Join me at the upcoming Kent Festival of Writing, Saturday 14 April, 2018. It’s a full day of writing exercises and great conversations by the sea. I’m doing a one hour workshop on a writer’s “voice”: what is it – and how can you find yours? I’m also thrilled to be in conversation with debut fiction author Kate Mayfield and her editor, Jenny Parrott, to discuss the release of The Parentations. Want to know more? Just follow the link to Kent Festival of Writing:
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I run workshops, as you’ll know from my blog, and it’s really good practice to take them, whether you run them or not! Last week I treated myself to a whole day workshop with the fab Andrew Wille for Words Away, who run workshops and salons in South London.
Here’s a picture of the “writer’s shrine” he built for the day. It made me want to come home and dust mine!
Here’s a link to his run-down of the day. Do visit – and sign up for his emails, which are chock-full of good advice for writers. It was a wonderful workshop, as you’ll see from his blog. I must say, even a week later, I’m still fizzing with ideas. Here’s to great writing workshops for all!
It’s a new month and a new season. At last, it feels like spring. There are chairs in the sun and grape hyacinths, as well as a new chewy pup called Louie here. Maybe I’m not ready for beginning anything in my work – I am editing – but mornings like these make me dream of possibilities, of what could lie ahead. If you are of a similar mind, here’s a pretty nifty list for beginning any creative endeavour from the ever-essential Brain Pickings:
Here’s to a little chaos and careful perversion.
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” This line, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is actually from sportswriter Red Smith, but whoever said it must have been talking about the writing of synopses, surely. They are a necessary evil and there’s no avoiding them. Here’s why they’re necessary – and how to tackle them – or at least to make them a little less evil.
First, the basics. A synopsis is one page of A4 ( or 8 1/2 X 11″). No longer, though you can write single space and pull the font size down to 10, to squeeze more words on that single page. They’re written in third person present tense, whether your novel is or isn’t, and it should still follow the “show don’t tell” rule of writing. A synopsis will typically run 5 – 7 paragraphs, with the opening paragraph introducing the main character and theme – what the story is about – and why it matters. The opening paragraph feels most like a “pitch” or a “blurb”, with the following paragraphs explaining the nuts-and-bolts of the story, the who-what-where-why-when. Who interacts with the main character? What is at stake? Where does the action occur? Why is the story being told right now – how urgent is the “when” of it? These chapters should be written in proportion to their importance in the story – you don’t want to waste precious lines explaining backstory; you want to use them to show how the character makes choices and changes because of them – cause and effect. The last chapter is the resolution – how does the book end, what is the biggest conflict/crisis, and how has the main character been changed by it? There are no cliff-hangers in a synopsis. It sounds easy enough, when you boil it down like that, doesn’t it? But then, it comes time to actually write one, the evil rises again.
Why is it so hard? Often, it can be because the synopsis exposes work that isn’t done or isn’t ready. The Literary Consultancy says, “If it is because the story is insufficiently clear, persuasive or gripping, then more work needs to be done to get the manuscript into the kind of shape that would persuade an agent or editor to consider it further.” If we can’t boil the story down to one page, we don’t know the story well enough to tell it to ourselves. In this vein, agent Jonny Geller said, via Twitter: “A novel synopsis is deadening, – think of it as a letter to a friend about a great story you just heard.” (His recent Ted Talk on What Makes a Bestseller is pretty great, too.)
Synopses exist for several people – and the most important of them is you, the writer. When submitting your work, prospective agents ask for synopses as a means to see that you have finished the book and that you have an ending. They don’t want to waste time on something that isn’t ready or that doesn’t make sense. Once you have an agent, she will ask for a synopsis every time you send your work to her, mostly as a tool to understand what you are trying to do, particularly in early drafts. Does your synopsis match your chapters? Does it answer the questions of who-what-where-why-when? Once your book is sold, that synopsis might still follow it around for a while, with editors using it to get a sense of flow, of what you’re attempting and if you’re achieveing it; it might become a marketing tool or an aid to the publicity team. So, once you’ve finished your book it is essential that the synopsis is “right”. But what is right? And how do you know? And how do you develop a synopsis over time and over drafts so that the synopsis is working for you at every stage?
Let’s hear from the experts: Emma Darwin, author and creator of the wonderful blog This Itch of Writing, not only admits to “really enjoy(ing) writing them,” she also defends them as an “extremely useful tool for developing your own work”. Do read her excellent post on “the developmental synopsis” and how they help writers, at any stage, to assess narrative arc and the chainlinks of cause and effect. For Darwin, the synopsis is not a “shrinking down” of the narrative onto one page, but a new story itself – a very short story about the story, as it were, with the interesting challenge to make this short-short somehow “feel” like the novel. Nicola Morgan has a very useful e-book, Write a Great Synopsis, which you can purchase and download from her site. Here’s her pitch: Write a Great Synopsis covers the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, non-linear plots, sub-plots and long novels. It answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. I introduce you to my patent Crappy Memory Tool, explain the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrate with examples. For an overview of her synopsis process – plus shoes – she’s put a great powerpoint on her site from her 2014 talk at the Festival of Writing. Lastly, read Chuck Wendig’s take on how to prepare for the query stage and how to entice an agent, with plenty of good advice on how to write a synopsis with all the spicy words you would expect of his excellent Terrible Minds blog. His “EMBRACE THE HOLY TRINITY: HOOK, BODY, CLIMAX” is terrific advice. Now, that’s probably enough avoidance from me. It really is time to rewrite that synopsis.
This month, I’m over on The Prime Writers’ website, curating blog posts with friend and fellow writer, Vanessa Lafaye. Together, we’ve been looking at all the ways writers feed their writing, what they do that isn’t like writing – that helps the writing happen. For some it’s music, playing and singing. I was particularly taken with Jason Hewitt’s sense of how writing is symphonic, how he “scores” his scenes and chapters for that lift and loft. For other Prime Writers it’s cooking and baking complicated concoctions. For “culinary gothic” writer Martine Bailey, cooking opened the door to a new way of writing. Today, our third in the series explores the connection between writing and running – as well as open water swimming – with Andrea Bennett, YA author Kerry Drewery, Jon Teckman – and me. The series will continue through the rest of June. In the meantime, how do you feed your writing?
This morning I ran beside a rough green sea. The sun was out, which made it easy, and the wind was sharp, which did not. It blew at me so hard it seemed I would never get to the place where I tend to turn, the arbitrary yellow line drawn on the pavement that means I’ve reached the halfway point.
When I started to run, it was in the woods. Two years ago, I had a long residency at Yaddo in upper state New York, and I ran around its lake, dodging ice and snow and watched as spring came slowly, slowly. (Here’s a post I wrote about starting late as a runner, and all the things Yaddo taught me that I’ve tried to keep, with differing degrees of success.) One year ago, I was running pretty well, thinking every year I’d get that little bit better, that little bit stronger and faster – and then a bit of news changed every direction I had set for myself and changed all the courses.
One year and one week ago, I landed in LA to sit with my mother in the hospital, to walk beside her metal bed as it wheeled down the corridor for the first of her 10 radiation treatments, and to be with her for her first round of chemotherapy; there were meant to be 3. A radiologist said she “had months” and the oncologist wanted to “find the source” so that they could best treat it, though no one seemed to be under any illusion that they could “cure” her. At 83 with cancer in her bones, they were only looking to give her a little more time to get ready. As it was, she lasted 30 days. Some of those days I missed, thinking we had those “months” ahead. I flew back to file my taxes, for goodness sake, and for other commitments that, with hindsight, I could have cancelled easily. You cannot know what is coming, even when someone tells you there will be time. And, all of a sudden, it has been a year.
Where did I go? I have not been here. I have been somewhere far away, deep inside my head, but today the sun was out and I felt as if I were back in my skin. It’s new skin now. Rawer and thinner. The wind can blow right throw me. My body is full of new and surprising sources of pain, as is my heart. (My back went out at the end of December, a little past the halfway point of last year, when I should have been turning around and running back. It taught me a lesson. There is nothing like lying on the floor with your knickers around your news to remind you that, sometimes, you have to ask for help to get back up.)
I have asked for a lot of help this year. Not enough, maybe, but far more than I am accustomed to. I’m made of Puritan stock; we endure. I benefitted from asking for help from old friends, distant cousins, chiropractors and psychotherapists. The School of Life taught me artful lessons in calm and resilience. (What I thought was resilience was endurance. We should not seek to endure, I have learned, but to thrive. I have learned how resilent I am.) I am grateful for wise teachers, generous writer-friends, and kind people able to overlook my crazy – or to sit with my crazy and let it be.
At the halfway point today, I turned around and found the wind was at my back. And suddenly, it was warm and calm, and the run for home was light. And I felt nothing but gratitude for being on my feet. And I don’t know where I’ve been for the last year, but I feel as if, right now, I’m here.
My writing life is quiet. Most days I’m found trudging up and down the garden path from the house to the Blue House, my little writing hut. For me, writing happens when nobody is watching. It is the silence behind social media. It is the dark side of the moon. But sometimes, even a quiet writer like me is coaxed back out and into the light.
Recently, I had the great fortune of travelling to do some writing with my favourite group of writers, The Prime Writers, at the wonderfully monastic Gladstone’s Library. Accustomed to workshops as I am, I know the power of writing in good company, but we were not there to share work. We were simply there, in silent companionship, each of us battling away at our own works-in-progress. Here’s what a few of us have had to say about the life-giving power of retreats.
I was also very pleased to be invited to read my Costa Short Story Award shortlisted story, The Night Office, at our local university for World Book Day. It is very public to share work, to read out, and it is such a joy to do so after so much silence, particularly as my story tells that of a cloistered nun who is screaming inside.
Lastly, I was included in a new Popaganda podcast from Portland, Oregon, a throwback to talking about cults in the way I did, a lot, when Amity & Sorrow was first published.
(You can also listen to interviews on cults in popular culture and a tea cult – no, really!) I’m two books away from those bound sisters now, in my busy head, but it was a luxury to remember how they started, how I started, and to feel how far I’ve come, even though, most of the time, nobody can see it.
If you don’t know Writes of Women, the fabulous blog by Naomi Frisby, or @Frizbot on Twitter, you are in for such a treat. These thoroughly comprehensive collections of the best writing by women in the media are my go-to source for news. A celebration of book reviews of women writers, LGBTQIA, women of colour, women in translation, working class voices – this blog really does have it all. Naomi is a tireless champion of women’s voices, and this week I’m very pleased to be there, too, as I was on Rebecca Mascull’s site. Here’s the link – give her a read, won’t you?
Want to know what it’s like to go to prison? I served a four year sentence – as writer-in-residence at a young offender prison here in the UK. I’ve never really written about it, and it was lovely to get the chance to do so for Women Writers, a terrifically supportive site. Follow me in through the big wooden gate…