Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doing the impossible: a (mostly) spoiler-free Wool summary

Scanning GalleyCat today, I saw a story about Hugh Howey, author of the self-published Wool series, signing a book deal with Simon & Schuster (you know, to go with his movie deal).

What struck me most wasn't Mr. Howey's incredible (and incredibly unique) success, but rather a paragraph reprinted from Simon & Schuster's press release. It's a near-perfect example of the kind of book summary paragraph we try to write in our query letters. Here it is:

Wool is the thrilling story of a post-apocalyptic world in which a community lives in a giant silo underground, hundreds of stories deep. Inside, men and women live within a society full of regulations they believe are meant to protect them from the toxic outside world. But a new sheriff is about to be entrusted with fixing her silo, and she will soon learn just how deeply her world is broken. The silo’s inhabitants are about to face what their history has only hinted about and never dared to whisper: Uprising.

What makes this example so impressive? Let's make a list.

  • Satisfying plot tease. I know enough about what's going to happen in this book to be interested. Things gone awry in an underground silo? Political uprising? And... A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN? Yes, please. 
    • One could argue that "how deeply her world is broken" is too vague (and what is she "fixing her silo" from?), but the setup gives us an idea of what's gone wrong ("regulations they believe are meant to protect them").
  • No spoilers! I'm most of the way through the Wool Omnibus Edition, and each of the five stories contains at least one major surprise. This summary doesn't really give any of them away.* What it does give me is a feeling of envy that whoever wrote this managed to walk the line between teasing and spoiling.
  • Succinct setup. One of the hardest things in writing a query letter for speculative fiction is explaining your setting. You have to give the reader some sense of when and where you are (Narnia? The Horsehead Nebula in the year 30,000?), but you can't spend all day doing it. As the author, it can be hard to know when you've done enough. Your readers need to know that your story takes place in a silo. 
    • Wait, a silo? Why? Well, see, bad stuff happened, and now the outside air is all toxic-like, and so people have to live in a silo to be safe.... 
    • Here, the writer gave us just enough information for the rest of the description to make sense. "Post-apocalyptic" is a good signal, and the "toxic outside" comes up in the context of mentioning the (problematic?) rules that govern silo life. I don't need to know what happens if people go outside. I don't need to know how long people have been in a silo. I don't even need to know why the outside is toxic. I know that the outside is toxic in a post-apocalyptic kind of way, and that explains why people live in a silo. Any sentence beginning with "In the years after [terrible crisis or something]..." would be too much of a digression.
*Unless you're think it's a spoiler to say that Charlton Heston travels to the future and finds talking apes in Planet of the Apes.

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