Wednesday, 3 June 2015

How to summarise an 85,000-word novel in 300 words

I'm fortunate, I suppose, to have never really been touched by the death of someone close. My dog dying, in my early teens, is the closest I've come so far. And I've had other things to mourn - a friendship, principally, rent asunder by the sudden imposition of 3,750 miles in-between us. But death? No, I've been lucky, so far.

I have been thinking about it a lot though, recently. A writing friend has just suffered the loss of a sibling. That's terrible enough. That they are comparatively young only magnifies the sense of what is lost.

I am not quite so young... but the message here is clear. It's obvious, isn't it - I could go at any time. So, as Tim Robbins says, as Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, get busy living or get busy dying. Time to crack on, get the novel finished. Try and do something with it. Avoid, if at all possible, the thought of waking up one day and wishing I'd done more with my writing.

To that end, I entered the Bridport Novel Award at the weekend. It was a bit eleventh hour, and involved some drastic, high-speed synopsis editing. My previous draft synopsis was 653 words long; for Bridport, it has to be 300 or less...

As you might imagine, that was quite hard. In fact, I didn't think I was going to make it. I tried a complete reimagining of what the synopsis might be, but ended up just writing a back-cover blurb instead. And then it hit me. Part of the reason summarising in 300 words proved so hard was that I was trying to tell the whole story, in short form but sequentially, as it happens in the novel version, and it just wasn't possible. So instead, I started to group together events from the novel that are thematically similar, though thousands of words apart. Then, I had one short paragraph about my protagonist's loss of the only people he has left to depend on rather than one paragraph about his mother's dementia and another about the erosion of a friendship.

And it worked. The net result was a synopsis that doesn't tell the story exactly as the story happens, but still summarises all the main points of the story. I think that's all you can realistically hope to achieve in 300 words. Mine was 299, since you ask. And yes, I had to lose some detail - gone were all references to place (Cambridge) and time (the long, hot summer of 2009), but they were small word count savings. The big ones came from the structural Damascene moment described above. You probably know this stuff already but I thought I'd share it anyway, just in case.

Realistic Bridport outcome? I might get some feedback. Dream outcome? Well, the longlist would do me. I can dream, can't I?

Get busy living or get busy dying? As Red observes in the film's coda, that's goddamn right.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, the outcome, since you were asking? Not longlisted, even. Not to worry, will press on regardless.