A Tip I Learned from Author Charlie Newton

I attended a writing seminar by Chicago author Charlie Newton, author of Calumet City and Start Shooting, at Second Story Books in Louisville. I learned more at this seminar than all others I have attended combined, from a practical sense. If you ever get a chance to attend one of his presentations, do so. Mr. Newton helps New York Times bestselling authors hone their craft. He gave us several writing exercises and I wanted to share one of them.

Mr. Newton asked, if I wanted you to tell me what your book is about, can you do it in a few paragraphs? How about one sentence? One word? His point being, if you don’t know what your book is about, how can you expect others to figure it out, especially media members you want to promote your book? He offered us a way to work on this skill.

He suggested taking ten of your favorite movies and writing a synopsis of each movie. After all, you may have seen your top pick several times and you and your friends can trade quotes back and forth. You know the movie so well you can say the dialogue along with the characters.  Once you write your  synopsis, boil it down to one sentence. A tougher thing to do, but easy enough for your favorite film. Finally, to one single word. Once you’ve done this ten times, you can apply this to your own work.

I will use my favorite movie, Arsenic and Old Lace as an example. My synopsis of the movie would be:

Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster, an avowed bachelor, finally marries long time neighbor Elaine Harper, on Halloween.  The happy couple head back to the old neighborhood, Elaine heading to her house to tell her dad, Mortimer to the home of his aunts Martha and Abby, who raised him. His aunts are very happy for the couple and go to prepare a quick  celebration. When Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat. Mortimer first suspects his cousin  who still lives with them and thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. In short order, however, he finds out his aunts have been killing elderly gentlemen for years by giving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic when they stop by to check out a room the aunts have for rent.

Mortimer tries to quickly arrange to put both Teddy and his aunts in a sanitarium, while putting off an increasingly upset Elaine. Things are made even harder when Mortimer’s brother Jonathan, on the run from the police, shows up with his friend Dr. Einstein to hide out.  Throw in visits from the cops, Jonathan’s own dead body and Jonathan’s desire to kill his brother and you have both laughter and screams.

Simple enough. Two paragraphs. Condensing this down to one sentence:

Theatre critic Mortimer Brewster, on his wedding day, must deal with serial killer aunts, a murderous brother and an insane cousin, just to go on his honeymoon.

And my one word description of what this movie is about:


Doing this ten times forces you to think more clearly about what you are trying to say. As you write your novel,  try this process to help you focus your writing.

I did this for The Hand of God, my upcoming novel. My synopsis is:

Bounty Hunter Victor McCain always wondered how his brother, Mikey, went from down-n-out loser to one of Louisville’s richest men.  Now he knew: his brother sold his soul to the Devil. And in twenty-four hours, Mikey would die and spend and eternity in Hell unless Victor agrees to hunt down a thief, a woman as deadly as she is beautiful. On a journey of murder and betrayal, Victor must now put his own soul at risk to save his only brother, battle a dark underground organization with a goal of nothing less than global war between Christians and Muslims, and fight creatures from man’s darkest nightmares. Then there’s the Hand of God, God’s own bounty hunter. During a final confrontation, will he be friend or enemy? Only Heaven knows.

My one sentence description:

Bounty hunter Victor McCain tries to save his brother’s soul by finding a thief for the Devil.

And the one word description:

Now when people ask me what my book is about, I can tell them choices.

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