Thursday, 26 April 2012

Synopsis tips

Peter Richardson sent in a question on a topic that I am fairly sure most writers agonise over: My difficulty is the synopsis. I find it harder to write a one page summary than an entire book. Any tips?

Before giving tips on the nuts and bolts of  writing a synopsis, it’s worth spending a few moments questioning who the synopsis is for and what they actually require.

Many agents and publishers ask for a synopsis of no more than a single page, others are more generous and will allow between two and five pages, and then there are those who don’t want a synopsis as such, but require the author to supply the type of blurb found on the back and/or inside jacket of a novel.

So, before you begin, your first port of call should be the submission guidelines. If the guidelines allow several pages, why make your task harder by keeping it to one page?

Okay, so we now assume you know how long the synopsis has to be and we need to move on to the actual writing.

The thought of sitting down and condensing an entire novel is always daunting, but it needn’t be. Break the task down and approach it step by step.

One of the best methods is to sit down with your ms and a notepad. Note down what happens in each chapter, so that you have the entire book in summary. Look out for the various themes and make a note of them – this knowledge will be invaluable when you write the synopsis.

Right, now you have a chapter by chapter outline of the book and from that you can pick out the important aspects to go in the synopsis. While doing this, don’t forget that you need to entice the synopsis reader, so make sure you include plenty of conflict and show how the story and characters are driven as a result.

Something I saw on a website many years ago struck me as clever. Imagine you have met a friend at a party and you want to describe a film you saw the night before. You’d only give the bare bones of the story, but you would include all the exciting and/or moving aspects of the film leaving your friend wishing that they hadn’t missed out on the experience. This is what you are aiming for in a synopsis. The bare bones, but told in such a way that the person reading the synopsis can’t wait to get hold of the book.

If you bear the above paragraph in mind, you’ll realise you do not have to mention every character in the book, but you must include all the important ones. Similarly, you do not need to detail every twist and turn of the plot, but you must show clearly what the book is about, the highs and lows of the story, what is at stake for the main characters, and how the heroes deal with the plot shifts.

Do make sure the storyline follows a logical sequence and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Always give the ending of the novel. Apart from anything else, this shows the agent you have worked through the plotline and ironed out any hitches.

The synopsis should be written using the present tense and third person point of view, even if the actual novel is in first person.

Write in the same style you’ve used to write the book, always bearing in mind that this could be the first and only chance you get to show off your own unique voice. If the novel is humorous, use humour. If the book is a rollercoaster thriller, then so should the synopsis be. If the setting is unusual or in some way affects the plot, include a few lines to show this.

Open with a hook which will grab the reader’s attention and show the main characters’ emotions and motivations, including any information that is absolutely necessary (don’t try to tell the reader everything). Make the conclusion seem even more exciting by using shorter sentences.

Synopsis still too long? Go through it again and again taking out all the unnecessary adverbs and adjectives. Put it away for a week at least between pruning sessions. You need to come at it with fresh eyes each time.

When it comes to formatting, you do not need a title page for the synopsis, your contact details go in the covering letter, and the novel’s details go on the same page as the synopsis. Start by putting the following information in the top left-hand corner of the page.

Word Length:
Or, if writing for children, put: Genre and age group:

Use single line spacing. Block the first paragraph to the left and indent all subsequent paragraphs. Write only in the present tense, using the third person. Each time you introduce a new character, put their name in capitals, but revert to lower case thereafter.

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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Can a slow burn be attention grabbing?

Charles Daly sent in a question regarding plot and his opening chapter: I'm writing a thriller but the start of my story is more of a slow-burn suspense atmosphere as the hero is lured to Hong Kong to start a mysterious new job. However, agents and publishers alike seem to demand more of a show-stopping grabber in chapter one, or at least that's what is required to get noticed. How can I satisfy both the demands of the story and the publishing industry? Should I mess around with timelines in chapter one? Flashbacks, flash forwards, etc, to bring in some high-octane action? Any help gratefully received!

I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this question when comes to the various devices you could use to make the opening to your novel attention grabbing, if that is how you decide to open your story. But that phrase, attention grabbing, is the important bit of the sentence. Agents and publishers want a reason to read on. What they are looking for first and foremost is quality of writing. They don’t necessarily want a high octane show-stopping grabber, but they do need to be presented with something that makes them keen to find out what happens next.

You can do this by letting the reader know that something is not quite right about the mysterious new job, but what you can’t do is present several pages of your hero travelling to Hong Kong without giving a strong hint of troubles to come.

An atmosphere of slow-burn suspense can give a compelling sense of foreboding, when handled correctly. If your character comes to life on the page, so that the reader believes in him, and you’ve added in the elements of mystery, your readers will be on edge as he moves across the world to take up his new position.

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Trace your Roots

Today marks the launch of one of the best books you'll ever find on researching your family tree. Trace your Roots comes from the pen of Maureen Vincent-Northam, co-author of The Writer’s ABC Checklist, colleague and very good friend. Trace your Roots is a superbly researched book on a serious subject, leavened with Maureen's inimitable brand of humour. To tell us more about it, Maureen has kindly answered some questions.

How did you come to write Trace your Roots?
This is a much-updated version of a previously published book and I wrote it to sort of redress the balance. At one time, the only genealogy books available were those of a seriously academic ilk, but all sorts of people want to trace their family tree and many appreciate a lighter tone. With Trace your Roots I had this firmly in mind while still taking the subject seriously.

Tell us a little about the book.
The book is set out as hundreds of tips with each of the 10 main chapters covering a key topic area. For example, parish records, civil sources, archival, and modern records. These tips are effective because, very often with family history research, you really do need to think outside the box. It’s easy to hit a brick wall so I suggest alternative ways of looking at things as well as recommending some lesser-known resources, many of which I’ve used in the past with positive results. I even give lessons on pidgin Latin!

How did you first become interested in genealogy?
I started out, many moons ago, by working on historical projects for other writers. I undertook some research for a local government department and then opened shop as a family history researcher. I don’t do much of that now, concentrating more on writing and editing, but I’ve always enjoyed delving into the past, and love mystery stories, and of course, genealogy involves both.

Any there interesting characters in your own family?
There are a couple of family stories: Winston Churchill was supposed to have been very impressed with, and congratulated my grandfather on, his building skills – this being one of Churchill’s own leisure pursuits – though I have difficulty picturing Mr C with a spirit level and trowel. I’ve also heard a half-formed family tale of a bare-knuckle fighter, possibly called Ruben – very tantalising and I’m not altogether sure I should be as excited by this as I am.

You mention researching connections to famous people in your book: can you tell us more?
I’ve been involved in researching the 13th century de Bohun family who were Earls of Hereford and the ancestors of Daniel Boone, the American pioneer. And I once had a client with connections to a branch of the royal Tudors.

What's your next writing project?
I have so many and, as you know, quite a few half-written ones! At the moment I’m looking for interest in a memoir-writing idea.

MaureenVincent-Northam is the author of Trace your Roots and co-author of TheWriter’s ABC Checklist. She’s judged online writing contests, contributes regularly to markets aimed at writers, and wrote and tutored an online workshop that centred on researching and writing family histories.

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Friday, 6 April 2012

Talk Proper

Today's guest post is from master dialogue writer, Danny Gillan. Danny's Scratch is one of the funniest books I've read in a long time - and the brilliant humour owes much to his light touch with dialogue. The following article first appeared in Words with JAM and I am delighted to be able to share Danny's advice with you.

Talk Proper
Danny Gillan

Let’s talk about dialogue.
            You know who your characters are; you know what you need them to do to get to that ending you have mapped out for the paragraph/chapter/novel/glass of wine you’re determined to finish before you have a bath.
            You know their back-stories. You’ve possibly detailed those back stories already in chapter one (mistake). They’re all distinct, different people in your mind. One might be, I don’t know, an alcoholic police detective (also a mistake); another could be that detective’s grumpy, disbelieving boss who has marital troubles (honestly, don’t). Yet another may well be the innocent newbie who’s acting as the reader’s way in to this decadent world - could be a fresh-faced police officer or a witness to a heinous crime (just, you know, don’t!). You may also have your villain sorted by this stage. He might be a criminal mastermind who is using his previous history as the alcoholic detective’s ex-partner/mentor (please, please don’t) to taunt your heroes. You’ve probably written a first person scene with him already, where he does a murder or something.
            Eventually though, these people are going to have to speak to one another, and they’re going to have to do more than spout blatant exposition when they do.
            Problem is, the blatant exposition still has to be in there. Yes, you can cover some of it by ‘telling’ the reader, but we all know what kind of critiques that gets us (shudder).
            I mainly write comedy, which tends to be dialogue rich and exposition light, as a rule. Why the hell did I start this article with a clich├ęd crime novel set up then, you may be asking yourself. Frankly, I’m asking myself the same question. It’s a mystery. How have I managed to get 300 words into an article about dialogue without using any quote marks, you may also be asking yourself. That too is a mystery, and one which will almost certainly be edited out by the time you read this.

So, first rule of dialogue - make sure the things your characters say are things people would actually say in the given situation:
            ‘Jake Amos, you’re a goddamn disgrace to that badge you carry. That thing used to shine, do you remember that, eh? Or has the whiskey you pour into yourself turned that black, too?’
            Now, there’s nothing drastically wrong with that as a line of dialogue. It tells you what you need to know - Jake’s boss thinks he’s a drunkard and no good at his job because of him being a drunkard. It could easily be followed by a line like, oh -
            ‘This is your last chance, Amos. You let this girl die, you’re out of here, y’hear?’
            And Jake might say something along the lines of -
            ‘Yes, boss.’
            Or possibly, ‘Fuck you, boss. See you in the morning.’ Depending on how recalcitrant you’ve decided to make him.
            Nothing wrong with any of that, you might think. And you’d be right. Apart from one little thing. That thing being - IT’S RUBBISH!
            Why is it rubbish? Let’s think about it.
            This is reality, there’s your first point of reference. Any middle manager who has an employee with an obvious alcohol problem isn’t going to hand over an important piece of work to that person, certainly not one where lives may be at risk. No, a decent, conscientious manager would advise that employee to seek treatment in the hope that they might one day return to active duty as a useful member of the team, after whatever therapy was required. So, the dialogue might more realistically go something like:
            ‘Jake Amos! How you doing? Listen, Jake, I need to take you off the team for a while. You need help, bud. If you’re stupid enough not to realise that for yourself then I guess I’ll have to realise it for you, y’hear?’
            ‘Yes, boss.’
            Or possibly, ‘Fuck you, boss. See you in the morning.’ Depending on how recalcitrant etc. Either way, Jake’s going to hospital before he finds out a thing about the missing girl/child/racehorse. Of course this might cause you a few issues with the story you have in mind, but that’s your problem not mine.
Second rule of dialogue - don’t use it to tell the reader things the characters already know. Nothing sets off alarm bells in a reader’s mind like this common mistake does.
            ‘Jake, I know you’ve got a drink problem, I see it every day, for God’s sake! You have to forgive yourself for not getting to that little boy in time eight years ago. It wasn’t your fault that his junkie mother sold him for three grams of heroine and a fish supper to the local pimp, who went on to abuse the boy by ignoring child labour laws and forcing him to work as a window cleaner. Yes, if you’d made it to the flats five minutes earlier you might have been able to grab him before he fell, but how could you have known that at the time? How, Jake? Tell me how!’
            Do you see the problem? You might want the reader to know about Jake’s run in with the child on the dodgy ladder to give an insight into his scarred psyche, but having another character repeat his history, to him, is not the way to go about it. Real people just don’t do that.

Third rule of dialogue - actual human beings’ speech is rarely grammatically correct. News flash - even posh people use contractions!
            ‘I am coming with you, Jake; you do not have to face this alone. I will start the car while you are gathering your arsenal of firearms and squeezy cloths.’
            ‘You have got to be kidding. Fuck off please, boss. I will see you tomorrow morning.’
            See what I’m saying? It’s not only okay to mess around with the rules of ‘proper’ grammar when writing dialogue, it’s practically compulsory.

Fourth rule of dialogue - real people rarely use one another’s names when chatting.
            You can just about get away with this once at the beginning of a conversation, just to let the reader know who’s talking to whom, but once that’s established you don’t have to keep reminding us. Most humans who can read are relatively smart, they’ll figure it out.
            ‘Jake, put that chamois down, you’re going nowhere.’
            ‘But Felix, I have to go. I can’t let another child hit that pavement. Not again, Felix. Not again.’
            ‘I know, Jake. I know you can’t. We’ll do it together, Jake.’
            ‘Thanks, Felix.’
            ‘No problem, Jake.’
            It’s not right, is it?

Fifth rule of dialogue - go easy on the dialect/accent.
            ‘Away tae feck, ya bugger. Ah’ll dae whit the hell ah waant tae. Ah’m no’ kidding aboot wae this scunner any maer. Huv ye no’ seen how high they flats ur?’
            Phonetically and colloquially correct it may be, but easy reading it is not. Rule of thumb here is to check the name on your birth certificate. Unless it says Irvine Welsh, think seriously about how far you go.

Biggest rule of dialogue - copy (okay, learn from) other people who are better at it than you are.
            Personally I think there’s more to be learned from talented screenwriters than novelists in this area. For truly superb dialogue watch the films of Tarantino, Kevin Smith or Judd Apatow to name but a few. George Lucas, not so much.
            The best people to stea­—I mean learn from are even closer to hand than Netflix. They’re everywhere you go, in fact. Pay attention to the people you meet and interact with every day. Listen to the rhythm of their speech. Watch out for any quirks that help immediately identify that person - missing pronouns, stupid adjectives etc. Notice how friends develop their own shorthand when chatting.
            Whoever your characters may be - detectives, vampires, poets, lovers, misery merchants, alien sex marauders or underage window cleaners - you’ll be able to find a real life analogue somewhere in your life whose speech patterns you can borrow for that character. And no, I’m not suggesting you find an actual vampire or child window cleaner to copy, that would be far too time consuming. Just look for someone around you who speaks in a way that would suit the character you have in your head. Or, failing that, make all the baddies speak like your parents/teachers/priest and all the goodies sound like yourself. That ought to work.

Finally, a few words about dialogue tags - where possible, don’t.


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