Category Archives: synopsis

Pre-Writing and Screenwriting

Until 2012, I was a pantser. Truth be told, I still write short fiction without a plan sometimes, but I’ve been fully converted over to outlining. It’s a long story, but it’s worth the effort. The very first novel I wrote, RUNS IN THE FAMILY, took me 18 months to write. Without a roadmap, I would write all the little ideas and delete troves of words before latching onto another idea and doing the same thing over and over again. It was a slog and I hardly remember finishing it. When I had the idea that became my debut novel SLEEPER PROTOCOL, I vowed that I wouldn’t do that whole awful process again. I determined that I was going to figure out how to write a novel. I’ll cut off some of the story here, but a book on screenwriting changed the way that I write. That book was “My Story Can Beat Up Your Story” by Jeffrey Alan Schecter. It’s a quick, easy read that gives you insights into character development, story pacing, and a structure that resonates with your reader.

Schecter’s book impressed the folks at Mariner Software enough that they built a screenwriting program called Contour that follows his method to the letter. When I found out about Contour, I quickly downloaded the free demo. From there, I ended up purchasing the program. It’s a part of my pre-writing process, which is the theme of the month, so let me break down how I get ready to write a novel.

Let’s say I have an idea already pretty formed in my head. Chances are that I’ve started gathering some notes on that idea in a notebook (yes, I have a notebook problem – there are never enough). I take that pretty formed idea in my head and start to make sure I can craft it into some of the key notions that Schecter teaches about character development. The takeaway here is that without good characters, your story doesn’t live to tell the tale. Forget to develop your protagonist and your book never reaches the end of Act One because there’s nothing to change them. Fail to develop a solid antagonist and your story dies in Act Two. By building the character development first, even before I start the plotting pieces and exercises, I have a solid idea of where the story is going to go based on the goals of my characters. From there, I go through Contour’s beats and guide sheets to develop a “straw” outline – that’s my first pass entirely through Contour. I come back and add more detail to the areas that need it – thanks to big text boxes and the like. Once I’ve done that, it’s time to open Scrivener, my writing software.

Once in Scrivener, I use what’s in Contour to help flesh out a basic structure. I create the building blocks in various ways – either folders and chapters for scenes, the cork board function for random thoughts or unplaced ideas, and any references I need to consult as I write. With the data from Contour about specific plot points, character goals, and what the characters need to discover/solve/act upon, by the time I’ve laid out my pre-writing, I have a serious amount of data already in the program ready for me to use. Yes, it seems like a lot of work, but for me it’s better than trying to handle those dozens of notebooks and pieces of scratch paper. If I take the time to enter the ideas in Contour, it asks the questions for me and my answers further flesh out the plot. From there, writing is relatively easy.

How easy? At this point, I’ve invested several hours in building out Contour and laying out Scrivener the way I want it to. For me, the end result is that I write faster. Remember RUNS IN THE FAMILY? Eighteen months from start to finish? With the method I laid out above, I wrote SLEEPER PROTOCOL in seven weeks. I wrote the recently published sequel VENDETTA PROTOCOL in about nine weeks. It’s a much faster process when I know the route that I’m going to take. By laying out the entire novel, if a character decides to do something differently that I want them to, I can let that play out a little and still have a clear ending in mind. I can adjust things as I go, which is much easier than stopping and starting all over. With a full outline, I know where I have to get back to, and it makes a difference.

No two methods are the same, though. You have to figure out what works for you. For me, that intense planning and note taking process leads to big changes with my speed and productivity, but it may not work for you. There are a million ways to write a novel, but they don’t all require any prewriting. They do require writing, so get to it.

 

The Art of the Cover Letter

Look at you writing that cover letter like a champion!

Perhaps the most dreaded feedback for a writer or a skyscraper architect to receive is: “Can you make it shorter?” For some writers, this is one of the most painful parts of the editing process. For me, it’s… well, I actually haven’t gotten that note before. I write short, and I friggin’ like it that way.

Turns out I’m not alone. I’ve received some significant compliments from editors and publishers on my short, concise, and to-the-point cover letters. I found this curious, until I realized I have lots of experience with cover letters. At a former job, I was first point of contact for applicants and read literally thousands of cover letters. I’d taken note of what worked, what didn’t, and what could work if finessed. Below, I’ll give you that basic structure based on what you’re submitting to an editor or publisher.

The most important thing to mention is that if you can turn the basic into the unique without it being overblown, braggy, or down-right weird, then do it. Your cover letter is your chance to introduce yourself in a provocative, distinct way. Take advantage of the opportunity!

 

Dear EDITOR/PUBLISHER NAME,

(A)It’s my pleasure to submit SHORT STORY/MANUSCRIPT TITLE for your consideration for PUBLICATION NAME.

(B1) [If you are submitting a novel, directly go in to a little about yourself. In this section about yourself, be sure to mention:

  • If you have met the editor or publisher at an event, immediately remind them when and where you two met, and remind them that they asked to see your work
  • Published works (if you have many, choose your top three or just use the titles of the magazines, for example: My short stories have appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, Pseudopod, and Daily Science Fiction.)
  • Ongoing works such as blogging, reviews, or newspaper/magazine columns
  • Soon-to-be published works
  • Long-term works (ex. “I am currently writing a horror fantasy series set in 1920’s Brooklyn.”)
  • Any other writing-related credits (editor, copywriter, etc.)
  • One or two sentences about yourself including your day job, inspirations, aspirations, unique experience you hold that might be attractive to a publisher — this is an opportunity to hook an editor with your personality]

(B2) [If you are submitting a short story, I recommend first talking about the story:]

“SHORT STORY TITLE” is a X,XXX-word GENRE (ex. psychedelic fantasy) set in SETTING (ex. the heart of an acid trip). INCLUDE 2-3 MORE SENTENCES ABOUT YOUR STORY. THIS IS YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH. MAKE SURE YOU REALLY HOOK THE EDITOR WITH THIS DESCRIPTION — MAKE THEM SO CURIOUS THEY CAN’T HELP BUT READ YOUR STORY TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS.

(C1) [For submitting a novel, now is the time to go into 1-3 paragraphs about your story. This will be different than what is explained in B2, as you need to go into a longer pitch of your novel. In these paragraphs, take the editor on a small tour of what they can expect to read in your novel. Go over the main characters and basic plot, then mention the themes you delve into as well. After the long pitch, if you haven’t mentioned it already, state your target audience for your novel, approximate word count, and any other information you feel is important for the editor to know. For example, mention that you gave your novel to ten 5th grade boys (your target audience), and provide quotes of from the boys detailing how they loved the book.]

(C2) [For submitting a short story, now is the time you can talk about yourself. Keep it to a paragraph and just list your past, ongoing, and soon-to-be publications, and a fact or two about yourself (where you live, that you are a professional skydiver, that you have 49 grandchildren, etc.).]

(D) [Thank the editor for their time in this short section, and put it in your own words.] I appreciate your time, and thank you for taking a look at my story/novel “SHORT STORY TITLE”/NOVEL TITLE. I look forward to hearing from you.

(E) [Your personal information goes here such as:]

NAME
E-MAIL ADDRESS
PHONE NUMBER (optional)

As you may have noted, a cover letter for a novel will be a bit longer than a short story, but both should be limited to between four and six paragraphs. You don’t want the editor spending their precious time reading your cover letter. You want to leave them intrigued as to who you are and excited to read your story. So much so, they’ll jump right into reading your manuscript.

Additional (and helpful) resources:

  1. Submission and Formatting Basics: http://www.writersdigest.com/tip-of-the-day/how-to-submit-short-stories-formatting-basics
  2. Submissions 101: http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/literary-journal-submissions-101
  3. Writing a Query Letter: http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-write-the-perfect-query-letter

Revisions ““ Discovering Those Great Plot Gaps

There’s no greater feeling than getting that first draft done! Celebrate, pat yourself on the back and then take a break. Yup, you heard me. Set it aside and walk away for a few weeks or a few months. Tackle another story, another novel, another writing project. This will accomplish two things – it’ll be easier to switch from being creative to editing and practice makes perfect so your improved skill level will help you revise.

My first revision always looks at plot gaps. There are several methods and each can be employed for their own reasons but the quickest and best one I’ve found is to write the dreaded synopsis. I use it for the same reasons editors do: to see if the plot makes sense, if it creates tension and if there is a story arc as well as main character arcs. Some would argue that the original outline can be used this way. I choose to write the synopsis because it’s a fresh approach to looking at the novel and I’ve got to write it at some point.

For the purpose of revision, my synopsis is about 2,500 words for every 80,000 words in draft. The reason for keeping it so short is because I want to focus only on key elements in the plot and character lines. Subplots and side stories/events are examined later with respect to how they support the key plot points. The synopsis is written in third person, present tense and in the style or voice the novel is written in (humorous, chatty, dramatic).

Before you write the synopsis, make a note of the basic story arc which starts with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what motivates the character toward a goal such as conflict resolution, finding true love, solving a mystery, saving someone, to resist change, etc. Then there are the obstacles to reaching the goal, the climax wherein the goal may or may not be achieved and then the denouement.

Like every good book and book jacket blurb, a synopsis starts out with a good hook. This introduces the protagonist, her motivations, goals and the conflict which keeps her from her goal. A synopsis isn’t a simple listing of events but rather it show how the events affect people and what they do which in turn affects plot and outcomes. Now, weave in the story arc, the key points of your plot, with your character’s actions, reactions while showing how they are affected by the decisions they make or actions they take. Use this method through the crisis and denouement.

When I read over the synopsis, I ask the following questions with every plot event:

  • Given the protagonist’s motivations, are her reactions and actions believable? If she really wants to save her family from the villains, why is she enjoying a glass of wine on the beach?
  • Is there enough tension between the protagonist and the antagonist? Does it increase until the climax?
  • Does this feel like it’s naptime? Has something been resolved too quickly? Are more obstacles needed? Remember, if you’re bored so will the reader be.
  • Does it move the story forward in a way which is exciting and logical? Or does it feel contrived, flat and unimportant?
  • Was this the most reasonable reaction and action for the character? Why didn’t she react another way? These questions focus on the logic problems of a character’s actions. For example, why didn’t Jean simply kill Maggie by pushing her over the ship’s railing when no one was looking? Why did she choose to slowly poison her to death? As the writer, you may know why, but did you communicate it clearly?

A synopsis is a great tool, even in the middle of a novel to check how your plot and character arcs are evolving. Recently, I was completing the first draft of a novel and I just couldn’t finish writing the last three chapters. Something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what. After writing the synopsis I discovered a couple of logic holes in a character’s reaction which didn’t fit his goals plus there was a plot logic issue. With these now understood, the draft was completed to my satisfaction. And, I’ve got a great tool to refer to during the revision to make sure the scenes, plot and character arcs in the manuscript follow the synopsis. Better still, I have a draft synopsis which I can revise for my queries.