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Discussion: Writing a Summary of Your Novel/Short Stories

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This is something that @Mynoris asked about the other night, was whether we had a discussion about this, and I decided to post one since as far as I know we haven't discussed this yet.

So, I personally don't really need to have a summary written yet, especially since I'm in the editing/second draft stage, but having a summary to share on certain platforms isn't the worst idea in the world. I'm not the greatest at writing summaries, and I think it probably shows in the attempts I've done in the past.

Let's talk about writing novel/short story summaries! What do you think is important to include in a summary? What are your biggest tips for writing one? Do you have any summaries that you've written for any current/past projects that you have a love/hate relationship with? Feel free to share them!

As an example, here's the half-assed summary I wrote for my NaNo (Court of Shadows) last year: 

Quote

Alana is desperate to save her sick older brother, at any cost. When she finds herself in the realm of the fairies, she is faced with a choice that will change both their lives. She finds herself tasked with journeying far away to the land of Marzanna, where she will learn how to use her untamed magic and find herself protecting ancient artifacts from a dark queen.

Harrow is a former guardian to the royal family of a kingdom that no longer exists. Hardened by the attack that destroyed his family and forced into life as a wanderer, he finds himself once more in the position of protector as he follows Alana on her journey to Marzanna.

Derric is a diplomat, assigned to follow Alana on her journey to Marzanna - or so he's allowed them to believe. In reality, he is a spy working for the dark fairy queen Aysel. He finds himself journeying with Alana, the human with untamed magic, and Harrow, the guardian searching for a place in life and discovers that the longer he spends time with him, the more he remembers traces of a former life he once had and was stolen from him as the true prince and rightful ruler of the Autumn Fairy Court.

Together, they will journey to discover unknown parts of themselves while fighting to protect an ancient magic from those who would seek to use it for evil.

While it gives important information, such as the names of the three main characters and their motivations, it also reveals what's a huge spoiler about Derric being the true prince of the autumn fairy court. Also, I somehow managed to forget to include Kassel in the summary, since she's a point of view character, but for all I know I wasn't sure yet whether or not she'd be a point of view character (I can't really remember). There are probably some other, more technical things about it that need to be fixed, as well.

There's also the fact that the Marzanna thing isn't even accurate to the plot any more, so I need to fix that, as well.

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First I think we want a distinction of what we are looking for, by summary you mean the 'back of the book blurb'? As opposed to a more detailed synopsis.

The advice I've read says a good blurb should be focused on your main character - Who are they, what do they want, what obstacles are stopping them from getting it. If you've got two MCs they could get a paragraph each, but I wouldn't do more than two, there's only so much space.

I've also read that as far as plot, you generally want to talk about the first 3rd of the book, the initial problem that is set up (because we know story problems tend to grow or get worse as the story progresses). That way you still have your hook, but you aren't giving away the ending.

But if you are writing a synopsis, like for querying an agent, you'd want to include the ending and more of how the character arc develops, because you are selling them the whole story, not trying to entice them to read with the first 3rd. The synopsis might also be a lot longer, some people use synopsis to mean a 1-3 paragraph description of your story, others are looking for several PAGES.

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1 hour ago, Penguinball said:

First I think we want a distinction of what we are looking for, by summary you mean the 'back of the book blurb'? As opposed to a more detailed synopsis.

This is a good point.  To discuss what is important in such a summary or blurb, we need to know the function of it.  The back of the book blurb is meant to entice a reader to find out what the book has to offer.  A summary for an agent, as you mentioned, would be about selling all the salient information in the book in its entirety.  Who is going to be ready the summary/synopsis determines what needs to be in it and how it is presented.

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From the question, I took dust jacket blurb (or internet equivalent) to be a given.  I really hate doing summaries, but for blurbs, I think you want to establish the MC or MC's most interesting facet and initial goal/obstacle, and avoid spoiling the ending or any big twists.  I'm too lazy right now to dig out any blurbs I've written, so I won't be putting up an example.

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If we're talking back cover blurbs, I feel like it's something I'm good at. I tend to follow a bit of a formula when writing them. I have the setup, which provides the reader with just enough info about the character at the start of the story, then something about the inciting incident that will change the character's life. Both parts need to work together to hook the reader.

If you've read the snippet I posted in the QOTD#51 thread, you'll recognize the first character listed here:

Being born female in a male-dominated society where starvation is a way of life can be a death sentence. For Natani, it would have been, if not for the sacrifice of the Elder Petla, who chose to Follow the Wind in search of the fabled green lands beyond the frozen tundra. Now Natani, faced with a similar decision, will have to Follow the Wind herself if she hopes to save her people.

Moebien is a warrior of the Kae-Fen. He longs to emulate the greatest of the Kae-Fen warriors, the legendary Tebbittan ta Aru, who was said to have once faced a hundred to one odds and emerged victorious. But Moebien's quest has born little fruit, and pieces are moving within the Empire that seem destined to lead to war. Moebien will need all of his wits and warrior training to navigate the changing landscape.

Gan didn't believe in much, least of all the self-proclaimed gods who raised cities from the earth to house their many worshippers and provide for their every need. He chose to live alone, separate from the sanctified masses, content to build his own house, grow his own crops and fetch his own water. Unfortunately for Gan, the gods aren't satisfied with that arrangement.

I'm intending for this to be a multi-book series, but there's a lot I haven't figured out yet. I'm pushing the world-building heavily toward the strange, but that is causing problems with Moebien because his backstory is rooted in a more traditional setting. I've already axed one character and replaced him with Gan because he no longer fit the world, but I don't think it will come to that with Moebien. There's enough there that works with the setting that I should be able to figure out how he and the Kae-Fen fit into this world.

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From my understanding, writing summaries are simply a way to hone the focus of your novel/short story: who, what, where, why, and how. If you are querying, it's natural to have a summary or blurb ready. However, I think summaries can also help with writing chapters and short stories. As said, it helps to hone and narrow the focus of what's going on. I wrote a brief summary for my short story to help me get a general idea of what the story is about. My two cents.

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I've got a love-hate relationship with summaries.  I like working on them just fine until it's for the official-official blurb that goes on the Amazon sales page.  I often write blurbs for my projects as I'm working on them to give myself a clear idea of what the promised shape of the story is.  Sort of a way to keep myself on track when I lose sight of the bigger picture.

But every blurb I've drafted for the sales page I want to drop kick into the ocean.  I'm never satisfied and they tend to feel too clunky or just wrong.

This is the current blurb for the first book of Witches of Texas that I have posted on Amazon and my website.  It still bugs the tar out of me:

Quote

Magic exacts a price and it will take all.

Republic of Texas, circa 1846.  Taz Watt and her family embark on the adventure of a lifetime: traveling across the wilds of Texas in a covered wagon.  Bound for Fort Hera to resettle an abandoned settlement, this is her family’s chance at a new life as witches on the wild frontier, but danger lurks everywhere.

Magic-laden storms and vicious monsters like chupacabra and spireling dragons could spell the end of the wagon train.  Or it might be something closer to home.

Something human.

If Taz wants to see her eleventh birthday she’ll need to be something more than a fledgling witch.  She’ll have to be brave.

One of my plans for this summer is to update the story file and re-write this blurb so that it feels more suited to the story.  The first time around I went to IMDB and looked through the blurbs for movies I love that enticed me to watch them so I may do that again.

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