The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: How to Write a Synopsis
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1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (262 of you signed up in March), welcome to my e-zine!
If you missed a back issue, remember that all previous issues are archived on my web site at: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.
2) Organization: Eat Your Broccoli
Over the last few months, I’ve gotten control over my insane To Do List. I described how I did that in February. The key element is to use a trusted system where all your tasks and projects are organized. If you know that your entire life is managed in one trusted system, you never have to worry about forgetting things.
Of course, once you have that trusted system in place, you need to categorize all tasks in two ways:
- How important is this task?
- How urgent is this task?
Life management experts are constantly harping on the need to focus on the Important, rather than the merely Urgent.
The Important things are the ones that make your life cool, fun, exciting, profitable, or all of the above.
The Urgent things are the ones that need to be done now, now, now.
Things that are both Important and Urgent are the things you should do first.
Things that are neither Important or Urgent can be left for “maybe someday.” And yeah, those are probably never going to happen, so eventually you will quietly scratch them off your list because you just don’t care about them, and you don’t care that you don’t care.
The trick is scheduling the things that are Important but not Urgent, and the things that are Urgent but not Important.
This year, my key word has been “Focus”. I’ve learned how to focus on the very few things in my life that are Important.
And that’s good. That’s wonderful, in fact. I feel like I’m going great guns on the two things in my life that are both fun and profitable. Huge progress. Yippee.
The problem is that over the last few months, I got hyper-focused. Yeah, sure, I’ve made incredible progress on the Important stuff (which also happens to be the fun stuff). But I’ve started to let slide the merely Urgent stuff (which generally is the not-fun stuff.)
As you can guess, this meant that the boring Urgent things in my life began piling up. I had them all neatly listed in my trusted system. I just wasn’t doing them. Because I was working on Important stuff.
That would all be fine, but there’s a reason these things are called Urgent. The more of them that stack up, the more stress you feel.
I finally realized that Focus is all very well, but there can be too much of a good thing. So this month I’m working at keeping things balanced a bit better.
The Urgent things in life are a bit like broccoli. You know you should do them. You just don’t want to.
(That’s not the case with Important things. Important things, by definition, are the things you really want to do. They’re either fun or profitable or both.)
So that’s the diagnosis: I wasn’t “eating my broccoli.” What’s the solution?
I talked to my mastermind group about this, and we came with an action plan:
- I allocate time every day to “eat my broccoli”. Meaning I commit to spending a certain number of hours that day to doing things I hate doing. The rule is that every morning, the first task I do is assign the number of hours for these tasks. Then I have to spend that many hours working on them. (Breaks are allowed. As I noted last month, breaks are good for you. Very good. When doing these tasks, I’m allowed to take lots of breaks.)
- One of my friends in my mastermind group emails me every day to make sure I met my commitment for that day. (Thanks to Lacy for keeping me accountable.) I probably won’t need her help for very long. Pretty soon, “eating my broccoli” will be a habit. But right now, it’s good to have a virtual mom who makes sure I do.
As one way to take the sting out of “eating my broccoli,” I assigned this category a new name: “Total World Domination”. This is of course a brazen lie. These things don’t have anything to do with conquering the world. But it’s just a little easier to schedule one hour of “Total World Domination” than to schedule one hour of “Boring Stuff I Don’t Like Doing.” If you disagree, I’ll send you a cruise missile.
Answer these questions honestly:
- Are you keeping up with the “eating your broccoli” tasks in life?
- Did you lie when you answered #1?
If you need a little help in eating your broccoli, here are the three steps you can take to start moving in that direction.
- First thing every day, make a hard commitment to a certain amount of total time which you’ll spend knocking down your list of those horrible, boring, necessary things in your life.
- Never cheat. If you say you’re going to do 4 hours, then do 4 hours. By the way, starting out the first day committing to 4 hours is really dumb. I won’t tell you how I discovered this. Commit to something, but make it something you can achieve without feeling the urge to put your head under the lawn mower.
- Ask somebody to check up on you every day to see if you ate your broccoli.
Focus is good. Balance is better.
3) Craft: How to Write a Synopsis
One of the most common questions novelists ask is “How do you write a synopsis?”
First, let’s define what a synopsis is, because it’s sometimes called an “outline” which is a confusing term. Many of us learned how to make an “outline” in third grade, using Roman numerals and capital letters to break down a nonfiction piece into smaller and smaller chunks. That’s not what a synopsis is for a novel. No Roman letters will be killed to produce your synopsis.
A synopsis is a short summary of your story, told in narrative form using complete sentences. Usually it’s done in third person, present tense. Most editors and agents want to see a synopsis, and the typical length they want is two pages, single-spaced. Always ask them what length they’re looking for, and give them that length. Two pages is typical, so I’ll assume that’s the target for this article.
Two pages single-spaced works out to about 1000 words.
There are two common ways to write that 1000 words:
- Expanding your one-paragraph summary
- Summarizing your scene list
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more detail.
Expanding Your One-Paragraph Summary
Use this method if you haven’t written your novel yet.
Start by writing a one-sentence summary and a one-paragraph summary (as described in the Craft column of the last two issues of this e-zine). Then expand each sentence of the one-paragraph summary out to three short paragraphs.
The one-paragraph summary contains five sentences:
- An introductory sentence that summarizes the setting and one or two of the lead characters.
- A sentence summarizing Act 1 of the book, which ends in some sort of disaster and a call to action for the lead character.
- A sentence summarizing the first half of Act 2, in which the lead character tries to solve his main problem the wrong way, and fails badly.
- A sentence summarizing the second half of Act 2, in which the lead character tries to solve his main problem the right way, and fails spectacularly.
- A sentence summarizing Act 3, in which the lead character goes right up to the edge of Ultimate Disaster and either succeeds or fails.
I’d recommend expanding out that first sentence into about three short paragraphs. One might summarize the setting. The other two might each introduce one character.
Then each of the other sentences need to be expanded out into three short paragraphs apiece, explaining the three main story developments in each quarter of the book.
That gives you a total of fifteen short paragraphs, which will fit nicely into two pages. You may go a little under if your novel is short. You may go a bit over if your novel is long. Don’t settle for half a page. Don’t go overboard with four pages.
Don’t overthink this process. Give yourself an hour. Drill out fifteen paragraphs. Read it over a couple of times. Stop.
You can come back in a day or two and polish. Done.
Summarizing Your Scene List
Use this method if your novel is already written. (If you’re trying to find an agent or sell your novel to an editor, they’re going to want a synopsis even if your novel is completely written. That sounds grossly unfair, and maybe it is, but it’s reality. It’s not because they hate you. It’s because it makes their job easier. You need them more than they need you, so grit your teeth and do it.)
A typical novel might have 50 to 120 scenes. On average, let’s say it’s 100 scenes. Your synopsis is supposed to be about 1000 words.
That works out to roughly 10 words per scene. That’s not enough to explain a scene in any detail. Therefore, you can’t summarize every single scene of the novel in detail.
So what do you do?
Create a list of all the scenes in your novel. You can do this on 3×5 cards or inScrivener or in a spreadsheet or in my Snowflake Pro software or however you want to do it. The list should have one sentence per scene, no more.
Group the scenes into clusters of two to seven scenes. You’ll probably have ten to twenty clusters of scenes.
Now write a short paragraph that summarizes each cluster of scenes. If you have fifteen clusters, that’ll work out to fifteen paragraphs, which is right around two pages.
Again, don’t overthink this. You’ll need two or three hours to create your scene list, by zipping through the story and summarizing each scene into a single sentence. Or you may have already done this before you wrote your novel.
Once your scene list is in place, give yourself an hour to drill out the summary paragraph for each cluster of scenes. Read the whole thing over to make sure the story logic flows. Stop.
Come back to it tomorrow and polish it up. That’s it.
Don’t Paralyze Yourself With Doubts
I’ve seen writers get stuck on the synopsis for months.
Don’t do that. A synopsis is not a big deal. It’s two pages. 1000 words. You could probably type it easily in twenty or thirty minutes.
Give yourself permission to write a bad first draft. Get it down on paper. Polish it later.
The brutal fact is that most editors and agents hate reading synopses. They’ll insist on having one, but they’ll just skim it. They want to see that your story has conflict and structure. So make sure your synopsis highlights the conflict and the structure. Conflict is about wanting things and not getting them. Structure is about disasters and decisions. Focus on those things in your synopsis.
Once the editor or agent convinces herself that you’ve got good conflict and your story has the usual three-act structure, she’ll move on to the good stuff—your actual writing. If you’re going to have angst, spend your angst where it’ll be most productive—on your sample chapters.
But don’t angst on your synopsis. Get it written. Then get it right. Then move on.
4) Marketing: Less is More
There’s an old saying that less is more.
When it comes to marketing, this isn’t exactly true. You definitely want good marketing, but doing less and less work won’t necessarily earn you more and more money.
But here’s the truth: Fewer is better.
What I mean by that is that you have a lot of options in marketing your book. There are many dozens of things you could try. Shortly before my best-selling book Writing Fiction for Dummies launched back in 2009, my publisher sent me a PDF file with 25 marketing tasks they suggested I do.
I took a quick look through it and laughed. Some of them were projects that would take six months to do right. And I received this PDF about two weeks before launch.
I can’t find the PDF now. I have no idea what happened to it. I remember that I had a strategy meeting with the marketing director and publicity director and my editor about a week later. They asked how I was doing with the list they’d sent.
I allowed that it was a fine list. Then I told them what I was going to do to launch the book. As I recall, my To Do List had either two or three items on it. All of which were in line with my overall marketing strategy I’d put together five years earlier. And I explained why this plan would send my book to the top of its category and earn us all boatloads of money. I gave them hard data to prove it would work.
The meeting went well. Nobody mentioned the fact that there were a ton of things I was not going to do. They were all very excited about the short list of things I was going to do extremely well. Because they knew I could do them. They knew I had done those things before. They knew I had a track record of success on those few things. And they knew that would be enough.
The launch went great. The book shot to #1 in its category. It moved a lot of copies in the first month. It got a couple of dozen five-star reviews very quickly. It’s now sold more than 75,000 copies and has been a good steady earner year after year.
The key lesson here is to focus on a few marketing methods and do them well.
Start with one marketing technique. Work it as well as you possibly can. Become a champ at that one thing.
Then after you’ve got it firing on all eight cylinders, if you’ve still got time, energy, and money, consider adding another marketing technique.
It’s far, far better to be doing one or two things very well than to be doing five things at a mediocre level, or 25 things hit-or-miss.
Less is more. Fewer is better. A few powerful marketing methods, executed insanely well, will get you a lot of mileage. Giving you time to write more books.
I could say much, much more on this, but there’s really no point. Because less is more.
- If you had the time, energy, and money to do only ONE marketing method, which would you choose?
- If you had the time, energy, and money to do only TWO marketing methods, which would you choose?
- Seriously, does it even make sense to think about THREE marketing methods until you’ve got #1 and #2 bringing home the money for you?
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
I’m hard at work on my next novel, the first in a series about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. I’m about 90,000 words into Book 1, and starting to smell the finish line. Books 2, 3, and 4 are mapped out and some of them are partially written. This is really fun!
I am currently on sabbatical from teaching. I’ve taught at many, many conferences over the last fifteen years, but the time has come to focus on my writing. So I’m no longer accepting requests to teach at conferences. When that changes, I’ll make a note of it here.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
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