When I first pitched my fantasy romance novel a thousand years ago, I made the fatal mistake I think a lot of spec writers make–foregrounding the worldbuilding beyond anything else. While it’s true that worldbuilding is the one quintessential thing that differentiates fantasy from other genres, it may not be exactly what you want to lead with in your pitch. In the whole scheme of things, worldbuilding is only one aspect of a story that will appeal to readers, and I would argue that, at its core, the query needs to center around the engaging and fascinating characters within your world.
It’s hard to connect on a deep, personal level to a magic system, but we’re hardwired, you might say, to connect with individual struggle or strife. Most of us want to connect with humans (or humanoid-esque, sentient beings), not with the magical amulet of Aerosolisia or the ancient book of Conolingua. Such things are meaningless to us at this point in the book’s life, but a character with a goal and a conflict? That will hook most readers right away, and hints at an incredible world will be the icing on that fantasy-character cake.
As I said above, when I queried my debut novel THROUGH THE VEIL, I was so proud of all my worldbuilding, I forgot this very important component. I filled my query with so much world, I’m not sure how anyone could parse out my story at all, let alone connect to my characters. In spite of the churning waves of embarrassment in my stomach, I present to you something very close to my original query, and I do so to point out some of its serious flaws. Just…be kind, guys. I was young, fresh, and very green.
Graduate student Elizabeth Tanner loved to lose herself in the musty vellum pages of the ancient Irish manuscript she studied for her MA thesis–until the pictures started shifting and the spidery script transformed to reveal a terrible secret.
Elizabeth is no Tinkerbell, but when she discovers her lost mother is Fae, she finds herself at odds with the forces of Trinity, a secret organization composed of the magical races of Ireland. To end a centuries-long Civil War war, Trinity forces Elizabeth to take her Fae mother’s place in a marriage covenant forged a generation ago with the leader of the Dark Fae, Lord Bres.
Her only ally is Finn O’Connell, an eighteenth-century Irish rebel turned immortal warrior. Together, they unlock the mysteries of her past and explore the truth of Elizabeth’s new-found powers. She is an aisling, blessed with the ability to break magical wards, cross space and time, and even walk through dreams.
Bound to Bres by the same black magic she unearthed in her Master’s thesis, Elizabeth must stop him from gaining control of The Tree of Life, the source of all power in the universe. If she fails, Finn and everyone she loves dies and the mortal world falls to darkness.
Oh, my eyes…they bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed. Where do I even begin with this? As I’m sure you can see, it’s practically unreadable. First of all, we have way too many magical elements dropped into it that require far too much explanation for a 200 word query. There’s an ancient manuscript, a secret organization, Fae, Dark Fae, something called an aisling, a Tree of Life. You guys. As much as I love all this stuff about my book, front loading all that world was a huge, terrible mistake. Furthermore, while I’m able to establish some notion of who my characters are, neither of them have a very specific goal. Elizabeth loves books and Finn wants to help her because…? Um…because…? Yeah.
So fast forward a year or so later when my editor asked me to take a stab at writing the back copy for the book. I just about threw up on my laptop with nerves, but I wanted to prove I could do this.
I spent years teaching freshman comp, which is essentially helping students understand the rhetorical moves that make for effective essays. To do that, we have to analyze the fundamental gestures great writers make to convince others of their argument. I knew if I could apply the same mindset to studying blurbs, I could figure out the code, the code that makes one person want to throw down their hard-earned money for a book.
Now, what follows is not a formula, a wham-bam-thank-you-mam worksheet you can fill out and get a six-figure deal. But I was raised by jazz musicians, and one thing I learned is you need to learn some basics before you can freestyle like Charlie Parker. Bear in mind, also, that back cover copy is not the same thing as a query. However, I’m using examples of back cover copy here to show how you can shape and consolidate your fantasy novel into something that might appeal to agents.
So, determined to write a good blurb, I set out studying as much back cover copy in my genre as possible. One example of back cover copy I looked at specifically was the book Darkfever, probably the closest comp to my own book. The first thing I noticed was that the copy didn’t start with the world or the conflict, but the character.
MacKayla Lane’s life is good. She has great friends, a decent job, and a car that breaks down only every other week or so. In other words, she’s your perfectly ordinary twenty-first-century woman. Or so she thinks…until something extraordinary happens.
We can argue back and forth about the likeability of MacKayla Lane’s character, but one thing is for sure, we know exactly who she is. More importantly, we know this is going to be a character who will transform, who will be forever changed by the events within this story. That is the key to good characterization.
I won’t copy and paste the whole back cover copy here, but you can see how it goes on to provide a goal:
When her sister is murdered, leaving a single clue to her death–a cryptic message on Mac’s cell phone–Mac journeys to Ireland in search of answers.
And then we have the conflict, the person (or Fae, as it were) standing in her way:
As she begins to close in on the truth, the ruthless Vlane–an alpha Fae who makes sex an addiction for human women–closes in on her.
Then finally, we have the stakes:
…because whoever gets to [this magical book] first holds nothing less than complete control of the very fabric of both worlds in their hands….
Essentially, if MacKayla doesn’t figure out who killed her sister and stop him, the whole fabric of the universe might implode. Awesome, right? I love this series. There’s also a really hot dude in it.
Anyway, as helpful as this analysis was, I still couldn’t quite get the organization right. Even though my character, goal, conflict, and stakes were stronger, the copy still felt muddled. So I went to Entangled’s website and started studying all the copy on my publisher’s particular imprint. Because romance tends to focus on two characters, I realized that there was a certain organization that popped up over and over again. It goes a little something like this:
Paragraph One (2-3 sentences): Who is the main character? What does she want? What is her initial conflict? What is tripping her up?
Paragraph Two (2-3 sentences): Who is the main love interest? What is his/her goal? What is his/her initial conflict? What is tripping him/her up?
Paragraph Three (1-2 sentences): What is their combined conflict? What is standing in their way? What will happen if they don’t get what they want?
Once I figured this out, the copy came a lot faster, and after several, several drafts and going back and forth with my editor, we came up with this final version:
Elizabeth Tanner is no Tinkerbell, and her life is no fairy tale. Broke and drowning in student loans, the one thing she wants more than anything is a scholarship from the Trinity Foundation. But after the ancient Irish text she’s studying turns out to be more than just a book, she becomes their prisoner instead. And when Trinity reveals Elizabeth is half-Fae, she finds herself at the center of a plot to save the magical races of Ireland from a brutal civil war.
As Commander of Trinity’s elite warriors, Finn O’Connell isn’t used to having his authority challenged. He doesn’t know whether to punish or protect the infuriating young woman in his custody. When he discovers the Dark Fae want to use Elizabeth’s abilities to control the source of all power in the universe, he’ll risk everything to help her.
At the mercy of Trinity and enslaved to the Dark Fae, Elizabeth finds herself alone on the wrong side of an Irish myth thousands of years in the making. Refusing to be a pawn in their game, Elizabeth has to fight her way back to the man she loves, but to do so, she must wage her own war against the magic that binds her.
Even if Fae Fantasy Romance isn’t your thing, this blurb not even comparable to the original version I queried with years ago. We gave the characters goals, took out a ton of the worldbuilding, and made the focus on the the essential driving forces of Elizabeth and Finn’s combined character arcs. You will notice there are a lot fewer proper nouns and we maintained the barest hint of a much more complex magical system.
“But, Colleen!” you exclaim. “I thought this was a post about fantasy, not romance!”
Right. So let’s look at some back copy of straight-up high fantasy.
I’m reading Six of Crows right now and absolutely loving it. The world is incredibly complex, and 100 pages in, I’m only just beginning to grasp the complex magic system Bardugo weaves within this engaging novel. Here is the back copy, though:
Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price–and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…
A convict with a thirst for revenge.
A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.
A runaway with a privileged past.
A spy known as the Wraith.
A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.
A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.
Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz’s crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.
We have setting first to establish we are in some place other than planet Earth. But then we move immediately into character…and then more characters…and then even more characters. We have a goal—“the heist”—but it becomes clear the core conflict lies within these characters themselves.
Check out the simplicity in the focus of character in the current back cover copy for The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss:
The riveting first-person narrative of a young man who grows to be the most notorious magician his world has ever seen. From his childhood in a troupe of traveling players, to years spent as a near-feral orphan in a crime- ridden city, to his daringly brazen yet successful bid to enter a legendary school of magic, The Name of the Wind is a masterpiece that transports readers into the body and mind of a wizard. It is a high-action novel written with a poet’s hand, a powerful coming-of-age story of a magically gifted young man, told through his eyes: to read this book is to be the hero.
Okay, firstly, I would definitely not describe your book to agents as a “masterpiece” (lolz), but I’m using this example to demonstrate that again, in spite of the incredible world and magic systems Rothfuss creates, the pitch to readers remains focused on the character and his journey.
So as you go forth revising your queries, take some time to read as much back cover copy as possible and start identifying where marketers place this key information:
- Who is the main character? And I mean on a most fundamental level, who is this person?
- What does this person want? What is their goal?
- Who or what stands in their way? (the central conflict)
- And what will happen if they don’t get it? (the stakes)
Keep the focus on your character’s journey and discover a way to organize this information to keep your narrative clear and uncluttered by extraneous information. It might feel like the story is the world, but think of your characters as the guides who will lead us into the magic you’ve created.
Discover THROUGH THE VEIL for yourself…