This post is about writing VERY short passages, inspired by Kindle Scout, a crowd-sourced contest in which the first few pages of unpublished novels are posted online and potential readers vote on which book(s) should receive a publishing contract. I entered my recently-completed novel, Pandora’s Promise (the third book in the Pandora’s Trilogy), and it was accepted right away. But it took me several days and much feedback from friends and colleagues to complete the entry.
The two hardest parts of the submission process were writing a 45-character one-liner and a 500-character description of the book. Note that it is character, not word. Characters include punctuation and the blank spaces between words. You must write these minuscule passages in a way that will both explain what the book is about and entice potential readers to nominate it. The saving grace is that the one-liner, the description, and the cover should all work together to give a true picture of what readers will find in the book.
In any writing endeavor, be it an article, an email, or a novel, your prose will read better if you focus on what is truly important. With stringent space limitations, you can’t include all the main points, or even most of them. You’ll need to decide which ones best characterize the book and are most likely to interest potential readers.
In the case of Pandora’s Promise, there are so many important elements to the story it felt impossible to choose. It is a post-apocalyptic adventure with the fate of the human race in doubt. There are three main characters, each with her or his own story line. There are several important subplots, which seemingly have nothing to do with each other until all is tied up at the end. There are a number of hard-science fictional elements as well as subplots involving the emerging telepathic abilities of mutant animals. How could I possibly convey all this in only 45 characters? And how could I summarize such a complicated story in any number of words, let alone 500 characters?
As it turned out, having a tight space limitation was a good lesson for me in focusing on what was truly important in the novel.
Example: one of the most important subplots is the main hero’s interaction with a clan of telepathic elephants. This section, which had been read by several beta readers, was unanimously popular, so I felt it had to be included. Also, though the story is an action-packed adventure, it is also, at heart, a very intense love story, and I wanted to at least mention that. The fate of humanity, if not the world, is indeed in doubt due to a combination of genetic mutations and climate change. There are many other subplots and elements, including a section on how all these disasters came to be.
I decided right away that I wanted the one-liner to be a question: “Can X and Y save the world?” This gives a flavor of the importance of the stakes. But what should I put in the blanks? These are some of the things I tried:
Can human love and ancient wisdom save the world? (49 characters)
Can courage and telepathy save the world? (41 characters)
Can human daring and sentient animals save the world? (53 characters)
Can love and telepathic animals save the world? (47 characters)
The only line that comes in under the cut-off is the second one, and to me it was too general: whose courage? What telepathy? Neither “human love” nor “love” conveys the idea of romance. Daring and courage give some hint of the action segments of the novel, but only a hint. I eventually realized that I was trying to put too many ideas in my one-liner, and should leave other ideas to the summary. I decided instead to focus on only two of the main ideas: the elephants, who are characters in their own right, and the love story, which, though it mostly remains in the background, is a strong motivating force for much of the action.
Thus I finally arrived at “Can true love and elephants save the world?” Which happens to be 43 characters.
The summary, in which I had the luxury of writing a 500-character passage, fills in many of the blanks. It implies that the elephants are sentient, and also offers a flavor of the action, as well as the hard-science fictional nature of the book, lest it be dismissed as fantasy. To see what I ended up with, go to my book’s page on Kindle Scout. If you do so before January 16, 2015, please also nominate my book. If I win publication, you will get a free advance copy of the e-book.