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I'm trying to write a summary of my book's plot for a query letter to literary agents, but my plot is extremely hard to summarize.

The reason is that the plot is fast-paced, erratic, and constantly shifting.

Why do I still believe in my novel? Because it's humorous, darn it. The plot is really not the highlight of my novel.

I'm stuck between two extremes: If I keep just the essentials, the plot sounds hollow. If I write about the many details, the summary is nothing but rants and ravings.

I tried following the answer to this question, but my plot doesn't really have a core.


...So how do I approach the summarizing?

I know it's hard to answer this question without even knowing what my story's about, but I could really do with any tip or insight.

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Why would you already use so many negatives -- look at the same attributes in a positive way. 'Prolonged plot' -did you unnecessarily prolong it? If so, undo it. 'Erratic' -find a positive-sounding synonym for that. Same with 'hollow', 'rants & ravings'. Finally, try discover an underlying theme, (well, fake it, if you have to). :) –  Kris Jan 13 '12 at 4:37
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Your query is meant to introduce the book and make clear why it's compelling. That doesn't require you to explain its plot in detail, particularly if the plot isn't the compelling aspect of it. On the other hand, you can't just write "My novel is called [TITLE HERE], it's very funny, you should totally check it out." So you need a core aspect of your novel - a plot thread; a character; setting; a catalysing event - which you'll be able to build your query around.

For example, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is certainly a humorous novel with a fast-paced, erratic plot which isn't really the main point of the book. What unifying element can we, nonetheless, find and focus on in a query?

Well, even though the plot zigzags like crazy, the central experience is that of Arthur Dent, milquetoast extraordinaire, being tossed and batted about the universe in a sequence of zany situations. So you could write about Dent, and what sets this off, and what he goes through:

All Arthur Dent wants is to be left alone, for his hangover to pass, and for those construction workers outside to please not tear his house down. The good news is, they're not going to. The bad news is, that's only because the entirety of planet Earth is blasted to smithereens. So Arthur Dent, sole survivor of planetary annhiliation, last human in existence, is feeling rather put-upon.

There - that's the premise. It explains the set-up for the novel; it introduces our main character; it explains what he wants - to be left alone and for things to be normal - and it's pretty clear that he's not about to get it. Now that we've got a clear premise and character, we can build on that to give a sense of what the rest of the book is like:

Arthur Dent discovers that, in absence of Earth, there's a whole universe out there. Much of it is loud, unpleasant, and trying to hijack him off on ridiculous escapades. Ford Prefect, whom on Earth he had believed to be a largely reasonable human being, turns out to be an alien marooned on Earth for decades, originally assigned there to write the planet up for the notorious intergalactic travel guide, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (his essay in entirety: "Mostly harmless"). Ford inducts Arthur into the ranks of the galaxy's interstellar hitchhikers - leading him from one mess into another, and always ever-so-slightly ahead of the jaws of disaster. Well, almost always.

There. That's a halfway-decent draft. You've said what you needed to - it's a funny book; it's about a boring guy who suddenly finds himself going through weird adventures in space; the tone is off-kilter and zany; the premise is a human becoming a "galactic hitchhiker" after Earth is destroyed. Premise; character; tone - you've got them all across, and you don't need to start explaining anything about probability drives, or start leading up to "The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything" in just a paragraph.

Two important notes:

  • I've resisted the (compelling...) urge to put in a list about the zany things Arthur's going to encounter. No "Arthur meets a rapidly descending sperm whale, the Creators of Earth, and a sorely depressed robot, and ultimately discovers The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything." Why have I done that? Because that list is meaningless; if you haven't read it, it's just a list of random things. They may be interesting, they may be unusual, they may be well-written. But reading a list of them doesn't tell me any of that. So avoid the "teaser list" if at all possible.

  • Notice I've deliberately tried to write this mock-query with a tone and humor similar to that used within the book. (I'm not Douglas Adams and I'm writing rather quickly, so don't dock me for humor, OK? :P) This isn't always appropriate (and writing "in-character," as though a character from the book is speaking, is generally frowned upon) , but for a book that relies on tone and humor, this can be extremely helpful. It gets across why the book is worthwhile - so that's good.

Lastly, if you cannot find any core element of your story to focus on, you may have a problem. It's one thing for plot not to be the focus; it's quite another for there to be no plot, or incoherent plot, or a whole lot of "short" plots one after the other with no connection. Typical elements that bring the story together are often an initial set-up (like Earth blowing up...), a character (what does he want? how does he try to get it? what stands in his way?), a goal (if the final goal is clear from the start). If you can't find anything, your story itself may feel random, slapdash, incoherent. Your best recourse is to ask for feedback from people whose opinion you trust and respect. Ask them what they see as the core element; if you feel it's not strong enough, rewrite to put focus on it. Sometimes problems in a query letter do indicate problems in the work being queried about.

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Excellent answer! –  Shantnu Tiwari Jan 18 '12 at 14:29
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So what is the highlight?

Is it a character study of lunatics? A farce? A satire of a particular genre? A giddy romp across space and time? A surreal exploration of the absurdities inherent in our classist political system?

A synopsis for a cover letter is really your elevator pitch — boil your book down into the fewest words which describe it, not necessarily the fewest words which tell the plot.

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I agree. A query letter doesn't really have a summary; it has a paragraph that captures the big ideas of the story. If the big idea is style and humour, make sure your paragraph demonstrates that. A full plot summary isn't necessary. On the other hand, some agents, I think, do ask for a summary, but you get several pages for that, so it's not nearly as impossible as it would be if you were trying to get all that information into a single paragraph. –  Kate Sherwood Jan 12 '12 at 23:44
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Related to @KateSherwood's comment, if the main selling point of your book is it's humor, then the main selling point of your query had better be humor. You're never going to convince your agent that your novel is funny if your query is a wet sack. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 17 '12 at 19:13
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As I see it from here, your question itself looks like a potential solution. Yes, I mean, if you could reword it and include bits from your work itself, in a creative way, that should really impress any literary agent.

Look at it this way: giving away much in a summary/ abstract has never been a good idea anyway. Even as it serves to arouse curiosity, it should do so more by suggesting than by revealing. Get the drift?

To quote Lauren Ipsum, "words which describe it, not which tell the plot".

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Strong disagree. A query should be informative and give its recipient concrete detail about what to expect from the book. Generic handwaving and generalizations are no help. Whyare summaries not a good idea They're tough to write, but IMHO extremely effective. –  Standback Jan 14 '12 at 15:58
    
"Strong disagree." - What exactly does that mean? Tx for the HO, but the OP is not about a "query" but a "query letter". So you can revert your down vote now. –  Kris Jan 16 '12 at 5:57
    
A "query" and a "query letter" are the same thing. e.g. first google result for 'query letter agent': A query letter has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format. You won’t catch an agent’s attention by inventing a creative new query format. You’ll just alienate your chances of being taken seriously as a professional writer. In any event, I find the original question and your suggestions to serve poorly as a pitch for the book, even in a capacity other than a formal query. –  Standback Jan 17 '12 at 6:25
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