Thursday, September 11, 2014

Two Hundred and Fifty Words

We've been having some unusual weather here in the desert over the past few weeks. You Dear Readers may even have heard of our Hard Rain. We usually get some seven inches of rain in a year here in the Phoenix area. Last Monday morning we got five to six inches in less than 24 hours. Needless to say, we aren't set up for that sort of thing around here. The drains couldn't take it. There was nowhere for that water to go. Many folks were flooded out of their homes, and believe me, no one has flood insurance around here. I'm happy to say that even though we got ankle deep water in the back yard, there was no flooding in the house. By Tuesday the freeways were no longer rivers and I was able to make a creative writing workshop I was giving that day in Cottonwood, a town about 115 miles north of where I live. If I enjoyed weather like this I would have stayed in Oklahoma.

Photo of the freeway, from The Arizona Republic Newspaper

But back to business. Over the past week, some of my fellow Type M-ers have been writing about the agony of the synopsis. Never has a truer word been spoken than when they pointed out that you may send in a synopsis of what you think the book will be about, but by the time you finish writing the book, it will probably bear little resemblance to description you worked so hard on. The synopsis/outline that I submit to the publisher beforehand isn’t all that complex. I simply tell the story in a short, narrative form, and that seems to be fine. Before I submit a complete manuscript, my publisher requires that I send her the first 100 pages for approval. Having the publisher review the novel’s progress has on more than one occasion saved me some major rewriting.

After one’s book is accepted for publication, many presses ask their authors to send them detailed information about the book, the author, publicity plans and ideas, and lists of institutions, groups, and people who may be interested in receiving an advance copy of the book for review. But in my humble opinion the very hardest thing to do well is the 250-word summary. That one is a killer, as anyone who as ever tried to summarize a novel can attest. How do you reduce your brilliant tome to its barest essence in such a way that readers will be whipped into a frenzy of anticipation and beat down the doors of their local bookstore in their desire to get their hands on your book the minute it comes out?

The regular contributors to Type M are all writers with media, advertising, education and literature backgrounds who have learned from hard use and sheer practice how to go about it. Some may even enjoy it, but I find it painful. Yet being able to summarize your book in a few words and make it interesting is an incredibly important skill for an author to have.

Here’s the technique I’ve developed over the years: I start by writing a summary of the story that is as long, wordy, flowery, poetic, and descriptive as I think it needs to be, and word-count take the hindmost. Then I go back and cut out the flowers and the poetry. Then out comes the descriptive. I don’t need to say who this character is. This plot point or side story which I mentioned is not a crucial element of the story. In the fifth draft, I realize I don’t need this sentence. In the sixth draft, I don’t need this clause. This word. By the the tenth draft, the summary is as distilled and to the point as Scotch whiskey.

4 comments:

Barbara Fradkin said...

Great ideas, Donis. I too hate all things that require distilling my brilliant story into a few words. Synopsis, 100 and 250-word blurbs, tag lines...

Donis Casey said...

That's why I've been told it's useful to study poetry, Barbara--to learn how to distill an entire image into a few perfectly chosen words. How I admire someone who can do that!

Eileen Goudge said...

I'm glad you weren't flooded out, Doris! I know the area you live in. My son lives in Prescott, AZ, near Cottonwood. Luckily his house wasn't flooded, either.

Donis Casey said...

I was just up in Cottonwood, Eileen! They did better, rainwise, up there.