Telling it Like it is

How many ways do I need to tell it like it is? Answer: 5 ways.

You’ve written a book. Someone asks you what it’s about. You sit them down and start reading from page 1. Hint: this often doesn’t work out well. People may stop asking.

Being asked casually is one reason you need what’s called an elevator pitch or a lift pitch. Your great book wrapped up in 30 seconds, the average length of a ride in an elevator (I’m told – I’m sad, but not so sad I’d go research that).

Since you need it, don’t skimp on preparation. Because the person trapped in the elevator with you may be an agent or publisher, and this may be your only chance to communicate to them how great you book is.

Practice the very same pitch on casual inquirers as well. Because when the casual inquirers turn round and say, “wow, can I read it?” you know that your pitch is working.

So in 30 seconds what can you say?

You have to mention the genre and the style-

    It’s a dark thriller

    It’s a humorous paranormal romance

It’s a good idea to introduce the protagonist-

     Featuring Grant Nailor, a wisecracking ex-cop

    Involving Belle, a southern lady who runs a cake shop

And the motivation-

    Who’d rather be fishing

    Who’s desperate to meet anyone who’s not dead

You might even stop there.

But if there are some seconds left before the doors open, give the central question-

    But whose dying friend’s last words give him the clue to unravel a government conspiracy.

    But can’t resist the ghost of a Confederate colonel.

Thirty seconds. Practice it.

Next up lengthwise, the dreaded blurb. The thing on the back cover or the Amazon description panel which will sell your book. OMG. No pressure.

Build on the elevator pitch. Add in the where and bring in the focus on that central question-

Grant Nailor’s a wise-cracking ex-cop happily running a deep sea fishing boat out of the Keys for rich tourists when his pal Dempsey gets himself shot. Dempsey’s dying words hint at a macabre conspiracy involving the disappearance of his niece. Grant would rather be fishing, but he has to put his mind at rest, for Dempsey’s sake. Far from that, every enquiry he makes leads him further into a nightmare of corruption and lust pointing at the highest levels of government. But when evidence starts to turn up linking Grant to the last known whereabouts of missing girls, it becomes a race against time. Will Grant etc. etc.

Belle’s cake shop is the heart of the Port George community, and is never empty. But Belle’s own heart etc. etc.

(I never said I was good at these)

Aim for about 150 words for a book cover. Tell the reader how the plot starts, but don’t give away anything beyond the opening few scenes. The reader needs to come away wanting to know more – either “what happens?” or “how does that happen?”.

You can put more on the Amazon panel, but beware – blurb readers have the attention span of a gnat.

Next up are the synopses and summaries. Huh? Surely there’s only one of these. Well, yes, there should be an international standard which says a synopsis is three pages of single spaced, but there isn’t. The three lengths I advise are 1 page, 3 pages and as many as you like.

A synopsis tells everything, even your cunning ending. Amazingly, agents don’t want to read your book for entertainment. Your inquiry is a business proposition, and they want to see that your proposal is complete and that it’s thought through. Who did it, why did they do it, and how they are caught and brought to justice (in the example of Grant’s book above). The detail, such as it is, varies by genre. What’s important in Grant’s book would be the local police force investigating him and seizing his charter boat, or the girl he almost manages to warn before she disappears. In Belle’s story, well, I’m not quite sure how she has a romance with a ghost, but for that reason, it would be important that that came across in the synopsis in a convincing way.

Why the different synopsis lengths?

Purely because agents approach inquiries in different ways, asking for different lengths. If you have the first two, it should cover almost any request. You can trim or expand for slightly different lengths, and they should fall in this range.

In a synopsis, name the antagonist, the protagonist and maybe two or three other characters. Beyond that, introduce names of people, groups or places purely to save words. For example, if a cabal of corrupt politicians is part of the plot and they’re called the Circle, introduce them

as such and use the name Circle. If they have no name, use cabal. Every time you introduce a name, even if it’s purely for reference in the synopsis, like cabal, highlight it in bold.

Rule breaker 1: I have once been asked for a synopsis in a paragraph. Basically that’s the elevator pitch with a one sentence outcome-

Grant has to fight against false charges and assassination attempts, but in the end, unmasks the governor as a devotee of a sadistic cult and guilty of multiple murders.

Rule breaker 2: I’ve given formulas to generate blurbs and synopses. Never use a formula when you have a blinding flash of inspiration instead.

So why the last, big, long-as-you-like synopsis. Because that’s the one you do first. That’s the one where you indulge yourself by getting in all the details that are important to you as a writer. It sometimes even helps with editing, plot revision and spotting holes. And it’s the one you start with when producing the blurb or synopsis. You work on it by taking a red pen and repeatedly asking what you do not need to say. And who knows, one day an agent might actually ask for a twelve page summary.

Hello, you’re Hugh Agent aren’t you? What floor you going to? What’s my book about? Oh gosh-

Amber Farrell is a Denver PI, down on her luck and being chased by drug gangs and vampires, when she takes on a job for a prominent local businesswoman. The case pits her against werewolves and then lands her in the middle of a centuries old vampire war that threatens the whole world.

Interested in finding out more about Amber? Check it out:

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About Mark Henwick

I was born in Africa and left out in the sun too often. An early interest in philosophy and psychology was adequately exorcised by tending bars. And while trying to enroll in a class to read Science Fiction full time, I ended up taking an engineering degree which splendidly qualified me to move into marketing. That in turn spawned a late onset career in creative writing. When not working, I get high by the slightly less conventional means of a small light aircraft. My first books are available on Amazon at

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