Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Q & A 120

When an author is having trouble writing three good paragraphs for a query or writing a two page synopsis, no matter how often they rewrite, does it mean the problem might really be in the novel, not in the summary? Shouldn't all well-structured novels have a central theme or plot, or are some great, fun novels just not "summarizable"?

I believe anything can be summarized in the usual query length. The key is not the length of the summary, but finding the right information. The following three plot descriptions progress from vague to general to specific. The first is the longest, the last is the shortest. They all describe the same work.

Some interesting stuff happens to a bunch of characters, and one of them has to make a tough decision that will affect a lot of people.

When a man's ex-lover comes back into his life, he must decide if he wants her badly enough to risk more than just her marriage.

Rick, a cynical cafe owner in Nazi-controlled Morocco, must choose between his feelings for his ex-lover Ilsa and his once-strong sense of patriotism.

Given another sentence I would identify Ilsa's husband as a heroic figure the Nazi's would like to capture. Given another, I would bring up the letters of passage. And so on. Possibly a good way to write a summary is to summarize the book in one sentence. Then add another, as if two sentences were all you got. No cheating by saying I'll add x in sentence 2 and y in sentence 3. Choose between x and y. What is the most important idea to add to sentence 1? Keep going until you reach your predetermined maximum, which is probably nine or ten in a query letter, twenty in a short synopsis, etc.

You can't be too specific without writing too much, and you can't be too general without becoming boring. If your book is extremely complex, you may need to be more general than you would with a simple, straightforward plot. You have to find the right mix for your book.


Anonymous said...

I think the choice between x and y is the hard part. I often practice trying to summarize books I've read as if for a query -- and I find I can summarize the same book many different ways, depending on which theme or plot element I decide to focus on. The trick is trying to figure out which choice will get a particular agent's or editor's attention. Which to me seems like trying to figure out what kind of ice cream they like best.


Precie said...

LMAO at the first summary! That could be any of a billion stories.

I suspect that condensing the hook of one's story (novel or short) to a single sentence would be a great exercise for any writer.

freddie said...

Just for practice, you can try writing "queries" or synopses for books you've read.

Josephine Damian said...

Those examples really drove home the message: character specificity and conflict.

jjdebenedictis said...

Awesome post, EE! This is great advice. :-)

Deborah K. White said...

I've heard that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books were originally one book and that the publishers broke it into three books. I keep wondering if Tolkien ever had to write a query letter or on- or two-page synopsis for all three books combined. If I could see that in a one sentence, then a two sentence, etc., summary for an audience who didn't automatically know what an elf or hobbit or ranger was or how they were special, I feel like I might get a better feel of how to pick out what really is important in my book while still making it sound fantastical.

Evil Editor said...

Though the purpose was not to create a query letter, this subject was touched upon in a q & a. http://evileditor.blogspot.com/2006/05/q-17-whos-next.html

Dave F. said...

EE has a good technique. Without going into a long-winded explanation, trust the technique.

Start with a single sentence that summarizes the plot of your novel. It won't be enough for a query but that's OK right now. Make that one sentence as specific to the story as possible. AND, make sure it is the most important part of the plot.
The example using Casablanca is very good.
Then add a second sentence as EE indicates. The next most important portion of the plot.

Again, I will say - trust the technique. The technique keeps you from writing a page and a half. The technique forces you to write only one sentence at a time. That forces the author to be brief.

I'll repeat - trust the technique.

Dave F. said...

If you read up on Tolkein's life, you find that not only was he professor of literature with academic fame (Beowulf), he was a member of a writer's group called Inklings. They encouraged him through the ten years that he took to write the entire "Lord of the Rings" saga. Plus he had already published "The Hobbit" a few years earlier.

So Tolkein never cold-queried the book. He was known and it was known to writers with publishing connections.

I say this not to discourage discussion, but just to inform.

LJCohen said...

This is a link to a page about writing a synopsis, but I think it is helpful in writing the summary of the plot for the query as well.

It expands on EE's examples.

Robin S. said...

Hi EE and Dave and LJ - great ideas about the build from the ground up- building from one sentence.

I'm gonna take a look at how I've been approaching both my query and my synopsis (both of which were pretty bad).

I seem to be better at stating the theme rather than the plot- not sure if that's because of the nature of my novel. But thanks- I'll rethink this now.

~Nancy said...

I've heard that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books were originally one book and that the publishers broke it into three books. I keep wondering if Tolkien ever had to write a query letter or on- or two-page synopsis for all three books combined.

What Dave said.

And there are two reasons why what Tolkien wanted as one book was broken into three (I read this from his Letters, which is a good way to get into how and why he thought as he did): There was a paper shortage in England after the war; and his publisher thought one tome would be too pricey for most people at the time.

As to queries: Yuck. I'm working on mine right now, because one of the presenters at an online conference I'm "going to" in a couple of weeks sent out some materials that really got me thinking.

But I like EE's technique, too: Start with one sentence to describe your plot, and go from there.


Deborah K. White said...

EE, you do a great job of summarizing Lord of the Rings in the link you gave, but I think I already (finally) managed to follow that much of your advice. The problem is, if your description was sent as a query letter today (assuming it was a totally new book idea), people would say: "What's a hobbit?" or "Hobbits are so cliché! Editors are looking for something more original." "'Comes into possession'? That sounds so passive. Make your main character more active and kick butt!" "What makes this One Ring special? How will it help Sauron dominate Middle Earth? Be specific!" "'Middle Earth'? 'Mount Doom'? 'Dark Lord'? What unoriginal names! Come up with some real names." "Sounds like just another by-the-numbers quest fantasy to me: band of allies fighting to find/destroy an object before the bad guy can rule the world. About the only unique part is 'the seductive spell of the ring itself,' and that depends on how it's done."

Condensing a plot down tends to make it sound more like every other plot out there, so is that one hint of uniqueness all that's really needed despite all the other problems? In a true query, would you spend a bit more time focused on the ring's seductive spell, or on that "maybe one additional character" or the "more about Frodo's quest" that you mentioned?

Evil Editor said...

Yes, that summary was just to make a point. It's only three sentences. In a query I'd have expanded it to three paragraphs, being sure to bring in the book's themes, another key character (probably Gandalf to emphasize the fantasy aspect), and a sample or two of the obstacles faced.