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Thread: The Summary of a Novel
December 22nd, 2006, 07:56 AM #1
The Summary of a Novel
I'm at the stage now where I'm pretty much finished my novel and I'm preparing to send it off. That thread on the query letter was very helpful, but there was something else I'm having trouble doing: summarizing the damn thing. I'm preparting a summary in anticipation of agents/publishers maybe asking after it. The problem is, when I thought I was making a "short" version, I only whittled it down to 7 pages. Not bad, considering my novel is more like 800, but I think that is still too long and not what they would be looking for.
Is there anyone out there who is an expert in such things? I'm not sure how much detail to have. Should I include every innane, wee subplot, or only tell about the main arc of the story? Should I include their motivations, like "After lunch, Joe went to the coffe shop because he was tired and wanted to avoid Beckey," or just say, "After lunch, Joe went to the coffe shop."
I remember when I was a kid doing book reports for school, it was my least favourite thing because I took too long to summarize it. Now it seems summarizing my novel is harder than writing it!
December 22nd, 2006, 09:08 AM #2
I'm certainly not an expert, but if your summary is 7 pages, then no, you don't need to include as much detail, every subplot and each name.
I recall reading an article or thread on here, somewhere, that described that process and basically said that you need to have your book summarized in 3-4 paragraphs. I doubt an agent will necessarily spend the time to read 7 entire pages just to get the idea of what you are doing.
I think that even your shortest example of "After lunch, Joe went to the coffee shop" is too specific. I think that for a summary you need to step waaaaaaaaay back from the story and just give an overarching view from the POV of a dispassionate observer.
I'd go grab any novels you have laying around and read the back covers. That's probably what you are shooting for, no?
Unless I'm misunderstanding what you are looking for, I assume that in your query letter you include the type of summary I was talking about, and beyond that, if the agent is actually interested they'll want to see the whole story, correct?
Maybe I'm off-base, just my thoughts.
Last edited by xMetal; December 22nd, 2006 at 09:10 AM.
December 22nd, 2006, 09:55 AM #3
Sit down and try to write a single sentence that sums up your story. Try to keep it short, no names, but put in something personal for your main character. You may want to take a look at the New York Times bestseller list to get an idea of how to do this.
Try to do this in an hour. You'll need it later to help sell your story.
Then take another hour to do a one paragraph summary, a little more information.
This is from the Snowflake method, you can learn more about it here.
December 22nd, 2006, 10:27 AM #4
December 22nd, 2006, 11:24 AM #5
Ah, sorry for the misunderstanding. Here's a little thing I happened to find a long time ago that might help:
The Story Synopsis
The story synopsis or outline can take many forms; it has no rigid format. But the synopsis, like the manuscript, should be double-spaced and highly legible, with frequent paragraphing.
Some synopses cover the whole story, while others supplement a portion of completed manuscript and presuppose the reader's familiarity with that portion. If you have broken your novel into chapters, that's a useful way to divide your synopsis also. You may find, however, that what you thought would fit into one chapter will expand into two or three.
The major element of the synopsis, and sometimes the only element, is the narrative.
Usually in present tense:
On a fine spring day in 1923, Lucy Williams applies for a job working for a mysterious millionaire.
Names and describes major characters:
Lucy's new boss is Donald Matthews, a handsome young businessman scarcely older than Lucy, but with an unsavory reputation as a rumored bootlegger.
Summarizes major events in the story:
Hurrying home through the storm, Lucy bumps into Kenneth Holwood, Donald's former partner. Holwood seems deranged, and hints at some terrible secret in Donald's past.
Indicates the story's point of view:
Lucy mails the package despite her qualms; she wonders what it might contain. Meanwhile, in a shabby hotel room across town, Holwood meticulously plans the death of Donald Matthews. (This shows us that the story's point of view is third-person omniscient; we will skip from one viewpoint to another as events require.)
Contains virtually no dialogue:
Donald invites Lucy to dinner at a notorious speakeasy, saying she'll enjoy herself more than she thinks she will.
A list of major characters' names (with brief descriptions) can sometimes be helpful in keeping the story straight; if used, such a list usually goes at the beginning of the synopsis.
A background section sometimes precedes the synopsis itself, especially if the story's context requires some explanation. (This seems especially true of science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, where the plot may hinge on unfamiliar story elements.) Otherwise, such explanation simply crops up where required in the synopsis.
How long should a synopsis be? I've sold some novels with just two or three pages. Other writers may write forty or fifty pages of outline. If your purpose is to interest an editor before the novel is completed, and you expect the total ms. to run to 90,000 to 120,000 words, a synopsis of four to ten doublespaced pages should be adequate. After all, you're trying to tempt the editor by showing her a brief sample, giving her grounds for a decision without a long investment in reading time.
Should you stick to your synopsis? Not necessarily. It's there to help you and your editor, not to dictate the whole story. Like the itinerary of a foreign tour, it should give you a sense of direction and purpose while leaving you free to explore interesting byways; it should also give you a quick return to the main road if the byway turns into a dead end.
December 22nd, 2006, 06:57 PM #6
- Join Date
- Dec 2006
^^^some good advice.
the only advice i would give is to summarise each chapter to a paragraph or two - that should get you to your 4-10 page master copy. however, be sure to read and research what your potential agents/publishers set out as criteria and stick to it. its no good submitting an 8 page synopsis if they ask for 1.
on the topic of query letters, its always a good idea to ring the publishers and ask who the submissions/acquistions editor is and address your query to them - sounds a lot more professional than: To The Editor...
December 29th, 2006, 07:05 PM #7
Thanks for the help everyone! I'll be sure to try it out.
December 31st, 2006, 11:18 AM #8
Physics Knight -- is it 7 double-spaced pages or single-spaced? Even if it's single-spaced, 7 is not so bad. The usual limit is five pages, so perhaps you just need to trim a little. In a pinch, you could leave it at seven pages.
You want to concentrate on the main plot arcs -- the events that have the most impact to the story. You want to include character motivations and provide emotional context, but as briefly as possible. You don't, especially on an 800 page novel, want to go chapter by chapter, but in breaking down the plot for yourself, you could start with such an outline and then try to summarize from it.
If you want to, post it in the Story section, and put a link to it here, and we'll see what we can do.
January 1st, 2007, 04:01 PM #9
January 1st, 2007, 04:20 PM #10
Oops, sorry, forgot some people don't want to go that way. Change the spacing to single space -- that should help.
And all I can suggest is what I did for my daughter to do her journal entry-style book report. Take a block of chapters, note down each critical event that occurs in those chapters, then write a sentence or two about each event. It might help.
January 3rd, 2007, 10:18 PM #11