How To Get Over Summary Hatred: A Rant

30 Jun

by Biljana Likic


Last week Vanessa wrote a really fantastic post about the premise and synopsis.

This week I’m going to rant about the summary, because although she gave awesome pointers, I still couldn’t get over my feelings for them until very recently. And this is how.

So let’s start.

Summary. A dreaded word. Every time I hear it my heart sinks. Just three days ago someone found out I was writing a book, and of course the first question out of his mouth was “What’s it about?”

As if it’s easy to explain something you’ve been pouring your time and energy into for three years in less than ten minutes. I said five sentences and the guy nodded importantly, stated that “it sounds just like Chrysalids”, and then went on to talk about how much he loves John Wyndham. When I tried weakly to tell him that I’d never read the book, he said that I should and then started explaining it to me. Oh he was quite the artsy type, and knew oh so much about classical American fiction and indie films and was a drummer for a few bands including his own. The more he talked about Chrysalids, the more I realized that actually, it didn’t sound anything at all like what I was working on. The more I listened to him, the more embittered I got.

Why the hell would you ask me what my book is about if you don’t even care?

That’s the first thing I hate about summaries; the people that hear five words and think they know everything. Here’s the second: the back of the book kind.

No matter how much you try, no matter how wordy you get, you will never be able to get across your whole novel in a little blurb of text on the back of the book. My novel isn’t just about some girl going to an insane asylum when people think she’s crazy. That’s just how it starts. For me to try to explain the whole plot, all the twists and connections between three separate groups of people, the not so coincidental moments that fit perfectly with history, I’d have to retell the whole novel. And by that I mean I can’t. You’d have to read it or listen to me paraphrase it. I can’t tell you what it’s about in a few paragraphs.

But then a couple weeks ago I realized something that helped me get over my dislike of summaries.

Who would want their whole book to fit on the back cover? Who would want to say everything their book says in a couple sentences and in that way do it justice? Because if you can say everything that your book is, talk about all the growth your character goes through, and show how clever you are for figuring out the plot that you did, I’m sorry but wouldn’t that make your novel really…shallow?

Why would anyone want to be able to successfully retell their novel in five minutes? If you can write what you wanted to write in a couple of sentences, you wouldn’t have wasted 80 000 words. You wouldn’t have wasted three years of your life. There is merit to the length that you chose your book to be.

But then again you hit the brick wall of “The Summary”.

Here’s the tough love of the whole situation: You have to get people to like the summary, and then the book. There’s no way around it. You just have to write it. Take the steps Vanessa and Savannah gave and do the best you can. Take solace in the fact that even if you didn’t explain everything, there will then be so much more for the reader to discover. There will be so many things that they’ll be in awe of, because of how simple the back of the book sounds in comparison. The next time they talk about it, they will the ones telling their friends that the summary doesn’t do it justice, and you will the one with the obnoxious indie kid on your side. Take the juiciest bits you can, if you must, isolate the most marketable points, and get it selling. When enough people have read it, you’ll be comfortable in knowing that you’re not anymore the only one that knows the full skill it took to write it, and think of it this way:

An effective summary is better than a good one.


Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She just graduated high school and is on her way to university where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog here, and check out her work on her FictionPress account.

10 Responses to “How To Get Over Summary Hatred: A Rant”

  1. Marina June 30, 2010 at 2:11 PM #

    It’s kind of like when people ask how you’re doing and then just nod and walk away, and you stand there wondering why they bothered in the first place.
    I kind of had the same thing happen to me as well, when I tried to explain to someone what my book was about and she said one of the characters sounded like someone from the show that we both enjoyed watching. All because of they had the same name. And I had a hard time proving that he wasn’t, I don’t think she believed me. I mean how do I prove I had a similar idea for one of my characters as in a popular show, before I even started watching the show? I don’t think I would have believed me either, which really sucks.
    And I agree, if you could sum up everything about the book on the back cover, there’d be no point in reading the book. I mean, you know what it’s about right?

    • Biljana June 30, 2010 at 2:15 PM #

      Yeah the character name one is also super annoying. One of my characters has the same name as my good friend, just because it sounded right and she’s all Victorian and stuff, and when my guy friend heard he was all “Oh so your book’s just about you two frolicking and having fun.” He meant it as a joke, but it was still incredibly grating.

  2. svonnah June 30, 2010 at 3:03 PM #

    Great, relevant article, Billy! I love the point you make about taking solice in the fact that your book hard to summarize. Personally I enjoy summaries because I like the challenge of it, but I understand the frustration of not being able to express all awesomeness in a few paragraphs.

    And maybe that’s really the difference between people who hate summaries and people who enjoy them… one group doesn’t feel bad about leaving out details because that’s the purpose, and another group can’t stand to not share all the utter epicness of their novel. Do you think?

    • Biljana June 30, 2010 at 3:11 PM #

      Could be. I know I personally love to figure out all the little details and connections in books, so I like to include them in my writing. I’d hate to see them go unnoticed, you know?

  3. Julie Eshbaugh June 30, 2010 at 3:07 PM #

    Hey Biljana! Just my two cents worth: When I got my agent, my son went around sharing how excited he was with his closest friends. They had just finished reading THE GREAT GATSBY, and one of his friends asked my son what my book was about. He sheepishly answered, “Aliens.” This “summary” did, in fact, serve its purpose. It told them what the book was about and it shut them up. 🙂 Great post.

    • Biljana June 30, 2010 at 3:13 PM #

      Lol!! Nice :D. But it’s not just about aliens!! It’s about love and relationships and all that jazz!! But yeah as a one-word summary it’s pretty good :P.

  4. Chelsea June 30, 2010 at 9:18 PM #

    Personally I don’t like summaries that much…actually that’s an understatement. I hate them. But I guess this kinda lessens the hatred 🙂 Because you have a point about the fact that if your book could really be fully expressed in a few sentences then it wouldn’t be worth reading. It’d just be logical to read the summary instead of the book. Just a bit of an addition: I know I like figuring out the intricacies of a novel, the links and all that jazz. So I suppose that’s one of the pluses of a summary: it allows the reader to actually enjoy the novel. I know I wouldn’t enjoy a read as much if everything was laid out in the summary. So it’s like you said, the summary catches the reader’s interest, the actual novel does the rest 🙂

    • Biljana June 30, 2010 at 11:42 PM #

      When the little details are done, they’re pretty much what make the novel for me. I always feel super intelligent when I figure them all out :).

  5. Vanessa June 30, 2010 at 10:24 PM #

    Great post Biljana!

    I’ve always thought of summaries as teasers. I used to hate writing them, because I found it difficult for the longest time; but I’ve always known why they’re useful. I always read a summary/back of the book before I read it. It’s either that or the cover (or both) that catch me. I always crack open a book because I want to know MORE!

    • Biljana June 30, 2010 at 11:45 PM #

      Yeah, they are exactly like teasers aren’t they? But when I think about teasers for movies I almost always think of all the times I’ve seen a teaser, thought the movie would be fantastic, and found that the funniest or best bits were already revealed in the trailer.

      But I know what you mean; I always read the back first too. I especially love it when the author manages to get across a great hook and cliffhanger ending :). If they can do that in a /summary/…

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