It’s Okay to Summarize (For Now)

I figured with March quickly approaching, it’s time to write a new blog post. My “New Years Thoughts” post probably became outdated a week after I posted it. But who am I updating, exactly? I’m nowhere near finishing my work-in-progress. I don’t have an agent. I don’t even have a fan base as far as I can tell, except for friends, so I don’t really need to keep my blog or any of my social media accounts updated. But I feel like doing it anyway.

“How’s your writing going?” I was asked last week by a friend. “It’s going okay,” I said. “I have my good days and my not-so-good days.” I probably didn’t sound optimistic. I started an early draft after getting feedback from an editor at Tor Books in October of 2019. She wanted “something in the same vein” as the project she had just rejected. That’s what I’ve been attempting ever since, keeping the same story world, but choosing an earlier time period and a different story with a different character. I began with a male protagonist, then worried no literary agent would take a novel with a male protagonist based on advice I heard at writing conferences. From the beginning, everything I’ve wanted to write keeps getting checked by my critical voice, which isn’t good for my creative flow. Neither is a deadly pandemic, mandatory lockdowns, mass hysteria, and sharing my formally quiet writing hours with my entire family. It took me a while to get my headspace back into my story.   

I’ve reached a point in my rough draft where I’m beginning to feel cautiously optimistic. I think I’ve broken through a creative block and the story is finally making sense. Laughing to myself while writing a scene is a good sign (I think) that my story is coming together. I feel like I might have something with this novel, that I’m being productive and I’ll publish this someday. I can’t let myself overthink it. I can’t worry about whether the prose is any good, at least until I finish my draft. It’s always the same. The beginning coalesces, hardens into concrete, while the middle is mush and the end nonexistent. The worst that can happen is I don’t finish it. I have to keep reminding myself to stop worrying about the quality of the prose and just get it down. All of it.

I’ve written 74,000 words. Three thousand are “scraps” of prose—words I removed but can’t get myself to delete just yet, in case I need to put them back. There are probably another three thousand words worth of notes that eventually need to get deleted, after turning them into a synopsis, since these notes are basically a rough form of the synopsis. And since the synopsis isn’t exactly a piece of cake to write, I’m not sending those notes into the trash bin. So that means 74-6 = 68 thousand is a more accurate word count, though I can easily blow past this once I get further into my story. But things are coalescing. I’m feeling confident about the first act, the first ten chapters. The prose isn’t anything to write home about. But neither is the prose in the Bible. I mean, here’s the story of the Flood in Genesis:

“Now the flood was on the earth forty days. The waters increased and lifted up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and greatly increased on the earth, and the ark moved about on the surface of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth, and all the high hills under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved on the earth: birds and cattle and beasts and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man. All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, all that was on the dry land, died. So He destroyed all living things which were on the face of the ground: both man and cattle, creeping thing and bird of the air. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah and those who were with him in the ark remained alive. And the waters prevailed on the earth one hundred and fifty days.”

Genesis 7:17-24 NKJV

Look at the simplicity of that prose. It’s telling, not showing. Okay, so maybe the literary style of the Bible is a little outdated.

Charlotte Brontë does a lot of explaining in her novel Jane Eyre. I listened to the audiobook years ago, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, but I felt like listening to it again. It’s so good! Every time I listen to any part of this novel, I’m immediately immersed inside Jane Eyre’s world, every single time. I was folding laundry in the bedroom, listening to the story, and felt sorrow when Jane’s friend Helen died of typhoid (or is it typhus?), at the part of the story where Jane was found the next morning with her arms around her dear friend, now dead. I felt Jane’s loss, and then I thought, How is this possible? How is Charlotte Brontë so good at immersing me in her story? Why do I like this novel so much more than my own? That’s when it hit me—she’s summarizing when she needs to.

I forgot summaries are perfectly okay. Janet Burroway writes about this in her book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.

Summary is a useful and often necessary device: to give information, fill in a character’s background, let us understand a motive, alter pace, create a transition, leap moments or years.

Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction, 4th Ed., p. 182-183.

She names two common types of summary: sequential (relating events in their sequence but compressing them) and circumstantial (describing the general circumstances during a period of time).

Here’s a rough guess, no precision whatsoever, but it seems to me a third or more of Jane Eyre is a summary of some kind, the sort of thing I thought I was supposed to avoid as a writer; a third is dialogue; and a third are moment-by-moment scenes, rendered with exquisite detail. Here’s an example of a sequential summary in Jane Eyre, from the beginning of chapter 9:

But the privations, or rather the hardships, of Lowood lessened. Spring drew on—she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated. My wretched feet, flayed and swollen to lameness by the sharp air of January, began to heal and subside under the gentler breathings of April; the nights and mornings no longer by their Canadian temperature froze the very blood in our veins; we could now endure the playhour passed in the garden; sometimes on a sunny day it began even to be pleasant and genial, and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening, daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps…

Another writer, T.C. Boyle, adds details within the exposition that immerses me in the story and makes me forget I’m not reading an actual scene. Here’s an excerpt from chapter one of his novel Riven Rock:

The morning flew. He’d started off at the White Street house, where they’d installed Mr. McCormick to get him away from the disturbing influence of the other patients, and then he’d gone on to McLean and now he was late, cutting across the lawn out front of the administrative building on a day that was like a wet dishrag, though it was the last week of April and he would have sacrificed to the gods to see a ray of sun – he was late and hurrying and he didn’t give a damn for the fact that he’d left his hat and overcoat back in the nurses’ common room and the cuffs of his good Donegal tweed trousers were soaking up the damp like a pair of fat swollen sponges tied to his ankles.  

I don’t have to write entirely in scenes. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize this. Explain away!  What’s happening in this chapter? Can’t figure out the details? Explain what’s going on in the scene. Tell, tell, tell, until you get to the end. Don’t allow your critical voice to block you until you finish the draft. Once you have completed a good-enough draft, then that’s when you can crank up the criticism. Not until then.

Of course, I can’t explain away the entire novel and expect to get it published. At some point I’m going to have to go back and render everything in more detail. But right now, I can’t allow my critical voice to nitpick everything I write. Not yet anyway. I have to give myself permission to write a story that isn’t good enough in order to finish it. Not good enough is better than nothing.

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