For our final assignment in Lon Otto’s Iowa Summer Writing Festival class, we had to summarize our books in three sentences. Okay, they could be wooly, complex sentences. But three was all we’d get.

He let us warm up on this overnight task (pretty tough to do in-class) with a summary of the book that we’d brought to Iowa to admire. A novel we liked because we’d read it and found it masterful in some aspect of the craft. Mine was Empire Falls.

Our summary had to include one sentence each: Initial Conflict, Subsequent Complications, and a Conclusion. For Empire Falls, I gave it this summary:

1. Softhearted Empire Falls Diner manager Miles Roby returns from vacation to his hometown where he’s always lived with hard questions: how will his teenaged daughter Tick handle his soon-to-divorced wife’s remarriage, and what will Miles do to buy the diner — and his independence — from the richest woman in the small, failed mill town Empire Falls?

2. While Tick befriends a mysterious new boy in art class with a troubled past and a threatening future, Miles must restart his stagnant dreams and face down his conniving father’s meddling, an unwanted crush from the rich woman’s crippled daughter, and a sinister interest from the town’s rogue policeman in Miles’ family.

3. These threats lead to murder, Miles’ new ability to embrace a risky future, and a new reliance on family to bring hope to his prospects of happiness.

Okay, easy enough. A prize-winning novel from a master craftsman ought to be simpler to sum up than a first novel from me, still learning the finer points of the craft. But here goes, for Viral Times:

1. Prize-winning journalist Dayton Winstead, first widowed, then disgraced and fired when a story gets labeled a hoax, scuffles for survival in a near-future America where the terror of a viral pandemic has made intimate touch more deadly than AIDS.

2. When a frightened, frustrated populace retreats into sexual contact by embracing new full-body, simulated-sex suits linked via networks to make love — or just lust — fundamentalist scientist Jennifer Nation develops a death threat to end the rampant promiscuity.

3. She creates a fatal virus to enter and attack the sim-suits on a network of millions of users — a threat Dayton must track down, while he risks restarting his faith in love and health with naturopath Angie Consoli, before Nation’s seven-day deadline runs out to release the virus.

This is an exercise a novel writer, or anybody crafting a story, should perform once a month. (It’s hard enough that this can be motivation to finish the book, play, or story). From month to month the synopsis will change, as the story develops.

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