting key points in the script, and then I would develop that into an effective blurb. 

“The opening of your blurb has to be incredibly precise and dynamic,” says top American editor Rebecca Heyman. “For a lot of first-time authors, I think there’s an instinct to make sure readers understand everything that happened in the book’s universe before the beginning of the actual story. That’s generally a mistake.”

You see that? Don’t give away your story in the blurb! Just set the stage for anticipation! 

Critically, a blurb should do Four (4) important things;

  1. Introduce your main character(s)

Your blurb has to be about characters. Consciously or not, readers check out the blurb to determine whether or not they want to spend time with your main characters. 

  1. Set the stage for your primary conflict

The primary conflict is what drives your story. It’s about Terrence, a self-proclaimed atheist (unbeliever) pursuing a Christian girl in _Chasing the Wind_, or Dorothy running away from home because she doesn’t want to be part of an arranged marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather in _The Latter Rain_. Without a real-world conflict, you don’t have a story readers can want to hear or read.

  1. Establish the stakes

Without consequences, a conflict lacks drama. A blurb that says “Jack Ryan has 24 hours to rescue the Russian ambassador,” isn’t as impactful unless we know what’s at stake: “…his failure will result in certain nuclear war.”

  1. Show the reader why this book is for them

Most readers have an idea of the book they’re looking to read next. A well-crafted blurb won’t try to sell everybody on the book — it will help people who already want a book like yours see that it’s for them. Ensure you also distinguish what makes your book unique. If you stick to this formula, you won’t go wrong. 

Below are a few samples of blurbs you can use to model your own…

When FBI Agent Cole Davis, and Logan Church, a local cop and reigning Ice Princess, hook up to solve a case of Mississippi corruption at the highest judicial levels, sparks fly. Their attraction is hotter than the sultry southern sun. She wants to hate him — but she can’t. And Cole would never commit career suicide by staying in a backwater Mississippi town… not for any woman… especially not for Isabella Logan Church – A Backwater Blessing by Kris Michaels

The Latter Rain is a gripping story about two teenagers who flee their Mt. Darwin village to Harare in search of a better life. Isabel runs away from the wrath of a vindictive stepmother while her friend, Dorothy, follows her two years later in a breath-taking escape from an arranged marriage to a rich and powerful polygamous religious sect leader who helped her family with food at the height of a devastating famine. The two girls quickly discover that the streets of Harare are not paved with gold and are forced to make serious compromises to survive. They make different choices and while one of them ends up dead 10 years later, the other pursues a life of faith. But she has a herculean task to mend broken relations with a family she has deeply wounded. This is a story about how human depravity is confronted by grace and hope restored even as drought paves way for the rain – The Latter Rain by Phillip Kundeni Chidavaenzi

So, these are just limited examples to give you glimpses into the different ways you can come up with a blurb that will get a potential reader to go for your book.

In conclusion, it is important to really think through your blurb before the book cover is printed. Take your time. Be precise, nuanced. Why? Because a blurb can make or break your book.

Phillip Kundeni Chidavaenzi

Author | Editor | Literary Consultant

Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Royalty Books (Pvt.) Ltd

Founder & Administrator Writers Clinic

Writers Clinic is a writer training and author empowerment arm of leading book publishers, Royalty Books.

Author Interviews

Without literature, people die – Phillip Chidavaenzi

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Literature provides a platform for self-expression and for the display of artistic abilities in the same way that it helps people to reveal their expectations and narrate the realities of their lives in a given community.

In a poetry anthology titled General Emeritus – Wisdom, Mysteries and Dark Sayings, there is a poem titled General Emeritus, the Ambassador of Literature. In this poem there is a stanza that says:

Even though literature is as old as far back as life can be traced

Its impact is always as fresh as the morning of everyday

Literature is an art, literature is an invention, and literature is creation

Literature is reason showcased, literature is emotion expressed.

On that note, in celebrating and appreciating the role and impact of literature in our society, zwnews24’s Brian Kazungu caught up and did an interview with one of Zimbabwe’s award winning and passionate author Phillip Chidavaenzi who is also promoting literature through his Writers Clinic in order to understand more about his inspiring writing career.

Zwnews24: Briefly describe yourself (background, personality, passions, dreams and aspirations etc.) so that the readers (audience) can have a clear picture of who you are, and what you stand for as a writer/blogger/author etc.

Phillip Chidavaenzi: My background in writing is quite long and rich. I have always been in love with words from the time I was first able to read. From an early age, I was exposed to a lot of literature, and that ingrained in me the love for reading and writing. But my first serious attempts at writing were in high school from the early to the late 1990s, during which time I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories.

Zwnews24: What is your greatest reason and or motivation behind your writing career? What do you seek to achieve and why? If you have already published anything both in print or online, do you think you have achieved your goal or do you see yourself achieving those goals through your literary work?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: All I desire to do is to tell a good story that will move people and can stir the readers’ emotions — be it joy, sadness or shock. At the end of the day, I want to deliver certain important life lessons through writing. As long as one person reads my book and say to me, “Thank you… I loved that story… It made me cry… It really touched me’, then I would have achieved my goal.  

Zwnews24: What has been the impact of your writing career on the people around you, including family and friends?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: My family believes in my writing more than anybody else. But it’s actually funny that all this started with English Compositions when I was in Form 3. A friend wrote a short story and it so touched me that I said, I think I can do that, and so I started off writing short stories from there. Ironically, I have not done a short story collection, but only novels and some spiritual texts.

Zwnews24: What are the titles of the books that you have written so far? Would you describe what each of these books is all about and the intended benefit of each of these books to your audience? 

Phillip Chidavaenzi: I would need acres and acres of space to do this because I write voluminous novels, by Zimbabwean standards, that is. My novels are The Haunted Trail (2006), The Ties that Bind (2015), The Latter Rain (2016) and Chasing the Wind (2019). End of this year, I will release Sword in the Wilderness, which is almost complete now. I have also written Christian texts: Walking in the Spirit, The Gospel of Grace, Give Me Souls or I Die, and I Am Prayer. All these are about how to live a victorious Christian life as a new creation and how to fulfil certain objectives of the gospel and exercising spiritual disciplines.

The Haunted Trail is an HIV related story that also included the meltdown in the financial services sector during the time of Gideon Gono, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. The Ties that Bind is its sequel, exploring how individuals can go on with life even after testing HIV positive while Chasing the Wind is about living in faith, sexual abuse and the struggle to forgive. The Latter Rain is about two teenage girls who flee their Mt. Darwin village in search of a better life in Harare, but experienced mixed fortunes. One ends up dead 10 years later after committing suicide while the other one pursues a life of faith.  

Zwnews24: If people want to buy your books or invest in your work, where can they find the books and how do they get in touch with you either for feedback on your work or any other related correspondence?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: They can link up with me on social media, through my author page on Facebook: Phillip Kundeni Chidavaenzi and even on the Royalty Books page. I am also on whatsapp at +2637719952851. More so, I have a blog called A Writers Scroll at http://philchida.blogspot.com/

Zwnews24: What are your guiding values which determine what and how you write? Are there things that you do not write about at all or is there a certain approach to writing which you do not use because of these values? Share your insights. 

Phillip Chidavaenzi: Tricky, tricky, tricky! I am wildly creative, I must say. I write about the abuse of women, I do a bit of romance and I also write about people’s struggles to survive against difficult odds… For some reason, all these things tend to creep in when I write. Of course, I wouldn’t write anything that goes against my faith and beliefs as a Christian. A reader once described me as a feminist writer, can you imagine! Well, I don’t think I am a feminist writer. Perhaps, I can just say I have a strong inclination towards women’s issues. 

Zwnews24: What has been the impact of your writing so far, both to you and to your readers and how has it made you feel? 

Phillip Chidavaenzi: I am always excited about my writing, obviously. Those readers that are personally known to me, I believe my writings have had a profound impact on them. In fact, I have received quite a number of messages from some youngsters that are doing my second novel, The Ties that Bind, at A-Level. I think they have really enjoyed the book and it has impacted them in a positive way. 

Zwnews24: What is it that makes you to continue writing regardless of the various challenges that are associated with this profession or undertaking? How do you overcome the related hurdles?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: Writing is first and foremost a passion, it’s compelling and obsessive. Whether I sell a thousand or just ten copies of a novel, I will not stop writing. When I started writing, I wasn’t thinking about money. I just loved to write, and I did. It’s still the same. When the money comes, we thank God, but if it doesn’t, no problem. Of course there are a lot of challenges. The production of hard copy books is expensive, but we just take the small step, print a few books here, a few more next month and so on.

Zwnews24: What are your words of advice and motivation to other writers, both the established and aspiring ones in their pursuit of literature, either as their hobby or profession?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: My heart bleeds because too few writers, novelists in particular, are producing. The spell is just too dry. Charles Mungoshi is gone, and the likes of Shimmer Chinodya are no longer producing as much. Where is the new crop of creative writers? I think we are too slow on the ball, and as such, the output in terms of new publications is very slow. I know we are going through a dark spell economically, but let us not allow that to hinder our creativity.  

Zwnews24: What do you think is the relevance and impact of literature in your community, in your country or across the whole world? Do you think literature should be recognised, celebrated and be promoted? Share your reasons.

Phillip Chidavaenzi: Definitely! Definitely! Without literature, people die. Literature enables us, more than anything else, to capture moments, history and developments in a country from the human perspective. The ordinary man or woman might not get a chance to speak, let’s say: through a newspaper. So, let us give them a voice through literature, by telling their stories for future generations.

Zwnews24: How deep is your passion for literature? What have you already done, what are you planning to do and how far would you go to promote literature in your community, in your country or across the whole world?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: It’s virtually my life! Of the books that I have written, one got an award, and the other two got nominated for awards. In fact, through our Writers Clinic platform and Royalty Books publishing company, we are promoting literature.

Zwnews24: Have you ever won an award or have you ever been nominated for an award on your literary work? If yes, please share your story about this award and the impact it had on you.

Phillip Chidavaenzi: My debut novel, The Haunted Trail, won the First Outstanding Published Creative Work award at the National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA) in 2007. The Ties that Bind and the Later Rain were nominated for the Outstanding Fiction award at NAMA 2016 and 2017 respectively.

Zwnews24: If there was or if there is a Global Literature Ambassador Award, who would you nominate for the prize and more so, based on your own works of literature, do you think that you would be able to win a prize for your literary contributions? How would you feel if you were to be locally, nationally or globally recognised for your input in the field of literature?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: I have no idea who I would nominate. There are too many authors doing great work across the world. I think I am still a little green for an award of that magnitude.

Zwnews24: What has been some of the best works of literature that you have enjoyed so far (Books, blogs, poems etc.)? Share the reasons why you rate them so high and value them so much. Based on what you have benefited personally, what do you think must be done in order to broadly develop, promote and celebrate literature in your community, country or across the world?

Phillip Chidavaenzi: I have read thousands and thousands of literary works. Off head, I guess I would say Jack Hoffenberg’s Reaping in Tears, Beauty, and The Bottom-line etc. They are just too numerous to mention. These are excellently crafted works. 

Zwnews24: Are there people or organisations that you would like to acknowledge and credit, be it for their emotional and material input or contribution (support) towards your works of literature? 

Phillip Chidavaenzi: I would say the Culture Fund in Zimbabwe, which funded a lot of arts and cultural products and activities, including my own, The Ties that Bind and then of course, the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe for celebrating outstanding artists and artistic works.

The questions in this interview are adapted from the book, General Emeritus – Wisdom, Mysteries and Dark Sayings, a poetry anthology written by Brian Kazungu: https://amzn.to/2T8sEQX

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Author Guide

THE WRITERS CLINIC: BECOMING A MONGREL OF ‘ENGLISHES’

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IN mid-December last year, 2019, we launched Simba Nyamadzawo’s book, EMERGE. I shared with him an observation I had made while typesetting the book — that he was mixing up American and British English.

Well, it’s not an unpardonable sin, but it’s important because in certain circles, especially on the international market, it can lead to the rejection of a book or demean its value. 

In fact, I have noticed that a lot of authors don’t know the differences between these two most dominant ‘Englishes’. 

The differences often manifest in orthographies, or the spelling system of a language. You can take a look at the following random examples:

British                American

1. Realise               Realize

2. Colour                Color

3. Centre                Center

4. Saviour               Savior 

These differences emerged between the 1750s and early 1800s when Samuel Johnson published A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 while an American standardised orthography was birthed following Noah Webster’s release of An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828.

The publications extensively helped in defining and distinguishing the two English varieties. 

Traditionally, the English generally spoken in Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth (a club of former British colonies) is British English. 

It’s not a crime to use either of these ‘Englishes’. It only becomes a ‘crime’ when you are not consistent in your use of that particular English. Stick to the English of your choice throughout your book. It is a matter of consistency. 

Now, I want us to go a little deeper with this. I took the title of this presentation from a conversation between academics at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, Professor Elisabeth Dutton and Professor Alexandre Duchene and Adichie Chimamanda Ngozie titled Literature, Power & the Academy: A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie held on November 15, 2019. 

Adichie is the internationally acclaimed Nigerian author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck, Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists

She is also popularly known for her TEDTalk presentation, The Danger of a Single Story

In her November 15, 2019 talk, Adichie said:  “But I do feel that I’ve become a kind of mongrel of Englishes. I’d like to think that my work reflects the kind of English I’m familiar with, which is a certain kind of Nigerian English. An English deeply flavoured with Igbo, the other language I speak.”

Adichie then explained about Pidgin English, another bastardised version of English, which we frequently encounter in movies from Nigeria. This is a rather informal version of English spoken among the lower social classes in the West African country.

She described that as “the multipleness of English in my world.”

When you hear Americans speak or write, you will notice that their English is not exactly like that spoken by the British, or maybe even Australians, South Africans and Zimbabweans. 

There was a time in my life when I thought my English had to be faultlessly British every time I write.

I remember that this drive for perfection was born out of rejection. This was after an Evaluator at Mambo Press had rejected my first ever manuscript around 2001/2002 on the basis that there was too much use of what she called Colloquial English in my writing. 

Colloquialism, according to the dictionary, is a word or phrase that is not formal or literary, and is used in ordinary or familiar conversation. 

But over the years, I have been increasingly fascinated by the disruptive innovations that have crept into almost every facet of life, including the study of language itself and literature as a whole.

And this is why I was excited by Roderick Mazoyo’s debut novel, Hupenyu Hauna Formula and our recent publication at Royalty Books titled Life Will Humble You, a debut novel by Audrey Chirenje. 

Audrey, in particular, uses the largely informal English that you may call slang, spoken among a younger generation of Zimbabweans, in telling her. 

This is how the book opens…WOW! Wow! Gosh! OMG! So, this is what it feels like driving one of them big cars, I thought. I could feel the wind in my face. Wait a minute! I had to play some loud music to complete the picture. I reached for the radio and pressed “play” and, of course, my girl Brandy started doing her thang on her song, Wow.

This is largely informal writing which, however, young Zimbabweans can identify with because this is a bastardised version of Zimbabwean English that they speak every day. 

Linguists however argue that colloquialism is not necessarily slang (words used by specific social groups such as teenagers or soldiers), but may include slang while consisting mainly of contractions or other informal words and phrases known to most native speakers of the language.

When you read my books, you will often come across the word kombi rather than commuter omnibus. Any Zimbabwean, anywhere, will know what it means, although people who are foreign to Zimbabwe may require a footnote to grasp it. 

To say fat cooks, for instance, is English, but an American or British may not understand what you mean. This is derived from the Afrikaans word, vetkoek, which means “fried bread” 

If you are going to use fried bread instead of fat cook in your narrative, it may fly over your readers’ heads. 

Just for interest’s sake, you can consider the Shona insult word pfutseke. It is derived from an informal Afrikaans term, voetsek (meaning ‘go away’ or ‘get away’) but has almost been formalised in the Shona language. 

The same applies with robot, which we use in Zimbabwe to refer to traffic lights. Elsewhere, a robot is not a traffic light! You also have terms like durawall (precast wall) and small house (mistress).

Here is a line from a novel script that I am currently finalising, titled, Sword in the Wilderness: Harry nodded. He reached over to brush loose strands of Fadzai’s long weave out of her eyes._ (pp51).

To a non-Zimbabwean, a long weave would be improper English because “weave” is a verb rather than a noun, meaning;– interlace, lace, intertwine, plait, kit, entwine, merge or unite…

However, in Zimbabwe, we know that it means hair extensions or something like that… (Am I right, ladies? 

Those of you who watch Black American movies will also appreciate that the English they speak is different from that spoken by White Americans from the mainstream society, but it can be perfectly understood across the board. 

Just this afternoon, I was chatting with my good friend Dr. Tanaka Chidora about this very subject. 

Interestingly, he sent me an abstract of a thesis he is currently working on titled When Ancestors Speak in English: Chenjerai Hove’s Ground breaking Shonalised English Novel.

Some of you would be familiar with Hove’s Bones (1988), a Noma Award for Publishing in Africa winner, as well as Ancestors (1994), which Dr. Chidora describes as  “a ground-breaking project with an Achebean tinge to it because it was the first full throttle attempt by a Zimbabwean author to, so to speak, make ancestors converse in English”. 

He further argues that by so doing, Hove joined “the side of Chinua Achebe who argued that English can be made to carry the weight of his African experience”.

But what I find catchy is Dr. Chidora’s proposition that Ancestors “is also an archive of what I can call Zimbabwean English, in terms of the use of Shona idioms and speech rhythms.” This is powerful, and so very liberating, especially the acknowledgment that Hove’s “process of ‘Shonalising’ manifests in the new generation of globetrotting Zimbabwean writers who seem to be creating a ‘home’ away from home by importing various idiomatic forms of Zimbabwean languages into their writings”.

Among these globetrotters are Petina Gappah, Brian Chikwava and Panashe Chigumadze. If you are a serious author, you must familiarise yourself with these guys’ works.

What I am sharing with you might never make sense to you, or will present difficulties, unless you develop a strong relationship with words. 

Henceforth, I want to encourage you to start paying closer attention to your language. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a work meeting where we mingled with Shingi Mutasa (Joina City owner and one of the richest men in Zimbabwe), who described English as “a very specific language”. 

You can use it to pigeonhole any idea or express any emotion. The trick is to use the version that does it aptly for you.

Phillip Kundeni Chidavaenzi

Author | Editor | Literary Consultant

Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Royalty Books (Pvt.) Ltd

Founder & Administrator Writers Clinic

Writers Clinic is a writer training and author empowerment arm of leading book publishers, Royalty Books.

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