Thursday, June 26, 2008

One-sentence Book Description

I subscribe to various writing newsletters, and - more out of procrastination than anything else - I decided to go through the months and months of backlogs to see if I could find anything that would help me with my current publishing quest, namely how to find the right publisher that might want to publish my book.

Anyway, I did not get much joy and I think I will use Amazon as my research tool and rely on my own brain for a while (sure it will be good for me), but I did read something very interesting written by Randy Ingermanson, a published author.

Basically, he wanted to know if I could describe my book in one sentence. And the thing is, I can't - I really can't.

And that's bad news for me getting my book published, as you'll see below in Randy's piece (published with permission, naturally) called, The World's Scariest Question.

The good news is that it's a great writing opportunity for me - this writing a one-sentence description. It should help me get my book published, too. And if it allows me to answer the world's scariest question, even better!

Over to Randy (a North American)...

The World's Scariest Question
by published, award-winning author Randy Ingermanson ("the Snowflake guy")

Someday you'll be signing autographs for your novel at
a Wal-Mart. A woman will wander past hauling three
desperate-looking kids. She'll ask you where the
bathroom is.

You won't have any idea, but you'll helpfully point in
a random direction.

She'll hurry off with the brats in tow. Ten minutes
later, she'll be back, having solved the immediate
problem. She'll thank you for being helpful. Then
she'll ask The World's Scariest Question:

"So," she'll say as she picks up your novel. "What's
your book about?"

If you're a novelist, you can expect to answer this
question about 500 times for each book you write.

You must have an answer to this question, because it's
the difference between a sale and a pair of glazed eyes.

First, let me give you the wrong answer: "Well, see,
there's this guy. And he works for the government and
he's got a girlfriend. The girlfriend is mad at him for
leaving Cheezits in his socks. Oh yeah, and his boss
is, like, really mean. And one of his co-workers is
doing pretty bad stuff, and he's just about to figure
out what it is, when his girlfriend kicks him
out--because of the Cheezits--and then, um, where was

The correct answer is one like this: "My novel is about
a Pentagon worker who blows the whistle on his boss for
taking kickbacks from the President's cousin."

Or whatever your novel is about.

You must, you must, you MUST have an answer to this
question. Your answer must be one sentence with as few
words as possible. It must capture the flavor of your
book. And you must memorize it.

Why all those "musts?" Because this "One-Sentence
Summary" is the selling tool you will use for the
entire life-cycle of your book, from the first gleam in
the editor's eye until the last pitiful signing in

Remember that your book has to be sold about 7 times in
order to be a commercial success:

* You sell the idea to your editor.
* Your editor sells the idea to the in-house committee
* Your editor sells the idea to the sales force
* The sales force sells the idea to bookstore buyers
* The buyers sell the idea to bookstore sales staff
* The sales staff sell the book to readers
* Your readers sell the idea to their friends

If any of those links in the chain fail, then your book
will either never make it to market or it won't sell

Let's be clear here: The selling tool that greases the
skids on EACH link in the selling chain is your
One-Sentence Summary.

You'll use your One-Sentence Summary when you (or your
agent) pitches the idea to your editor.

Your editor will use it when she presents your book to
the publishing committee (if the editor doesn't have
the authority to buy a book).

Your editor will use your One-Sentence Summary again
when the sales conference rolls around and she needs to
get the sales team excited about your novel.

The sales team has maybe 30 seconds per book when they
present books to buyers for the bookstores. That's
enough time for your One-Sentence Summary plus a bit

And on and on it goes, with your One-Sentence Summary
the tasty first bite all the way down the selling

The last step in the selling chain is the most critical
-- when your readers love your book and want to get
their friends to buy it too. Everyone knows that
word-of-mouth is the most powerful force in the
universe for selling books. A One-Sentence Summary is a
tool that your readers can use to tell their friends
about you. But they can only do that if they HAVE a
good One-Sentence Summary.

Who's going to give it to them? Trust me, your readers
don't have a degree in marketing. They won't spend
hours figuring out your One-Sentence Summary. They need
for you to give it to them. You do that by giving it to
your editor, who will make sure that it gets into the
marketing copy.

What if you don't bother? Isn't it your marketing
team's job to figure out how to sell your book?

Yes, of course it's their job. But nobody loves your
baby like you do. Your marketing team may have 10 or
100 other babies to deal with. You only have the one.
And you know your baby.

The simple fact is that if you don't come up with a
compelling One-Sentence Summary, then somebody
somewhere will come up with one anyway. But it most
likely won't be the one you want. And once the
marketing team comes up with a concept they like, they
don't appreciate you horning in to do their job.

So if you want to do their job, you need to do it
BEFORE they get their hands on it. You need to give
them something so powerful that they wouldn't dream of
changing it.

We've been discussing the One-Sentence Summary on my
blog recently and I challenged my loyal blog readers to
post their best shot. Around 60 of them did, and I've
been critiquing them one by one.

I've asked one of my blog readers for permission to
show his One-Sentence Summary here, along with my
critique and my attempt to improve it, along with his
final version.

Thanks to Livinus Nosike for giving permission. He has
requested, of course, that nobody should steal his
idea. I'll discuss in a minute why this is unlikely.

Here's what Livinus posted:

"African most endearing young researcher steals a
secret manuscript, dating the time of the Algerian
revolution against French occupation, to track down the
leader of a weird anti-western civilisation movement
and win the $120m reward the US is offering, little
knowing who was behind the offer of his research grant
and why."

Livinus noted in his post that he knew this was too
long, but he wanted me to tighten it up so we can all
learn from it.

Here's my critique of his One-Sentence Summary:

Randy sez: Yes, this is way long. There are some nice
points to it, but I count 53 words and 5 distinct plot
ideas. That is about 40 words and 4 plot ideas too

What's good here? Lots. For starters, we have a fairly
unique character (at least to US readers), a "young
African researcher." I'd be interested to know what
kind of researcher. Livinus knows, but I don't, so I'm
going to supply a possible specific example out of
many. I'm going to make him a political scientist, for
no good reason, just because.

So now we've got a lead character: "A young African
political scientist".

Good, what's next? Well, we've got way too many plot
threads here, so let's trim. What's the most important
thing going on here? This researcher is pursuing
Somebody Bad. Let's trim up the description of that
Somebody. There are a lot of choices, but I'm going to
use "shadowy anti-Western militant". That has some good
hypey words in it, familiar to everybody who reads this
genre, which is "spooky conspiracy suspense novel".

OK, so we've got a Good Guy and a Bad Guy. Now let's
add a verb and a motive.

The verb is easy: "tracks". The other possible
alternative is "pursues". Both of them are good, strong
verbs. Both are overused, but in this genre, we aren't
LOOKING for new verbs. We're looking for explosions,
car chases, and secrets. Livinus will deliver those, we

The motive is also easy: "$120 million." Yeah, that
gets most people's attention. There was a study once
that showed that the average person would be willing to
kill a stranger for less than $10 million. So $120 Big
Boys will motivate our researcher Good Guy.

Let's put all this together and see what we've got so

"A young African political scientist tracks a shadowy
anti-Western militant for a $120 million reward."

We've now got 16 words, 2 characters, 1 plot, and we're
almost there. I'd say to make "African" more specific.
This is up to Livinus, who actually knows the story.
What kind of African do we have here? Nigerian?
Ghanaian? Zimbabwean? South African? Being specific
says that you have done your research. It tells people
that you know something about one particular culture
within Africa. It says that you know something about
political science (or whatever the specialty of your

When you use vague words, it sounds like you're just
pulling stuff out of your ear. For that matter, it
might be nice to get a little more specific about that
Bad Guy. Islamic Bad Guys have been overdone lately, so
what do we have left? I'm not sure, but I'll bet
Livinus knows. Let's see a 2 or 3 word description of a
Bad Guy who hasn't been done. That would get any
editor's attention.

After reading this, Livinus sharpened it up to:

"A young Nigerian environmental scientist tracks a
shadowy anti-Western militant for a $120 million

This is more compelling because (as I discovered by
tracking back Livinus on my blog) he is a Nigerian
geoscientist. So he is writing what he knows.

Writing what you know, by the way, is your best defense
against people who want to "steal your idea." Suppose I
decided to steal this idea from Livinus and run with
it. Could I do that?

Maybe, but not very well. I know almost nothing about
Nigeria, so I'd need to do a boatload of research. But
no matter how much research I did, I'd know in my gut
that I'm still way behind Livinus. And I already have a
ton of book ideas of my own. I'd be crazy to steal his
idea. So would you. So would anyone except someone very
much like Livinus.

Final comments: I would still like to see that
"anti-Western militant" sharpened up a bit also. At
that point, Livinus would have himself a very decent
pitch. A One-Sentence Summary will get him to first
base with editors who like this kind of novel. Whether
Livinus can advance to second base will depend on how
well he writes.

That's the point of a One-Sentence Summary: It gets you
to first base. After that, you still need to score, and
you do that with excellent writing. But you'll never
score at all if you don't make it to first base.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing
E-zine, with more than 11,000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction,
AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND
have FUN doing it, visit .

Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing
and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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