Friday, March 4, 2011

Ever Grittier

What I dread more than any other act of writing, more than growing bored with characters or losing the words to describe a scene or coming to the end of a project and looking back to find it unworkable, is writing a plot summary for a query letter. It is fortunate that plot summaries for short fiction are not only unexpected, but discouraged, because if I had to summarize short pieces I would probably never send them out. "This story features a person who accidentally clones himself, then decides to farm and eat the clones," I would write. "After his hippie girlfriend leaves him, X makes homemade soap and hopes the scent will attract her back; the soap is so powerful that it cleans through his hands and through the floor and into the apartment below." "A grown man remembers waking in the night as a child to find a man tugging on his foot in an attempt to stretch one leg."

So, okay, I guess those are okay. But I have a terrible time summing up longer things (as I'm sure many people do) in ways that capture their scope without running to four or twelve paragraphs. It's all a problem of choice, of knowing what people to include, and how to describe them, and how to describe how they connect, and what interactions to put in, and what conflicts, and how to set up payoffs that otherwise will not seem like payoffs. And of course the summary is the introduction to the project, going before, bravely, trying to throw down a good impression, smile just the right width, reveal just the right buzz of creep behind the teeth. I used to write very watery summaries; now last night an agent wrote a generous rejection for a query for my last novel, explaining that it sounded too gritty for her, and I feel somewhat okay with that. Bring on the grit. Better than the boredom, I should hope.

That rejection was the impetus for this post, but another influence was a description for James Hynes's Next. Of the five books on the Believer Book Award shortlist, Next gets the best line:

The book's final section is one of the most daring and hyper-realistic endings in recent contemporary fiction.

Man, sounds pretty good, right? And pretty . . . potentially overblown. What can it possibly mean to have one of the most daring and hyper-realistic endings in fiction? Is there a lot of gore? Or does the action wind down as the characters look at each other, grow old, face small diseases, make bad investments, suffer layoffs, eat too much, get drunk and rearrange their homes, burn themselves cooking, buy each other drinks after sex, learn new ways to fix bicycle tires? Well, whatever it means, it was a sufficient summary description to send me to Amazon to read that Hynes

. . . pushes the plot into uncharged territory. The final 50 pages are unlike anything in the recent literature of our response to terrorism--a tour de force of people ennobled in the face of random horror.

Which is more descriptive but less intriguing. Now I care less about the end of the book. Is it bad in a summary, then, to include actual details? Probably not; I agree with everything Mike wrote about expressing aboutness in contemporary literature, that a writer who can tell a reader what a set of words is about has a better and more earned chance of snagging that reader's attention. I just wish I could figure out the right way to do it.

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