Friday, February 7, 2014

Writing a Premise Statement for Your Book: Inner and Outer Story Synopsis and Why It Helps Get You Published

Imagine receiving 300-400 manuscript queries--each week!  Flooding your inbox.  Some weeks, even more.   

Welcome to the life of agents.  And their hired assistants who sort through queries to find the lucky few that stand out.  Maybe you'd like it to be yours?  What would you have to do, to make that a possibility?

Writers working on their first book may not even know what a query is.  It's a short, one-page letter (via email, often) that presents your book in the most engaging way.  It goes like this:  one paragraph about your book, one about your credentials for writing it, one about why you chose to solicit this particular agent.  It's brief, it's punchy, it's eye-catching. 

At least, that's the plan.

How do you start writing a good query? 

With a premise statement, also called a tag line or pitch or elevator speech.  A quick synopsis of your book's inner and outer story.


Inner and Outer Story
Inner story is the meaning of your book.  The take away.  It answers the question, So what?  Why should I read this?  Books are sold not just for an exciting plot or timely topic but for their meaning.  What will your reader receive for time spent?

Outer story is what happens, the plot or topic, the uniqueness of the story.  It answers the questions, Who? What? Where? When?

Both inner and outer story show up in the premise statement. 

In fact, the premise statement lets you test them out--can you combine them so they intertwine naturally?  Are both well developed? 

Drafting a premise is a great way to tell what you've overlooked.

Leading with Your Premise Statement
New writers think they need to warm up an agent--tell the story behind the story.  How did I come to write this book?  What's my background as a writer?  Why did I pick you, Ms. Agent, to query?

Although agents are as individual in their preferences as writers, those I've worked with, as well as those I've spoken with, say:  Grab my attention with the book itself.  And right away.  First sentences count the most! 

Remember, this is a person who reads 300-400 of these a week.  Imagine the wall of pages!  After a few months, most can tell by your first two lines whether this book project will work for them. 

Premise statements are the strongest way to pitch your story.  So put them first.  Don't waste your chance to grab an agent's attention.  Let the premise lead your query letter.

Premise Statements That Sell
It's fun to read premise statements that sold a book for their author.  Here are two, taken from Making the Perfect Pitch, edited by Katherine Sands, a wonderful collection of interviews with agents on publishing.  I include these examples and more in Your Book Starts Here.

"When all the kids around him were coming of age, Robin MacKenzie was coming undone."  from The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein

"I am a Vietnamese American man, witness to the fall of Saigon, a prisoner of war, an escapee, a first-generation immigrant, and an eternal refugee."  from Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham

Can you find the inner and outer story in each of these? 

It's not easy to craft a premise that will sell your book.  Expect to work on it, expect to need feedback from potential readers--or agents you meet at conferences who are willing to talk about query letters.  Read up on it--there are many good books and websites that teach query writing.  In my workshops and online classes, we spend time crafting and getting feedback on premise statements. 

Here's an easy way to get started writing a premise statement.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Write a short paragraph about your book's inner story:  What's its deeper meaning, the lesson learned, the change that happens?  What larger message does it present?  To get hints on how to write this, scan the back cover of your favorite published books.  Sometimes the publisher has included the inner story in the book blurb, or the reviewers have mentioned it as a take away.

2.  Write a short paragraph about your book's outer story.  What happens, where does it happen, who is the main player, what method are you teaching, what is the time period of the story--the specifics.  Again, get hints from published books you love.

3.  Hone each of these down to 10-15 words.  What is really essential?  Craft the phrases in eye-catching language.  Study how other writers do this.

4.  Combine the inner and outer story into one premise statement.