How NOT to Write a Summary for your Book

I will be the first to admit that I’m no summary/query writing genius, but many of the summaries I’m reading for the self-published crowd make me say, “WTF?”

If you’re going to self-publish, you must, must, must spend a goodly amount of time crafting your description. You are a salesman, and you have to tell me enough to get me interested in buying your story.

Random Sample #1

Mind Cafe, Lizzy Ford

The Mind Café: death’s waiting room and the only refuge for a woman trapped in her body after a tragic accident leaves her unable to do anything but watch the world and think. A fiction, paranormal short story just under 5,000 words, part of a larger collection of stories depicting a day in the life of the unique.

Number one problem with this description is the fact that it’s poorly written. Never mind the fact that it doesn’t tell me anything about the story–I’m just talking about poorly-constructed sentences and incorrect grammar. That does not bode well for the quality of the rest of the story.

Is the mind cafe only in the mind of the disabled woman? Is it some virtual world that she logs into to escape her disability? Is it a hallucination? This is supposed to be a paranormal story, so can I assume ghosts, aliens, alternate dimensions, angels, or similar are involved?

You shouldn’t give away the end of your story, but you certainly have to set it up.

Random Sample #2

A Different Communion, R Thomas Brown

The challenges to faith are many. Some of earthy origin, some from a more infernal source. Finding the right path is often easier than maintaining the journey.

This one is a little more interesting in the set-up, but still lacks important details. For one thing, it doesn’t tell me the genre. Given the reference to an “infernal source,” can I assume some paranormal activity? Does a demon or the Devil appear? An angel? God? Is this a mystery or Dan Brown-esque religious conspiracy thriller? Or is it just about regular people in a normal, real-life situation?

I can’t buy a story if I don’t know its genre because there are certain genres I don’t like to read and I don’t want to waste money.

Random Sample #3

The Rebelliousness of Trassi Udang, Patty Jansen

Short story. Published in the Belong anthology (Ticonderoga publications). Fifteen-year old Ari has plenty of run-ins with enforcers when he smuggles prohibited ingredients for his uncle and other clandestine restaurants in the B-sector of New Jakarta Station. But he stumbles on a rebellion that reaches far outside his insular little work, and is far more dangerous.

This description is better. I can tell that it’s science-fiction (the cover picture with a robot and futuristic clothing indicates that as well). The fact that it’s part an anthology, though, is off-putting because I have no idea if this is the first story or one in the middle. Should I already know Ari and what the New Jakarta Station is?

I wouldn’t buy this story unless I knew I was getting the first story in the series. And if it’s not the first story, then the author needs to say as much and direct me towards the first story.

Random Sample #4

The Winged Things, Caleb Casey

A hellfire sky, no power, winged things prowling. A strange apocalypse? Something worse? Hole up, or make a run for the nearest church? (A short story.)

This would be one of those WTF descriptions.

When it comes to writing query letters, rhetorical or unanswerable questions are a no-no. Book summaries/descriptions frequently end the description with a teasing question, but three questions in one description is right out.

Someone who reviewed the story mentions that the narrator has a great voice. Why not make the description from her POV? Set the story up. What happens when the author first sees the winged things? Build suspense. Make me wonder what’s going on and what’s going to happen to the narrator.

Even if the story is quite short, don’t skimp on the description.

Random Sample #5

The Snow Owl, Jon Hartling

Ben thinks his son’s talk of the magical kingdom of Lukana is just typical childhood imagination. But one winter day, when seven year-old Eric sculpts a snow owl in his backyard, he seems to set in motion events that cannot be anything but magical. Now Ben faces the terrifying prospect of losing his only child to a wintry spirit… a spirit that just might be the boy’s true father.

Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner! I picked up a copy of this story because it sounds interesting.

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