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?Pin It