Friday, October 1, 2010

But what's the book ABOUT?

If I were the sort of person who believes in bad omens, yesterday’s flat tire might’ve seemed like a foreboding start to my very first writers’ conference.

Fortunately, I didn’t take it that way. Much.

Admittedly I was a bit frazzled by the time I walked into the event touted as “librarian speed dating” – a chance for romance authors to meet with librarians from around the Seattle area and let them know why they should consider buying our books. Though no no one said this outright, I suspected headlocks were not the appropriate method of persuasion.

The preferred method was a simple question from the librarian that goes like this:

What’s your book about?

It’s amazing how hard it can be to answer succinctly in one or two sentences. The temptation is to want to throw in as much detail as possible – the character names, the subplots, the inciting incidents, the name of the main character’s dog. Even in a roomful of published authors who presumably know their way around the English language, I heard a lot of “ums” and “kind ofs.” Not all of them were coming from me.

I was fortunate that earlier in the week, I had a telephone brainstorm session with one of my critique partners. She’s going through some gnarly revisions on a challenging book with several plotlines and four points of view, and was having trouble seeing the forest for the trees. When I asked her to break down the “what’s your book about?” question in two sentences, you would have thought I asked her to touch her eyelid with her tongue.

But it was a good exercise to nail down the core of the story. What’s the central idea that everything else revolves around? The temptation is to give a longer, rambling answer – something like this big block of text we’ve been using online and on a few random print pieces for MAKING WAVES:

Juli lost count of the number of jobs she’s held, but she definitely never applied to be a pirate. Or a stowaway on a pirate ship, for that matter. But when fate lands her on boat captained by Alex – a man whose unscrupulous boss kicked him to the curb after 20 faithful years – Juli finds herself in the middle of a revenge-fueled diamond heist in the Caribbean with a crew more suited to the boardroom than the poop deck. For his part, Alex didn’t plan to be a pirate, either. He just wants his dignity, pension, and normal life back. But normal flies out the window once Juli enters the picture – a twist Alex wishes he didn’t find so exhilarating. Soon, the two discover that while normal is nice, weird can be wonderful.

While that certainly answers the “what’s the book about?” question, it’s not the breezy one or two sentence summation I’m talking about here. It’s not succinct or conversational, and it doesn’t truly break it down to the bare bones.

What I ended up telling the librarians was something more like this:

Alex’s sleazy boss kicks him to the curb and steals his pension, so he and three colleagues head to the Caribbean to intercept the boss’s illegal diamond shipment in the most dysfunctional pirate mission in history. Things get complicated when Juli – who’s supposed to be dumping her dead uncle’s ashes at sea – has an allergic reaction to seasickness pills and accidentally stows away on their boat.

It’s shorter, it’s conversational, and hopefully prompts someone to ask the question “so then what?”

I’m not claiming I rattled that off without stammering or rambling, but just having it clarified in my head not only helped me feel like I know my own book, but that someone else might want to know it, too.

Are you able to sum up your own story in one or two sentences? Is it tempting to want to throw in too much detail, or do you have trouble zeroing in on the central idea?

I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

I’d also love it if someone could come out here and fix my @#$% tire. Anyone? Anyone?


Linda G. said...

What you told the librarians sums up MAKING WAVES perfectly. The only thing that would have perked my interest more, had I been one of said librarians, is if you'd mentioned a certain purple appliance. ;)

As for summarizing my own in just a few sentences...ack. *runs away*

lora96 said...

Babe, I can't say Good Morning in two sentences.

The only time I tried to sound bite my WiP I ended up veering into disclaimers such as, "She hears voices but she is NOT insane. My main character is not crazy it's not about a mental institution or anything, I promise." Which was, you know, really appealing.

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow Tanwa, what a great summary for a crazy story, and you're right the point does seem to be to get someone to ask "then what?" A little like a query, but also so different because you have less time, less room, and it needs to sound different since it must be said in conversation.

Now, just because I understand and agree, doesn't mean I have even an inkling as to how I would even begin doing this for my own novel. I should probably finish rewriting it first though.

Today's guest blogger in Christina Lee!

Génette Wood said...

I've tried summing mine up in two sentences. It doeesn't work. Any time someone asks me what my book is about, it starts with, "Um...a bunch of kids in boarding school and this secret society, that's like, a myth or something."

It didn't help that I couldn't remember what my plot was by the time I finished writing it in May.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Tawna, honestly, I'm not worried about you. You have it handled! You're a funny, sharp lady and I'm sure the librarians were swayed by your siren book descriptions. And there's always that headlock if the two sentences don't work out.

Danica Avet said...

This part of the writing process always kills me. Some people can take their stories from logline, to query, to synopsis. Some can go from synopsis, to query, to logline. I go, query, logline, synopsis. It's a mess and it drives me crazy in spite of the workshops I've taken on it, lol. But that's vital at conferences.

Patty Blount said...

Ask me for 6 pages, I can have them for you by lunch time. Ask me for 6 sentences and I will sweat rivers writing feverishly for hours upon hours, trying to find the right words to distill a whole novel into a paragraph.

I currently have a dozen versions of my query. Gah!

But I CAN tell you what SEND is about in a single sentence. I worked on this um, pretty much all summer.

Are you ready? (clears throat)

SEND is a story about a former cyber-bully who changes schools and his name to escape the suicide he caused only to fall in love with a girl he does not realize is his victim's sister.

I have to agree with Sierra; I'm sure you charmed the pants off the librarians. Or at least, the cardigans. :)

Unknown said...

I've been to a few conferences and I always try to have the "pitch" ready. Unfortunately, I "um" and "ah" and make myself crazy. When it comes right down to it, I try to initiate a conversation about my book, that makes the pitch that much easier.

Nicole Zoltack said...

I have one liners that describe the plot of my two stories. It took me forever to make those sentences work. I hate loglines almost as much as I hate queries. And I absolutely loath queries.

Michelle Wolfson said...

about 5 minutes before I read this, I sent a description off to a conference I'm going to for a pitch session I'm running. I'm totally going to steal from this post. I think the biggest mistake people make is relying on their fancy query sentences or other fancy but complicated to listen to phrases. Make it conversational is the best pitch advice I've seen in a while. Also, stop at a point that leads to folow up questions (to keep pitchee engaged) is great too.

Bet you wowed those librarians!

Michelle Wolfson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terry said...

WHAT!!!!!!!!!!!! We have to get it down to 2 lines???????? lol I did manage a one minute pitch but I don't know about 2 lines. I've always heard if you can't describe your story in one sentance you don't have a handle on your story. See 2 lines would make that so much easier!!!!! lol As always you rock and because you do we will all have an easier time of it! Thanks!

Elisabeth Black said...

YES I CAN. One sentence, even. Booyah. (it took me like two hours)

Elisabeth Black said...

P.S. Your book sounds fun.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to sound off - the big paragraph made me feel - OK, I'll read this book because she's my chapter mate, it is a contemporary romance, and I like her blog.

However - the 2 line librarian pitch has me salivating and my fingers grasping to get my hands on it. :)

Delia said...

Yes, I can. Since it's not done yet, it's not doing me much good right now. But when it's done, I'm ready. Also, I agree with Elisabeth that your book sounds fun, and I really want to read Patty Blount's.

The Merry said...

Makes me want to flip the book open and start reading :)

Dr. Goose said...


You do so well in summing up your book in two sentences. Can you do it with the story of your life?

Deborah Small said...

Making Waves sounds delightful. I can't wait to read the book. :)

Summarizing a story is challenging. After years, I finally boiled one of mine down to one sentence:

Everything That Matters is an Edwardian era novel about a disgraced British debutante determined to reclaim the titled life she was born to, and the Texas rancher equally determined to claim her.

And sorry, I'm not good with tires. Hope that's resolved soon.

Take care,

Juvenal2010 said...

Perhaps we should write the crux of the story a Tweet. Can we make compact, irresistable descriptions of our tales? This is 140 characters.

The Novel Road said...

I'm reminded that writing is not the only profession subjugated to expedient replys. A politician lives by the "10 word answer". Newspapers sell papers based on headlines as much as content.

My personal dilemma is how to split describing characters and plot in a short answer.

Love the way you came through it. Your answer was fantastic at the spur of the moment.


Sheena Simpson said...

Okay, I don't even know what genre I write. I'm suppose to describe the story in two sentences?!

That's it I am throwing the computer away, and going to go snuggle with my kids on the sofa. At least they say I'm a writer. (Although coming out of the younger two it just sounds like rider-which has made for some awkward pauses.)

arbraun said...

I can actually tell what's it's about it one very short sentence. I don't understand why people want me to draw it out and draw it out.

NCLiterary said...

Hey Tawna!

I so loved reading this post. Both because keeping it conversational is great advice, and also because your book sounds like all kinds of awesome. Can't wait to pick up a copy come August!


Christi Goddard said...

Your book sounds unsurprisingly hilarious. As for my pitch, I think I've got it down, but it was insanely hard to narrow it down to the core.

Kristen Painter said...

I usually tell people it's like Memoirs of a Geisha meets Underworld.

Michelle Wolfson said...

Not to hijack Tawna's post here but I think one of the things that makes this task so hard to do is to boil it down into something compact without taking out everything that makes your book different.

Deborah, sorry to single you out, but I think you've made yours sound a drop too generic. If you say it's a romance, we know they'll end up together so to say he's equally determined to claim her tells us nothing really about him. Why not give us some interesting tidbit about the rancher?

And the British deb-how about something about whatever landed her in such disgrace in the 1st place. A British debutante from that time period was most likely titled and we can guess she might want to reclaim it--I think you're better off showing something that describes a little of the personality of your characters.

Deborah Small said...


Thank you for hijacking Tawna's post! (Thank you Tawna for understanding :))

M...I appreciate your suggestions and the opportunity to rework my pitch. Back to the drawing board. :)


Patty Blount said...

Delia just totally made my day! :)

Jan Markley said...

I love the idea of authors pitching to librarians! And you're right, you never stop pitching!

Lindsey @ FRESH AIR + FRESH FOOD said...

Laura F. just introduced me to your blog and I'm thrilled! Therefore, I'm your newest Follower! I look forward to all your tips and trials. Hope someone offered to fix your tire too. If not, call Les Schwab!

Claire Dawn said...

I'm sure every author knows this. Summarising is the hardest thing. That question is a killer. And it's the one thing everybody wants to know...


Awww, thanks so much for the kind words and wonderful discussion in the comments. I'm still on the road and scrambling to get home, so I apologize once more for being a bit behind on my usual habit of responding to everyone in the comments. Hats off to Michelle for hijacking the post -- everyone should hang on her every word here, since my lovely and talented agent has probably heard a pitch or two in her time.

Thanks again for keeping the discussion going so beautifully as I've been distracted by conference prep and travel. I promise to hop back to it as soon as I'm back home and settled!

Thanks for reading, guys!


Unknown said...

Okay, my attempt at 2 sentences. I'll try not to create a run-on sentence here.

My main character is bored for the summer and, while awaiting high school to start, he takes a walk into the forest and stumbles into an alternate world where a dragon gives him a stone if he'll help her free her fellow dragons from an unknown dragon-napper. He starts to display magic of his own but must not let anyone in his world know about it because the dragon-napper may have spies anywhere and he could endanger his friends if he is caught.

I believe this is a pair of run-on sentances and I wouldn't be able to say even one of them in one breath!

Laura Maylene said...

I'm working on this, too. I'm determined that when someone asks "What's your book about?" that I can to stop stammering and offer a few concise sentences. Of course, it takes work and practice (but what doesn't?).

This is for my novel in progress. My short story collection, however, is a different animal. How do you offer a concise summary of a book of totally unrelated stories that vary in style and subject matter? I do have a few stock things to say about overarching themes, etc., but in general I just keep stammering.

デコログ said...


露出 said...