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April 21, 2011

“What’s Your Book About?”

Forked road

Do you dread that question?  If you tell the cashier at the grocery store you’re a writer and they ask what your book is about, do you have an answer?

All writers who want readers have to be able to answer that question.  Whether it’s our brother-in-law at a holiday dinner or an agent at a writer’s conference, we need to be able to describe our story—accurately.

Nathan Bransford gives advice on being able to describe our book in different lengths.  We might use a one sentence logline to answer our nosy neighbor, while a one paragraph description might make a good verbal elevator pitch, and a two paragraph description might form the basis of a query letter.

But what does that “accurately” mean?  The fabulous Diane Holmes of Pitch University (a ridiculously helpful resource for everything related to pitches—you must check it out) wrote a post about pitches that mislead.

Ah, now that makes sense.  We can probably all think of some book where the back cover copy made us think it was going to be an “A” kind of story and instead it turned out to be a “Z-squared in an alternate universe” kind of story.  And just like our reaction to that bait-and-switch, agents and editors (or readers in general) don’t appreciate it either.

In her post, Diane gives four examples of pitches from the same book, Tell No One by Harlan Coben.  The examples all give facts about the story, but they each imply a different theme, core conflict, and tone.  I’m going to copy Diane’s examples here so we can see how they each create a different impression, but you should really check out her article yourself:

  • Pitch 1: Eight years ago, Beck’s wife was abducted and murdered by a serial killer while the couple swam together at a secluded lake. Except now he begins to receive emails from her, saying things that only she could know.
  • Pitch 2: A doctor who works in a free-clinic is pursued by the police when a serial killer’s victims are discovered on his family’s land… the same serial killer who supposedly killed his wife 8 years ago.
  • Pitch 3: A billionaire must stop a man from digging into the death of his wife.
  • Pitch 4: An inner-city doctor at a free-clinic must rely on a drug dealer to stay alive as he tries to find out who framed him for murder.

It’s hard to believe those all describe the same book, isn’t it?  Some imply a different POV or even a different genre.

So how do we make sure our description gives potential readers the correct impression?  The same way we make sure the rest of our writing says what we think it says—beta readers.

We need to tell people—who have not read our story—our book description (logline, pitch, and/or query letter).  Then we ask them what kind of a story they would expect, given that description.

Did they come away with an impression that’s close to the actual story?  Does the tone match (funny/sad/serious/action-filled)?  Can they guess at the core conflict, the driving force that carries the story from inciting incident to climax?  If not, we need to make adjustments to our description.

Check out Janice Hardy’s post analyzing sentence-by-sentence how she chose the wording and elements to include in her query.  Notice how every sentence contributes to a sense of voice, character, conflict, or stakes.  Those all add up to an expectation in the mind of a reader.

I’m cringing as I’m typing this, but if we want to see how this works, you can head over to my description for The Resurrected.  Read those three paragraphs after The Resurrected‘s hook line, and then come back here and tell me in the comments what kind of story that leads you to expect.  What do you think the core conflict would be?

Are you feeling brave?  I welcome you to post your book description in the comments as well.  No, I encourage it, even if you don’t usually enjoy critiques.  *smile*   This isn’t a critique, as comments will just share what impression we got from the blurb.

What do you struggle with the most when it comes to describing your book?  Is it too long or too short?  Do you have a hard time knowing what to include or leave out?  Or do you find it difficult to capture your voice outside of a story’s narrative?  Have you ever been disappointed by a good book simply because it didn’t match your expectations?

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Laura Pauling

I liked your blurb. I’d say interally – it’s about a mom making tough choices but I’d pet the external story as more of a thriller.

And I”m reading a book right now that had blurbs that said gripping, suspenseful, funny, witty – and I love all those things in a book. But I”m more than halfway through and it’s none of those things. 🙁

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Hi :). I liked pitch 1 from the above, very good one. The other 3 are not so attractive to me.
For me it is difficult when I try to describe in a 15 words’ phrase. I try to exercise on that, but it’s difficult. I don’t have a problem with critiques. I’m just staring at the screen, trying to make it in just one phrase or two at most :D. Ok, I’ll try for one book.
“The Prophecy mentioned four unknown amulets as the catalyst to the world’s balance of power. Four immortals race against time and their worst enemy to find the amulets, before the balance turns in their enemy’s favor.”

Something like that :). Thank you for the interesting post.

Tahlia Newland

It makes me interested, but I’d like some idea of the symbolism of the amulets or the nature of the immortals. The second sentence has more a sense of action than the first too, so try starting with that one and mybe melding the two sentences together.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

@Tahlia Newland Thank you very much 🙂 A very good idea, I’ll try it.

PW Creighton

Great post Jami. Creating the condensed elevator pitch usually results in something decent but when I have to expand into a full synopsis it usually loses tone. That is where I fumble the ball most times.

Jordan

I like your pitch for The Resurrected. The genre you describe it as seems right. I’d say the tone would be reflective, becoming increasingly dark as the immortal gets involved and the external conflict deepens. I think the core conflict will be something along the lines of can she choose her family over the saving the world (something along the lines of the tag line).

Here are my pitches:
Elevator: To protect the world’s tenuous peace, a dyed-in-the-wool Soviet must choose between love and loyalty.

Full: In the midst of World War II treaty negotiations, Soviet diplomat Katya Mikhailova narrowly escapes a bomb at the gates of her Paris embassy. Frank Walters, an American spy tracking Nazi insurgents in the area, suspects they set the bomb. Frank and Katya form an uneasy alliance to catch the killers and protect their intended target: Katya’s father, the ambassador. But when her would-be killers threaten to prolong the war that left all Europe—and all Europeans—permanently scarred, Katya must decide whether she’s a good Soviet . . . or a good daughter.

(The pitch actually has helped give me better direction in revision!)

Murphy

Eek! Not a pitch challenge for the, me, the pitch challenged. 😉 Diane from Pitch University, has been kind enough to offer a hand, scratch that, a whole freaking body slam – in order to help me get my pitch out of fantasy land and put back into the contemporary romance world where it belongs. *sigh* Her exercise and the way she attacks the meaning of what you say and how you say it, is awesome.

Hey, with all the trouble I’ve had in the past with pitches – log lines, synopsis’ and such, I decided to write my synopsis and log line for my new WIP before I actually started the story. I’ve always outlined, but this time I bit the bullet and went straight for the gold. 🙂 In a strange way, I feel like the tough part is over. I know now what I have to deliver and I’m making sure that I do just that.

Great post, Jami!

Murphy

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

I like the pitch for The Resurrected…gives a good impression of genre, story arc, the grand obstacle to success, stakes and the prime antagonist.

Pretty much everything that Kristen Lamb, Bob Mayer and Randy Ingermanson talk about as the essential elements of a log line or brief summary statement.

Here’s mine for my WIP, still working on it, not the final form yet: A one-time enemy of the state is awakened from imprisonment to save humanity from devastation at the hands of his one time warden.

Still needs work, I know, but one never progresses without exposure 🙂

Thanks for another thought provoking post Jami!

Piper Bayard

About this time last year, I hired a local writing coach to teach me this very thing when I was on my way to the DFW conference. I’m so glad I did, because when she asked me what my book was about, I gave her the ten minute short version. Lol. I was bad. Really bad. When I met Kristen Lamb, she was expounding on the formula for a great pitch. Protag + verb + antag + goal. That’s why Pitch 4 gets my vote. Great post!

Ellie Ann

The Resurrected sounds like a thriller, with deep and interesting themes about family and sacrifice. It sounds good!
Thanks for this great post, and your comments, it gives me a lot to think about.
My next-to-an-agent-in-a-bathroom-stall pitch 😉
Demas, a nobleman’s son, is sold as a slave to his worst enemy in order to find the lost Prophecy of Rob.

Prem Rao

Jami, thanks for a great post. Shorter the description, harder it is to describe!!

Nigel Blackwell

Hi Jami. Congratulations on having a book ready (and one almost). You’re very brave putting your work out for comment like this. 🙂 I’m really into log lines and summarizing the plot/characters before starting the 100k slog. It’s so much easier to play around with one (or two) sentences than 100k! The log line gives me a sense of purpose when I write (what I write’s a completely different thing-lol). It might be just me, but as written The Resurrected’s log line implies the mother lets her family die to save the world, end of story. That’s not a very like-able protag (which might be your intention?) and/but there is no doubt what happens at the end of the line: she saves the world and her family dies. It’s all a forgone conclusion before we start to read the novel. But, the last paragraph of your summary says “endanger,” which implies there’s hope they survive. That’s A LOT more exciting. Will she risk them in the first place? Will she overcome (unknown?) obstacles and save them? That’s a long way from the clear cut conclusion of the log line and (to me) is a stronger hook. As Piper said, I think a log line is best when it defines the protag, the obstacle they face in their conflict with the antag, and what’s at stake if they fail. The “what’s at stake” bit gives the line (and by extension the book) excitement. Having said all that, it might not be…  — Read More »

Diane Holmes

Jami! What a kick-butt article, and I’m just awfully delighted to be included in your article. 🙂 I’ll make sure to feature this in our newsletter. We love ya, Jami.

Rachel Firasek

I love this post! Okay, I’ve loved that story line for a while, you know that, but here is what I think the book will be like:

A very emotional, heart wrenching power struggle between good & evil. I’m not sure if it will have enough grit for UF, but it’s hard to tell from the paragraphs.

There you go. How’d I do?

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Wow!!! I’m a day late, but I’m soooo glad I stopped by to read this post.
Just yesterday my crt partners and I were mulling over a logline for one of our members books. So this info you provided is fabulous and I’ll be sending my ladies here for a look.
I’ll be sure to check out the links you added too. Thank you for offering them!!
LOVE this blog, Jami!!! Really and truly love it.
Have a fabulous day!
Tamara

TJ Hollingsworth

Great post. I’ve been mulling over this very subject for days now, trying to cram everything in one small sentence. You know, for when Grandma calls and asks “What’s your book about? Are you famous yet? Can I recommend it to my prayer group?” Ummm, no?
Anywhoo, this is what I’ve come up with so far;

Clone bounty hunter goes rogue to clear her name of treason in post apocolyptic America.

Another common call from grandma “You’re not writing one of those trashy romance novels are you? The kind with sex in it?” Uuhhh, no?

Maryanne Fantalis

Jami, after reading your blurbs, I want to read your books! I would say The Resurrected blurb makes me expect a paranormal (the immortal bent on world domination) with a love/hate romanctic element (why is SHE the key to his plan? and if she’s married, what will happen between these clearly powerful, clashing lead characters and their inevitable sexual tension?). I’m in! 🙂

I have been struggling with figuring out how best to express my first person narrator’s voice in my query. In the synopsis, judicious use of carefully selected quotes solved this problem, but in a two paragraph query, this doesn’t seem to be an option. Any ideas out there?

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Hello Jami,

It wouldn’t be fair to comment on your book since I’ve read some of it already, but all I can tell your blog readers is, “It’s way cool.” I know you know my log line and pitch since we’ve discussed it, but if others want to comment on it, I’d love to hear their input. Great blog and interaction with followers.

Log line – A time traveling scientist must kill his racist benefactor before he gives Hitler the secrets to winning World War II.

John Richter is a German-born American-raised science prodigy that uses nanotechnology to develop time travel. When John “jumps forward” one hour into the future, he finds himself in an alternate universe. Unknown to him, his benefactor Mark Brandt has “jumped back” to the late 1930’s and joined forced with Adolph Hitler to win World War II and annihilate almost all undesirables. Now, John must figure out how to travel back to the 1930’s, track down Mark Brandt, and kill him before he hooks up with Hitler.

Thanks again for all your help Jami. You rock.

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

I like very much the pitch and the summary.
The only thing that I have a question mark is the “racist” characterization, which is absent from the summary. As for “benefactor”, maybe is not needed.
But the pitch and especially the summary, makes me want to read more 🙂 Very well done.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Thanks Irene – I see what you’re talking about on the lack of repetition regarding the racism, which is a major part of the story. The main reason I left this out of the summary is because I had already mentioned it in the log line. The benefactor is mainly for irony. Regardless, I need to think about both your points and determine how to adjust my log line/summary. Thanks so much for your comments.

Tahlia Newland

This is such an important area. I find that sometimes book blurbs focus too much on the plot details and not enough on the main point of the story.

I have blurbs of different lengths. Here’s my 50 word one. My beta readers have said that it does express the story, but I’m always trying to refine my blurb to give as much of the flavour of the story as I can.

‘Ariel enters a hidden layer of reality to rescue her mother from demons who feed on fear. While battling treacherous terrain, demons and self-doubt, she must learn how to harness the power of her mind and deal with Nick, a Warrior whose power is more than she, or he, can handle.’

A longer version is here http://tahlianewland.com/the-novel/whats-it-about/

Tahlia Newland

I forgot to say that I liked your blurbs, Jami. Both books sound interesting. They give me a sense that there’s depth to the theme. Not sure why.

Susan Kelly
Susan Kelly

Hi, Jami,

Resurrection sounds like a very interesting book! I see the women’s fiction element (family, self-improvement) and the paranormal (immortal, destroy-the-world). I’m curious to see how you make those elements work together, because they seem sort of antithetical — the women’s fiction will be all relationship drama, and the paranormal is all existential drama. Thinking about the point where those two will have to come together gives me tingles up and down my spine! My guess is the central conflict will appear to be Colette against the immortal but in the end it will be Colette against herself.

Great post, thank you!

Lisa Gail Green

I struggle with this more than anything else (except maybe synopses). I find writing the book is easier! But these are EXCELLENT points to keep in mind when working on it!

Carradee

On “The Resurrected”, I like the concept, but the pitch doesn’t seem entirely coherent to me. By the time I get to the revelation that it’s a fantasy, I’m already expecting a general fiction novel.

Personally, I have multiple short pitches, depending on if I think my listener is actually interested in what I write. Someone who’s just asking because “Oh, cool, this little girl’s writing a book” (I look like a teen), I give the tame description, focusing on the fantasy elements that I expect to lose the listener’s interest. I’m usually right.

If somebody’s interested in “dark”-themed fantasy, I’ll give the “real” description. That often leads to a discussion about Christianity and and “dark” topics or Christianity and fantasy.

Mary Elizabeth

Great post, Jami! I love reading your blog. Also, I’m thrilled that your main character in RESURRECTED is a con artist, because my protag is one as well. 😉 That being said, our stories do have some significant differences. Here’s my story’s elevator pitch:

Julep Dupree is not a real person—or rather, Julep is not her real name. She’s a grifter, a con artist, and an expert forger. She’s also a sophomore at St. Agatha High. Her classmates turn to her when they need something done, and she charges a respectable sum for her services. But when her father goes missing while running a con of his own, Julep must tap all her resources and use every grift in the book to find him and keep herself out of foster care in the process.

Of course, if random people are just asking The Dreaded Question, I simply respond with, “It’s a story about a girl on the grift.” 🙂

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[…] mandatory read is from Jami Gold called “What’s Your Book About?” Here she’s discussing the all important tagline or blurb that sells your book. Those few […]

kittyb78

Here is mine:

Seventeen year old Kaitlin Sinclair is about to have her world completely turned upside down when she makes a discovery, that endangers Cadmon’s peoples’ existence and might cost her life.

Narrowing it down to one sentence was tough!

kittyb78

Here is the full blurb:

After losing her father in the line of duty, the last thing seventeen year old Kaitlin Sinclair wants to do is fly halfway around the world to live with an uncle she’s never met. She certainly doesn’t want to get to know the locals… That is until she’s enchanted by some of the legends about the natives. She heads into the jungle and makes a startling discovery that could put both her heart and her life in peril.

Cadmon Quinn is a Borneo shifter, charged with the task of keeping his people safe from the local hostiles. To say he’s unhappy when he discovers one traipsing about his people’s land is an understatement. Too bad no one warned him she would prove to be more of a challenge than he’d expected. One that could jeopardize his people’s existence and his heart.

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