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Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Writing Exercise

The past couple of days, I've been consulting with a friend who has been invited to submit some chapters and a synopsis to an agent. She sent me her first attempt at a synopsis. There are many good books and blog posts on how to write an effective synopsis (one is Pam McCutcheon's book Writing the Fiction Synopsis). All of them will tell you to
- write in present tense (no matter how the book is written)
- tell the whole story including the ending
- use your best storyteller's voice.
(A synopsis is not an essay.)

But here are a few of my own extra tips and an exercise I think can be valuable:

  1. Highlight the goals, motivation, and conflict of your main characters. This is much more important than he went here and there and did this and that. That is, don't overload your synopsis with stage direction. It's more important to know what your heroes, heroines, and villains are trying to accomplish and why, than all the steps that get the result.

  2. Don't overload with names. Name your protagonists and antagonists and the city/village/kingdom where the story takes place (especially if it gives a flavor of the story milieu - Chicago, Arbonne, Derzhi Empire). Be very selective about any name beyond this. Identify characters by roles, such as "Valen's sister, the diviner" if possible.

  3. Even though you have limited space, don't minimize character introductions. Your characters and their conflicts are the heart of the story, and their personalities and problems are what will distinguish your "search for the lost sword" or your "werewolf in Denver" from someone else's. To give good character introductions means that sometimes you have to tell, not show. You don't have the space to slowly reveal character as you do in the novel itself. Don't be shy about using adjectives. "Seyonne's father, a gentle, scholarly man, wholly without magical talent, must accept the life of a farmer..."

  4. Sketch out character and relationship growth. You do have in there, right? Highlighting it in your synopsis will show the synopsis reader that you know what makes a rich story.

  5. Inject your passion. You only have room to show a few incidents, the turning points in the story. These are usually the pieces you like best as well. So use vivid language, not formal or stripped-down language. And consider carefully every incident you include. Trying to include too much detail in the synopsis leaches out the color and warmth.

Exercise Before writing the synopsis (or before tearing your hair out with one you've been working on) try writing the back copy for your book. Back copy, like the synopsis, is a sales tool. It needs to be vivid, and sketch out what's interesting about the protagonist, as well as the primary conflict of the book. In the back copy you're not going to give away the pasyoffs, which you must do in the synopsis, but that's ok. Read the backs of lots of books and feel the rhythms. Figure out what grabs you. The juicy bits, right?

So write your own. Let your critique partners read it. Then use it as a basis for writing your synopsis, layering in the secrets and the ending (YES, you must include the secrets and the ending in the synopsis) as well as the turning points in the story, including all the juicy bits and how they affect the progress of the story. I've found that writing sample back copy forces me to think about what attracts ME to the story, what I think might attract a reader to the story, and what sets my story apart from other books on the shelf. Think about it.

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