Book descriptions: KISS

Harder to write book descriptions than to write the books, isn’t it?

This world wants you to strip, right down to the bones. Twitter wants you to tell stories in 140 characters. Spaces included. Old time authors wouldn’t find 140 characters enough for the first line of the first paragraph of their first chapters. Smashwords wants you to describe your 80,000-word novel in 400 characters. Including spaces, of course.

Agents want you to be brief, as in Smashwords brief or Twitter brief. They are dealing with so many folks that all they can give any one individual is attention in passing, as it were. Maybe 140 seconds of attention, extendable to 400 seconds if you can hook them straightaway.

literary agent's card

literary agent’s card

And perhaps most telling of all, readers want you to tell them what your book is all about with whatever words you can cram into their attention spans of two or three or whatever seconds. You blink and they are gone.

And yes, you are expected to reach out to, communicate with and snag your targets with those 140 or 400 characters: they should make partners of your agents and believers of your readers.

In other words, “Keep It Short, Stupid.”

Denuded descriptions, skimpy synopses, abridged abstracts: the writing is on the wall. You better learn the art of bonsai with blurbs.

If you sit down and really think about it, you realize that what you need to identify are the minimum details about your book that you would want in your description.

Let’s see, now. What would those details be? Maybe we could start by seeing what the ingredients are in book descriptions that we like.

Here’s something I found:

The Clueless Dead is written as a vampire story from the male perspective and to counter a large number of annoying themes that have become prevalent in several works of vampire fiction. My character is an ordinary guy, a professional musician (but not a rockstar). He is transformed into a vampire as a result of a series of coincidences. He then must deal with the consequences of having vampire powers as well as the temptations involved in possessing the ability to mentally manipulate people, besides the spiritual quandary of being a vampire and a Christian.
The Clueless Dead, by Keith Greenwood

No, I haven’t read the book; I was just surfing around, looking around for book descriptions and I found this. I liked it.

So what are the key elements in this book description?

  • the protagonist (a musician who becomes a vampire)
  • the dire situation he finds himself in (adapting to his new vampire status)
  • his goal (learn to live with his new powers, temptations and beliefs)
  • the adversary he must overcome (usually an identifiable villain; as derived from this description, nasty temptations and hostile circumstances)
  • the consequences if he fails to overcome his adversary (eternal damnation?).

When you think about it, these are the elements that make up pretty much any book, fantasy or otherwise. If you agree, and speaking logically, then the best way to approach the drafting of a brief description of your book is to identify these elements. If you can strip these elements to their barest, it should then be possible to weave them into words and sentences that tell readers exactly what your book is all about.

If you could put these elements into a multi-part question you ask yourself, you would probably land up with something like “Who is in what situation, how is that situation affecting him, who is threatening him, and what may happen if he does not do whatever is needed to be done?”

When you ask yourself this question, you have got to pay heed to the possibility that your book may not give you direct, easily identifiable answers. Let’s consider an example. You book should have an identifiable “living” protagonist, but it may not have an identifiable “living” villain: the adversary may be a situation, as in the description for The Clueless Dead; there might be a “tangible” villain, but the description does not suffer for lack of identification of that villain. Tangible villain or not, there must be strife and impending disaster in the story, if your book is not just an essay on a character or two. And there must be some way the protagonist proposes to overcome the strife, defeat the villain and prevent disaster.

There are other ingredients that you need to work into your book description. It should be lucid and acceptably lurid, though the degree of luridness may depend on the genre. While on the subject, your description should leave the reader in no doubt about genre—the description above has “vampire story” as the eighth and ninth words.

vampire, as in genre fantasy

vampire, as in genre fantasy

The book description does not say anything about the author; there are other places to blow trumpets.

The book description evokes emotion. In the description above, the words “…ability to mentally manipulate people, besides the spiritual quandary of being a vampire and a Christian” are rather striking, wouldn’t you say?

And finally, the book description makes the reader eager to know the answer to “And then what?” The description above states, “He then must deal with the consequences of having vampire powers…” and the question the reader wants the answer to is, “Does he or doesn’t he manage to deal with those consequences?”

There, over to you. The comments section waits to hear if you have other ideas for short, sweet and effective ways to write book descriptions that have more punch per character.

Book descriptions: KISS

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 4 min
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