Summarizing a novel

I have a text file I’ve been opening occasionally. Every few days for the last 3 months. Each time, I write a new sentence, pick at the wording of a different sentence, and stare at the screen for a bit. Then I close the file.

This fussed-over file contains summaries of Render. Different paragraphs that attempt to encompass the story and cover its significant points.

This is something I joke about with other writers. Summary? Summary? If I could sum up this damn thing up in 300 words, I wouldn’t have written 94 000 words of novel to begin with! But when a stranger is browsing through the endless sea of ebooks, and they pause over my summary, there’s nothing to joke about. I have a tiny window of opportunity in which to make that reader curious, to make them begin to care. It’s fine if anthropomorphic characters searching for identity just isn’t that reader’s cup of tea. But I do need to try.


It’s a matter of seeing potential.

Even if you’re talking about a movie you saw or a story you heard, summaries can be pretty hard. Unless they’re high-concept, of course. “High-concept” sounds deceivingly classy, but it just means that a story can be very neatly summarized. Cop saves his wife from terrorists. Boy has adventures at wizard school. Two teenagers are in love but their families hate each other. When the core conflict fits into one tight sentence, summaries are nowhere near as troublesome.

But for every one of those, there’s a story where you love the shape and structure and emotions of it, but describing it succinctly? Uh. Hmm. That’s been my struggle with the Stories of Aligare. The books are about these fantasy people but they’re … finding out who they are and stuff? But they’re peaceful. But things happen, I promise!

Crickets chirp in the distance. Crickets who are fans of literary existentialism.

Crickets chirp in the distance. Crickets who are fans of literary existentialism.

For all we talk about not judging books by their metaphorical covers, we really do. And that judgement is often justified — particularly for self-publishers. When a job applicant shows up in dirty, ripped jeans and calls the prospective boss “bro”, you know all you need to about their attitude. In that sense, a book’s summary is its job interview with the reader. A boring or confusing summary often shows that the author/promoter doesn’t grasp writing principles very well — or doesn’t care enough to try. If you can’t write one efficient, interesting paragraph, the issue certainly won’t get better if you blather on longer.

So all my writing concerns are magnified when I write a summary. Those 300 words need to be a finely-crafted poem in honour of this novel I wrote. Gotta use my invented vocabulary carefully so it’s not confusing, but use it frequently enough that my book doesn’t seem generic. Highlight situations the reader might relate to, like parenthood, or moral struggles or, a desire to travel.  Get to the heart of why the characters care about anything.

All I can hope is that I find a great way to encapsulate my work. I needed some outside help in Remedy‘s case. My friend Aura Roy seemed to really connect with the story and she described it as “explor[ing] what it means to be family“. I thought, oh wow, that’s so perfect! Maybe I was too close to that story at the time to really see its core. Who knows whether I’ll find that core of Render in the next few weeks. We’ll see. I’ll keep thinking, and rewriting single sentences.

One Comment on “Summarizing a novel”

  1. […] summarizing a book, titling a book can be surprisingly challenging. Actually, the summary and the title have the the […]

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