"darn I wish I knew how to write a summary."
"Suckish summary, guys. Sorry... But still- give it a go."
"I'm not very good at summary's..."
"Not a very good summary, I know. Sorry about that.."
"I'm not good at summarys, but please read the story is really good."
These are actual summaries taken from the "just in" section of FictionPress about 5 minutes ago. These authors have no excuse. None. Here is some philosophy you should keep in mind about the all-dreaded summary.
The summary is designed to entice a reader. We're told never to judge a book by its cover, and rarely do we judge a book by its title, but I judge dozens of stories by their summaries every day. It's what we as readers have to do, unless we have absolutely no life and infinite amounts of time. The reason you write a summary is to advertise yourself and your work - not all advertisements appeal to everyone (for example, I'm not too enticed by an attractive man shoving half a Double Western Bacon Onion Cheeseburger from Carl's Jr. into his mouth at once, but the ads must be effective), but a good ad appeals to enough people to make it worth it.
What's your motivation for writing a summary? When you're writing, you're trying to use your words to make your 2-sentence summary stand out from all the bad ones. You're trying to make your story shine brighter than everyone else's. You're trying to say, "Hey! Look over here! My story is better than hers!"
Yes, it's a dog-eat-dog world.
Never, ever let "I suck at summaries" suffice as your advertisement. Can you imagine watching TV, and a Carl's Jr. ad comes on, and it's just an old man saying, "We couldn't come up with any ideas for a commercial, but come buy our, um, whatever our new burger is." Does that make you hungry? At all? No.
There are two reasons why you should write a summary all the time, no matter what, even if you think it's bad. The first you've probably heard before: if you don't even trust your own ability to write a summary, why should your reader trust your ability to write a story? "I'm not good at summarys, but please read the story is really good." Oh yeah? I don't think so.
The second reason is less mentioned, but it's just as valid. Writing "I suck at summaries" is not going to make you un-suck at summaries. The kid who gets exiled to the bench every single basketball game and who always has "a doctor's appointment" during practice is never going to become magically able to make a 3-pointer. There will never, ever come a day when the "un-suck" key falls into your lap and you're suddenly a summary prodigy. Sorry, that's not how it works. Practice writing summaries. Write 3 summaries for each of your stories. Eventually, you'll get better. Practice is what FictionPress is all about, and if you're not willing to put in the effort to perfect every little detail of your story (including the summary), then I can guarantee that you will never become a recognized writer. Use FictionPress as a resource.
I'm not going to tell you how to write a summary. I don't consider myself an expert in the field at all. But I do know what kinds of summaries I do click on, and what summaries I don't. So I have a few tips:
Situation. "A man and a woman walk into a bar. She has a gun. He has a ring in his pocket." There doesn't have to be plot, not necessarily. That summary doesn't give any indication of anything happening, it just sets up a scene. However, the scene is dripping with things that could happen, questions that could be asked. What is the gun for? What is the ring for? Why would he propose in a bar? Is he even proposing to her? Is she even going to shoot him? There's a lot of tension in those 3 short sentences.
ONLY situation. This means no, "Well, I was sitting in math class three weeks ago when I got the idea of someone getting shot as he's proposing to a lady, so I asked my friend about it and we had a long talk over ice cream, and..." I've never seen anything that long, but I've seen some runners-up. A reader doesn't care how you got the idea, especially when we haven't even read the story yet.
No secret apologizing. "A man and a woman walk into a bar. She has a gun. He has a ring in his pocket. Sorry if it's a bad summary." It's just totally unnecessary. I will forgive a bad summary, but I won't forgive someone who apologizes for it.
No character background. "Tessa is an average young girl who attends East-Side High and has great friends." Whoops! Words/characters wasted. This gives no situation or plot. Rather, say "When Tessa dropped her algebra book in a puddle, a vampire helped her pick it up."
No philosophizing. "There comes a time in a boy's life when he must pick up the arrow of manhood, aim well, and hit the target of societal acceptance." I have no idea what that even means, and once again, there's no situation. Since it's obviously a hypothetical arrow and a hypothetical target, and the sentence doesn't even make any sense, you can be sure I'll move on. Situation.
No themes. "A story about love, forgiveness, and family." This is a whole other issue, but theme should never be openly addressed by the author. Not during the first draft at all, not in the words of the story, not in the summary. Let the reader draw his own conclusions.
No mention of reading or reviews. "Please read!" "Please review!" "Critique appreciated!" Well, duh! Who doesn't want their story reviewed? Such requests waste space that you could be using to advertise to us instead of grovel at us.
Shorter is always better! Always make your summaries as short as possible - though there are limits. I never read stories that have one-word summaries.
No explanation of the rating. "Rated T because I'm paranoid," is the worst offender, although "Rated T for violence and language" is pretty bad too. Just think T = PG-13 movie, and all of a sudden, you don't have to explain yourself at all. The only exception I have to this rule is warnings of slash stories. Call me a hater, but I cannot stand a slash story, and I really appreciate it when people mention gay themes ahead of time.
I suppose these are mostly just personal preferences, but I hold that you never read, "Sorry for the poor description, but it's about a boy who wants to be considered grown up" on the front flap of a book at Barnes&Noble. Write a summary if only for your own benefit. Stop apologizing, if only for your own benefit. No writer ever became great because they were afraid to write a summary. Are you afraid?
(Author's note: too many people haven't thought about the importance of a summary, so this is my challenge to all of you. On an un-related note, my alter ego Petra Arkanian has just posted a new novel, Six Iozzas. If you're a faithful and appreciative reader of my essays, you may want to check out my writing to make sure I'm worth listening to. Thanks for dropping by! ~not Ross)