Category Archives: Art & Craft

Dreaded…

A pain in the neck, bent over your computer or tablet, typing or writing, it is the dreaded synopsis. DREADED, that is the adjective most often accompanying the word synopsis. And I do get it. It is hard to write, to think through your whole book. You must decide what is a main plot and what are the sub-plots. You must decide who are the main characters, when and how are they included. And whether it is 50K or 90K, it is a lot of thinking to do. But do it you must.

SCBWI Carolinas recently sponsored an online program, Wait! What? A Synopsis? not too long ago. The gist of the presentation was that the synopsis should represent not only the plot but the motivations of the main characters. And Yikes! all of this in under 600 words! One page!  And, at the same time you want to do two, maybe three things:

  1. show the uniqueness of the story
  2. show the believability of the characters
  3. show the ending

And that is not, as Stacy Whitman put on my synopsis, ‘spoilery’ [which may or may not include a dash].

There were multiple corrections on my synopsis for typos and I blame that on my learning to read by sight and not by phonetics and on a mild case of dyslexia which translates into poor mechanics. Sigh. Excuses done!

The most important addition to your writing and publishing according to Ms. Whitman is the synopsis shows that you have thought out your plot and can distinguish it-from beginning to end- along with the main characters in your story. Somehow that seems basic, but no. To me it’s like the pitch. How would I pitch this story?

In BECOMING THE ONLY, twelve-year-old EMILY POUVERAIN DELAQUA, living in the shadow of her successful grandma after whom she is named, struggles with death, intimidation, and deception. A contemporary middle grade novel of 54K words, BECOMING THE ONLY is a genre mash-up of Moon Over Manifest meets a middle grade The Brief History of Montmaray. 

The question I have to answer, I have come to realize, is does the synopsis augment or betray the pitch. Augment is far better, right? Therefore the synopsis should include good details, the
most telling details including the motivation of the main antagonist, whoa!

I like this image because I have come to realize it is true, motivations are the muscle of the story, the heft that brings the story from being a plot with a beginning, middle and end–a hundred pound weakling–to a robust and fulfilling story and it is for story we strive, amend, revise, and edit.

As pain in the neck as it is, a synopsis speaks to the truth of my story and for that I will work it and work it and work it so that I can do the exact same thing for the story itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Done!

I like that word. Done. When you say it it is a puff of air, it is hard, singular and finite. 

I am done with a synopsis [well, almost, awaiting a critique on that one] a query letter [one more critique and it will be] and the novel itself. Weighing in at 54768 words. A lot! True not a 90,000 word great american novel.

I have lost count on the number of revisions to this story. It began as a short story with adults in the main character roles. And I liked it, sent it to Ellery Queen for a contest and got nothing back. Which was okay. I didn’t really expect anything. It was really my first attempt at working a story after thirty years of writing abstracts of articles, job descriptions, policy papers, work procedures, how-to’s for managers and supervisors, newsletter and employee handbooks. It was a challenge to add in more words, to describe a room, or to see a scene through the eyes of a character and it started me on this path, this one that I am on now.

It took me a while to understand that writing for adults, while hard~ please do not get me wrong~ was just not the same thing as writing for a kid. And then it took me longer to understand writing for children today. The stories I read as a kid, mostly were either historical fiction where the event was the pivot point, or mysteries where the murder/theft/crime was the pivot point. I mean, consider the girl detective of the post war period. She was clever, confident. You knew somewhere along the story she was going to be in jeopardy, but you also knew she was going to get out of it.

There were the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and the one lone boy, Encyclopedia Brown. No, I take that back, there were the Hardy Boys. They were always more about the mystery than the kid!  And I loved that. It’s not that I didn’t care about Nancy and her cousins Bess and George, it’s that their lives really did not intrude on the story. They were somewhat independent even though Nancy was when I was reading them, rather young for the responsibilities and opportunities she had to go off on her own. I think too, I always liked that George was a girl!  I was less interested in their lives and more interested in how in a small town like River Heights there could be so many crimes. [I find I have the same problem today with series that are outside major cities, that involve so many murders.]

I digress. Done! The story, the action, the mystery and how it unfolds has been less of an issue for me than the internal story. When I was first asked to describe the emotional journey of the character I immediately thought of my best Sarah Berhardt imitation~ flat of the hand across the brow, a slight sinking of the knees and a huge sigh. It took me a long time to grasp the need for children to connect with a character before they connect with the story. At least that is one of the ways I see it.

We are ruled in our social media by emotions. Do I like? Why is there no don’t like on Facebook? We use pictures~ jpegs., gifs, memes~ to describe what we are dubious about putting into words in places that almost require, nay, demand, the quick short cut. So while we are describing our emotion, it is nothing unique! nothing original. When I use a smily face with stars  in it’s eyes, do I mean it the same way that some one else does? Okay not a lot to worry about, because most of us do not spend that much thought on others thoughts.

But in a book, short cuts do not work for emotions, or better stated, they shouldn’t work for emotions. For a child to read the story and get what the writer means, it should be clear, upfront and a goal sought after through the whole book.

Upteenth revision later, I think I am as close as I can get by myself. When the synopsis critique comes through. When the second query critique comes through, I think I am ready to submit. Not that I did not submit before, I did. I tried and no, nothing. But this time, I think I have a best hook. I think the writing is the clearest and cleanest and most soundly representative of the main character I can come up with. Ha! We shall see.

In truth, tho, Done only means one thing.  there is another story to work on!

Blindsided

I had a critique at a recent SCBWI conference. And. I did everything wrong.

I have had a string of very good critiques, one not so good, but on the whole, good stuff. And, I have handled them all well. But this time. Whoa! Was I surprised. I suppose it was because I had had a really good critique on the same manuscript not that many moons before. I was feeling confident! The previous critique had mentioned all the great features of the manuscript: voice, character, setting, plot. What more is there? And the one issue was the name of the book.

Naming is hard. I often wonder how Adam and Eve came up with all the names for the animals even the ones who are not indigenous to Eden. But I digress. The title to me was a running gag line throughout the book. Death by bananas. No that wasn’t the title, but it could have been.

So in the more recent critique I did change the title. Good so far.

Then Boom! The initial fifteen minutes of face to face time was so far from any thinking process I have had, or any feedback I have received from my critique group, or from the beta readers, or from other critiques about the manuscript that I was thrown into outer space. Well, for all the good it did me in the session, I could have been in outer space. It was cold, dark and unfortunately I remember little else of the time. I froze. I do remember being upset. I’m not sure I handled myself well and for that I am embarrassed! I truly blew an opportunity.

But almost like Sisyphus compelled to roll that stone up a hill, and almost as a punishment,  I’ve toted this critique~ the two pages of the SCBWI Gold form and the ten pages I submitted AND the synopsis around with me for months. The psychic weight was difficult. It hung on me, depressed me, and almost took away my enthusiasm for the story.

Still, I do not succumb easily to failure. I always have considered failure nothing more than another door opening. I trudged on. I attended a couple of online programs on query writing. What was the essence of the story. Not the hook, but the central concept. What was important about the story. I studied pitching on line. I participated in a program on how to write a synopsis, read blogs and continually wrote and rewrote the story line for my critique group.

At issue is that I like this story. I have been writing it in one form or another for maybe twenty years. There are so many parts that are me…the main character, the grandma, the interaction. I can see those things in my own life as well as in video format.

It has taken me a couple of months to actually pick up and read the written critique, I found that the critiquer liked the story too. “The writing is restrained, never giving information dumps or otherwise overly explaining backstory. I like how you allow Emily’s story to unfold slowly, forcing the reader to follow the breadcrumbs trail you are providing about her situation. I really like the presence of a very strong matriarch in this family with a powerful corporate/scientific career–unusual in kid lit.”

What was I thinking? Well. I wasn’t, was I? So. Now I have read the entire critique. The two pages of the SCBWI Gold Form.  The ten pages, heavily annotated, and the synopsis, also annotated. And I remembered something I heard from an agent who attended a Carolinas conference several years ago. That it was, is, harder to critique a bad manuscript, than a good one. With a good one, you can point out all the ways the writer can make it better. 

And, you know what? I am grateful for this critique. It is right. I strayed from my original voice. I over-reacted to the story device. And, while I disagree heartily with the opinion that the character is a ‘little bit of a cipher’ I now get what the critique is trying to tell me.

Here’s hoping. #amthinking #revising #amwriting

 

Butt in Chair

BIC. Butt in Chair. Time to return to writing. This year with a shortened conference timeline~posting registration in May and selling out in July~ It seemed like I lost a couple of months of thinking, mulling, musing and writing time. I did. Back now!

I don’t get to many of the sessions at the conference, not because I can’t, but because I want to make sure that I focus on the conference and all that it entails. Sigh. I value multitasking, but that was in business where the thought was not deep, the stakes were not as high and the opportunity to use subordinates existed 🙂

I make up by reading the books recommended by the speakers [I use NC Digital Library when I can] and I stack them up against my own story-not the writing- but the story. What is the voice?  What about the pacing of this novel. Can I chart the synopsis, the major crisis, show where the denouement comes in? I look at presenters website and follow their process. It is a personal journey that I recognize for some is shorter than for others. Who is their editor? Who is their agent? What are my possibilities?

So I am always attuned to how writers write.  The Techniques of a Bestselling Writer, Five-Second Rule to Transform Your Life, The Writer’s Journey. Oh, there are many! They are great reads. Thank you. But no.

I remember at a NESCBWI conference in the last century Barbara Seuling said she never delivered a book to her editor where the editor kept the first two chapters, they were always cut! This gives me hope, but not. It is a different time since Barbara first penned her first manuscript and submitted.  Today we talk about The Most Valuable Real Estate in Your Novel~The First Page & THE HOOK!  Admittedly, our conference first pages session shows that editors and agents, tho they are not on the panel, also look for that indescribable ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ line or paragraph. How many of those books they accept? Who knows? But yikes, no pressure!

Anyone who knows me, like my own critique group, knows I start a book with the end scene. I know where I want the character to end up~ solving a mystery, finding family, accepting but still unhappy with the solution they themselves wrought, successful, improved, better than they were at the beginning.  In that moment I know the character at that place in time. What they want, why, and how. I’m not always sure how to describe it [and mayhaps I have blown many a query in not being able to articulate it.]  Then my only problem is to go back to the beginning and start the story.

And there you have it. START THE STORY. Full confession: while I did learn to diagram sentences [actually loved that] the outlining of an essay, chapter, story has never been in my skill set. I sort of consider it the same as not being able to get out of San Francisco heading south~ needing to go north to Marin county, turn around, head across the Golden Gate and then get on the right highway. Maybe now with GPS it would be different, but…. Sigh. It is just the way it is, I have accepted this. But always felt a bit backward and incomplete.

I also belong to Sisters in Crime. the quarterly InSinC magazine appeared in my mailbox on Saturday and as I leafed through I came across an article by Jill Kelly, author of six novels and a member. Defending the Rights of Pantsers. I laughed at the title. Truly! Yes.

Like most of us, being a pantser was not her choice. But she wrote. Every day. At least 300 words. [do emails count?  Probably not.] After writing four novels she happened on a book Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.  Yes, I may buy it, but not really sure why. As Jill says in the article about the main character in House of Cards: ”he is the god of his little world….he is the CEO and everyone does his bidding. I think this is how story engineers do it.”

And then she says, “my relationship with my characters is very different. We’re friends, collaborators…sharing a mutual experience, they are writing this book with me.”  She names pantsing a ‘call and response tradition’ like jazz musicians improvising off one another. I so get that. I get emotional over my character’s problems and solutions. I feel, deeply, the points in the story where she is faced with choice. I worry with her over how this will end. While I cheer for her success, I can see how she could fail! I cry. I get angry. I am amazed when a character shows up to help or hinder. Where were they before? Should I know that? Why do I see them so clearly today but not even know they existed yesterday?

Ms. Kelly’s tips include: Write everyday. Write the first thing in the morning. Gather possibilities. Draft fast, rewrite slow. Be proud of how you work. Nice!

Maybe because of the thirty years spent in corporate America, being paid on the basis of goals met, her tips feel like a set of performance appraisal goals that are attainable, worthwhile and straightforward. There are four months left in the year! These are not strident, difficult or unmanageable goals.

So. Butt in Chair.  Yes, Pantser! Officially, proudly,  joining the club!

 

Structure

Radio. No, 1930-1950’s radio. Old Time Radio, well they call it Radio Classics, hosted by the nicest person, Greg Bell, who responds wonderfully quickly to email. As I said, nice man.

What does this have to do with structure? Tom and I travel a lot in our car. It’s easier to car ride to Baltimore than to fly. Fly, ha! it’s an hour south to the airport, be there two hours early, go through TSA, wait, board, wait, fly, deplane, wait or pick up car. And by the time you are done, you have saved maybe an hour or two and you are frazzled, have spent more money than you planned and, well, yuck!  So back to travel. We listen to XM radio or Sirrus, whichever, now they are one. While it’s interesting to keep up on the news, sometimes that overwhelms you, you can only hear about one story told four different ways for so long.

On Radio Classics they have Bob Hope, Jack Benny for laughs–not quite vaudeville, not quite tv either. Then you have the shows! Richard Diamond, Johnny Dollar And The Action Packed Expense Report. Not to mention, the Shadow and the Dimension X series. So, variety shows, detective stories, murder, fantasy, science fiction….all done in twenty minute blocks, THE WHOLE STORY. Radio Classics fascinates me because the stories have a beginning, middle and end…they are complete. Listening to one show back several years I could not get it out of my head. I’ve tried several ways to figure out how to write this story, because, well, I need it to be longer than twenty minutes and I want the hero to be a kid. Enter Greg Bell who not only sent me the mp3 recording of the show, but the transcript!

I’ve vacillated between a girl or a boy. It could be either. I finally chose a girl because the end of the story is one where I want a hard choice, not an easy one, and one where not everyone lives. And I’d like to see a girl make that choice.  But the structure of the story has alway eluded me. How, just how do I get from introducing the characters to the end where the reader <hopefully> is sympathetic enough to the main character to see her ending as not sacrifice, but simply ‘the right thing to do’.

And last night, while researching how I was going to get the main characters from point A to point B so that the denouement is believable, I got it. I had, a while back,  decided that to put them on a plane would be a quick way to get them where they need to go, but there was no way to have the story unfold. So I put them on a train. Last night I really started to research the trains. From California to Chicago is the California Zephyr. and then from Chicago to upstate New York is the Lake Shore Limited. And all the stops along the way. A little research of the stops and some interesting tidbits for the story line emerge.

So I got two things out of making this one decision to have the story revolve around a train ride. One I found the structure for the story, basically about four days, maybe more, but along a train route. Have not factored in train changing time, etc. yet, but that’s not a deal breaker.  And two, I can add a dimension to my character by having her interested, engaged and sometimes overwhelmed by each of the stops as well as the story itself.

Very cool! Lol, now to work.