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December 2014

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One-Liners

I just realized that when I finish my current work in progress, I’m going to have to summarize it. I had managed to block out this knowledge. It’s been a long time since I wrote the synopses for my last project, The Secret Year. Those synopses are now so familiar to me, so smooth and compact, that I sometimes forget they did not roll automatically from my fingertips. I crafted them as carefully as I crafted the book itself.

Synopses come in several varieties; they’re written for different audiences and different purposes. I deal with three basic types: one to two pages, one paragraph, and one line.

I’ll discuss the one-liner first, saving the others for a future post.

The one-liner is perhaps the most useful of all. I would encourage any writer who’s trying to market a manuscript to work on a one-liner. This type of synopsis should capture the essence of the book, and draw that book’s best audience toward it. For example, Lisa Schroeder once summed up Jennifer Bradbury’s Shift in a wonderful short paragraph that I boiled down even further when describing the book to my local bookseller.  This is what I said when ordering the novel: "It's about two boys who take a cross-country bike trip, and only one returns." That’s all I needed to hear to make me seek out the book. I knew it was about friendship and travel, but that there was also loss and mystery involved.

Or how about this example, from the Debut2009 website, for Stacey Jay's You Are So Undead to Me: "A sixteen year old zombie settler must put the dead to rest and thwart a black coven's attempts to kill her before they harness enough renegade zombies to ruin Homecoming." It gives you a basic idea of what the book contains (battles, zombies), the central conflict (fight the undead, save Homecoming), and the tone (action-oriented but also humorous: what's at stake here is not just the future of the world, but a high-school dance!).

You may say that what I’m calling a one-line synopsis is more of a teaser or a hook; so be it. One’s first answer to the question, “So what’s your book about?” should be the one-liner. An interested person can always ask to hear more. But it’s a mistake to reel off two pages of synopsis to someone who realizes from the first sentence that your centaur-pirate epic isn’t his cup of tea. And it’s equally a mistake to inundate the centaur-pirate-lover with a flood of details that makes her feel like she’s already read the book, unless she specifically invites you to share more information.

To write the one-liner, we look for the essential kernel, the main quest or question around which the book revolves. A one-liner sounds simple and obvious after the fact, but can be tough to write. After all, we write entire books to say what we mean; how can we distill them? The temptation is to include too much detail, to explain too much. But we have to remind ourselves that the reader will discover a book for himself. We don’t want to grab a ladle and pour the story into his mouth. We want to give him one scrumptious bite, a taste that retains the flavor of the main dish, so that he orders the dish and eats it himself.


Comments

This is good. It says something, I think, about the book I'm having trouble coming up with a one-line for and the one that jumps right out at me, even as I'm still writing. :)
It's always nice when they're easy to write, but some excellent books are difficult to summarize in a line.
I had to do a synopsis in 40 words or less. Ended up at 38 but 2 sentences - oh well, I'm still finding my way. (It's on my blog where I sorta shamelessly promote below the book cover pic. You can laugh at it if ya want.)

Now that you've let the cat out of the bag about my sufing skate-boarding centaur pirate, I gotta start my WIP all over. And I thought it was so original. THANKS JENN. Sheesh. DE
I think you're OK, because my centaur pirates don't surf or skateboard. They snorkel.
I had absolutely no idea you'd written a centaur-pirate epic. *is impressed*
Centaur pirates are going to be the new in thing. You heard it here first.
Interesting. I'm only about a quarter through my current project, so it's probably a bit too soon to sum it up with one line, though I've been trying since I first had the idea. My issue right now is that the second thing that comes to mind is the bad guy's motivation, and that's not really going to work, since that can't be revealed until the last third of the book.
The first thing that comes to mind is "It's like (this book) with (these monsters)," but I'm guessing that's not a great direction to go with it either, since "this book" is "Salem's Lot," which pretty much comes off as saying "hey, I'm comparing my manuscript to... insert famous author here! So saying "It's like Salem's Lot with ghosts" doesn't really work.
Hmm. I will keep mulling. Thanks for letting me use your comment space to mull. =)
Some people love comparisons to familiar works ("It's like Titanic meets To Kill A Mockingbird ..."), some don't. Whatever works!
So interesting! I'd love to hear your thoughts on synopses. I've got a good (I hope) one-line hook, but I'm struggling with what to include (or not) in the longer versions.
I'm planning to do more on synopses sometime soon. FWIW. :-)
Annnd, you'll most probably have to come up with a one-liner should you get a publishing deal (I did). That doesn't mean I can actually talk about my book, mind you. I have to go back to my computer, find the one-liner (or if a more detailed explanation is needed, the pitch) and read it out-loud.

Other Lisa
Yes, the one-liner has endless uses!

(Anonymous)

Writing an effective one-line is still a challenge for me. I can manage to capture the tone of the book, get across the genre and summarize the book. But getting it to draw people in is the hard part. Practice, practice, practice.
It isn't easy. I like to think about what makes me want to read a book--what's most quirky or interesting about it.
I would love to hear some of your failed attempts at one-liners for THE SECRET YEAR if you're up for sharing them...
I'll have to see if they still exist first!
Ooh, I love this question! I always love to see the evolution of projects.

This was a great post (as usual)and a kick in the can'ts for me to get back to trying to smooth mine out. Thanks.
kellyrfineman recommended this post to me.

Excellent stuff! I'll be sure to come back for more.

Thanks for sharing :)
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

(Anonymous)

Great post

I'm going to show this to my students in the UCLA Extension Writing Program on the day we work on one-liners. I love it! Thanks for the great post. Jennie Nash, Berkley novelist

Re: Great post

Thank you, Jennie!

(Anonymous)

Is a good one-liner like a good pick-up line?
LOL, perhaps! But in both cases, the line only gets you so far; ultimately, the whole package has to live up to it.

(Anonymous)

One-liners

Thanks so much. I wrote a one-line pitch last week for my WIP and feel it's really snappy but I have been anxious that it didn't say enough. But after reading your post, I am now confident that it will work.

Re: One-liners

I always think the goal of the synopsis is to make the person want to look at the book.

(Anonymous)

Thanks

Hi Jenn,

Thanks for writing this post. It was really helpful and gave me a fun exercise. Now I can offer a coherent response when my friends ask, so why have you been ignoring us for the past three years.

Bill

Re: Thanks

It will beat the old standby, "I've been really busy."

(Anonymous)

Queries I can write. Synopses I can write (in various sizes and forms). One liners? INCREDIBLY difficult. Sometimes I think I self-published my fantasy trilogy just so I wouldn't have to describe it at conferences with a one-liner. (Actually, I self-published it because I wanted to build up readership and experiment with self-publishing while beating down the doors of traditional publishing on behalf of other manuscripts. But those other manuscripts are easier to describe in a single sentence.)

Rachel Starr Thomson
www.rachelstarrthomson.com
I find them challenging, too, but worth the effort. I pushed myself after having nightmare visions of being asked, in casual settings, "So what's your book about?" and not being able to answer!