03 August 2015

With a Little Help From My Friends

Mystery Author Jan Grape

When I'm writing fiction, I don't outline because I'm a seat-of-the-pants style writer. I also hate writing synopses. Recently, I had to write a synopsis for a Short Story. Now I'm having trouble writing the story. Any of y'all have a suggestion on how to unblock my muse?

I posted this statement yesterday on my author page and on my home page, tagging several published writers that I thought might have some idea for me. The responses were fantastic and I thought it would be a good idea to share.

Jan Burke: Next time use the old Nora Roberts trick--write the story, then the synopsis. (She did this book after book to make her editor happy. When the editor realized what was going on, she told Nora to stop bothering with the synopses.) For this one, tell yourself the truth--you don't have to follow the synopsis at all. It has nothing to do with you anymore. I promise you, if the story is good, no editor worth his or her salt will turn it down.

Nancy Pickard: Amen. Why did you "have" to write the synopsis, Jan? You don't have to say, I'm just nosy.

Alafair Burke: ^^^^Jan Burke is smart.

Billie Sue Mosiman: Jan Burke has the best advice possible.

Will Thornton: Always do it your way, Jan Grape. We don't do this for our sole income and living. It's therapy and very personal.

Ron Tatar: Sometimes I just let it sit, and when I come back to it I see things I missed. Once I looked at a scene I had written on a script, and realized that in ONE line of dialogue I had three key characters that hadn't been key before. Two got into the main character's goal and the other one the reason he was doing what he was doing. I was thrilled that what I missed was already there and I just had to find it.

Paul D. Marks: I agree with Jan (Burke), write the story first. I hate doing synopses or treatments. I have a lot of little tricks I do, take drives, listen to music, walk. Once when I was having trouble with something, I went down to Palm Desert and hung by the pool all day, wrote all night. But the real key for me anyway, is to just sit at the keyboard and write. Just let your characters talk and walk and it doesn't matter if you end up using any or all or none of it. You're getting to know them and see them in action. Eventually you'll break through--(I just happened to do a blog post for the Criminal Minds a few weeks ago if you want to check it out.)

Brendan DuBois: It seems like the act of writing the synopsis tossed you off--so I'd put the synopsis in the shredder, start fresh and just do it.

Robert Lopresti: I was going to say what Brendan said, but I also point out the piece Brendan wrote in the latest issue of The Third Degree, if you receive that. Some helpful hints there.

Les Roberts: Jan Grape and Jan Burke - as you both know, I've been good friends with Robert Crais for twenty-five years. One night, back in the day, we were talking over drinks and he said he always writes at least a sixty-page outline before he begins writing his book. I told him my "outline" is approximately two paragraphs about the plot, which I then put into a drawer and never read again. I told him while he was writing his sixty-page outline and or synopsis I was busy writing the first sixty pages of my book. I dunno - he's a GREAT writer and I really respect what he does - but for me, outlining just doesn't work.

Kathy Waller: Trying to outline makes me nervous. Tony Hillerman didn't outline. Said he couldn't. Good enough for me.

Jill D'Aubery: The one and only time I ever attempted to outline or synopsis a story and then write the thing I got as far as five pages into the actual writing when the characters took over and what was  going to be a humorous spy story with a ghost spy from the 19th century helping a modern day spy became a full-on unamusing, rather violent thriller with no ghosts at all. No suggestions. Just get the synopsis out of your head and ask the characters what's going on with the story. Then do what you always do - by the seat of your pants.

Louise Stone: Relax in a comfortable room, with a tape recorder, close your eyes; take deep breaths to fully relax, and let your mind wander on the subject of the story. Something will come.

Jan Grape: All these suggestions/ideas were excellent. And I did actually get to the bottom of y problem, thanks to something Nancy said, "Why did you HAVE to write the synopsis?"
As I thought about that I discovered what I think had happened. This was a new editor and I suppose the editor thought I needed to show that I was capable of writing a decent short story since I'd never done a story for this editor before. I think that by thinking the editor might not think I was capable somehow got stuck in my subconscious. My inner self was doubtful that I was capable. Silly me, I know. I know I'm capable. I won an Anthony Award for Best Short Story for goodness sake. Other stories I've written have been chosen for more than one anthology. I've been nominated and won other awards. I know I can do it. Thanks, Nancy, for asking that question and thanks, Jan and Brendan for reminding me I don't have to follow that synopsis. And thanks to Everyone for great ideas and suggestions. And for my friends, Amber, who said on my author page that I could smoke pot or have a glass of wine to help. To Jeff Baker, who wished he could do a "half-asshat synopsis. And to my sister, Sharla, who reminded me that somehow to just go back to my story idea before I was rudely interrupted by writing the synopsis and go for it.
And to my friend Les Roberts, who reminded me of his four word advice to aspiring writers: Shut Up and Write. Good advice for all of us. Now back to my story which is moving along nicely.


  1. Lots of great advice, Jan. Good to see how everyone handles issues like this.

  2. My fellow writers are invaluable. I have brainstormed with them many times when I'm stuck on everything from overall plot to a single paragraph or scene. Looks like you have awesome writer friends, too.

  3. What great advice from everybody! Thanks, Jan!

  4. Wonderful advice! Thanks for this, Jan! Made possible by the miracle of Facebook!

  5. Fascinating article, Jan. For me, I have to know the ending before I start. I rarely outline or rather make extensive notes except for complicated plots. Mostly I run the story through my head like a movie until I feel I have it right. And synopsis… I agree with Jan Burke, if requested, write it after the story's done!

  6. When I started writing my latest novel GREENFELLAS I had four phrases: the titles of each of four parts I expected the book to have. (The titles never appeared in the book; I didn't think they would.) But as I wrote it Part 4 mutated into Parts 5-7, and a new Part 4 appeared. I don't know if an outline would have done much good...


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