Thursday, June 07, 2018

The art of the summary

Can you summarize your novel in two or three sentences? This is a litmus test many of us use. It’s helpful, and when I can’t do it, I know I’m in serious trouble.

This happened to me recently. I was talking to my agents, driving, when they asked me to summarize the draft of a novel I’d finished. Having sent it off to them, I turned my attention to the next book I’d write and drafted a short synopsis for book #2. It’s brief. A 1+1+1+1=4 summary of what will happen and why. (The why is the fun part and much of that I flesh out as I write.)

What occurred on the phone was that I realized I couldn’t offer them a short, succinct account of what happened in the book and why. My failure to do this was, I realized, directly related to questions they had surrounding plot points. I exhaled and told them I wanted the book back. Now I’m eliminating a character and revising.

A couple things happened in this case. The first is that I spent more time writing this book (18 months, maybe two years) than I have ever before. That’s too long. Stephen King, in On Writing, recommends three months. With a day job, I can’t do that. But I usually spend nine months or so on a draft. This time, I got sick, spent a month in the hospital, and when I returned to the book, I’d lost the thread of the story, had to go back, read it all again and made changes along the way, complicating the plot.

I’m not Tom Clancy and don’t want to be. I like books that work because of the characters, not because of the plots. I’m interested in human motivations and moral ambiguity. I guess, though, if you give me several weeks alone in a hospital room to think and rethink a story, my ego gets the better of me.

So I’m back at it, revising and streamlining my book so that in the end no one will say I didn’t play fair. It starts (and hopefully ends) with a three-sentence summary.


In other news, my 17-year-old daughter Audrey and I are traversing the midwest this week, visiting colleges. We’ve driven 1,200 miles (and counting), starting in Maine, turning around at the tail end of Ohio, and driving back, visiting seven colleges in five days, and meeting track and cross country coaches.

Children grow up too damned fast!

1 comment:

Sybil Johnson said...

Summarizing is, indeed, hard. I hope you're finding some interesting colleges.