Friday, January 27, 2006

Brief Me

Brevity appeals to me. I fell in love with brevity code in the military. One-liners are my favorite type of joke. When I see a one-word title on a cover, I'm instantly drawn to the book. Ogden Nash is one of my personal heroes.

Storytellers are spinners, not tailors. It's difficult for us to be brief when we have so much story in our heads. Even on the internet, the kingdom of acronymous, we're often too wordy (and I am as guilty of this as any writer, especially when I feel passionately about something like, hey, brevity.)

Today while I was talking with a sales rep from a completely different industry, she related this observation: people remember advertising with images and single words and phrases more so than ads with blocks of text -- even if they're a captive audience and have nothing to do but look at the ad.

Makes sense to me. Attention spans are short these days. Both men and women are busier; we work long hours, have more responsibilities, and we're tired. Time is a precious commodity we don't want to waste.

Now and then I challenge writers to trim their pitches. I see it as a necessary skill, and you never know when you may need a quick pitch. Brevity with impact is even more important, because if you don't have significant wattage, you're not going to dazzle the editor.

Consider trimming down when you work on the following:

1. Title: Your title, like cover art, is a selling point. It doesn't have to be one word, but it should convey your story's power. Change titles as often as you like until you find one that works (I often wonder how well StarDoc would have done if I had stuck with its original title, Border FreeClinic.)

2. Query letter: My advice is keep it to three paragraphs and no more than one page. The shorter it is, the more likely the editor will read the entire letter.

3. Synopsis: Get out of the storyteller's mindset and into a more journalistic approach. Resist the urge to persuade or impress the editor, and discard the lyrical in favor of the concise and powerful. Don't worry; you'll have plenty of room to be pretty in the novel.

4. First three chapters: These make or break your pitch. If your first three chapters are a set-up, travelogue, droning narrative or some other form of writer security blanket, delete them and start your novel with chapters four, five and six.

More info:

Strunk's Elements of Composition; scroll down to #13. Omit needless words.

In Writer Trick #7 from the old weblog I showed how to condense the passage of time in a scene.

Columbia University's Writing Summaries.

Jonathan Treisman's Writing Loglines that Sell is geared toward screenwriters but will work for novelists, too.

The University of Pittsburgh's How to Summarize.


  1. Anonymous7:33 AM

    As I struggle w/ synopsis and those vital first three chapters, I'd like to say,

    Thank You!!! :)

  2. I'd love to ditch the synopsis altogether... i HATE them.

  3. I have a ST book whittled down to a three page synopsis and I still don't like it.


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