What’s Your Book About

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard that question countless times. Friends, family members, co-workers discover you’re writing a book. Perhaps you proudly announced that you were pursuing your dream. Or maybe you’ve been toiling away in secret, like a vice you carefully hide from the public, hoping you can complete a novel, land an agent and a publishing contract before anyone finds out what you’re up to.

Or maybe you’re an established writer, you’re attending a conference, and you meet an agent or editor who asks you the fateful question.

“So, what’s your book about?”

“It’s about 400 pages.”

No, that’s not enough information.

“It’s about this girl, you see, and her father is in the military and her mother is Japanese, and she gets in a car accident, and her brother dies, and then she finds out her injuries might mean she won’t live long enough to see adulthood, so she decides to live life as fast as possible in order to experience everything she can before she dies, and mainly she wants to fall in love, but she also wants to go to college and see the world, and so she goes to Japan to meet her mother’s family, and she lives in Italy for a while, and then she does fall in love but…”

And the questioner slips into a coma without ever really learning what your book is about.

The first question to ask yourself: Do you know what your book is really about?

Before you begin writing, do you start with a hook that is the crux of the story, summarize the main character, what she wants, the obstacles in her way, how the conflict is resolved, and the higher-level thematic issues which affect the outcome and the character’s arc, and then begin to write your story?

No? Neither do I.

Like many writers, I start with a seed – some idea of a plot or an interesting (to me, at least) conflict. Maybe a “what if this happened” scenario. Sometimes just a sentence or phrase comes to mind that piques my writerly interest. More often I start with a character who introduces herself to me. I have to sit down at the computer and start typing while I get to know her, and eventually she’ll tell me her story. I can be 20,000 words into a manuscript before I know where the story is going. I may not know how it ends until I’m writing the ending. Other times, I have the whole story sketched out in a rough outline, but it’s likely to change before I reach the end.

“So, what’s your book about?”

“I don’t know yet, I haven’t finished it.”

But eventually I finish it – usually. And then I have to figure out what it’s about so I can answer the question from too many pesky friends and too few pesky agents.

If you’ve found yourself in this situation, here’s an exercise that has worked for me.

  1. Go through the manuscript and summarize each chapter or scene in one brief paragraph of two or three sentences. If you can summarize it in one sentence, even better. Ask the question: What is this chapter about? What is the main thing that happens in this scene?
  2. Write it in third person, present tense. It doesn’t matter what person or tense you used in the novel. Third person, present tense.
  3. If your book is around 400 pages, maybe 50 chapters or so, then you’ve just written a 50-paragraph chapter outline, the basics for a synopsis. Perhaps this takes up five or six pages, double spaced. Be sure to include the ending, how the story resolves. Go ahead and give away your surprise ending in this document.
  4. Take those 50 paragraphs and rewrite it into narrative format so that it reads like a story, although obviously with a lot of details left out. Look back through this narrative and see what’s important, what’s not, and what key points are missing or were skimmed over too quickly. Delete sentences or paragraphs about chapters/scenes that aren’t critical to the overall summary. If a single paragraph dealt too lightly with an important scene, flesh out that paragraph more. Take two or three paragraphs if you need. Work the transitions between scenes so it flows and reads smoothly. You’ll still wind up with a document somewhere in the range of 10-15 pages.
  5. Once that’s done, you now have a workable draft of a synopsis. Some agents and editors will ask for a synopsis, so you want to go through this again and rewrite, revise, and edit to make sure it reads as an interesting summary of the story. Write it in the same voice and style as your book. An agent will still gauge your writing skills by this synopsis. But keep it in third-person present tense.
  6. Some agents and editors will ask for a short synopsis. They don’t want to read fifteen pages to get the summary of the story – time is short, they’re busy, and they’ve got another 27 queries in their inbox to look at today. Go through your ten-page synopsis and edit it down to the key points only. Don’t include minor characters at all, or minor plot points. Boil it down and tighten it up. It should cover these basic points: Who is your main character? What does she want? What is the main obstacle preventing her from getting it? Who are the two or three main secondary characters and what is their relationship to the protagonist? How does she meet the challenges, overcome the obstacles, and achieve her goals? Or how does she fail to achieve her goals? How is she changed at the end of the story? Now rewrite this and edit it more. Tighten it up to two pages. Now you have a short synopsis, which will come in very handy while querying agents.
  7. Take your two-page synopsis and – you guessed it – tighten it up. Eliminate details, focus on the big picture questions that tell the overall theme of the story. What does she want, what’s the obstacle, how does she overcome, and what has she learned? Edit it down to a paragraph. There’s your blurb. Think of it appearing on the back cover of your book, or on that quarter-page ad in the New York Times. This paragraph also comes in quite handy for wooing an agent – it may well be the opening paragraph of your query letter. An example (not saying it’s a great example, but it’s an example):

When a teenage military brat learns her injuries from an accident will prove fatal before she reaches adulthood, she accelerates to a manic pace to reach her life goals. Eventually she learns happiness isn’t found in achievements or lovers, but in family, friends, and faith.

  1. Just when you think you can’t edit it down any further, write that paragraph as one sentence. Two short sentences at most.
  2. Memorize that sentence. Repeat it over and over in front of a mirror or in the shower.

The next time your Aunt Tilde or Fred at the office or a high-powered agent in an elevator at a writers conference asks you the dreaded question, you won’t dread it. You’re prepared. Your one or two sentence “elevator pitch” succinctly tells what your book is about in a hopefully interesting way.

“So, what’s your book about?”

A biracial military brat grows up fast, living overseas and fearing she will die before she reaches adulthood.



This article originally appeared on Australian writer Phillipa Fioretti’s website at http://www.phillipafioretti.com.au. Phillipa is the author of The Book of Love, published by Hachette Australia.