By Dawn Field
Why is it so hard for writers to summarize their books for editors? Probably, because it’s a hard thing to do.
You can only do it if you have something rare and elusive in your writer’s pocket – a great idea.
If you built up your 650-page book from a patchwork of ideas, you might have a hard time finding the center of your book. It’s your center you describe in a nutshell. Your core is what is meaningful to readers.
All the best books boil down to a great idea. This is your elevator pitch. It’s the idea that sustains you during the hours you write all the words down on the page and it guides the choice of every single one of them and their placement on the page.
Take Sense and Sensibility. Austen, had the clever idea to ask, ‘what if’ (the classic set up) ‘two women who were emotional opposites both fell in love?’ That’s a terrific concept and it’s encapsulated right in the title. Easy to pitch the core idea in a few words!
Once the editor is listening, decorative details can be added. ‘What if these two women are sisters who love each other dearly. One has ‘sense’ (common sense, logic, think school marm or accountant) and one is ‘sensible’ (meaning ‘emotional, sensitive, prone to bursts of passion’).
The world to explore then is how would these two different outlooks shape the lives of those who possess them?
“Sisters” brings them into “story contact” and forms the most popular topic in bestsellers – human connections.
Throw in love, a truly hot topic, and sparks could fly.
The point is, even without any more details, this is a compelling concept. Austen does a good job of nailing her premise, and all else. This is a classic bestseller with a big-name movie adaptation.
So, why is it that many beginning writers still at the stage of seeking advice or with complete books, when asked to summarize, can’t? Why do they lack an equally concise and compelling launch point for an editor?
An editor will be interested in the elevator pitch and then in a book synopsis. This doesn’t hold back details, it lays out all the key events and gives away the ending. There are so many ways to write a bad synopsis – one that will just frustrate an otherwise enthusiastic editor.
Here’s a parody book synopsis that highlights what you shouldn’t do.
Can you list how many things are wrong with it?
Let’s try to get to 50.
How to correctly summarize your book for an editor
In chapter 1, I introduce a lot of characters. I think I have 4 protagonists and about 20 fantastic people moving in and out of this chapter. Don’t worry, there are tons more to come!
Chapter 2 is a hoot because it’s almost all dialogue. It’s really razor sharp because some of the characters get into a fight with a mob of bikers who are passing through town. Wow. Are they happy to let loose before they have to tackle the BIG PLOT in this book.
Chapter 3 is where the action starts to pick up. Some things happen – fast, fast, fast! You’ll love this chapter. I was thinking about UFOs while I wrote it, so I threw in some references to Roswell, but that was just the icing on the cake! The 14 mini-scenes are all about different peoples’ views on the value of cable TV! Even some who don’t watch! Mixing it up!
Chapter 4-11 is where the action really heats up. I have so many things going on in all directions I can’t even remember it all! You’ll just have to read it! Quick, quick, quick. All 900 pages will FLY BY.
Chapter 12. Okay, I was sad during this time, but I plowed through anyway. I know it’s a wedding scene – of the 55th introduced character – but I just couldn’t help being a touch morose. It just crept in and then I thought, well, genius! Who has a black wedding cake anyway! Novel, eh!? Going for BIG novelty here. BIG. Let the power of the subconscious reign.
Chapter 13. So, now the 4 main protagonists are back front and center! I purposely kept them away so you’ll really want them back again. I don’t even explain where they went. MYSTERY! This book has something for everyone. We are edging into the home run here. There’s a storm of action before here, so I purposely slowed things down, like fish peacefully swimming around an aquarium. You can just hear that filter bubbling away gently in the background, can’t you?
Chapter 15-66. Piranha! Ah! Tricked you into thinking all was well, right? But it’s not! Serious peril. Bet you didn’t see that coming! I mean, not a real piranha, but well, you know what I mean! Fierce! Not just one, a flock of flesh eaters descend all over the plot and cause chaos. I mean CHAOS. You will not BELIEVE what I did in these chapters. I CAN’T WAIT for you to read them all.
Chapter 67. Whoo. Finally, the end. I was exhausted by this time, but I hope you think it was worth it!
Dawn Field is a scientist now writing her second book for Oxford University Press. She has published over 50 articles on writing because she is fascinated by what makes great writing, the writing process, learning how writers create, and how fiction impacts society. She loves reading book drafts at any stage of completion, brainstorming writing projects, and hearing about the diversity of writing experiences. Connect with her to collaborate, or converse, at UnityinWriting.com.
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