Saturday, May 22, 2010

How to Write a 250-Word Summary

I’m approaching the finishing line on the manuscript for the new book.  I’m making a few changes as per my editor’s suggestions, and hope to have the MS to the publisher, ready to go, by the first of June.  I’m on the publishing schedule for February of 2011 and I have already received the dreaded author questionnaire.  This is the multipage document many presses ask their authors to fill out with detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review.

One of the more painful exercises is the creation of a short summary the publisher can use to create ad copy.  How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it.  Some may even enjoy it, but I still find it painful.  Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have. Some of our Type M ad men have given us wonderful pointers in the past, and I’d be very interested to hear how other veteran authors go about it.  

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years:  I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost.  Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry.  Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point  or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence.  In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause.  This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

Practice makes perfect, too.  For Crying Blood, which will be my fifth book, it only took me five drafts to reach the mark.  Draft 1 - 663 wds.  Draft 2 - 535 wds.  Draft 3 - 450 wds.  Draft 4 - 353.  Draft 5 - 256 wds.

And Bob’s your uncle.

Next trick: the fifty word teaser.

Finally, I’m very pleased to announce that our guest blogger tomorrow is the incomparable Libby Fischer Hellmann. author of many novels, including one of my favorites, last year’s Doubleback. Libby is also quite a successful short story writer whose two-volume collection of her previously published mystery stories, Nice Girl Does Noir. will be available this month as an e-book.  How did she go about getting those stories into an e-book and available for sale on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords all by herself?  Tune in and see.


12 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

Good approach, Donis. I start by reading the blurbs on a pile of books, just to get the feel for pacing and rhythm.

Christine Mattice said...

I applaud you for being able to whittle down your summary to 250-words regardless of how many drafts it took you to do so! I have not yet faced this problem but, as I've just begun editing my first novel, I hope that it's just a matter of time,

peter_may said...

My wife and I used to give writing courses in France, Donis, and one of then hardest things the students had to do during the week was write a 100-word synopsis. The difference was that we asked them to do it BEFORE they had written the book, so they would know what they were aiming for. Last week I wrote the 250-word synopsis for my publisher, and had trouble reaching the 250. But I think that has do do with my years as a journalist, when 250 words was a veritable novel. I even have trouble making the 50-word distillation. Maybe I have just written so much over the years that I have simply run out of words!

Donis Casey said...

That's exactly the thing that one has to get into one's head in order to write a blurb or summary, Peter. What is the point of it all?

Sean McLachlan said...

Nice advice. What I usually do is tell different people about the work verbally to hear how it sounds. Then I write something based on that. The final step is the whittling away of excess words that you suggest. (39 words)

I tell people about the book, write something based on that, then edit like you do. (16 words)

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