How to best describe your entire book in so short a time?
In my personal opinion, writing the description that goes on the back of a book is the worst part of the book production process. At least once, I have literally had to spend more time on those few paragraphs than editing the entire 100,000 word manuscript the summary was about.
It is a delicate process to make all the important details of a full length novel clear in a few paragraphs and create a sense of the real drama and stakes that your characters face inside the book. But everyone in the publishing industry needs to summarize a book at some point. Authors pitch books to agents, agents pitch books to publishers, acquisitions editors pitch books to the sales team, and the sales team pitches books to customers, reviewers, and bookstores. Sometimes publishers or agents also pitch books to audiobook producers or film and TV studios. Readers even often share books they like with each other.
No matter who is summarizing the book, time is an important factor. Whether it is the amount of minutes scheduled on an agenda, the number of characters allowed on an Amazon page, the number of lines available to print, or just the attention span of a listener, there is always a need to be concise and to the point.
Balanced with that, there is the need to be compelling. The book needs to sound fun or insightful or useful or in-depth. The important selling points will depend on the genre, but every type of book has them. And without them, your summary isn't going to do much good.
Here are some of the tricks that I have learned over the years from both writing summaries myself and listening to other people's summaries over the years.
Provide the Essential Information
There are a couple of basic things your summary should include:
· Evidence of the genre
· Evidence that it has a full and complete plot
· Evidence that you know how to put words together in an interesting and enjoyable way
These things are the purpose of a good summary. You will want to keep these in mind as you create your lists, draft the summary, and edit it to perfection.
The easiest way to accomplish these three goals is to include the following summary essentials:
· main character - age, genre-related skills or traits,
· goal of the main character
· antagonist/challenges to the goal
· genre elements - historical setting, magic system, mystery, cool tech, love interest, etc.
· tone - funny, dark, adventurous
· age range of the audience - adult, new adult, young adult, middle grade, early reader
Start by actually listing these things out in words on a page. Make lists or rough bullet points. Don't try to make complete sentences yet. Instead, use this as a brainstorming session. Word things in a few different ways. Write down lots of details. List nouns and adjectives you can work into complete thoughts later. Bullet points are a great way to get at the heart of these important details with as few words as possible, something you will be grateful for later.
Catch their Attention
Next, figure out what about your book is the “cool” part. I wouldn’t recommend just assuming you know what is cool. The reason you wrote the book and the reason people will want to read the book are usually completely different. That’s not bad. It just means you have to do your research.
When working with non-fiction, the cool factor will often be an unusual approach or your unique credentials.
For fiction, the premise of the story is going to need to be what catches attention. If you've had beta readers or a writing group, you can ask them what was the most interesting or intriguing details about your book. They might name a favorite character, a surprising plot twist, or a specific magical power. They also might tell you something that encompasses the entirety of your story. Perhaps they liked your sense of humor or the Asian influences.
If your manuscript is still pretty untouched by outside readers, tell a couple people about your story aloud. You’ll usually notice a point where people go “Oh, that’s neat.” Take notes. Write that down.
After taking to a few people, compare their answers and try to pick the most common or boil them down to a few words. Summaries are all about being concise. If you can't summarize the entire coolness factor in one word, make a list of words instead that carry hints and implications of the right elements. For example, if they liked the Asian influences, you can list which Asian countries, places, holidays, mythologies, or practices show up in your story. If they liked your sense of humor, you'll want to make sure to convey that humor in your descriptions of the essential summary elements. You can make a list of their favorite quotes or phrases or characters now and see which ones will fit into your description later.
Then go over your list of summary essentials with a fresh pair of eyes, especially your tone and genre. Do you see words that match the things people liked about your book? Are you describing your main character or setting in a way that highlights the right things? Trim down options that don't match and brainstorm a few new adjectives that highlight the cool factor of your story for each essential element.
Keep the Terminology Simple
Once you know what details you are going to include in your description, you might notice that some of the words and names you've listed require explanations. Perhaps your main character has a love interest or a best friend they've known since they were six. These close relationships will not be conveyed through their names. Readers won't understand why a fight with Rebecca is a big deal or why Todd being kidnapped is tragic. You have to inform them of the context, information that probably seems obvious to you after your sixth draft.
Aside from the backstory of your characters and their relationships, names can cause other problems. Firstly some books will have very normal names, names that your reader may have trouble keeping track of. (Was Mary the mom or the sister or the evil cheerleader?) Other books may have very unusual names, things that might not even sound like a person at first. To avoid this confusion, it can be much easier to use a short description instead. (Ex: her mother, his best friend, the king of the invading army). The less names they have to keep track of, the better they will follow the events and impact of your summary. Additionally, you will want to avoid any names that are similar to each other, no matter how unusual or everyday they are. (No Chad and Brad, please. Or Sauron and Saruman.) Save those for the book where they have thousands of words, rather than a couple hundred, to get used to them.
Character names are not the only terminology you'll need to worry about. You might have schools, countries, magical races, political factions, or other groups of people that call themselves by a name in the book. You will also want to limit yourself on these as much as possible and use placeholders to indicate their importance to the current sentence whenever possible.
Additionally, you may have had to invent nouns for your books. This is particularly common in science fiction and fantasy novels where you have made up technology or monsters that do not exist in our world. When talking about elements of your unique world, try to use words that the reader, editor, or agent will already know. Use terms that are close enough to get the general idea. If your world has a magical winged creature that is part human and part bird, you might have a cool name for them, but a reader can get the gist from "a winged person" or an "angel."
This is especially important in summaries that will eventually be used as pitches or query letters. Editors and agents who are reviewing submissions can have hundreds of queries to sort through. They aren’t going to have the time to remember any new names or terms. Make it as easy as possible for them to understand quickly and without background information.
Now that you have a list of words to use to talk about the coolest and most important parts of your book, it's time to turn those into sentences.
The first attempt may end up two pages long. That’s fine. It's much easier to trim down a long description than to add in the connections to a disjointed summary. Even if your summary gets unwieldy, make sure to keep writing it out until you've connected each of the elements from your list and clearly explained the emotional impact of the events. Fiction is all about creating emotions in your readers and if you want them to pick up your book, you need them to expect your book to make them feel something.
After you get everything important onto the page, slowly go through and trim down anything that isn't essential to the main plot. Highlight any details that show off the stakes, coolness factor, and genre of your book. Things that multitask are always best.
Next, look at your word choice. What adjectives best match the emotions and tone of your story and which ones can be safely cut? If you are using several words, there might be a single word that means the same thing (such as "drenched" verses "very wet" or "left" instead of "started to set out on a journey"). You will also want to search for filler words (almost, nearly, sort of, noticed, realized, felt,) that could be cut down. Often passive phrases are longer than active ones. Additionally, complex tenses (will be destroyed, had to be done, began to go) are often uneccessary in such a short summary and a simple past or present tense verb would work just as well. Many of the tricks you use to be concise inside your book will work here too.
Structure can help you out as well. If you have an essential concept that needs a lot of words to explain, you can try to put all the sentences about that topic together to avoid having to explain it more than once. Organize the details so that they build on each other and naturally provide the necessary context for readers to understand the more complicated or in-depth parts.
Eventually you will want to be able to summarize your entire plot in about two paragraphs of text. A summary of that length can fit into a casual conversation, onto the back of a book, or inside a query letter. Being able to go over the important details of your book quickly can help you find the right agent or publisher, talk with other authors and industry professionals casually and naturally, or be a good marketer. However you end up needing to explain your book to others, this type of summary is going to make it much easier to have them understand the real heart of your book and let your book start touching lives.
Good luck summarizing!