You’d think that after being at this writing thing for 30 years, I’d have a ready answer for this question, but it’s not so easy a thing as it may first appear to be. Sure, I can go with the glib, “oh about a hundred thousand words,” but that’s not even half as clever as I like to think it is, and it leaves the questioner unsatisfied.
So, because this question recently popped up in several guises for me, I thought I’d turn it into the topic of this month’s essay. Bear with me as I break it down.
Although simple on the surface, a meaningful answer to “what’s your book about?” is going to depend on the context. Specifically, who’s asking, and why? At a minimum, I can think of four very different types of answers:
- Elevator Pitch
They’re all related, but they’re all different, and they serve very different needs. Let’s take them in order of likely length.
Elevator Pitch is a sound bite. Publishing lore tells us it gets its name from the span of time you have to tell an editor about your book as the elevator door closes until it opens again. An example could be something like:
It’s like Trading Place meets Alien, set in ancient Rome!
It’s pithy, it’s catchy, it’s verbal spun sugar, all sweetness and light and no substance. But that’s fine, and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t really told you anything about the book, because I’ve left an impression in your mind, seeded your imagination with a fistful of ideas. If it works, that friendly editor will give you a chance to expand on it.
Summary is vastly different. The good news is you get more time, the bad news is you still need to pack a lot into a small space. Think of this as a spoken paragraph, one you should have prepared for when you’re out in public (say, at a convention) and someone asks you, “what’s your book about?” You’re not trying to hook an editor or agent with your reply, but a good response might sell a copy of your book. At worst, you need an answer that counts as polite conversation.
You can get there by expanding and elaborating on the Elevator Pitch. How? Simply reference your setting (either locale or context, or both), a key concept, the protagonist, and a major plot point to create conflict. Like so:
Young Vibius Tertullus’s father has just died, requiring him to travel from Rome to Alexandria to inherit the family business. Along the way his caravan is struck by a strange craft falling from the sky. When Vibius assesses the resulting carnage, he sees a figure that appears to be himself, laying unharmed some distance away. Gazing down at his body he discovers himself transformed into as foul a creature as ever was seen in Tartarus! Worse still, he’s trapped in the wreckage and can only watch helplessly as his true body rises, directs an obscene gesture his way, and runs off! Vibius has to get free, make his way to Alexandria in the body of a monster, and convince the waiting officials to give him his inheritance.
If you’ve done this right, by this point your questioner should be gazing at you in awe and wonder, nodding enthusiastically, or pressing some cash into your hands and asking you to autograph the book.
Proposal is something else again. It’s less about the special effects and more about connecting with potential readers, but your audience isn’t the reader, it’s the editor or publisher who wants to be convinced that readers will buy into your story. This is where you stress “relatability” and demonstrate that, bells and whistles and cool SFnal ideas and Fantastic concepts aside, over the course of the book your protagonist experiences growth and change, is sympathetic and engaging. This is where you hit the motivations, reveal your narrative engine, and lay the groundwork for what will be your compelling narrative:
All his life, Vibius Tertullus has sought to live up to the expectations of his father — a famous adventurer and military hero — and all his life he has failed. Despite earning praise as a great scholar, Vibius lacks the stamina required of a hero and the necessary grit for adventure. Indeed, he rarely leaves the simple desk in his meager office at the gymnasium. But it’s a good life, and one that suits him, even if it’s not what his father had hoped for him. Now news has reached Vibius that the old man has died and that a mysterious inheritance awaits him, but only if he can venture from the safety of Rome and travel to distant Alexandria. It should be a simple enough trip, one made comfortable and secure by traveling via a trade caravan. And perhaps that would be the case if a crashing space vessel didn’t disrupt things midway through the journey, and some menace of alien technology or design place his consciousness in the body of a hideous, slime-slavering monster from the stars. Now Vibius must embark on an adventure far beyond anything his father might have wished for him, with the stakes much more than just some family inheritance, but rather the chance to recover his simple, human life.
And just like that, it doesn’t matter what particulars our protagonist might experience on his journey, because as readers we’ve already bought into the need for a journey. We’re cheering for Vibius, in part because we can relate to his woes of a less than perfect relationship with his father, and because despite rising to the occasion and trying to do what needs doing, he’s smacked down even further. That this takes the form of a body transference is surprising, but the details aren’t what matter here. Rather, we’ve locked into the narrative that will drive everything that comes after, and we’re glad to have it!
Synopsis is that last bit, a simplification of the entire book, one which hits the high points of character and plot and lays out the entire structure in brief. Alas, there isn’t room in this space to create one for you (that, and because I have no real idea what happens in the rest of this made-up book). Many authors — and I count myself among them — have come to hate writing synopses, on the grounds that if they wanted to write a miniature version of their book, they’d have done it in the first place.
There is a certain sense of futility in turning a 100K or 200K word novel into a 5K or 10K Synopsis. And yet, all too often, if your successful Elevator Pitch has opened the door to submitting a Proposal, and that too has found favor, you’re going to be asked to do just that. And unlike the other variations on “what’s your book about?” that we’ve covered, where brevity is a guiding principle and being concise is your only friend, now you have to hold on to these same ideas while at the same time embracing the totality of your story with arms spread wide to encompass everything while both hands grasp furiously to pull all of it back into coherent form.
I can’t tell you how to write a successful Synopsis every time, I personally believe it’s a different experience for every book. I can say that it’s probable you won’t find it a pleasant experience. Nope, not at all.
But hey, three out of four isn’t bad.