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Novel Compression Schemes

I’ve been selling my writing professionally since I was an undergrad, now literally forty years ago. I’ve had to do remarkably little selling. My first story and first article both sold to the first places I sent them. I’ve never had a publisher turn down a computer book proposal. (Granted that selling books to a publisher you co-own is rarely a challenge.) My fiction has been a mixed bag, but in general a story either sells quickly or not at all.

All changed. This is the toughest market for novel-length SFF since, well, forever. I’ve just spent two years writing Ten Gentle Opportunities, and now the selling begins. This is a new thing for me. I’ve historically considered tireless self-promoters to be tiresome self-promoters, and now I are one. I hate to go that way, and if there were another way I’d already be taking it.

It begins this weekend, when I have a chance to pitch to a major SF publisher at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. The pitch happens in a time slot literally eight minutes long. I have eight minutes to make a bleary editor hungry to read my book. No pressure.

The primary challenge is to summarize the novel in synopses of various sizes, from 5,000 words down to…140 characters. Various markets and agents prefer synopses of various sizes, so they’d all better be right there on the shelf, ready to go at a moment’s notice.

This is harder than it looks; nay, it’s diabolical. The story itself is insanely complicated to begin with: One of my beta testers described it as “a Marx Brothers movie with twice as many Marx Brothers.” That’s just how I write, as anyone who’s read The Cunning Blood will understand. I have a mortal fear of not giving my readers their money’s worth, and a venial fear of being boring.

The way to write synopses of five different lengths is to start with the longest one, and write each one from scratch. In other words, don’t write the longest one and then try to cut it down to the next smaller size. This is like trying to turn hexacontane into propane by pulling carbon atoms randomly out of the middle; sooner or later the molecule has too many holes and falls apart.

It’s work, but it works. I finished the 300-word synopsis earlier this morning, and then set my hand to the gnarliest task of all: the “elevator pitch,” AKA logline. I get to summarize a manic 94,200 word story into 140 characters. I’ve actually been trying and failing to nail this for literally six months, since I finished the first draft. I first thought it would be easy, as I used to write cover copy for early Coriolis books. Heh.

The solution, as I said, is to start from the beginning. Each time I wrote a synopsis from scratch, I was forced to take two more steps up the ladder, and look down at the story from a little more height. You literally tell it again, each time with half the words you had last time. In the process, you get a clearer sense for what the story is about, and what the major themes are. Finally you end up with something you can say in an elevator between two adjacent floors:

A spellbender flees to our world with ten stolen nuggets of magic, and a crew of AIs helps him battle a repo spirit sent to retrieve him.

Will this work? Dunno. I guess I’ll find out this weekend.


  1. Erbo says:

    140 characters is the size of a tweet, so it’s not hard to see why they picked that length…even if TGO is hard to summarize that way.

  2. Jim Tubman says:

    In my experience, removing the verbs and articles from a text provides useful compression. On the other hand, I have never sold any fiction or non-fiction piece, so there you go.

  3. Jim Tubman says:

    Woody Allen on compressed text: “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

  4. Bob Fegert says:

    I’d love to read the 300-word synopsis. You could post it here in the comments.

    You are a good writer. You were even able to make an assembly language book readable and interesting… and that took some doing 🙂

    1. I’m not sure posting one of the synopses here is a good idea, at least until I have a better grip on how agents/publishers feel about such things. It is, after all, designed to be all-spoiler. It’s a tool for selling to publishers rather than readers. Selling to readers is actually something I’m a little better at, and look forward to doing once the book hits the streets.

      I’ll send it to you privately.

      1. Bob Fegert says:

        That was a complex story to describe in
        300 words… It sounds like an interesting tale 🙂

  5. Lee Hart says:

    You have to “channel” George Ewing, and write like one of his book reviews. They were hilarious, but after you read the book you had to wonder if you read the same book he did. 🙂

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