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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Thu 10
Aug
2017

How to Summarize a Novel

Writing

Could you give some tips on query letter writing, as in what’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’m about 40,000 words into my novel and the idea that six months or more from now i’ll have to condense it all down into a page both scares and confuses me.

Sam

A page! No-one reads a whole page synopsis. You get two or three paragraphs.

But you are right to be scared and confused. It’s terrible. It’s like you’re 40 years old and you run into someone you haven’t seen since high school and they say, “So what have you been up to?”

That’s your template for summarizing your novel. Skip to the highlights. You don’t make high school person stand there and listen to you justify those years when you didn’t really accomplish anything tangible as such but it was such an important period of personal growth and discovery. Sure, okay, without knowing about that, people can’t really understand the full significance of the time you threw a pie at your ex-boyfriend. Even so, the pie thing is the correct answer.

This process can feel fraudulent because of course you’re so much more than a pie person. That’s a small part of what you do, going around throwing pies at people. You spend a few minutes on that per day, tops. But people realize that. They understand there’s a whole life going on as well as the pie-throwing thing. You’re not selling yourself short by skipping to the highlights; you’re just respecting the fact that high school person isn’t actually asking for your entire life story right now. If they want to know more—and why wouldn’t they; what made you throw pies?—sure, you can head back to a bar or whatever and start to unpack things. But for now: stick to the pie-throwing.

I’m not great at this, by the way. And I haven’t done it in 15 years, not the query letter kind. You should probably look up what an agent or editor thinks, since they have actual experience reading these. But since I’m here, and I have to write blurbs sometimes, which is the same deal, here’s my opinion.

I think you want to start by reducing your book down to the shortest description that makes any kind of sense. So Lexicon might be “killer poets.” If you can get that into the first sentence, that’s ideal. In fact, your query letter might want to have a sentence like, “It’s a story about a girl who is drawn into a secret society of killer poets” before taking a step back and doing the actual synopsis, which is a more linear description.

Note down more words or phrases that are important to the texture of the story (I might want “chase” and “secret school,” “love” and “betrayal”) just to make sure they get used somewhere. The goal is to linger in the mindset of trying to pick out just the most essential concepts before you get bogged down in trivialities like trying to write sentences that make sense.

When it is time to write sentences that make sense, remember you’re still telling a story, just a very short one. That means you care about things like creating a question in the mind of a reader and withholding the answer. Don’t create something that sounds dumb to you but figure that’s their fault because if they want a proper story and not a novel murdered in three paragraphs they should read your frigging book. I say this as someone who used to think like that. You should still think about change and instability; that is, your synopsis/blurb/summary should strongly suggest that things are motion, or, at least, cannot remain the same.

Some stories lend themselves very easily to this, like murder mysteries, or mysteries in general, really. (Who? Why?) Also stories where someone wants something. (Will they get it and what will it cost?) But whatever it is, what makes it a story is that it contains change or the threat of change. The reason people want to read the story is to find out how its characters will deal with that change.

Ideally you want to demonstrate that your story is funny (or horrific, or whatever) rather than merely claim it’s funny, or horrific, or whatever. That mainly means matching tone. That is, you don’t want to change tone from your novel and wind up with a dry academic abstract. In the same vein, don’t lose sight of your story’s emotion. It can be implicit, but you must convey that people are feeling things, not just doing things.

This is all a million times harder in practice than theory. Good luck.

Also: There’s a related question about whether a synopsis should give away the ending. Some people say yes, because the editor or agent wants to know whether you screwed it up. I say no, unless it’s an amazing twist ending that everything else depends upon. You can go right up to it, but I’d still leave the final question unanswered. I will admit that a big part of this is that I think people who spoil endings are monsters. But it seems more valuable to me to leave the editor/agent in at least a little suspense, i.e. experiencing something like the kind of feeling you hope to arouse in readers.

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