The Dreaded Synopsis

Or, how I learned to stopped worrying and love the process.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This chap may be better at jumping through hoops than me. His name is Humperdink.

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. As promised, this post is about the synopsis which will accompany my covering letter and first three chapters when I submit to agents. The most important thing, for all of these bits that agents will see, is to work out why they want it. What are they hoping to gain from its inclusion (other than see that I’m willing to jump through a big scary hoop)?

As far as I can work out, they want the synopsis to tell them what happens. And when it happens. Sounds pretty obvious right? They might get blown away by the writing style of my three chapters (here’s hoping), but if they then look at the synopsis and realise it all becomes a rambling mess half way through, they may think twice. To my mind, they want to see that I understand commercial story structure (because I am aiming for commercial appeal rather than those new forms Konstantin bemoans the need for in Chekhov’s The Seagull) and, of course, see whether it gets (more) exciting.

Now, in my Elevator Pitch post, one of my discoveries was that, as well as being a nightmarish prospect, it was quite a lot of fun trimming 90,000 words down to 25 words. And that’s what I found with the synopsis as well. This time I had in the region of 800 words to play with so, y’know, par-tay.

If you’ve been reading all these and the comments, you will know that I fall firmly in the planning category of writer (though I was a die-hard pantser when I started), so what I’ve realised is that getting to this stage in the process is kind of cyclical. When I start writing something these days I’ll get some idea of the basic set up, work on the characters, expand the plot outline, back to the characters, back to the outline and so on. For bringing it all back down to a synopsis, it was essentially the same in reverse.

Things that need to be included: the plot from beginning to end in the order it happens; a little about each of the major characters. Simple.

My first attempt was a rambling 3,000 word monstrosity that tried to address every little twist and turn. I swiftly realised that wasn’t the right approach. Sub-plots and lesser characters be damned! My novel is very much my main character’s story and so I went back to the keyboard and tried again focusing solely on what happens to him, what he does about it and what knock-on effect that has. Because it all needs to be cause-and-effect or the novel will feel very episodic. As I carried on and honed the synopsis I was also able to spot any points in the novel where things either didn’t quite make logical sense or characters were solely reacting to outside influences and not becoming an influence in themselves. I’m pleased to say there weren’t many points like that, but as I did it when gearing up for a swift final draft it both bolstered my confidence and gave me a few extra ideas for areas that needed attention.

So there we have it, my synopsis discoveries. Rather than being a big scary hoop that needs to be jumped through, it’s a really useful tool for making sure novels are on track. Who knew!

Progress update: I’m now just about three quarters of the way through the redraft, but just coming up to a section that needs a bit of TLC. Still aiming for the end of the month, so wish me luck!

Hopefully my next post will be about researching agents, but I might get distracted by something shiny and write about that instead, we shall see. In the meantime, have you had an experience like mine – a big scary necessity that actually turns into something really useful?

Facing The Press

In which our intrepid hero heads to The Guardian. Not to be interviewed, sadly.

A hidden metaphor, or a random bunch of pigs I found in The Guardian's office? I'll let you decide.

A hidden metaphor, or a random bunch of pigs I found in The Guardian’s office? I’ll let you decide.

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. Last time I was talking about the elevator pitch, and since then I’ve had the opportunity to try it out on a captive audience and it went down pretty well. Where? Read on!

As I’m gearing up towards entering publishing professionally I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I’ve learned (if anything) from my previous creative endeavours.

I trained as an actor and spent a good few years pursuing that as a career. One of the many things that made me realise it wasn’t for me was the relentless self-promotion required, which I just didn’t feel capable of. How refreshing then that so far I feel a lot more engaged with that side of writing. I guess part of it is that I have more confidence in my novels than in my acting abilities. It also feels much easier to target myself with writing than with acting. More on that later and also in greater depth in a future post about selecting agents to approach.

So far so good, but engaged as I feel, I know I’ve got a hell of a lot to learn if I want to get anywhere, so that’s why I found myself at The Guardian offices last night. The event was part of their Masterclass programme, titled PR and Marketing for Authors. It was a three hour whistlestop tour of the myriad different forms of self promotion, from trying to get your book reviewed in national newspapers (hard, unsurprisingly) to the basics of building Twitter followings (also hard – spotting a pattern?) and the likelihood or not of a publisher having any kind of budget to do it for you. We also had the chance to read out a brief elevator pitch for our novel as a sort of hook for a press release and mine seemed to go over pretty well. Oh, and there was wine too. There’s always wine.

The bulk of the talk was from Tory Lyne-Pirkis from Midas PR (they work with a wide range of authors, or so her press release tells me), but I found the most revealing insights were from guest speaker C J Daugherty, author of the YA Night School series.

Hearing about the realities of the tiny budgets publishers tend to have for marketing, especially for debut authors, and how quite a few successful authors have spent a sizeable chunk of their advance on PR was, despite some fairly horrifying statistics, strangely inspiring.

I think the reason is that this is a world I’m eager to engage with. Unlike with acting, where all I wanted to do was get on stage or into the rehearsal room, with writing I’m looking forward to the behind the scenes stuff: branching out to write about other topics semi-related to my novel in the hope of a plug at the bottom of an article, approaching luminaries to beg for a quote, rocking up to a local festival in any capacity they’ll have me in the hopes I can give a crafty mention of my novel. None of it is as appealing as the writing itself, don’t get me wrong, but I can see how it fits together more. With acting, I was so desperate for any kind of work it was hard to know how to begin. With writing, I’ve got a novel and can target accordingly. Or I will have my novel if I bloody well get on with it and finish the redraft!

On that note, I’m just over a quarter of the way through the latest draft. My target was the end of March, which is still faintly do-able. The first and last quarters needed the most work, so hopefully it’ll be plain sailing through the middle. Yeah. Right.

My next post will be on the synopsis which I’ll be sending to agents with my query letter but in the mean time, if you’ve ever had to do any PR for yourself, how have you felt about it? A necessary evil, or an enjoyable part of the process? I’m really intrigued with how to fit all the work needed on PR around the time spent on writing itself, but with a massive slug o’ luck and a fair wind behind me maybe I’ll be able to write a future post on that very subject. Time (and a marketing budget) will tell!

Feeling Claustrophobic?

Time for the elevator pitch.

Technical Diagram

Technical Diagram

This is the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. The last post covered how long, how ice-agingly long, it’s taken to get to the point where I’m nearly ready to send my novel off to agents for the first time – summary (spoiler alert): seven years.

But, quick redraft aside, I’m nearly there, so the hard work is over, right?


Ah. Not quite. Not by a long shot actually. You see, it’s not just your novel you need to send to agents to attract their attention. In fact you shouldn’t send them your novel, not the whole of it. Which is an arse because my epilogue is killer. For most agents the form seems to be a brief covering letter, a brief synopsis and the first three chapters. And what’s the crucial part of all of this? The elevator pitch. Or lift pitch if we’re being properly British about this. The novel in 25 words or thereabouts.

25 words.

The novel I’ve spent seven years (more off than on, to be fair) getting to a perfect no-word-wasted 90,000 words, all crunched up into one little bite-size morsel. It’s horrendous torture! And also strangely fun…

The trouble is, there’s so much of it that feels important, that needs to be highlighted to any potentially interested party, that I don’t quite know what to omit. Every little twist and turn, all the little asides, every minor character is the product of blood, sweat and coffee. How could I not include the terse security guard who turns up in the background of two scenes? I count him as a close friend, so what if he’s imaginary – I’ve known him longer than anyone I work with!

What’s the trick? Buggered if I know. Is it best to lead with character or with setting? Goals or obstacles? The literal or metaphorical interpretations? Seeing as there are so few words and so many crucial details, it seems like the best thing to do is include the absolute dramatic crux of the novel. Who is it about? What do they want? What’s stopping them?

So bearing that in mind, here we go. This is, so far at least, the elevator pitch for A Calling-on Song:

‘Robin is a reclusive university dropout whose attempt to rebuild his identity is derailed when dying folk tales choose him as their next custodian’

I’ve still got one word to play with, so I’m not done tinkering yet. What I really want to do is somehow get an idea of the setting in there too (a dying high street in small-town England) but I haven’t found a satisfactory way of shoe-horning it in. Yet.

Hold up, I’ve come up with an alternative. Here’s attempt two with a bit of scene setting and hint of things to come:

‘On a dying high street, reclusive shop-boy Robin tries to rebuild his identity but is assailed by sentient folk-tales desperate to outrun Oblivion.’

There’ll be more on covering letters and the dreaded synopsis soon, but in the mean time let me know which one you prefer (and why) and try breaking some of your favourite books down into a 25 word pitch and letting me know how you get on!