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The Dreaded Question for Authors: What’s it About?

by Doug Lewars (originally posted on

Here we have the three most frustrating or even terrifying words for an author.

“What’s it about?”

You’re at a family dinner chatting with your niece’s husband. He knows you’re a writer and asks if you’re working on something at the moment. You reply in the affirmative and he asks what this book, not perhaps entirely complete in your own mind, is about. You provide a long and rambling, largely incoherent answer and watch as his expression changes from interest to frank disbelief. How could someone, he thinks, who purports to be an author, apparently not have the faintest idea what he’s talking about? For your part, you’re wondering how to provide a brief summarize what might the part of a series with a huge backstory.

At some point, if you’re going to publish—even self-publish in e-format—you’re going to require at least one and usually two blurbs—one short and one longer. These aren’t easy to write but it makes sense to produce them sooner rather than later. Likewise, they won’t be exactly what you’ll share but they’ll provide a place to start. Eventually you’ll be able to address questions, not only from relatives and friends, but possibly someone with agent or publishing connections. You never know when such an opportunity will present itself and it’s a good idea to be ready.

Most people have encountered the term ‘elevator pitch’ or ’30-second commercial’. Thirty seconds is approximately the time you have to impress someone who may have little more than a casual interest in what you’re saying. Anyone who has received counselling for job seeking from a professional will know of this as a networking strategy. You want a one sentence positioning statement, two or three accomplishments, and an indication of what you’re looking for. Translating this into a literary context, start by positioning your book. For example, “It’s a mystery novel set in a gothic style mansion around 1700.”

Next, select a very few plot points—likely no more than three or four and mention them, but when you do, try and draw in your audience at the same time. For example, “Imagine you’re walking down a hall lit only by a single candle, when, over a crash of thunder, you think you hear a scream. Hurrying to the nearest door, you knock, and, receiving no answer, you turn the handle, find it opens easily and step into a well-lit richly-furnished room where you see” possibly a body, something bizarre, or whatever makes sense from your book. By suggesting your listener imagine what you’re saying, you’ll have captured his or her interest and can move to some additional items. Done correctly, he or she will be sufficiently curious to follow up by reading what you’ve written, or at least, will think of you as a captivating individual.

There are a number of summaries you’ll need over time. I’m not certain about all online publishers but Smashwords requires two blurbs, a long one and a short one. In a print world, the long one would go on the inside cover or possibly on the back. It’s important because if you’ve managed to get your book into a prospective reader’s hands, it’s this blurb that will make or break the sale. The short one is to give people a quick idea whether your book might be of interest. In addition, you need something to appear on a query letter to catch an agent’s or publisher’s interest. All four don’t need to be completely independent from one another but you should remember they’re serving different purposes.  One is for networking, one to catch an agent or publisher, and one to persuade a reader to buy the thing.

Since the one for networking may be verbal, you should practice it in front of a mirror until you’re happy and until it is as smooth as silk. Start with a timer and read something out loud. Stop after thirty seconds and perform a word count. This will provide a pretty good indication of the length you want. Then you can craft it as described above. Keep in mind, if it sounds flat to you, it won’t do much for your listener. Over time you’ll become quite proficient in describing your book and when someone asks, what’s it about, your response will be second nature.

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on

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