Of Summaries and Wonderland

Monday, May 4, 2015

Writing a book is easy compared to crafting a summary that attracts publishers and agents. How do you describe an 80,000-word novel in three pages or a 40,000-word story in one?

I just submitted an 80,000 word adult novel to an agent and had to boil the action down to three pages. Now I am working on a one-page summary for my 40,000-word middle-grade novel. This is the point in the submission process where I always feel like Alice in Wonderland facing an impossible task. Where do I start? How much do I include? Where do I end?

In spite of the delusional nature of Alice in Wonderland, it does occasionally surprise with a nugget of good advice. Near the end of Louis Carroll’s book, the Knave is on trial before the King and Queen of Hearts. When it comes time to read an important (or is it an unimportant?) piece of evidence, this exchange occurs:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end; then stop.”

Good advice, yes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The beginning and the end of the summary are the easiest parts to write. The problem is the middle.


Earlier in Alice in Wonderland, Alice attends a mad tea party. The Dormouse tells a story, and Alice interrupts with so many questions that he never does finish. In writing a summary, my job is to provide just enough of the plot to intrigue agents and publishers without raising unanswered questions that frustrate them. The last thing I want is for them to react to my submissions the way Alice reacted to the Mad Hatter’s tea party:
“At any rate, I’ll never go there again! said Alice, as she picked her way through the wood. “It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!”
Now I’m off to write a summary that begins at the beginning and goes on to the end.


The pictures at the top are illustrations by John Tenniel for the original edition of Alice in Wonderland, first published in 1863. They are in the public domain because of their age.

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