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Pocatello Writers Meeting
Marshall Public Library
Saturday, Jan 21, 2017 3:30pm-5:30pm

Next Saturday, Sherrie Seibert Goff will give an overview on how to WRITE A STRONG SYNOPSIS.

The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the agent or acquisitions editor on the manuscript. If they don’t see anything they like in the synopsis, they won’t even glance at your chapter samples.

Come and pick up a few pointers and lend your own ideas and expertise to the discussion. Hope to see you all there.

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BUILD A NOVEL FROM A TINY SEED
Marshall Public Library
Saturday, March 21, 2015 / 3:30pm-5:30pm

Greetings, Fellow Writers:

Do you have a partially written novel that is stuck or stalled, and you just can’t manage to finish it? Or do you have an idea for a great book, but don’t know how to begin? Perhaps you are someone who can’t think of anything good to write about at all.

There are two basic types of writers—detailed planners and gardeners—with a lot of variations in between. Next Saturday we plan to study the ways of the gardener as one way to help you start and finish that book.

Be sure to attend our March 21st meeting when we’ll use the first hour for a study topic on how to grow an entire novel from a tiny seed—how to get started, how to edit it, and how to finish it.

Second hour will be reserved for readings, if you want to share some of your work. Come to get inspired and enjoy the company of local writer friends.  In the meantime, keep in touch on our Facebook open forum.

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WRITE A STRONG SYNOPSIS

The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the agent or acquisitions editor on the manuscript.  If they don’t see anything they like in the synopsis, they won’t even glance at your chapter samples.

The synopsis is not just your sales pitch.  Editors like having this distillation as something to use when presenting your novel to the buying board. It might even be used to write the jacket copy.  It may also be used by the publisher’s art and advertising departments. It’s also something you can use, the next time someone asks you what your novel is about.

This is why the synopsis has to be developed and sweated over and polished with the same attention devoted to the novel itself.  Most writers hate composing a synopsis because it can be much more difficult to write than the novel ever was.  Distilling 100,000 words into a few pages is not easy.

PRELIMINARY EXERCISE
Before setting out to write a book synopsis, it helps tremendously if you can clearly and succinctly describe what your book is about in a sentence or two to clarify and distill it down in your own mind, like a movie description in the tv guide.  If you neglect this exercise, you miss opportunities to demonstrate the strength of your work.

This is called an elevator pitch.  Brevity is best in pitching your novel to an editor or agent at a writers conference, for example.  For press releases and publicity, you need to describe your work in a couple of sentences or a short paragraph.  You can use this same jewel as the hook in your query letter.  Or use it to start out strong in the opening sentence of your synopsis.

But most of all it will help you get a grasp in your own mind as to what your novel is about.  A strong synopsis conveys the spirit and theme of the book and gives a bigger sense of what makes the book unique and interesting. Grab them with a killer line, and then hook them with a tight synopsis that shows your novel has a great story arc.

(Good example:  “A rogue physicist goes back in time to kill the apostle Paul.” –  Transgression by Randall Ingermanson)

FORMAT
Unless the editor or agent specifies otherwise, shoot for 2 to 5 pages (single-spaced) .  A synopsis is similar to a cover letter in that it doesn’t need to be double-spaced for editing purposes, but if single-spacing looks too difficult to read, try using 1.5-spaced lines instead.  Of course, if the editor asks for something specific, follow guidelines to the letter.

Put the title of the book and your name at the top of the page, and remember that a synopsis is always written in the present tense.      (see attached example)

Tell the entire story in the synopsis.  Don’t send the first three chapters and then start the synopsis at chapter four.  Don’t leave out the ending, hoping to entice the editor or agent to request the full manuscript in order to find out what happens.

Give a clear idea of your book’s core conflict.  Show what characters we’ll care about, including the ones we’ll hate.  Demonstrate what’s at stake for the main character(s).  Show how the conflict is resolved.

LEAVE A LOT OUT
A synopsis is very different from writing a summary or outline that details a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene reduction or compression of the entire work.   A synopsis portrays the narrative arc of your novel.

Every word must earn its due, so hit only the high points and leave out the rest.  Start with the main character’s crisis. Don’t neglect to reveal the character’s emotions and motivations that explain why the character does something, but keep it brief.  If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis.

Do not include every single character and every single plot point in some lengthy, methodical “and then this happened, and then that happened” fashion.  Select only those major events and motivations that moved the story forward. Talk about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players, because here we are striving for bare-bones.

TONE 
To nail the tone and brevity of an effective synopsis, a good model to mimic is book cover copy found inside flap jackets or on the backs of paperbacks.  Just leave out the part about the author and be sure to include what happens in the end, as the editor wants to know more than anything how you plan to end the book.

The most powerful synopsis will have the narrative tension, drama and pacing of the novel itself.  Your description should sound enthusiastic and enticing.  The synopsis is a sample of your writing; it is a taste of what reading the actual novel will be like, so give it your all.

STILL HAVING TROUBLE?
If you still are at a loss what to include and what to leave out, try working in reverse.  Start with the climax of the story, the apex of act three, then work backwards through the manuscript from there.

It’s like using MapQuest where you can enter the destination and ask for directions to your place of origin.  How you got there becomes clear.

Ask what major events needed to happen to set up or get to this culmination or pinnacle of your story.  Then write a sentence or paragraph about each vital point that got you there.  (This assumes that the final confrontation is really what the story had been headed to all along.)

Working backward you will see the point where all the elements fell into place that led to the showdown, and further back through the heart of the story to various points where the conflict has been increased or the stakes have been made brutally clear.  Include these too.  Eventually, you will get to the opening premise that introduced the main characters and the hook that introduced the conflict facing them.

This exercise can have additional benefits.  It is your last opportunity to discover any remaining weaknesses in your story before you submit it to an agent or editor.  A synopsis will reveal plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or a lack of structure.  It will show whether you have created a sound plot that makes sense and that your events build tension and lead to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Jeff Sherwood has requested help in writing a good synopsis for his novel.   So I resurrected an old session we did a couple years ago about that very subject and am updating it a bit.   Jeff is also going to read some of his work in the second hour.

This is an excellent topic, because, along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the editor on the manuscript.   If they don’t see anything they like in the synopsis, they won’t even glance at your chapter samples.

So,  join us at our third-Saturday meeting next weekend.   If you want to sign up to read, or to lead a session in coming months, click on the Agenda tab at top of this page and leave a message in the reply section for the admin.

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If you missed our Saturday meeting on writing without an outline, here is a copy of the meeting handout:

WRITING ORGANICALLY
– Sherrie Seibert Goff

Free Your Muse
The Muses are nine goddesses who embody the arts and inspire creation with their graces.  Many writers are of the opinion that a plot outline acts like prison bars, restricting and stifling all the life out of one’s muse.

In school, teachers still assign students the task of crafting a plot outline, doing character profiles and identifying a theme, before they can start writing.  Today we will abandon the planning method and explore the freedom of writing organically – harking to the genius of the muse.

What is a Literary Seed?
If you are like most writers, you harbor a secret story idea you always wanted to explore, but you can’t decide where to begin or how it should end, or even what the title should be.  Maybe you started it and got stuck, never able to finish.  Others can’t think of anything to write about at all.

Or maybe you have had the surreal experience where some tiny fragment of a lingering thought or recurring dream, or vague impression or character trait, even some insignificant scene, word or phrase stays forever and strangely stuck in your psyche like some old song?  It might be just an overwhelming feeling or sensation that you can’t quite put a finger on.  It seems always there, like an old memory, just out of reach or meaning, occasionally surfacing from your subconscious for no good reason. You have no idea what it means, just that it must have gotten imprinted in your mind by some fluke of the brain or distant recollection from childhood.  Believe it or not, this is a seed that can grow into a storyline.

When you are out and about in the world, a tiny pocket notepad is an essential companion.  If something fleeting catches your eye or amuses you, record your impression lest you forget it because inspiration is illusive and short-lived.

Select one of your poignant seeds and start to water it, examine it, think about it.  Ask your muse: “What could be going on here?” “What if …?”  Start writing down random thoughts that well up from your subconscious no matter how silly they seem.  Query your muse with: “Who are these people?  What do they want?  What stands in their way?”  This is called free-writing.

Just as an acorn can become a mighty oak, a tiny seed can grow into an entire novel

First Step  – Finish a rough Draft
The first draft is about getting a rough storyline down on paper so that you have something to work with.  Don’t agonize over the best opening sentence at this point – just jot down any old thing and keep going.  Don’t stop to rewrite or revise or worry about grammar or spelling.

E. L. Doctorow said writing a novel is like driving at night. You can see ahead only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Silence your editor brain and write flat out as if no one will ever read what you write.  Some of your best writing occurs during this first draft because it is uninhibited, spontaneous and running on sheer inspiration.

Allow the characters to take over the action and determine the course of the story.  Repeatedly throw another problem or predicament at your protagonist because good books are tales of struggle.  You can make it through the entire first draft of a novel by asking yourself, “What else could go wrong?”

Trust the muse when she’s on a roll.  A tale that grows organically in bursts of creative enthusiasm feels more natural and inevitable than an artificially outlined plot.  As things get worse, the conflict, escalation of tension, and rising stakes will lead you to a moment when everything seems lost, resulting in a climactic encounter.

The hard part is quelling your left brain’s urge to edit each sentence and to go back over your work again and again.  Over-editing drains the life out of the work. If you succumb and start revising before finishing the manuscript’s first draft, the work’s brilliance dulls or dies.

Second Step – Hone the Story Arc
The arts are not only about the Muse, they are also about solving structural problems.  Now that you have something down to work with, ask your editor brain to step up and look for a story arc to make sure that you have a novel, not just a collection of scenes and snippets  From the beginning the story should rise in an arc of ever increasing tension, building higher until a final climax and resolution are reached.  Each scene and chapter should build on the one before it to grow the arc.

Hold the needs of the novel in the forefront of your mind as you begin to cut ruthlessly.  If your favorite scene doesn’t have a danged thing to do with the purpose of the story, it’s gotta go.  If nothing has changed by the end of the scene you do not have a scene. If something doesn’t either advance the action or serve to develop the characters, change it or cut it.

Don’t resolve things at the end of each chapter, unless you want the story to die there.  Let questions go unanswered.  Suspense is a key factor.  Keep readers hanging on the edge by never turning the light on.  End chapters on a note of mystery to grip the readers attention and keep them turning pages.  Also, don’t immediately get your protagonist out of trouble.  If your characters too quickly solve something without a big setback you do not have a story.

Now is the time to revisit the opening which is the most important part of the novel.  Fiction demands conflict, the yeast of all drama, so make sure the opening action has a stressful effect on one or more of your major characters.  Cut the deadwood that got you started writing.  Maybe even throw away the first few pages to find the best narrative hook.

Writing organically will usually lead you to a crisis and ending that feels fated to happen.  Once the final climax is reached then tension dissipates, all the loose ends are tied up and the story is drawn to a close – not drawn out. Make sure you provide the reader with a satisfying denouement by tying up the major loose ends of the tale, but leave trivial subplots unresolved or forgotten, up to the readers imagination.  If your draft runs on too long or tries to work out too many things for minor characters, then weed out the flowerbed to better display the perfect sweet ending.

Third Step  – Add More Seasoning
The next revision is a strange melding of your muse and your inner wordsmith.  Now that you know what your story is about – you had to write it to know that – start again at the very beginning and revisit every single word, sentence, paragraph and scene to add more sensory detail, character development and tension to the stew.  Don’t rewrite, relive.

This is where you will add everything that you left out.  At the same time, delete extraneous words, useless sentences, and even whole paragraphs to improve the pace.

Flesh out your tale by enlisting more powerful description, stronger characterization and better word choice (tools that we studied in previous meetings).  Bring the story to vivid life and make the desired goal very personal.

Look the hardest at any scenes that you left off-stage or skimmed through or resorted to telling, because these may be the very scenes you need to show in excruciating detail and dramatize to the fullest.  Usually such “missed opportunities” result from our own inhibitions or they are things far outside our own experience.  Tackle them head-on.

Slow the action down and milk these difficult-to-write scenes for all they are worth, maybe take up several pages.  Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination as if you are watching a movie in slow motion. Alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description, and take your time with each.  Milk them.  These are the scenes that will stick in the reader’s memory.

Step Four – Copy Edit
The next pass is a meticulous copy edit to make sure all grammar, punctuation and spelling is absolutely error free.  Use your editor brain to start at the beginning yet again and go through every sentence.  Make sure the book’s format is correct for the publisher as well.

Even if everything seems pristine and perfect, don’t send it out yet.  Set it aside to clear your overloaded brain and give the book a rest for several days.

Step Five  – Final Reading
You need to do a last check on the book’s flow and readability, but the fiction writer’s problem is that he can never see his own work clearly.  By the time you have read what you’ve written over and over again, you are no longer capable of viewing it as a reader.  Distance yourself from the story for as long as three months, then pick up the manuscript and read it with fresh eyes, as if you are the reader seeing it for the first time.

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Writing Organically
Saturday  4pm-6pm
Marshall Public Library

In school, writing teachers usually make their students craft a plot outline, do detailed character profiles, and identify a theme before they can start writing.  The planning method may be good for learning the basics, but many fiction authors don’t or can’t write that way.

For them, a plot outline acts like prison bars, restricting and stifling all the life out of their work.  On Saturday we will explore the freedom of writing organically – harking to the genius of the muse.  Join us and learn how to grow a novel from a tiny seed.

The second hour is reserved for a Critique Workshop.  If any of you want feedback on your work, copy & paste it to a critique slot on the menu above,  or bring copies to the meeting if you worry about putting your work online.   Posting the piece ahead of time allows others more time to prepare intelligent suggestions and useful feedback.

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WRITING A STRONG SYNOPSIS

PRELIMINARY EXERCISE
Before setting out to write a book synopsis, it helps tremendously if you can clearly and succinctly summarize what your book is about in a sentence or two to clarify and distill it down in your own mind, like a movie description in the tv guide. If you neglect this exercise, you miss opportunities to demonstrate the strength of your work.

The truth is that brevity is best if you are pitching your novel to an editor or agent at a writers conference. You will need to describe your work in a couple of sentences or a short paragraph for press releases and publicity, or in a query letter, or perhaps as the opening overview to your book synopsis.

TONE
To nail the tone of an effective synopsis, a good model to mimic is book cover copy found inside flap jackets or on the backs of paperbacks. Just leave out the part about the author and be sure to include what happens in the end, as the editor wants to know more than anything how you plan to end the book.

Next, always write the book synopsis in present tense, as if pitching a movie plot to a producer. Grab them with a killer line, and then hook them with a tight synopsis that shows your novel has a great story arc.

A strong synopsis conveys the spirit and theme of the book and gives a bigger sense of what makes the book unique and interesting.

HOW MUCH TO INCLUDE
Don’t try to talk about every single character and every single plot point in some lengthy, methodical “and then this happened, and then this happened” fashion that sounds about as exciting as a business outline. The most powerful synopsis will have the narrative tension, drama and pacing of a well-told ghost story heard around the campfire.

compare this
In chapter 2, Mary decides to leave Steve because of his deviant behavior. With nowhere to go, she is forced to move back home with her sister in Baltimore.
to
Mary is shocked and terrified to learn of his vices and flees through the dark streets to the railway station. Unsure of her future, the last thing she wants to do is move back in with her spiteful sister in Baltimore.

HOW MANY PAGES
Everyone has a different idea of how long a synopsis should be. Unless the editor or agent specifies otherwise, shoot for three pages, certainly no more than ten.

A synopsis is similar to the cover letter in that it doesn’t need to be double-spaced for editing purposes, but if single-spacing looks too difficult to read, try using 1.5-spaced lines instead.

Of course, if the editor asks for something specific, follow guidelines to the letter. Lack of professionalism shows if you send in work that doesn’t conform to their instructions, or even worse that hasn’t been proofread for errors.

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