Saturday, April 2, 2011

Preparing for Publication--Writing Your Book's Premise and Synopsis

A reader from Minnesota has gotten interest from a publisher, but the publisher has asked for a written statement of her book--often called a premise statement--and a longer synopsis with market analysis.  Hers is a nonfiction book that straddles memoir and investigative nonfiction, and she wondered about how to put these two items together. Her publisher was specific:

1. Descriptive statement. Please provide a 250-300 word description of your book that includes
a summary of its main points, what sets your work apart from other titles on the same subject, and any other important points that should be emphasized in promotion. Please also indicate the main audience for your work. This description will be used to generate jacket and catalog copy.

2. Short descriptive statement. Please describe your book's scope and theme in one or two sentences. Also, please list three features that make your book unique.

What needs to go into these two statements?  How carefully do you craft them? 

They are quite important, and they can be used to sell your book to a publisher or agent in the early stages  of submission as well as present your published book to bookstores, libraries, and online booksellers.  Spending some time crafting them is a good idea. 

I'll give an overview here, but more can be found in my new book, Your Book Starts Here, where I go into the making of a good proposal packet and how to craft the material you need to sell (and publish) your book.

Premise Statement
The short descriptive statement is also called a premise statement, and a good one combines the outer story and inner story of your book into an intriguing soup.

Two of my favorite premise statements come from a book called Making the Perfect Pitch, edited by Katherine Sands.  These premises resulted in publication, capturing the attention of agents and eventually a publisher.

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

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

To craft a premise statement, I recommend brainstorming a list of elements of your book, five from the outer story (what happens) and five from the inner story (the meaning).   Notice how Pham's book reveals enough of the outer story elements to get us interested (the first part of the premise statement), then he delivers the inner story with the words an eternal refugee. Soehnlein does the same thing, saying that his hero "was coming undone," a clear inner story hook.  Both of these also contain a little intrigue, which is common with well-crafted premise statements.  There is often a little twist, a play on words, perhaps, or a surprising direction.

Descriptive Statements
Descriptive statements, which often become back-cover copy for books, are longer and more involved. They present the book's story but also its potential uniqueness in the marketplace, giving just enough to let a reader in on what the book might offer, why they would want to pick it up.

Here's the descriptive statement for my novel, Qualities of Light:

On the morning of her brother’s seventh birthday, talented pastel painter Molly Fisher agrees to take him for an illicit boat ride, just the two of them, across Cloud Lake near their Adirondack cabin. Fifteen-year-old Molly risks her father’s anger over use of the boat, but she doesn’t realize Sammy has also stolen their father’s war-era jackknife, promised to him as a birthday gift.

On the lake, as the sun is rising over the mountains, Sammy drops the knife in the water and reaches for it, falling and hitting his head. Suddenly her brother is near death, and Molly faces the hardest summer of her life.

She feels unable to appeal to her parents—anguished airplane-pilot mother Kate and stoic, self-enclosed artist father Mel. As Sammy lingers in a coma, Molly tries to get out of the way of her parents’ misery and accommodate herself to the guilt and sadness she believes she deserves.

Then she meets Zoe, a daring young waterskier also vacationing at Cloud Lake. Zoe gets her to dance to jazz in the privacy of a secluded cabin, even though Molly says she’s given up dancing, and the two girls become best friends and unexpectedly fall in love. Molly struggles to reconcile the happiness and terror of her first love affair with the family tension and anxiety surrounding Sammy’s illness, and Cloud Lake itself begins to play almost as integral a role in Molly’s emotional rehabilitation as it did in the trauma of Sammy’s injury.

Qualities of Light explores the budding of forbidden romance in the face of family tragedy, the forging of a new relationship between a daughter and her difficult father/artistic mentor, and the inevitable changes that come as an adolescent girl is thrust into acceptance of her own qualities of light and darkness.

The descriptive statement will get tweaked by the publisher's editing staff, ideally.  Or you can work with an editor you hire to help you craft it.  Since it's the marketing vehicle for your book to bookstores, libraries, and online sellers, it needs to be clear, interesting, and present the uniqueness of your story.

As you craft it, ask yourself: What's different about my book?  How deep does the story's message go?    

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Craft a premise statement for your book.  First list five elements of the outer story that are the most important to you.  Brainstorm wording for these on paper.  Then list the elements of the inner story, your book's meaning.  Take the two lists and create a short phrase or sentence that could engage a reader.  Finally, add a twist, if you can, using the two premise statements above as models.

2.  Craft a descriptive statement for your book.  Brainstorm on paper about the unique aspects of your story.  Start by noting the details of the plot (if memoir or fiction) and what's at stake.  Give the overview of your method or theory (if nonfiction) and what benefit it will deliver to a reader.  For more examples, read the jacket (inside flap) or back-cover copy of your favorite books in the same genre as your book.  Notice how the wording demonstrates uniqueness, gives just enough of the plot or focus of the book to intrigue, and leaves us wanting more. 


  1. Great advice and you presented it in a way that is easy to understand. I am off to brainstorm important inner and outer elements of my WIP right now!

  2. Thanks, Haley, glad it was helpful. Thanks also for visiting!

  3. This is actually a really helpful post adn very relevant to me at the moment I tend to get a bit lost sometimes with my writing. Helpful thanks :)

  4. Thanks for visiting, Charlee. Glad it was helpful!

    If you want more info on this, I go into it in depth in my new book (see photo at top of blog)

  5. Great post. Thanks, Mary! And congratulations on your new book. I look
    forward to reading/utilizing it.

  6. Thanks for visiting, Cindy! I'm thrilled about the book and hope you enjoy it.

  7. Thanks Mary. After 40,000 words, you have led me back to the start.

  8. Thanks, David. Nice to see you in the Loft class this weekend too!

  9. I just retired as a public school teacher. I would like to write a book but seem to have a mental block about starting it. I am not sure what type of book I would like to write but recently started compiling some anecdotals from my teaching experience as a special education teacher. Do you think anecdotals can form the basis for a novel?

    Thank you.

  10. Oh, yes, these small stories certainly do form the basis for a novel. You can expand them into chapters--then order them for a good flow of plot. Check out my posts here on storyboarding, or my book Your Book Starts Here for how-to.


  11. My brother and I have an idea for and have started a few chapters. How successful do you find dual writers?

  12. Frances,

    Stay tuned--this is going to be answered in a blog post very soon.