We spend months, even years, weaving characters and conflicts into a story. We cut, tweak, and rearrange. Yet if someone asks what our story is about, we might be dumbstruck.
“It’s about a woman who inherits a cosmetic company,” we reply. Yawn!
If I’m going to sell an editor on a story, I need to sell it to myself first.
Inability to articulate your story in a couple of sentences might signal some troubling writer’s block ahead. I used to wait until I completed the manuscript to boil it down to two sentences which meant peeling away the layers of action, dialogue, conflicts, and twists to find those two core sentences. I finally discovered that writing the two-sentence summary before I begin the manuscript reminds me to stay the course. I avoid detours that get me stuck, and that keeps my eye on the prize and my fingers flying!
Map out the basics
If I’m not sure of my focus, I can easily get blocked. Before we boil the story down to our two-sentence pitch, let’s map out a contemporary novel inspired by the fairytale, Snow White.
• The kingdom is now the family business—fashion, perfume, airplane parts (whatever works).
• Jealous queen is the widow of the CEO.
• Snow White is daughter of deceased CEO. She inherits majority interest in the company.
• Widow and daughter fighting for control.
• Magic mirror is now the anxious governing board and stockholders.
Stream of Consciousness Writing
Now for your summary, write in a stream of consciousness. There are no rules here. Just write whatever comes to mind about our story.
Makenzie de Mayo lives in England as far away from the scheming stepmother as possible, where she earned a doctorate in chemistry [or whatever will serve her best as the CEO]. She returns to America to bury her father and claim her inheritance. She discovers that the stepmother cremated instead of entombing him in the private mausoleum with Makenzie’s mother and grandparents. They are off to a bad reunion.
Condense Your Summary
Now the summary can be condensed. Keep it to no more than 150 words with the essential who, what, when, why, and especially the how. This is an example of figuring out the theme and plotline to use as our bare-bones statement. Eventually, it might tease the editor into asking for the full manuscript. For now, it keeps us from veering into uncharted territory that turns into a big fat writer’s block. Our job is to tell that idea in two sentences that will be our core idea.
Use Book Covers as Your Inspiration
We can do even better than 150 words to narrow in on the essence of our story. Pick some books from your favorite collection. Their cover teasers worked. Now you can go and do likewise. This is a way of figuring out the theme and plotline to use as your core focus. For the summary, think front flap. For the back cover, imagine a one-sentence teaser.
Cut, cull, and focus: Makenzie de Mayo inherits the family business and the enemies that come with it. That’s 14 words about the core of the story. We can use this second sentence to emphasize the first: One wrong step and Makenzie could lose her inheritance and her life.
And there’s our two-sentence pitch:
Makenzie de Mayo inherits the family business and the enemies that come with it. One wrong step and Makenzie could lose her inheritance and her life.
Pitch Your Title
Your last task before starting to write is tagging the manuscript with a working title. You’ll need to work on that as carefully as the short summary. Personally, it took three completely new versions of my young adult novel, a ream of paper, and the fear of returning the advance to realize that the wrong working title can sabotage my manuscript even before I’ve begun chapter one. I had an idea for a story about a boy named Gideon who lived in the shadow of his charismatic friend Jeremy. Then Jeremy committed suicide.
Lost, Gideon eventually redefined himself, but only after I realized I was misled by my working title, Suicide Story. The first manuscript began before the suicide. The novel seemed divided in half, before and after. I didn’t catch on that the working title guided me in that direction. The second version started with the funeral, which left all of the grief stages to get through.
It wasn’t until I changed the working title to Survivor Story that the blocks I experienced in the first two versions fell away like a rock slide. I focused on the only character that could change, Gideon. Jeremy only existed in Gideon’s thoughts, which put the focus where it belonged––on Gideon and his story arc.
The final title was hiding in plain sight all along. The song, You Can’t Get Nowhere Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song, the friends wrote was the theme of the book: You cannot live someone else’s life. I changed the title to Singin’ Somebody Else’s Song, and once it appeared beside every page number it kept me focused on a better denouement than the one I planned. Lesson learned: Be careful how you label your story, even if you’re the only one who will see that label. It can lead you away from your intent, or even create those annoying writer’s blocks.
For our practice plot, let’s give it the working title, Mackenzie White and the Seven Board Members.
Now, Flesh Out the Story
Now that you’ve created your two-sentence pitch and working title, you can work on filling out the rest of the story. In the case of our Snow White, here’s where we can start:
• an ally for the protagonist,
• some conspiracy buddies for the stepmother (the acting CEO),
• a sympathetic corporate attorney, our apparent Prince Charming,
• Makenzie’s plan (review the financial books, much to the chagrin of the stepmother [reduced to a vice chair position]),
• opportunities for skullduggery (say, at their country mansion, and city labs and offices),
• an antagonist, perhaps a rough-edged man who takes no guff from anyone,
• ally of the wicked stepmother,
• a corporate espionage detective.
It is a clichéd plot right now in its birthing stage, but if we create strong, layered characters, it can work. Even more important, it will keep writer’s block at bay. (Keep in mind, if this were not a sample there would be more work and more speculation to do.) Just be sure none of these characters and opportunities stray far from your two sentence pitch.
See Through Your Manuscript
We need to see through the layers of action, dialogue, and characterization to redefine why we wanted to write the story. Reducing the summary to a few sentences saves, not wastes, our time, especially if that time is spent causing you writer’s block anxiety. That brief summary will be a lighthouse beacon that keeps us from piloting our story onto the rocky shore and into a stuck spot. It just might wind up as the tease on your book cover.
Mary Blount Christian has had more than 100 traditional and work-for-hire books published for adults, children, and teens in fiction and non-fiction. She is currently working on two potential mystery series for adults. Mary joined the Institute of Children’s Literature in 1977. Reprinted in French, Japanese, Indonesian, Swedish, and Braille, some are reprinted in paperback and video films. Her first book, NOTHING MUCH HAPPENED TODAY, has never been out-of-print since it was published in 1973 and currently appears in a collection by Mosdos Publishing for schools.