Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Michael: "What's your book about?"

What’s your book about? If you’re an author, you probably get asked that question a ton. It helps to have a quick, catchy answer. I know because I didn’t for my first book, Gentlemen. I would either give half-answers that I thought might be enough (“It’s a mystery about a missing boy”) or just a description (“It’s a dark mystery”). Neither answer was quite right, but it’s a tough novel to summarize. What I wanted to say was, “I can tell you in approximately 58,000 words,” which is, not coincidentally, the length of the book.

Also no coincidence: The fact that, after being unable to answer the same simple question over and over again, my second novel has a quick, easy summary. It’s about seven kids trapped in their high school during a weeklong blizzard. In fact, the book can be summarized with just the title and the cover art:

I don’t think that makes it a less complicated or serious novel, but a year and a half after my first novel came out, I think I understand the process a little better. Word of mouth matters, and the book is pitched on every level (between very busy people). Publishers pitch booksellers and librarians who (ideally) pitch readers who (double ideally) pitch friends; authors pitch everyone, and a few lines of text has to get the job done online. In every case, the response to “You should check this out” is liable to be “Really, what’s it about?”

I still think it’s the quality of the book that matters most. If it’s not good, no one’s going to spend much energy recommending it. Once they do, though, good hooks and resonant ideas are a definite advantage. The examples are as endless as the number of children who would dearly love to attend a school for wizards. And while ideas (and execution) like that come along very rarely, here’s some incentive for the rest of us: Also endless? The number of people who will ask you “What’s your book about?”


  1. So, yes, I just deleted my original post and wrote another one. I do that fairly often on my own blog because I AM PRONE TO POSTING STUPID THINGS. (Is there anything sadder than a bad cartoon? It's like a misfit toy or something.) Anyway, I hope this one is a little better/more coherent.

  2. I can't seem to get a hang of the one line hook. Maybe, like you said, understanding the process better will help.

    Nice post!

  3. Thanks, Rane! Yeah, I definitely don't think it's mandatory. My first book was a v. dark book with a v. dark cover, and in a way, I think that worked almost as well. Still, going to BEA and things like that, I saw just how fast a lot of this stuff happens and what an advantage a short, quick hook could be.

  4. I've managed the one line pinch. Do I think it covers the book adequately? Not at all, just enough to entice. Which in the end is the whole purpose of the query to begin with I believe.

    Still, it's hard to describe in so few words all the elements that make a book tick. I'm hoping to get better in this arena and appease some of the confused looks I get from time to time.(Hugs)Indigo

  5. Yep, I think that's exactly right: All it needs to do is entice and provide the basic (interesting) premise. Character development, major themes, plot twists, well-earned endings, and all the rest of that good stuff is left on the cutting room floor, but that's OK, because it's in the book, and a good, quick pitch can help convince people to pick it up.

    It's sort of like a 30 second commercial for a complex two- or three-hour movie. It can't possibly tell the whole story, but it can tell enough to make people want to go see it.

  6. When someone asks me what my novel is about I generally tell them that I can't talk about it or I'll be less motivated to write it. Haha - but it's actually quite true.
    I do get what you mean by the post tho - After all, once I have finished the final draft I need a good response =)
    LOVE the cover!

  7. This isn't exactly on point, but that cover looks sweet. Cold, but sweet.

  8. I love this premise. And can't wait to see if things take a cannibalistic turn. So few books do. Fun meeting you in New York. Finally. And great post.

  9. Excited for TRAPPED. You hooked me with this one post. :-)