I finished the first draft of my book in April. Six gruelling months later, I have finally completed the first task on my self-editing to-do list. The chapter summary. But what exactly is it? And why on earth did it take so long? Were all those hours of effort worthwhile?
What is a chapter summary?
When I tell people it has taken me six months to write my chapter summary, they look a little confused. And unimpressed. Who can blame them? I mean surely a chapter summary is just a few lines about what happens in each chapter. A few lines x 29 chapters can’t possibly equate to months and months of work, can it? Well no, probably not. The truth is chapter summary is probably a bit of a misnomer in my case.
What I have put together is more like a self-editing roadmap. Here is a photo of a sample page in all its messy glory.
There are three columns – one for each story arc (titled Inca, Circus and Victorian). Each chapter is summarised (in a different coloured pen no less) with annotations in the margins, and random story-related musings scribbled on post-it notes.
Within the columns, there is an entry for each chapter, split into two – what happens and what the reader learns. What happens is a little more akin to the classic chapter summary – it is exactly what it sounds like so I won’t explain further. What the reader learns is the bit where the months and months of effort comes in.
So what exactly is it? (I know, the suspense is killing you).
What the reader learns
If you have written, or are in the process of writing, a book, you will probably know exactly what I mean when I say the story always makes perfect sense in the safety of your own head. I mean, your own head is where it came from so how can it not? The characters, and their motivations and whims, are entirely a product of your own imagination, and so you don’t really question whether their actions would actually make sense to an impartial observer. You know they make sense, at least to you.
Character A carries out Action X because of Motivation Y so it should be pretty obvious to anybody really… except you have forgotten to mention Motivation Y anywhere in the book, so you are the only person who knows about it. This is where my chapter summary comes in. I wanted to read each chapter from the viewpoint of a reader with absolutely no knowledge of the characters or what the book is about.
This is an example of my notes on chapter one – “Umiña seems quite scornful of religion. The girls aren’t allowed to leave the temple enclosure – why not? Will we find out later? Umiña also seems quite scared of the gods – why, when she is scornful of religion?”.
The purpose of this exercise was two-fold. Firstly, to make sure the reader’s thoughts are encouraged to go in the direction I want them to and things that I want to be apparent are, in fact, apparent. Secondly, to note down points in the book where I don’t feel this is the case, or where there is some other kind of unintentional inconsistency that I will want to resolve.
So has the chapter summary served its purpose? Would I recommend this approach to somebody else?
The chapter summary – was it worth it?
Overall, yes, but I would probably do it slightly differently next time. Here is a comparison of the pros and cons:
- The what the reader learns section really is a comprehensive compendium of anything and everything I will want to look at in the course of my self-editing proper. I have identified unintentional red herrings, characters acting very much out of character (I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, but will save the whys and wherefores for a future blog post on character), important events that go unexplained, and even a sub-plot that just peters out without any explanation. I didn’t deal with any of these issues as I found them, but have made notes reminding myself that I need to.
- Despite all of the above, I am reassured that, for the most part at least, I am on the right track. The plot makes sense overall, the characters are suitably complex, and the reader’s thoughts are hopefully pretty much where I want them to be. If this wasn’t the case, I would have a lot more work to do in the next stage of self-editing, but at least I would be aware of it from the start.
- I hoped that the what the reader learns element of the chapter summary would serve as a useful guide (a roadmap as I mentioned earlier) for the rest of my editing. I have only been at it for one day, but this seems to be the case so far. The chapter summary ended up throwing up a few plot uncertainties, e.g. a big jump from one event to another without much explanation in the way of character motivation. As part of Sadie (one of my protagonists)’s character profile, I have been looking at her motivation at each point in the story, and think I have successfully solved one of the plotting issues uncovered by the chapter summary.
- The (somewhat shorter) what happens element will hopefully prove a useful precursor to the synopsis I will have to write as part of my agent submission package. I also plan to use it as the basis of a useful plotting exercise we covered on my self-editing course.
- The summary is written matrix-style, so can be read in story-order or in chronological order (i.e. by story arc). I am planning to use this to check chapters in the book are in the best possible order they can be (and that the reader doesn’t learn something too early or too late in relation to the other arcs), but also to make sure that each story arc makes sense within itself.
- I think you already know this one – it took a LONG time. Part of the reason for that was that it simply just isn’t the most exciting of tasks. If I had worked on it for 8 hours a day every day, it would have taken significantly less time, but I just don’t have the mental stamina to work on such a repetitive task day-in day-out. After just one day, I can already see the rest of my self-editing is likely to be a lot more mentally stimulating, and, therefore, a lot easier to work on consistently.
- It was demoralising. It is an exercise specifically designed to spot problems, not provide solutions. That made me feel, at times, as though my book was just ALL WRONG. Again, after just one day, the second editing phase has been infinitely more satisfying and has left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling instead of a vaguely panicked one.
- The above two points taken together mean that, if I’m being completely honest about it, the chapter summary has taken a lot of time for what might seem, at first, like relatively little gain. But I want to be thorough in my self-editing, and I really think (read: hope) that this approach will pay dividends in the longer term.
- Sometimes, I found myself a little confused about what the what happens element was actually for. Should it strictly cover events in the narrowest sense of the word? Should it also cover important things the character (and, by extension, the reader) learns where these have a great bearing on the story? I don’t think I have been very consistent in this respect – flicking back through my notebook, the two elements started off as roughly equal for chapter one, finishing with the what happens element being about a quarter of the length of the what the reader learns section for the final chapter. Next time, I think I will just have the latter section and put together a separate chapter summary at a later stage.
So there you have it. It might have been painful to put together, but I’m glad I have a roadmap to follow for the remainder of my self-editing.
Will I still think it was a worthwhile endeavour when my book is finished and out in the ether waiting to meet agents? That remains to be seen. Would a similar approach work for another writer? Only the individual can be the judge of that. Either way, I would definitely recommend trying to view your work through the eyes of a previously-uninitiated reader. It just might help you realise that, in the absence of one key missing motivation, the tragically enigmatic street performer dreamt up in your head might be a nonsensically confusing con artist when recreated in somebody else’s.