Crying Only

Plot is a funny thing.  Literally, it can be defined as: What happens next.

But in an 85,000-word book such as mine (coincidentally named What Happens to Us,, tens of thousands of things happen.  So how do you choose exactly what events you include in a summary of a plot?

The plot of Catcher in the Rye is traditionally defined as: Holden is expelled from school.  Holden wanders around New York City despondently.  Holden gets drunk.  Holden visits his sister, then his English teacher.  Holden is committed to mental institution, then released, and perhaps cured.  (Sorry for the spoiler, illiterati.)

But if you simply choose different plot points, the summary could plausibly be rewritten as: Holden has a fight with a boy who always snaps people in the ass with a wet towel in the shower.  Holden annoys a prostitute.  Holden is filled with happiness watching the carousel in Central Park.

Who’s to say that those facts are less important than the traditionally chosen ones?  In a way, they’re more essential and emotional than a dry recitation.

Publishing companies often change the summary of a plot (the blurb) to sell more books.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for example, summarized the plot of The Magician’s Assistant as: Sabine’s late husband’s family members “enter Sabine’s life and set her on an adventure of unraveling his secrets, from sunny Los Angeles to the windswept plains of Nebraska, that will work its own sort of magic on her.”

Huh.  That’s interesting.  In fact, it should be summarized as: Nothing happens.  You won’t care about the characters.  You’ll throw the book away before you get past the middle.

My friend Linda likes literary books and dislikes too much exterior action.  She loved The Hours and dislikes thrillers (even though she liked mine, although I do refer to it as “a thriller with literary aspirations”).  I think she might like Ann Patchett’s Magician’s Assistant, come to think of it.  Linda, when we visit you in August, I’ll bring you my copy.  You can have it.  She likes books that are about the soul.  She roots for the underdog.  She dislikes commerciality.  She skipped two grades in school.  She’s brilliant and she’s blonde.

Let’s think imaginatively about plots.  Really imaginatively.

My novel, What Happens to Us,, could be seen through the prism of crying.  In that version, the plot begins on page 22, when Cat is wandering around in a grocery store and, looking at the vegetables, starts to cry.  It’s her first watery expression, in part because she’s been doing so much running up to that point that she hasn’t had time to cry.  A fellow shopper comes to her aid.


By page 35, Cat makes a pact with herself to stop crying.  No more crying.  It’s going to get you killed.  You need to be strong.  On page 55, she tells herself that fleeing on the spur of the moment, even if she’s left something valuable at somebody’s house, is what she does now instead of crying.  On page 55, what she does instead of crying is bang her fist on the car dashboard.

Through the whole middle of the book, there are many things that could make her cry.  Her love interest starts dating somebody else and leaves her high and dry.  She must leave town and go off the grid.  Her best friend betrays her big-time.  But it isn’t until fully two-thirds of the way through the book that Cat breaks her promise not to cry.

In the last third of the book, the water works get turned on full blast.  In the climactic scene, Cat is sobbing so violently that snot is coming out her nose and her spirit is leaving her body.  She’s full of Jack Daniels and speed.  She’s a mess.

So that’s the plot to my book, at least as seen through saltwater.  But if you really want to stuff it into a blurb, here’s another version of it:

Girl is chased by stranger.  Turns out he works for the NSA in surveillance.  Girl goes off the grid.  Girl meets boy who is missing three fingers on one hand, and they flee together.  Girl wants her life back.  Girl returns and confronts stranger with a gun.  Girl cries until snot comes out her nose.

Does that make you want to buy it?  It’s only $3.99….


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