Category Archives: Writing
A synopsis is a summary of a novel’s main plot points and characters, from the beginning right through to the end. Most agents and editors like to see one when assessing your manuscript for possible publication, so it’s something almost all writers have to do at some point. I’ve noticed many publishing professionals request a ‘brief synopsis’, which I take to mean about one or two pages at the most. Others may ask for a more detailed five or six page synopsis. But this is something many writer’s struggle with, me included.
How can you possibly take a 300-400 page story and explain it in only one or two pages?
I don’t claim to be an expert on this (far from it, although I do my best!), but here are some things I’ve learned while writing my own synopses. I’ve called it ‘The Russian Doll Method’!
Open your manuscript and summarise all the main plot points, as though you’re giving someone a running commentary on a TV show or movie they can’t see. Use present tense. Don’t worry about length at first, just get the main plot points down (big Russian doll), and add in a taste of your voice, so if it’s humorous, show some of the humour, if it’s suspenseful, add that element to the synopsis too, as long as you don’t leave any questions unanswered. A synopsis’ purpose is to tell a potential agent or editor/publisher what the book is about and what happens throughout the story, including the ending.
Once you’ve written the summary, go through and highlight the most important events affecting the main character/s in yellow. Then highlight the slightly less important events, but still a required part of the story, in another colour such as grey (just one shade, not fifty. Sorry, couldn’t resist;)). You might find that some events can be left out of the synopsis, for the sake of brevity.
Now start again, writing the synopsis focusing on the highlighted parts, and tightening up the sentences (smaller Russian doll). Check the length to see if you need to cut further, and if so, go through the highlighting process again (even smaller Russian doll). Also, see if some plot events can be combined into one sentence as an overall summary of the situation, so rather than:
John arrives at his grandma’s house and notices the door is unlocked. He searches all the rooms in the house, but finds them empty, so he walks out the back door and through the overgrown garden. She isn’t there either. He goes back inside and stands in the kitchen, scratching his head, then notices a half-eaten toasted sandwich resting on the table. He picks it up and finds it is still warm. Thinking his grandma might have been abducted only moments ago, John immediately calls the police. (forgive the crappy writing, this is just an example!)
Using the highlighted parts (which I’ve underlined instead because I don’t know how to highlight on this blog!), the paragraph could be changed as follows:
When John arrives at his grandma’s house it is empty, and her half eaten lunch is still warm. Terrified something bad has happened to her only moments before his arrival, John calls the police.
And if you had to cut it even further it could be changed to:
John calls the police on finding his grandma’s house empty.
Sometimes it’s easier to work this way, starting with a long synopsis and gradually breaking it down. If you end up trying this process, I’d love to hear how it goes for you – let me know!
How do you go about writing a synopsis, are there any valuable tips you’ve learned through the process?
Since it’s my Mouthwatering May blog special event, I thought I’d share with you how I got into both cooking and writing, and the role that my son played in this…
Let’s start with the cooking… now, I’m no Masterchef, and nor do I want to be, but I did develop a bit of a knack for cooking when my son was little. As it turns out, he had a few food intolerances, and after doing an elimination diet with him I discovered he was sensitive to almost EVERYTHING I tested him with. Preservatives, MSG, colours..etc were the main culprits. So I began buying ‘additive free cookbooks’ and also experimenting with recipes of my own.
It was around this time I was also studying for my naturopathic qualifications, so I became more aware of food and nutrition and its impact on the body, and I was wanting to cook fresher, healthier meals. Also, I later discovered in addition to many additives he was also intolerant to dairy foods and gluten (found in bread, pasta, biscuits, and almost every single packaged food!), so once again I donned my well-used apron and experimented with even more recipes.
There were many disasters; homemade breads that crumbled to oblivion, inedible muffins that tasted like rocks, and don’t get me started on the pathetic cheese-less pizzas! But time and practise are great teachers, and soon I was whipping up meals and snacks that not only he liked, but other people too. Now, eating this way is a way of life, and I rarely follow a recipe. I’m an intuitive cook – I throw things together and make it up as I go.
Some of my favourite sweet creations (which have no sugar either! …except for the icing ;)) are: choc hazelnut and coconut muffins, gluten and dairy free banana cake, and choc macadamia cookies. And some of my favourite meal creations are: chicken soup with broccoli-stem ‘noodles’, roast balsamic chicken with mushroom, zuchinni, and carrots, lamb cutlets with sautéed bok choy, mushrooms and mustard dressing, warm chicken and red cabbage salad, grilled salmon with steamed broccolini and toasted pine nuts, butter-less butter chicken, and smoked salmon and avocado rice rolls (see pic above). Yum!!
So how did my son get me into writing? I always had a vague idea in my mind that I might write a book one day, but it was one of those things you never really think will happen. I wrote poetry as a teenager, and when I became a mother I started writing a few snippets of random scenes that would pop into my head, and even began a suspense novel, but gave up at chapter two!
Anyway, life moved on, I became busy with other things, and my son began pestering me to take him out of school and home-school him. At this time, I was running a busy and successful business, and could barely cope with helping him with his homework, let alone consider the idea of doing it ALL day EVERY day. But as my son neared high school and his high-functioning autism became more of an issue, it became apparent that the school system just wasn’t suited to his individual needs, and things became too much of a struggle (that’s another story!). So, I left my business to have a break and think things over for a while, eventually deciding on distance education instead of full-on homeschooling. Luckily, after a detailed application process, he was accepted, and although he’s not a fan of school in general, it’s been the best thing for him.
So what’s this got to do with writing? Well, after I left my business and made the commitment to do what was best for my son, the idea of writing a book resurfaced in my mind. I thought… “If I don’t do this now, I never will.” So after we’d finish school for the day I would spend time working on my first novel. And this time, I made it past chapter two (yay!), and eventually, after one year, I reached THE END. It was the best feeling EVER, and I wanted more. So I started my second novel, and nine months later typed THE END again. And now, I am nearing the end of my third novel which so far I’ve been writing for about four months (I must be getting faster!).
So there you have it, if it wasn’t for my son convincing me to home-school him, I may have continued working long hours in my business, with no time for anything else, and with my old ‘one chapter suspense novel’ being the only thing I’d ever written.
I got to thinking recently that writing a novel is a lot like cooking, so I thought I’d create a little recipe for all those writers out there…
Preparation time: Varies, from months to years.
Serves: Potentially millions (if you’re lucky)
- One working computer, word processor, or large notepad and pen
- One committed writer
- *optional but highly recommended: truckloads of beverages and snacks
- One main plot
- A handful of sub-plots
- One to a few main characters
- Several minor characters
- At least one setting, add more to taste
- One large cup of emotion
- A splash of humour
- A teaspoon of mystery (or more depending on genre of the recipe, er… novel)
- One or two cups of cold-pressed extra virgin (or not) organic dialogue
- One or two goals
- One heaped tablespoon of motivation
- Two cups of conflict
- One cup of resolution mixed with a happy ending (depending on genre)
- A sprinkling of hooks and cliffhangers
- *optional but highly recommended: a twist of sexual tension and a dollop of romance
1. Prepare by opening a new word document or a new page on your notepad, and give it a title, eg: ‘Best Novel Ever’, or ‘I’ll Think Of A Title Later’.
2. Write the opening sentence, or the last sentence, or any words you can think of so you can officially say, “I’ve started writing my novel.”
3. Consume beverages and snacks.
4. Introduce one main character, a goal, and splash in some conflict (save the rest for later).
5. Sprinkle a hook or cliffhanger at the end of chapter one to entice further devouring of the story.
6. Add some of the other characters and sub-plots, and stir in some emotion and mystery.
7. Consume more beverages and snacks.
8. Splash in some humour and keep drizzling in the organic dialogue throughout the whole baking/writing process.
9. Combine the motivation with some more of the conflict for a spicy mixture.
10. If adding the optional ingredient of sexual tension, squeeze a little in now.
11. Continue stirring the plot and the sub-plots together so they combine well, making sure to keep topping up the emotion.
12. Consume beverages and snacks.
13. Add in the remaining conflict, sexual tension, mystery, and hooks.
14. Finish by placing the cup of resolution and happy endings on top, and decorate with a dollop of romance.
15. Bake in a closed drawer or backed-up file on your computer, and leave completely alone for at least a couple of weeks, or more if you’ve forgotten to attend to necessary tasks such as showering, cleaning, feeding the family and pets, seeing real live people, checking the mail…etc.
16. Open the file and give it a taste test. Read through it and make any obvious changes and improvements, adding more of the ingredients as needed.
17. For best results, get a trusted friend to taste test it too.
18. Make further improvements.
19. Bake it for a little longer if necessary.
20. Pull bits of it apart and throw them out. But just in case, wrap them up and store them safely away for future reference.
21. Remove the excess words and overused ingredients.
22. Repeat steps 11 and 13.
23. Add extra sweetness to the dollop of romance if required.
24. Decorate and plate-up the finished piece with all the pizazz you can find.
25. Hand it over to a professional, who’ll probably get you to start over at step 20 again.
26. Repeat steps until it tastes just right, or a deadline forces you to serve it up.
27. Consume beverages and snacks to reward yourself for all the hard work.
28. Attend to the necessary tasks that you’ve once again neglected.
29. Smile politely at people who say, “The novel was great, I read it in one day. Hurry up and write the next one!”
30. Begin at step 1 all over again.
*Note: Results may vary between people. Recipe not suitable for freezing.
Thanks for reading! And remember, all comments left on blog posts during May will go into the draw for some tasty prizes! Click on the ‘mouthwatering may’ tag below to see all may blog posts, or click on the category on the right side menu. Also, make sure you subscribe to the blog to be eligible
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Michael Hauge - story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Morgan Freeman, and is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID.
I asked him some meaty questions and got some fantastic and thorough answers, with practical tips for all writers to apply to their own writing, such as how to give your book ‘movie-potential’, which Hollywood films are good for writers to watch and analyse, and how his six stage plot structure creates a successful story.
Some gems I got from the interview:
- Give your protagonist a ‘visible’ goal to work towards and then put seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his/her way.
- Read screenplays to learn ways of ‘showing versus telling’.
- A great tool to add credibility to a story is to use a reflection character (see the interview for explanation).
Check out the complete interview here, it is a wealth of great information!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. That is how Jane Austen started her book, Pride and Prejudice in 1813, and made it into the top 100 best first lines from novels according to the American Book Review.
A knockout first sentence can immediately draw a reader in, and helps set the tone of the story, so I think it’s important to create the best first line possible. Having said that, a good first line means nothing if the rest of the book is terrible! So of course the second sentence, and the third, and right up till the end all matters too.
When I’m in a bookstore choosing a book, not only do I go by cover design, author name, and the blurb on the book jacket, I always read the first sentence, and often the whole first page to see if it grabs my interest. If a writer can come up with the goods on the first page I know they’re more likely to keep me interested throughout the whole book.
As a reader, how important is the first sentence to you? As a writer, how easy or difficult do you find it to come up with a winner of a first line?
I love writing first sentences. I usually write them first before working out a detailed plot, because I find if I just let the words flow it’s easier to get a feel for the story idea and the protagonist.
Here are a few of my first sentences from completed stories, short stories, and works in progress…
Some first sentences are short:
Birthdays suck. (The Big Four-O, short story)
And some first sentences are long:
For most people, the worst time to get an attack of the hiccups would be at the dentist just as the drill is approaching your mouth, or on a date, just as he leans in for The Kiss, but for me, the unfortunate diaphragmatic spasm came when Channel Four news crossed to my live broadcast at the Sydney Travel Show. (February or Forever, work-in-progress)
And others are somewhere in between:
Damn you Barbie! You and your size four figure, all over tan, and legs to the moon! (The Life Makeover Club)
Dr. Sylvia Greene had never done anything like this before in her life. (The January Wish)
‘Oops’ is not the word you ever want to hear from your hairdresser; scissors in one hand, a large section of hair in the other. (Untitled, work-in-progress)
And here are some great first sentences I’ve found from other authors:
If a road could look welcoming, then Summer Street had both arms out and the kettle boiling. (Past Secrets, Cathy Kelly)
Under normal circumstances, Faith and I should not be home when my mother calls and invites us to come see her brand-new coffin. (Keeping Faith, Jodi Picoult)
What would you do if you thought you were about to die? (Heaven Can Wait, Cally Taylor)
Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I’ve ever had in the whole of my crap life. (Remember Me, Sophie Kinsella)
Why not comment and share a favourite first sentence or two, or maybe you’d like to share the first sentence of one of your novels, or a work-in-progress? I’d love to hear some more
As a writer, hundreds of thousands of words manifest from your mind to the page, but four of them are the sweetest:
The End, and Chapter One
Not to say that all the wonderful prose you created doesn’t mean anything of course, it’s just that these words have special meaning.
Yesterday, I typed The End on my second women’s fiction manuscript, and there is nothing like the feeling of having completed a full length novel. Although, we all know The End isn’t really the end, as editing and revising awaits, but knowing that the story itself is written down and you have created something out of nothing feels pretty damn good!
Which brings me to my other favourite words, Chapter One. Part of the thrill of typing The End is knowing that whenever you’re ready you can open a blank document and type ‘Chapter One’, and start a whole new story with new characters, new settings, and new experiences. This is an exciting time when your mind can run free with ideas and let them pour onto the page. Then somewhere between Chapter One and The End you have to do the work! That is another reason why The End is so significant, it means you are one of the few who have committed, persisted, perhaps missed out on some sleep, been told ‘that’s a nice hobby’ by well-meaning people, looked at strangely when an idea comes in the middle of the supermarket queue, doubted yourself but picked yourself up again, and stuck with it until you could type those two sweet words which indicate a completed novel!
So whenever you find yourself stuck, disheartened, or wondering why you’ve chosen this challenging path, remember those four words, and remember how good it feels. After all, you are a writer because you love writing, so enjoy the journey, and celebrate all your milestones, no matter how small.
And that’s THE END of my blog post… (even that feels good )
Many authors advise writing only one manuscript at a time, so you can completely immerse yourself in the world you’ve created and the lives of the characters. This ‘Manuscript Monogamy’ makes sense, however in reality while writing a manuscript you may be editing another, and planning a future story simultaneously.
But what about writing more than one manuscript at a time? Not writing one while planning another, but actually writing scenes in one story, and then writing scenes in another story? In other words, being an Adulterous Author (gasp!).
Are you guilty of this? And if so, is it really a sin, or is it possible that two different stories can be written simultaneously and still have a convincing plot and strong characters? Who knows, but I think it depends on the writer. If you’re the sort of writer who’s able to switch your mind easily from one story to another and stay true to the characters, then I say go for it – go ahead and cheat on manuscript number one with manuscript number two, and even (heaven forbid) manuscript number three! Just don’t tell your characters
But, if the thought of this horrifies you and you think being the monogamous type is the right way to go, then repeat after me; “I (insert name here), promise to love, honour, and obey my current manuscript, till ‘the end’ do us part.” Sure, you can jot down some simple ideas for other stories as they arise, but be warned; one thing may lead to another and you could find yourself in a compromising position at third base when you only intended to go to first. Try explaining that to the revenge-driven gun-wielding action hero you created in manuscript number one.
Anyway, what do you think? What works for you? I personally am filled to the brim with ideas I want to pursue, so it would be detrimental to my family and friends, and possibly anyone within a five kilometre radius of my house, if I didn’t at least do some work on these other ideas while writing my current manuscript. I would quite likely explode if I didn’t. Having said that, I try to work mainly on one manuscript, but allow myself to write scenes in another when the inspiration strikes. Inspiration is such a random and beautiful thing, and like the Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston movie, sometimes it’s good to ‘Just Go With It’.
There’s a great post and discussion going on at Dianne Blacklock’s blog about the term ‘chick lit’, check it out here. What do you think, should we scrap it? Is women’s fiction better or just as bad?, and how can we better classify novels based on the ups and downs of women’s lives?
As an avid reader, writer, and creative person in general, (with a slight, okay… a fierce competitive streak), when I saw a contest for making a poem out of book titles I just had to enter!
I had a lot of fun pulling books from my neatly organised shelves and playing around with the titles until I came up with the final result; a romantic comedy complete with a black moment and happy ending
I didn’t expect to make the top four finalists, so that was a nice surprise!! You can see the results and the winning poem here.
Here is my poem:
So why not give this a go yourself? C’mon, have some fun and show me what you end up with!
I was one of the lucky 350 attendees of the Romance Writers of Australia’s conference, held in Melbourne on 12th-14th August. The organisers did a fantastic job, and everything ran smoothly and professionally, allowing us writers to sit back and enjoy the event.
This was my first writer’s conference, yet I felt like part of a family, and was never without an interesting person to talk to. It was great to meet many of my online writing friends face to face, and I’m sure they were surprised to see that I am in fact a real person and not the cartoon avatar they’ve seen online!
I’m incredibly grateful to have met many wonderful authors, and the support and encouragement they gave me was amazing. There was no ‘us and them’, or ‘published and unpublished’, we were all united as writers, no matter what stage of the journey we’re at.
The venue (Hilton on the park, Melbourne) was lovely, and simply being child-free for four days without having to think about housework or real life in general was absolute bliss! I always love the feeling of arriving home, but I also love being able to think solely about writing and publishing for a few days without the distractions of daily life. Is it too early to book for next year’s conference??
I took as many notes as possible. Some information was new to me, some reinforced things I’d already learned but needed to be reminded of. Most importantly, I left feeling inspired, empowered, and dedicated to this path I’ve chosen.
The speakers were all fantastic, and I enjoyed listening and learning from Bob Mayer, Susan Wiggs, Lisa Heidke, Nikki Logan, Jane Porter, Christine Stinson, and all the authors, agents, and editors who enlightened, informed, and entertained.
Here are some of the key learnings I got from various speakers at the conference:
- Writing is an entertainment business – emotion & numbers
- Always stay one book ahead of your contract
- Have SOP’s – standard operating procedures, for organising your writing time, social media, emails…etc
- Write about what scares you most – the emotion will show through
- Write what you WANT to know
- Get ideas by thinking, ‘What if?’, ‘What if something is not what it appears to be?’
- Dissect plots in movies by looking at ‘scene selection’ and scene titles on DVD’s
- Show a character’s true nature through crisis
- Find time for writing by tracking how you spend your time over one week – where can you cut back on time wasters and devote that time to writing?
- Use twitter hashtags to attract target market, eg: ‘If you like #nameofsimilarbookormovie, you’ll like #nameofyourbook
- Characterisation: Consciously communicate subconscious behaviour that the reader will subconsciously get
- A book series can be unified by concept, theme, characters, setting
- Sell a few .99c ebooks as ‘hooks’ to introduce readers to your other books
- Women’s fiction for the 40+ age group is a hot market
- Self help books can be useful for researching character issues and how they overcome them
- Children in books – must bring something out in the characters
- Technique for endings – try mirroring the opening of the book, unites beginning to end
- Don’t wait until publication to think about a ‘brand’, do it now
- A brand is a promise, a symbol, and triggers an emotional response and recognition
- Can brand yourself as an author, or your books, or a character
- When stuck with the writing process, do something else within the story – research setting, visual prompts, write a letter from your character to an old friend in first person
- Content is king, promotion is queen
- And much more!
Apart from the conference sessions, the social part was memorable too. The 1920’s themed cocktail party was a lot of fun, as was the awards dinner (congratulations to all the award winners!), and I was happy to do my bit for the fundraising for the Otis Foundation, a charity I hadn’t heard of until now, who plays an extremely valuable role in providing retreats for women and men going through breast cancer.
Thanks to the RWA team, my fellow writers, the speakers, agents, editors, sponsors, and hotel staff for making it a conference to remember.
I’m looking forward to a successful lifelong writing career – from here… to eternity.