Success Is All About Making the Right Choice

Success comes with making the right choice of the object to deal with.

Why torture yourself with learning, training, taking risks and gaining success drop by drop?

Simply attack a slipper and feel like a lion!

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Writing a One-Sentence Novel Summary

Every author of fiction is familiar with the torture of putting together a one-sentence summary of every story they write: the sentence that serves a few purposes at a time. It is supposed to do a few things–

  • define the so-called “story question”;
  • help readers decide whether they want to read this book;
  • be the writer’s navigation tool that shows him/her the direction of writing;
  • become a very effective marketing tool, etc.

Writing a one-sentence description is always a big burden for the author, because every story contains numerous ideas, suggestions and messages, dozens of which can be precious for the readers, but the author must choose only one message: the one that will serve as a solid carcas supporting the whole structure of the future book.

Which message is it? How can the author identify it? What is the best way to put it together into that magical one-sentence statement? Many authors spend weeks trying to answer these questions, learning from each other, looking for a ‘universal’ algorithm, which would satisfy everyone: the author, the reader, and the publisher of the book.

The only constant in the book writing process is the triple alliance of the author, the reader, and the publisher. To understand what each party is expecting to see in our one-centence summary, it is necessary to look at their goals.

The author’s initial goal in writing a book is to impress a large number of people (what else can make a person voluntarily spend years of her life working like a dog without any guarantee of future rewards or benefits?) To impress a large number of people one needs to say something witty in that sentence: something new and revealing, something that others do not normally see the way the author can see it;

The reader’s goal is to obtain memorable experiences (emotional, intellectual, ethical, aesthetic, etc.) Obtaining memorable experiences is always associated with suffering (not physical, but emotional): every reader wants to experience a new level of it with every next book they take from a shelf, which means that our one-sentence statement must contain an emotionally disturbing idea or image; in other words, it should produce an effect of a needle prick.

The publisher’s goal is pragmatic: to hit the best possible sales and thus, to make the best possible profit, which means that the publisher is expecting to see a couple of amazingly precise and effective keywords which will capture the minds of millions.

Now, let us see what we can get from this. Summing up the above paragraphs, our magical one-sentence novel description must meet the three abovementionned basic conditions, which means that the author should make sure to include the following elements into the description:

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After we have given it a lot of thinking and put a few words opposite each of the three above items, we can move on to building the structure of our sentence. Again, how can we satisfy everyone who is going to read it?

Many publications on the topic suggest a variety of one-sentence summary structures which have worked well for the bestselling authors. We certainly cannot ignore them. Having studied a dozen of such publications, we can see that the proposed examples of one-sentence summaries usually have simple and easy to read structure, so that everyone could grasp all information contained in the sentence right away: literally, at a glance. Majority of sample one-sentence descriptions had the structures similar to this one:

one-sent-novel-summary-scheme1 I provided an example below the scheme, which illustrates the elements of the sentence structure. This example can also show us that the sample one-sentence description–

“In a care home for the elderly, a woman draws strength from a mysterious friendship in an attempt to recall past secrets and prove her sanity” (Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon review)

is not only built in accordance with the ‘Where-Who-How-What for’ scheme, but it also meets the three conditions which we discussed above:

(1) it contains a new, revealing look at a common, quite failiar and socially important topic (elderly woman draws strength… from friendship; … to prove her sanity);

(2) it is emotionally touching and grabs the reader’s attention right away (elderly woman;  friendship; prove sanity – these words produce expectation of a touching, possibly sentimental, maybe even dramatic, but definitely emotionally intense story);

(3) it has the ‘magical’ keywords, which immediately attract attention of the target audience (the words mysterious, secret draw our attention to the genre and style of writing: as we read them, we expect a great degree of suspense in the story; also, the phrases draws strength, an attempt to recall, and prove her sanity immediately evoke imagess of a dynamic and captivating plot, where the characters must take tremendous  efforts to achieve their goals).

As you can see, our ten-minute study of the ‘secrets’ of successful one-sentence summary writing has already revealed a lot of valuable information; I am sure we can get more if we study more examples of such summaries. I am going to continue my research and write another post about successful one-sentence novel summaries in this blog soon.

You are very welcome to paste your comments, suggestions and — maybe — your examples of one-sentence summaries below this post. Let us analyse them together.

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The Aftertaste of Portnoy’s Complaint

Portnoys-complaintWhy do we rate some books as classics, while many other books remain labeled in our minds as ‘just another great novel’? To me, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is a good example illustrating the answer to this question.

When I opened Portnoy’s Complaint for the first time, I could feel its Jewish-American scent from the very first lines. It felt like being physically present in that community and knowing the protagonist and his family in person. The images drawn by Philip Roth were so vivid that I was disgusted by the feeling of presence in their bathroom when I came across the descriptions of various physiological acts performed there by the protagonist. Some scenes disturbed me: they reminded me of other similar families which I used to know. The first pages caused some unpleasant aftertaste, so I had to close the book for a while and let my disgust calm down.

However, the book did not let me go, I started thinking about it. Surprisingly, the scenes that had caused my disgust in the beginning, slowly floated away with time, and then the main character — the self-antagonistic protagonist with painfully inflamed, guilt-infested mind, captured my imagination. The few first pages of the book left such a strong aftertaste that I had no other choice, but to open the book again and read it to the end.

To be honest, this guy–the protagonist–still disgusts me: this obtrusive Jewish bore keeps making me think about his problems… against my will! No, I am not going to discuss his mental and emotional health here… not in this post, but isn’t it amazing how the protagonist has all the qualities of an antagonist, and in fact, in this book, he is both! Two in one!

What attracts my attention is the fact that Philip Roth’s novel has captured my imagination so much that, weeks after reading it, I still return to it in my mind, thinking about its characters as if they are real people living next door.

I am certainly not the first one to develop this aftertaste from the novel. The book has  been sensationally popular; millions of people have read it since the day it was published. As Bernard Avishai wrote in his article for Huffington Post,

“By 1975, six years after the book’s publication, Portnoy’s Complaint had sold nearly half a million copies in hardback in the United States, three and a half million in paperback. The book brought what was in the back of our minds to the tips of tongues.”

The reviews of the book are countless, too. And quite controversial. Some rate the book as absolutely excellent, others are openly negative, but nearly no one evaluates the book as average.

The novel touches every reader in a unique way, no matter what kind of emotions it evokes, because Portnoy’s Complaint is–

“…a novel that is playfully and painfully moving, but also a work that is certainly catholic in appeal, potentially monumental in effect–and, perhaps more important, a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.” NYTimes review

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Novel Chapters of the Size of Tweets?

Whenever I come across an attractive piece of reading, my first thought is: Why don’t I check out the Internet for some quotes from the book first? If I like the quotes, I can devote a few minutes to reading about the book and its author, and only then I would take the book and start reading it. shrinking-1

In the new millemium, this tendency has grown into a common pattern for many of us, because our time is too precious and the abundance of books which are marketed as bestsellers is so mindblowing that we simply cannot afford to ‘read everything we can get our hands on’, as many readers use to say about their childhood habits.

This change is going to influence the writers’ work, too. Today, the life of an author is such that in order to conquer readers’ attention, one has to compress every thought to the size of a tweet. I won’t be surprised if I see a bestseller with chapters of the size of tweets some day. This is the specificity of our time, and authors will have to adjust to it.

Our available reading time is shrinking, so do the lengths of fiction and non-fiction works. This is the thought that I wanted to share here, so I will wrap up the post, hoping that somebody will read it to the end.

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The Thing About Luck

luckHuman luck is real, and it is a she. I have always known this with my subconscious mind, and now, when I have spent enough time studying it, I have learned to stay inspired with it. Luck shows itself to those who really want to see it, and Alice Hoffman’s words are correct: you don’t know if it is good or bad until you have some perspective.

My heroine Inga in A Soft Spot for Luck believes that–

…luck is a careless moth. It appears all of a sudden, circles around your hand, even touches it jauntily, and flies away, so you can’t catch it. We spend our whole lives chasing and trying to catch our luck, when in fact, all we need to do is just stretch out a hand and let it land there… Moreover, while we chase our moth of luck, we balance on the edge of an abyss, and the name of that abyss is Fate.”

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To those who needs a vivid image of it, Luck looks like a moth. To some it is a myth, a thing to believe in; to others, it is an invisible being – a smart one – which offers us chances to pick from. But finally, luck is always drawn to the feeling that can be developed in us: inspiration of love.

Let me say this again: Luck is real. It is everywhere, inside and around us. We live in it like fish lives in water. Luck is our natural habitat, it is our other air. We simply don’t realize its presence, because we can’t see or touch it.

We tend to forget this at times – like breathing the air. But whenever we walk into a stuffy room, we start worrying about air conditioning, don’t we? The same thing with luck. We start complaining about luck insufficiency or luck failure when we don’t have enough of it. There is no need to follow or chase our luck; we just need to prepare ourselves to live with whatever it offers us.

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Dealing with Rejections

I’ve been wondering, how many rejections should an author bear before he/she begins to suspect that his/her novel is not perfect? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? A thousand?

dWebFimRejections wear you out. They kill inspiration and boost the author’s inferiority complex, especially when the writer is new to the publishing world. When taking their first steps in fiction writing, the debut authors have no experience to rely on, and quite often, they have noone to ask about the industry’s ‘rules of conduct’. At the same time, it is very important  for a beginner to build some expectations about what they are going to face.

While writing, an author of a fiction book usually works alone; it is quite common for many full-time writers not to leave their home offices for weeks.  With such lifestyle, it is  difficult to create realistic career expectations, and to many beginners, even the information in the post below would be a discovery.

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I made a screenshot of this Emily Rodmell’s Twitter post to share the list of ways how books can be sold to publishers. In my opinion, the most reliable and realistic way is the last in the list, but how can a debut authir obtain a personal recommendation from trusted source when he/she does not know anybody in the industry yet?

The other ways in the above list also involve a big deal of entropy, first of all because you can’t learn much from your rejection letters. You never know why they decided to say no to you.

Yep. This is the most upsetting thing about the business: you’ve got to be someone if you want to be noticed.

They say, everybody gets rejected, it is quite normal. Well, maybe. At least, it is better to receive a rejection email than to get no answer at all! They say, go on, send your query, keep submitting and maybe some day…

I think the best formula here would be–

— Submit your book to a few places (five or so) —

— Revise your query and rethink your book —

— Edit your submission package —

— submit to another five places —

— repeat the whole cycle —

It is good to have a set-up process for dealing with publishers. By repeating it, you can overcome the stress of rejection and your every next submission package will probably be better than the previous one.

There is a big advertisement board in my gym, showing a picture of a sports woman training. It says:

You think training is hard? Try losing.

I prefer not to take rejections like losing. I take them like training. Just training before the big game.

What are your ways of dealing with rejections? Please, share your thoughts. Thank you!

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A Checklist for Your Query Letter

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I sincerely enjoy reading every piece of advice posted by Carly Watters (a literary agent at P.S. Literary Agency), especially her tips on writing query letters. I like her ability to put the most valuable information together in a short, easy to comprehend and remember manner. I came across this little checklist on Carly’s blog and found it really helpful in work on my query letters:

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU QUERY IS ACTUALLY A QUERY?

  • Does it read like back cover copy?  (1)

  • Does it refrain from giving away the ending unless it’s absolutely necessary? (2)

  • Is it three paragraphs long? (Intro, Pitch, Author bio.)  (3)

  • Does it focus on why your book is different?  (4)

  • Does it directly or indirectly touch on all of these things: character, their growth, their stakes, and their motivation?  (5)

There is practically nothing to add to this. You write your query, check it for compliance to these five items, and you may rest assured that the query is sufficiently good. Certainly, there is no end to making improvements to every query, but this checklist helps you create a good structure for your document, and then you only need to add some flavor to it.

The only thing I would rather add to this list is one more question, which is not directly related to the book which is being pitched, bu to the personality of the author. In my opinion, the question (6) should be–

  • Does my query look like a business letter or not?  (6)

I would add this item because it seems to me that many authors fail to demonstrate their committment to having long term business relationship with their potential agent. I don’t know if I am right or nit here, but I have read hundreds of sample queries and tried to imagine myself being an agent. Suppose, an agent liked an author’s idea and is considering giving this novel a try. What would the agent’s major concern be at this point? I think it will be the fact that they are not acquainted and the agent has no idea what kind of person the author is.

As far as I understand, the author/agent work involves lots of interaction on person-to-person level, as well as lots of negotiation, counseling, learning from each other, and following multiple rules, conditions, and time limitations. All this is only possible when the two people are compatible and when both understans the business nature of this relationship. This is why I find this item important: the business-like style of the query can tell a lot to the agent about the author and thus, it can influence the agent’s final decision about working with an author or rejecting him/her.

 

Agents Have Their Blocks, Too!

I have just ran across a blog post about reading blocks: a common problem for book editors and literary agents. The author explained that reading blocks may occur to everyone who works with books on daily basis, because they hardly ever read books for pleasure: to them, reading every new book means a hard work of mind, asking and answering questions like: ‘Can I sell this book?’ or ‘How am I going to promote it?’

The author of the post tried to convince her readers that even today, in the time when the world is facing terrible challenges like wars, economic stagnation, terrorism and increasing violence, the job of literary agents is needed, anyway, because they help create new voices in literature. Still, the gereral intonation of the post was a bit apologetic (at least to my mind), as if the author was trying to justify herself and her colleagues, so I felt bound to share my opinion on this.

Female student writing at desk

I am convinced that the work of finding new voices in literature IS very important: it is as important as finding new voices and discoveries in every other creative area.  Still, majority of people today tend to underestimate it, because they have already swallowed the poisonous pill of ignorance. This makes the role of humble publishing industry workers even more significant now, when the world is being shrugged by violence, terrorism, wars, arrogance and populism (in my mind all these phenomena grow from the same root of ignorance). By finding new voices and by bringing them to the world, editors and agents help promote education, intelligence, and ethical values, which altogether may help us overcome the disease of mass ignorance.

I would like to thank the editors and agents, who are not afraid to share about their work-related problems and chores. Knowing about your reading blocks helps us, authors, to see you as real people, rather than as ‘callous rejection machines’ with no emotions whatsoever (I picked this from Facebook).

The more talented voices are discovered and displayed to the world, the better our life will be, the less violence we will witness and the fewer ignorant minds will govern our lives. I am a strong believer in this principle, so I want to support and encourage you, editors and agents, to go on and do your work well.

As an educator, I have a similar professional goal: I share knowledge with those who can’t stand ignorance and I continuously look for new voices and smart ideas among the students I work with.

By the way, we, teachers, have teaching blocks, too. In fact, my recent block was so bad that I wrote a novel while trying to overcome it. But, as a popular saying goes, ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, so I never stopped pursuing my mission: I teach. It does not matter where and in what form: in classroom, in the open air, online, or through the books I write.

To be able to teach really well, I need to learn from the new voices which you, editors and agents, create. So please, do not stop. Give us, readers, more food for thought… every day!

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Dostoevsky’s drawings

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Fyodor Dostoevsky never discussed his drawings with anybody. Neither he left any notes describing his attempts to picture his characters or scenes from his stories. He must have believed that writing was a very intimate business, so the only person who was allowed to keep Dostoevsky’s diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks, was his wife, Anna. It was largely due to her effort that many of Dostoevsky’s sketches and drawings were preserved in very good condition and can be studied by researchers today.

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Interestingly, Dostoevsky never produced anything else but the three types of drawings:
1. Portraits of people, which were made with great attention to detail and, as a rule, they were images of his new characters, which he crafted while working on every new book;

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2. Architectural forms, mainly of Gothic style buildings, which Dostoevsky – an architect by diploma – also drew with amazing care for detail; and
3. Exercises in calligraphy, which, very probably, helped him concentrate when he was planning his novel plots, because these ‘exercises’ appear quite often among his notes, made at the beginning stages of work with every big manuscript.

D1 His drawings, as well as writing sketches are usually scattered all over the page, which shows how thoroughly he used to put together little pieces of ideas, scattered thoughts and observations to develop every scene, description, or dialog.

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This is how great books were (and are) put together: huge work of mind; mindblowing concentration of thought, amazing work of imagination.

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Love… as Dostoevsky saw it.

Love. Is it a gift given to us from above, or a skill which can be developed by learning? I have been trying to figure this out, and of course, I am not the first one to ask this question. A great thinker of the 19-th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky, kept trying to answer this question during his whole life. Some of his thoughts on the topic can be found in his immortal novels. I spent this morning turning pages of my Soviet-time edition of Dostoevsky, published in 1958.

D001Let me start with a line from The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most acclaimed of Dostoevsky’s novels: 

“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

Wow. Scary, isn’t it?

In the 19-th century the phrase ‘being unable to love’ sounded even worse than it sounds now: it meant that Creator himself had decided to deprive some particular people of the gift, and thus, they were in some way inferior, or sinful, or just ‘spotted’ and destinied to suffer endlessly.

Today, it is still common to hear that love is a gift given to us from above, but we tend to take it lightly, because — well — science tells us not to worry. “Love is a result of chemical reactions,” it says, “if your body has hormones — and, of course, every body has some,” it says, “then you have nothing to worry about: relax, you are capable of feeling love.”

Modern science looks at it with pragmatism, typical of the 21-st century. The notion ‘gift’ is defined by modern dictionaries as a natural ability or talent, and so, some people feel gifted for love, while others claim that love is a skill (interpreted by dictionaries as ‘the ability to do something well; expertise’), which can be acquired by training. Very convenient, don’t you think? 😉

When 150 years ago Dostoevsky wrote that–

“To love someone means to see them as God intended them.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

every reader would nod his head in agreement on reading this, a contemporary reader might shrug doubdfully or even express disagreement. Unlike our great-great-grandparents, we, modern people, prefer to believe that being in love is an exciting adventure, which may (and should) happen to anybody, it may involve lots of emotional experience, and– well, there is no need to worry: nobody dies of love anymore. Love is fun! Why even try to understand how God intended your partner, when you

In his latest stories, ever-gloomy Dostoevsky writes–

“To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

Love IS a skill, agrees the great genius, because it can be developed. Moreover, it develops with suffering, it takes you time and suffering to learn the skill of love. In Dostoevsky’s latest story, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, his character says:

“I want to suffer so that I may love.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

If Dostoevsky’s characters finally managed to master the skill of love, they would realize the change that happened to them:

“They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

but still, there was lots of suffering:

“But to fall in love does not mean to love. One can fall in love and still hate.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

and more suffering:

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What a gloomy, dark, sad, derogatory approach! After this, I am not surprised that our high-school students are reluctant to read Dostoevsky.

Still, a genius is always a genuis. Even hundreds years later, his words remain meaningful. Moreover, they sound like a call for action, and no one of us could put it together as precisely as Dostoevsky did:

“Love a man, even in his sin, for that love is a likeness of the divine love, and is the summit of love on earth.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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P.S. This is a photo of a page from Dostoevsky’s book of notes. One of these days, I am going to put together a little post about his drawings and calligraphy practice. It seems he loved drawing while planning his scenes.

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