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.
"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