Wednesday, April 16, 2014

No, There Is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.

I'm going to a writing conference next week, my first in a very long time. (Yay!) I don't have a manuscript ready yet, so I won't be formally pitching any agents and editors while I'm there. Still, I know from past experience that I'm going to be asked what I'm working on several times over the course of the weekend.

Because writers are naturally inclined to be antisocial and when you jam a whole bunch of us together in a room and make us talk to each other, all we can think to do is ask one another about our books. "What are you working on?" is a very dangerous question to ask a writer, likely to trigger an avalanche of unwanted information.

(But for some reason we keep asking each other anyway. Did I mention that our social skills are known to be somewhat lacking?)

This is probably why we're so heavily encouraged to develop elevator pitches. They tell you it's for professional development--if you're stuck in an elevator with your dream agent and they happen to ask you what your book is about, you want to be able to hook them before they reach their floor!--but it's probably more to keep the small talk down to manageable levels.

So even though I don't technically need an elevator pitch, I still need an elevator pitch. I don't necessarily like working from a script when I'm talking to people, but I've found that if I have a base to work from, the conversation goes a little smoother. So rather than write out an actual elevator pitch, trying to turn my speech patterns into dialogue or something, I started with a query-style blurb.

I put it up a few weeks ago as a flash fiction post here, by the way, so if you want to know what Guardian is about, that's it.

I'll keep that in my head and try to work from it when I'm talking to people so I don't get bogged down in subplots or the magic system or whatever. The 50-word limit I put on the blurb really helped me cut a lot of those less-than-essential details out.

Speaking of the 50-word limit, a few people asked me how I came up with that number. You probably won't find it in any general advice about writing blurbs, but I found my way to it by studying queries.

There's a lot of advice about querying out there. (Janet Reid's Query Shark blog is my personal favorite.) You should have an introductory paragraph. You should skip straight to the story. You should blurb your book in two paragraphs. One paragraph. Three sentences. Five sentences. Focus on action. On character. Voice is more important than anything else. Be clever. But not too clever.

The most common rule of thumb I see is that you get one paragraph of approximately three sentences to talk about your story. One sentence for the character/set up, one for the problem, and one for the stakes. That's it. Short, sweet, and to the point.

The problem with telling most writers that they have to distill their novel down to three sentences is that you might end up with three sentences, sure, but they're great big galloping sentences that go on and on and on forever. Though they may not technically be run ons, of course. We're very good at using and abusing punctuation when we need to be.

I never see conjunctions, parenthetical references, em-dashes, and semicolons all in the same sentence except when looking at query examples.

And I hate big long galloping sentences when I'm reading. I love them when I'm writing, of course. Why use 3 words when 10 will do? But I hate them when I'm reading. I suspect most people do, particularly agent and editor people who have to wade through hundreds of these things every week.

So I started looking at word count instead. In general, an average sentence in fiction is somewhere between 14-22 words. I can't remember where I got that number, but it's stuck in my brain for some reason. I looked at my own writing and found that average holds true for me, so I'm keeping it. And three sentences at this average is approximately 50 words.

So that's how I came up with my limit. When I kept my target at 50 words instead of 3 sentences, I found the whole thing was both harder and easier. Harder because I wanted so badly to cram a whole bunch of extra information into those three sentences and I couldn't. And easier because once I did figure out what the absolute most important things about the story were, I was able to ignore the rest of it.

So how do you answer the "what are you working on?" question? Do you have a blurb you work from or do you just wing it? Do you think the 3-sentence/50-word limit works for blurbs?

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