The Dreaded Synopsis

First, let’s address the obvious question AKA the one I hear often at agent panels, see in #askanagent , and comes up a lot when people talk to me about looking at their query package – how important is the synopsis?

Short answer – it’s not that important. If an agent likes your sample writing enough, it isn’t a deal breaker.

Long answer – a synopsis, for an agent reading your submission, isn’t really about your writing. You include some of your book to demonstrate your kick ass writer skills. Your synopsis is there to demonstrate your ability to plot; to carry a story from beginning to likely sagging middle to hopefully satisfying ending. So in that sense, it is actually fairly important. That said, plots are far more “easily”, read as less-time-intensive to manage, than really crap writing. A good agent and editor can sit down with you over a cuppa tea and sort out your plot in a half hour, assuming you’re willing to collaborate (and here let me note writers unwilling to collaborate rarely have a career in this business)

Top Synopsis Tips:

  • it won’t be beautifully written, it can’t be, it shouldn’t be – aim for succinct.
  • you must reveal all the important plot points; yes even the ending.
  • try making a list of the all the key events, then string them together into paragraphs
  • write a really lean and punchy 250-300 word synopsis, then lengthen it if an agent calls for a full page, as it’s easier to expand than contract.

A few links I’ve found helpful:

How to write a 1-Page Synopsis from Susan Dennard on pubcrawl is top rec to every one. It has a nifty example using Star Wars that helps you visualize the things you need to cover.

A longer guide from the Literary Consultancy with good tips. They recommend a blurb type intro to your synopsis, which I would include only if you haven’t put it in your cover letter.

I like this one from The Writers’ Workshop as it has do’s and don’t’s as well as an example.

Scroll down past the page of banter (and here appreciate that in my post, I got straight to doling out the info!) this guy has for a basic description of creating The Synopsis of Power if you’re struggling to even get started. There are links to examples as well.

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Drafts and other piles of poop

I’ve just finish the fastest first draft I’ve ever completed. A little less than four months from putting my nose to the grindstone, then taking it off, then putting it on again, and – well you get the drift. Unlike some first drafts, I was not actually ready for this one to end. I had to stop because I was nearing the word limit for my genre and also because I knew, given no real deadline, I could just carry on with these characters. That’s both a joy and a curse because unless you’re GRRM, that ain’t allowed. How did I do it so quickly (for me)? Motivation, baby!! Not like #motivationmonday or the very real incentive of a story I think needs telling; an agent wants to read it when it’s done so I had to do it before she forgets I exist and my face, my story bleed together with the million others she’ll be looking over.

Some people think that because I’ve said I’m done with this first draft that they can ask to read it. Um, no. Not unless you’re in my inner circle AKA people who’ve seen me in my pajamas and lived OR in my writing group. There are writers out there who never share early drafts, not even with their agents. Why? Well, because all first drafts are kind of shit. The first time I heard this I felt very defensive. My first drafts aren’t crap! Now that I’ve written three books, dozens of short stories, edited a few more books and stories, and heard various numbers of drafts from other writers – I get it. True fact = the shitty first draft.

What I want you to know though is that I don’t mean that the first version of any work-in-progress is only a pile of poop. They are not. They are piles of poop with jewels and gems and gold pieces plus a few red herrings jutting out at odd angles from the stinking mound. If I’ve lost you with my vulgarity, think of it more how Stephen King puts it (though he’s not the only one and by the way he thinks first drafts should take no more than three months, but I think that’s for pros who live in Maine) in his book On Writing:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

So, the first draft is a pile of dirt and you have to excavate. Does that sound nicer? Forgive my 13-yea-old’s sense of humor, it’s why I made a good middle school teacher and what makes me a fun parent of two boys.

I am now the proud owner of a 52 thousand word pile of dirt that I am currently trying to avoid. It’s sitting in the middle of my head and I have to walk around it a lot but I also have to not touch it. Right now, it needs time to rest. The good stuff needs to ripen and the bad stuff, like repetition and missing links, need time to come into the light so I can see them. Right now, looking at my pile, it’s just one big mass. With time, I’ll be able to judge more dispassionately what’s good, what sings, and what needs to be axed or at the very least given a stylish make-over. It also needs to dry out get less stinky 😉 What I always find amazing about the breaks I take from a WIP is that secret brain cells keep working on it and when I sit down in a few weeks to look at it afresh, they’ll leap out of the shadows and yell “Surprise! We figured all this out while you were asleep!” Unless they don’t. Then I’ll have to get out the big chisel.

For now though. I have to check the bottoms of my shoes and leave the pile of poop behind. Get it. Behind? Ahahaha. (see also that writing intensively for months on end makes you loopy)

You Will Never Finish

You will never finish your manuscript. Unless you finish.

That probably sounds like a fortune cookie approach to writing advice, but the point is that there will always be more to do. More details, more editing, more tweaks, more dialogue or description that you could add or take away (I recommend taking away most frequently), and other endless changes. Here’s the thing to remember though if your aim is publication. You agent will have feedback. Your publisher will have feedback. The editor(s) will have feedback. And you’ll likely make changes based on all of it.

I don’t mean to say don’t polish your book. Definitely do that. Before you submit to an agent, you should do at least two editorial passes yourself. If you want to employ an editor before submission, the same applies unless you’re sharing your work elsewhere, like a writing group or with beta readers (not fam and friends), because self-editing misses a lot.

Finishing a first draft is something a lot of people never do. I know agents who’ve had people submit unfinished works and ask for the agent’s input or suggest someone else (a publisher even!) decide an ending. That will seriously never work! You have to finish your novel and then finish it again and again.

One reason people struggle to end their books is that they don’t have a plan. These folks are known as ‘pantsers’ as opposed to planners. They let the characters guide them. This approach can be pretty amazing when it works. If it works. But more often than not, these improvisational warriors create lovely characters with nothing to do. Pantsers I know have been able to save their work though by winging it for twenty or thirty thousand words and then sitting down to plan what will happen, sometimes quite generally, so that an actual plot arc occurs. I’ve read some really great, vivid books that took that approach.

Eventually, you have to buckle down and end your book. So that you can put it away for awhile (I recommend at least two weeks, preferably a month) and come back to it for that first edit. When you come back to it after being away, you’ll notice a lot more mistakes and you’ll appreciate a lot more of your triumphs. None of that can happen though if you don’t finish; if you go back to the beginning or the middle to ‘fix things’ before you just poop out an ending. Yep. I said ‘poop’ because it might be crappy. And you may well change it, perhaps dramatically in future edits. Please, please, please though – finish it. Someone out there is waiting for your story.

Find a Way to Share

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – a good writing group is the key to continued success and inspiration!

That’s quite easy for me to say. I’m in a great writing group. One with people who treat writing as a profession and a craft. I won’t say they are the most bare knuckles critiquers, but that’s ok. They’re strong enough and hard enough for my needs. Even when I don’t read my own work, I get a lot out of listening to theirs and moving my brain into that gear of writerly thought as opposed to “my story” thinking.

What do I mean by that? One can become blind to writing as craft and become caught up in emotional ties to your work. Those are vital, those heart strings tethering you to a tale that is bursting from your soul. But if you’d like someone else to see those words and understand that story, you need outside eyes. Whether it’s the basic error of seeing a scene clearly in your mind but not actually getting it all as crisply onto the page or the larger pitfall of becoming so certain of a thing in your adventure that you can’t see the forest for the trees or the larger plot for that subplot you just really love. A writing group can help with all of the above.

There are groups that meet in person as well as online groups. There are ways to seek out a critique partner rather than have the opinions of several people muddy your resolve or your plot map. Most of them are free or cost a only small amount, like a donation to a library group or a membership fee. And despite the fact I seek freelance editing from some consultancies, I’d recommend trying a group or partner before dishing out the dosh for an expensive feedback package as I think these are the most worthwhile once you’ve polished things a little and completed at least one or two manuscripts.

I know there are people out there who don’t like to share their works-in-progress and there are reasons for it that are completely sound. But if you’ve never shared your work with anyone save the agents you are querying and that isn’t going well, I strongly suggest sharing your work with someone who doesn’t know you but has experience reading or hearing drafts. That’s not a song and dance sell for my own services! Try someone else first, please. Because an editor who is busy isn’t going to take on your rough draft and if they do, they’re sadly most likely to be far more interested in your purse string than your hearts strings.

All Joanne Harris #TenTweetsAboutScent

I had a rare spare minute on a relatively sunny English day when I decided to glance at Twitter. Often this is the kiss of death to a moment’s peace, but on this occasion it was destiny. Ok, fine, it’s was a coincidence that was very pleasant. I was in a coffee shop reading Joanne Harris’ latest “ten tweets” (yes, they feature here regularly, she’s cool with it and I want to document them as they’re inspiring) on scent. I closed my eyes and breathed in bitter acid, hints of cinnamon and pepper as well as a lingering of burnt cheese toastie. Then I overheard a woman I know to be a doctor saying, “Your sense of smell is the only one of your sense that doesn’t lie.” Naturally, I immediately tweeted this to JH because one, how funny to hear that at that moment, and two, it’s nonsense. Later, I realized the doctor was talking about food and survival mechanism in the body – a tad less romantic. Ah well.

Here are the Ten Tweets with some annotation by me

1. Scent, and its close cousin, taste, are arguably the most evocative of our senses, and the hardest to describe.

2. In both cases, it’s almost impossible to describe them accurately, except in terms of other scents and tastes.

3. But because scent is closely linked with memory and the emotions, it lends itself well to figurative description.

In a convo with someone else she gives a great example of talking about a food that would evoke a smell memory for some people but instead of describing the smell itself, which can be elusive and end blandly, she evokes the feeling: Sunday mornings in summer, in France, buying bread while everyone else was going to church. This feeling illicit, of skiving off, or perhaps even a dedication to the religion of food. There’s also warmth, in the bread and the summer, that already have me wishing I knew how to make a baguette in under five hours.

4. You can use it when you’re working, too. Rosemary oil aids memory. Lavender helps you relax.

5. Many actors use scent to help them get into character. Writers can do the same thing.

In my current WIP I have tried this with some success. A character has memory association with a smell that brings her sadness in the beginning. Over the story, I try to move the scent back to a place of enjoyment – wherein she can remember and revere rather than feel instantly depressed. I have the smell with me when I’m writing key scenes if I can.

6. Scent works by association. Get used to a certain scent when you’re working, and you can work anywhere.

Say it with me fellow freelancers and/or working parents- coffee, strong coffee

7. Because most writers concentrate on depictions of sight & sound, scent references in fiction can be very powerful.

I’m reading a book that takes place in America and a scene describing entering a BBQ joint, just little bits of the sights, sounds, and smells, made me so homesick. Evocative for me because it’s my homeland but for an outside reader it brings you into that place even if you’ve never been there in real life. 

8. Nor do they always have to be pleasant. Using the sense of smell in a violent scene can really make it zing.

9. But if you’re using tastes and smells, you need to make an effort to notice them, and make them unique to you.

10. Over-used descriptions like “salt like tears” or “the coppery taste of blood” won’t make the reader feel anything.

More from me: 

I’ve been cautioned by a crime writer to never repeat the word blood more than once in a paragraph, certainly not in the same sentence. But as with all the “rules” you can break them if you do it well – exceedingly well. I’ll caution my readers to be aware that in your first draft (or two) the odds that you’ve been able to pull off using a cliché are very small.

Personally, I find music to be very helpful in setting a working mood for writing. It’s difficult to use music in your writing, specific tunes anyway, for various reasons, not the least of which is copyright; it is difficult to get permission to use artist names and songs in a book. But having a playlist for a character or for getting in the mood to write that fight scene or love scene can be a highly effective tool.

Twit Pitching

One hundred and twenty-ish characters (after you minus the tags) is not conducive to properly “pitching” most books.

To which many might say, “duh!” But the pressure of a pitch event – it’s real. Agents tweet they’re going to look! People post about former success stories! How can one miss such a chance!? Well, if your story is not best represented this way then even a ‘like’ doesn’t mean much. You’re free to submit to an agent who might then look at your sub perhaps a few days before they otherwise would have anyway. I posit that getting a request via a pitch that doesn’t represent your book properly could be detrimental. If your pitch has one tone and your book another, the agent may think, “this isn’t what I thought,” then dismiss it.

So should we quit this game, y’all? Not exactly. But a bit. 

PeerPitch run by the Scribblers blog allows 35 words in their competition. And the difference in my interest and understanding of those pitches earlier in the week versus scrolling PitMad yesterday was huge. I saw PeerPitch tweets reduced to the PitMad length and saw the light. Then super agent Jennifer Laughran tweeted this:

Hi writers. Can I be real with you for a sec? Come closer. Look: These twitter pitching contests… they don’t show your work at its best.

This is not just because it’s hard to distill a plot and create an effective pitch – we all already know that’s challenging. Honestly, it’s the character limit! Look at this. Here’s Harry Potter as a tweet and as a 34 word pitch (yes, I know both of these are actually quite compelling if rough but the example still holds).

orphan boy discovers he’s destined for a school of magic must then vanquish resurrected evil wizard #pitmad #mg #fan

12yr-old boy rescued from vile adoptive family by invitation to wizarding school, learns his dead parent’s painful legacy, must then fight for his life and to destroy the most evil villain in the magical world.

I mean WOW, the difference in not only information and context but in how much you’re drawn in. The second example is also almost exactly what you’d want to put in a query letter while the first is NOT.

So what’s the point of a pitching on twitter then? Because, I don’t know if you look, but I do and when I scroll through and see who has liked what (i’ve done this a lot), it’s rarely an agent and almost never an agent from a well known agency. I have gotten likes from smaller agencies in America and been rejected after submission; I believe that’s because this particular novel isn’t best served by the twitter format. I have another WIP that when’s it’s done has a hook that’s easy to distill and would be pretty easy to tweet. But you know what? I already have a request for a full MS from a great agent. Therefore, if you’re book has a giant, shining, drool worthy hook – pitch contest away as it’s a decent short-cut to agent research. Guess what though? You’ll still have to do agent research when you get a like to be sure the agency and agent might be a good fit.

Could you better spend your time polishing your query and researching agents?  I think probably! I have very limited time to work on querying and writing because of other work and family life. While thinking about how to make my pitch snappier and concise is worthwhile, I’m really starting to doubt the value of about ninety percent of the seemingly gazillion pitch parties.

Choose wisely. Try not to get caught up in the hype. There really is no fast-track to publication and/or writerly success.

No Such thing as Writer’s Block

That’s right, I said it. There is no such thing as writer’s block. I’m not alone in this thought, I know, but I find that saying it aloud can bring a group of writers into a momentary silence. That’s because even if you don’t believe in it, you can still fear it – like the boogeyman, damnation, or Brexit. But I’m here to tell you that this thing, this phantom, cannot haunt you unless you let it.

Mostly, when writer’s talk about a block, what they really mean is an obstacle to them continuing or completing a story. They don’t mean they really can’t write anything at all. There are three main “blocks” I’m going to say bollocks to: research, straying from the point, and no idea what else to say.

To the demon research I say – just keep going and worry about the kind of metal that door handle should be made of later. Unless it is a truly integral part of your tale, move on and get back to it later. Trust me, those details aren’t going anywhere, nor is the information available to find them. Finish. The. Story.

“I’ve completely lost the plot!” is one I’ve heard more than once. Maybe. Maybe you didn’t actually know what the plot really was to begin with and now it’s become clear. Two things I think you can do. Spend fifteen minutes outlining your plot as you see it, then spend a half an hour going through what you’ve written and seeing what plot has emerged. Odds are high there will be some overlap but it won’t all line up. This isn’t a block. This is a choice. Choose which plot you are most interested in and go with it. I really recommend doing plot points. Not a full synopsis first or a giant plot map (unless that works for you), just sketch it out. I have a friend who does this visually and it was such a revelation for me as I’m also very visual. He storyboards the key moments: inciting incident, goal, obstacle, turning point, dark night of the soul, solution and resolution (give or take some key points or images he wants to convey). Do what works for you but get on with it.

The closest thing to what I might call a real ‘block’ to writing is if the mojo seems to have run out. This is your sagging middle moment, the 30k word mark, the blah, blah, blah.I’ve heard people swear it comes at the same place every time. Maybe you’re tired of your story. That’s not a block, that’s sanity. Take a break and come back. Maybe you can’t decide what comes next – see the previous paragraph and plot a little sweet heart. Maybe you can’t hear the words anymore. This one is a blessing in disguise! Choose a supporting character and write the last scene you wrote from either their perspective or their observation because what I see happen a lot in stories is when the writer hasn’t explored or doesn’t full know the supporting roles. If you don’t know why Jane’s father is such a dick head, you won’t be able to write their big fight. If you’re unclear what the unachievable love interest is attracted to, then you can’t write the moment they realise your MC is really pretty great. You have to know your world to bring me there. It’s ok not to know what color the carpet is or exactly how old dad is – but it’s not ok to have no idea whether they’re fighting about love or money in the laundry room if dad’s claustrophobic or on a roof top if Jane is afraid of heights.

There are no blocks. Only opportunities to know your story better. Somebody put that on a motivational poster with a mouse in a maze or something.

 

 

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