My father-in-law offered to take the kids and me to see the new Harry Potter movie. Of course they were delighted (it was all sold out here in Charlotte) and we headed off to the theater.
We settled into our seats, put on our 3-D glasses, and I leaned over and asked my father-in-law if he’d seen part one of the movie, prepared to set the stage for him a little if needed.
“No,” he said. “I haven’t seen any of the movies.”
I froze. “None of them? And you haven’t read the books, either?”
“Not a one.”
The previews were starting. I leaned closer and said, “Okay. Harry Potter is with the good guys. The bad guys want to kill everybody. It’s good versus evil.” It was all I had time to tell him.
He nodded. “Got it!”
Amazingly, although obviously he missed a lot of references and the whole wand thing at the end might have been confusing, he was able to really enjoy the movie and not be totally lost. Because it did boil down to a suspenseful question of whether the good guys were going to beat the bad guys. A familiar scene whether you’re talking about Macbeth or Lord of the Flies or an episode of Law and Order.
The nice thing about writing traditional mysteries is that the theme is very basic and understandable. I can quickly summarize my books: someone rubs people the wrong way. This person is killed. A sleuth investigates and learns who did it.
But all books should be able to be fairly easily summed up. This is important for pitching a book in person or writing a query letter. It’s also important if you’re writing sales copy for a self-published book. Because readers usually want a book that sounds like something they can understand.
Looking at the New York Times’ bestseller list right now, there are super-short descriptions of each novel. Some of them are better than others:
PORTRAIT OF A SPY, by Daniel Silva. (HarperCollins.) To stop a network of death, an international operative must reach into his violent past.
NOW YOU SEE HER, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. Nina Bloom, who years ago changed her identity to save her life, is forced to confront the past and the killer she thought she had escaped.
THE CONFESSION, by John Grisham. (Knopf Doubleday.) A criminal wants to save an innocent man on death row, but he must convince the authorities he’s telling the truth.
Can you sum up your story super-briefly? How have you boiled it down to just the bare bones?