If you write, chances are you do it for one reason: To share your writing with others. Few, if any of us, write something just so that we can stick it in a drawer never to be seen again. We aspire to be story tellers on the grandest of scales. The Holy Grail of story telling is to publish so we can reach a world wide audience. To achieve that goal, we must do many things. From me, to you, to Stephen King we are obligated to jump through many hoops to promote our stories. One of the most common hoops is to simply explain our story to whomever will listen.
For example: You’re at a cocktail party and someone approaches you, saying, “I heard you wrote something. Tell me about it.” You’re being asked for a brief over view. A summary…a synopsis. Which is precisely the same thing a publisher or agent will ask when you approach them for representation. It is also what a bookstore owner or manager will ask when, as a self published author, you inquire if they will sell your book on their shelves. They first need to know what it’s about, and briefly.
If you can’t give them a memorable synopsis, you won’t get very far. It’s also important to realize there are different kinds of summaries to give depending on who you are addressing. A publisher or agent will eventually want to know the entire plot to determine marketability. An individual or bookstore, however, doesn’t want to know the ending, they just want to be intrigued enough to consider purchasing. Regardless of your audience, your summary must start out the same: With an attention grabbing line or phrase somewhere in your introduction that hooks the audience into learning more.
“Hook” is the appropriate literary term for this device. An entire book could be written on the topic of hooks alone. In fact, there is a literary agent who devoted a portion of her blog to hooks and invited readers to participate in a “best hook” competition. She no longer blogs but you can learn much by reading her archive at http://misssnark.blogspot.com.
For a publisher or agent the hook will figure prominently in your query letter, which is a single page document that introduces yourself and your story while seeking representation. Once you’ve grabbed their attention, the rest of your synopsis should seal the deal and make them take the next step. They will either ask for a full blown synopsis, an outline, sample chapters, or all the above.
As mentioned, an individual or bookstore will not ask for that much information. Their summary will be more succinct as will be their hook which will be more like the tag line you hear during a movie trailer or see on a poster. They should be motivated to buy your book immediately (or at least tell others about it, effectively becoming your viral marketing). A summary given to this audience is called “The Pitch” (as in sales pitch, because that is essentially what it is). You want it long enough to give all the intriguing details, but short enough that you don’t lose their attention. It is very similar to what job seekers and self-promoters call an “Elevator Speech.” It’s just long enough to sell yourself while you have a potential employer or client trapped with you in an elevator.
If I were trapped with you in an elevator, my pitch might sound like this:
“Every fairy tale has a grain of truth to it. If you could go back in time and see the actual event that inspired a fairy tale chances are, because people are as complex as they are, it would be far more interesting than the resulting childhood fantasy. That is what I had in mind when I wrote my novel ‘Echoes of Avalon’—a fairy tale for grown ups. It starts out in Medieval history as Sir Patrick, an Irish knight returns from the First Crusade in the Holy Lands. He’s lost his faith in people and God and is haunted by an apparition that follows him, pointing accusingly. In this state a stranger finds him and offers a new beginning as a knight protector on the fabled Isle of Avalon. Skeptical, but with few options, Patrick takes the offer. From here the story slips into the realm of fantasy as Patrick is introduced to ghost, goblins, and talking wolves on an island harboring a secret academy filled with the youth of the world’s nobility. It is here Patrick is tempted to believe again…and fall in love. That is until the ultimate villain arrives with sinister plans for the island, and the woman in Patrick’s life. Patrick soon learns that before he can battle monsters, he must first defeat his demons.”
That clocks in just under a minute. Plenty of time for an elevator and it won’t lose anyone’s attention over coffee or cocktails.
It’s not enough to write a great story. You have to share it by first promoting it. The most fundamental task of promoting is simply giving your listener an intriguing summary. Hone your pitch. Craft your synopsis. It’s worth it.