by Karen DeBonis
At a family wedding recently, I mentioned my forthcoming memoir to my husband’s cousin, who hadn’t known I was writing a book.
“What’s it about?” he asked, oblivious to the fear the question strikes in the heart of many authors.
My mind went blank. I had two great loglines that sank into the sea of my subconscious and refused to surface.
“Well, you know about Matthew’s brain tumor when he was a kid, right? My book isn’t actually about that, well it is, but not completely; it’s really my story and about my people-pleasing as a mother because I’m a people-pleaser, which you probably didn’t know, and it’s about that, really.”
It may have been the emptied flute of champagne he gripped, but his eyes glazed over. I quickly ended the conversation and slunk off to find the bar.
When I got home, I opened the document with my two favorite loglines and vowed to memorize them. (More about loglines below.)
But would a one or two-line, well-honed description of my memoir have been the best answer to the question posed at a noisy wedding reception? Probably not.
Just as written dialogue doesn’t follow the rules of proper writing because we don’t speak that formally, our answer to a verbal inquiry about our book should be conversational. (Unless it’s asked by an agent, editor, or influential person in the book publishing industry prepared to offer a 6-figure advance.)
The way a person talks about whatever it is they want to sell will shape a listener’s desire to buy it. So don’t think of your book description as simply a convenience for yourself and a reader. It is, in fact, a powerful marketing tool.
We need to describe our own book using the same language we’d use in telling a friend about another book. Word-of-mouth marketing (WOMM), in fact, is used by half of businesses worldwide. Often WOMM occurs online—think reader-written book reviews—but that only represents a small percentage of communications.
The majority of word-of-mouth communication happens face-to-face.
"In a lot of ways, the greatest marketing tool we have in publishing -- and [this] probably will never change -- is word of mouth.”~ Heather Fain, marketing director for the publisher Little, Brown and Co. (NPR)
Let’s look at two Amazon book descriptions and see how they could be revised for effective face-to-face WOMM:
For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life—until the unthinkable happens.
Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.
If a friend in the grocery store asked Owens what her book was about and she launched into this beautiful but lengthy description, the lettuce in the cart might wilt before she finished, and Owens might never get a book sale.
“It takes place in a quiet town on the coast of North Carolina. A young girl is abandoned by her parents and raises herself alone in the marsh. When she reaches puberty, she catches the attention of two teen boys. One of the boys is later found dead, and the girl—called the ‘Marsh Girl’--is accused of his murder. It’s a coming-of-age story.”
The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.
“The title comes from kite running, a popular and competitive social sport in Afghanistan. It takes place in the 1970s, when the country is on the verge of political turmoil. A wealthy boy is best friends with the son of his father’s servant. One boy violently betrays the other, and it takes a lifetime to redeem his honor. It also explores the power of fathers over their sons.”
With these descriptions, your neighbor’s lettuce won’t wilt, her ice cream won’t melt, and you’ll be prepared for your next neighborly encounters at the coffee shop, the pet store, the gas station.
What about loglines—the one or two sentence description of a book? Are they short and conversational enough?
I’ll use mine as examples.
Growth: A Mother, her Son, and the Brain Tumor they Survived is a memoir about a woman’s naive expectations of motherhood and inability to assert herself, even when her young son’s survival depends on it.
To make this conversational, and because it’s memoir, I’d change it to first person and use past tense. Otherwise, it works. I can imagine saying this at a wedding reception:
“My memoir is about my naive expectations of motherhood and inability to assert myself, even when my son’s survival depended on it.”
A happily married, working mother of two wonders if she can survive the demands of motherhood, especially after her eight-year-old son develops mysterious symptoms that show her just how weak—and then exactly how strong—she is.
This works on paper or a screen but not in conversation. I’d make these changes:
“My book is about my son’s increasingly bizarre behaviors, starting when he was eight, and how I had to wrestle with my fear of conflict to find answers to what was going on.”
In the Amazon descriptions earlier, the final comment boils the story down to its most basic themes. This is done often in written reviews. On a random perusal of NetGalley.com, I found these themes, usually at the end of a longer description and prefaced by “This book is about:”
These brief statements frame the story so the reader knows what to expect. Authors should prepare similar summaries in case a listener, podcaster, or radio interviewer has only a brief moment before a “commercial break.”
I don’t advise using these wrap-ups on their own because they are usually too vague to be useful, but ending a discussion or longer summary with a pithy talking point adds a nice punch.
I hadn’t nailed down a wrap-up for my memoir, so here’s my stab at both a broad statement and a complex one:
Broad: “It’s about motherhood, overcoming people-pleasing, and perseverance.”
Complex: “It’s about the overwhelming demands of motherhood, the fight to reclaim my voice [or “one’s voice,” if fiction], and learning to advocate for a loved one.”
Another puzzle piece in being prepared to talk about your book is knowing your purpose in writing it.
Why did you write this particular story? What do you hope it will achieve?
Whether fiction or creative nonfiction, writers share stories to connect with others. But you may have a more specific goal. Defining your statement of purpose is another way to help the reader know if your book is right for them, another way to give context to your story.
In the fiction examples above, Delia Owens’ goal in writing Where the Crawdads Sing may have been to highlight the damaged caused by bigotry and stereotyping. In writing The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini’s goal may have been to shed light on a poorly understood culture and country.
My purpose in sharing the least flattering parts of myself and my Achilles heel of motherhood is that other people-pleasers will see themselves in my story, learn from my mistakes, and decide to break free of their own destructive habits.
“I hope others will learn from my story.”
Your statement of purpose gives a reader a connection to you, not just your story. If you sell yourself, you’re more likely to sell your book.
One final conversational talking point is describing your book in relation to other well-known books, sometimes called an “X meets Y” statement. This technique works best when your story is a new twist on an old favorite or a mash-up of two genres, ideas or characters. (This link has great examples, too.)
If your listener hasn’t heard of your X and Y, you’re wasting your breath, and if, like me, you can’t find comparable books, don’t force it. But it’s worth giving this technique some thought to see if it works for your project.
Now that I have my literal talking points, I’ll print a gazillion copies and post them around my house and in my car until I can recite them in my sleep.
At the next family wedding (which will be my son’s, so you know I’ll be incapable of ad-libbing a coherent thought) I’ll be ready for the question:
What IS your book about? Give us your best, conversational description in the comments.
* * * * * *
Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and perseverance, an entangled mix told in her debut memoir Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived, forthcoming from Apprentice House Press in 2023. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, HuffPost, The Insider, Today.com, and numerous literary journals.
A happy empty-nester, Karen lives in upstate New York with her husband of forty years. You can see more of her work at www.karendebonis.com.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Vengeance of a Slave is about a young boy, taken to Roman Britain as a slave. It shows how his hatred of the Romans leads first to disaster, but ultimately to the healing of his hatred.
I can see this being a great conversation starter. Thanks for sharing it!
Wonderfully condensed examples! Thankyou!
Thanks, Christine- I appreciate you reading and commenting here!
PAPER BAGS is the story of how a secret creates a conflict between a woman’s desire for love and a safe place, and her own Puritan upbringing.
Thanks Karen, always trying to figure it all out!
No rest for the weary writer, right Trish, lol? Yours is a great logline. Would you consider breaking it into two sentences for a conversation? "The main character in PAPER BAGS is a woman with a Puritan upbringing. A secret creates a conflict between her desire for love and a safe place, and the values of her childhood."
Thank you for this post. Great examples and suggestions.
I'm so glad you found it helpful, Barb. Thank you!
Here's my attempt for The Hobo Code.
Abandoned by disinterest and death, Jack must overcome self-doubt and find a way to transport his younger siblings across the country to the safety of family.
It's a great logline, Ellen! I wonder if it would work better in conversation as two sentences?
Jack, the main character in The Hobo Code, was abandoned by his parents. He has to overcome self-doubt and find a way to get his younger siblings across the country to the safety of family.
I know--"was abandoned" is horribly passive, right? But that's how we speak.
"Has to" is poor writing, but typical in conversation. "Must" isn't a word we generally use in conversation. (At least not in my circles, which may be saying something.)
Thank you for this helpful post and illuminating examples. I'm saving this one!
I'm honored, Lynn- thank you!
This is a wonderful article to help authors at all stages. Thank you. I will share!
I'm so glad you find it helpful, Dee, and thanks for the share!
Thank you for this! Great tools and suggestions. I have not written a memoir but my son also had a cancer diagnosis when he was a teenager and as a mother, I can relate to what your memoir is most likely about.
Thanks for letting me know that you found this helpful, Tina. And I'm sorry we connect in a way we'd never have chosen. Having a seriously ill child changes a mother forever. Take care.
Super helpful post, Karen! I've written so many log lines and blurbs for The Witch Whisperer. Here's one: Finding a cure for Willow’s broken magic takes her and the Witch Whisperer on extraordinary journeys from this world through a portal to another realm full of friends, foe, and danger. What will the seekers sacrifice for life and love?
Maybe more conversationally: The Witch Whisperer is about a perfectionist witch with broken magic and the lengths she'll go to find a cure.
I probably have dozens of loglines for my one book, so I get it, Barb. I love both your written logline and your conversational one. And it just occurred to me that by sharing a short conversational blurb, you may leave the listener wanting more, and then you can jump in with more juicy tidbits and teasers!
What a great post! I can see how adding my why can make any logline more conversational. My newest release, Charlie's Christmas Carole, is about an elementary school principal, Charlie Dickens, who must eliminate the Christmas pageant or lose his new job. He struggles with his daughter who just won the lead, the director, Carole—his childhood sweetheart, and a magical reindeer he saw as a boy. All of which butts him repeatedly to the past, when as a boy, his father abandoned the family during the holidays.
I love the name Charlie Dickens! In my humble opinion, Diana, your first sentence is all you need to interest a listener. After that, if it was me, I'd want to hear about the two most dramatic or unusual elements.
Charlie's Christmas Carole is about an elementary school principal, Charlie Dickens, who has to (more conversational than "must") eliminate the Christmas pageant or lose his new job. Two childhood events complicate his decision: his father's abandonment of the family, and the magical reindeer that appeared to Charlie as a child.
Thank you for this post. I have been struggling with how to write a logline of what my novel 'Dilemma' is about in a couple sentences. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated.
During the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union government cover-ups were common, but nothing on the scale of an accidental missile launch at American soil.
The struggles of loglines are real, Mary! I'm not confident enough about writing loglines to weigh in on whether the stakes are clear in what you have. Maybe some other seasoned writer/editors will share their thoughts. But as a listener, I might be most interested in what's happening in your book (not what historically happens) and your main character's role in it.
It's about the cover-up of an accidental missile launch on American soil. Sue--my main character--...
See what you come up with and try it out at your next social gathering!
When someone asks what my book is about, I typically say, "It's about my experience as a healthcare whistleblower and how God helped me in miraculous ways." I keep it simple and leave the door open to follow-up questions, if they want to know more.
That sounds perfect, Wendy--thanks for sharing it with us. You are well-prepared!
I absolutely love this and have bookmarked it for when my memoir, which uses the life of an ancestor (I never met) as a pivot for examining my own, is ready to roll. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I'm so glad this spoke to you, Rose, and good luck with your book--it sounds fascinating. You already have a decent answer to "What is your book about?" Rather than waiting until your book is "ready to roll," I'd continue to play around with your answer because it will help provide clarity for your narrative, and it may change as you proceed. Good luck!
You've put your finger on one of the hardest tasks an author faces: "What's you book about?" IN PERSON.
I always choke up - and need to figure out a better way - I do run into people in my retirement community who pull that when it is mentioned I'm the only novelist here.
You'd think it would be a perfect opportunity!
Here's what I have already:
Tagline: The Great American Love Story.
Logline: To safeguard a powerful actor, a damaged writer must first salvage herself.
Pitch: When a reclusive bestselling novelist crosses paths with the rising actor of his generation, she finds her capacity for obsession is not dead. The friendship that develops when his next movie films near her rural refuge, and he fulfills his promise to visit, creates a challenging bond that threatens to destroy her. But when America’s Sweetheart decides she’s the one who will engender with him Hollywood’s supreme dynasty, can the writer navigate the razor’s edge from friendship to forever love, and save his unborn children?
Mission statement: to make a the mainstream reader live three lives so closely from the inside, right behind the eyeballs, that reading Pride’s Children is a rollercoaster ride which makes the ending inevitable and utterly believable.
I’m a member of a bunch of writing groups, but most indies don’t write mainstream, and most mainstream writers don’t belong to these groups - and most of the marketing techniques indies suggest are ludicrous for me, with only two published novels in the trilogy and my extremely slow writing.
Suggestions? What, out of all that, would intrigue YOU? Enough to go read some reviews, download a sample? Consider buying? Thanks!
Alicia- My Imposter Syndrome kicked into high gear, fearing you'd asked me to comment on your logline or pitch! Since it took me around 4 years to write my own logline I can live with, I'm the wrong person to ask, lol. But I can certainly tell you what intrigues me. 1) Safeguarding the actor. I'd want an idea of the stakes- what will happen if he's not safeguarded. 2) Salvaging herself. Again, what will happen if she's beyond salvageable? 3) Unborn children.
Good luck as you continue to develop your story!
Interesting take on what. Thanks fir the tips. Here’s an off the cuff try.
This is about two women from different cultures—one’s an assassin and the other a perfume executive. They are forced together in the near end times and begin to learn why God put them together.
Warren- In my very humble opinion, I think you've nailed it. An assassin and a perfume executive? I'm all in!
Such a well-written and helpful article . . . and a tear-jerker about your son.
Thanks for your comment, Jean, and I'm glad you found it helpful! Spoiler alert: my memoir is indeed a tear-jerker. It makes the ending all that much sweeter.
Great article with lots of useful information. I'm bookmarking this one. Thank you
I'm so glad you found it useful, Eileen. Thanks for bookmarking it!
A sweet romance set at the beach over the 4th of July.
If you want the blurb:
Jessi Carmichael returned to the beach cottage in Rehoboth where she spent her childhood summer vacations thinking it would be the last time. A chance encounter with Trick, her cousin’s summer friend, changed everything.
Trick Radcliffe was checking the cottage rental, his next project, to make sure his client’s guest found everything in working order. The last thing he expected was to see the annoying girl he knew as a kid all grown up.
A whirlwind of time spent together around the Fourth of July seemed too good to be true. No one can find a forever love in a week, right? The sparks are there, and the impossible might just be possible, after all.
I've learned to be unapologetic for writing romance, but I also simplified the logline because I didn't take any time to think about it. Simple works better for the romance haters.
It's a great conversational line, Denise. And you're smart to keep it simple while you feel out your audience--something I hadn't thought about. I'll admit romance isn't my preferred genre, but I'm sad to know there are romance haters. Good thing that hate is offset by all the romance lovers!
Being an Indie non fiction author is an uphill task and any help is always welcome. Ny author friend suggested me to try honestbookreviews.com to get reviews and this is the best investment I made on my book. I collected 27 reviews for my book, raked up 798 sales during Christmas and counting. Best return on my investment.
That's an amazing return on investment, Sara! Thanks for sharing your success and another resource many writers can check out.
I'll try, too :). Three sentences:
It is the worst of times for Alisa Rask, a fifty-ish divorced and now unemployed reporter soon to be without a home. It looks like her future has been canceled, but then she inherits her aunt’s house in her childhood village.
The trouble is her deceased aunt wants her to look into the drowning of her sister 32 years ago.
Your three sentences are great, Christine. Here's how I'd make them even more conversational:
Alisa is a fifty-ish divorced and unemployed reporter. She's about to become homeless when she inherits her deceased aunt’s house. The trouble is the aunt appears to Alisa and wants her to investigate her [not sure if this refers to Alisa or her aunt] sister's drowning 32 years ago.
You'd have my full attention!
Thanks for this. The "her" refers to Alisa's sister :).
Got it. It's very intriguing- good luck!
oooh, this is so hard. I feel what makes mine even more difficult is that my story crosses genres...women's fiction and romance. And by the title and cover, mine looks like religious fiction. It's not...it's quite spicy...but spirituality is a big theme in the book. I almost just skipped by here to avoid hashing it out AGAIN, but it was book was published in November, so I MUST get better. Here goes:
"Shelter Me" is the story of Kathleen, a youngish, catholic widow searching for a fresh start and finding just that when she embarks on a passionate May/December romance. Things get humorously complicated when she tries to balance her ardent entanglement with her role as a mentor to pregnant teens, who need her as much as her lover does.
I know the feeling of wanting to avoid it, Ellen, lol. I think you could easily pull in a listener with what you have. Let me take a stab at "conversational-izing it:"
"Shelter Me" is a cross between women's fiction and romance with a humorous twist. The main character is Kathleen, a youngish, catholic widow who mentors pregnant teens. She begins a romance and gets into some funny situations when her new lover needs her as much as the teens do.
I predict no glazed-over eyes when you spill that out!
Such a great article - thank you.
My story looks at what happened to ordinary people in a time of war - the choices they made versus the choices that were made for them. It's set in the 1980s when the apartheid struggle in South Africa was reaching its peak and had spilled over into my home of Swaziland, among other southern African countries.
I'm glad you enjoyed it, Glenda. You'd surely have my attention at a wedding reception! My follow-up question to you would be: Is it a memoir?