If You’re Trying to Write a Book, Try Playing This Game
We’re going to play a game. It’ll be pretty quick, and you’ll learn a lot about your book-length writing project.
Think of two or three books that are similar to the book you’re working on (it doesn’t matter how far along you are in your writing or development). So if you’re working on narrative nonfiction, you might pick John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. If you’re writing a literary novel, you could go with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt or Beautiful Ruins by Jeff Walter. Memoir? How about Lit, by Mary Karr, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. You get the picture. Try to pick books you know and like.
If you can’t think of any comparables, it’s time to pause and think hard about genre. You’ll have a hard time selling your book—whether to publishers or directly to readers—if you can’t talk about your book in terms of where it fits into the marketplace.
Maybe it’s genre-busting, say you? Go find some other books that are also genre-busting (like Jennifer Egan’s The Goon Squad or Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle trilogy). When someone recommends a book to you, isn’t your first question, “What kind of book is it?” or “What’s it about?” You need a family so your book doesn’t become a lonely orphan.
Take the comparables you've chosen and plug them into the four formulas below. Some will work better than others, but have a go anyway:
- I have a completed [word count][genre] titled [title] about [protagonist name/ subject + small description] who/that [conflict].
- What do the people involved in the story want? (2) Why do they want it? (3) What keeps them from getting it?
- Character name/description of event or issue (2) The conflict he/ she/ they’re going through/ challenge faced (3) The choices people involved in the story have to make.
- When the [opening conflict] happens to CHARACTER/S (2) They have to overcome obstacle/ conflict (3) in order to complete quest (ie. get what they want).
Now take your own book and plug it into the four formulas, as best you can. This will give you at least two or three viable one-(or two) liners about your book. Ask yourself: What works about this description? What doesn’t work? Compare it to the examples you plugged in and weigh one against the other. This is the part where you'll begin getting invaluable insights into your own work.
You may discover that your book has no central conflict. It needs a central conflict! You may realize that your secondary plotline is more important to you than the leading one. You must commit to a story that has narrative drive—this involves making choices. Perhaps—for the very first time—you will understand clearly the themes that you have been struggling to explore.
No matter how much you’ve already written, clarifying the core narrative of your book is critical, whether you’re writing literary fiction or how-to. I like to do this exercise with writers who are just launching into their projects—it’s always good to keep your end goal in mind when you’re starting out. At Launch Lab, for writers whose books are finished, edited, and about to be published, we spend part of our first day working on one-liners, because if you can’t describe your book in a nutshell, you’ll have a hard time attracting media. And unless people are talking about your book, no one will even know it’s out there. And that would be a crying shame.
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann