So you watched a fantastic film or read a brilliant book and you found yourself inspired. You’ve spent the past few days pouring your heart and soul into a new piece of fanfiction. You’ve worked hard on making sure the characters are realistic, in reviewing and checking your spelling/grammar and you feel reasonably confident about sharing it with the wider world. There are any number of websites which enable you to share your writing but most, if not all, will require you to produce a summary or description of your fanfic. This may seem like a trivial administrative task to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. You may tell yourself that the description is unimportant, it is the content of your fanfic which counts and all things considered you think it’s pretty darn good. Wrong, my dearest Wanderers. Oh no. Not the fanfic (although if you are looking for tips on that do check out our previous article by the lovely Roxanne Williams), I’m referring to the summary. Yes, those few lines describing your piece of fanfiction are actually kind of a big deal.
Compare it to the blurb on the back of a published book. It is both a wonderful and terrible thing that when you walk into a bookshop or a library, there are simply too many books to choose from. Whilst you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you probably will at least read the blurb to find out what the book is about and whether it has a plot that intrigues you, a character which you relate to or a style of writing that appeals. Now, apply that situation to fanfiction and the sometimes vast numbers of fanfics out there on the web. Your summary is often the first and sometimes the last opportunity you have to draw readers in.
Bearing that in mind, here are some dos and don’ts for writing a great summary:
- Don’t apologise when you can do something about it: One of the biggest turn offs repetitively cited by readers or other fanfic authors is when the author simply puts in their description: ‘sorry summary sucks!’ This is often followed up by a plea to read it anyway because actually the story is great. No, no, no wanderers. No. Never do this. There are very few readers who will take that leap of faith. The general consensus appears to be that if you can’t take the time to write a good summary then the story itself is probably not worth the effort. This may appear harsh but bear in mind if you are writing for a particularly large fandom e.g. Harry Potter or the Avengers then readers have to find some way of narrowing down their choices. Look at it this way, if you have the energy, passion and writing ability to draft 3,000 words on an AU where Hermione and Draco fall in love then you can easily spend a few extra minutes on drafting your summary.
- Do think carefully about how you want to present your fanfic: This basically involves taking a few minutes to consider the essence of your story. If your fanfic is mostly about the characters having an action-packed adventure then you are hardly going to describe it as a romance. If the focus is on one specific character or a key turning point in the television series then you may want to draw the reader’s attention to this. Perhaps you could use a quote from the content of your story in order to intrigue the reader and make them click on that all important link. In terms of summarising, a useful trick sometimes is to think about how you would describe the plot in just one line to a friend and then build around that framework.
- Do apply the usual rules of writing: Just as you would draft something and then review it later for spelling mistakes, basic grammar, sentence construction and repetition you should do this also for your summary. Again, when faced with a large number of choices, readers may use filters such as bad spelling or poor punctuation and overlook your fanfic. Don’t forget that the summary is a great opportunity for showcasing your writing abilities. It may be useful to draft a couple of different summaries and then ask a friend or beta to help you select one.
- Do observe the word/character limit: Some websites have a limit on the number of characters or words that you may use for a summary. Pay close attention to these whilst working on your drafts. You don’t want to end up in a situation where the summary is cut short or where grammar and sentence construction no longer make sense.
- Don’t forget to include warnings if they are required: As one of my lovely colleagues has already explained sometimes it is difficult to balance the demands of surprising your readers and giving appropriate warnings. The summary provides you with an opportunity, however brief, to explain that your story contains certain themes or events. Conversely, mentioning those particular warnings may also allow readers to select your fanfic as perhaps they would like to read about how a certain character would cope with mental illness or family breakdown. Even if you don’t have enough space in your summary, you should ensure that you mention any possible triggers or warnings as soon as possible – perhaps in the first chapter.
- Don’t demand, do ask nicely: OK, let’s be honest here, every author out there really wants reviews. Preferably, the ones that tell you that you are the most amazing writer to ever have picked up a pen… Well, one can dream. In all seriousness, reviews are great, they can provide constructive criticism or encouraging feedback and motivate you to keep writing. However, as much you may want them you can’t simply demand them. Remember good manners are just as important in fandom as they are in real life. It’s perfectly okay to ask potential readers to ‘please review’ not so much okay to say something like ‘REVIEW!’ or ‘I need at least three more reviews to continue’. Chances are you will put off that reader who would have quite happily offered feedback if asked nicely.
- Most of all, to all you aspiring authors out there, practice makes perfect. Keep writing, keep reviewing, keep editing, keep summarising, and keep publishing. The world really can’t have enough fanfiction.
Red Hamilton (has never and will never read a fanfic with the words ‘summary sucks’)