As I sat in my writers meeting several months ago, we were asked to tell the group about our latest writing projects. When my turn came around, I stammered and stuttered, and by the time I finished trying to tell everyone what my book was about, I shrunk in my chair, red-faced, wondering if I sounded as lame as I felt. Mind you, I’m far better at the written word than I am at orating. If I have to speak in front of small groups, unless I prepare on paper what I’m going to say two weeks in advance, my tongue goes numb and my brain springs a leak. Yet, I wondered if my speaking engagement would have been easier if I had known precisely, in only a few words, what the core of my story was about.
A couple of months ago, I read an article by Randy Ingermanson on his snowflake method for writing a novel. He suggests that as we begin, we should define what the story is about in a one-sentence summary using fifteen words or less. That shouldn’t be too hard, right? Try it. You’ll see just how difficult the task really is.
First, to keep the summary under fifteen words, you need to use the most specific language possible and avoid using character names. Instead of saying, “Jane must convince colleagues …” write “A deceitful archeologist must convince colleagues...”
Second you need to determine which of your characters has the most to lose and figure out what he wants to gain. ”A deceitful archeologist must convince colleagues he’s unearthed an artifact revealing the world’s end.” The sentence needs to be concise enough that you can later use it to sell your book to anyone. I keep thinking if I had already accomplished this assignment for my current manuscript, I would have aced the task of selling a room full of writers the plausibility of my story.
Ingermanson says to search The New York Times Bestseller list for examples of concise one-sentence summaries. I go to this list often and read the short sentences not only to know what fiction is popular, but also to learn ways of honing in on the heart of a plot. I suggest you give yourself at least an hour to find the most compact way to describe your novel’s basic thread. I hope I’m not the only writer who finds this drill a challenge.