Thursday, December 16, 2010

What's Your Story About?

This is a piece that appeared here on BRP on January 25, 2009. As an editor, I always ask potential clients to tell me about the books they've written, and many of them go into a long, detailed summary, but sometimes, we need to be able to tell our story's idea in short fashion. Enter this commentary.

You’ve written a novel – congratulations! Believe me, I know about the struggles that writers go through putting pen to pad or fingers to keys. There were probably a million times you wanted to give up and walk away from your words. There were bouts of writer’s block. There was doubt. There were those who just didn’t get why you wanted to write. And despite these and other issues, you rose above them and finished a story from beginning to end.

Stop. Smile. Pat yourself on the back. Tell yourself you are awesome. Call at least three people to tell them the good news. Treat yourself to something special. Take a few days to put some space between you and your glorious words.

Then come back to the manuscript because there is some major work to be done.

Many new writers make the error of finishing a story, running a spelling and grammar check on Word, and then submitting the novel to agents and publishing houses as if the work is perfect. Many take a better route and at least send their work to be edited by a professional before sending it into the universe. Even though it is important to have at least one set of eyes – other than your own – read/edit your work, it is just as important for you to become a "scholar" in the craft of writing so that the material you pass off to an editor or an agent isn't ridiculed instead of praised.

So, tell me – what’s your story about?

If you plan to submit this work, pitch this work, and talk about this work; you need to have a clear and quick description of your work.

You should know your work’s genre: is it a romance, mystery, thriller, horror, sci-fi, literary, street, an urban, or erotic novel? Is it a combination of these genres?

In one clear sentence, state the following: (Title of Novel) is a (Genre of Novel).

Good – now you know the genre.

Now, you need to state what your story is about. Picture going to Borders – you’re rifling through books, reading back covers. Pretend your book is on the shelf. Pick it up. Flip it over. What does the back copy read?

Just flipping through ten books on my bookshelf, I noticed that back copy runs between 100 to 225 words.

The back copy contains the same information you’ll place in your query when it’s time to submit the work to agents and publishers: your main character, his or her want, the major conflict that prevents the main character from achieving the want, and a “twist” that arises and seems to forever keep the main character away from the want.

Here’s the book description of Victoria Christopher Murray’s Too Little, Too Late:

Jasmine Larson Bush returns to her devious ways in this tale of two marriages -- each threatened by lies and betrayal.

She took marriage vows to be honest and true, but Jasmine's still hiding secrets to keep her husband, Minister Hosea Bush, by her side. When Hosea's ex-fiancée, Natasia, suddenly appears in New York, Jasmine knows it's not a coincidence. A former manstealer herself, Jasmine is very aware of Natasia's motives -- even if Hosea is not.

Complicating Jasmine's life is the secret she's kept from her baby's daddy. Luckily for her, Brian Lewis has problems of his own. His wife, Alexis, is convinced he's cheating on her -- but Brian's real betrayal is much worse. Revealing the truth to his wife could lead him back to the biggest mistake of his life...Jasmine.

Two marriages are in desperate jeopardy. Will Jasmine be able to scheme to save her own? Or will she have to choose between protecting her past and compromising her future? Even if Jasmine and Brian find the courage to stop the lies, it may be too little, too late....

In less than 200 words, we know who the main characters are, we know what they want, we know what is keeping them from having that want, and we have a sense as to why they might never get what they want.

What is your book’s back copy? Write it. It might change after you begin the revision and editing stages, and that’s okay. On the other hand, having your story’s description can also help you tighten your novel by making sure everything in the story supports the “idea” behind your story.

Shon Bacon is an author, editor, and educator, whose biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically and interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services and online programs at CLG Entertainment.

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  1. Very good advice, Shon. Writing out your back cover copy can really help with the editing, and yet so many of us wait until we feel we're through with editing and ready to start querying.

  2. Excellent advice...going to share this link with the APOOO family...good stuff author's need to hear.

  3. When you write an entire novel, it's hard to break it down to a few sentences and make them sound interesting, but it must be done.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. And just like writing a book, writing back cover copy, writing that paragraph or two takes a lot of work and fine-tuning.

    I think some writers are so fearful of taking the story away from the characters that things like writing back cover copy or even outlines become tedious tasks.

    I feel more free as a writer when I have a structure to be free IN, you know? Having that back cover copy allows me to go back to the story with something to hang the story on.

    Sorry for the long response, LOL

  5. Good advice, Shon, and you are so right about the need to be able to condense our stories. For film scripts we have to write a "logline", which is a one or two sentence pitch of the story. Writing these are really a challenge. One instructor suggested reading the brief movie descriptions in TV guide to get an idea of how stories are pitched. Sometimes it is helpful. :-)

  6. Good advice. I'll pass this link along.

  7. It's good to have an even shorter version ready too. If someone (say an agent or editor) asks, "What's your book about?," you need to have a two-sentence answer, because that's all the time you may have before she runs off to her next meeting or panel.

  8. Enjoyed what you wrote! Never thought about writing the copy first.

  9. Because I love writing screenplays, too, I often write loglines (or pitches)for my novels and short stories. The back copy material helps me articulate a story for myself; however, having a logline/pitch and other story description in various lengths helps me articulate a story to others like agents and publishers.

  10. thanks for sharing your advice

  11. Sometimes it seems harder to describe my stories than to write them.
    Morgan Mandel

  12. Excellent post, Shon. And it's also very important to have an even shorter, compelling "elevator pitch" of about 2-3 sentences. Then try to describe your premise in one sentence. All of these summaries will help sell your book and story, but also help you as an author to figure out what the essence of your story is, in a nutshell.

  13. I'm with Morgan, I find this part of the work the hardest, but I also agree on how important it is to master the technique of reducing your story to one or two sentences. For film, that is called a logline, and I learned how to do that for screenplays a long time ago. That helps now. LOL


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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