Last week I challenged you all to post a one-sentence summary of your novel. This is the first step in my Snowflake Method, but even non-Snowflakers need to figure this out at some point. The reason — your one-sentence summary is critical to marketing your book.
Many dozens of you posted one-sentence summaries of your works in progress. I’m working through them now to critique as many as I can. So let’s pick up where we left off:
A young girl strives to earn her own calf as her family migrates westward during the winter of 1806.
Randy sez: This is a good solid one-sentence summary. It is not a high-concept summary, but the book is not a high-concept book.
First point: It’s a book for kids, but I’m not quite sure what age group. Being more specific would cue us in more clearly on what age the book is targeted to. Let’s assume the target market is 8 to 10 year olds. (Could be older or younger, so this is my guess.) You always want your POV character to be at the top end of the range of your readers, because all kids want to be older. So let’s specify that she’s 10.
Second point: This is a historical novel, so let’s set the stage early in the sentence. This lets us backload the sentence with emotive content at the tail of the sentence.
Final point: “Migrates westward” is pretty vague. In those days, “West” might have been Ohio or Tennessee. It’d be nice to be specific. I have no idea where “westward” is, so I’m going to make a stab and call it Ohio.
Here’s my first cut at a new sentence. I’ve supplied it with more specific words, but Hope will have to insert the real data:
“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl scrambles to earn money to buy her own calf as her family moves to the Ohio river valley.”
This is a little long, and I’m not sure whether we even need the bit about the family move. Which is more central to the plot? We might shorten this to:
“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl scrambles to earn money to buy her own calf.”
Alternatively, if the focus is the move itself:
“In 1806, a 10-year-old girl makes the dangerous move with her family to the Ohio river valley.”
Livinus posted this longish one-sentence summary:
“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.”
Sorry folks, I know that this is too long, but I want Randy to tighten it up so we can all learn from it
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 many.
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 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 hope.
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 far:
“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 researcher). 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 left, 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.
Take a look at my favorite example, from my novel Transgression:
“A physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”
11 words, 2 characters, 1 plot. Notice how specific those nouns are? I used “physicist”, not “scientist.” I named a specific target, rather than saying something vague and general like “destroy the foundations of early Christianity”.
Notice one other thing. I said nothing about the protagonist. You know there has to be one, but you have no idea who he might be. In fact, he is a she. That in itself might be interesting, but it is not crucial. This is a high-concept novel, and with that kind of a storyline, less is more. Designers know that you achieve elegance when there is nothing more that can be REMOVED.
So if you’re doing a high-concept one-sentence summary, keep asking yourself: “What else can I remove from this sentence?”
We’ll pick up tomorrow with a critique of the next few one-sentence summaries. See ya then!
Daan Van der Merwe says
Thank you for your suggestion Gerhi. And also for asking the question “What is a high concept novel?” I also don’t know but was too shy to ask.
I think a high concept novel is when the stakes are high. Above Randy says Hope’s novel is not a high concept novel. It’s more about a journey and the need for a girl to find money to buy a cow. In the last blog he said Chris’s was ‘fairly high’ concept. Daan’s, about rape and murder, is a ‘strong’ high concept novel. More is a stake than the first two I quoted.
Randy, am I on the right track?
Anybody else got any ideas?
Hope Marston says
Thanks, Randy. My use of the word “earn” gave the wrong idea. My character will “earn” her calf by taking care of her baby sister (11-months old) on the trail to central New York while Ma walks behind the sleigh alert to dangers. I will get to my re-write today.
P.S. This past weekend I attended Margie Lawson’s Empowering Characters’ Emotions in Syracuse. Awesome! Both Margie and her presentation. To all of you reading this note, I say, “Haste you to one of her workshops.” It will revolutionize your writing.
Thank you Randy for that ‘exegesis’! I now have something like this:
“A young Nigerian environmental scientist tracks a shadowy anti-Western militant for a $120 million reward.”
I’m still trying to see if I can be more specific about the bad guy.
Pam Halter says
hi Randy and all ~ I also attended Mt. Hermon (which was an amazing conference) and one day after getting home, we took off for a family vacation. Whew! I missed you all.
I came home from the conference with an agent and a publishing house interested in my middle grade fantasy, so I’m working on the proposal now. Here’s my stab at a one sentence description of the book:
A fifteen-year-old girl is thrust into a quest that will save the world but end her life as she knows it.
Lois Hudson says
From reading the illustrations above, and my personal curiosity, I’d like to know more about the quest. Using Randy’s suggestions, the word “thrust” suggests a compelling event, the details of which we don’t have to know–we know it’s coming. But the quest that will “save the world” is such a hook I think a hint of its essence would clinch it. We don’t even have to know why it will end her life “as she knows it” provides intrigue to me.
P.S. Is it futuristic?
I, too, missed the post on one-sentence summaries, but from the tutorial here, I’m working (and working, and working) on condensing my finished, but in revision, novel.
Great discussion! Thanks.
Randy, if you’ve addressed this before, just point me in the right direction but I too need to better understand “high concept”. We hear we need one. Okay, but not all books have one. That doesn’t make them bad or boring books, so is a high-concept really necessary? (Granted, I’m sure it increases the likelihood of publication.)
What exactly makes one concept “high” and another “not high” or “low”? Is the need for high concept even across all genres?
Mark Goodyear says
The way you trimmed Livinus’s one sentence summary was really helpful to see.
Ditto Mark – you read my mind.
After the advice already given for other people’s sentences, I thought I would try mine again:
“A racer, an heiress and an old hero must escape from an alien planet driven mad by an eclipse.”
Well I’m not really sure, but from what I cansee, hihg concept is either what Yeggy says, or just a fairly complex novel. I don’t really know, though, so don’t take my word for it.
Learning a lot as usual! Thanks, Randy!
Pam Halter says
thanks for the encouragement, Lois. It’s a fantasy novel for upper middle grade readers (ages 12-15). I’m not sure how to give more details on the quest without spilling over into another sentence.
I really stink at one liners. I’m just getting a handle on improving my synopsis. 🙂