07/12/2010 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

5 Reasons to Summarize a Novel You Haven't Yet Written (and 4 Places to Learn How to Do It)

Last night, I worked on writing a one-sentence summary of my new book. Everyone was out of the house and I set the timer for an hour just to write that one sentence. I didn't develop a bunch of iterations; I just kept changing one sentence. In the midst of this, I thought of the movie "Crazy Heart," which I recently saw, and went to look up the summary on imbd. That led me to look up the summary for "The Verdict", and there was something in both these stories I responded to - the idea of someone coming face to face with their own inadequacies. This thought informed my final sentence, which was this:

When a classical music critic gets scooped by a humor writer, he sees the chance to salvage his career by writing a story that exposes his own daughter's failure.

Why do I write a one-sentence summary?

1.) Because I have written books without doing this, and I have had to throw out 50, 100, 300 pages. That's a painful experience I'd rather not repeat. A one-sentence summary is not about the theme -- i.e. my book is about the fragile nature of family and success. It's about what happens. It helps enormously to know -- loosely -- what happens before you start to write.
2.) Because it's fun. When I write the sentence, I think - I want to read that book. And I get to print out the sentence and pin it on my bulletin board. I can look at it and think, "Cool!"
3.) Because I know I'm going to have to answer the question, "What's your book about?" about 5,000 times before I've even completed a draft, so I might as well practice my answer. Who will ask this question? My mother, my children, my neighbors, my students, my friends. I could, of course, say, "I can't talk about it just yet." But that feels disingenuous, because the truth of the matter is that I'm thinking about this story all the time. If anyone wants to know how I am right now, they will need to know what my story is about.
4.) Because it's part of marketing, and I know I'm going to have to market this book - first to my agent; then to my editor; then to the sales and marketing people; then to readers.

Where can you learn what to PUT in a one sentence summary?

1.) Literary agent Nathan Brandsford's blog.
2.) Randy Ingermason's article, The Snowflake Method. Also, Randy's critiques of one-sentence summaries. Play around on this site to find more.
3.) From our friends in the movie-writing business, who call one-sentence summaries "loglines." Check out Scriptologist for an interesting how-to.
4.) One Minute Book Reviews.

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