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Summary Squeeze

While it may not seem possible to encapsulate your book into just a few hundred words, it’s an essential part of promoting it, and getting readers interested. Hayley Radford explains why less is definitely more when it comes to the back cover blurb.

Drafting a potent back cover text can be a real challenge for authors. Promoting a novel — or a play, a film,

a new TV show or even an art exhibition for that matter — is, at its heart, about storytelling. Sharing a narrative, big or small, loud or quiet, intimate or extrovert, with others so that they too may experience and enjoy it. And if there’s one thing that writers share in common, it’s a certain embarrassment or awkwardness about reducing their life’s work down to a snapshot synopsis; a brief summary, a hint towards the essence of their story and what it really means, a reduction of all of its vital parts into something that captures the imagination.

In short, we all struggle to write in brief.

I had a meeting a couple of months ago with an author who’d written the most beautiful WWII novel; a sweeping romance that would have carried the reader across the generations, in and out of the lives of a broad church of eclectic characters. I had to figure all of this out for myself because, try as he might, the author was completely, painfully incapable of telling me what his story was actually about, and why he had written it. Rather than hook me in with a clear, tightly woven summary of the players and their motivations, he mumbled and stumbled around isolated sections of the text which were so disjointed and confused that while they clearly meant the world to him they made absolutely no sense at all to someone who hadn’t yet read the book. The result was that I left the meeting without really being able to care about the book because it remained utterly unclear what the point of it all was meant to be. He had failed to sell me his idea and had lost me as a potential reader.

Therein lies the great challenge of book promotion: how do you get people to actually read your book? What must you say — and how should you say it — to seduce them into taking a chance on your title, against all the other books in the world?

Getting your synopsis straight — and, for that matter, your elevator pitch (an even more time- sensitive summary, perfect for the 140 character Twitterverse) is critical in an era in which everyone is constantly bombarded with new, rich, tailored content, but with increasingly less time to enjoy it. Prompting your audience to make a discerning choice and bond with your book over another is a tremendous skill, but reducing your novel — or non-fiction — to a punchy screenshot is essential in order to win new readers. Not being able to give a clear summary, to make your book make sense, to make it sound engaging, gripping, emotionally fraught (whatever your narrative and its strongest selling points may be) will be to the detriment of your book and its ability to connect with readers.

All too often writers will try to make an exception of themselves, promoting an idea that their book is somehow different, rarified, able to escape the rules and regulations which apply to all other titles. But this simply isn’t the case; frankly, it’s nonsense, although it’s often born out of a profound self- consciousness about the writing. Having to explain yourself and your work of art can feel daunting to even the most assured writer. But no reader wants to be told ‘this book is really good, better than everything else you’ve ever read, because the author says so, take their word for it.’ If you’re incapable of identifying a clear narrative arc and a purposeful movement or theme in 300 words or less, then you will find it difficult to connect with readers on a meaningful level. As readers, we don’t embark on a new book completely blind, we invariably have a sense of what we’re about to read, and that sense has already shaped our decision to try the book out.

Some good rules of thumb to follow. Make peace with the fact that you actively have to leave things out because there’s simply no room for all the detail you’ll instinctively want to share. No one’s brain when reading is able to immediately retain information about a litany of disparate characters, so stick to only a handful of critical cast members (regardless of how significant others might end up being) and how they interact. Make sure that what you include matters and makes sense. Suggest a starting point and at least a direction in which your narrative and characters are moving; highlight an important obstacle they have to overcome or a conflict they encounter, something that anchors them with a sense of reality and purpose. Make sure you highlight any themes that are important to your characters as they might connect with your reader too. Convey a strong sense of the environment in which your characters exist; whether that’s on the third moon of Mondorian during an intergalactic war, or a hot and sweaty New York in summer as one woman embarks on a new romance. Set bitesized scenes that will resonate vividly with your reader. And remember that what you leave out — the resolution, the twists — are as important to keep hidden as the detail you actually commit to the page. But of course, you can always allude to mystery.

Strong summaries and highlights are also really important for writers to have up their sleeves during other promotional opportunities. Print, radio and television interviews, literary speaking engagements and even book launches, all provide an author with a brief moment during which to captivate and capture the minds of their audience. The more polished the summary, the more compelling the author will come across and the more likely their audience will be to

connect with the story they are hearing about and buy the book. Who hasn’t listened to a cringeworthy interview in which a writer either waffles dreadfully about their book, making it sound complex and dreary in the process, or indeed heard an author all but refuse to share any information about their novel, other than to repeat the mantra of ‘you’ll have to read it to find out what it’s about.’ No, sorry, not good enough. As the author you’re the most important and authentic communicator of your book’s message, and if you cannot manage to spark the interest of others with a clear, insightful narrative and intent, you cannot expect readers to share in that message and for the word of mouth readership to spread and grow. Even the most impenetrable, esoteric literary fiction can be distilled into moments of magic and meaning that will inspire the uninitiated reader to excitedly take a leap of faith with the story.

In addition, there’s value in honing a message about your book that’s strong and compelling so that how you feel about your book is conveyed accurately within the media and by writers; yes, everyone will make their own minds up about the ultimate value and purpose of a new book, but they will always take their lead from that all important back cover blurb, or press materials. Often journalists won’t have time to read a novel in full, but they will want to support it either through an interview or a feature article. They will rely upon a carefully crafted synopsis with which they can build and embellish their piece.

No film is released without a trailer, and that’s what we’re talking about here; the best bits, the intention, the obvious themes, the drama, wrapped up in sharply written text that leaves everyone wanting more. A back cover blurb should leave you aching to read the entire story and then to share it with everyone you know.

Précis and make every word count.

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