Blurbs, synopses and one-liners

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by Paul Burman

There’s nothing quite like a good epiphany. Especially at those times when you feel bogged down in the same-old same-old and you know you’re getting nowhere fast.

Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking relationships, jobs, dusty roads or pet projects, a good epiphany will leave you a little numb and gob-smacked at first, but will ultimately illuminate you. You’ll glow like a 500 watt light bulb and quickly find a new sense of direction.

My epiphanies mostly happen when I’m writing. It’s not surprising: I spend a lot of time writing.

It’s that moment when, after spending weeks on a short story or months or years on a novel, I set myself the task of trying to sum up what the story is about. It’s the moment at which I suddenly realise – and this is when the first cold shiver runs down my neck – that I’ve been taking an endless string of words for a walk without fully considering where I might have ended up. (I may have started off with a sense of where I was heading, but rarely do I end up at that place.) For a moment, I might feel lost, but then I begin to enjoy the adventure of looking about me and exploring where I’ve arrived.

The first time this happened was when I was about to send a manuscript to a publisher and, instead of writing the usual 20,000 word thesis explaining what every chapter was about, I followed some advice I’d been given and tried to fit a synopsis onto one page of A4. For the first time, I found myself wondering what the story was really about and whether this is the story I’d actually worked towards telling as well as I should. All of a sudden, there seemed a lot of material, which might have been relevant to the original idea, that had become redundant when considering where the story had gone, whilst there were new, vital aspects of the characters’ lives I now realised I hadn’t even begun to explore. My attempt at a synopsis highlighted one flaw after another and made me realise there was another year’s work to be done before I foist it upon a publisher.

The trend in recent years for publishers and agents to request each manuscript be accompanied by a pitch, which might include half a page of synopsis, a one-liner and a blurb, highlights a useful writing strategy, albeit one which might best be used at several points during the drafting process (and long before the manuscript is considered polished). One paragraph to sum up 90,000 words can be quite a challenge, and one line can be tough, but the process sharpens the writer’s focus and will often deliver its own epiphany.


Stella said...

YES. Just... yes. Exactly.

Unknown said...

In NYC it's called "the elevator speech." A writer must be able describe his or her novel before the eighth floor.
(My husband practices on me, which has prompted me to choose the stairways whenever possible.)

Paul Burman said...

Stella: Glad. 8~)

Kathleen: "Elevator speech" -- I like it. Will have to wait until I'm in Melbourne next to practise this, there being a shortage of eight storey buildings in these 'ere parts, but it seems like about the right amount of time. For those occasions when I can't be succinct, there'd always be the option of pressing the Emergency button and sticking between floors for that bit longer!

Mike French said...

I've been through a similar process - it does really make you cut through everything in the novel to it's heart when you have to do a synopsis or a blurb. Like you, I can't really see it until I've finished the first draft.