[Greatest Hits] On Writing #8: Drafting Cover Letter Blurbs and Synopses, Or How to Realize You Can’t Really Write

Ever wondered why writers complain endlessly about writing that novel blurb on the cover letter, or writing the synopsis that every agent says are standard for the industry, but every agent also says must be a different length? (C’mon guys! Are they supposed to be 1 or 2 or 3 or 5 or 8 or 10 pages, anyway?)

Well, since I’ve been diving head-first into both of these problems — and I think I’ve recently whipped the Cover Letter Problem(TM) — I’ll tell you. It’s not that you don’t know how to write anymore. It’s not even that your novel is too complicated to compress into a blurb/XY-page synopsis.

The real problem is that you are practicing a new skill, one you may not have used very much:

The skill of summarizing.

You may have last encountered this in 10th grade as an English assignment — summarizing (perhaps) MOBY DICK or TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I bet it wasn’t easy, was it? All the class snickering. Half of them copying off of each other. None of you even partly interested in the assignment. If you are very lucky you may have even had to summarize a book more recently, say in English 101 or History of English Literature. You probably tried harder then, banging your skull against the dogeared copy of ABSALOM ABSALOM or TAMBURLANE until Athena tried to climb out of your forehead. You may have even got an A.

But one day you start writing a novel and thinking about selling it or getting an agent, and you sense this “Cover Letter” demon and “Synopsis” monster lurking in the dark and unknown future, and you wonder, “How do I tame them? How do they not just eat me? Where do I even start?” But you’ve still got a long road ahead, so you put it off.

Then one day the novel is done. You’ve patched all the plot holes, polished the prose, charisma’ed-up the characters, eliminated the loose ends. “Well,” you decide, “I can’t wait any longer — I have to have a cover letter and a synopsis.” So you dive in. First things first, start at the BEGINNING. And when you come up for air, you read the thing and you’re pretty damn sure IT SUCKS.

What’s going on, anyway? You know how to write. Everyone’s impressed with the novel (or at least they’re pretending to be.) Maybe you’ve even sold a couple of short stories by now, possibly been nominated or even won an award. But still You. Can’t. Get. This. Damned. Thing. To. Work.

Yeah, I couldn’t either.

But then I realized: my novel, with its unusual setting, four different factions, and shifting alliances (eventually culminating in one glorious conflagration where everyone tries to kill everyone else) — well, it just doesn’t fit the coverletter format. Or the synopsis format, either. At least… not the way I’m using them.

You see, I was lost in the detail. I was trying to recreate by intercut book, in order, sometimes scene by scene. But these formats don’t easily support that sort of summarization.

I realized at last that I only have to convey the spirit of the story, not every twist and turn of the plot. To summarize, indeed, I was forced SIMPLIFY the plot.

The only way to condense this book, make it fit into the space needed, and still be entertaining was to cut out seemingly-pivotal characters, entire story arcs, perhaps even important factions. Cut, cut, cut away the fat until only the skeleton remains.

The cover letter was finished first, a couple of days ago. And when I read it, it feels pretty damn good — and I’ve never been able to say that about a cover letter before. As for the synopsis, I’m still hack-hack-hacking away.

But at least I think I know what shape the corpse should be before I pour the lightning in… Here, hold a tendon.

[Update since the original post: The synopsis feels pretty darn good when I read it, too. It’s alive… IT’S ALIVE! *mad laughter*]

WIP: Buckling Down and Plotting it Out

Been failing to plug away at the novel, which usually means I need to fix something. In this case: the plot.

I’ve been seat-of-the-pantsing the current Work-in-Progress novel long enough. I like it, I’m interested in it — I’ve bought-in, as they say. Phase 1, falling in love, is done. Time to have an idea where I’m heading.

I sat down tonight and cooked up a pretty solid-looking plot. 60-or-so scenes in mind, following a three-act structure.

It’ll change, of course. I’d be scared if it didn’t. But it also helps me know all is not void and darkness. Yes, just like the working title of this one, “Sometimes There is Light.”

[Greatest Hits] On Writing #4: The Secret to Consistent Productivity and Getting Things Done — Momentum

[To satisfy both goals of 1) moving all my on writing articles over here from LJ and 2) providing more high-quality posts to readers, I’m offering up a second On Writing post this week, one of the classics]

Once you start writing stories or a novel or poems or even essays, if you write every day you develop a head of steam. Not only does writing become a habit, but you don’t feel right if you don’t write. You feel off balance, leaning forward, like you’re standing atop a racing train and suddenly it’s pulled the brakes. You’re going to fly off. Get lost in the sky. Crash.

I’ve been feeling like that. Unfulfilled. Off balance. Uncentered. Because I haven’t bee writing and I haven’t been submitting short stories.

Well, I’ve got good news to report — not only have I started submitting stories again (I was at 0 out-to-market), but I wrote 4,211 words yesterday on a from-scratch rewrite of my WOTF Semifinalist short story “The Eye of God.”

It was one of the first things I wrote after I started writing again, and I was never completely happy with it. I tried rewriting it a few times, just a once-over edit, but it never really worked. I always knew it needed a rewrite from scratch and a different voice. Well, yesterday I was finally gripped with a passion to fix the story — and now there are only two scenes left. Two very difficult scenes. A steep hill for my train. Sure, it’s off to a racing start but that hill is still scary.

But I can do it. I can do it. I can get up that hill.

And you know something — you can too. We’re all little-trains-that-could, here. Maybe you’re writing something that’s beyond your skills and it feels stuffy and stilted, maybe you’re plagued by self-doubts about your editing prowess, maybe you’re a pro looking for a better writing process because you feel unfulfilled, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write and you’ve just never started.

Well, my advice is to just shovel some coal on the fire and get the engine started. Get the wheels turning. They may creak, they may be rusty, but get them turning an the rust will come off and the creaking will get better. Get your train started. It doesn’t have to be an Olympic start. Plenty of time my train just starts limping ahead 100 or 200 words at a time. That’s fine.

Because momentum BUILDS. As long as you keep the coal shovelled and keep water in the boiler, those wheels will turn — and that train will MOVE. And if your train is moving, eventually you will get to the destination.

On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary

The art of the query letter and synopsis is not summarizing your entire book. This is what took me forever to learn. It’s about IGNORING VAST SECTIONS OF YOUR BOOK. Boiling things down to the fewest characters possible, the fewest events possible.

My most successful query letter so far has almost no plot information at all, just a very quick reference to the the story to get a feel for it, and then my credentials. Just enough to hook, no more.

My synopsis, similarly, has very few character, very few plot developments. I rebelled against this at first, I felt like I was almost writing a different story, but then I realize that summary more about CHOOSING WHAT YOU LEAVE OUT than choosing what you leave in. This is because you have to leave out almost all of the book. A short summary CANNOT hold you entire novel and still make sense, unless almost nothing happens in your book.

My synopsis ended up being very high-level, much more high-level than I thought it would have been when I first started trying to write a synopsis. Eventually I realized that I needed to emphasize style and voice and a few main characters — because really, anyone reading the synopsis is just trying to get a feel for the book. So you’ve got to put the “feel” in, but you don’t need anything else. (But don’t forget to put the ending in! There are no secrets in a synopsis!)

So, dear reader, I am saying you need to cherry pick your novel. Make it make sense, but show surprisingly little of the plot (especially in the query letter). But I have this warning too: be careful how you summarize. Summary is a completely different type of writing than what most of us are used to in fiction, and it’s very easy to emphasize the WRONG parts, and make the story seem like something it isn’t.

Here are two examples:

1) (via David Brin on facebook)
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
— Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz”

2) The infamous “Shining” trailer on YouTube

I think these talk for themselves, but let me say it one more time to let it sink in: Summary is about DECIDING WHAT TO LEAVE OUT. Think about it. What did the summarizers leave out of the above examples?

Ok. ‘Nuff said.

A Cool Interview

Charles A. Tan interviewing the great Alan Dean Foster @SF Signal, HERE.

Among other interesting items, Mr. Foster discusses:
– How hard it is to publish outside your genre once you’re established
– How writing fiction and non-fiction isn’t that different (you just have to play closer attention to sources in non-fiction)
– How fiction and non-fiction are all about sharing.

Great stuff.