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.

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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

 

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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!

Copublishing Ebooks and Printed Books

As I was working with a self-publishing author recently, we started to discuss the publication date for his book and just how long it would be before he had a bound book ready to sell. It looked like he might not have his books in time for the start of his ideal selling period. Anxious to get his book on the market, this author had an idea:

Why not put the ebook out now, since that takes very little time, and continue with the editing for the printed book!

Here’s why not:

You only have one chance to make a first impression. If you put out a book that still has a lot of errors in it, you have burned bridges with all the people who bought the inferior product. Particularly as a self-publisher, you can’t afford to risk your reputation.

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Creating an ebook has become so easy, many authors are tempted to jump right in before completing the editing process. In fact, some traditional publishers do the same thing; although the printed book receives a proofread, the e-book may not. However, if it is up to you, do not succumb to this temptation.

For years I didn’t believe that bad editing would sink a book (this from a committed and passionate editor), but with the advent of reader reviews on Amazon and other online sites, I have learned that lesson. And once those bad reviews are up, they don’t come down and you have to work twice as hard to get your reputation back.

Traditional authors may be able to negotiate this point in their contracts. For self-publishers, the decision is theirs to make. Whatever path you choose, don’t waste your money and all your hard work by taking shortcuts.

 

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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!

 

Fictionalizing Your Story? Commit!

A few years ago I read Jeannette Walls’s Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. It is the fictionalized tale of her grandmother and mother living on the frontier. It was a lovely book and I highly recommend it.

I have just one reservation: In fictionalizing the story, Walls did not go far enough. She did not fully commit.

This choice left me feeling somewhat unsatisfied. I wanted a fuller story—a novel.

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Before and since that time, I have seen the same problem with some of my clients’ works as well as in published books. After the A Million Little Pieces fiasco, more people are hesitant to call their memoirs nonfiction if they include anything not verifiably true, and they are opting to fictionalize. Here is my advice to those authors:

If that is your decision, then embrace it!

Employ all of the tools of storytelling that are available to a novelist to make your fictionalized story a worthy read:

  • Develop back stories for your characters
  • Invent dialogue and settings
  • Embellish feelings and reactions for your characters
  • Rearrange events and create new ones

In sum, fill in the details you don’t remember or never were told, to craft a full-bodied story that readers will enjoy.

Detach yourself from reality!

Some authors are reluctant to create something for fear of not being true to the story they wish to tell. I believe it is possible to capture the essence of an event while placing it in a different setting or inventing dialogue that you have no way to verify.

But fictionalizing isn’t just about filling in the details. Novelists have even more tools that keep their stories moving. You can use them too!

  • Combine or eliminate characters
  • Skip events that don’t fit with the narrative arc
  • Summarize background information
  • Leave out the details that don’t move the plot or aid character development

Omitting information can be as difficult as inventing it when your goal is to be true to your story. Yet, the best storytellers know when to expound on a seemingly minor detail and when to bridge over events that don’t contribute to the effect they want to achieve.

You have to do what is right and best for your work. Let the shackles of reality go, and commit to the genre you have chosen.

When you fail to commit, you leave readers adrift.

 

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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!