Five Ways to Describe Your Story

It can be surprisingly hard to describe your own book. As Neil Gaiman wrote (I’m pretty sure it was Neil Gaiman), the only way to describe a story is to tell the story. That’s true, but you can’t always pull out a manuscript and read the whole thing when somebody asks, “what’s it about?”

When you set out to prepare a book description, keep these three questions in mind:

  1. WHO am I communicating with?
  2. WHAT do I hope to accomplish?
  3. WHAT FORMAT does such a communication usually take?

Number 3 is the biggest challenge, because we aren’t familiar with most of these forms until we’ve been in the industry for a while. We are familiar with jacket copy, so everything ends up sounding like jacket copy. But jacket copy is one format, with a different audience and motive than a query letter or press release.

Here are some (but not all) of the ways you should be prepared to describe your story.

The elevator speech is the 11-second pitch line you’ll use to entice casually interested people you talk to at parties, booksellers, waiters, etc. You could say the audience is “anyone who asks.” The form is usually a sentence that goes like this “It’s about [character or characters] who has [this adventure].” Or perhaps, “It’s about [this place] where [this happens].” That’s it. And here is the best kept secret in elevatorspeechdom: Your goal is not to convince that person to immediately get on their iPhone Kindle app and download your book. Your goal is to answer the question and not make them sorry they asked. If your book is for them, they’ll ask follow up questions.

The jacket copy is an extension of the elevator speech. It is the text on the inside flap or back of the book that tells people how awesome the book is. You will also use it on websites, fliers, bookmarks, etc.

To be honest, you might not need to write it… if you sell your book, somebody might write it for you (though they might want your help). On the other hand, thinking about how your book will ultimately be packaged and sold is a good idea. You can even imagine jacket copy as you write the book, to help find the salable angle of the book and give it proper attention in the writing.

But here might be the best kept secret in jacketcopydom: Your goal is not to convince everybody who picks up the book that they ought to buy the book. Your goal is to make it clear to the readers who WILL love it that it’s the book they’re looking for. There is considerable freedom (in both writing jacket copy and writing manuscripts) when you realize you don’t have to please everybody. You just have to please the people who are inclined to be pleased by it.

The query letter is a one-to-three paragraph description of your book that will interest an agent in requesting the full copy. And here is perhaps the best kept secret in querydom:  Agents don’t ask for the manuscript because they want to find out what happens. They ask for the manuscript because it seems like a well-written book that they can sell to an editor.

Many authors try the cliffhanger approach: Janelle will have an astonishing revelation that will change everybody’s lives forever. Bill will be faced with a terrible decision. The monsters are on the way, but will Solax find the laser weapon in time to stop them? And really, there’s nothing wrong with a cliffhanger. The query letter has to end somewhere. But know that every single letter the agents get has a cliffhanger. Agents develop a healthy, necessary incuriosity about what happens.

The better strategy, to me, is to give agents a tightly written query that convinces them you’ve also got a tightly written manuscript. Tell them about the main character in a lively, sympathetic way as if you are trying to talk them into adopting a puppy. Finally, convince them you’ve done your home work by mentioning a couple of similar titles that have recently been published. (There are bonus points if the agent represented one of those books and you know it, but the bonus points may be lost if it’s obvious you didn’t actually read it.)

The narrative outline which is also called a synopsis (but many things are called a synopsis) is a full play-by-play summary of the book. An editor might ask for this to explain the book to the rest of the editorial department and may also share it with sales and publicity and other departments. The length varies, so whoever wants one should tell you what they’re looking for. The prose does not need to reflect the voice or style of the book. It should be crisply written and focused. Your goal isn’t to convince anyone to read the book, but to help them get behind the project. Many authors, myself included, would rather eat a pound of asphalt than write one of these things. But we write them anyway because it’s part of the business.

The press release is a one-page document about the book… scratch that. It is not about the book, it is about you, and how you came to write the book. The goal is to convince an extremely busy newspaper editor or broadcaster that your book would be an interesting one to feature. Play up autobiographical elements in the book, inspirations, or any consequences of having set out to write the book. To be honest, the story isn’t always there. But if it is, you want to milk it for everything it’s worth.

5 thoughts on “Five Ways to Describe Your Story

  1. Thank you for this Kurt. You are really good at explaining the way things work. I am sure the people who take your class will be grateful to have you as a resource!

  2. Kurtis, this is an excellent compare/contrast. Really, the only one I’ve never done is the elevator pitch, and there’s a lot of differing advice about it. So far, I like yours best. Not to make them sorry they asked is key.

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