Showing posts with label synopsis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label synopsis. Show all posts

18 December 2017

Less is Hard


by Steve Liskow

When people at events ask why I'm self-published, I can spot the other writers in the group with my standard answer: "So I don't have to write another synopsis."

Condensing your 300-more-or-less-page novel to five pages (some agents want only two or even one) is like gift-wrapping the state of Michigan. Remember, there are two peninsulae (or is it peninsulas?), and they're both pretty big. Lots of ribbon and tape...

Agents want your protagonist, setting, and conflict. They also want the plot and emotional stakes. They want to know how the story ends, too, and a sense of your style. In one to five pages. Maybe that's why Dickens, Hawthorne, Twain and Thoreau are among those famous writers who published at least some of their own work. I'd love to see Tolstoy's synopsis for War And Peace or Joyce's packaging of Finnegan's Wake.

But wait, there's less.

When I started self-publishing, I found a genius cover designer, a guy I worked with on dozens of plays. He designed posters for several shows I produced and most of the shows I directed.
We discovered that we could understand each other so he could create a poster that did all that synopsis stuff with a well-chosen graphic image. His covers prove that the cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words is still true.

But I still need to write a cover blurb. If you think a one-to-five-page synopsis is hard, try the postage-stamp-sized pitch on your back cover.
Mine run between 125 and 150 words, and they have to do everything that synopsis does except reveal the ending. Once a buyer looks at the cool cover picture, she's going to turn the book over and read the back (I hope). My portrait isn't going to sell the book (although I'm still frequently mistaken for Brad Pitt if it's dark enough), so it's up to that blurb.
How do you do it? Think Tarzan on steroids. Shun adverbs, adjectives and passive verbs. Use concrete, evocative nouns; precise active verbs; and all the voodoo you can conjure up. My designer usually shows me the cover image after reading my outline/synopsis (he'll read up to ten pages, bless him) and asking questions. He can shrink the font, but he's a good enough writer to tell me when he thinks I need to do better.

Before You Accuse Me, my fourth Woody Guthrie novel, will arrive in January. I started struggling with the blurb last June. I thought the cover image was strong enough so we didn't need a tagline, but I like to start the blurb with something punchy. I was playing with Frost's "Good fences make good neighbors."

"Old offenses make bad relations" was too vague, not to mention stupid. That was the third or fourth try. We changed it to "old betrayals make bad relatives," only slightly better. Maybe. Peter dug into the outline again and told me to specify the relative. We played around with that for another two months and finally agreed on "Bad exes make bad clients." Then we changed and cut and added until we could both live with the rhythm.

We could probably do more with it, but we were both exhausted and I was still revising the MS, too. Maybe the second "bad" should be "worse" or some other monosyllable. We knew we were pushing our luck when we used early backstory and an adverb to fill out the rhythm in the closing sentence.

Here is the ninth revision, which we agreed to use:

Bad exes make bad clients.

Years ago, Sarah McKinnon dumped Chris Guthrie and moved hundreds of miles away for a new job and, eventually, a new husband. Soon after that, Guthrie nearly lost his leg in a shoot-out that cost him his job as a Detroit cop.

Now Sarah's new husband is in trouble and she wants her PI ex- to get him out of it. Against his better judgment--and that of his new companion Megan Traine--Guthrie flies east, where he and Megan find Sam Henderson accused of killing his mistress. He has a motive, the opportunity, a weak alibi, and maybe the murder weapon--which has disappeared. when they dig deeper, they find an even more damning motive.

Unfortunately, someone else has found it, too.

It's 128 words, about my average. It has no passive sentences and it reads at about seventh-grade, seventh-month reading level. I aim at fourth or fifth grade, but summaries tend to skew toward more passive verbs, so I'll take this.

someday, maybe I'll learn to write a blurb. Then I'll bottle the secret and sell it to other writers and make the fortune that continues to elude me.

18 October 2013

What I Learned While Synopsis Writing


By Dixon A. Hill

Well, I’m pleased to say I finally managed to complete the synopsis for my novel-length manuscript.

The experience certainly taught me to envy those who write with an outline. If I’d had one, up front, I suspect my synopsis would have been finished much quicker. But … that’s just not the way I do things, because—while I’m sure it would help in synopsis creation—it stymies my story-writing something awful.

I’m one of those idiots who practices what I call Modified Organic Writing: I write without an outline, waiting to see what transpires as my characters interact (the organic part)—though I usually do have a pretty good idea where things might be headed (the modified part). If that seems confusing, don’t sweat it, buddy—I really don’t quite grasp what I’m doing, myself. (I’m sure you’re shocked—SHOCKED!—to hear that.)

One problem this creates, is that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the entire novel, once I've got it completed. I can grasp several parts of it, at the same time—but my mind can’t quite manage to encompass the entire work at once. I wind up looking like the guy in this photo: Not the guy in the foreground; that guy in the center, behind the painting. You can only see his hands and the top of his head. He’s behind and underneath the thing. If only he could stand out front, he might get a chance to see what the painting is really all about. Then, maybe he could come up, not only with a synopsis, but perhaps with a logline or something, such as John M. Floyd discussed earlier this week.

If that guy in back, could come out from under it and stand in front of the painting, he might be able to tell someone it’s: “An exciting depiction of pirates infiltrating a port town they’re about to raid!” As it is, however, he’s really not in a position to grasp what he’s talking about, if he tries to describe what he’s got his hands on.

Anyway, for the use of anyone searching for a method they can use, to find their way out from behind or beneath an organically created novel, to a workable (perhaps even winning??) synopsis, I offer the following lessons I learned during the process. Will any of this work for you? No idea, buddy. But, I’m tossing it out there just in case you can use something, here.

When I posted, last year, about my trouble writing a synopsis, one of the comments people made really stuck in my mind. It warned me to be careful not to create an outline instead. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, but have a much better—though probably still incomplete—feel for it now. In fact, I eventually discovered I was doing just that. Building an outline, instead of a synopsis.

Stymied because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the entire manuscript, I finally opted to work chapter-by-chapter, distilling each chapter to a paragraph or two—not worrying too much about length, because I knew I’d cut later. When I was finished, of course, I realized I’d created the outline I was trying to avoid. It was long, very informative—but utterly lifeless.

That outline wouldn’t sell a book; I knew that. But, the next morning, I began to realize that what I’d constructed might be a very valuable tool, if I could decide how to exploit it to advantage. 

Most importantly, perhaps, I realized that I’d lucked-out by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline, as a first step, because this gave me a distillation of the work, which my mind could encompass. Then, as I worked on the synopsis, I felt my eyes opening to what had really been meant in that comment.

Along the way, I visited a website I found quite useful: LisaGardner.com There is a lot of information out there, about synopsis construction, but somehow I just couldn’t grock what it all shook-out to mean. At this website, however, the author offers tips for successful synopsis writing (under Writer's Toolbox) which I found I could understand.

To me, the pool slide in this photo sort of demonstrates the use for the outline-tool I had created. In the photo, the rectilinear white structure supports a curved blue slide designed to facilitate rapid and exciting movement that concludes with a climactic splash (once the pool is filled, of course). 

I see the chapter-by-chapter outline as serving the purposes of the white structure supporting the slide, which is the exciting path followed by our synopsis.  But, notice how little of the outline structure actually touches the slide story.  To streamline and curve the slide, increasing the ride’s excitement, I concentrated on telling only the central core of the story, deleting all mention of any events or characters that didn’t have to be there. Then, I went over that story again, polishing it to a high sheen, while ensuring I didn’t add something that wasn’t in the novel.

My hope is that the synopsis reader never even senses that the outline support structure is there.  And, that's okay, because whoever reads the synopsis isn't going to climb the stairs on that white tower..  Instead, s/he's going to step from ground-level straight onto the slide, and—WHOOSH!  Off we go to story splash-down.  Hopefully.

My story had to leap several gaps, of course, because so much supporting information was left out. Look at the slide picture again. See the distance between supports? The slide rides right through those gaps, but can’t sag, or the ride will be ruined. In a manner I find it difficult to explain, reinforcing to prevent sag made it possible for me to spot small places in my novel, where I needed to include a one or two sentence explanation, in order to close or tighten a loophole.

Thus, one of the most important discoveries I made was that constructing my synopsis not only created a tool for selling it, it also helped me correct problems within the story itself. I was so bowled over, in fact, that I’ve changed my attitude on story outlines to a degree.

I still don’t plan to outline prior to writing a story or novel, however, I now plan to create an outline, and generate a synopsis, prior to final editing. I’ll probably start by creating the outline and synopsis just after the first full edit, so that I can get a better handle on the entire work—as a whole—which I now believe will help me conduct better-targeted cutting and editing of the manuscript.

So, there you have it. What I learned from writing a synopsis, in a nutshell.

 --Dix

07 September 2012

A "Feyn" Idea?


by Dixon Hill
Richard Feynman
The great physicist Richard Feynman once said: “If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.”

This is the way I have seen his interview in People (22 July 1985) quoted, though when I’ve heard the quote, that second “I” seems usually to be pronounced as “it” for some reason. Thus, I’m not sure if he really meant that he was worth the recognition of a Nobel Prize, or if he was saying his idea was prize-worthy. But, either way, the sentence works, I suppose. After all, he’s Richard Feynman; I’m not.

Ayn Rand
Which, is why I find it rather surprising that we (he and I, that is) seem to have so many feelings in common – particularly when I extrapolate his musings in terms of my own quest to generate a synopsis for a novel.

I think it was Ayn Rand who said something akin to: “If I could explain it in 200 words, I wouldn’t have written a 1,200-page novel to explain it in the first place.” And, frankly, this is how I wind up feeling when trying to distill a 300-page book into an 8-page synopsis.

 In a word: Stymied.

For those who don’t understand my problem, let me explain it in terms of this poetic excerpt (the ellipses are his, incidentally) from The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964):



here it is standing...
atoms with consciousness
...matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea...
wonders at wondering... I...
a universe of atoms...
an atom in the universe.

Here we see the human body and brain as a collection of atoms buzzing in tight harmony, working together to produce the human mind, the very intellect.

So, too, do I see a novel after I have written it.

Yes. I know a novel is a body of work. (And, to me, that’s a very living, breathing body!) But, when I approach close enough to work with it, I find it’s atomic structure nearly spectral. As if it were a body whose atoms were not held fast together the way yours and mine are. My hands and mind seem to pass through the epidermis; I fall into a molecular word-cloud, the minute parts and pieces buzzing around me like a swarming cloud of thousands of bees.

I cannot see the body, for its atomic structure. And, this causes me great confusion in the distillation of it’s bodily parts—such separation as required for any synopsis to make sense.

But, I’ve kept at it, grabbing words or phrases that made sense, trying to tie them into others that might define the body. The problem is, the atomic parts I grab tend to be organically connected with large clumps of other matter that come along with my selection when I pull it out of the whirling molecular word-cloud.

Perhaps that’s the price I pay for writing without an outline – permitting my stories to grow organically. Maybe organic stories grow naturally in clumps (they seem to come to my mind that way, when I’m working on them, after all), and thus it’s only natural that when I stick my hand in and grab a part it comes away with a cluster far larger than I’d first targeted.

Of late, however, a new modus operandi has come to me. Instead of reaching into the story, what if I work only at its periphery, painting a thin layer on the skin — a sort of topographic construct that follows only the planes and curves along the outer edge of the body itself. But, would not such a thing typically be called an “outline”? Because it would outline the body. And, as such, render the body’s shape.

My concern is that it will be perceived as such, and will prove too hollow, that a prospective agent or editor will peer through this thin topographic layer and find the emptiness behind it disappointing. However, I have another idea that might hopefully fix that problem.

Might I complete this topographic construct, then return later, salting in a few bits and pieces of its intellect? Thus, an in-depth examination might not result in disappointment. That’s the idea I’ve come up with, and so far things seem to be “shaping up” nicely.

And, as I’m sure you can understand, I need to get back to work in the salt mines of my computer. However, I’ll leave you with a few other Feynman quotes, in hopes you’ll enjoy them.

On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.
 --Statement made during Messenger Lectures at Cornell University (1964-65), after the person who introduced him mentioned that Feynman also played the bongos.

One time I was in the men's room of the bar and there was a guy at the urinal. He was kind of drunk, and said to me in a mean-sounding voice, "I don't like your face. I think I'll push it in." 
I was scared green. I replied in an equally mean voice, "Get out of my way, or I'll pee right through ya!" 
 -- From Cornell to Caltech, With A Touch of Brazil

Why would I quote Feynman on a writing blog? Perhaps for this last quote.

Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.

At first blush (and maybe second and third) the quote doesn’t seem very pro-fiction. However, pondering this quote consistently drives me toward producing something that goes a little beyond the norm. I always like to think good fiction – particularly mystery fiction -- highlights the underlying little truths that lie everywhere out there, even if these particular truths have more to do with love, honesty and courage than with murderers, swindlers and thieves.

01 June 2012

Of Caliber and Detail


by Dixon Hill

I admit it . . . 

I’m a sucker for those old hard-boiled mystery/suspense books. You know: the ones from the 30’s, 40’s or 50’s.  The Continental Op, Sam Spade, Phil Marlowe; how can a person resist?   Well, maybe you can. But, I can’t. The pace alone, in these books, usually picks me up and runs away with me.

 I do quite a bit of reading in doctors offices these days — often when driving my dad around and, lately, because my wife needed some surgery. Yesterday I finished Steve Fisher’s No House Limit originally published in the 1950’s.  My copy (the library's copy, really) is the Hard Case Crime release, put out in 2008, an edition with a cover that assures me the novel is COMPLETE AND UNABRIDGED.

No House Limit is set during the time period in which it was written, and takes place (in case you can’t guess from the title) in Las Vegas. A cover blurb promises: “Sex, sadism, and action.” And the book delivers pretty well.

At just over 200 pages, I’m impressed by how much the author manages to fit in — without making the book seem cramped, or as if he’s reaching too much. Fisher not only wrote a whopping tale of a syndicate trying to smash a lone-wolf casino owner, he also managed to spin two love story subplots through those pages (three if you count the obvious love and loyalty felt between the casino owner and his security chief) without watering down the action and suspense.

Were there some cheesy spots? Sure. For instance, I always get a kick when two people fall in love and run off to get married after having first seen each other three days before, and having spent only two hours together during that time. On the other hand, the story IS set in Vegas — where I’m sure odder couplings have occurred. And, if it was cheese, well . . . it was very tasty cheese (at least to me): deftly drawn, springing naturally from the main plot-line, and ratcheting up both tension and action. Not the easiest thing for love story subplots to accomplish in an action/suspense novel.

I suppose, however, that I shouldn’t have been surprised. Steve Fisher was evidently nothing, if not a prolific writer. According to an afterward written by his son, Michael, Steve Fisher wrote 90 to 100 published novels, plus 900 short stories, and around 120 movies or television episodes.

 Frankly, I find such numbers daunting. 


 I always feel a little pang of sympathy when re-reading the essay in the back of my copy of the Big Sleep, in which Chandler is described as being “Never a prolific writer …”. I always wonder if he spent too much time thinking things through — the way I tend to. Thankfully, I don’t have to contend with major problems such as alcoholism. I just have to watch the kids 24/7 now that school is out, and I’m still running errands for my dad.  Plus: the cigar store’s new owner likes my work – so he’s scheduling me for more hours.  And (as usual) my Stay-at-Home-Dad chores keep calling loud and messily: The garbage in the kitchen can just keeps accumulating! The sink full of dishes over-floweth! My kids need rides to friends’ houses, and – now that it’s summer – pool maintenance begins in earnest.

Somewhere in here, I keep trying to shoe-horn in a little synopsis writing for my latest manuscript.

 It’s been taking a long time, because . . . . 


Well, quite possibly because I’m a bit of a bonehead.  And, as I mentioned above, I tend to dither around, trying to think things all the way through.

As I wrote earlier on SS: To me, writing the synopsis, blurb, or cover letter for a novel is the hardest part of the job. I’ve got a very thin window though which to “flash” a potential agent the important stuff inside my manuscript. But, that’s not enough. That flash has to be big and bright — eye-catching!
J. Jonah Jameson as I remember him in the comic books.

 And, even that’s not enough.


 I picture an agent (male or female, it doesn’t seem to make a difference in my mind’s eye) as looking like J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s editor in the Spider Man comics and films. I seldom read comic books, as a kid. But, I did read Spidey. I found myself drawn into the story, because having super powers complicated this boy’s life instead of simplifying it. Spider Man might have been a hero (to those who understood him), but poor Peter Parker still got kicked around and felt like a loser. Talk about your fertile literary ground!




As an aside: I really thought Jonathan "J.K." Simmons did a great job of portraying ol’ Tripple-J in the fairly recent Spider Man movies. Even his voice matched what I’d imagined, when reading the comics as a kid.

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson

     Now, don’t get the idea I confuse editors with agents. 


I don’t. I’ve been writing for several years, have a J-School degree with Walter Cronkite’s name on it, have worked on newspapers and been published in magazines as well. I know the difference between agents and editors; believe me. Still, the two have a lot in common.

 They’re both what I was taught to call “Gatekeepers” back in school. Their job begins by separating the wheat from the chaff, and many of them accept this as a near-sacred duty — protecting the ramparts of publishing from scurrilous tomes that don’t meet those guidelines the New York Times might call “… Fit to Print”. And, then the job goes deeper.

Their time is valuable (which is why they employ First Readers, to take some of the slush load off their backs) and they’ve got limited resources. Just like the rest of us, they have a finite reserve of personal and/or corporate energy, plus a budget to watch. And — like writers — their jobs involve a certain amount of gambling.

We writers gamble our time and fortunes against the odds of making a sale that will pay off. Agents and Editors are looking for a payday, too, but their wagers are larger, the stakes are more cut-throat, and the playing area much more complex.
12-inch Naval Gun Battery   (Not me in the picture.)

So, it’s not enough that an agent thinks a manuscript is “good” or that the writing is “pretty decent.” Both editors and agents know that this limitation on time and resources means they can only really pull out the “Big Guns” for those projects that excite them. That's Big Guns!  You know: like 12-inch naval cannon -- the sort battleships used to carry.  Consequently, my synopsis has to generate excitement.

But, how am I supposed to do that?

40 mm Bofors
How can I be sure that, once an agent’s eye is caught by the bright flash my query sends through that thin window of opportunity, s/he then finds enough literary “meat” to sink sharp publishing-savvy “teeth” into.

And, that meat’s gotta be the right texture, coupled with the right flavor — intriguing to the mouth, for the particular agent I want to land.

I figure it's a certain type of detail.

I know they’re not going to fire off the publishing equivalent of a 12-inch naval gun, when my manuscript is for a first novel. And, frankly, I’d do Cheeta Flips if they just fired the equivalent of a 40-mm Bofors. But, I figure I’d better write as if I’m working to get cover fire from a battle ship. Otherwise, I think the response is likely to be a rejection slip, and no cover fire at all.

So, I'm working to be sure my synopsis clearly indicates that I've dotted every "i" and crossed every "T", that my plot-line is tight and hole-less, while throwing in a few quick strokes that show the workings of subplots or underlying theme.  Finally, I think the synopsis has to read well.  It has to set a hook, working by itself, so that -- even if s/he initially ignores the enclosed manuscript pages -- the agent feels compelled to read them after all, to see if the manuscript's writing stands up to the caliber of the synopsis writing.

All of this takes a lot of thinking.

But . . . I don't know.  I freely admit to being ignorant.  I've studied tons of books about agents, hunted through myriad agent lists trying to narrow down to the right names -- the folks who are out there looking for the book I'm trying to sell.  But I'm also up against a time clock; I need to get this thing done and out, start that glacial pace of publishing (if I'm lucky!) in motion.  I keep working, but I keep wondering: Am I over-thinking it?.

 So . . . 


Here I sit, writing a synopsis as if I expect somebody to get so excited s/he will want to pull out 12-inch naval guns, while knowing full-well that I’ll be lucky to receive a few rounds of 40-mm Bofors support fire.  (Or, more probably, a single volley of shotgun pellets.  Hopefully not rock salt!)

 But . . . I’m afraid I just don’t know what else to do.

 Any hot tips out there?

 See ya’ in two weeks!

 --Dix