Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Novel in a Nutshell - the Curse of the Synopsis

Trying ot get your novel in a nutshell? Good luck!
Photo by potkettle, Wikimedia Commons
Oh, how I hate synopses!

You have, say, 90,000 words in your novel and the synopsis is to be no more than a page (two, if you’re lucky). Say that’s a 500-word synopsis. You have to lose 89,500 of your total, precious words that you’ve spent the last several months crafting into something worthy of the name ‘novel’. Ditching the words for numbers for once, that means you have to cut your novel to less than 0.6% of its original length. Ouch.

Let’s just think about your story. How many characters do you have? Maybe twenty? And okay, only two of those are the hero and heroine but then you have the villain and the hero’s vengeful ex-girlfriend and the heroine’s ailing mother, not to mention her needy best friend and the false romantic lead. So that’s seven, the absolute minimum you have to get in those 500 words, all of whom have to be introduced.

Oh, and you can’t tackle the key plot twist without introducing that other character (perhaps the hero’s twin brother who’s in the army and is unexpectedly home on leave) who isn’t in himself significant but who has to be in there because without him and his background that clever twist you introduced to the plot will just sound plain implausible.

Even allowing for this it might not be quite so daunting if it was a straightforward telling of the story but it isn’t. You have to make sure that you get the character’s motivations in, otherwise the stupid and misguided things they do will just appear… well, stupid and misguided. (because obviously he only did whatever it was because his childhood experience of poverty leads him to place a false value on money which our heroine has to understand before she can help to overcome him.)

My particular bugbear is that I have to give away the clever twists in my plot. Whether I’m approaching a publisher or submitting to a competition - how can anyone recognise my talent with the twist in the tale or appreciate my cliffhanging situations when they know what’s going to happen in the end? I only pray they read the synopsis last.

So how do you tackle this monstrous task? There are those who say that you should do it first so that you can get to the crux of your story. Then there are those who say you should do it last because your story is bound to change out of all recognition and you’ll just have to do it again. I’ve tried both ways; I’ve even tried writing it in the middle. Trust me; no way is any easier than any other.

It’s a necessary evil, of course, but word for word it takes more effort and energy than that full-length novel. A whole novel, in less than the length of a blog post? Of all the parts of my writing it’s the one I hate most.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Five Star Me!

I write, I read. I review. The first is easy, the second less so. The third is the most difficult of the lot.

It ought to the the easiest, because someone else has done the hard work and turning out a review (Amazon likes them short but I don’t think this does a book justice, alas) takes very little time. Yet somehow, it’s something I don’t seem able to get my head round.

In real life, of course, I review all the time. “You must read this book,” I tell my friends; or, if they ask me what they should take on holiday I might think about what I’ve just finished and shake my head: “I don’t think I’d bother with that.” Or (because reviews like this are very personal: “I loved it but I don’t think it’s your type of book.”

I was brought up with the mantra that if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all. So, if I can’t in all conscience give a book five stars I won’t review it. This brings problems of its own because I don’t really have time time to review all the books I’ve read so there are plenty of five-star books out there that I haven’t got round to reviewing - and not a few friends will now be chewing their fingernails thinking I didn’t like their book when actually something else came between me and the Amazon page just at the wrong moment.

At this point I’m in a trap of my own making. If I only give books five stars, and I only review books by my friends, then then it looks as if I’m giving the book five stars because they’re by my friends. But because I choose books I think I’ll like, most of the books I read would get a review of at least four stars anyway. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother.

The first book I reviewed was Anne Stenhouse’s Bella’s Betrothal. I didn’t intend to read it because I’m not really into Regency but I bought it because Anne’s a friend and when I read it it surprised me and made me laugh. Five stars. Then it was Jenny Harper’s Face the Wind and Fly. I’ve watched this book creep through different edits and different tiles, battle with self-publishing and emerge the other side. And it’s a good book. Truly it is. Five stars again.

Two more five stars are coming up, for Myra Duffy’s Endgame at Port Bannatyne and John Erwin’s The Last Will and Testimony of Jedediah P Carpenter. And maybe I’ll try and extend my reviewing, and try and be a bit more brutal as I do so, or even review books by complete strangers. Watch this space…

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Who Do You Think You Are?

No cats were harmed in the process of writing.
Sometimes you have to laugh.

A friend bought my book and sat down to read it. Her boyfriend was sitting next to her. The conversation, as I understand it, went something like this:
He: “What are you reading?”
She: “Jennifer’s book.”
He (looking at the cover): “But…I thought you said she went to church.”

They do say that you should write about what you know and the corollary of this is the old question: is it about you? Now, to be clear. My book is not a dirty book; it’s not even a naughty book. In technical terms it falls somewhere between 'sweet' and 'sensuous'. And what you see on my lovely cover (I can say that because I didn’t design it) is actually pretty harmless. A couple, he with his arm around her. Okay, she’s wearing a skimpy top but then again it’s Majorca in the summer so anything more would be odd. And what you see on the cover is pretty much what you get in the book.

The question of whether a book is autobiographical is a fascinating one. In my case the answer, which is obvious to anyone who knows me, is a clear no. Abby’s story is not mine.

But the thing which intrigued me about the conversation above is not the autobiographical-or-other debate (though I suspect I’ll return to that regularly in the future because there’s much to be said about it). It’s the implication that you can’t write about certain things if you’re a certain (other) type of person.

Well, I’ve written about murders and I’m not a murderer. I’ve written about suicides and I’m still here. Essentially what a writer does is take human nature and explore it; and human nature is on a sliding scale. For example, most of the time I internalise my frustrations and though sometimes I take them out on my nearest and dearest, I’ve never yet kicked the cat. But I can extrapolate those feelings to kicking the kitty and worse if my plot requires it.

I would say that you don’t have to experience something in all its horrors to be able to write about it - though I’m sure some people would disagree. But it may be true that you write about it better if you have.

If you read my book you might think you recognise me in Abby but you won’t. Actually I am in there, but I don’t think you’ll spot me. And maybe there are people out there who recognise themselves in my writing but aren’t there either. But, reader, that’s for another post…

Friday, 7 March 2014

Stuck for a plot? Listen...

Jimmy, are you there?
Image by Callflier001 from Wikimedia (CC licence)
Two weeks on, I’m still wondering about some of the snippets of conversation I overheard on my train journey. Did Debs’ dad ever confront her sister to her face, or did Debs have the courage to do it for him? Did Jimmy lose his job in the carrot factory? And - perhaps more immediately - did he ever find his way to the pub in Preston?

I would guess he didn’t, as he was a little hazy about which pub he was supposed to be going to and he seemed to be having some trouble getting through to his friends on his phone. He wouldn’t have got off at Preston at all if some kindly onlooker hadn’t reminded him that it was his stop; and actually he was lucky to make it to to the right station (assuming it was the right one, of course) because he was nearly left behind at Carlisle after stepping out onto the platform for a quick smoke.

On such strange and sometimes shaky foundations, plots are built. They change. Of course they change. Instead of a middle-aged male drunk, choose a bereaved/jilted/unwell young woman. The kindly passenger of fact is a trickster in fiction. And the stop that could have been Preston is a village in the middle of nowhere with fog rolling in from the moors. Oh, and and there’s no train out until next Wednesday.

Is it a romance? Is it a thriller? Is it a ghost story? Is it Wuthering Heights for a digital age? As a reader you’re at the mercy of your author but as a story-teller (and, by the way, anyone can be a story-teller whether they write it down or not) you have control.

Go back and change any element of this embryonic plot - perhaps it isn’t a village station but a bustling city where your protagonist doesn’t speak the language - and it’ll take you somewhere totally different. Or use the elements as they are and change it going forward. It snows/there’s an earthquake/she gets run over by a horse and cart and wakes up in the Middle Ages. It doesn’t matter. Do what you want. It’s your story now.

So, here’s my writer’s tip for this post. Never waste a snippet of information.  You don’t have to look far for a plot. Look at the people around you and think ‘what if?’; and don’t be afraid to change what you heard.

But Jimmy, if you’re out there…I’d love to know whether you made it safely or whether your trip to Lancashire turned into a real adventure.