The Infamous “Brief Description”

“Please include no more than 10 pages of your work, pt 12 font, double-spaced, with one-inch margins, and a separate cover page with a brief description of your work.”

Those are words than make emerging writers shudder.  Not the manuscript part; that’s standard format and most of us are using it already. Not, it’s those so-harmless-sounding words, “a brief description of your work.”

This is not for an agent’s package. I signed up for a consultation with writer Michael David Lukas at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference and this is what he’s requesting. Lukas wrote one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I’d like to make a good impression.

But back to those delicate, undulating, sea-anemone words, “a brief description of your work,” those words with sharpened steel teeth lurking just below their surface.

Because, dude, if I could give a brief description, I probably wouldn’t have written 430 pages.

I could act all haughty, like, “Well, obviously this work is so rich and complex, with deep, nuanced characters, plot elements that explore the unquestioned assumptions that run like hidden fault-lines through our culture; it deconstructs and subverts the tropes of popular fiction and it…” blah blah blah, “… and so obviously a brief description is out the question.”

I could, except that’s not it.

It’s that when I try to formulate a brief description my brain acts like Microsoft Windows experiencing the blue screen of death. There’s just nothing there, or nothing I can access at any rate.

Attempts to briefly describe the work to friends, along the lines of the toxic “elevator pitch” we are all told to practice, tend to go like this:

“Well, there are these portals. They’re quantum-physics portals, only not really because it’s fantasy so they aren’t really about quantum physics, I just say that, but there are millions of other dimensions out there and some people from other dimensions can come through them to here and a bunch of them have. There is a government in exile because a usurper took over a ruler’s nation, but that’s not what the book’s about though. There is a human main character with PTSD, and did I mention it’s set in Vallejo, CA? And parts of it take place on the decommissioned Naval shipyard Mare Island? Have you been to Vallejo ever?” (Natters on about Vallejo for several seconds.) “And it’s not really just PTSD because she thinks she’s delusional. And the visitors from the other dimension are magical and they wear disguises. Are you okay? It looks like your eyes are glazing over. The human woman is a magician, not a magical magician though, although who can say what’s really magical and what isn’t? She’s a stage magician and she hangs out with human artists at an artists collective, and there’s a steampunk theme and a cosplay theme and hey! Hey, where are you going?”

This does not qualify as a brief description.

Please understand that I am, actually, pretty darned good at summarizing the plot of a book or a story. I write reviews. A review has to have a “brief description” of the plot. It’s not that I don’t have the skill set. It’s that the skills turn to quivering jellified  lumps when I direct them to my own work.

I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Realistically, having to create a brief description of your own work is going to be necessary when you start marketing it. It is also a disciplined exercise that makes you think of your own work in a different way. I’m not sure how to learn to do it. I would seriously suggest taking books you like and practice writing descriptions of them. You’ll start noticing what stands out for you, in a book, and how you summarize a story.

Then for your own piece, work with your first reader, someone who’s read the thing and knows what you want to do. Brainstorm with them to make sure you’re hitting the high points.

And, I think, stop worrying about the nuance, beauty, texture and depth of the work because you aren’t going to display that in your description.

And what kind of a word count are we talking about? Well, because mine was for a consultation, I let myself get a little sloppy. Including a paragraph about me, and an ending paragraph with some questions for Michael, mine ended up being 400 words. I think 250-300 is probably the ballpark.

Here’s what I ended up sending (excluding the opening and ending paragraphs):

Two years before the story opens, Miranda Keane, a performing arts student and aspiring stage magician, survived a terrorist attack in a local shopping mall. Her efforts to help others during the attack made her a minor celebrity, but she is immobilized by PTSD and believes she is delusional, because ever since the event at the mall she has been hearing voices and seeing beings who do not look human. After a brief stay in a mental health ward, Miranda learns that a small group of non-human exiles has taken refuge in Vallejo. She is not delusional; she is one of the few people who can see them in their true form.

The visitors, as they call themselves, are from another dimension. They have fled the long reach of a brutal usurper in their home world, and their community centers around an upscale local bar. The visitors are adept at the manipulation of electrical fields (magic). Just as Miranda is adjusting to all this, she learns that the attack on the shopping mall was not random, and the deaths of several other mall-attack survivors are not random either.

Ian Early, the visitor who approaches Miranda, enlists her help to identify other visitors. He tells her that the leader of the exile group, a woman named Mirth, is the rightful ruler of her nation, but there are factions of refugees, and Miranda has already been approached by another visitor, a rebel, whose description of Mirth is less flattering. Soon, the usurper’s lieutenant learns about Miranda and begins hunting her. Now her life and that of her artist friends are at risk, and Early’s unswerving loyalty to Mirth may mean that he will sacrifice them to keep his ruler safe.

As the usurper prepares for another attack, this time at Mare Island, Miranda must decide who she can trust, how she can help, and whether she can get her life back on track.

That clocks in at 321 words and I think if I leaned on it harder I could bring it in at under 300. Does it cover everything that happens in the book? Not even. You don’t even see the powerful friendships and the political infighting and the white supremacists who are being manipulated… and on second thought, if I ever send this thing out, the white supremacists should be in there, front and center. It also occurs to me that the gay cross-dressing cosplaying Vikings should be somewhere in my “brief description,” because who can resist gay cross-dressing cosplaying Vikings?

So, anyway, I bit the bullet and sent that out. We’ll see what Michael David Lukas thinks, and maybe I’ll have a better synopsis, or “brief description” next time out.

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One Response to The Infamous “Brief Description”

  1. Terry Connelly says:

    Excellent! Your words are great advice for those sending out samples of their work!

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