The devil’s in the synopsis

This week has been a week of procrastination. Reading books, cleaning the kitchen floor, wiping the toothbrush stains from the sink, even EVEN doing the ironing. The ironing for goodness sake! All in the name of avoiding the one and only part of writing I do not like. The synopsis.

I have dreamed about it, too. I was in hell, actual hell, and had to write my synopsis. That was it, the entire dream. There were no flames, no devils ripping out my fingernails or lashing me with burning whips. Hell, in my dream, was me sitting on my sofa and being asked to write my synopsis.

There is an awful lot of advice on the internet about how to write one, what you should and should not include, how to format. I got the sense that all these article explaining how to write a synopsis were written by people who were procrastinating on writing their own. Let’s face it, I could be writing mine right now but I’m not. I’m writing this instead.

I have also come to another understanding about why the synopsis has such a bad rep amongst authors. It’s not that it’s hard to do, because, let’s be honest, writing the damned book in the first place is more difficult. I think the terrifying thing is that your novel is stripped back to the bare bones. If there are any plot holes, any characters that aren’t working, twists that don’t make sense, the synopsis will expose them. You cannot hide behind evocative prose, clever similes aren’t going to save you, no pun in the world can laugh away an unbelievable protagonist.

The plot explained in its entirety in 500 words. Every main character and their motivations/arc on show. Each twist untwisted. The ending revealed. All this, written in such a way that the agent will immediately request the manuscript.

See? TERRIFYING.

I think it’s time to rearrange my bookshelf. Perhaps I’ll colour-code my wardrobe, or get the duster out. Or maybe I’ll sit down, stop whinging, and write the thing because, however grueling, I’m not going to get published without it.

Let’s get cracking.

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Facing Daemons

This week I’ve been staying with my parents in what I like to call my home-home, the house I grew up in. It brings back many memories, as childhood homes often do, but the one memory I have been contemplating most is the one that spurred me on to start writing again.

Have you ever felt that odd fear, that gripping of your stomach muscles, when you see a person you knew in your youth? I have. For my first year as a stay-at-home mother I was wracked by it every time I came home. Part of me never wanted to leave my parents’ house, but stay cocooned in its familiar boxer-doggy warmth. It was far easier than risk bumping into anyone I knew and have to answer that God awful question: “So, what do you do?”

I dreaded that question. Not because I was ashamed of leaving work to raise my two children, far from it, but because I couldn’t answer without it becoming obvious that I hadn’t done the one thing I always said I would, the answer I gave on school questionnaires of what you wanted to do, or be, when you grew up. I wanted to be a published author and, whilst I was successful in several other areas and had done many things to be proud of, this was not one of them.

Many of those I schooled with are now very successful, often intimidatingly so, and very deserving of said success. It also doesn’t help that, as a teenager, I was so obnoxiously vocal about wanting to write. How could I tell these people that not only was I not the author I promised to be, but that I’d given up? I couldn’t. Something had to change and so I picked up my laptop and started typing. A year later I had a completed manuscript. Another year on I have a book I’m proud of, a fantastic writing mentor in Simon Hall, @thetvdetective, and the delightful prospect of going back to Winchester this summer.

This half term has seen a different experience. I’ve been shopping, to the cinema, to parks and lakes and have not felt that panic. I haven’t stared at the back of strangers’ heads thinking, oh God is that so-and-so? It’s not even because that dream of mine has come true, but more that I have faith that it will. And what will my answer be to that horrible question? Why, “I’m a writer,” of course.

My other love…

As it’s Valentines weekend I thought I’d share one of my great loves of writing. It also happens to be one of my favourite parts of reading and one of the things I enjoyed most whilst studying for my English degree all those years ago. It is…research.

What other profession allows you to study the running of a pub one day and the kinds of plants that grow in West London the next? Or the ins and outs of pregnancy one week and gruesome murders the next? It’s a thought-provoking, enriching part of the writing process and, every now and then, you come across something so wonderfully weird that it has to be shared.

This week I was rewriting a scene that required research into placenta praevia, a complication that can arise during pregnancy where the placenta lies low in the uterus, often blocking the cervix, and can lead to massive haemorrhage. What I came across was incredible, highlighting not only how far our medical care has come since the nineteenth century, or what the human body can sustain and still survive, but also the incredible creativity of doctors throughout time. And, my oh my, did it reignite my love affair with research.

Picture the scene; you’re thirty weeks pregnant, suffer from placenta praevia and the year is (sadly for you) 1870. In walks your doctor, rolls up his coat sleeves, parts your legs and plunges fist first into your nether regions. He rummages around until he finds the baby’s foot, pulls the foot out and attaches a weight to it, thereby using the weighted baby’s leg to pressurize the wound and stop the bleeding. The doctor didn’t need to take his coat off, or even wash his hands.

Who the hell, I thought, came up with that solution? What was their thought process? Who decided that you needn’t bother to remove your coat? Instantly all kinds of new stories and characters began to emerge and I realised another benefit of research. Not only do you come across astounding nuggets of information, but your future characters and storylines benefit too!

** If you want to read more about the history of placenta praevia, I found this article very useful.

Word Count Woes (and handy tricks to help)

I have been advised many times to keep my word count below 95,000. This is the max for any psychological thriller, ensuring the pace remains high and the hooks frequent.

So, now that I have finished this bad boy (in theory) I am doing the laborious tasks of getting that word count down. Ideally, I need to lose 7,000 words. It is tough. Really tough.

To start with I have already rewritten and edited each chapter to within an inch of its life, ensuring that I only add description when there is a distinct need or purpose, that nothing has been repeated, the pace is high and the dialogue tight. But, as I’ve written before (here), it is hard to kill your darlings! I really don’t like deleting these carefully constructed sentences.

To help, I am trying to stick to the golden rules of word count reduction:

  • Remove adverbs unless they are imperative.
  • Remove adjectives, especially when you have used two or three to describe one thing. Try to be word specific, finding that one elusive adjective that sums up the noun perfectly rather than a long list.
  • Reword to remove prepositions such as ‘in,’ ‘at,’ and ‘of.’ It may only be a word at a time that you remove, but that all add up!
  • Remove ‘that.’ Often referred to as the most commonly overused word in the English language, the word ‘that’ creeps in frequently and often, if you delete the little bugger, the sentence still makes perfect sense.
  • Compound verbs can be a life saver, especially in dialogue. Would your character really say ‘have not’ or could you reduce your word count by using ‘haven’t’ instead?

These are the tricks I’m using and I’m pleased to say they are working a treat. Try them yourself and see the difference.