Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Now write it short-like

Okay, so lets say you have a 100k word story full of snappy dialogue, compelling characters, and action scenes that keep the reader on the edge of her seat (or maybe you just worked out the idea and need to write a proposal.) Now, distill it into a two page synopsis. Oh, but while you are pulling out your hair trying to turn 100,000 words into a mere 500, remember to make sure your voice still comes through. Oh, and show the full progression of the plot. And make sure the reader gets a feel for your character. And your motivations should be clear. And watch out for leaps of logic. And...


If you can't tell, I'm not a big fan of writing synopses. I bang my head on the keyboard, a lot, and once the delete key is permanently imprinted into my forehead, I still have more words/lines/ideas to tighten so that I can create a snapshot long version of my plot. Recently, I have been surrounded by synopses. I wrote one three weeks ago for my 'pet project', last week the Tri Mu worked with NLBerger to get her query packet (including a synopsis) ready, and this week I have to finish up my proposal for the second book in my Haven series. Over the course of these, I worked out a 'paint by number' type of approach to writing a synopsis. It's probably not the best method for writing one, but it preserves some sanity. If you are interested, below is the 'recipe': (**note, this is just one idea for how to write a synopsis, and probably will not work for everyone.**)

Pre-synopsis writing: (yes, all good recipes include prep work.)

-Write one to two sentences that encompass the main idea of the book.
This is basically a micro blurb. So, for Once Bitten, these sentences would be something like: "Kita Nekai, a runaway shapeshifter and the smallest of her kind, is accused of creating a murderous rogue. She has two nights to hunt this rogue and prove her innocence, or her life, and the lives of her friends, will be forfeit." Not great, and it leaves a lot out, but it captures the major plot. Let's keep moving.

-Write a sentence that connects the reader with the main character and tells the reader where your character is in the beginning of the book.
If you are writing a story with two main characters, like a romance, you will have two of these lines. You should be looking for what makes your character unique as well as what will push him/her into the story. "Kita Nekai, a shapeshifter with the unfortunate second form of a kitten while the rest of her clan shifts into lions and tigers, has fled her world to blend in among humans."

-Next summarize the conclusion of the main plot in one or two sentences
Okay, I'm obviously not going to give you the conclusion of any of my stories, but lets use, uh, Dracula: "Van Helsing's group tracks the count back to his castle and kills him. As Dracula turns to ash, the spell on Mina is broken and she and Johnathan go on to live happily every after." These sentences are not meant to be epic, just to wrap up the main plot.

-Next write five sentences. Each should mark a major point in the main plot.
You might think of these sentences as the inciting incident, the first turning point, the mid point, final turning point, and the black moment/climax. If you're not sure what those terms mean, or what those points are, you can also just pick out the five most important scenes. (They will probably end up being the same.)Try to limit these sentences to the main plot and keep them simple. The goal is to capture the plot progression. Going with my Dracula example above, some sample sentences might be "Johnathan Hawker realizes he is prisoner in Dracula's castle" or "Dracula creates a flesh and blood bond with Mina." Keep it simple. Also, as you go along, see if all of these sentences relate back to your micro blurb you created first.

Okay, so now you have all that pre-work written but you still don't have a synopsis. Time to put it all together.

Writing the synopsis
Character is who/what the reader latches onto, so copy that line you used to introduce her and make that the first line of the synopsis. Now, it might not be the snazziest line, but we can fix it later.
So, we have a character, next use a line or two to kick off the story. Don't get into a lot of detail, just a sentence or two. Once done, you probably just crossed the first plot point sentence. Look at the second plot you listed, and write two to three sentences to get to that point. Once there, expand that plot point sentence a little, but don't go overboard, you shouldn't use more than three sentences. Once you are done with that plot point, move to the next in the same way. Once you reach the black moment/climax, spend several sentences expanding on that and then move on to the conclusion. You should now have a very rough synopsis of about two pages.

Now go back through and look for leaps in logic. You will probably have a couple extra characters you need to explain and some small things here and there between the steps. Try to do each of these in only a sentence or two. So far you've only focused on the main plot, but at this point, if you have room, you can gently weave in subplots. Once the synopsis reads logically, begin your micro edit. Focus on using active verbs, varying your sentences, and all those other good writing tips you use in your novel writing.

That's it. You now have synopsis and hopefully at least most of your hair. ^_^ Good luck! I am now off to take my own advice and finish the HB2 synopsis.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Words of Choice

I'm working on a 2nd draft for one of my manuscripts, with the goal (hidden even from myself) of querying it by the end of the calendar year. One of the things that I have noticed is that I'm making notes about which words I chose. Sure I'm also picking at grammar and those horrible blank spaces where smooth plot is supposed to be, but I see a lot of places where the word choice was... bad? how about... awkward? or perhaps... just not what I really wanted at the time but I was trying to get the main plot down on paper? Yes, that's it, the last one is what I mean.

I chose words to make the story go and now I'm searching for words to give the story life. It's a hard thing, harder than I would have expected. Who knew that word choice could be so important? And yet it is terribly important. Words carry impact. Two words can denote the same things, but their connotations! Ahh, such a difference can be found therein.

The more I write, and the more I live, the more I realize that words can make or break a situation. As a writer, I want to have words that reflect how the characters feel, or the feel of the environment, so that the reader can see what I saw, taste what I tasted, and smell what I smelled. It's tough, but you know, I feel a certain visceral satisfaction when I do find that word that fits snugly but without cutting off the circulation, rather like that latex examining glove on a protologist's hand.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Finding a Purpose for Passives

Most writers who listen to any writing advice at all, know to avoid passive voice. It’s an excellent piece of advice, because what most writing mentors mean when they say it is “strengthen your weak writing.” The writer who receives this advice doesn’t quite know what to do with it, though. They usually go on a hunt, brutally murdering all passive construction in their writing. However, what writers need to understand is there is a difference between the esoteric concept of passive voice (i.e. weak, mushy writing) and passive construction. Passive construction is a concrete grammatical process, which can be utilized to create focused, strong writing. I hope this blog entry will give writers a tool for working with passive construction in their writing.

The first thing I need to do is define passive construction. It is not simply using be verbs. The sentence I just wrote used a be verb as its main verb, but it was not passive construction. The hallmarks of true passive construction in English are threefold: (1) the direct object is “promoted” to the position of subject, (2) the verb takes on an auxiliary be verb, and (3) the main verb becomes intransitive (not requiring a direct object). The former subject may not be mentioned in the passive sentence at all. However, when it is, it does not become the direct object but usually becomes the noun in a prepositional phrase starting with by.

For example, look at the following active transitive sentence: Kalayna slew the dragon. The sentence has a subject, Kalayna, a transitive verb, slew, and the required direct object, the dragon. To passivize the sentence, we first promote the dragon to the position of subject. Now the sentence is about the dragon, not Kalayna. Second, the main verb takes on an auxiliary be verb, was. Third, the verb is transformed from a transitive into an intransitive, slain. We end up with The dragon was slain. I know you’re asking “but what about Kalayna?” If a writer wanted to show who did the slaying, she could say, The dragon was slain by Kalayna but acknowledgement of the former subject is not necessary in passive construction. The point of passive construction is that it focuses the reader’s attention on the receiver of the verb’s action, rather than on its cause. Writers can use this function to their advantage.

Strong writing does, in fact, use much more active construction than passive, and it is a good rule of thumb to slay passives. That said, I think passives in a first draft can serve a good purpose in strengthening our writing. Let’s say you found the sentence, The dragon was slain by Kalayna, in a manuscript. Your first reaction would probably be to replace it with the active construction, Kalayna slew the dragon. But think about the function of passive construction. It focuses attention on the receiver of the action. When you wrote that passive sentence, your mind focused on the dragon. Why? Before jumping in with the first active construction that comes to mind, a writer should ask herself two questions, (1) “what is this sentence doing?” and (2) “where should its emphasis lie?” Maybe you want to put Kalayna at the fore: Kalayna slew the dragon. Then again, you may want the reader to focus on the dragon: The dragon was slain or The dragon was slain by Kalayna. There is a third option, though. Kalayna may not be important to the scene and you do want the reader to think about the dragon, but you still want an engaged, active tone. Therefore you could use a completely different intransitive verb: The dragon died. That last option may never have come to mind if you had not thought about why you used passive construction in the first place.