The Art of the Book Blurb

Hey everyone,

The Art of the Book Blurb. What can I say? It’s probably the hardest thing to do: compress the essence of your book into 150 words or less, open with a hook, and end on a cliffhanger. A challenge, for sure.

The main purpose of a book blurb is simple. It’s supposed to introduce your characters; set the stage for the main conflict, establish the stakes, and convince readers that this book is a perfect match for their reading interests. Not quite so simple to implement, however.

I’ve read a lot of book blurbs. Some give away too much. You read the blurb and you feel like you’ve already read the book. Others promise and don’t deliver. You pick up the book based on the blurb and the story is nothing like the promise. So disappointing. And others sell the book short! The book’s been recommended by a friend, you pick it up and read the milk-toast book blurb. On that basis alone you wouldn’t go any further. But because you friend recommended it, you plow forward, delighted to discover that that the book is a gem!

My book blurbs took hours and hours of work. I came up with the tag lines quickly, almost as if I were taking dictation:

Due Date

Surrogate mother Shelby McDougall just fell for the biggest con of all — a scam that risks her life … and the lives of her unborn twins.

The Stork

Shelby McDougall’s past is behind her. Almost.

The Found Child

Private Investigator Shelby McDougall is out for revenge.

But the rest of the blurb didn’t come so easily. I wrote and rewrote, asking friends to read and reread. I wish I had kept some of those earlier revisions to see how the blurb evolved. I do remember that the earlier versions, written quickly, off the cuff, suggested plot points that never panned out, though basic characterizations and motivations remained throughout the evolution of the blurb. I also remember trying to keep the word count down, agonizing over word choices, and debating on how much to reveal. Truly an art.

I invite you to think about book blurbs the next time you pick up a book. What draws you? What puts you off? Can a book blurb make or break your decision about opening a book?

That’s it for today!

Until next time,


PS If you get a chance, check out my publisher’s newly designed website. I love it! The site will provide a lot more flexibility on the back end and will allow direct sales. I’m thinking book bundles. Can’t wait!

Writing tips: Dialog

Hey everyone,

One bit of feedback I get pretty regularly from readers is that the dialog in the Shelby McDougall series works. I think this means that readers find the dialog natural, with a cadence and rhythm that mirrors the way people actually talk. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve learned a few things about dialog:

  • Avoid expository dialog. That is dialog that explains what’s happening. Dialog that provides backstory. Dialog that reveals plot points. I found a great blog post on this: How to Write (and Not Write) Expository Dialog.
  • Be sparing with dialog tags, those pesky little words like “said,” “asked,” or “explained.” They’re easy to overuse and they can really slow down a scene. In my case, I try to keep it simple, avoiding words like “chuckled,” “exclaimed,” or “shouted.” (I know I don’t do this all the time!) A good post on this: Dialog Tags: What Are They and How To Use Them
  • Keep it natural. Use contractions. Use character names occasionally. Avoid fillers like “Well” or “Let’s see”.
  • Leave things unsaid. This is the hardest thing. What can be left out but inferred with gestures, glances, container, or movement?

Here’s an example of dialog from The Found Child, the most recent book in the series. I enjoyed writing this scene. Shelby has just arrived at her brother’s home and she’s hanging out on the front porch with her niece, Annie (12) and nephew, Max (4). Max has set up an elaborate Hot Wheels track while Annie is reading.

   “Very cool, Max,” I said. Looking at Annie, I asked, “How are you?” I reached over to give her a hug, happy I was part of their family bubble.
   “Good,” she picked up a book sitting on the porch next to her and waved it at me. “I’m already ahead in my reading list for school.”
   “Excellent,” I replied. “That’s great. What are you reading?”
   “It’s called Stars Beneath Our Feet and it’s about some kids in Harlem who like to build things. It’s good,” she added, “but I like adventure books better.”
   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.
   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barreled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.” I smiled at him, while saying to Annie, “You want to talk about it?”

What I like in this exchange was that I was able to manage a conversation between three people of different ages. And now, several months after publication, I, of course, can see lots of ways to improve this short section.

In these three paragraphs alone, I could probably remove all the dialog tags (said, asked, sighed) with no loss to the flow of the conversation.

   “That sounds interesting,” I said. “How’s school going anyway?” I asked.
   Her tone grew serious. “It’s okay,” she sighed.
   “How’s Olivia?” I asked.

In these two paragraphs…

   Annie scowled. “She’s fine, I guess.” I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. Max barrelled past, turquoise car in one hand, yellow in the other.
   “Watch, Aunt Shelby, watch.”

…the paragraph break is in the wrong place. The break should be before “Max barrelled past…” with the dialog attributable to him (the four-year-old) in the same paragraph. Well, that’s the beauty of hindsight!

Dialog is a tricky thing and definitely takes a lot of practice. Here’s a great post on how to learn to write dialog from my writing mentor, Mary Carroll Moore: Dialog Do’s and Don’ts: Crafting Lively and Believable Back-and-Forth on the Pages of Your Book.

Until next time,


Writing tips: Setting

Hey everyone,

For starters, happy new year! I, for one, am looking forward to 2021 with hope and optimism. 2020 felt like a very long year, in so many ways, and I am so glad it’s behind us. I’m wishing everyone reading this my sincerest wishes for a wonderful 2021.

It’s the first Monday of the month, so it’s a “Writing tips” blog post. Today, I’m talking about setting. For me, the setting is as critical as plot or character. In fact, when I was identifying storylines for The Found Child (see my post called “Writing tips: Storyline”), I pulled out the setting as one of the themes. Setting not only provides texture to a book, it also provides clues to a character’s inner and outer lives. Setting can be used to create tension. And, most importantly, it adds emotion.

Setting allows a reader to get inside a character’s head. It allows the reader to notice what the character is noticing. That external environment can reflect the character’s emotions. For example, in the first book in the Shelby McDougall series, Due Date, surrogate mom Shelby moves into an isolated cottage on the property belonging to the intended parents. I paid careful attention to the setting: the open expanse of meadow behind the cottage, the forest on the far side of the meadow, the meadow grasses, the breeze, the clouds and sky. Sunrises and sunsets. Rain and storms. I wanted to convey the vastness of her surroundings and how uncomfortable she felt living in that vastness. It kept her on edge and provided tension in the story.

Setting on a smaller scale can also provide tension and emotional impact. For example, in the various action scenes in the series, I tried to insert specific elements to allow Shelby to be in the action, inside her head, but also provide enough description to allow the reader to know what was happening externally. In The Stork, when Shelby is taken captive at gunpoint, I added texture to the scene through setting: I wrote about the trees, the birds calling, how the light was falling on the redwood canopy, the smells, and how small puffs of dust were kicked up with each step. I wanted her to notice the external world to slow down the scene and heighten her fear.

On a larger scale, I also used setting to convey atmosphere and location. I wanted to convey what makes Shelby’s area of the world unique. I found that to be easy on one level, and incredibly difficult on another. For example, the beach. What makes a beach unique? There’s the water, the waves, the shore, rocks, the sand. I had to dig, to come up with words and phrases to create a particular beach at a particular time of day in a particular place.

As I wrote these books, I discovered how easy it is to overuse setting. I’ve found that in early drafts of my books, and when I was first starting out as a writer, that I overused setting on a fairly consistent basis. Too much setting, too much detail, grinds a perfectly good scene to a dead stop. And I could only discern that overuse after letting a draft sit for a while. Sometimes, it would take several rewrites to see it. In some cases, my beta readers pointed it out.

What was most interesting to me was how setting became more intuitive as I grew as a writer. At first, I just thought of setting as location, placing the story in time and space. But as my skills improved, I was able to see setting in a different way, as a tool for emotion. When my writing coach, Mary Carroll Moore, read an early draft of Due Date, she was able to point out specific examples of how setting was well used, overused, or could be inserted for emotional impact. So helpful! To give you an idea of what I learned from her, check out her blog post called “Setting: The Best Way to Get Emotion into Your Stories”.

Until next time,


Writing tips: Storylines

Hey everyone,

One of the most fun exercises I went through in my writing process was teasing out the storylines and weaving them together. I learned this technique from my writing mentor Mary Carroll Moore. Mary calls these storylines “themes”, and talks about them in her book on writing called Your Book Starts Here. After writing the first five drafts of The Found Child, I finally felt I knew the book well enough to identify the themes, the glue. The process that turns a manuscript into a book.

Surprisingly, these storylines didn’t leap out at me at immediately. I had to dig and ferret out what was behind the words. I knew the plot inside and out, I thought the book read well, and I thought my character, Shelby, grew and was transformed during the novel. But I was missing something: that cohesive whole.

Mary points out that themes don’t surface until they are good and ready. You can write and rewrite, but until you know the kernel your book is structured around, it won’t have that magic of a robust, multi-layered book. And it’s a chicken and egg thing: the themes won’t be revealed until you reach a certain point in the life of the book. And the book won’t fit together until you know the themes.

But curiously, as I wrote and rewrote, I realized I had created pointers to my themes without even realizing it. Shelby’s miscarriages. Revenge. Her multi-faceted relationship with her brother and her best friend Megan. Her separation from her husband. When I studied all these pointers, I identified the major theme as a person growing into wholeness, coming full circle.

Once I identified the main theme, I was able to break it into the storylines that revealed the main theme and moved the story, and Shelby’s journey, forward. I had seven storylines:

  • Home life 
  • Revenge
  • Work life
  • The twins Shelby gave up for adoption
  • Crystal (one of the cases Shelby is working on)
  • Little lab (a biotech lab Shelby tracks down in her quest for revenge)
  • Shelby’s genetic offspring

In addition, I identified backstory and setting as additional parts of the manuscript I wanted to know more about. Not quite themes, but definitely integral to showing Shelby’s inner and outer lives.

What I did next was a deep dive into those themes. In a file separate from the manuscript, one for each storyline, I followed the arc of that theme from beginning to end. Then, I opened the manuscript. I color coded each paragraph: for example, pink for setting, orange for backstory, blue for home life, yellow for work life, red for revenge.

Here’s a sample of that coding from an early version of Chapter 1:

As you can imagine, that took a long time. Then, I created a spreadsheet and, for every page in the manuscript, noted what themes appeared on what page. By examining the entire spreadsheet, across manuscript pages, I could see where storylines, or themes, fell out. I could make adjustments to pacing, to the reveal of Shelby’s inner and outer lives, to tension.

I was able to get a window into what I had written.

Here’s an example of the spreadsheet:

This technique might not be for everyone, but I was really amazed by how much it improved the structure of my manuscript. If you think it’s too much work, I suggest giving it a try on just a few chapters. You might be surprised by what you discover.

Until next time,


Writing tips: Plotting

Hey everyone,

As I wrote The Found Child, I spent a lot of time thinking about different plots. As I’ve mentioned before, I wanted to get Shelby from Point A to Point B, but, at first, had no idea how to do that. I needed plots and subplots that would fit with her character, fit with her history, be suspenseful, and make sense to the reader.

When I first started working on the book several years ago, I spent months hashing out the general storyline. I had a few basics I wanted to stick with: a Santa Cruz County-based setting. Shelby as a fully-accredited private investigator. Shelby as a small business owner. Shelby as a good sister, involved in her brother’s life. And, in order to create internal tension, I wanted Shelby to be struggling in her home life. I also knew that Shelby’s story had to come full circle (that’s all I say on that topic, I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who haven’t read it yet.)

Once I found my plot and got started, I also added and discarded subplots. I imagine this happens to every writer; you go down one path and find that it doesn’t work, have to backtrack, and take out all references to those actions. Of course, the problem is that remnants of old subplots get left in and missed on subsequent reads. For example, a phone call that’s critical in one version of the manuscript but makes no sense in another. An assumption Shelby makes, based on a conversation that was removed from a subsequent version manuscript. And so on.

I didn’t have the luxury of a continuity editor (what a fun job that would be), and, as these subplot changes came as I was deep into writing the manuscript, I often found myself at a loss as to how to track everything that was added or discarded. I didn’t come up with a good system at the time, but on reflection came up with an idea that might help. A simple tip just in time for NaNoWriMo!

Each time you think to yourself, “Wow, that’s a great plot twist,” take a few minutes to open up a spreadsheet, write down the manuscript version, the chapter, and the idea. Write down the characters involved, their actions, and the areas of the manuscript that need to be fleshed out to make this plot twist work. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough to jog your memory. Just enough for you to be able to trace back and forth to figure out what you did. Believe me, I wish I’d done that as I was writing. It would have saved me a lot of time in the final edits.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Until next time,