Mary Rosenblum, your web editor, has published three SF novels, four mysteries as Mary Freeman, and more than 50 short stories in multiple genres, as well as nonfiction! She also teaches writing, and has for many years, and is a Long Ridge instructor. Her next SF short story, Songs the Sirens Sing will appear in the January issue of ‘Asimov’s Magazine’, and Mystery short Find Itwill be out in ‘Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine’.
Avoiding the First Draft: The Chapter Summary
by Mary Freeman Rosenblum
It’s easy to write a story. Start on page one, follow your main character through his or her adventures, set backs, dangers and finally triumph or mourn at the end. Simple, huh? Well, yes and no. Often, as our characters come to life on the page, as we involve ourselves in their world, we find our nice intriguing plot morphing and changing until we are wandering down strange and new paths. Now this is fine, and fun, but often, we have to go back and revise those earlier pages drastically in order to create a continuous path between that beginning and the paths we later took!
Well, that’s no big deal with a twenty page story. But when you’re talking 375 pages of novel draft…that’s a lot of rewriting. So. How exactly can we get around those necessary revisions as our plot and characters take off on routes not of our (original) choosing?
What about an outline?
Not Your English Teacher’s Outline
An outline? One of those lists starting with capital letters, numbers, roman numerals? Yuck! Bleah! There is no way! Well, I agree with you there. Nothing is more dry and unappealing than a nice English class type outline! But that is not at all what I am suggesting!
Personally, I hate the first draft of any novel. This is the creative pick and shovel work. Where do we go next? How to I get my MC in touch with the loyal sidekick he has to acquire? How do I get my MC involved with the character who’s going to get accused of the murder? I’m busy with the logistics of getting from Page One to The End in a logical and orderly fashion with enough roller coaster peaks of drama to keep the reader interested. Description, characterization, dialogue…I’ll work on all these later, on the second draft. And for me, that’s where the fun is! But meanwhile…I have to slog through those 350 pages grading my road, so I can go back and fill in the scenery and details later.
Or do I?
Several projects ago I discovered the Chapter Summary. Hey! Instead of writing out a 23 page chapter, I can simply summarize the action in a page or less and move on! And what do you know? When, in Chapter Fifteen, I decide that my Main Character should have toured the main street of the town, why all I have to do is go back to my summary of Chapter Six and drop in a sentence: While waiting for her appointment, Carolyn tours Main Street and chats with the owner of the local café, learning about the tension in the town over the Mayor’s past. Wow! That sure beat going back and rewriting twenty three pages of Chapter Six!
Tell, Don’t Show!
We’re really resorting to a sort of short hand when we write a summary like this. Instead of showing the character in action, seeing the world through her POV, hearing, smelling, feeling the action, you simply tell yourself what you will do later. When you are happy with your summary, you come back and use that ‘told’ summary as a guideline to writing the real, ‘shown’, chapter. While waiting for her appointment, Carloyn tours Main Street… becomes Two hours to kill. Carolyn left the pickup parked on a side street and strolled up Main. Find a café and pass the time with coffee, she thought, hanging on tight to her impatience. The afternoon sun stretched her shadow along the block in front of her, reminding her with every step that the day was passing. Carolyn stared unseeing at the brick facades, not much different from Burns, La Grande, Pendleton…any of the eastern Oregon towns. Dry cleaner, pharmacy still struggling in spite of WallMart, a mom and pop grocery. Most of the windows were grimy and dark, their past revealed only by a tracery of fading letters or a sign still mounted above the doorway. Taylors Clothing Emporium. Brittany’s Tobacconist and News. Swann’s Tack and Saddlry. The WallMarts, Home Depots, and Safeways had eaten Main Street, left nothing but the scraps in the decaying heart of the town.
And this is simply the ‘shown’ beginning of that summary sentence: While waiting for her appointment, Carolyn tours Main Street and chats with the owner of the local café, learning about the tension in the town over the Mayor’s past. We haven’t discovered the Tumbleweed Café yet, or met Molly Lemieux, the owner, and great great granddaughter of a Canadian fur trapper who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, the woman who knows everything that goes on in town.
While the summary supplies the road map for ‘where do we go from here?’, it still is vague enough to allow for a rich and satisfying creative effort as we bring those dusty streets and failing businesses to life, introduce the quiet and very aware Molly Lemieux, and pull Carolyn deeper into the hidden darkness of the town and its residents and their feelings about their Mayor.
Keep Adding as You Go
As you continue to build your plot summary, picking your way through the labyrinth of plot twists, turns, and connections, keep looking back. When you realize that the new character of Andy is going to be very important at the end, go back to that early chapter, and let Andy wander into the Tumbleweed Café while Carolyn chats with Molly. Maybe they even exchange a few words, and Carolyn thinks he looks like the stereotype of the honest, hardworking, rancher. Because you haven’t written the chapter out yet, it just takes a moment to add that bit.
One, Two, Three, Color!
Once you’re happy with your summary, that it seems solid, you like the ending, you don’t think any character has been left out…then sit down, bring up a new file and type Chapter One. Now you get to expand that shorthand summary, paint the landscape in rich detail, and bring your characters to vivid and endearing life. Now it’s time to puck up the paintbrush and start coloring it in!
Do What Works For You!
If you love that first draft, if finding your way through that forest of possibilities is what excites you about writing, then by all means, sit down with that blank screen, type in that Chapter One and just…write. But if you’d rather spend your energy on revision, if finding your way is a lot of work and you hate rewriting…then try summarizing those chapters instead of writing them out. It may just work well for you!
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