A recent survey of all-time favourite books places Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the top. Personally, I’m happy with that ranking. It’s a favourite of mine too. I first read the book ages ago and I recall burning through the pages in a glorious ‘couldn’t put the book down’ reading that carried on into the wee hours. A few years ago, I reread the book, curious to see if time and maturity might have dimmed the warm glow I felt then. Nope. Still wonderful and gripping.
I’m not sure how the book landed in my hands the first time. Word of mouth, I’m guessing, because it was on every top 10 list imaginable. Which raises interesting questions: If there hadn’t been such a buzz, would I have actually selected the book on my own? How would I know it’s one I might want to read?
You can see where I’m going with this. Like most people, I rely on book descriptions to help with the decision – those sparse blurbs on the back cover or inside flap or in the subject heading on Amazon, Chapters and other online sources. Just for fun, here’s the book description for To Kill a Mockingbird (minus a couple of lines that mention its literary acclaim and would have been omitted in original copies).
The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it….Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos…. This regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.
With my first novel for middle graders almost complete, my publisher is busy crafting its book description. Unlike a synopsis or summary which might cover a full page or even several, book descriptions are snappy, short and – I can testify to this because I’ve dabbled with a few – notoriously difficult to write.
From a number of online sources, here’s a list of ingredients well written book descriptions contain:
- A hook. Grab the reader in the first sentence. Make it a standout line that not only sums up the book, but compels people to read on.
- An emotional connection. How will the book make readers feel? Is it a tear-jerker or laugh-filled? Spine-chilling or nail-biting?
- The payoff. What will readers get out of the book? Will they be happier, wiser, more compassionate or just plain entertained? Why?
- A description. What is the story about? Just a few lines, enough so readers have a sense of the story line.
- Characters. Who are the major players?
- Problem. What big problem, dilemma, obstacle, conflict stands in the way? Not small stuff here, but the overriding issue.
- Cliffhanging conclusion. Make your readers so curious, so intrigued, and so excited they’ll want to read on.
A pretty tall order, right? Even taller when you consider how much space you have. One source put the max word count at 150. Others said less. As a reference point, the description for To Kill a Mockingbird quoted above registers at 82 words, and not a single one wasted.