Friday, August 27, 2010

One Sheets for the Faint of Heart

By Lisa Karon Richardson (Reposted)

I'm reposting this article because once again conference time is upon many of our writer friends. One of the newer and more daunting pieces of information that we're being asked to produce in order to sell our work is a One Sheet. So here's a look into the heart of author angst!

Readers have no concept of the pain we go through for our art. *moan*, *sigh*, *whine* I’m not talking about the effort we pour into our manuscripts. I’m talking about everything that has to happen after we type the end. The prospect of selling a manuscript is often more daunting than producing it. For the uninitiated, (i.e. the sane) a one sheet is a document an author puts together to aid in the pitch/sale of their book. It contains a few easy components, the authors name and contact information for example. From there it’s all down hill.

For some reason we can write a 90,000 word novel, but we’re stumped when asked to condense it to a couple of paragraphs. We become deer staring mesmerized into the headlights of an approaching car. And don’t even get me started on graphics. It’s enough to send a poor writer screaming into the woods.

Let me share a few thoughts that may make tackling the ravening beast of a one sheet a little more doable.

First, don’t worry about graphics. Sure they can enhance the overall feel of the product you’re presenting, but don’t get sucked into the notion that they are essential. Also be wary of trying to do it all yourself. Poorly applied graphics can do more harm to your cause than even a witty tagline can help. First impressions are important in preparing a reader to receive what’s written. Why else would publishers spend so much on developing great cover art for their products? That said, don’t be afraid to use a template. Most word processing programs now come with some sort of function that makes it easier to produce brochures or newsletters. Often they’ll have a few samples of each. Take advantage of these tools that can make your task easier. You can delete elements that don’t work, change colors, etc. All with the comfortable knowledge that the overall design is pleasing to the eye, and even if it doesn’t wow it also doesn’t put anyone off. It will enable your words to get a fair hearing.

The blurb (or as I like to call it, the blob, because of its horror inducing capabilities). At first glance it looks harmless but beware. This small block of text can mire an author in indecision and suffocate their creativity. Typically 8-12 sentences long, this is where you describe your book in such breathtaking prose that an editor will leap across the interview table in their haste to sign you to a contract before anyone else can snap you up. Or at least it shouldn’t stink so bad that it makes them hold their nose.

The most important bit of advice I ever received about one sheets came from our own Gina Welborn. Drum roll please. The blurb is NOT a summary. Ta da!

It’s sounds so simple, but I spent vast amounts of energy on trying to boil my plot down to its essence while still including the spiritual arc, story arc and character arcs. The result wasn’t pretty. A disjointed glop that made little sense to someone who hadn’t yet read the manuscript.

The purpose of a one sheet is much like the back cover copy of a book. We want someone to buy the product we are selling. We have to intrigue the reader enough that they want to know more. That’s it.

‘But how?’ I hear you say.

Use strong language. And I don’t mean swear like a sailor. Pick the most evocative and powerful word you can to convey your idea.

Make sure it is proactive. Instead of everything happening to your character, tell what they do about it.

Focus on the main character or two, the inciting incident that puts the story in motion and what is at stake.

Be specific but not too specific. Just like this advice! Seriously, though no one cares that your heroine’s name is Elizabeth Catherine Anne Margaret Seaton. It’s not a hook because it doesn’t give any sense of the story you are trying to tell. But if we talk about a ‘mail-order bride’ or an ‘outlaw’, you get a mental picture that also tells you something of probable setting and genre. By the same token ‘Cold War spy’ provides a totally different image and feel. So what defines your character?

Study up by browsing the bookstore shelves, or for that matter, your own shelves. How did the professionals do it? What sort of techniques can you identify? This is a particularly good exercise if you know what house you intend to target.

Have you ever put a one sheet together? Was the process painful or easy peasy? Do you have any tips for the rest of us?

Do you buy books based more on the cover art or the back cover blurb?

Have you ever bought a book based on the back cover copy only to wonder if they were describing an entirely different story?


  1. One sheets and proposals were scary for me at first, but I think I've gotten pretty good at them. Gina actually helped me with my first one sheet, and I paid Camy Tang to help with my first proposal. Maybe someone should start a one sheet business. Seriously. They only take an hour or so if you know what you're doing.

    I love the one sheet I took to the Blue Ridge conference this year. I laid it out like a magazine type page with articles. I put all my bio and contact info in a box in the center and included all four of my books with blurbs, vital stats, and one small graphic for each. I even put a glowing endorsement across the top. The acquistions editors I talked to could see at a glance exactly what I had to offer. One fiction editor actually requested that I send my nonfiction to her company, because while my fiction didn't fit their line, the nonfiction had potential.

    So here's my big question. Two of my four manuscripts look like they may be close to being contracted. Should I take them off the one sheet, or leave them? If they do get contracted, what do you think about putting a sideways stamp across them saying "Contracted." Is that annoying, or a good message of get these last two while you still can?

  2. Ooh, good questions, Dina. I think that if I were in that situation, I'd remove anything that is actually contracted. (But not before it's contracted.) Those books then get placed in your author's bio as part of your credentials along with who the books are contracted with and the projected pub dates. I think they'll carry more weight there and your one sheet won't look gimmicky.

    But this is solely personal preference. Your mileage may vary for good reason!

  3. Dina, I have this visual in mind of a real estate ad where one or two houses on the page are slashed out with SOLD!. Implies it happened at the last minute and no one had time to re do the ad. So in that thought, I'd agree with Lisa - remove when sold but not a moment before. It would be wonderful to say, "oh, I just contracted that one over the phone yesterday but have not been able to re do my one sheet yet. Sorry."

    That should be pretty soon, eh?

    (Prayers for those who have a proposal out there in the big world ...waiting, or those meeting soon with an agent or editor face-to-face!)

    A 'one sheet ' business, eh? Good idea. Someone must be doing this somewhere....

  4. Actually, Lisa, I have. I bought a book because I thought it was a marriage-of-convenience story (my downfall) based on the book blurb. However, they didn't even talk about marriage until 3/4 of the way through. I was so disappointed.

    I like creating One Sheets because I like creating. Unfortunately, I'm not that good at it. But, it doesn't stop me from trying. :D

    Great post, Lisa. I'm copying this one to my 'work' files.

    Anita Mae.

  5. My college writing professor used to assign short writing assignments frequently because (according to him) that is the most challenging to write. If we could write a one or two page story well, we could write anything.

  6. Deb, I'd love to be able to say that to someone!

    Anita, I'm embarrassed to say I usually buy on the cover and the blurb. Seems most people read a page or two first. I don't know why but I never even thought of doing that before I joined ACFW! I've bought more than one story that that didn't really resemble the blurb. Someone told me that it happens because the back cover copy is often contracted early in the process, so the author may have sold on proposal only the story they produce is different than first envisioned. But then no one goes back and changes it.

    Hey Bex, Thanks for stopping in. Mark Twain said it took him three weeks to come up with a good impromptu speech? Some other famous author said in a letter that they'd have written shorter, but they didn't have time!

    After my experience tuesday I can definitely say writing short hurt! had to cut out all kinds of good stuff. Red herrings, derring-do and juicy clues.

  7. If any of you have ever seen one of Lisa's one-sheets, then you know what I know: she's the One-sheet Queen! Thanks for giving us a lot to work with here, Lisa.

    When I'm buying a book, I start with the cover, then move to the blurb, then I read the first couple lines of the book. Not pages. (Who has time to stand in the store reading pages?) But the first line or two gives me a feel for how the author writes. Also, silly little things like font size and how the paper feels can weigh in on my decision. I guess I'm a picky girl!

  8. One sheets are still sort of a mystery to me. I will be doing one soon to take to a conference.
    Do you think it is better to have a One sheet for each book I have available or to have all four books on the one?

    I am attracted to the cover first, then the title, and then I read the blurb. Seldom do I read the first page or two. And yes, I have started a book thinking I am reading one story because of what was on the blurb and then find half way through find out I am into a different story. Can be frustrating.

    I'm with Anita Mae. This post is being copied and filed.

    A J Hawke

  9. Thanks, Jen! We're lucky to have so many choices that there's something just right for every reader.

    In case you all didn't know, poor Jen is my critique partner and I foist all sorts of stuff on her.

  10. Glad it was helpful, AJ.

    I think the decision to feature one or more books on a page is largely up to the individual. There's no formalized style. And in fact, in the ABA market no one has the first notion what a one sheet even is.

    So the decision is up to you. Here are some things to consider:

    How long are your blurbs? Is it going to look crowded to try to fit them all. How much room do you want to leave for bio, and contact info? Do you want graphics? I personally prefer to keep it one book to a page so that I can tailor my pitch to the editor I'm speaking to. But again that's solely personal preference.

    If you'd like to see some of the one sheets I've produced you can e-mail me privately at lrgabon @

  11. you are invited to follow my blog

  12. Hi to Bex! always good to see you post! One-sheets, back-cover blurb, proposals, synopses... arggh! Maybe we all need a little practice with writing short!

    I'm waving to A.J. - we swap crits on our historical fiction critique loop. I hope you find success with your one sheet. Lisa does an amazing job with hers, so check out her samples!


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