The Synopsis Blues

I finally sat down to do something I’ve been putting off for a long time.  Write my synopsis.  Writing the book was pretty easy.  Revising even easier.  Writing the query was hard, but I already kind of knew how I wanted that to look.  The synopsis?  Sucks.  It is by far the most difficult part of writing, for me anyway.  My synopsis and I have been in a Mexican standoff, just glaring at each other, daring the other to make the first move.  More than anything I want to draw my weapon and take it down, but every time my hand twitches the synopsis grabs its gun first rendering me immobile, paralyzed with fear (i.e. I start writing, hit a wall, and surf the internet until I’m bored, then try it again and repeat the sad process). If you aren’t familiar with how this works, let me break it down for you.

You sit down and write a book.  There are all these characters and events that come together to support your main character.  Plot lines interweave and converge.  Characters grow and evolve.  All leading up to the climax where everything fits together.  You end up with several thousand words (mine is currently about78,000), which is inevitably too many.  So you send the manuscript to beta readers.  They read it and, if they’re good, tell you what stinks and what works.  Which characters they loved, hated, or both.  You rework elements of the plot, add and remove characters, cut those nasty adverbs, and whip your manuscript into shape.  Some writers go through several rounds of betas.  There really isn’t a set number; you go through as many as are needed.  Stephen King has said he only writes the first draft, edits, and then is good to go. (Le sigh, if only we could all write like Stevie, eh?).  After all of this, you should have something you’re proud of.  A book you enjoy.  Thus you begin to query and hope someone else enjoys it too.

Unfortunately, some of those agents you email don’t just want a query.  They want a synopsis as well.  A one to two page overview of your entire book.  You have to take the whole story, all the characterization, voice, growth, and plot, all 78,000 words, and boil it down to about 1,000.  That means ditching plot threads and teasing out the main one.  Pretending supporting characters don’t exist unless they’re absolutely necessary.  Oh, and it has to flow, sound like your book, and be good enough that an agent wants more.

If this sounds easy to you, then please, by all means contact me and help me with mine.  For most writers I know the synopsis is the most painful part of writing.  I’ve written dozens of drafts and finally gotten one I think is coherent enough for critiques.  I finally got my plot condensed into a page, only to get feedback that it lacks voice.  The critiquer is right.  It tells the story, but it doesn’t give the feel of my story.  So, it’s back to the drawing board.  I’ll take what I have and rework it some more to infuse my voice.  And if it doesn’t work?  If I send it out to every agent I can find and no one wants it?  Well, then I’ll keep writing my current work in progress, revise, write a query, and then once again face my nemesis: the synopsis.  I’ll do it over, and over, and over until I have something that someone wants to publish.

How do you handle your synopsis?  Do you put it off as long as possible, or do you get it done and out of the way?  How do you keep from getting the synopsis blues?

UPDATE: I think I’ve finally beaten it!…okay, I came up with something that I’m sure could be better but I’ve gotten it in pretty good shape.  There are always ways to improve your writing, but at some point you have to step away.  It’s like knitting (which I tried once for a brief period several years ago…it didn’t last long…for good reason).  You work the yarn, knit and purl (still not too sure what that means), undo the parts you really screwed up and rework it, until you finally have something done (in my case a potholder or bookmark or in one instance a doll scarf that was supposed to be a potholder but went miserably awry).  You look at it and think, “not bad, it could be better though.”  Here’s the thing: the more you un-stitch (or whatever it’s called in knitting- I was seriously bad!), the more it messes up the yarn and it looks worse and worse every time you try to fix it.  So it’s better to just step away.  I’m at that point with my synopsis, and I’m totally okay with it!

Randomness #1

I had a great childhood.  Not that it was all kittens and rainbows all of the time or anything, but I was a pretty lucky kid.  I had two sets of grandparents who were amazing and parents who loved me.  We didn’t have that much money, but we got by.  I think that’s one of the reasons I still have such a great imagination.  Who needs expensive toys when the two trees in your grandmother’s front yard can morph into a forest full of trolls and wolves?  What’s the point in the latest and greatest game system when a defunct learning game your mom picked up a yard sale can become a master computer that lets you take over the world (or Penny’s book from “Inspector Gadget”)?

Even more lucky for me is that I got to spend some of the best years of my life in a place that was like a greenhouse for the imagination.  From the age of nine until I moved away to college, my parents rented a house outside the city limits (what some may call the country).  Fifteen or twenty minutes from town, it was like the best of both worlds.  Close enough to the city, but quiet and large.  Our neighbors, the Macs (the McFarlands but we called them the Macs) were our landlords, and were like a third set of grandparents to me.  The Macs owned at least fifty or sixy acres (perhaps more, I don’t know exactly where their property stretched to) on which sat our house and theirs, each on a large lot, as well as a greenhouse, a cabin, and an old barn.  Behind it all was a small garden of strawberries, green beans, butterbeans, tomatoes, corn, and okra, a flower garden, a bamboo grove, muscadine vines, and then the woods.  Mr. Mac and I were great friends and I had full reign of the property with only two rules.  1. I couldn’t go in the woods by myself.  2.  I had to be within shouting distance.  If my parents yelled, I better come running.

Oh the games I played!  I’d hop on my bike and tear off across the field to the cabin where I’d pretend I was on the lam for stealing secrets with my master computer.  The back barn held an old 1920s car with suicide doors, I don’t know the make or model or anything, but I’d jump on the rails and transform into a gangster.  In the loft was a wealth of old magazines and treasures.  When I got tired of playing there, I’d take off to my “secret place”, a small copse that wasn’t technically part of the woods.  I’d take an armload of books (or the magazines) and relax, feasting on the wild blackberries that grew around it or figs from the tree behind the house (only the ones down low.  I came face to face with a Rough Green Snake while climbing that tree one day and was done with the higher branches!).

When I wasn’t playing, I was working.  I cut the grass for both houses, first with a push mower, then eventually with Mr. Mac’s John Deere tractor.  I loved that tractor.  I started out riding on it with Mr. Mac.  When I’d see him plowing a field or bush-hogging something, I’d run out and he’d slow down enough for me to hop on top of the wheel well.  He’d show me how the tractor worked and explain why he was doing what he did.  Eventually he let me drive and before long I was doing the plowing and mowing for him.  He gave me my own stretch of earth in front of the muscadine vines to plant my own garden (too small for the tractor, I plowed it with a small gas powered hand plow.  That thing was the dickens to keep straight!).  I’d stay out working in the dirt until the sun faded behind the bamboo, then I’d pick whatever veggies were ready to go and spend the evening shucking corn or shelling peas on the back porch.

I helped him lay a brick patio, I watered the plants in the greenhouse, blew the leaves off their driveway, raked and trimmed the yard, and was rewarded with fresh lemonade and the occasional use of Mr. Mac’s hat while I worked (an absolutely fantastic hat! It had a built in battery operated fan in the front).  After work, there was always plenty of time for play.  It was like something out of a book, a fact I knew well since I was an avid reader, and appreciated greatly.  I’d pretend I was Huck Finn rafting down the river (the short cinderblock wall that separated our house from the Macs) or Caddie Woodlawn taming the wild frontier (the field beside the house).

Lately I’ve been wondering how/if my childhood would have been different if I’d had all of the technology kids today have.  Would I have been able to go in the woods alone?  Sure there were snakes and ticks and hunters, but I would have been just a call away.  Would I still have had to be in shouting distance?  Would I have even wanted to be outside playing as much?  Kids these days don’t seem to appreciate the simple joys of riding a bike and pretending anymore.  Of course that could just be my jaded view of things.  My sister is thirteen (I’m currently 28, yeah I know, big gap), around the age I got to drive the tractor by myself, and she seems to care more about texting her friends than pretending outside and playing games on her iPod rather than reading a book.  I’d like to say that I would have been the same kid, even with the technology, but who really wants to admit they’d have succumbed to it too?  Truth is, I don’t know what would have been different, but I’m glad I had the childhood I did.  It made me a hard worker, taught me to love the outdoors, fostered my imagination, and fed me with things I grew myself.  If I ever have kids (I’d love to adopt some day), I hope I can get them to put down the technology and open their eyes to the world around them.  I hope I can give them a childhood they will look back on as fondly as I do mine.

Idealistic or Imaginative?

I’ve heard that I’m too idealistic.  I get something in my head, some perfect image, and that’s the way I want things to be.  For example, one of my favorite movies of all time is “Roman Holiday”, so naturally when I visited Rome I wanted to meet a gorgeous American journalist and see all of the sights from a small scooter and end up dancing on a barge at midnight.  Of course I didn’t really expect this to happen, but what’s wrong with my romanticized version?  (I did hit all of the “Roman Holiday” sights except for the Mouth of Truth.  One day I shall return!).  In Paris, I wanted to stroll down the Champs de Elysee with a fresh croissant.  (I actually did that one, however, I did not get to accomplish my other goal and visit Jim Morrison’s grave).  In Dublin, I imagined dancing a jig in a traditional pub to Irish folk music until the wee hours of the mornin’ (I did that too).  I would love to visit St. Petersburg and take the train (I have no desire to jump in front of it), and walk through the rain in London (preferably while singing something from “My Fair Lady”).  If (when) I visit Scotland, I will not leave without a trip to the Highlands to look for Nessie (eight-year old me would never speak to me again if I didn’t).

These aren’t unrealistic goals, right?  Until I visit these places, what I know of them comes from the books and movies that I love.  Literature especially gets ingrained in my head. I guess because I have to supply the imagery for myself, which makes me want to visit the real places and see how they match up.  Sometimes, the picture in my head is dead on, like in the Irish pub.  Other times, I’m way off.  I remember reading about Dublin Castle and imagined a large stone structure with turrets and a drawbridge.  In reality, my husband and I walked past it several times before we realized the large house/museum looking area was the “castle”.  We did find one wall/turret that resembled the castle from my imagination and took all of our pictures there.  Then we took a train to Malahide Castle, which was much more suitable, complete with an iron barred portico and sprawling gardens.

There are some places so wrapped in my imagination with the imagery from books and movies that I don’t know how I would untangle them.  So what of it if I build up something in my imagination and then set off to make it happen?  My dreams aren’t so big, they’re simple things like munching a flaky pastry in Paris.  I always like to get a feel for local life and culture on my travels as well, can’t I balance the two?  I found this article on the Top 10 Literary Cities (so far I’ve only been to #2 and #4) that tells you the places to go in these literary wonderlands to fulfill your bookish desires. Places like writers museums and reading rooms.  (Take my advice and steer clear of Bram Stoker’s Dracula Experience in Dublin, though.  It wasn’t the cool, scary, haunting time I thought it would be.  It’s an arcade and “haunted funhouse” on the outskirts, i.e. a shady area, of Dublin.  It sucked, pun unintended, and wasn’t at all scary.  I dare say that Bram Stoker would send his blood-sucking monster to drain all those responsible for the travesty.)

For me, part of my idealism comes from wanting to step into the writers’ shoes.  I want to feel what they felt when they wrote something.  The smells, the click of my heels on the cobblestone streets, the sounds, the light drizzle of rain in my hair.  It brings me a step closer to the worlds I love so much.  Idealistic?  Maybe.  Imaginative?  Very.  And I’m okay with both.

The Zone

I’m currently querying a manuscript and praying (fervently) that an agent wants to represent it.  In the meantime, I’ve started working on another book.  Okay, honestly I started working on several other books that didn’t go anywhere (for now).  I’ve mentioned before how Stephen King described writing as uncovering a fossil.  Well, the things I’ve written since finishing the last manuscript haven’t been fossils; they’ve turned out to be plain old rocks.  Maybe one day I’ll go back and look at them again and realize they really are fossils, but for now, they’re rocks.  Anyway, I finally found a fossil and started to dig and uncover it.  It’s the next in the series of the book I’m querying.

I was scared to start writing this one.  What happens if no one wants the first one?  This one flows from the last, can I make it stand on it’s own?  Or will I waste time writing a follow-up?  Finally, I just said “screw it, the story is there and wants to be written so I have to write it.”  I’m not worrying about whether the first one will get picked up or not.  I’m focusing on telling the current story.

Now I find myself back in “the zone.”  The zone is different for different people.  For me, when I finally get sucked into writing something, that’s all I can write.  Before I wrote the first book in the series, I frequently critiqued and wrote on the AW forums. (At the time I was re-editing a different manuscript).  When I got the idea for the first book though, everything else went out the window while I wrote.  I tried to critique different things and write other short stories, etc, but it just didn’t work.  It’s like the story pushed everything else out of the way and took over.

In the interim between the first book and the one I’m currently writing, I was able to critique again, as well as churn out bits of flash fiction and other short stories.  Now that another story has taken hold though, I’ve found that’s all I can write.  It’s like the zone sucks all of my creativity.  I attempted AW’s most recent flash fiction and although I had the idea and could see the characters that I wanted to write, it just didn’t work.  A couple of paragraphs in, I knew it sucked and scrapped it.

I’m not complaining; I like being in the zone.  It’s like drilling for oil.  You drill and drill and drill and come up empty, then you finally hit the vein and all of a sudden you have tons of oil that has to go somewhere (in my head I see words shooting out of the earth instead of oil and I’m trying to catch them all and channel them onto the page).  I love the feeling of finally finding the story, of finding a fossil instead of a rock. I just wish I could do other things as well.  I enjoy reading and critiquing and posting on AW, seeing what chances other writers are taking rooting for them to succeed.

So, fellow writers, do you get into a zone?  When you’re in the middle of a big work, are you able to still write other things?  Or does the writing suck you in too?

Marathon

The New York City Marathon was this past Sunday.  My best friend lives in NYC and was a volunteer and let me just say, I don’t envy her at all working outside in the cold all morning!  I couldn’t imagine running a marathon.  Other than the fact I despise cold weather, I’m not a runner.  I’ve tried, but I find just running immensely boring.  I played softball, basketball and volleyball growing up, so it’s not like I never ran.  My running just had a purpose.

A good friend of mine runs ultra marathons.  The 100 mile sort.  Yeah, I know, he’s crazy.  Last week he ran from Gulf Shores, Alabama to the Tennessee line to raise money for tornado relief.  That’s 376 miles!  Around 50 miles per day, except for the last day which was shorter.  He still hasn’t completely gotten the feeling back in his feet yet.  (He raised a lot of money for Habitat for Humanity though.  The website is still up at Alabama Relief Run for anyone who wants to donate.)

While thinking about how crazy these marathon runners are, I realized that I’m running my own sort of marathon.  Writing isn’t a short jog to the mailbox or even a sprint up and down a basketball court.  It’s an ultra marathon.  When you write a book, you’re in for the long haul.

Like most people who sit down to write a novel, I didn’t realize at first what an intensive process it really is.  You don’t just pound out a book, send it off to a publisher, and see it on shelves in a few months.  There’s so much more to it than that; of course those of you who are also going through the publication quest already know this.  You write, then re-write, then edit, then draft a query, then rework the query (countless times until you think you have it right), then find agents and submit, then wait, and wait.  Sometimes you’ll get requests for partials or fulls, and then you wait some more.  The lucky ones who get an offer of representation then go through more edits with their agent.  More queries to editors, looking for publishers.  More edits.  Even after you get a publisher it takes a while for the book to actually come out.  In the meantime you’re going through the process all over again with another book, and another, and another.

Like a marathon runner, you train and train for the race.  Then you run and run and run and try to be at the front of the pack, and if you’re lucky, you win.  Win or lose, however, the marathon doesn’t stop when the race is over.  You take a deep breath, then train for the next one, and the next.  I may think my runner friends are crazy, but am I any different?  The odds of getting a book published, I would imagine, are like the odds of winning a marathon.  But that doesn’t stop us from running.

I’m just starting my marathon, but I plan to run it for life.  If the book I’m currently querying doesn’t get published, I’ll just write another.  Better.  If my query doesn’t work, I’ll re-write it.  I’ll keep trying and who knows?  Maybe one day I’ll win.

Story Through Song

I love music.  I mean really love it.  I’m not so good at playing it (although I attempt to sing), but there is nothing like cranking up an excellent song, rolling down the windows, and rocking out.  The thing that amazes me about music is the story an artist is able to tell in such a short space.  In two or three verses, you can tell an entire story, catch a feeling, set the mood and scene, and relate to others.  Wow.  I’ve tried songwriting before, and quite frankly, I suck at it.  Of course, most of these attempts were between the ages of 11 and 14, so they were full of childish rhyming and teenage angst.

A few examples of what I’m talking about.  Whether you like the songs or not, look at the story in the lyrics.  I played with the formatting a bit to make them flow:

“All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die,” says the man next to me out of nowhere

It’s apropos of nothing. He says his name’s Will but I’m sure he’s Bill or Billy or Mac or Buddy. And he’s plain ugly to me.  And I wonder if he’s ever had a day of fun in his whole life. We are drinking beer at noon on Tuesday in a bar that faces a giant car wash.  The good people of the world are washing their cars on their lunch break, hosing and scrubbing as best they can in skirts in suits. They drive their shiny Datsuns and Buicks back to the phone company, the record store too.  Well, they’re nothing like Billy and me, ’cause all I wanna do is have some fun. I got a feeling I’m not the only one.  All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard

I like a good beer buzz early in the morning and Billy likes to peel the labels from his bottles of Bud.  He shreds them on the bar then he lights every match in an oversized pack letting each one burn down to his thick fingers before blowing and cursing them out. And he’s watching the bottles of Bud as they spin on the floor.  And a happy couple enters the bar dangerously close to one another The bartender looks up from his want ads, but all I wanna do is have some fun.  I gotta feeling I’m not the only one.  All I wanna do is have some fun until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.

Otherwise the bar is ours.  The day and the night and the car wash too.  The matches and the Buds and the clean and dirty cars.  The sun and the moon”

– “All I Wanna Do”- Sheryl Crow

You can definitely catch the feeling.  At least I can.  I imagine an empty bar, the sun filtering in through dirty windows.  Dust motes dancing in the light.

Here’s another that captures a completely different mood:

“I never thought I’d die alone.  I laughed the loudest who’d have known? I trace the cord back to the wall.  No wonder, it was never plugged in at all.  I took my time, I hurried up.  The choice was mine. I didn’t think enough. I’m too depressed to go on. You’ll be sorry when I’m gone.

I never conquered, rarely came.  16 just held such better days.  Days when I still felt alive.  We couldn’t wait to get outside.  The world was wide, too late to try.  The tour was over we’d survived.  I couldn’t wait till I got home to pass the time in my room alone.

I never thought I’d die alone.  Another six months I’ll be unknown. Give all my things to all my friends.  You’ll never step foot in my room again.  You’ll close it off, board it up.  Remember the time that I spilled the cup of apple juice in the hall?  Please tell mom this is not her fault.

I never conquered, rarely came, but tomorrow holds such better days.  Days when I can still feel alive.  When I can’t wait to get outside.  The world is wide, the time goes by.  The tour is over, I’ve survived.  I can’t wait till I get home.   To pass the time in my room alone.”

-“Adam’s Song” -Blink 182

I can see the boy sitting in his dark room, tears spreading the ink as he writes his suicide note.

And one more:

“I can’t remember anything.  Can’t tell if this is true or dream.  Deep down inside I feel the scream.  This terrible silence stops with me.  Now that the war is through with me I’m waking up, I cannot see that there’s not much left of me.  Nothing is real but pain now.

Hold my breath as I wish for death.  Oh please God, wake me.

Back in the womb it’s much too real.  In pumps life that I must feel, but can’t look forward to reveal.  Look to the time when I’ll live.  Fed through the tube that sticks in me, just like a wartime novelty.  Tied to machines that make me be, cut this life off from me.

Now the world is gone I’m just one.  Oh God help me.  Hold my breath as I wish for death.  Oh please God, help me.  Darkness imprisoning me.  All that I see, absolute horror. I cannot live.  I cannot die.  Trapped in myself.  Body my holding cell.

Landmine has taken my sight.  Taken my speech.  Taken my hearing.  Taken my arms.  Taken my legs.  Taken my soul.  Left me with life in hell.”

-“One”- Metallica

Can’t you see him?  Lying there in a hospital bed alone.  Pretty much a vegetable, but his mind still works.  Still knows.

Really, these bands/artists have done nothing more than write stories.  They created characters and told us about them.  Songs like these inspire me, and also put me in awe.  It takes me so many words, so many pages, to write a story and build characters that people can connect with, and here these musicians did exactly that in such a short space.  I didn’t do the flash fiction challenge this week, but I think it would be fun to expand on these songs and finish writing the story.

What do you think?  Do songs that tell stories inspire you as a writer?  If you haven’t really paid attention to the words of the songs you’re jamming out to on your daily commute, I challenge you to really listen and think about the story.