Top ten tips on writing your synopsis

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgDoes anyone enjoy writing a synopsis for their book – I mean really? They are the devil’s underpants and ought to be consigned to the seventh ring of hell.

For those uninitiated, the synopsis is a short summary of your book – detailing the basic plot and attempting to give a flavour of the thing in just a few hundred words. They are what you send off to agents and publishers along with the first couple of chapters of your book in order to titillate them with your wares.

Why are they tough to write?
Well one reason I think is because they are so cold-blooded – you have written your book, pouring in the best of yourself and your art, honing and refining it until it is the least bad it can be. Now you are expected to capture it and explain it in a tiny space. It’s probably 80,000 words long your book, there’s a lot in there and you feel you can’t possibly do it justice.

Another reason they are a pain to do is because a lot seems to ride on getting them right. Whoever you are querying won’t have your full book to read, they’ll just have a short sample of it, and this synopsis – so you feel it has to work very hard. The more pressure there is to get something right the tougher it becomes, that’s why footballers sky penalties over the bar in the World Cup.

10563217_545777922221017_6114809158228153280_nTop ten tips
Here’s a few things I’ve kept in mind when writing a synopsis for each of the three novels I’ve completed to date. Two of them have found a publisher so far, so I suppose one could argue I must be getting something right. (Look, here’s me signing a contract, the only document in publishing guaranteed to be harder to wade through than the synopsis).

 

Don’t stress
You have to write something, so take the pressure off yourself and get some words on the page. It’s important to get the thing done, not let it become a big issue or an albatross for you. Get something down, you can always tweak it later on.

Start with a basic plot outline
See how many words that takes you, what’s left is the space you have to say something about your method or intentions or style or whatever else you feel you need to include.

Rewrite it shorter
Go back to it and trim out any unnecessary detail. You have probably included more about the plot than you need to for example. Top line stuff is what is required here, not every last twist and turn.

Be firm with your characters
You can’t fully draw your characters in your synopsis – there’s no room. They might be all kinds of complicated in your book but there’s no space to put that in here – you have to be disciplined and sum them up succinctly.

Don’t expect to say everything about your book
You can’t mirror your whole work in just a few words – you need to say clearly what it’s about and what happens in it, that’s probably the best you can do. Just try to focus on what’s most important about it in your view. It’s like the famous elevator pitch – the art of explaining your work to someone in the length of time it would take to share an elevator ride with them. (Though they’d probably rather you shut up and left them to stare at the numbers in silence because nobody likes talking in elevators.)

Do include the ending
No coy teasers needed here – don’t finish it with ‘and hilarious consequences ensue’ or similar. This is aimed at someone who will be representing or publishing the book, so they need to know clearly what’s in it and how it turns out.

Don’t put things in there which can go in your covering letter
The letter is your sales pitch – the synopsis is a summary of the book, not a review saying how wonderful it is.

Keep the style neutral
You are including your sample chapters to let the reader know what an amazing prose stylist you are. The synopsis is more of a functional document – it needs to be simple and clear I would say, rather than full of jokes for example.

Pretend you are summarising someone else’s book
This helps I think if you are too close to the text. How can you possibly reduce your masterpiece to just a handful of words? It’s sacrilege! Pretend your mate Dave has asked you to summarise his book for him – you will find it becomes a lot easier to do.

Avoid fancy fonts
Or other tomfoolery. One side of plain white paper, Arial 11 point (or 10 point if you are looking to cram in a few cheeky extra words.)

So there we have it – I still don’t like them though. But they are a necessary evil I’m sure if you are a publisher faced with a pile of manuscripts reaching up to the ceiling, so we had best just get on with it and stop grumbling!

What are your tips for writing a synopsis? Let me know in the comments!

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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The gentle art of editing your book

2000px-Ryanssandbox.svgI’m currently working with my publisher on editing my next book, The Pick-Up Artist, ready for its publication in February 2015.

It’s part of the process I enjoy – but then I think I’ve been lucky both with this book and with my previous novel Song Of The Sea God to have editors whose work and opinions have brought out the best in what is there. It can be a curious feeling to have your work looked over and commented on by somebody who you don’t know – but, given that it’s going to be published and read (hopefully) by lots of people you don’t know it’s best to get used to it at this early stage!

I had a head start on this, even before Sea God found a publisher because for years I was a newspaper journalist so I was used to having my copy go through the hands of news editors, sub-editors, feature editors and of course editors all of whom, from time to time, would have an opinion on it and changes to make. You learn not to be too precious – to take criticism on the chin and you learn that good editing can improve your work. That said, bad editing can ruin your work – but that’s another story, and not one that I have had any experience of as a fiction author thankfully.

So you hand over your book, your baby, to a stranger and she or he hands it back at length with suggestions for changes. She doesn’t actually make the changes, that’s your job, but points out areas which might be improved, and sometimes gives suggestions how.

With the Pick Up Artist what I’ve found is that all the changes suggested by the editor at my publisher Magic Oxygen were things which I agreed with. I could see how they would improve the book over all and in some cases they were even things I’d half thought myself but not got round to tackling or had put to the back of my mind. Perhaps that’s a sign of good editing, that it feels organic – part of making the book what it should be.

With The Pick Up Artist I also had a couple of friends whose opinons I trust and value read a draft of the book at an earlier stage and provide their feedback, large parts of which I took on board in later drafts. I didn’t do this for Sea God and I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s quite a quirky book with a vision that is uniquely mine. With the Pick Up Artist I was aiming for something a little more commercial and I wanted to ensure I was on the right road before travelling further down it.

Once they have been handed over to the publisher both my books have undergone a thorough examination but it’s fair to say that neither has been very dramatically altered at this stage of the process. Perhaps that’s partly because they go through many rewrites before I let go of them.

How would I react if a publisher did want me to do a major overhaul on one of my books, or they were set on doing one themselves? I really don’t know. As I said above I am someone who is used to being edited and sees the value of it. However I do have a much stronger emotional attachment to my fiction than I do to copy I write for work – there’s more of me in it so of course it matters to me.

I think it would come down to how much sense I saw in the changes, which I would want to do rather than having them done for me. I don’t know whether I could go along with a root and branch overhaul of my work if it was taking the book in a direction I didn’t agree with. Thankfully that’s not been an issue so far and I have nothing but good things to say about the way both of my books have been handled!

Raymond_CarverI remember one author telling me about her play, which had a successful run in London‘s West End. It was a drama set in the trenches of the First World War and, as is the nature of these things, at the end, everybody died. At least they did in her version. In the version which was staged everybody lived – because that was a more cheerful and optimistic ending apparently! That’s the sort of thing I would struggle with I think.

What if changes are made by an editor which are significant but improving? The great story writer Raymond Carver had a tough editor behind him, Gordon Lish, who used to cut his stories very heavily, sometimes making them very different from Carver’s original version. Carver didn’t like this one bit, but he did accept the edited versions were often better, and added to his reputation as a writer. It was something he had to wrestle with – I know I would wrestle with it too.

Song of the Sea GodIf you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Literary criticism from The Simpsons

I was watching an old episode of The Simpsons the other day which had a scene set at a literary festival. As authors stood disregarded by their piles of books there was one long queue in the whole place.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newAt the head of it was Krusty the Clown touting copies of his latest biography. He pulled back a curtain to reveal his ghost-writer – the late John Updike, esteemed literary novelist, a man acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in living memory. Krusty roundly abused Updike as a cheap hack and Updike humbly took it – happy to be earning a living churning out celebrity dross.

It was funny, perhaps a little cruel. Like all good satire it had a sliver of ice in its heart.

It made me think about the way that our culture actively discourages people from writing at all, and particularly from writing good quality books. If you want fame, success, significant financial rewards then, first of all, you are better off not writing books of any kind and, if you must write, then you are better to write what sells which is celeb biogs, mechanically written romance novels, self-help books, genre pot-boilers and the rest.

Heaven knows, there is a place for all of these, and if people want to read them then well, I’m just glad they are reading something in this age when not reading books at all seems to have become the default setting. And I also think that there are writers producing all of the above types of book who do so professionally and well and produce great reads.

But writing surely should also be an art form where the aim isn’t just to make money but to produce good work. Work which resonates and adds something to the cultural debate and has a chance of lasting. That’s the part I fear we are losing in the modern age.

I have said before that one of the big surprises for me since my book was published is how many writers there are out there. How the explosion in self-publishing has lead to a huge surge in the number of people producing books. The ought to be a good thing, and in many ways of course it is.

But I think we should be concerned about the quality of a lot of what is being created and, in some cases (not all) about the mind-set that has gone into creating it. So often I hear writers boasting about how many words they have been able to churn out that day on their ‘WIP’ (the jargon shorthand some have started using for work in progress). Or how many books they have managed to produce already in their series of genre novels. The assumption seems to be that more is better, that quicker is better. There is never once a mention of quality, never a word about the joy of writing well.

The whole thing has the feel of a mass production line – a literary McDonalds, a fast-food for the soul. Is this really what we want to be as authors?

What I believe is this – if our dream is to write then that’s fantastic but please, let’s do ourselves, the reader, the world, a favour and set our sights as high as they will possibly go. There are so many bad books around and more coming every day. Why add to that pile? Society makes it difficult enough for writers without us adding to the problem.

Be the best writer you can be – that’s all anyone can ask of you, all you can ask of yourself.

ImageDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

It’s never too late!

Halfdan_Egedius_-_The_Dreamer__Portrait_of_the_Painter_Torleiv_Stadskleiv__-_Google_Art_ProjectIt is never too late to follow your literary dream – and as dreams go, that’s one thing I have always loved about it.

If you have lived through your twenties then you can pretty much give up on your dreams of playing professional football or winning an Olympic Gold. You are also unlikely to set the pop charts alight or fill Shea Stadium with rock fans waving their mobile phones at you. If your heart fluttered at the thought of being a fashion model then you can wave that goodbye as the years pass too.

But if you dream of literary stardom then yours is a dream with some degree of longevity.

There was once a guy who held down a dull job as an oil company marketing executive – he stuck it out well into his forties though he can’t have found it much fun as eventually he got canned for persistent drunkenness.

9780140108927So he took to writing detective fiction and selling his stories to magazines. He found it suited him but he was fifty years old by the time he managed to get his first full length book published. It was called The Big Sleep and after that everyone had heard of Raymond Chandler.

Annie Proulx, there’s another one. The famed author of The Shipping News had a productive career as a journalist and had a track record as a short-story writer but she was 57 before her first novel was published. There are many more examples.

491px-John_Keats_by_William_HiltonNow, of course, there are always some precocious young tykes around the literary landscape. John Keats had scribbled his last stanza and kicked the Grecian Urn before he was 25. But, on the whole, a few extra miles on the clock can benefit a writer. More years can equal more material, they can also equal more life experience – not only more to write about but more ways to write about it.

It’s true that publishers and agents may not see you as having rock star appeal if your hair is turning grey – they would much rather have someone young and pretty, with more productive years left in them.

But, in the end, what matters is what is on the page rather than how many candles there are on your birthday cake. And, I don’t know about you, but I rather like that.

It gives those of us who are nearer in age to Chandler than Keats a chance to bloom late but gloriously like Pulitzer Prize winning Annie. And for younger writers, it simply means they have time on their side.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

 

Six more things I’ve learned as a published author

Ok – here’s a second blog post about things I’ve learned since my book was published. I thought these posts worth doing because quite a lot of things have come as a big surprise to me! I didn’t really know what to expect, except the unexpected, and I haven’t been disappointed. You can read five things I’ve learned since my book was published here. Now here’s a few more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe community of writers, and readers, is remarkably strong.

I’ve been delighted by this – I really didn’t expect the warmth and sense of community I’ve found since my book came out from people online and on social media. People are only happy to offer a kind word, advice or simply support when you are negotiating the sometimes baffling world of letting people know about your book. This is something which runs through Twitter, Facebook and through the comments you get on your blog. The community of writers and readers has become truly international too – I’m as likely to be chatting to book lovers in any part of the USA, in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia – anywhere in the world in fact. And isn’t that an amazing thing?

Being published once doesn’t make finding a home for your next book any easier.

I suppose this is an extension to the indifferent world point I made in my last round-up. I’ve found that having a little bit of a track record doesn’t count for very much. Just because you have a book out, doesn’t mean publishers suddenly see you as a great prospect – you are still just another manuscript on their massive pile – and another rejection slip to send out. I suspect, and hope, this might change a few more books further down the line – success usually breeds success after all.

There really is no money in it.

US_Dollar_banknotesNo really – none at all. Especially if, like me, you write literary fiction which is hardly a mass market proposition. If you want to chase money as an author I think you would probably have to make that your main and central aim – write purely what you thought would be most commercial and work hard on the selling side. Even then I suspect all but a few authors make very little compared to what they would if they put the same amount of time and effort into a regular job. So it’s a good job we don’t do it for the money then isn’t it?

There are people out there who really get it!

It’s a fantastic thing to hear about people who have read your book and really enjoy it. That’s the payoff for an author I think – reaching readers in that way. It’s a huge pleasure for me to read a review of my book from someone who has really engaged with it, or a discussion on a blog or website about the themes in the book. A big surprise for me was to find that there are people out in the big wide world talking about my work, often quite unbeknown to me. I’ve quoted Dr Johnson before on this blog saying: ‘A writer only begins a book, a reader finishes it.’ And that quote has been brought to life for me by the articles that have appeared on my book like the ones:
Here
And here
And here

You will have to market your book

Chris Hill, Waterstones signingI suspect a lot of soon to be authors will think what I thought – once you have a publisher they will handle the marketing of your book and you can get on with the writing. Unfortunately that’s not true. Publishers, large and small, have a lot of books coming out and not much time to promote them.

A publisher will only accept your book if they love it, and of course they will do everything they can to promote it but the truth is, unless you want your baby to disappear without trace you have to take responsibility for letting the world know about it. This means putting a lot of time, work and effort doing things like building up your presence on social media (in my case I had to build it up from absolute zero). It might also mean writing a blog like this one, taking part in interviews both on and offline, writing guest articles for other people’s websites, appearing pretty much anywhere they will have you. And so on. Which brings me to my final point.

You will be really busy!

You have all the writing to do that you had before of course, and all the querying of agents and publishers. But now you also have a blog to write, Facebook and Twitter accounts to update, readers to interact with and so on. Of course – that’s what you signed up for – so let’s not grumble about it! After all, the alternative is that you didn’t get published – and then you’d still be trying to make it happen.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Q and A – What do you read?

Today a question from L.R. Ryan, scriptwriter and author from Florida, who was kind enough to favourably review Song of the Sea God recently. You can take a look at Mr Ryan’s website and find out about his work here. If you have a question for me on writing, my book or anything else then please let me know in the comments below and I will do my best to answer in a future post.

I would like to know where your reading interests lie, when you are not busy writing such a good book as Song of the Sea God?

L.R Ryan, Florida.

780px-Carlo_Dolci_-_St_Catherine_Reading_a_Book_-_WGA06372Thanks L.R – great question. I think reading is a tremendously important thing for any writer – in fact I would go so far as to say that you should never trust a writer who doesn’t read!

I’ve always loved literature, it’s been a passion of mine since I was old enough to read. Since then I’ve read constantly – mostly novels and short stories with a little poetry too. I tend to go for literary fiction rather than genre fiction, it’s just my personal preference.

I also read non-fiction, often I switch to this more or less unconsciously once I’m working on a book – perhaps so the fiction I’m reading doesn’t too much influence the style of what I’m writing. During these periods I’ll read history, biography, philosophy, popular science books of different kinds – all sorts of things. Some just for personal interest, others because they are research for what I’m writing.

infiniteCurrently I’m in a fiction reading period and I’m tackling Infinite Jest by the late lamented American author David Foster Wallace. I seem to have been reading it for an infinite amount of time. It’s a mammoth tome, a thousand pages of tiny type before you get to the notes. The end is in sight I’m happy to report! It’s regarded as a modern classic and I am enjoying it – I’d describe it as brilliant in parts – there are sections which take your breath away, but it’s a long road.

I’d say the first set of books I remember affecting my writing style and making me want to write like they did were the novels written by the generation of American novelists now recently departed. I was very influenced by authors like Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, John Updike and many more. These were writers with a powerful and distinctive voice, a great sense of humour and a willingness to tackle big issues with flair and gusto. I wanted to be like them. At the same time, as a short story writer I was swept away by the brutal honesty and deceptive simplicity of Raymond Carver. I still admire all of these writers. But they are just the tip of a rather large iceberg.

In terms of books which influenced Song of the Sea God, it’s quite a wide group of novels I would say. People often compare Sea God with either Lord of the Flies by William Golding or The Wicker Man, which most people remember more as a film than a book. But my own go-to comparison for Sea God is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. If I’m trying to impress posh interviewers I sometimes say I based Sea God on The Tempest. It has an island, magic, a Prospero, a Caliban.

439px-CarsonmccullersBeyond that though I know there are a whole raft of books which influenced me in various ways in writing the book. These would include The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, The Magus by John Fowles. There are key aspects in the plot, the characters or the telling of all these wonderful, luminous books which have made their way into Song of the Sea God.

Yet I don’t believe my book is too similar to any of these – I have taken something of their essence and tried to use it in my work. That’s the fantastic thing about reading – you are never alone when you write. You are part of a literary tradition. You produce an original book – but it depends on the wonderful work which has gone before it.

Hope that has gone some way towards answering your question LR – and thank you so much for asking it!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

The funny thing about comic writing

What makes a book funny? That’s a tough question isn’t it.

Personally I think that if a novel describes itself as comic or funny, then it probably isn’t going to be. We all know the sinking feeling when we see the try-hard humour books – or humor if it’s an American one. The more they promise rib-tickling chuckles between their garish cartoon covers the more we are likely to fear the clammy hand of disappointment.

There’s just a whiff of desperation there isn’t there? You shouldn’t have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be funny’ any more than you should have to tell people ‘this is supposed to be sad.’ The reader either finds a book funny or they do not, and that is up to them.

I think part of the issue is that different people find different things funny. Broad slapstick, subtle wit, a million variations inbetween. What makes us laugh is quite a personal thing, perhaps more so than what makes us cry.

What I try to do, in this most difficult of literary balancing acts, is to be funny incidentally. Rather than try to make the whole book laugh out loud I attempt to slip in a few chuckles along the way. Often laughter emerges out of the scene you are in, so rather than being some kind of set up gag, the joke is organic. And very often it is the way something is written which makes it amusing – the point of view, the words you choose, the order, rhythm, the timing.

I also consider what I am using humour for. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to be funny for it’s own sake – it’s a gift and something to treasure. But if your book is trying to deal with difficult issues, for example, then humour can be a wonderful way of making them palatable.

Here’s a few of the books which have made me laugh.

moneyMoney by Martin Amis

Here’s a book crammed with glittering phrases, many of them laugh out loud funny. Amis knows how to spin a wonderful anecdote, build up characters in order to knock them down. But for me it’s the turns of phrase which are gold dust. He’s one of those writers who you can’t imagine writing a bad sentence. It’s hard work being that polished, and one of the things he regularly achieves is to make the reader laugh.

slaughterhouse 5Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Quirky and delightful, taking science fiction of an obviously kidding sort in order to deal with tough issues of death, war and mortality. Often the humour comes from seeing the world in an entirely different, unexpected and unique way, seeing it his way, which is not like anyone else’s.

untitledCatch 22 by Joseph Heller

‘Laugher in the dark if ever I heard it’ said one reviewer and Heller, as well as being another masterful spinner of words and phrases, can make us laugh at things which on the face of it, simply are not funny. They are horrifying, devastating, still he makes us laugh. Often we are laughing at the absurd, and at things which might just as easily make us cry. There’s a bravery in this kind of humour, a resilience.

jeevesPretty much anything by PG Wodehouse

He was a master, I think, of humorous writing and so many of his laughs relied on pure language – the phrasing of a sentence, the deployment of an unusual word. His world was entirely his own invention, full of wise servants, fearsome aunts and simple upper-class drones. In Wodehouse’s hands comic writing is like music – not a note, not a phrase, out-of-place.

hitchikersThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Like Vonnegut before him he found a way to play science fiction for laughs and subvert an often slightly pompous genre. He finds humour in the gap between the high-flown expectations of space exploration and the majesty of the universe and the tawdry reality he paints. In his hands it is full of bathos, it has people in it, or aliens who behave like people: messy, stupid, rude, ungrateful, lazy.

What all of these writers have in common I think, apart from the fact that they are very funny, is a love of the language. Perhaps a facility with language and being able to do comedy well go hand in hand? It’s quite a technical skill writing in an amusing way – it depends very much on the right thing said in precisely the right way at the right time. Good comic writers have the rhythm of poets.

Who are your favourite funny writers and why?

Song of the Sea God visualSee if my book is among those which will make you laugh – take a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.