Friday, December 29, 2017

The Summary that Unsold Me the Book

How do I say this? “I don’t really want to say this.” Writing a summary is the most difficult part of the job, and even the greatest writers complain that it’s not the same as writing a novel well. I don’t want to write this because I don’t think I can be funny about it, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, I don’t want to say this because I don’t want to look like an asshat. But when I saw the cover to this book, I was immediately excited. I felt drawn in, I thought it was my thing, and I considered that maybe I could put aside the myriad of stories on my list to-be-read for something that might be exactly the kind of story I’ve been looking for.

I had high hopes because the cover, like all good covers, gave me an indication of tone, genre, and dedication that made me confident in the author. It made me feel.

Then I read the summary:

Title of Book, Book One of space fantasy series, Title of Series, is classic fantasy for the current YA generation ... romantic, dramatic adventure written in rich, lyrical prose ... and an inspired, refreshingly original romp through boundless imagination! 

This 560-page novel also comes with an additional 70 pages of bonus content including a 50-page art gallery. All fantasy enthusiasts are asked to prepare themselves for take off on the next pop culture paradigm shift after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games!

Inspired by Caribbean cultures and landscapes, Title of Book is the debut novel of Barbadian author Author’s Name, woven from a deep magickal sensibility, a love of fantasy literature and folklore, and a romance with words and the worlds they can craft.

To clarify, I don’t think the summary is horrific. The problem isn’t my aghast at any poor writing, but that it doesn’t do anything it is supposed to do. It, for me, makes all the ineffective choices you can when writing a pitch.

For one thing, it begins meta.

Instead of diving us right into the plot or character, it discusses what the book “is.” It’s not an active, intellectually or emotionally charged sentence. It lacks feeling, and just begins with description. While I don’t believe “is” is a bad word to use in general, it makes for an unexciting start, which when you only have a few sentences can be a major waste of time.

“Generic is a book about two loves lost from each other.” “John is a high powered lawyer.” “This short story was written for the Inky Men of Utah writers’ group…”

This is one of those places that considering a strong verb might be useful. I won’t say “is” is always a poor choice, but it’s something to at least consider carefully because, as the very first sentence a reader will see, writing something emotionally charged rather than informative is often the better way to go.

Also, the meta-thinking—reminding us that it is a book—isn’t what either the authors or the readers want. The audience needs to be immersed from moment one, forgetting as soon as possible that these people aren’t really real. Yes, it’s just a summary, and no one gets immersed by summation, but if you can humanize your characters, you should do it as soon as you can. Spending all of this time to remind us the name of the book (which, do readers really care?) and the name of the series is taking the chance that your potential buyers will quit before they even got to the actual summary.

But because I was really interested, I did keep going, hoping to find the plot soon to see if I really did want to read it or not.

She tells us what we’re supposed to think.

She made the genre clear at least. Her repetition of “fantasy” in the first few sentences didn’t seem very thought out, but that doesn’t bother me on a whole, not until after I realized she had spent all this time being extremely specific about the genre but never the actual book. She made it very evident what kind of story it would be, at least, with “classic fantasy” featuring romance and adventure (all of which intrigued me). Her insistence, however, that her prose was lyrical made me skeptical. I often advocate for poetry in fiction, and like a good turn-a-phrase and seeing authors attempt for unique voices. I hate how we push simplicity, especially in young adult fiction. But, when someone actually starts writing out qualities of their book, it suggests more like that’s what they want it to be like and might very well mean that it’s just a series of words that are trying too hard to be clever or beautiful.

With a few exceptions, like “funny,” adjectives that sound like they belong better in a review than a summary turn me off. When synopsis suggest how amazing or brilliant the book is, I’m not likely to take that seriously. Show me the interesting parts, don’t expect me to trust they exist just because you said so.

While I am interested in the page count, the size being very important in my consideration, when she goes off into the “extras” before telling me anything about the story, I feel like she’s trying to entice me with gimmicks instead of emotion. If it’s a book I already know and love, hell yes I want the extras. I’ll sit there and read every boring blog from an author, look through every photo on their Instagram, hoping to get just a little more of the feeling their stories gave me. But when I don’t know you…

‘Comps’ work better through examples.

Her comparison to the Hunger Games might have meant more if, instead of suggesting it would be a big phenomenon like that, explained how it was similar. Are characters the same? Setting? The tension? The plot? Just because I like Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t mean I’ll like every book on vampires, but I might like the contemporary fiction with sarcastic characters. She said “paradigm shift” so I’m not sure if that really means any lovers of Hunger Games will like it.

I want to know what it’s about.

Then, still having as of yet to actually summarize anything about what happens, she discusses herself. Not necessarily a bad move, but use the space for what is for. It’s organized that way for ease. You have an author’s bio on Amazon. Save your word count for what’s important; why do I want to read your book?

I don’t know. I have no reason to. I don’t even know what the character’s names are, for hellsake. I know it’s classic fantasy, but does that mean Tolkien? Narnia? The Ocean at the End of the Lane? A Midsummer Night’s Dream? I mean, I’d assume that it’s elves and dwarves in medieval-based England, but that’s just from what I believe “classic” fantasy would be, I don’t actually have any reason to think you and I are on the same page.


The book was thirteen dollars for an ebook. I believe that writers can charge whatever they want for their stories, and sometimes making your price more akin to traditional publishing and not one dollar can encourage readers to take you more seriously. But did she really think I was going to take a chance on a story that was that much money that I have no idea what it’s about?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to give away the plot because then no one will be interested.

And that is why I have to say this.

It does not matter if they don’t know what happens when they don’t care what happens.

Tell us what your book is about. Yes, we want to be surprised, yes, if I knew I wanted to read your book, I wouldn’t want to know anything at all. But when it’s about making people care—and it is—it’s better to be predictable than to be too vague. Predictable stories sell all of the time. You know what’s going to happen, you know when in the plot it will happen, and you still invest. Why? Because we don’t just read for secrets and the unexpected. Nothing is better than to be delightfully surprised, tension is doubt as to outcome, and great manuscripts have twist endings, but the worst books are those that failed those things. Our most beloved stories don’t have to be original, they have fantastic characterization, perspectives, and epic settings. They have great stakes, high highs and low lows. You gain intellectual and emotional change. Most of these things, of course, are enhanced by not giving too much away. But your readers have to know something to care. Let’s face it, if they already knew they wanted to read it and didn’t want anything given away, they wouldn’t be looking at the summary in the first place.

So I’m not saying not to keep things under the vest. But authors must realize that most books sell because of the events inside them, because of the characters, because of the details of the settings. The story sells the story. Mystery only enhances it.

When writing a summary, don’t write a review. Don’t talk about how great it is or what it is, inform the audience of what happens or might happen, who the characters are, where they are, what humor or tension they can expect. Give us an idea of the protagonist, the place, the tone of voice, and make sure that if you are going to keep secrets, the audience even knows the secret exists. We can’t obsess over who the murderer is when we don’t even know a killing has transpired.

The balance of mystery and information in a summary is the keystone to its hook, we all know this. But, if you can’t decide, keep in mind that the events of your story shouldn’t be satisfied by just a summation.

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