• Caryn Riswold
  • Can You Explain the Concept of Your Novel in Ten Words?
Can You Explain the Concept of Your Novel in Ten Words?
Written by
Caryn Riswold
November 2015
Written by
Caryn Riswold
November 2015

This was a writing challenge I read this week from the blog of Graeme Shimmin. It was a post about creating a pitch for your book, something I'm working on in preparation for attending the American Academy of Religion annual meeting later this month. A lot of publishers and editors will be at the conference, and I plan to take advantage of time with any who will talk to me and consider publishing fiction. (Spoiler alert: Not many religion publishers publish the kind of fiction I'm working on. Hope springs eternal.)

Before that, though, I have to get comfortable explaining the book in conversation. This is what a pitch is. It's that two minutes you're riding up in an elevator with [INSERT BIG NAME HERE] and they ask what you're working on.

We all know the scenario.

I suppose because I'm a writer, I prefer to explain my ideas in writing. Prepping for meetings and interviews, arranged or accidental-in-an-elevator, for me means writing things out and practicing.

I like the challenge of the Ten Word Summary. Over the past year or so, it has been hard for me to respond casually to friends and colleagues who ask what I'm working on for my sabbatical. When I say I am working on a book, of course the next question is:

What's the book about?

And so, here's my attempt at a ten-word explanation:

Three women know that Joseph Smith’s secret revelation contradicts patriarchy.

What do you think, SheWriters?

What does it tell you, what do you want to know, what do you expect when you read that?

Would you pick up that book?

If you were an editor, would you want to review that manuscript? (Fingers crossed.)

Can you explain the concept of your novel in ten words?

Let's be friends

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  • Caryn Riswold

    I love the "but what it's really about ... " angle and making it personal, saying why it fascinates me. Since that should hopefully fascinate someone else too. Off to play with that for a bit!

  • Laura Brennan

    Oh, Caryn, I know! It can be so hard to distill the essence into one or two sentences.

    Here's the full exercise I do when I teach writers, if it could be of use to you:

    My novel, [Name Of Novel], is a [Genre] about a [Main Character] who [Action That Propels The Story].

    So, for instance, "My novel, Smith's Secret, is an historical drama. It's 1846 and three very different women all have one thing in common: they share a secret that may bring down a growing and powerful religious movement known as the Mormon Church."

    Obviously, that is an entirely made up version since I know very little on the subject. Also it's a bit long. But that's the idea: get something that has all the elements you need, in the right order, and then make it better.

    Now, there is a totally other way to go, and that is to pitch it in terms of your passion for the project, why you wrote this instead of anything else in the world. That would go something like: "My novel, Smith's Secret, is about three women who share a secret that could bring down the Mormon Church, but really it's about the courage to stand up for yourself, even when your family and friends all think you should stay quiet. I've always been fascinated by people who speak the truth, even when doing so will destroy the life they know. It seems like such a crazy kind of courage, but there would never be change without them."

    Again, a bit long, but you speak to the heart of the novel and why you're writing it. It opens up good conversations with friends and family -- just in time for Thanksgiving!


  • Caryn Riswold

    Laura, that's helpful ... thanks! You're right about the setting piece, of course. I will think about that as I keep working on it. What I did find helpful about the ten words thing was trying to clarify & crystallize the concept of the novel, the central tension, etc. I've beeen revising and mucking around with the full ms for several years now, getting lost in the trees, and looking for the forest ... or some version of that tortured metaphor. 

  • Laura Brennan

    While I think the ten-word explanation is an intriguing idea, I also think it should only be used to give you a rough draft. I do something similar when I teach loglines: I give them students the framework and have them fill in the blanks. But I stress that it's always just to get rid of the blank page -- well, that, and to get your ducks in a row.

    In your case, if you're pitching religious publishers, they would know right away who Joseph Smith was, but a more mainstream publisher might not. The biggest piece of info missing for me is, I don't know what time period you're writing - is it set now or then, or somewhere in between?

    If it's an historical, maybe something like: "It's [Year] and Joseph Smith has built a powerful new religious movement. The only thing standing in his way: three women who know his secret -- a secret that could bring down the entire church.

    Waaaay more than ten words, and again just a starting place, but it gives you more of a sense of the story.

    Of course I may have gotten the story you want to tell totally backwards, but you get my drift. Give enough info to understand the arena and the stakes, then sell the sizzle. Good luck!

  • Diana Y. Paul Writing

    Hi Caryn,

    Years ago, when I was a professor at Stanford, I had my reworked dissertation published by the American Academy of Religion.  It was a study of a Buddhist sutra--the first--on a woman who becomes a Buddha, a very radical idea (circa second or third century AD).  I think your novel sounds so intriguing-- a la Book of Mormon--but you may have to pitch the research that provides the foundation for the novel.  Just my opinion!