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Contributor
Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013
Contributor
Written by
Susan Conley
July 2013

To Sell Your Book You Need to Know (and I Mean Really Know)  What that Book of Yours Is All About

So let’s say you write a book. Or you write the first or second draft of a manuscript that’s well on its way towards being a book. You live in the weeds of this book for weeks and months and years. You inhabit it. Even in your sleep. It’s exhilarating work. And it’s a slog. It’s the most creative thing you’ve ever done. And it’s also mind-blowingly difficult. You’re trying to capture a beginning and middle and end of something that you may understand intuitively, but still need to build sentences for. In a sense, you’re trying to hold the whole, entire story in your head at any given moment.

Then, as you begin to turn the corner on the material, you think you may be close to done. Your book’s plot follows a clear arc. The dialogue hums along. The characters (fiction or non-fiction) say authentic, compelling things. Some of them are people you’d even like to date or go on vacation with. And the setting is spot-on. The grit of the different locales is there in all its glory. The pacing seems good too.

What I’m suggesting that you do at this moment, pre-publication, is pause and ask yourself: what’s this book about? Then get out a pen and try to answer the question. This may involve broad brushstrokes at first--a kind of 30,000-foot view. And it may be harder than you thought. But try to move past the broad strokes and get closer to the material and ask more detailed questions: Consequences of the plot? Motivations of characters? What does it all add up to?

Call it a pitch if you want. But it’s a little different than the pitch. You’re not “selling” the book yet to an agent or editor (though they will be very interested in the answers you write down). Instead, you’re finishing the book for yourself. And you need to be very clear with yourself.

It sounds obvious. And you already know, in theory, what your book is about. I mean, you’ve been living inside the book for years. But now that you’re close to the end, has its focus shifted? Have certain characters taken over more than you realized and changed the dynamics? Answering these questions was something I did repeatedly while I wrote drafts of my novel. And my book’s focus changed over time. I lost characters I liked, who I thought might be central. I let go of entire, slow-cooked plotlines.

Then, after my editor bought the book, she challenged me to write the tightest description of it ever. Fifteen words or less. It was like putting together the most complicated jigsaw puzzle, and it took me way, way too long. That’s when I knew I still had work to do on the manuscript. And that’s when I understood that I still didn’t fully know the consequences of the plot lines and character dynamics I’d created. This was one of those personal reckoning moments.

I was holding the strings of the marionettes but I hadn’t fully owned up to my responsibilities. The plot still needed me to tighten it until everyone’s actions were accounted for. The characters needed me to help them stop making a mess of their lives and the lives of the people they loved.

The tight synopsis that I wrote for my editor served almost as a trail marker for me when I went back in to do the subsequent draft. I’d refer to it when I was lost in the weeds again. Then I’d remind myself, oh my novel is about X. And X.

It was then that I got to fully understand the beating heart of the book--its emotional truth. Which was something I hadn’t been able to fully see before. But this insight came only close to the end, when I’d laid enough of the grounding wires and done enough writing to get the intimate view in. Then the more my editor understood my book’s motivations--its obsessions and preoccupations--the more she could be an actual editor. Her work began in earnest, and she helped me shape the book to be the strongest final, final, final draft that I had in me.

Susan Conley is the author of the novel Paris Was the Place, forthcoming from Knopf on August 6th, 2013 and the memoir The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011). She’s written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post and Maine Magazine. You can follow Susan on Facebook and Twitter and at her website: SusanConley.com.

Photo credit: Sous la Tour Eiffel by Jebulon courtesy Wikimedia Commons.            

 

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Comments
  • Susan Conley

    So glad the post has helped in any way! I have been teaching memoir down a long dirt road in Freeport, Maine at the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program. It's one of the low residency ones. And it feels like stepping out of time when I spend the week there. We've been talking a lot about what coheres essays and memoirs and novels and I have been focussing a lot on various hooks:  a sense of place, innovative structure, characters, etc. Tomorrow I'm posting something about this sense of place and how it can hold a book together and root it. Happy writing all!

  • Jessica J.J. Lutz

    Thank you for this post, Susan. I'm in the process of editing the editing my editor did. (My book is coming out in Feb 2014, in Holland.) I'll follow your lead. It will be a very good exercise to focus my thoughts. And I too am very curious to see your synopsis.

  • Susan J Slack

    I'm gunna jump off and offer one before I see Susan's. (The other Susan)

    "The perfect crime or a catalyst with unpredictable global repercussions? Justice prevails over the centuries."

    Too much? It's an historical murder mystery (in case you couldn't guess)

  • Evalyn Lee

    Susan, I agree with Val. would you consider posting your log line attempts? Thank you too for the post. Really helpful. Makes me understand where I am in the process. Evalyn

  • Becca Martin

    This post could not have come at a better time. I'm a tantalizing 50 pages away from finishing my novel (pre-edit stage). Just the other day, I began to lose sight of what my novel is really about. Thanks so much for the advice!

    Becca

  • Romi Grossberg

    Your post kind of made me giggle, because yes I am there too. I knew exactly what my book was about before i started and now, as i finish my first draft, i am not sure I can answer the question anymore... will keep at it. Maybe even try to do it in 15 words!

  • Valerie Brooks

    Susan,

    Another good post! If you would, I think it would help all of us if we saw a few of your attempts, and possibly your final fifteen word synopsis/pitch/logline. I learn much better by example. I would, however, understand if that would tell us readers too much about the novel. Don't want to give away anything! No spoilers.

    Thanks again.

    Val

  • Susan J Slack

    Susan - Thanks for this. EXACTLY where I am now. Almost finished putting it all down and I am asking "What is it about?" So glad I am in such excellent company. Best of everything for your new book. Well, gotta go write my fifteen words now!