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How To Write The Perfect Book Summary

Updated on December 6, 2013

The Book Is Finished and the Hard Work Is Over, Right?

Well as a matter of fact, no!

You are a fairly new novelist. You just finished your 100,000 word piece of fiction, the editors have had their go with it, and you have now reached the stage where you want to approach an agent, or publisher, or just self-publish your masterpiece.

Not so fast!

The next step in the publishing process just may be the most difficult: writing a summary of your book in 200 words or less.

That’s right, take those 100,000 words with multiple characters and settings, plots and subplots, and boil it all down into THE perfect 200 words.

Impossible you say?

And I say it is not only possible but vitally important that you do so.

Here’s why!

Writing the summary for my first novel was quite difficult but necessary
Writing the summary for my first novel was quite difficult but necessary | Source

Do I Really Have To?

Yes, so quit complaining and listen to my reasons.

If you are going to query an agent to represent your book, the summary is what interests them and makes them all googly-eyed at the prospect.

If you are going to query a publisher directly, the summary is crucial for the same reason.

And if you are going to go the self-publishing route, the summary is what sells the book directly to the reader.

Think about the process when you go to buy a book, or when you are browsing for a book at the library. Chances are excellent that you pick up the book and read the summary on the inside cover. Am I right or am I right? That’s what I thought! And when, after reading the summary, you decide to take it home with you, the summary is the reason for your new friendship. Again, am I right or am I right?

Now that we are in complete agreement, let’s take a look at how to write a dynamic summary.

Book summary from "The Notebook" by Nicholas Sparks

A man with a faded, well-worn notebook open in his lap. A woman experiencing a morning ritual she doesn't understand. Until he begins to read to her. The Notebook is an achingly tender story about the enduring power of love, a story of miracles that will stay with you forever. Set amid the austere beauty of coastal North Carolina in 1946, The Notebook begins with the story of Noah Calhoun, a rural Southerner returned home from World War II. Noah, thirty-one, is restoring a plantation home to its former glory, and he is haunted by images of the beautiful girl he met fourteen years earlier, a girl he loved like no other. Unable to find her, yet unwilling to forget the summer they spent together, Noah is content to live with only memories...until she unexpectedly returns to his town to see him once again. Allie Nelson, twenty-nine, is now engaged to another man, but realizes that the original passion she felt for Noah has not dimmed with the passage of time. Still, the obstacles that once ended their previous relationship remain, and the gulf between their worlds is too vast to ignore. With her impending marriage only weeks away, Allie is forced to confront her hopes and dreams for the future, a future that only she can shape. Like a puzzle within a puzzle, the story of Noah and Allie is just the beginning. As it unfolds, their tale miraculously becomes something different, with much higher stakes. The result is a deeply moving portrait of love itself, the tender moments and the fundamental changes that affect us all. Shining with a beauty that is rarely found in current literature, The Notebook establishes Nicholas Sparks as a classic storyteller with a unique insight into the only emotion that really matters. "I am nothing special, of this I am sure. I am a common man with common thoughts and I've led a common life. There are no monuments dedicated to me and my name will soon be forgotten, but I've loved another with all my heart and soul, and to me, this has always been enough." And so begins one of the most poignant and compelling love stories you will ever read...The Notebook

Common Features of a Great Summary

After checking several sources about this subject, I have come to realize that a great summary consists of main characters, plot, tone, genre and comparable titles.

What? That’s not possible you say? How totally idiotic you say?

Necessary I say! Let’s quickly break down each of those ingredients.

Every reader should be given at least one character that they can cheer for, a protagonist that captures the reader from early on and does not let go. I can tell you that this writer is a big mystery fan, and when I read a book summary I had better have a good feeling for the main character or I won’t bother reading the book. Period!

We also need to know where the novel is taking place. When and where is the story unfolding? There is no need to get too detailed here; just place the character in his setting, tell us what the conflict is that he/she will face, and invite us to follow along on the journey. The plot section of your summar should be graceful and flow and it should definitely not be weighed down with too many details.

It is also important to set the tone for the novel in that summary, and you can best do that by writing the summary in the same narrative voice as the book itself.

Mentioning the genre is of importance if dealing with agents and publishers. You only have about ten seconds to win that group of people over, and they all represent books in particular genres, so save them some work by telling them which genre your book best represents.

As for comparable titles, consider them a helpful way to give an agent, publisher or even the public of a frame of reference to judge by…..just make sure you choose a truly comparable work as a reference, and don’t embarrass yourself by aiming too high. In other words, don’t tell a reader that your book is comparable to “The Grapes of Wrath” ….unless, of course, it is. J

Pretty powerful summary by the author himself

The path to publication can be rocky and steep
The path to publication can be rocky and steep | Source

Tips for Writing the Perfect Summary

Normally I work out a general summary of what I mean to do, then start writing, and the details can be different from my anticipation. So there is considerable flow, but always within channels.

Piers Anthony

Okay, let’s say I finally sold you on this idea. Well, it’s about time, but I’m glad you are finally onboard. I won’t leave you floundering in high seas. No, I’m going to give you a few tips that just might help you craft perfection. Please, don’t try to thank me.

BORROW FROM THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE YOU

Well shoot, that means you can borrow from several million writers, so no problem! Well, in truth, you still have a problem. I don’t want you copying someone else’s summary for God’s sake, but I do want you to go to the library and see how some experienced and successful authors wrote their summaries. Ask yourself why those summaries are successful. What have they done that passes the test and makes their books interesting? Then go home and be like them.

FIND OUT WHAT WORKED BEFORE IN A SIMILAR GENRE

Chances are you can think of a book, already written, that is similar to yours. If so, go read the summary of that book, or several books that are like yours…..then use their summary as a guide for yours. No, I don’t want you paying a fine for plagiarism, but I also see no reason to re-invent the wheel.

SHRINK TO LESS THAN A MINUTE

Can you summarize your book in less than a minute using all the ingredients earlier listed? If not then you have your work cut out for you. Get rid of the fluff. Get rid of the sprinkles and get down to the basic frosting. Keep revising and shortening until you can hit the one minute mark, and then shoot for thirty seconds.

ASK FOR HELP

Read your summary to friends. Read your summary to strangers. Read your summary to family and book club members and the family priest. Ask them if your summary confuses them, or if they completely understand what your book is about. Ask them if your summary reminds them of another book. Ask them if they like your main characters based solely on your summary. Then use their answers to guide you in revision.

GO FOR CATCHY

You are your own marketer and the sooner you understand that the better. Write some catch-phrases about your book and use those catch phrases in your summary. What’s a catch-phrase? Well, if you are Nike then think “Just Do It.” If you are Motel 6 then think “We’ll leave the light on for you.” Now do that for your book so that agents, publishers and readers have something to associate with your book.

I just enjoyed this video summary

This is where it all begins
This is where it all begins | Source

And That’s All There Is to It

He said facetiously!

This is not easy but it is crucial. I cannot emphasize that too much. Whether you are thinking of publishing the traditional way or you are planning on self-publishing, the summary is your sales pitch. It would be a shame if you wrote 100,000 words of sheer brilliance only to have nobody read it. It would be like throwing a party and nobody showing up. How incredibly sad would that be?

2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”

And that, my friends, is a catch-phrase worth remembering.

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    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Glimmer, I am with you on the hubs...that short summary is baffling to me at times....trying to do one on a 100,000 word novel is beyond baffling. :)

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 3 years ago

      Even writing the summary for a hub drives me crazy. It's so hard to keep it concise. And you are right, when looking at books, if the summary on the inside cover doesn't grab me, back on the shelf it goes. This is a really useful hub Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Deb, I suspect life will just keep on going after I am gone, but it's nice to know I'll be missed by a few. Thank you!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      As always, Billy, you are right on top of everything. What would we do without you?

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      drbj, great points and there is a difference when writing non-fiction. I think all authors feel that every word is important. LOL Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and I hope you are enjoying your Tuesday.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 4 years ago from south Florida

      You did make the important point, Bill, that often writing that perfect summary can be as difficult as deciding which words go first when you are writing the book.

      It took me some time to decide which important points I wanted to summarize because in non-fiction, authors generally believe every single point is IMPORTANT!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Liz, a great description about that movie. Thanks for that; that is exactly what it is like for most writers.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      This is the part I often find the most difficult. I can write the book, but summarizing it takes a little extra. If you've ever seen the movie, Sideways, I love the way Miles tries to describe his book to Miya. That's kind of how I feel when I try to describe my books! Great post!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      You are very welcome, vkwok; thank you!

    • vkwok profile image

      Victor W. Kwok 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Thanks for this important lesson, Bill!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Shahkar-khan, if you love writing as much as I do then you will be. Trust me on that. Blessings to you and yours, and thank you for the following.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Maria...what a doll you are. I hope you know how much I appreciate you as a peer and as a human being.

      love,

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Flourish, you are very welcome. Thank you for your loyalty and friendship.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      Will share this as many authors are working on this now!!

    • shahkar-khan profile image

      shahkar-khan 4 years ago

      perfectly useful hub sir. hopefully at your age i will be writing as effectively as you. hopefully.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 4 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      Packed with valuable guidelines. I love The Notebook and Sparks' summary serves as a masterful example.

      Have a peaceful evening, dear Bill. Love, Maria

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      Great advice here from someone who has treaded these waters before. Thanks for the information, Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Jo, the weekend has just begun and it is a cold one. Brrrr! Stay warm and enjoy yours as well my friend. Thank you.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DDE, your approach is pretty common for most people. If this helped you then I am happy. Thank you!

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you again Dianna! I am always grateful when you take the time to visit. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Hi Faith! I find the summary to be harder to write than the book. That's saying quite a bit.

      Blessings to you my friend and thanks always.

      bill

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Bill, one more for my Billybuc folder...great information as always.

      Hope you're having a wonderful weekend.

      Have fun!!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I am not good at writing summaries and this hub says it all I feel I tend to be impatient and write whatever comes to mind I now know what to do and how to start off writing a summary. Thanks for a helpful, and an informative hub for all writers.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      Another important element to writing a book. As I always say, your information is valuable and much appreciated.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      That is a daunting task, the writing of the book summary! Yes, I can see why it is so vital, especially after all of your hard work. Great hub of very important tips dear Bill!

      Have a wonderful weekend.

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      My pleasure, Ruby, and thank you for taking the time to read an article that really doesn't apply to you. I appreciate it. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 4 years ago from Southern Illinois

      I am not writing a book but writing a summary for a story on hubpages is difficult for me. Thank's for the info...

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Pearl, you always say the nicest things. Thank you so much. When you are ready to write that book I have no doubt it will be a good one. Have a great weekend, Connie!

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Crystal, coming from a pro like you, I gladly accept your compliment. Thank you my friend and have a wonderful weekend.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Billy, I'm not ready to write a book, but when I am I certainly know where to find the best information! This is another great article to add to the bookmark that bears your name. Thanks for sharing my friend ;) Pearl

    • Crystal Tatum profile image

      Crystal Tatum 4 years ago from Georgia

      I agree the summary is extremely important. After the title, it's the first thing most folks read, and it may be the last if not well done. Excellent advice from you as always, our HubPages guru!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      LOL...it's alright, Dora. I often wonder how many times I do the same thing. I know I did it last week with someone and I was shaking my head for hours afterwards. :)

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Bill, please forgive me. You could never be an Eric; I guess I wrote a comment to him just before I wrote yours. A great weekend to you, too.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Dora, you are very welcome, even though I'm not Eric. LOL Have a great weekend my friend.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sheila, I agree with you totally. Summarizing an entire book in 200 words is like Mission Impossible, but it has to be done. I guess that's the true test of a writer. :) Thank you and have a wonderful weekend.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you, Eric. Between you and me, I'm working toward a completion date I have already set as my goal, and I'm following your guidelines step by step.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thanks Joelle! I almost forgot to add that summary by Sparks. Glad you noticed it and enjoyed it.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Ann, it's always a pleasure having you stop by. You are always so positive and encouraging. Thank you! I'm glad you found this helpful, and I'm very happy you are feeling better. Have a wonderful weekend my friend.

      bill

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      DJ, who was it, the Stones, who said "time is on my side?" Look at it that way; you have all the time in the world to hit that 100,000 mark. Or so we would like to believe. :) Enjoy your weekend my friend and keep on writing.

    • profile image

      sheilamyers 4 years ago

      In my opinion, writing the summary is the hardest part of writing a book. I have no problem getting 60000-80000 words down on paper, but when it comes to boiling it all down to 200-300, I go a bit crazy trying to figure out what to say. Anyone who self-publishes and uses the templates for covers as I do also discovers the synopsis must be shorter because they limit the space. Whatever I submit for the cover gets displayed at the Amazon listing. That said, we don't have to be stuck with the short version for the product description page. We can go to our author accounts and add more of a description. Thanks for the information about creating good summaries.

    • kidscrafts profile image

      kidscrafts 4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      The summary is indeed important because it's a window inside the book; it's supposed to entice us to continue that book! Your example of summary for "The Notebook" by Nicholas Sparks is excellent and it makes you want read that book!

      Enjoy your weekend!

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 4 years ago from SW England

      This is my stumbling block. Writing a good summary is a scary prospect because, as you say, you have to get it right or you're lost! I can do it but I find it difficult and have to re-write again and again.

      Therefore I find this not only useful but encouraging; there are tips here that I would never have thought of, such as using someone else's in a similar genre.

      Thanks, bill. I've learnt a lot here. Cold nearly gone - at least it doesn't stop me writing! Ann

    • profile image

      DJ Anderson 4 years ago

      I'm still working on the "100,000 words of sheer brilliance".

      It may be awhile............

      Have a great weekend, my friend.

      DJ.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Kim, writing a book was a fantasy to me until I actually did it. I don't know where it came from or how I managed, but it happened. I hope it does for you as well.

      Thank you my friend and have a great weekend.

    • profile image

      ocfireflies 4 years ago

      As usual,

      Bill you rock!

      Great advice: Summaries = main characters, plot, tone, genre and comparable titles and RESEARCH and PATIENCE! I can't imagine ever making it to the novel stage of writing, but if I do, I have been bookmarking all of thes great hubs that help one in the process.

      Blessings,

      Kim

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      All things in time, Mary! When you are ready to write that book it will happen. Thank you for your loyalty and have a wonderful weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      you are welcome, Sha...I hope your weekend is great too.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      Now I have a real dilemma, do I write the novel or the summary first ;) Seriously, as always Bill great ideas for us to use.

      The Notebook quote was the piece de resistance for sure! You're always on target and the importance of that summary is certainly something to keep in mind...I was going to say aim for but right now that seems like a star in another solar system.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and pinned.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      Cool. Thanx, Bill. Have a great weekend!

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good morning Carol and thank you for visiting this Friday morning. I trust things are going well for you on Bubblews, and hopefully your tote bags are selling. Ten seconds....not much time....better make it count, eh?

      Have a great weekend.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Sha, a summary, or synopsis, is written for the publisher/editor for submission....that is different from a summary on the book cover when the book is printed. Good question and yes, there is a distinction.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 4 years ago from Central Florida

      I haven't read The Notebook, but I've seen the movie several times. Awesome, awesome love story!

      Bill, are two summaries to be written? One for the publisher and one for the book? I'm a little confused about listing the genre and similar titles on a book summary. I don't recall seeing that in the books I read. Well, actually, Stephen King does it in his short story collections (not listing the genre, of course) but he'll often refer to previous titles of his own.

      Can you straighten me out on this? :-)

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      Makes your heart pound...And I know what you mean about catching readers...It is like perusing a book..you have about 10 seconds to catch a reader looking through the book. Well done as always Bill.

    • billybuc profile image
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      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Eric, I believe that as well having been in marketing. Good luck with those projects, thanks for stopping by and have a fantastic Friday.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      That was helpful. I have to sum up two big projects today for the money men. This will guide me. If done well marketing is just fancy educating.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Thank you Janine. I darn near forgot to add it; at the last second I figured it would be helpful to see an actual summary. LOL Glad I did. Have a great Friday as I know you will.

    • billybuc profile image
      Author

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Good morning Jackie! You are here early and it's nice of you to join me for tea. That summary does look interesting, doesn't it? :) Thank you and have a fabulous weekend.

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 4 years ago from New York, New York

      I love that you shared Nicholas Spark's summary of The Notebook. Truly put it ll in perspective with all your tips to see it in practice by such a well known author and beloved novel, too. Thanks Bill and wishing you a great weekend now as always!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I know one thing, I am going to find that Nicholas Spark's book! Summaries are very important! Great write to teach us even more! Good morning and a great weekend!