A Young Writer’s Guide to Summaries and Shame

Anyone of us who’s pulled a notebook out at school has fielded a barrage of questions. Being an introvert, it’s a little like being trapped in a zoo pen.

And here, we have the writer in her natural habitat. See how she scrawls in a tilted half-cursive? See how she only uses Pentel EnerGel pens?

You naturally get asked the omnipotent question: what’s your book about? For some, it’s easy. It’s about a brother and sister on the run from the law. It’s about a couple first year of marriage. For others, it’s complicated. You can’t think of a way to describe it quickly, so you get into this long, rambling explanation and end up with something that you’re pretty sure sounds like the lamest thing on the planet.

No fear, writers!

Consider this a pep talk: your novel is your baby. Maybe it’s a bit rough around the edges. Maybe a few people think it’s ugly. But it’s your baby, and you’ll always know it’s beautiful. So don’t be ashamed. That’s an order. But because orders don’t always stick, here are some things I do when I’m feeling weird about whatever I’m working on.

I’ve devoted a lot of time to coming up with an elevator pitch. For anyone who doesn’t know what that is, it’s a summary only a sentence or two long that can be given in the time it takes an elevator to go between floors, and it’s actually a lot harder than it sounds. To practice, spend some time writing them for books/TV shows/movies that you like. Here are some examples:

A group of boys with no memories work to find their way out of a maze in which they are imprisoned. (The Maze Runner by James Dashner)

A recently-disbarred lawyer returns to a community college in order to replace his bogus degree while doing the minimum work possible—only to find himself the leader of an eccentric study group. (Community, created by Dan Harmon)

A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a paraplegic superhuman in order to attain his dream of going into outer space. (GATTACA)

Having an elevator pitch in reserve makes it easy to spit out an answer when you’re ambushed by that kid that sits next to you in math, or wherever else you may be.

Or, you could go the self-righteous, philosophical route. Tell people it’s a social commentary. Talk about theme more than character and plot. This is especially impressive when bragging to adults.

Lastly, if talking about your book makes you feel self-conscious or embarrassed, it may be a sign that something needs to change. Go with your gut. Try reading through your manuscript again and look specifically for that sort of odd, uncomfortable feeling, like an itch in your brain. It might be obvious. You might actually cringe. I know I’ve done that before. But don’t be so quick to ignore your feelings, people. They’re there for a reason.

To quote our good friend Shakespeare, ‘to thine own self be true’. Writers who write for trends or what they believe will sell do not end up with anything close to the caliber of a writer whose work is the very manifesto of their soul. If you love all of your ideas and you love seeing them in action, then the rest will follow.