Write a synopsis: 7 prominent bloggers tell you how

The empty page is even scarier when starting a synopsis …

Just when I thought it was smooth sailing to get starting on pitching agents about my novel, I realized that there was one step I had so far skipped: rewriting the synopsis.  My heart fell to my very shoes.  Dusting off my old synopsis for this WIP, I quickly realized it wasn’t very good.  So, off to the blogs:  Thank God, my writer colleagues were there waiting to help me. And they’re there for you too, if you’re so inclined.


1. How to Write a Synopsis for your Novel I put Graeme Shimmin’s post about writing a synopsis first because he gets it with humor: this writing thing is as emotionally fraught as it is all-consuming. Finding out that after you’ve finished your novel that you’ve got to write a synopsis is not just bad news, it’s downright painful.  His linked blog on archetypes, based on the famous writer’s tome Hero’s Journey, is also useful reading.

2. Jane Friedman is building on all that: The synopsis is probably the single most despised document you might be asked to prepare.  Make sure you detail the character’s motives and emotions. This is what really drives your story.  She gives a detailed list of what to include and what to avoid.  And a list of links on how to write the synopsis, including to Miss Snark’s 100 synopsis archive.

3. How to Write a Novel Synopsis with An Example Jericho Writers.  Well this has some indispensable formatting nuts and bolts, such as: Bold your character name. Write your synopsis from the bones up, from the novel’s structure. Tell what plot developments mean for your protag, what’s at stake, people! Comes with Agent Submissions Builder pop-up, which I can’t vouch for because I didn’t do it. You might take these people a little more seriously if I told you:  They’re from Oxford, UK. Real deep intellectual country.

4. Agent Carly Watters: How to Write a Book Synopsis  Five steps to writing your synopsis, and remember the character arc:  “A one dimensional main character will suck the air out of your manuscript’s tires.” Well said.

5.  How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel  by Glen C. Strathy.  (OMG he spells his name the same as my ex husband, but I’ll put his blog in here anyway.)  Go ahead and rush past the intro to the meat of this blog post, which details various elements including plot, character, relationship, and theme that your synopsis must have, and then continues to tell how to make a set of index cards which will, if not write your synopsis for you, make it significantly easier.

6. How to Write a Novel Synopsis According to novelist Pearl Luke, ” what you present must be a stirring distillation that leaves readers eager for more.”  Okay, I look at my own personal synopsis and think, I may not be there yet.  But there’s hope. Luke provides you with a very detailed plan, including writing a “major synopsis” (my term) 20 pages long that she says will be useful later in the marketing of your book, before whittling to a “minor synopsis” of less than five pages.  Also includes detailed formatting notes.  If you refer to this one and number 3 above you should have a pretty sound idea of how to format.

7. Learn how to write a synopsis like a pro by Courtney Carpenter.  No roundup of blogs about how to do anything writing would be complete without an entry from the venerable Writer’s Digest, which has been advising writers since before print went decisively digital.  This brief blog will give you critical synopsis vocabulary, and also a quick list of what to avoid. Unfortunately, just before they actually tell you how to write the synopsis, they instead recommend you buy a course for $79, by Jane Friedman, to get the pertinent details.  Jane Friedman’s blog post on the same topic, of course, is #2 on this list.  Having read quite a bit of Jane’s blog, I admit I would wholeheartedly like to see that webinar.  But given that my budget for writing development for November would be wholly subsumed in the purchase, and would leave nothing left for Submittable.com and contest entry fees, I will have to mortify my curiosity, and just write my synopsis based on the blog posts I’ve summarized.



Maniac Miniseries Becomes my Mashup Muse

Maniac_Image2This week, I got the idea to watch Netflix as part of my ongoing work on creativity.  I chose Maniac, a futuristic 10-part series about the attempt by a team of (flawed) doctors to create a computer-pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues of various types — and the people they treat.  As I watched the show unfold, inspiration flowed into me.  From a seemingly cracked, broken and disordered beginning, the character arcs tie up remarkably. The lonely borderline-personality disordered beauty was going to see that she had the option of making other choices and was going to make them, I just knew. The young man with scizophrenia was going to transcend the mentally-unhealthy label and free himself from his pathological family.  And the sicko scientists who were creating much of the drama in the movie were going to get their just deserts, along with their human-empathy-enhanced psychologist computer.

Maniac functions on a kind of supercharged genre mashup. An incomplete map of the genres and their conflicts follows:

fiction type character(s) conflict
Recovery fiction Owen, Annie Both must overcome mental illness.

Owen: scizophrenia Annie:  substance abuse.

Family drama Owen, his father, and his brother Father seeks to force Owen to lie under oath to protect evil brother
Science fiction all A new type of mental health therapy combines pharmaceuticals and computer tracking of dreams
Psychological fiction Owen, Annie narrators are unreliable and tell incomplete stories
dystopian fiction all Strange and alienating fictional world includes technological advances such as ad buddies, humans whose job is following people reading them ads, robot dog pooper scoopers, and x-rated, whole-body virtual reality devices.

(Not charted:  mobster fiction; fantasy, and probably others) So what happened after I watched it?  I started writing my own genre mashup:  horror meets mythology meets nature writing.  A longer short story, this one will be about a man who goes into the woods and meets a dangerous cannibal hiker guy. It’s based loosely on the ancient Greek story of the cyclops, Polyphemus.

Thus, here I  introduce you to the mashup muse.

An interesting coda:  I watched this with Leo.  At the end, I asked him which character he identified with.  He said Dr. James Mantleray … I was like “What, the mad scientist?” He said, yes, well, when you have a PhD but are not a professor, yes, it feels a little similar, like you have the knowledge but the world doesn’t want you to do the work you’ve been trained for.  I guess I could see that.

As for me, identifying with both the mentally ill characters is a little unsettling.  But hey, I have to own it.  I do.

Premise: All fiction really comes from somewhere called “The Mystery Box”

It’s a TED talk.

In order to explain I need to back up.  This discovery started with the idea that one has to read literary magazines in order to get ideas of who or what might publish one’s writing.  I was reading the submissions page of a journal called Bourbon Penn, trying to find out if a surreal story I’d written concerning some women who were attending a 12-step group for SUV addicts might be a fit. As I read the description of what they were looking for, I was intrigued.

“We are looking for highly imaginative stories with a healthy dose of the odd.,” the page stated.  Yeah, me too, but what would that look like? I mused.

That’s where I found they had helpfully included a link to The Mystery Box TED talk.  In it, J.J. Abrams tells us simply:  “It’s as if the blank page is a magic box.”  And it’s a writer’s job to put a mystery inside for the reader to find.

I wrote the following notes on how to put a worthwhile mystery box on the blank page:

1. The big question that animates the story is the mystery box.  Why would the reader keep reading?  To find out the answer to the mystery.

2. Abrams notes the practice of withholding information intentionally; referring to Jaws and Alien.  This corresponds, of course, to Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  The goal is to increase the sense of mystery.

3. Abrams then points out that often, in a story, what you think you’re getting is not exactly what you’re really getting.  E.T. is not really about aliens, he claims, it’s about a family going through a divorce.  More mystery:  what you see is not what you get.

4. And finally, he tells us:  we may still be thinking of plot, but really, character is what’s inside the box.  The mystery is answered when we find out about the hero’s character.

Here’s the TED talk itself:

Mary V. Dearborn’s Ernest Hemingway Biography Part 1: Using and Abusing your Friends for Literary Gain

img_20180909_205623202897267.jpgSomehow, Mary Dearborn’s Hemingway is less attractive than that of James Morris’ The Ambulance Drivers. This does not mean that one biography is more accurate or takes a different tone overall: both bios emphasize Hemingway’s capricious, egoistic approach to problems late and early and his tendency to use people in all kinds of ways. But whereas Morris gave us a Hemingway who was driven simply by a desire to be a great writer by any means possible, Dearborn’s Hemingway is more of a loose canon. “The important thing to remember is that he didn’t have to have a reason to be mean,” according to Harold Loeb, in Dearborn’s book, and then, “The Sun Also Rises signaled the beginning of a lifelong pattern of Hemingway using fiction for revenge.”

It is the same vampirism that I discussed with regard to Sylvia Plath: If you were in her life, you were vulnerable to appearing, in the worst possible light, in her fiction. But Hemingway apparently took it one step further, actually creating characters who could be recognized as avatars of real people and then putting them in a real or trumped up poor light.

The reason, supposedly, was that he was charismatic and could get away with it.

This could be seen as encouraging to later writers:  use your friends and family!  After all, it was done by the greats, and our scruples about portraying people we love in a questionable light are one thing that keeps us from being the writers we dream of.


Of course, maybe Hemingway and Plath were, in this regard, just jerks.  Others who did this, such as the Bronte sisters and Jane Austin, at least had the sense to disguise who they were writing about.  Something to think about there.

Vampirism.  Not just for Anne Rice.  For writers everywhere.  The question isn’t whether you do it.  The question is whether you do it with discretion.

Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

I finished Tara Westover’s book Educated and I enjoyed every minute of it, though the story’s villains — Westover’s parents and her brother Shawn — were unpleasant in the extreme, and slippery to the end.

The story, which at the outset appears to treat mainly of the academic success of a child of radical unschooler parents, is more a family drama and, if you like, a battle between good and evil. The larger part of the book is the war Tara fights with her parents and their unusual parenting practices, which are based in a (mis?) interpretation of Mormon doctrine. The Mormon faith that emerges in her parents is one of justification of neglect and violence, under the heading of a search for purity.

Westover’s agon is how she can become a member of an educated world without losing her family. I am reminded of the fate of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man of the New Testament, who after death faced off over a divide between heaven (for Lazarus) and hell (for the rich man.)  The rich man begs to be allowed to go where Lazarus has gone, but he cannot. With the same plaintive cry, the educated Westover wishes to cross back to her parents’ world, but it’s impossible.

There are chilling moments all through the book. The family business, a dangerous junkyard in which the children are forced to work as young as ten, occasions multiple potentially fatal burns, falls, and impaling-type injuries. Later, the mother’s naturopathic herbalist and oil business takes off and the junkyard is abandoned, but not forgotten, at least by Westover, who has made it a setting-character of remarkable malice.

But it is the behavior of certain characters in the family that gives this memoir its seering tone.  We’ve all seen violent men and women in fiction before. There’s more than a little of Captain Ahab in Tara’s father, though instead of a fixation on killing the White Whale, Father Westover is obsessed with fighting a government and medical establishment with “religious truths” such as eschewing milk and refusing all contact with schools, with doctors, with insurance companies.  Of course the family collects guns for the end times, or for self-defense if the government attacks them.  But what really shocked me, and gives Tara the strength to stop returning to the family farm, is her mother’s duplicity when it comes to opposing Tara’s violent, almost murderous older brother and his serial abuse of his two sisters, his girlfriends, and finally his wife.

This abuse is not the usual, sexual kind you hear of in memoirs these days, but a combination of physical violence and verbal degradation that I haven’t heard of before among siblings, simply because even in “bad” families parents would be able to see that putting someone’s head in a toilet and screaming “whore!” is too much. Her brother justifies the abuse by saying Tara was being “uppity.”  Her very soul is in danger, he claims, so what’s a little violence?  What begins to surface, though it isn’t ever called by name, is a type of radical patriarchy where a woman’s value is less than a man’s, and thus her word cannot be believed when she confronts him.

Her mother watches all this but her efforts to defend Tara are minimal.

Westover never talks about belief in God or Good and Evil.  She says her father may have bipolar illness.  But for me, her diagnosis of her mother’s weakness as coming from brain damage during a car wreck is too simple, and unfair to mental illness sufferers.  (The car wreck was caused by her father’s penchant for bizarre safety breaches during the family trip to Arizona, driving all night and insisting no one wear seat belts, then refusing to stop during a blizzard and literally driving off the road in a fury.) Her father’s cruelty does not line up in my mind with bipolar.  Plenty of people with brain damage or bipolar don’t do or tolerate things like what goes on at the Westover home.

I spent a great deal of time two years ago in company of Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie. It had been recommended to me by a friend who was using it to understand and heal from a birth family with poverty and sexual abuse issues.  Peck’s thesis is hard to simplify, but it involves the idea that most evil that is enacted is enacted to protect a foundational lie; in other words, that the wrong belief or lie is first, and then comes evil.

I had never heard of the Precepts of Abraham, a book of false propaganda claiming Jewish plans for world domination published by a Russian anti-Semite in 1903.  But when at Brigham Young University, Westover discovers this book, and the Holocast it helped create, she is getting close to the lie that must be protected.  Idaho, where the family resides, is a land of white supremacist currents, and Mormonism is a faith that historically admitted only whites.  The root is long, but this is possibly why, for Papa Westover, the U.S. government is suspicious; it is possibly the largest entity in the world with a nominally pro-integrationist bent.  This could also be why the Westovers study, in home school, the Founding Fathers, but not FDR and Lincoln.

We stand on the shoulders of those who went before, and their beliefs seep into our own. The World and White Supremacists are at war today and we should be grateful. Westover’s book, a phenomenal document, is remarkable as a memoir.  But it’s also tremendously valuable as a primary historical source, a document which shows what one homeschooling Idaho family on the fringe really did, said and believed, in the observation of one family member.

Meanwhile, her parents have engaged their lawyer to problematize the veracity of Tara Westover’s story.

This from The Paris Review: Is Literature Dead?

David L. Ulin, a professor of literature at USC, wrote this reflection after he was informed of the matter by his 15 year old son, who admitted that The Great Gatsby had some phenominal writing in it, but still, claimed Lit to be deceased.

Having just written about the experience of reading literature with my own 15 year old, I had to wonder: why had my son not claimed the same thing? He clearly is less interested in reading than Ulin’s son Noah, requiring reminders and cajoling to get school assignments read, and never, as Noah apparently has, reading a book voluntarily. Yet my son, Andrew, wouldn’t say literature is dead. Perhaps because he reads for comprehension, generally not philosophically to determine whether the text is living or not, or perhaps because his dad is not a literature person, but a classicist, which, I surmise, is a little bit more intimidating. Assailing Classics would be obvious — Dead Languages are Dead, Dad! But his father, having heard all these arguments regularly on any given street corner, and having, withal, a rather techy nature– would be ready for him.

I’m convulsed with laughter at my own arguments and I don’t know if anyone else will find this funny. But Dr. Ulin, your son is a reader and a thinker and be grateful. Anyone who reads Lord of the Flies voluntarily while at camp has a potential for a future in letters. Of course, what that future will be will depend on technology. Be grateful nevertheless. Two out of my three sons inherited dyslexia from my mother in law.  It’s been tough. And fifteen year olds are generally rebellious and difficult. When Noah is 18 or 20, he’ll be a different person.

In which Scarlett and I discuss the Internal Editor and how to shut it up when you need to

vole sleeping in flower
This image has become the logo for the mother/daughter artist’s retreat

This morning Scarlett and I, the two participants in the mother/daughter writer’s retreat of last January, had coffee. She wanted to discuss the script she has been working on for an animated fiction short about a family of dragons.  Scarlett wondered if adding another character was advisable or not.  Clearly it would broaden the tale, but on the other hand, with animation, every second adds work to the process.

I agreed that the new character would add a desirable depth to the dragon family’s situation, but her concerns about extra time for animation on an already challenging project were valid as well.

“You just have to decide whether, in your vision, the addition is worth the extra development time,” I reasoned.  “Use your judgment.”

“Sometimes I just don’t feel like my judgement is that good,” she said.

“Ah, the Internal Editor,” I replied.  “Yes, Judith Cameron talks about that person.  Sometimes it’s good to have an internal editor, but sometimes it gets out of control and destroys or causes you to abandon good ideas.

“You need to believe in yourself, and also you need beta readers or a writer’s workshop, to shut up the Internal Editor sometimes.  And sometimes you have to just accept that not all of your work is going to be first rate, and that sometimes the only way to find out if it is, is to write it, let it cool off, and then decide.”

I asked her if she’d read Charles Johnson on the Craft of Fiction from this blog.  He says that the fiction structure is in all of us, it’s our job as writers to work until the structure develops its complete shape.  For Middle Passage, Johnson wrote about 3000 pages, but only kept about 300.  He said it took years.  Then he finally had it done, and it won the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, Scarlett asked me why I’d taken out one of the characters in my novel.  She thought the character added something important.  “Oh Scarlett, the way I had it was too close to home,” I said, referring to the real life murder that had inspired the novel.

“Maybe so, but there’s an important doubling between the two murder victims and your protagonist and her boyfriend,” Scarlett said.  I began to think that, regardless of the extra work, I might have to put the character back in.

Beta readers.  There’s indispensable.