Organizing: The World's Scariest Question

Posted by Backyard Urban Gardening on Thursday, April 03, 2008

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

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 figureout what it is, when his girlfriend kicks him out--because of the Cheezits--and then, um, where was I?"

The correct answer is one like this: "My novel is abouta 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 yourbook. 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 Wal-Mart.

Remember that your book has to be sold about 7 times inorder 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 well.

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 tothe publishing committee (if the editor doesn't havethe authority to buy a book).

Your editor will use your One-Sentence Summary againwhen the sales conference rolls around and she needs toget 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'senough time for your One-Sentence Summary plus a bit more.

And on and on it goes, with your One-Sentence Summary the tasty first bite all the way down the selling food-chain.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 theuniverse 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 mostlikely 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 alll earn 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 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 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 touse "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 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 reward."

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 boat load 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.


BellaVida said...

That's great advise.

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