The hardest thing an author will ever write is the summary, you know, that blurb on the back of the book. But it is imperative if the book has a shot at the bestseller list. A well written summary is also what gets a publisher interested in reading more and perhaps accepting a book for publication.
A good book summary is targeted directly at the reader and it is important to remember that the reader wants to know only one thing - what is the book about. Not paying attention to this most important element can spell disaster. Here is an example of a summary that is sure to fail:
"I spent a year writing this book and I know you will love it. It's exciting, filled with action and well written. It's the story of a girl and boy who fall in love under dire circumstances. First they have a hard time meeting, then they hate each other, and then they fall in love. I know you will enjoy reading my book."
Here’s why this summary is doomed to fail. Telling a reader what he or she will think is a major blunder and insults the reader's intelligence. The summary is boring, self serving and most importantly indicates that the book is probably just as bad. It even tells us how it ends, which will make the reader put the book back on the shelf and walk away. As well, this summary talks "at" the potential buyers instead of giving them what they demand - a craving to buy the book!
It is no easy task for a writer to condense an entire book into one or two paragraphs. There are always multiple characters, events, settings and an abundance of personalities, good and bad. But it must be done, and done well.
So how do we write a block-buster summary? First we must decide what information is essential to the story. Just like journalists we start with - who, what, where, when and why. Too many characters and events in a summary can confuse and bog a reader down. It is far wiser to concentrate on one main character and then add the problem he or she must face. For the purposes of this article, we will suppose our story takes place in 1912 Kentucky, our main character is Sam Smooth, age 34, he is a locksmith and he wants a wife. The beginning of our summary then looks like this:
“In 1912 Kentucky, Sam Smooth, a Locksmith who was pushing 35 years old wanted a wife. There were women in town, but some were too tall, some too slim, some too wide, and some who just weren’t that attractive.”
This summary begins well, but needs improvement. The description of the available women is boring, so let’s add a few details and spruce it up a little:
“Mary Fields would do if she weren’t so tall, Clare Woods might even be pretty if she had all her teeth and Sarah Clink needed more broadcloth to cover her figure than any woman he’d ever seen.”
It says the same thing, but it’s far more interesting to read. Next we need to add more about the adversity every main character must overcome. Perhaps the story includes a murder.
"Yet finding a wife wasn't his only problem. Old man Sheppard got himself murdered and the Sheriff kept coming around asking questions."
So now we have explained the adversity but even so, the reader may not be compelled to buy. We have to add a hook. A hook is a question that will make the reader want to know how it turns out.
"Maybe Sam had thought about killing the old man, but who hadn't? And now that he was dead, who was that beautiful woman moving into the Sheppard mansion?
At this point, we have made Sam into a possible suspect, we’ve tantalized the reader into wondering who the real killer is and we’ve introduced a mystery woman. These are two questions we hope the reader will be compelled to find the answer to.
Power words are adjectives that add color and make the work more interesting. Sometimes it is worth adding a couple of power words to complete the process
“In 1912 Kentucky, Sam Smooth, a Locksmith who was pushing 35 years old wanted a wife. Mary Fields would do if she weren't so tall, Clare Woods might even be pretty if she had all her teeth and Sarah Clink, but she needed more broadcloth to cover her figure than any woman he’d ever seen.
Yet finding a wife wasn't his only problem. Old man Sheppard got himself murdered and the nosey Sheriff kept coming around asking questions. Maybe Sam had thought about killing that callous old man, but who hadn't? And now that he was dead, who was that beautiful woman moving into the Sheppard mansion?”
The formula for writing a summary that sells is worth following:
Keep it simple and short, concentrate on just one character, spruce up the descriptions, add the adversity, improve with power words and finish with a hook.