The second question in my free download, ”The Self-Publisher’s Checklist: 33 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self-Publishing, might be one of the more difficult ones to answer, especially if you have yet to start writing. But, this question might be the most important one you need to answer before you begin working in earnest.

The answer to this question provides a sure foundation to build your book upon and a map to lead you home when you get lost—an inevitability the longer your work gets. So what’s the most difficult, most necessary question to ask yourself before self-publishing?

In one sentence, what do I want my book to say?

It’s possible you’ve just now broken into a cold sweat.

  • “How am I supposed to sum up my 50,000-word nonfiction book into one sentence? There’s so much I have to cover!”

  • “How am I supposed to use one sentence to encapsulate my 110,000-word dystopian future fiction book? I just want to entertain people. Isn’t that enough?”

Now that that’s out of our system, let’s discuss how winnowing your book to a single sentence can help bring focus and clarity to your first draft. While you’re more than welcome to start writing without a clear view of your end goal, [ref] Authors the world over do this and write fine stories, though I’d argue it’s the practiced authors who are more capable of this than first-timers.[/ref] you’ll likely waste time wandering through the forest of your mind instead of forging a clear path for your readers to follow. By fully answering the question as to what you want your book to ultimately say, you will always be able to check your current trajectory against your end goal.

For instance, my answer to this question for my own book [ref] Which, truth be told, I didn’t have such an answer before I wrote my book, which is one of the reasons I wrote and released The Self-Publisher’s Checklist: 33 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self-Publishing.[/ref] was:

I want my book to say that redemption can be found in the most unlikely of places.

So, when a publisher was interested in the project during its formative stages and suggested significant changes to the route I’d already taken with the book, I amicably parted ways with them, realizing that the book they were requesting was not the book I felt led to write. In other words, I weighed their thoughtful suggestions against my one-sentence summary. Without stretching that sentence to its breaking point, I never would have been able to write the book that they desired. I tried to, and it turned into some strange Breaking Bad fanfic where Walt and Jesse reprise Virgil and Dante’s trek through Hell. Seriously.

When a chapter begins to stall or you feel like you’re writing in circles, circling back to your one-sentence summary can help elucidate what you’re actually trying to accomplish. It can help you write a cleaner first draft, and it will definitely help you during your first round of edits. Without a clear notion in mind of what you want your book to say, you’ll add words just to meet your word count, and that’s a sin that only college freshmen should be found guilty of committing. It’s your duty as an author to cut as much as necessary in order to focus your book on its central theme.

Answering this question the best you can, and the earliest you can, can help your work-in-progress get lean and stay lean. 120,000-word epic fantasy novels can be lean, so far as every word works toward undergirding your foundational sentence. 10,000-word essays have to be lean, but even then, having a one-sentence summary can help you identity the rabbit trails that seem to multiply—like rabbits—whenever an author starts typing.

If you’re just beginning to write a book, I encourage you to write out a one-sentence summary of what you’d like your book to ultimately say. You don’t necessarily have to devise only one sentence. You could brainstorm ten or twenty sentences and see which ones are broad yet specific enough to encapsulate everything you’re attempting to say.

Lastly, rest easy when it comes to this oftentimes difficult question. As your book evolves, you can exercise one of the greatest privileges given to a writer: edit your one-sentence summary. Though your answer to this question should be rather firm in your mind before starting your book, it can always be changed. Many an author has begun writing a specific book only to discover that The Muse has requested quite a different book in the end. However, once you’ve noticed a significant change in the trajectory of your book, I’d encourage you to rewrite your one-sentence summary to reflect your new direction.

Your turn: if you’ve written or are working on a book, what’s your one-sentence summary?

Feel free to post links to your books as well.

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