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:

one-sent-novel-summary-elements1

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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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.

agented-submission

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!

athlete

 

A Checklist for Your Query Letter

suspense3

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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Building Tension in a Story

Suspense Wilde quote

In her recent article Plot Devices that Work, Myra Fiacco suggests two winning techniques that help create anticipation in a story: ‘the clock’ (which is really popular among authors) and the so-called ‘the other shoe’, or “the point in a story when one or more of your characters has a moment of realization, revealing the missing piece of a puzzle that ties the story together.”

Making these two techniques work in a story is not so easy; it certainly takes working on every scene again and again after the first draft has been finished. I am not surprised that writing every novel takes brilliant authors like Donna Tartt nearly a decade; I am sure such authors rewrite their works hundreds of times before they can feel satisfied… So, what are other writing techniques to create and keep tension in a novel?

I have been thinking about these:

The increasing feeling of time pressure. If my character has a goal that must be reached really soon, plus some circumstances will keep breaking in and making the charcter hurry even more, then the reader will probably be more satisfied by the pace of the story.

The tension should come from all sides. If the pressure us high, plus more and more troubling signs of impending danger are revealed to the main character, this may also help a lot. But in this case, the author should not forget about balancing tension with the other elements of the plot. Too many elements of tension in a story may turn the book into a real rollercoaster for the reader.

I like it when the protagonist is a thinking preson, who keeps asking questions and trying to find answers to them. The questions should arise from internal and external conflicts of the story, and it is very important to reveal every answer for the reader before you write ‘the end’ phrase.

The chrescendo technique is a method of keeping the reader interested by gradually increasing emotional tention in the story, and it says: avoid too many sudden jerks in the plot. As a reader, I don’t care for the plots where every plot point comes a real catastrophy: this makes me emotionally tired of the book.

Well, I am sure there are more ‘tricks’ to develop tension in a story; here are just a few articles I read recently on the topic. I hope they might help you answer your questions just like they helped me:

How to Build Tension to Heighten the Stakes by Jessica Page Morrell;

Seven Tension Building Tips for Writing Action Scenes by Joan C. Curtis

How to Create Dramatic Content by Sean D’Souza

Here is some infographics from nownovel.com blog:

Infographic-how-to-create-tension-in-stories

 

 

 

‘One Man’s Meat…’ (A few words about clichés)

hack5

Every EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher always feels happy to find a new frequently used word or a popular phrase and share it with her students. As I was looking through recent publications about the art of writing this morning, I ran across an article called ‘The List of Clichés You Should Strike Down in Editing‘. The article offers great tips on writing for authors and provides “a non-definitive list of clichés to avoid”.

My first thought on seeing it was: “Oh, it is good to know for my future writing experiences.” But the longer I studied the list, the more interested I became.

“Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “as a foreigner, I didn’t even know that some of these word combinations have a reputation of hackneyed phrases, and probably people in other English speaking countries wouldn’t find them ‘hackneyed’, either.

hackneyed (1)

Then I thought that, as long as these phrases have gained the reputation of being used too often, they are probably well-understood and accepted by thousands of people, which means… that my students need to know them!

Really, what can disgust an editor becomes a desired tidbit for a teacher and her students. Here is the list from the article. Learners of English, enjoy!

Chip off the old block
Loose cannon
Ace up his sleeve
Scared of his own shadow
Add insult to injury
Avoid like the plague
Let the cat out of the bag
Bad to the bone
Cross that bridge when we come to it
Bald-faced liar
Trial by fire
Bark is worse than his bite
Beggars can’t be choosers
Armed to the teeth
Bee in her bonnet
Ugly as sin
Bent out of shape
Bend over backwards
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
Let off some steam
Burning the candle at both ends
Caught red handed
A checkered past
Until the cows come home
Take the bull by the horns
Fit as a fiddle
Chomping/Champing at the bit
Come hell or high water
Cute as a button
No stone unturned
The devil is in the details
All your eggs in one basket
Don’t rock the boat
Down in the dumps
Beat around the bush
Driven up the wall
Keep an ear to the ground
Level the playing field
Barking up the wrong tree
Everything but the kitchen sink
For all intents and purposes
Force to be reckoned with
In the nick of time
It goes without saying
Knock it out of the park
Neither here nor there
Bite the bullet
Nothing to sneeze at
Older than dirt
Open a can of worms
Pleased as punch
Quiet as a mouse
Weed them out
The whole hog
Go the whole nine yards
Work like a dog
Get up on the wrong side of the bed
Yanking your chain
Nip it in the bud
Tough as nails
At the end of the day
When push comes to shove
No use crying over spilt milk
Back to the drawing board
Phone it in

hackneyed

Learning to Outline

book_outlineIn the Soviet time, when I studied at school and later at university, no one ever bothered to teach us any methods of writing. We never did any training in organizing or planning compositions, not to mention such things as structuring book plots or writing marketable outlines. As far as I know, the situation has not changed much since then in the post-Soviet educational establishments, so many of my compatriots, even those with diplomas of journalists (no universities have ever had any programs for fiction writers here) have a good understanding of how to plan, or structure, or organize a text. So, I have been learning to do this from A to Z, previously as an academic books author and now as a beginner in fiction writing.

I really loved to study K.M.Weiland’s book “Structuring Your Novel” and I have her brilliant novel structure scheme on my table all the time:

RESIZED-structuring-your-novel-visual-chart-screenshot My other favorite guide is the 3-Act Structure guide, which is skillfully described by Emma Johnson  and a number of other experts in methodology of writing.

Three-act-structure_1

Yes, I prefer to call it by a boring word methodology, because in fact, it is always a method that turns any action into a skill.

Method is the only tool that can turn a spontaneous action into a skill.

In my culture the learners of this kind would be called “samouchka” (“самоучка”, Rusian: a self-studying person), which means that I often have to develop my own methods of doing things. So I do.

I have developed a convenient scheme of outlining fiction books for potential marketers, based on the existing novel structuring methodologies, which I mentioned above. Below, is my little scheme (or model):

A Novel Outline Model

With [some unusual condition that distinguishes him] [the main character’s name] is looking forward to a [the main character’s primary intention or goal]. Instead he walks into [First Disaster], and [Point of no return].


[The second main character’s name] has been [the 2-nd main character’s condition in the beginning of the book]. But [his/her initial intention/goal] is confounded by [the conflict of the story].


[The main character’s name] becomes involved into [Second Disaster (The Midpoint: the main character’s push to action, his move to different circumstances)], so he/she is seeking [the main character’s new goal]. Instead, he/she discovers [the 2-nd Pinch point event, when the antagonist’s power is reaffirmed], and faces [Third Disaster (an event that provokes the inexorable course towards the Climax].

I have played with the model, trying to create outlines for my books, and it seems to work well! With this structure (plus some time spent on polishing of the outline) I can create outlines a lot faster than just by doing it out of my mind. You are very welcome to try it, and please, tell me if you can think of improvements for this model.

I will greatly appreciate any comments and suggestions. Thank you!

author

Suspense… in Life and in Fiction Writing

 I have been reading about the role of suspense in fiction writing and, as it often happens in the world of writers, I found a number of excellent articles describing features and merits of suspense, but none of them provided a decent definition of the term. Some works characterize suspense as a “sense of anticipation or worry that the author makes the reader feel” (https://prezi.com/wyt6zmamrm9w/elements-of-suspense-in-literature/ or http://elementsoflit.weebly.com/foreshadowing-and-suspense.html), which provides general understanding of the role of suspense, but is a bit misleading because, according to this description, suspense is a human feeling: an emotion, that’s all.

The scheme which I posted above presents suspense in one row with other genres of literature: mystery, horror. It is not the first time that I see attempts to present suspense as a whole separate genre of litreature:

“So, you’ve been working on a new novel… what genre? Historical again?”

“No. Suspense.”

“Ah, I see.”

Maeve Maddox, the author of the article ‘Is Your Novel “Mystery,” “Thriller,” or “Suspense”?’ (https://www.dailywritingtips.com/is-your-novel-mystery-thriller-or-suspense/) calls suspense a separate genre of fiction, with a note that “sometimes the three are presented as separate genres, and sometimes they’re lumped together as Mystery/Suspense, or Suspense/Thriller”. This shows that many authors and critics today have realized that suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is something different, because its meaning has changed for the reader. The reader sees suspense as a puff of obscurity on her face.

Suspense2

Suspense is not necessarily a mystery or horror, it is simply a puff of obscurity on your face.

“SUSPENSE: the main character may become aware of danger only gradually. In a mystery, the reader is exposed to the same information as the detective, but in a suspense story, the reader is aware of things unknown to the protagonist. The reader sees the bad guy plant the bomb, and then suffers the suspense of wondering when or if it will explode.” (Maeve Maddox; Please, find the link above)

This description corresponds well with the above scheme and also shows specificities of suspense as a high-grade genre of fiction literature. So I have been wondering: isn’t it a sign signaling to all authors that a new genre has been born and is actively building its way into the list of “traditional” genres of fiction? Can I write in a letter to a literary agent: “My novel is a suspence with some elements of fantasy”, or would it be safer to call my novel a “suspense fantasy”, where the main accent falls on the word “fantasy”?

Can we call suspense a genre of fiction? If yes, how ripe is the genre today? Somehow I have no doubt that suspense will soon form into a separate, widely accepted genre of lirature, because in the 21-st century people who read are seeking for fast-paced, action-packed, yet emotional fiction, and suspense is exactly what they need, because it apeals to the readers’ hearts.

In their reviews of suspense, some authors just leave it without a definition and move right on to discussing the distinguishing qualities of suspense fiction in comparison with other genres. Here is, by the way, a very good analysis by Stephen James, called Six Secrets to Creating and Sustaining Suspense, available on Writers Digest at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-secrets-to-creating-and-sustaining-suspense. In this article, the author looks at four factors necessary for suspense – reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger, and escalating rension – which are regarded as the author’s roadmap to the readers’ hearts. Then, the author suggests six ideas, or tasks, which a writer should set and achieve to create a good suspense effect in a piece of fiction:

  • put characters in jeopardy;
  • include more promises and less action;
  • keep every promise you make;
  • let the characters tell readers their plans;
  • cut down on the violence; and
  • be one step ahead of yur readers.

These tips, along with the detailed explanations provided in the article, must be very valuable for every author, as they set direction for an author’s effort, and still, these are just tools of suspense as a writing method, they are not the laws of a genre… yet.

Stephen James concludes his article with the words-

“No matter what you write, good prose really is all about sharpening the suspense.”

Well, if this statement is true, it does not make suspense a separate genre yet, but it surely makes it even more: a cross-genre requirement, a condition of achieving high quality of writing, a goal to which every author should strive, regardless of the genre they are trying to conquer.

Well, to me, the question is still there: what place does suspense have in contemporary literature? Is it already a separate genre or is it rather a method of writing?

Do you believe that in a couple of years, when more suspense masterpieces have arrived, all book stores will install shelves with a one-word sign “SUSPENSE”?

If you have answers to these questions, please, share. I will appreciate any comments on this. Thank you.

suspense3

Today, suspense is a method of writing, which is making its way to become a separate genre of fiction.

 

The Challenges of First-Person Narrative

“I would so hate to be a first-person character! Always on your guard, always having people read your thoughts!” ― Jasper Forde, Lost in a Good Book

Elephant-Sitting-Thinking-Contemplation-H

Writing from the first person is a big challenge, I realize it more and more every day. The most important thing is to keep the reader interested at all times, which means that the character has no right to be boring, even for a single moment!

When writing from the first person, it is very important to keep rational balance between narration and dialogue: if I allow my character to ramble, I’ll kill the readers interest in a few pages, but too many dialogues may be killing for the whole novel, too.

Then comes the necessity to follow “show not tell” rule: one of the most difficult tasks, because if I am the one who tells the story, I often have a temptation to simply tell it and go on.

Also, my character needs to have the voice – I mean, my character happens to be the one who experiences stuff and then learns the lessons and makes the conclusions – to accomplish the goal of the whole writing. My character becomes the one who sets the questions and answers them for the reader at the same time: the situation which seldom happens in real life and thus, is difficult to reproduce in a reader-attractive manner.

Finally, if I want to grab the readers’ attention and keep them excited to the very end, my character should continuously explore her own personality and “alter” it as she moves forward with the plot. The gradually accelerating pace of the narration should be inseparably connected with personality dynamics of the main character, and once this person is telling the story, she needs to take every step consciously, but then it is difficult to keep the air of mystery in the book: the story risks to become too predictable to be interesting! This is another challenge for the author.

It seems, I need to be a Mark Twain to do such a thing well enough! Talent, plus wit, plus tremendous life experience, plus really hard work, ah, yes – plus the ability to learn from one’s own mistakes: this is the formula of success for the task of writing a first person narrated story. Quite a complex one, don’t you think? 😉

 

Feeling Time

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” Leo Tolstoy

eggLike in many other cases, one can begin to understand these words only after having a massive experience of conscious expectation for something significant to happen, and then living through the event as it happens. Only having waited for years to meet the one you really love, you can say that you know the science of being patient and the burden of “feeling” time.

Feeling time is a burden, because it is a torrent that flows through and beyond us; it carries us forward – always in the same direction – and we can do absolutely nothing about it. Time has its powerful plan for every one us, but no one of us has the power to alter anything in the plan.

Doesn’t this make Time the greatest antagonist of all? Mmm, I really need to think about it…

time

 

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