I keep running into folks who say, “You need to start with a sentence — preferably 25 words or less — that sums up your book.” Unless I’m going to write, “Boy meets girl, stuff happens, they live happily ever after,” I don’t think that’s going to work for me.
The idea is brilliant; you boil your story down to its essential elements and communicate that to the listener, who will hopefully be intrigued enough to ask for a full/buy the book. It is absolutely something a writer needs to do as they send their precious work out into the cold, cruel world. My argument isn’t with that. My argument is about when the writer needs to do that.
I get the idea behind writing that one sentence; it’d be great if I could sit down and define my story before I actually started writing it. Problem is, my mind doesn’t work that way. Last year, I wrote a short story (which is being released in an upcoming anthology) and my mind did provide a single sentence: “Miss Amelia P. Crisswell — Investigations with Discretion.” Told me everything I needed to know: this was a single woman in the Victorian age investigating the strange and weird. The sentence is what is on her card.
By the time I finished the story, her name was still Amelia, but she wasn’t investigating anything. In fact, she was actually in hiding from something. The sentence is still valid because it got me moving, but I’m glad I didn’t spend too much time considering it deeply or trying to carefully craft it. The more time I spent on it, the more difficult it would have been to move away from that initial idea when it started to veer wildly off course. For me, concentrating deeply on summing up my story in twenty-five words stops me from writing because until I start bashing away on the keyboard, I don’t know what this story is.
I’m a fan of the writer Russell T Davies, and in his book, The Writer’s Tale, he talks at one point about being reluctant to start writing because while everything lives in his head, there are infinite possibilities. It’s when he starts making choices — turn left instead of turn right — that whole chunks of those possibilities are cut off, that the path the story takes is defined by the decisions we make as writers. Sometimes, the reluctance to cut off those choices freezes him into procrastination. That’s why I think I’ll save my one sentence until I get further along in the process; I want some of those ideas to keep on living for a little while longer as I get to know them. Besides, if I don’t have the one sentence to craft and worry over, then I’ve just removed another excuse as to why I’m not actually writing the story.
This, of course, is what works for me. Some folks may share my feelings; other may live and die by that one sentence. That’s part of this whole journey, that it is individual for each of us — and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.