One-Sentence Summary Critiques & Tips
Today I’m offering some thoughts on a few of the one-sentence summaries that were entered in the contest. Sometimes it’s helpful to see what’s not quite working, in order to learn how to do it better. Maybe these examples will help you spot something you can improve with your own pitch. We’ll group them according to common problems.
Issue: Not using specific language. Many pitches suffer from being a bit too vague to effectively build interest.
When things are not what they seem, Kimberly must overcome many obstacles in her life, to find herself again…at any costs.
>>Notice the general, not specific words. “things are not what they seem.” “overcome many obstacles.” “find herself.” They lack real meaning and don’t give us anything to visualize. After this pitch, we still don’t know what the story is about.
When a lonely scientist’s nightmares become reality, she must embrace her magical abilities to save her planet from an invading alien force.
>>I don’t know what the nightmares are about, there is no clue as to the nature of her magical abilities, and the alien force could be darn near anything. Just a few carefully chosen words could make this more visual and draw my interest.
After the world she grew up in is irrevocably altered, a girl named Evernow determines to live by her own rules in the fractured world she’s been left with, even if that means treading a fine line between species and the battles taking place between them.
>>Again, use of non-specific words makes it impossible to understand what this story is really about. “irevocably altered.” “live by her own rules.” “treading a fine line.” These are amorphous terms, they’re not visual or compelling, so there’s nothing I can actually picture happening in this story.
Note: Although I didn’t include any examples here, quite a few of the contest entries had a character needing to “deal with” something. Be careful of that language. To “deal with” something is again, vague and non-visual.
Issue: Confusing or just doesn’t make sense.
A Bible belt of California teen, hell-bent to choreograph a Moby Dick modern dance masterpiece, is blown off course by the true love of a purity-ring wearing eco-warrior.
>>Unfortunately this doesn’t convey a coherent story. The danger, besides not making anyone want to read the book, is that someone might assume the problem isn’t just a muddled pitch, it’s a muddled book.
When the ship carrying Marcus Reider sailed into Lemaigne, the city’s Observer had no idea this would overturn his loyalty to the Security Corps, and his sense of reality.
>>I couldn’t make heads or tails of this. There’s nothing to grab on to.
Reviewing the origins and impact of today’s dichotomy, a new paradigm is offered for the relationship between social action and evangelism in 21st century Christianity.
>>What is “today’s dichotomy”? Starts off confusing, and feels like jargon. It also uses the passive voice. This pitch is unclear and doesn’t make the book sound interesting.
A kick-ass heart surgeon, hung-up on a terminal patient, is thwarted by a hot researcher who is not sharing his discovery until it is stolen and they are fighting for their own lives.
>>This is confusing and the language is unspecific. What does “kick ass” actually say about the heart surgeon? And by “hung up” do you mean “in love” or something else? And what does the researcher being “hot” have to do with this story? It feels like the writer is trying too hard to be cool rather than convey the story. The unspecified “discovery” adds to the confusion.
As a new and unwilling owner of a ramshackle USVI hotel, divorced mother of two Holly Thompson must confront her own demons and an island crime ring that threaten her fragile family.
>>This is confusing because it would take most people a minute (at least) to understand what “USVI” means. Avoid using words or abbreviations that could be confusing.
Issue: Book sounds uninteresting or like a real downer.
A bitter young widower’s second chance at love means marrying a dying woman.
>>The protag is a widower, which is already sad, but characterizing him as “bitter” takes away any desire I might have had to read a book about him. The idea of marrying a dying woman just makes it worse. This sounds like a depressing book!
Wry, wrung-out suburban mom doggedly pursues her dream of visiting all 50 U.S. states before her 50th birthday without going broke, abandoning her children or divorcing her husband.
>>Like the previous example, when you begin your pitch describing an unpleasant person, you make it hard for anyone to want to read the book. This pitch continues with really negative language, “going broke, abandoning her children…” and so it ends up feeling like a downer of a book about a negative person.
Issue: The parts of the pitch do not seem connected to one another or do not follow logically.
Shiloh’s art career was just taking off when two things happened – she was given guardianship of her sister and a widower came to town.
>>The art career, the sister and the widower all seem oddly disconnected from one another, just kind of hanging there unrelated. There is no indication of the story that connects them.
Fifteen-year old Rick pulls Hollywood’s hottest actress from the wreckage of a plane, spurring a deadly race through America’s last frontier.
>>For me, the idea of a race across America doesn’t seem connected or follow logically from the idea of rescuing Hollywood’s hottest actress. The pitch would work better with a clue about why they are in this deadly race and what’s at stake. How did the crash lead to the deadly race?
The murder of her ex-boyfriend’s new sweetie in pancake batter yanks EmmaTrace from her quiet life and forces her to confront her fear of flying.
>>This is weird on a couple of levels; first, what does a murder have to do with confronting a fear of flying, and why should I care? Confronting a fear of flying is not exactly an exciting premise for a novel. And then there’s… pancake batter? It may be meant to be intriguing but it’s just off the wall and isn’t working to generate interest in the pitch.
A Few Tips on Summaries
(based on what I saw in the entries)
>>If your summary was about 45 words or more, I disqualified it immediately. When it’s that long, it’s missing the point and defeating the purpose. Work harder at getting the word count down.
>>Many of the summaries had trouble with basic punctuation or grammar – in particular, commas where one is not needed; or a comma where there should be a semi-colon or em dash.
>>In general, don’t try to use dialogue in a one-sentence pitch.
>>If your pitch is getting too convoluted, you’re trying to say too much. Strip it down.
>>Lots of pitches presented a a situation but no story or conflict.
>>Don’t use exclamation points!!!
>>Attention to detail: I realize this is only a silly blog contest, but the number of typos was disturbing– and reflects the same kinds of mistakes I often see in queries and submissions. Call me crazy but I think it’s not that hard to carefully proof your 25 words to make sure they say what you want. It leaves a bad impression when you have “at” instead of “an” or “it” instead of “if.” Innocent mistakes? Yes. But if you’re going to be a writer, pay attention to detail.
And thus ends our discussion of the one-sentence summary.
Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent