A book summary is basically a hook. To hook the reader. And this is the only thing I know about it. YOU CAN LAUGH NOW. I keep telling you that I have no clue what I'm doing. No clue how to write books, how to market them, how to anything. Well, this post is the scariest of them all for me to write. Because I have no bloody clue how to write a good book summary. I will attempt to dissect it here, and, in writing it out, hopefully get a better idea.
You might want to peck my eyes out now like scuffling kestrels or something.
Still here? Wow. Amazing. Okay, let's tackle this beast together. Because a book summary as as important as your book cover. First, your readers see your book summarized as an image. The cover. The pictures on the cover. The colors. The words. That will either compel them to pick it up, or will make them want to pass. The simpler you make it, the better, the easier job it will do in standing out from the crowd and in being memorable. We humans, sadly, don't have good memories. We grasp about three main things about each object, and later can recall only one. If at all.
But! Let's say, you succeeded! Oh, hallelujah! Someone picked up your book! Here comes your guillotine. Prepare for it. There are different types of readers.
- Impulse. They love the book so much just from looking at it or have heard so much about it already (or know the author), that they simply buy it. This rarely happens to us indies, unless we are well known. And I'm talking here to you, an unknown like me.
- Opening. There are readers who like to open the book, flip through it, and read the beginning (that's me). If the first sentence hooks them, if they are moved to turn the first page, they buy it. This is just a reminder for you to write a grabbing opening.
- Summary. Aha! Here comes another type, and, from my observations at SpoCon, this is the majority. People who flip the book and immediately start reading the summary (or open it, if it's a hard cover, and read the summary inside). Then, and only then, if they like what they read, will they buy the book.
- FFF. There is another category, Friends & Family & Fools. I call these people Fools lovingly. These are people who will buy your book just to make you feel happy and because they know you, so they don't count. I don't even know why I mention them here. Ah, yes, because I love them!
As you may imagine, there are tons of books out there on how to write book summaries. You can break your head over how to do it, and your hard attained state of balanced equilibrium after you have finished writing the bloody thing will shatter in seconds.
"What?" You will say. "I have to somehow squeeze my baby into a few sentences??" And off you will go, crying and tearing out your hair and fainting from the torment of this daunting task. I know. I've been there. I've done that. So. Here is what I do. I acknowledge this simple terrible fact (I do want to punch it in the face, trust me).
Writers are not very good at writing their own summaries.
I hear this from every writer I have spoken to. Maybe I'm wrong and haven't spoken to enough writers out there. You tell me. I guess we know the world of our book so much that to distance ourselves enough from it to make it into a good summary is hard. Surprisingly, I find it easy to condense my books into one-liners, like — SIREN SUICIDES is about a siren being hunted by a siren hunter, ROSEHEAD is about a rose garden that eats people, IRKADURA is about 1990s Moscow populated with beasts — I have a hard time making it into a paragraph.
Darling fellow writer Isaac Marion, author of WARM BODIES, sent me yesterday his summary formula on Twitter, and it is as follows:
[Character] is [situation]. But when [event] he/she must [action]. Will he/she [possible outcome]?
If you look at any summary, they all follow this basic formula, more or less. The things I have heard from others, to help with writing summaries, are the following:
- Read the New York Times Best Sellers list. I found it's great for one-liners, but not so much for summaries.
- Read summaries of the books you love. I do that. I love Chuck Palahniuk's book summaries. Take a look.
- Write summaries of books you read. I do this. I try to review every book I read, and I write a summary in each.
Despite all this, I'm still not very good at writing summaries. So. What I do is, I put the story into simplest terms possible — then throw up a book page on my site with it — then ask my daughter Anna Milioutina to redo it. She writes all my summaries and also does all my book covers. Sometimes one of her friends helps her. They wrote the summary for ROSEHEAD together. What I'm saying is, somebody else might have a better knack for summarizing your book for you. It could be your beta readers, your mom, your neighbor. Anyone willing to read the book and try to explain it back to you. I will show you the process of how I came up with IRKADURA summary, to illustrate how much I suck at explaining my own books, and how much a basis from someone else helps to make it better.
Summary 1 (the one I wrote):
IRKADURA is a magical realism novel set in Moscow of the 1990s. Based on my experiences growing up in Soviet Union, it's about 16-year-old mute Irina Myshko who is raped by her mother's boyfriend, gets pregnant, and runs away from home. She descends into an alternate reality populated with beasts: boars, woodpeckers, jackals, horseflies, vultures, vipers, ravens, and more. Eventually, she has to choose between two realities.
Summary 2 (the one my daughter wrote):
Irkadura isn’t just Irka nor just Dura. No, Irina Myshko is so much more than that. Abused, underfed and neglected by her mother, Irka hasn’t spoken a word for most of her short Soviet life. The only neglect she prays for but doesn’t receive comes from the pig-like men in her life, specifically the disgusting attentions of her mother’s boyfriend. Pregnant and alone, she escapes not only to a theater broomcloset, but also into another reality populated with beasts of all shapes and sizes, one where true natures show and people are revealed as the animals they are. Learning to live in the splintered world she knows or descending into madness - the choice, for once, is hers.
Summary 3 (the one edited by my editor, my daughter, my readers, and me):
"My mama became a catfish when I was two, on the day I stopped talking."
Neglected since birth by her mother, Irina Myshko hasn’t spoken a word for most of her short Soviet life. Outcast as a mute idiot and abused by her mother's boyfriends, she escapes into an alternate reality populated with beasts. Pregnant, homeless, and penniless, she has to make a choice—learn to live in this splintered world or descend into madness.
AND IT IS NOT OVER YET.
We will massage it a little more today. Just so we all agree. But one thing I do to test it is, I throw it up on the gregarious Internets and watch for people's reactions. My readers have provided invaluable feedback and helped cut it down.
Here comes then my formula on how to write a good book summary.
Involve your community.
Writing your book is a solitary effort. But writing a summary is something that is out of your hands. It's not yours anymore. It's your readers. And they will tell you how they see your book, because that will help other readers see it that way too.
Oh, and IRKADURA should come out on November 18th or around that date, when Amanda Palmer is here. I'm rushing it a little, because she asked for a copy. Thank you to all who pre-ordered it! Your books will be coming in the mail soon! Here is the cover, look! (Summary is not updated yet, it will be soon.)