Booking is open for the next Kent Festival of Writing. Stella Duffy is the keynote speaker, with workshops from writers including Emma Darwin, Julie Cohen, Andy Miller – and me! Why not join us for a great day of writing?
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“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…
These are the dog days of summer. Sadly, here in Britain the dog is wet. Rain tapping on the Blue House makes me think of autumn and all that will come. I’m happy to announce I’ve received a little grant from the Arts Council and Canterbury Council to support my second novel, which is finished and awaiting feedback from some new readers. The grants have afforded me some guidance from a freelance editor, as well as the funds to attend two upcoming events which will, I hope, make a real difference to my writing. First up is The Festival of Writing in York, which brings writers in contact with agents, book doctors, and editors over a weekend of workshops and one-to-ones. I’ve already submitted my opening chapter and a 500 word chunk of the book for various competitions and feedback. Fingers crossed! Second, I’m delighted to be able to attend the next residential workshop with the most marvellous Susan Elderkin. (I highly recommend her newest publication, The Novel Cure, offering bibliotherapy by the book.) I had originally thought this workshop would take place in the spring but, life being what it is, all plans changed. Now, attending in October, I hope to be staring a finished Book 2 in the face and getting to grips with Book 3. Outside, the rain pounds, ever harder.
Here are some rather enormous logos, with enormous gratitude:
Morning! It’s time for morning pages!
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll already know how I start my days, clogging your timeline with #amwriting tweets and lovely cups of tea. Every morning, it’s time for morning pages as soon as I can manage it, leaving bed for the kettle to wake myself up with words. It is a practice, a ritual, and a habit, one I’ve done for years and years. I flex my fingers; I empty my head. It is the only form of meditation I actually commit to and do. Without morning pages, I feel a bit scratchy, a bit foggy and shocked. Like the proverbial tree falling, is it morning if I’ve not done pages? My head isn’t so sure.
So, what are morning pages? Do they have to happen in the morning? How do they work and why do I, along with writers across the whole of the world, continue to do them, day after day? Morning pages as a writing practice came into popularity with Julia Cameron’s creativity manifesto, The Artist’s Way, though the idea itself is first found in Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, published in 1934. Here, Dorothea suggests: “Just as soon as you can – without talking, without reading the morning’s paper, without picking up the book you laid aside the night before – begin to write. Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically.” Simply write without direction, without hope or control of the outcome as a way to begin the day. While Julia says the writing must be done by hand, Dorothea says, “If you can teach yourself to use the typewriter in this period, so much the better.” Julia says to fill three blank pages, while Dorothea suggests we should write as long as we have free time, until you have “utterly written yourself out.” So, even the gurus of morning pages can’t quite agree on how they should be done – only that they should be done – and that they should be done in the morning.
I’m all for the following of rules, but only when they suit me. As both Julia and Dorothea agree morning pages must be done in the morning, so do I. “End of the day pages” would be a diary or gratitude journal. You want to write while you’re still a bit fuzzy, before the day has had a chance to get you into its rhythms, its demands. Julia says longhand matters, because, “There is an energy to the hand that leads our thoughts to a deeper and more connected place than writing on the keys does.” That may be true for Julia, but longhand hurts my hand and is all but unreadable, should I wish to read it. If a typewriter is acceptable to Dorothea, I choose the laptop, whose keys are quieter and whose heft is less in the lap. And while Julia would most certainly not approve, I do my morning pages online at the excellent (and free) site 750words.com, which sends me an email every morning, reminding me to write, just in case. They also track your moods through looking at your keywords, if you want them to. This is me, today, as most mornings:
Typing away, I’m unaware that I’m feeling anxious or that I’m concerned mostly about death. Is it true? Does it matter? I’m not conscious of doing or trying to do or say anything. I’m only letting my head noodle though my fingers and following my thoughts where they go. Sometimes, my morning pages read like to-do lists or laundry lists of concerns and worries, mistakes and hopes, plans and dreams. Sometimes, my morning pages are filled with self-pity, so that I can rid myself of it and move on. My morning pages can be first stabs at new thoughts – new ideas, things I’m thinking about writing – and sometimes the earliest writing of new projects happens here with morning pages that look like monologues from characters or snatches of dialogue, things I or my characters might say or think. Sometimes, I write about what I wish I were writing about – and I find that I am writing about it, simply because my ego and my inner critic are still waiting for the tea to kick in. Morning pages can be whiny or inspirational, they can be true or false, they can be bursts of newness or relentless churning returns to old slights and digs and memories. In short, morning pages are a place to dump the contents of our messy heads to make some room, for whatever will come. It is meditation in action, through fingers, and also a frame for thoughts, feelings, and imaginations.
Morning Pages certainly have their detractors, even when they begrudgingly join in, as does Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian article. Yes, morning pages take time, though I manage my 750 words, most mornings, in 10 – 12 minutes. Julia Cameron would say that’s too fast, but she can’t reach me from her ranch in New Mexico to where I am, laptop on my knees in bed, or sitting on the porch of the Blue House, angling my limbs toward the sun. Sometimes I do morning pages standing up with a cup of tea at my elbow, typing away until the website tells me when I’ve hit the magic number and it’s time to stop. The website keeps track of our days and words. Apparently, I’ve written more than 3 novels worth of morning pages on the site already, unreadable, unusable words that will never be published and are of no value to anyone but me. Only occasionally do I copy what I’ve written in morning pages to paste into a document, rare mornings when an insight comes into what I want or what a problematic character is really doing, and I know I’ve caught a snatch of something that I didn’t have access to, in my conscious mind, the one that’s concerned with deadlines and word counts and “is this working” and when can I have another cup of tea? These bursts of words you didn’t intend, of thoughts and feelings you didn’t know you had, are gold. While not the purpose of morning pages, they are a benefit, an added extra that can lead your writing – indeed, your life – in whole new directions. And that’s all we want to do, by writing, isn’t it? To understand ourselves and others, to see, for a few brief moments, how it is that the world works and where our place is in it, and how to word it?
Well, at least that’s what I found in morning pages this morning, thinking about why I do them. Whether by hand or fingertip, standing or sitting, dressed or pyjama-ed, with tea or without, why don’t you give them a try, some morning and see what comes?
It’s the 4th of July – which means fireworks and barbecues – but here in the UK, it’s just another day. Well, would you want to celebrate losing a continent? Here, we reserve setting things on fire for Guy Fawkes, which celebrates the day an Italian tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Today on the Prime Writers site, I’m here with some ex-pat writers, trying to remember what the 4th of July was like, which led to a big tumble down memory lane and a giant box of Red Devil firecrackers. Light ’em up, Smoky Joe…