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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Summaries are just the worst.

I am horrible at summarizing.

Never ask me to describe a movie or book to you. You will regret it. I will remember small details, forget to tell you the important things like character names, be incapable of identifying the key plot pots vs. the subplot points, and will always finish my description of beloved stories in the same way: "I swear, it's good."

Do you think I'm exaggerating, or that all this doesn't sound so bad?

Example, then. I was once asked to describe Stranger in a Strange Land

My description: "There's this guy who grew up on Mars and was raised by Martians and there were no humans because the astronauts all killed each other but he was okay because he was born there somehow, I forget, and could breathe and everything. And then humans find him, other astronauts, like, 20 years later and he becomes a cult leader or something and it's about grokking things and they eat each other. I swear, it's really good."

Stranger in a Strange Land, as told by me. Little Mikey sure has an ambitious appetite.
In my own defense, I don't think anybody's really good at summarizing because summarizing is pretty much just the worst activity ever. Would you like to have your wisdom teeth yanked, or would you prefer to summarize your novel? As the recipient of a whole lot of serious dental surgery (thank you, four impacted wisdom teeth and general dental trauma) I can say that I would hands down prefer the surgery. Awake. Without laughing gas. I've done it before, I know I can get through it just fine. Not so of summarizing. I will, most decidedly, NOT get through it just fine.

Evil bastard tooth: still preferable to summarizing.
Also, I am becoming a master at Paint.
Despite anything you English teacher ever told you, it is the worst and it is stupid and unhelpful. I mean, look. I get it. Getting at the heart of the thing without getting weighed down with the details, demonstrating your understanding and blahdeblah. None of this is important, though, because a good story isn't good because of the heart of the thing. You know all those people who complain about how "it's all been done before"? Guilty of that yourself, perhaps? Well that mentality is the result of believing that the heart of a thing is more important than the hows and whys and what ifs. Don't be that person. Don't be the person who refuses to read something just because they "know how it will end". It's not about the ending, okay? It's not about just the big stuff. It's about nuance and (though I hate to say it) the journey.

There is some stuff out there that's just pure crap. Or, even worse, regurgitated crap. Ew. But repetition of themes or of a general plot type doesn't make something worthless, but when that's all you're allowed to talk about it sure can seem boring. Summarizing boils things down to the common parts, the uninteresting parts. And if the summary retains any of the interesting bits (like the stuff about eating people) then it just becomes weird.

There is a way to write a good summary, though. Yes, I am contradicting myself. My blog, my prerogative. It's a good thing, too, because as a published author in the making you're going to HAVE TO create a summary for your novel. How can you do it?

My friend, Merry, currently is sending out queries and summaries and has convinced seven literary agents to request pages. People, that is INSANE. And I've got to tell you -- I read her summary, and I would have absolutely requested pages as well. It was enticing and thorough and highlighted all of the right things. How did she do it? Well, in her words (which I requested permission to use), "I asked one of my colleagues who used to work in trade publishing to look at my synopsis and he suggested using a juicy or otherwise compelling passage from my book to begin the synopsis, which is much more enjoyable to read than a straight-up book summary. Book reports are just boring no matter how exciting the book is."

So, here's my step-by-step guide to writing your summary.

1) Chill out. It's just a summary, they're all going to suck to some degree (unless you're Merry).
2) Re-read your manuscript and take notes after each chapter about what happened.
3) If you come across an interesting bit of writing that you enjoy, mark it to use.
4) Write a big summary first. You can cut it down later.
5) Don't forget to include your subplots, but don't let them overtake the whole.
6) Try to use the same voice in the summary that you use in the manuscript. Let the reader get a feel for your style.
7) Let someone else read it, and be open to them telling you that it's boring, confusing or dreadful.
8) Rewrite.
9) Don't Panic.

No, seriously. Don't panic. 

1 comment:

  1. Some dude named Cliff Note made a fortune by providing his summaries. :)