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Book Description Key #1: Playing by Ear




I'm going to share 4 approaches to book description (each geared to a different kind of learning and problem-solving styles (conation) in a series of 4 keys. That means four separate posts. This post will only go into detail with Key #1.


Key #1 (Playing by Ear) is about using your "ear" to tune into how others are doing it. It works best for writers who are good at picking up rhythms and styles. It's for the more intuitive writers. It requires a bit of self-trust, but I do suggest everyone start here, as it's the most optimized approach. Even if you don't nail it off the bat, you'll be surprised at how much you already know how to do. Conation: #quickstart



TECHNICAL GUIDELINES FOR ALL BOOK DESCRIPTIONS, NO MATTER HOW YOU APPROACH THEM

  • write in third person ("when Sam discovered x, y, z . . .)

  • use present tense when talking about the book itself (not the story, but the book). For example, "The Witches of West Rochester is a story of betrayal and self-discovery."

  • i shoot for a 120-word final draft at most. less is more. you want readers want to get the gist quickly and be compelled to open or purchase the book.

Key #1:

Playing By Ear OVERVIEW A book description is a distillation of everything most important about your book. It needs to be grounded in the important specifics (what happened), but it also needs to place them in a larger context (why it matters).

So it has to do a variety of precise things at the same time:

  • establish the important characters and context

  • let the reader know what themes and meanings they will be taking away, all done artfully and entertainingly

  • be written in a tone and style that reflects the voice of the book

  • include a hook: something that makes me long to know how it all turns out

This can sound overwhelming when laid out piecemeal, but you'll probably find that you already fundamentally understand how to do this just by living in the world, being a writer, and having read thousands of book and movie descriptions yourself. That's the osmosis approach, what I'm calling "Playing by Ear." To that end, I am going to give you a sample book description to "tune" into.

SAMPLE BOOK DESCRIPTION

Six months after his death, Julie discovered that her husband of twelve years, the man who loved her and their six-year-old daughter ebulliently and devotedly, had been unfaithful throughout their marriage, going so far as to conduct an ongoing relationship with one of Julie's close friends. This memoir—moving, simple, filled with incandescent images—is the story of coming to terms with painful truths, of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood. Ultimately, it is a story of rebirth and happiness—if not perfection.
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6203173-perfection

Note: I don't think this is a perfect book description. The closest it has to a hook is the shock of the first line's revelation. But I do think it nicely showcases the "WHAT HAPPENED" + "WHY IT MATTERS" ONE-TWO PUNCH.

What Happened

Six months after his death, Julie discovered that her husband of twelve years, the man who loved her and their six-year-old daughter ebulliently and devotedly, had been unfaithful throughout their marriage, going so far as to conduct an ongoing relationship with one of Julie's close friends.

Why It Matters

This memoir—moving, simple, filled with incandescent images—is the story of coming to terms with painful truths, of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood. Ultimately, it is a story of rebirth and happiness—if not perfection.

Okay! So why don't you try your hand at a two-paragraph draft like this one. The first paragraph tells me what happens in the book (without giving away the end) and the second paragraph tells me why telling this story matters.


Read the passage out loud until you get the feel of it, can hear the voice. Remember, you've read thousands of book descriptions before. What you're going to be doing is sort of like mimicry. You are going to take on that book description rhythm and perspective.


This approach requires a leap of faith, not step-by-step guidelines. Give it a try, see where you land.



THE HOOK


Like I said, this particular sample above doesn't include a hook. The line "a story of coming to terms with painful truths, of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood" is accurate, but it isn't compellingly framed. A hook for that particular book might say something like: "Will she be able to rebuild her life and identity after suffering the ultimate betrayal?" I'm not saying this is the best version of a hook. It's off the top of my head. But I want to show that be leaving a question in the air, leaving things open-ended, you create a space of interactivity with the reader.


A good hook asks or implies the open-ended question: WHAT WILL HAPPEN?


Here is a book description I wrote with one of my Cosmographia authors this last Spring:


When Frances Tepper, a mother of three and former 4-H leader, precipitously became executive director of the Monroe County Fair and Recreation Association in 1992, there were few women in what was traditionally a “good ole boys” network. Despite the obstacles stacked against her, she held the position for twenty years before she retired in 2012. With humor, candor, and lots of teachable moments, this memoir tells the true story of how Fran, starting as a bewildered novice, grew what was once called “an embarrassment to the industry” into one of the most innovative fairs in New York State.


Generally, you will see that the first two sentences capture the WHAT. And the final sentence grabs the WHY IT MATTERS, putting the previous sentences into a larger context.


But the reason I'm showing you this is because of the line:


"this memoir tells the true story of how Fran, starting as a bewildered novice, grew what was once called “an embarrassment to the industry” into one of the most innovative fairs in New York State.

Although I don't frame it as a question, I do imply a journey of surprising discovery. There is a promise in there, a tease. Can you feel it?


How did a novice woman in a good-ole boys industry turn a publicly-acknowledged disaster of that size into something so innovative it was lauded state-wide?


It seems improbable.


I can't imagine how she did it.


I want to find out.


That's the hook.



So once you have your WHAT and WHY IT MATTERS paragraphs down, try your hook. Like I said, we're playing this one by ear, so try it out without overthinking. Read some hooks on the back and books, let me sink in. See what you get.


And if you want, share your hooks with me in the comments below!

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