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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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.

shrinking-2

 

Romantic Mystery: A Man in the Knitted Scarf

At dawn, when the first beams of the April sun gilded the porch of the house and started crawling along the lawn toward the old apple tree, the door of the house opened with a creak and released a man of indefinite age, wearing sunglasses, a gray denim jacket and a nifty knitted scarf. The man fastened up his jacket and hurried out of the yard.

Having reached the mailbox, the man paused to study the sign. It said:

#12, Sara Bonk. Writer.

The man smirked. He took out a cigarette, lit it, and drew on it with a sigh of relief. Then, he threw the used match on the ground, and said quietly to himself, as he walked away:

“For sure, the book was better.”

Since then, the man in the knitted scarf has never been seen in the neighborhood.

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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.”

moth2

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.

Blow-dice

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

 

On Structuring Public Speeches

sav_angel

(micro fiction, one minute read)

When the world was new, Savior Angel shared universal wisdom with people.

Whatever happens,” he said, “do not forget the ultimate rule of life: while young, share energy; in the age of maturity, share beauty; when old and gray share wisdom, and always– are you listening? Always share–”

Alas! People were not listening. They were too busy exploring their awesome new world.

Years flew by. Time ran away so quickly that people had no chance to enjoy it. One after another, they grew old and died, until only one woman remained alive. She was weak. Apparently, she was dying, too. Savior Angel came down to share some wisdom with her.

You, people, could survive,” he said, “if you had listened to my words about sharing love. You should have shared love. All of you. At all times.”

But the woman died before he finished talking.

Uh-huh. Now, I need a new world and new people– again!” Sighed the angel. “I guess, I should open my speech with the words about love; this will at least induce them to reproduce!”

baby-feet-with-angel-wings-b-1

Not His Worst Valentine’s Day

(micro fiction, 1 min.read)rodinka1

It was exactly twelve months since Ivan’s previous date: that incredibly sexy blonde with a mole on her lip ran away from the bar… with his wallet and keys.

It took Ivan almost a year to recover after the stress. Still, that wasn’t his worst Valentine’s, he had to admit. At least, they cuddled and kissed, and she called him “My Captain”. Twice. 

Ivan lit a few candles and opened the wine. Luda was to arrive within minutes. They’d been speaking online, and now they decided to meet on the Valentine’s Day for the very first time.

I am making the right choice this time, he assured himself as he waited. She is honest and kind, she is smart, and she’s never been late for a chat...

At two minutes to six, a knock on the door made him start. Ivan’s heart started hammering, he hurried to open.

The first thing he saw were his keys.

Hi, Captain!” said the voice from the chat, and the mole on the lip made a short sexy dance as she spoke.

Ivan gulped and stepped back. She walked in.

Happy Valentine’s Day!” She exclaimed and dropped Ivan’s keys on the table. “Hey, Captain, come on, stop staring and pour me some wine! Let us talk…”

Writing with a Good ‘Flow’

write

How much of rhythm should prose have? It is obvious that achieving a certain rhythm (I would even call it a ‘beat’) is critical in poetry, but in prose… should we care at all?

Dictionaries, which, in fact, are perfect antithesis to poetry, say:

In writingrhythm is defined by punctuation and the stress patterns of words in a sentence. Long sentences sound smoother, while short sentences make your content snappier.

Well, honestly, this definition does not look complete to me. Some significant component is missing here, because this definition speaks only about the mechanics of writing, but says nothing about the author’s talent of creating individual ‘beat’ that makes every sentence sound like this author’s unique, personal accent.

When we describe our most favorite books of fiction, we often say, among other things, that “they are easy and pleasing to read and have a good flow.” Critics usually say that “this is all down to the structure and length of sentences”, as well as to the amount of syllables in each chosen word-combination, and the breaks / pauses which the author puts on certain places. [Richard GilbertBen Smith]

writing that flows

When the authors of prose discuss their work, they like to brag about ‘making it sound nice’,  but unfortunately, with tons of books being published today, readers are becoming less and less interested in having it ‘flow’. And writers in their turn, stop paying attention to the ways they put words together.

Still, some people are used to reading fiction aloud in their heads, I am one of them. This habit makes us look for the desired rhythm in the first place. We would never finish a book which ‘is not good in the sound and rhythm’, and to my mind, it is the sound and rhythm that immeduately gives away a talented author. It is the rhythm that will either keep the readers turning pages, or bore them to a stop.

Let us look at a few examples, I just made a little analysis for this article:

Rhythm and Sound in W.S,Maugham’s Prose

It’s a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._._;._._…_, …_._.

[A] [Y] [A] [A]  [jU]  [E] [E] [A] [E]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]-[e]  [a]-[e]

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, (pause) no one knows what they are.” W.Someset Maugham

.._ _._.._.; ._..(pause) ._._.._

[E-U] [A] [A]  [O] [O] [A] [A]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]-[o]  [o]-[a]-[a]

Love is only a dirty trick (very short pause) played on us to achieve continuation of the species.” W.Someset Maugham

.._._._(very short pause) _…_…_._

[A] [eO] [Y] [A] [Y] [A] [Y]

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]  [a]-[y]

In W.Somerset Maugham’s writing, the rhythm is complex, but you can sense the patterns which he follows in every sentence. There is a whole set of such patterns, but the set is unique for every individual writer.

This is what we call ‘авторский почерк’ (author’s unique handwriting or style) in Russian, and I am sure this is true for every piece of literature in every language of the world: the combination of rhythm and sound is the main criterion of every talented author’s unique manner of writing.

Here are a few more examples:

Rhythm and Sound in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Prose

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[o]  [o]  [o]-[a]

When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [a]  [a]-[a]

Morning comes whether you set the alarm or not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]  [e]  [a]-[a]

Of course, rhythm is especially important in certain genres of prose, like fantasy, or — if we think deeper — also in mystery, in suspense, in romance, in… ah, everywhere!

Look at Neil Gaiman’s sentences: aren’t they truly poetic?

Rhythm and Sound in Neil Gaiman’s Prose

It is a fool’s prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [u]-[o]   [a][u]   [o]-[y]

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[e]   [a][e]   [a][e]   [a]-[e]

‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go. But mostly, it’s not.’

Rhythm and sound pattern: [a]-[a]   [a]-[o]   [o][o]

Well, every talented author has a unique signature rhythm that keeps her readers turning pages. I think every writer should continuously explore their personal rhythms of writing. It is also very useful to study reader responses to different rhythms, melodies of speech and beats if we want to develop unique ways of writing and become recognizeable by our writing style.

writing-roller-coaster

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

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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

Caitlin M. Smith

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