Putting your novel in a vice


Physicist Walter Lewin says that if you placed the earth into a vice and squeezed it down to about four inches in diameter, it would become a black hole.

That’s a lot what writing a 1-3 page synopsis of your novel feels like.

Many agents want a very short summary of your story. But it also has to be in the fun, attention-catching style of the work itself. So you have the dual task (almost wrote “duel task” and somehow it doesn’t feel like a typo) of being brief and interesting/intriguing at the same time, because after all you’re trying to sell the thing.

I was reminded of the Reverend Sydney Smith: “As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.” (I’d thought a more famous person had said that.)

I feel for agents who have to read 20-50 queries a day. (How many they receive on average.) They don’t want pages, and they surely read a lot of stuff that could be tighter, better.

But still, whittling your novel down to a couple pages while still retaining the flavor and the fun of it…thumbscrews, from a literary point of view.

I can’t believe David Foster Wallace did it for his 1100-page opus Infinite Jest. I just gave up on it, after I got 200 pages in and nothing happened. Now, I’ve read Proust, so I’m used to bricks of novels that develop slowly, and have nothing against it, but I can’t imagine what his synopsis talked about in three pages, since nothing I’d encountered so far in the book was remotely like the description on the flap.

Condensing your thoughts is good exercise, like running a race in four minutes or playing one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. I’ve found the best idea is to really think outside the box. Don’t worry about being too literally faithful to every nuance of the plot. Just give them the general feel. Ever read the plot synopses on the backs of video boxes? Strictly speaking, they take some minor liberties.

And everyone should do this even before they finish their novel. It does a body good to see your novel from above, to see it “contained.” Try it. Like Brussels sprouts, it’s not as bad as you think. I’m glad I boiled everything down. Thank you, agents!

And by the way, if you don’t know who Walter Lewin is, you should check out his videos on YouTube. He’s a gas.


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