Chapter Summaries, Who Needs ’em?

A friend said, “Never write chapter summaries. They suck the life out of the story.” I believe that’s only true if you hold yourself hostage to the summaries. In fact, I believe they are crucial. Let me tell you why.

person standing near trees
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Starting Out

This fall and winter I began writing a chapter book with my six-year-old. It’s called Carla and Lola Go to School, But Where Is Miss Quimby?, which gives you a good idea of what it’s about. As with many books, the concept is sound. It’s the execution that will make the difference.

Before we attempted to write the book, I made sure we did what I tell all of my authors they must do:

We planned.

First we jotted down general ideas about what we wanted our book to be about, who the characters would be, and what the setting would be. We also set down what the four main obstacles would be, the general structure of the book, and how it would end. (Spoiler alert: They find Miss Quimby.)

At that point, my daughter was ready to dive in. We opened a new document and started to type. And that’s when I truly learned why writers need chapter summaries.

Amending the Plan

In our initial plan, we had agreed on one opening for the book, but once that first paragraph was written, we didn’t know where to go. My daughter, being six, forgot what we had planned and wanted Miss Quimby to be at school. To my daughter’s dismay, I put on the brakes. We had forgotten to write our chapter summaries!

Using paper and pen, we jotted down who the characters were in each chapter, what the obstacle or action would be, and how they would overcome it or carry it out. We also noted the setting for that chapter and made sure the timeline worked with what would come before and after.

Team Writing vs. Going It Alone

Because we were writing as a team, the summaries were even more important than for a solo writer. We needed to agree on what would happen before it was written or we would spend all of our writing time arguing it out. We would never finish.

However, even a solo writer needs to know where they want their story to go. And if you are like many writers, you might have to take a few days or even weeks away from your writing. How do you remember where you wanted to go if you didn’t record it somewhere? Based on what I’ve seen in my editing, writers’ memories may not be as good as they think.

In the case of my daughter’s book, as we were writing the summary for chapter 9, we realized chapters 8 and 9 needed to come sooner. That would tie the story line together much more neatly. How much easier it was to make that change when the “chapters” were only a paragraph instead of the full shebang! How much time and heartache we saved by making this decision now rather than after we had sweated over the writing!

The book has a long way to go. The chapter summaries are going to guide us on the journey.

Resources

Check out these resources to help you find your own way with chapter summaries:

How to Write a Book Proposal: Chapter Synopsis (video)

11 Ways to Outline a Book: Chapter-by-Chapter

Scrivener (writing software)

How to Write a Summary of a Book Chapter

How to Choose a Plot Outline Method: 4 Techniques for Outlining Novels

 

PerfectBound front cover 2019 9-6 low-res

 

Like this blog? Find more insights and advice in the Updated and Revised Edition of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, now available on Amazon!

Before You Hire an Editor, Do These 4 Things

The other day, I called around to find someone who could tell me why the bush in my front yard was dying. “Dying” may have been too generous. It seemed like maybe it was already dead. It had slowly turned brown over the past year and as of the week before, three-fourths of it was leafless. Not to mention, the trunk seemed to be growing something.

Still, I was hoping someone could help me salvage what was left.

The lawn care company I called first recommended a garden center. The garden center recommended a tree specialist. The tree specialist said this:

“Dead is dead.”

He explained that he could come take a look but it would cost me $250 and it didn’t sound like there was much left to save. “I’m not usually one to turn down billable hours, but it’s not like I can do an autopsy or even a tissue sample. Dead is dead.”

I thanked him for his forthright manner and said I would take his gentle suggestion not to hire him.

The next weekend, my husband went out with a saw to see what he could do. The bush turned out to be so dead, the saw was unnecessary. He more or less yanked it out of the ground with his bare hands.

I’m glad I saved my $250. It is a treat to encounter someone who isn’t just looking to make a buck.

To tell the truth, that tree specialist reminded me of me.

black and white black and white branches cloudy
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It doesn’t happen often, but there have been times when I had to turn down a client simply because I thought they would be wasting their money by hiring me. Not that their book idea was dead; they just were not ready for editing. (I have written previously about the reactions I have gotten when this happened after editing had already started.)

I am always pleased when writers want to have their books edited before publishing them. Sometimes, however, they have a few more steps to take before it is wise to spend money on an editor.

Here are 4 steps you should take before hiring an editor:

  • Let the manuscript simmer. Take a week or, better yet, a month away from the manuscript before you begin your revisions. You can spend this time not thinking about the book at all, or use it to build your marketing platform, research agents and publishers, or read other books that will help you hone your craft.
  • Read through the manuscript 2 or more times to make revisions. Most people require 20 revisions to get their work where they want it. It is an iterative process. However, you will probably need an outsider’s perspective before you get quite that far.
  • Share your work with a friend. No, a friend isn’t likely to give you the best feedback, but you have to start somewhere. If you don’t already have a writing group to tell you what is good and bad about your story, start with a friend. You need to get the gumption up to expose your work to someone else and it’s OK if you start with a softball.
  • Find a writing group, beta readers, or other outside people with writing experience to read your manuscript. Arrange for 3–5 well-chosen readers to give you specific constructive feedback on the writing. Then sort the feedback to determine which changes support your vision for the book.

You could continue on this path until you have completed your 20 revisions. That’s not a bad plan. But you might also decide it’s time to hire an editor before then. That’s not a bad plan either. What I would strongly advise against is typing “The End” and immediately beginning your search for an editor.

As the tree specialist illustrated, it’s often faster and cheaper to rip a dead bush out of the ground yourself than to pay someone to tell you what you already know.

[Related: How to Hire a Freelance Editor in 5 Easy Steps]

 

cover for the revised edition of Perfect Bound

 

Like this blog? Get more insights and advice with the Updated and Revised edition of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro, available now on Amazon!