Memorializing Those You Know In Your Novel

1991: My brother Paul, on the right.
Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have served to protect and defend our country. It got me thinking about people in my own life. Tomorrow would have been my little brother's 40th birthday. Twenty years ago he was killed in a car crash.

There are many people who have made a huge impact on my life. Some are no longer here, but many are part of my life today. In the spirit of "write what you know", here are a few tips for including people in your novels.

Use a name. Give one of you characters the name of a person who is meaningful to you. The character doesn't have to be exactly like that person. You don't even have to let the honoree know you've done it. I named one character after a young girl in my town who is the epitome of the girl in my story. Knowing her inspired me to deepen the character.

Pick a favorite (or un-favorite) characteristic. If you'd like to be more subtle, think of what it is about a person you know (or have known) that can be reflected in your character. One woman I know is unceasingly optimistic in the face of huge personal and financial tragedies. I gave that spirit to a character in my first novel.

An editing client needed a nasty "supervisor-type" character. Having worked in several corporate situations under less-than-ideal managers, he made his character a composite of all the negative characteristics he had come across. It made for a truly unlikeable character.

Use description. There may be a habit. A nervous tic. A common phrase or reaction that a friend or loved one uses frequently. An expression. A way they wear their hair. A certain body language unique to them. These are things you can use to make a character unique. And you'll be able to describe them effectively because you've seen it up close and personal.

You don't have to tell a person that you're using them in your book, unless you want to. Say someone you know has a nervous habit of pushing their glasses up on their nose. You can give that habit to a character that is completely different from the person you're acquainted with.

Retell an event. With all the people in our lives, we've all had thousands of big and small events that can be used in fiction. Say your characters are having an argument. It's likely you've witnessed, or have been part of, quite a few arguments. You can mine those experiences for details that will make you fiction feel more real.

And you can take the feelings from an event and use them for something else. When I was five years old, I got lost in Kennedy International Airport in New York City.  Though that was long ago, I can use the feelings I remember in scenes where a character is feeling lost, abandoned or terrified. What events have you been through with others that might deepen one of your character's experiences?

Writing a novel is like creating a time capsule of your experiences and recollections. If you feel you need more experiences, try some people-watching to collect more details for your characters.

How have you used people you've known in your fiction? Have you done it deliberately, or without even realizing it?

Happy Memorial Day

I'm taking a day to spend with my family. I hope that wherever you are and whatever holidays you celebrate, that you'll get to be with those you love. I'll be back tomorrow with more resources!

Six Ways To Win With Writing Contests

On the road to publication, it's nice to have some folks cheering you on--besides your friends and family. You may not win the contest, but here's how to win no matter where you place.

Know the Benefits. Entering a writing contest can do several wonderful things for you:

  1. Help you meet a deadline.
  2. Force you to prepare for submitting to agents by following manuscript guidelines.
  3. Give you valuable feedback from publishing professionals.
  4. Develop your confidence in letting others read your work.

 Choose a Goal. Is your mission to gain publicity? To get feedback? To interest an agent? Or maybe you just want to force yourself to stretch your writing. Some contests give a prompt, whether written or visual. You might discover the seed of a novel you never would have thought of before. It was through a writing contest prompt that I began my current novel.

Stretch Yourself. If you write romance, don't limit yourself to the hundreds of romance-oriented writing contests available. Try something in another genre or format (like flash fiction, if you're a novelist, or write some sci-fi if you like to write mysteries). Often contests outside your comfort zone can help you uncover a previously unknown ability in a certain genre. 

Uncover the Details. If the contest has a fee, evaluate whether it's worthwhile for you. Many organizations run contests to raise money through contest fees. This is legitimate, but stop to evaluate your chances of winning, and what you'll receive. 

I enter the Pikes Peak Writers Paul Gillette Contest every year. There is a fee, but I receive two in-depth score sheets from professional writers, along with a chance for a cash prize or attendance at their writing conference. 

Make Like a Professional. It's never too early to learn to follow directions. Sure, a contest's directions for entries may seem strange, but consider it your boot camp to becoming a published writer. If you can't follow (seemingly) arcane instructions now, what will you do when the twelve agents you plan on submitting to each have their own do's and don'ts?

Don't Forget to Debrief. After the contest is over, evaluate how it went. If you received score sheets or judges critiques, spend some time reading through the comments. If the opinions hurt, set it aside for awhile, or go over it with a critique partner. 

If you entered an online contest, like one hosted on a blog, you can often read the winning entries. Take the time to go over the stories that placed, and try to determine why they are different. Did they just follow the guidelines better? Are there craft issues you can work on? Think of it as just another learning experience that will hone your skills as a writer.

How have contests helped your writing?

In a Land Far, Far Away: Finding Inspiration for Your Novel

Do you have a favorite "away" place to write? Sure, you can drop by the local coffee shop with the free wireless and the funky atmosphere. But is there a location that gives you "scope for the imagination", as Anne of Green Gables would say?

On Saturday, I was driving home from one of my monthly critique groups, when I had a revelation about one of my characters. It came out of the blue, this sudden knowledge. Turns out my likeable guy had a major disability that I was previously unaware of. It demanded to be written down.

 I happened to be driving past one of my favorite places in Colorado Springs--Garden of the Gods--so named by the Ute Indians. I pulled off at an overlook and pondered my new-found knowledge with the view, ending up writing a few pages about him.

There is something about a beautiful vista that makes the words flow far better than when I'm sitting in front of a computer screen (and it doesn't help that my writing room is windowless). Watching the color of the light on the rocks, the clouds shifting and changing, even feeling the air on my skin--gives me more sensory details than I would have come up with on my own.

My other favorite place to write, when I get the chance to visit, is Glen Eyrie, a retreat and conference center that happens to be right next door to Garden of the Gods. Their amazing property not only contains similar rock formations, but also boasts a beautiful castle. Perfect for writers of fairy tales, like me.

Next time you feel as if you're in a writing "dead end", try changing the scenery. Whether you go sit on a bench at the park and people-watch, or hike into the desert, a shift in your environment might be just the cure to get the words flowing.

Where is your favorite writing spot?

When Writing Gets Difficult: 5 Things I Learned From Sue Grafton

If you love mysteries, you already know about Sue Grafton. A prolific writer, she is currently on book twenty-one of a twenty-six book series, each titled with a letter of the alphabet. Her first novel was A is for Alibi in 1982. With a career that spans almost three decades, an author is bound to develop some sound advice. I ran across a Writer's Digest interview with Grafton, and made a list of what I learned.

Writing is hard work.

Aspiring authors often think that if you're a "true writer", the words just pour onto the page. That happens sometimes, but the fact is, writing is hard work. Like any other job, there are days when you can't wait to get to work, and at other times you have to force yourself into it. Combined with the fact that new writers must have a finished product before they have even a shred of hope of getting paid, it can be difficult to spend time and energy on a dream.

Even successful writers fear they've lost their edge.

Novice writers wonder all the time if they're any good. They crave feedback. Positive comments keep them writing, while negative ones often shut them down--somtimes for good. We imagine that if we can just get an agent, or get published, or sell so many copies, that we'd have all the assurance we need. Not so. Even bestselling authors, with piles of awards and accolades, wonder if this next book will prove they've come to the end of their talent.

Don't let your ego get in the way.

Sue Grafton believes that while her ego thinks it has the ability to write, it's actually the still, small voice inside her that really has the skill. So even if you have received some great feedback--a contest win, an article published in a magazine--don't let the heady scent of success derail you from the work of writing. 

Be ready to learn new things.

Your characters will need skills that you don't presently have. Take lessons, ask experts, and keep your eyes open. Whether it's self-defense, spinning wool, or bussing tables, your readers will be able to tell if you're making it up or you've really tried it.

Give yourself time to get better.

I was thrilled beyond belief to finish my first novel. Though it might never see the light of day, it proved to me that I was capable of completing something that made sense and was 100,000 words long. Now, several projects later, I am only beginning to see how much I need to learn. Being a writer means being in it for the long haul. There is no instant success.

If you'd like to read the entire interview with Sue Grafton, go here. We've all got a lot to learn.

Free Resources from Holly Lisle

I love authors who give back. I've got a whole list of them. Authors who've reached their goal of publication, and despite the crazy schedule of promoting their books while writing new ones, still pass on vital information through their blogs, free courses, ebooks and workshops.

Holly Lisle is one of these. Yes, she offers some courses for a fee, but this author gives away a staggering amount of informations. Lisle is a fantasy, science fiction, and suspense writer, but she is an excellent teacher of writing. No matter what your genre, you'll learn something from this hard-working author.

Newsletter. Holly's free newsletter is full of information on the craft of writing. And when you sign up, she'll send you a free ebook called 396 Books and Other Resources Writers Recommend to Kickstart Your Writing, Stand your Thinking On Its Head, and Vastly Increase Your Ability to Write What You Know. Despite the incredibly long title, the list of books (and why they are helpful) is a great resource that I've referred to often.

Articles and Ebooks. Holly offers a long list of articles for authors to read.

Besides the free ebook that comes with Holly's newsletter, she has another free one called Mugging the Muse: Writing Fiction for Love AND Money. The same page has links to a great writer's forum called Forward Motion. In case you're curious about her writing, Holly has posted two of her novels free online.

Workshops and Courses. Are you having a hard time with writing dialogue? Holly offers a free Dialogue Workshop to help you finetune what your characters are saying. For writers in the middle of plotting their novel, check out Holly's free Professional Plot Outline Mini-CourseWriting fantasy? Do your characters speak a different language? Don't miss Holly's free Create a Language Clinic.

What would you like to give away when you're an established author?

Get to Know Your Characters With Character Charts

I'm on my summer vacation in a Colorado ski town, where the snow is still five to ten feet deep. Enjoy this post you may have missed from early last year.

You know how it is. You walk into a room full of strangers, and start off with small talk. If you're lucky, you discover something you both have in common that extends the conversation a little further. But to truly get to know someone, you'll have to spend quite a bit of time together. Sharing hobbies, shooting the breeze, and going through the ups and downs of life together help you understand another person intimately.

When writing a novel, It's necessary to spend considerable time getting to know the characters in order to make them seem three-dimensional to  readers. It's like writing a biography of a person you've just met.

That's where character charts come in. You build a file on each character. There are questions you probably never thought to ask your protagonist--like what he tends to do when he's nervous, or what is the secret she's never told anyone.

I've found quite a few character charts peppering the internet. Each one is a little different, and you might want to try out a few to see which ones work the best for your characters. Once you've decided on one (or more), sit down and have a cup of coffee with one of your characters. You might be surprised at what they share with you.

Character Charts to Check Out
For the visual oriented writers, here is a fascinating group of 29 pages(.pdf)--everything from character attributes, to the evolution of a character's arc through the story. While there are a few pages I'm not sure how to use, I will definitely print out an make use of several.

A comprehensive chart (you can click on the .pdf download or see it on the webpage), includes a link to an astrological chart for your character.

The folks at Creative-Writing-Solutions have a whole group of charts. If you write fantasy, you may need a chart to help you identify the details of a new race, or a particular creature. They've also got charts for pets, vehicles, buildings, and new lands. You can access all of them here.

Writer's Village University has a free Character Building Workshop, with online quizzes that help you narrow down your character's traits.

Sandra Miller has compiled a list of questions you can ask your character in her character exercises.

What have you found to be the best way to get to know a character? Have you ever been surprised by what you've learned?

The Big No: Surviving and Thriving Through Rejection

Can rejection actually help you get published? Think about it. When success comes without a lot of effort, it's easy to ride the wave and not push for perfection.

Take Kathryn Stockett, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Help. She was rejected by a stunning sixty agents over several years before landing an agent. What did she do during those years of submitting and getting a negative response over and over? She wrote and rewrote her book. The story of her journey and perseverance is inspiring.

Had Stockett landed an agent with her first batch of submissions, her manuscript might not have sold in three weeks, like it did. It would have needed multiple rounds of revisions before it was polished to the point it would interest a publisher.

Sure, a manuscript has taken a chunk of time to write, but how ready is it to submit? Sometimes a few rejections can bring a writer face-to-face with the truth. Despite how much family, friends, and even critique group members like it, it may need some more work. This is the time to read and apply knowledge from books like these that can help turn a "no" into a "yes".

If you end up with a batch of rejection letters, know that you're not alone. Here are some lists of famous writers who were rejected--some of them many times, others with hurtful criticism:

50 Iconic Writers Who Were Repeatedly Rejected (Even bestselling James Patterson was rejected multiple times.)
Naked Rejection: You Have to Take It On the Chin Steven King tossed his Carrie manuscript in the trash, and his wife fished it out.
Rejections received by famous authors and famous books. (Did you know Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times, she initially self-published?)
30 Famous Authors Rejected Repeatedly and Rudely (One publisher told Faulkner, "Good God! I can't publish this!")
And if all this rejection confirms your belief that the publishing industry is beyond help, read this post by Nathan Bransford to renew your faith.

Where are you at? Has rejection (or fear of rejection) made you work harder at your craft?

Do you have 25 hours or 15 minutes in a day? Guest Post by Stacy Jensen

What writer doesn't need more time in their day?  This is such an excellent post, I had to share it. It's written by Stacy Jensen, who told about a workshop led by the amazing Scoti Domeij. If you're near the Colorado Springs area, you can attend workshops like these on the first Monday of each month. For more information, check out the Springs Writers blog.

What would you do if you had an extra hour each day? Would you write? The extra day isn't going to happen, but you can make time to write in the 24 you have — even if it is in 15 minute increments.

Springs Writers Director Scoti Domeij spoke Monday night at the May workshop on how to get a handle on your schedule and find time to write. Her program: Edit Your Life:  Setting Realistic Writing Goals helped me this week.

Before I ever stepped foot in the Stone Chapel at Woodmen Valley Chapel Church, I typed out a list of all my immediate and upcoming commitments (family and church), then deadlines for in progress writing projects and a variety of events I want to attend such as the monthly Springs Writers group, toddler story time at the library, etc.

At the meeting, Scoti gave us a seven-page handout and a whole lot of real life examples of how to get our writing life organized.

We talked about things that sabotage our writing dreams? Lack of inspiration. Lack of trying. Lack of energy. Lack of persistence.

We identified excuses that sabotage our writing dreams? Mine. Well, almost a year after my son's birth, I haven't found my routine. I list of things I want to do, but haven't figured out when to do them.

Scoti shared a great chart — Sunday through Saturday with a block for each hour of the day. She encouraged us to make writing an excuse not to do other things. On the chart, we blocked off non-negotiable times that's scheduled each week. I marked off times for sleep and meal times. There is a lot of time left over for me to schedule for writing.

She shared a whole sheet on ways to track the time we spend online. Social networking is a drain for me as well as the internet research. Three sources to help you self-control:
  • LeechBlock  — use it to block sites during your writing time.
  • Time Tracker  — Track the time you spend on tasks
  • Rescue Time  — Allows you to set goals and block sites
Track your time for a week or two to get a real picture of what you are doing. She suggested writing it down in 15-minute increments. During various times, I have used the same method to track daily food intake or my daily spending. After you do this, you can find spots to carve out time to write.

Other ways to find time include taking an inventory of what you do and what you'll trade off to write. Scoti suggested looking at our excuses for not writing, our time wasters, obstacles that keep us from writing and ways we procrastinate. Then, look at things we love to do that we'll say no to so we can write.

We looked at areas we need to focus on to achieve our writing dreams? Like the number of hours we write, the genre we read, the queries we make and ways we advance our writing skills through books, conferences and critique groups.

Another big topic is WHO distracts us from writing. Do you have a Debbie Downer among your friends? Scoti shared 10 ways to deal with people who distract you from writing. My favorite:  Set boundaries.

She also gave us a chart to track our goals. The rules: Create no more than three goals. Write each one in the positive. Make the goal specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.

So, you don't need a whole new hour in the day. I'm glad Scoti shared all her time tricks. I'm using the 15 minutes (here and there) that I already have to write.

When do you find time to write? 

Click here for more time management tips and tools.

Book Review: The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers, by Donald Maass

The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers is the fifth Donald Maass book I've reviewed. I wasn't sure I really needed another Maass book. But when I got hold of a copy at a recent writer's conference, I realized it was exactly what I needed.

I already owned Writing the Breakout Novel, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, The Fire in Fiction, and The Career Novelist. The trouble is, I don't always grab the whole stack from my shelf and put them to use. The Breakout Novelist contains the best information from all four books, plus updated content, in a compact, spiral-bound hardcover.

A nice-sized volume to sit next to my computer.

If you have't heard of Donald Maass, he's the founder of his own top-notch literary agency, and a former president of the AAR (Association of Author Representatives, Inc.).

The exercises he includes ask writers to stretch themselves beyond the boundaries of safe, predictable writing. Working through this book will improve your novel by leaps and bounds.

Here's the table of contents to give you an idea of what you're getting:

Table of Contents

PART 1: Mastering Breakout Basics
  1. Premise
  2. Stakes
  3. Time and Place
  4. Characters
  5. Plot
  6. Sub-Plots + Pace + Endings
  7. Advanced Plot Structures
  8. Theme
  9. Practical Tools

PART 2: Achieving Breakout Greatness
  1. Protagonists vs. Heroes
  2. Characters Who Matter
  3. Scenes That Can't Be Cut
  4. The World of the Novel
  5. A Singular Voice
  6. Making It Real
  7. Hyper-Reality
  8. Tension All the Time
  9. The Fire in Fiction
  10. Practical Tools

PART 3: Building a Breakout Career
  1. Status Seekers & Storytellers
  2. Publishing Myth vs. Reality
  3. Pitching
  4. Agents
  5. Career Patterns That Work
  6. Breaking Out
  7. Contracts
  8. Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
  9. The Future of Publishing
  10. Passages

The book comes with an exclusive link so writers can download and print the exercises for their notebooks (without having to write in the book).

Check out an excerpt from the book from Chapter 24: Career Patterns That Work, and an exclusive interview with Maass as he shares his secrets of success

What are your favorite writing books?

Blogger is Not Cooperating Today

I've got a great post ready to go, but Blogger is garbling it so it can't be read. I'll try again tomorrow! Snowing here in the mountains--a nice day to stay inside!

Free Resources from Josh Vogt at Write Strong

In my quest to find the best resources for writers, I'm so glad to have discovered Josh Vogt and his Write Strong site. And to make it more interesting, I've discovered that Josh's mom and I were critique group partners for a year. However, I "met" him through my posts about your blogs a few weeks ago.

Josh Vogt is a writer of speculative fiction. Recently agented, and with his first manuscript currently being sent out to editors, he's in the perfect place to share what he knows and what he's learning at the moment.

Vogt's website has a fantastic page called The Fiction Writer's Virtual Toolbox. It's filled with over 150 links collected on all kinds of topics on the craft of writing and the business of writing.

Wanting to post even more resources for writers, Vogt set up a website called Write Strong. It's well-worth a visit for articles like these:

What are your go-to sites for writer's tools?

Free Resources from Author Stephie Smith

A picture of my mountain town. That's Pikes Peak looming over it.
I've hit on a mountain of great resources today. And they're all in one place. Stephie Smith is a published writer of short stories and essays, an she generously shares a huge list of resources on her website.

It's hard to capture all the information  Stephie Smith shares on her website, but I'll try to give you a taste. You'll definitely want to visit and place a bookmark there so you won't forget to go back for more.

On the Writer's Resource page, Smith lists links for general writers resources like how to pitch,  and contests and exercises.

If you're a writer of historical fiction, Smith has all kinds of links for you. Need information on historical coinage? Want the lowdown on ships and naval history? How about links to historical costumes? She's got links to all that and more.

Beyond that, Smith lists websites to learn about agents, and links where bloggers (and bloggers-to-be) can learn the ins and outs of setting up and maintaining a blog. There's a comprehensive list of links for writers to learn about the craft of writing, and information on various genres. 

For those trying to make writing a business, there's lots of information on money, taxes, and freelance jobs. I'll be checking out those links for sure. And Smith lists all kinds of helpful links for pitching, promoting, and publishing your book.

Speaking of promotion, she's got a whole separate page for authors who've gotten "the call". The Promotion Page  contains links for anything and everything an author needs to do to make sure they're promoting their book.

And one more page from Smith: as a Windows user, she's written an easy-to-understand course to take the frustration from computer users. You can access the first part of the course for free, in the Basics of Windows.

Kudos to Stephie Smith for sharing her time and talents on these pages! For more generous authors, check out author resources.

Did you find something helpful today?

A Brand New Kindle: Could It Change a Fiction Writer's World?

My first Kindle arrived yesterday. I wrestled with the purchase for a long time, because I love physical books, and felt an e-reader was too much of a short-cut. My daughter, who is passionate about books is incredibly disappointed with my decision. So I'm thinking through the reasons why owning a Kindle might be beneficial to a fiction writer.

First of all, since money is an issue, I bought the cheaper Kindle with Special Offers. At $114, it's $25 less than the normal version. It's exactly the same product, but the screensavers might contain an offer from Amazon or another merchant. Your reading is not interrupted by ads, however.

Here's the list I've been accumulating in my head. Who knows? I might think of more.

I have access to books I'd probably never buy. As a reader, I love new books. As a writer, it's part of my job to read good books, bad books, and in-between books. To keep up with my genre, and what's new in the market. My small town doesn't have a bookstore (and Wal-mart doesn't count), so many of my purchases are made online. Through Amazon's free reading software, I've already been reading Kindle books on my laptop, and have accumulated more than seventy books--some of them books that are out of print, or otherwise inaccessible.

I'm reading books I might not read otherwise. It's possible to get thousands of titles of classic literature in an e-format, most of them free. The accessibility is encouraging me to read these books. Most of them I didn't own already. Other classics are sitting on my shelf, but the tiny font used is hard on my forty-something eyes. On the Kindle, I can adjust the size of the font, and even how many words appear on each line for faster reading.

Space. We have bookshelves in every room of the house. Even the laundry room. The bathrooms don't have shelves, but each one has a stack of books. In order to add more books to our collection, we'd have to *gasp*--give away some of them. Increasing the books available to us on a Kindle takes up no space at all.

Critique. I'm a member of several critique groups, and it's not always easy to carry the laptop around on errands, trying to get all my critique reading done. With the Kindle, I can email a .pdf file of the manuscript I need to read, and it will transfer to my device. While reading, I can make notes and highlights in the document.

For those that want to convert other kinds of files to a particular e-reader, there's a great site called Calibre that will walk you through it.

My husband. Of all the reasons above, the biggest one is my husband. He'd like to read my manuscript. He's not a computer guy. And I'm to cheap to print out the whole thing when I know I'm still making changes. So, this next week, he'll get to start reading my book on the Kindle. This is a technology he can handle. And I'll feel better, knowing that my writing is a part of his life.

There are other pluses of the Kindle I didn't highlight. You can get an instant definition of any word with the touch of a button. The Kindle can read out loud to you, or you can download audio books. It connects wirelessly to Wikipedia for checking out things that come to mind. The battery lasts a month, and it holds 3500 books. 

Have you thought about an e-reader? Maybe you know some benefits--or drawbacks--that I haven't mentioned. I'd love to hear your opinion.

Perfect That Manuscript: Grammar Links That Beg to be Bookmarked

Let's face it. Grammar does not equal glamour. But if your manuscript is lacking it, you can forget about snagging an agent. So while subject and verb agreement might make you yawn, here are some sites that will help you have fun while tackling the grammar beast.

One easy way to go over your story is to check for overuse of certain words. Scrivener writing software has this built in, and I use it frequently. I also use a free website to make a visual map of my chapters that shows which words I'm using the most. Then there are sites that track frequently used words and phrases.

I also love Grammar Girl's website and book. She brings humor to grammar, which isn't easy.

I've discovered a new and fun site for the ticklish terms in grammar at ChompChomp. It's a fun and irreverent site with great grammar definitions, exercises, and even videos to help users wrap their heads around grammar intricacies (complete with rock music).

If you need the help of a thesaurus, you've got lots of options. For a physical reference, I recommend The Synonym Finder--a great volume to keep handy. If you're more of a visual person, there's nothing better than The Visual Thesaurus, a free-to-try online tool that maps out the connections between words.

And last of all, Writing Forward has a list of ten grammar resources that are fantastic. Does anyone remember the Schoolhouse Rock videos that were shown during Saturday morning cartoons decades ago? Time to take a trip down memory lane--and brush up on grammar at the same time.

What do you use to keep your tenses straight? I'd love to add to this list.

Synopsis Tips from Agent Joanna Volpe, Part 2

Yesterday I posted tips on writing a synopsis from agent Joanna Volpe. Today we'll continue with her advice on how to actually condense a novel into a page or two. 

3 Things to include in a synopsis:

1. The main plot. Though there are many subplots in a novel, tease out what the main one is. Reconcile that most, if not all, of these wonderful and imaginative subplots will not make it into the synopsis. That's ok.

2. Main characters. These are the characters that appear in the beginning, middle, and end of the book. Two of my secondary characters that I just love (one is even a love interest) are only in Act 2 and 3. One of them gets a mention (though not by name) in the synopsis. The other doesn't make the cut at all.

3. The ending. In a synopsis, it's expected that the writer give away the ending. Like I mentioned yesterday, agents and editors need to see that the plot carries through. 

Formatting a synopsis:

1. Check each agent's specific guidelines. If there aren't any, keep it to two pages or less.
2. At the top, put the title, word count, author's name, and genre (optional).
3. Use a 12 point readable font--usually Courier or Times, but never script or any kind of fancy font.
4. Synopses are single spaced, with a space between each paragraph.
5. Number the pages in the header.
6. Write in present tense. Think of the way you tell someone about a movie you liked: "The heroine leaves home, gets chased by aliens, then finds true love and saves the world."

Now, the big how-to:

1. Make a list of all the characters you'd like to include in the synopsis, if length were not an issue.
As an example, Volpe had the workshop attendees call out the names of important characters in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Here's the list that was generated:

Harry, Hermione, Ron, Voldemort, Mr. & Mrs. Dursley, Malfoy, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Harry's parents, Snape, Professor Quirrel

2. Make a list of important events that occur throughout the book. The class came up with these:

Harry is an orphan, has a bad situation at home, discovers he's a wizard, enrolls at Hogwarts, takes the magical train, makes friends and enemies, learns about his past, discovers his connection to Voldemort, plays Quidditch, different houses at Hogwarts compete, sorcerer's stone is hidden, the Mirror of Erised, the invisible cloak, finding Fluffy, saving Hermione from the troll, detention in the forest, the murder of the unicorns

3. Narrow down the characters to three or more that appear throughout the book. Here's how it looked for our exercise:

Harry, Hermione, Ron, Voldemort, Mr. & Mrs. Dursley, Malfoy, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Harry's parents, Snape, Professor Quirrel

You might say, "But what about Snape? He's a major character." Anyone else that seems important can be referred to, such as, "a teacher who picks on Harry". The Dursleys can be mentioned as "Harry's adoptive parents". This keeps the focus on the true main characters. Hermione and Ron are "Harry's friends", while Malfoy is "his enemy".
4. Narrow down the events to a handful of the important ones, supplemented by a few that help connect them.

Harry is an orphan, has a bad situation at home, discovers he's a wizard, enrolls at Hogwarts, takes the magical train, makes friends and enemies, learns about his past, discovers his connection to Voldemort, plays Quidditch, different houses at Hogwarts compete, sorcerer's stone is hidden, the Mirror of Erised, the invisible cloak, finding Fluffy, saving Hermione from the troll, detention in the forest, the murder of the unicorns

Is it surprising how much was left out?

5. Take the characters and events that are left, and write the synopsis. It does not have to be chronological. Volpe gave a few tips for different genres: If the story is fantasy or sci-fi, use one paragraph of the synopsis for backstory, but no more than one or two sentences. If you have dual protagonists, as in a romance, start with the character that has more focus in the story. Give them one paragraph, then use the second paragraph for the other character. After that introduction, continue on with the rest of the plot.

What do you think? Would a system like this help to condense your manuscript?

Synopsis Tips from Agent Joanna Volpe, Part 1

I've read about synopses. I've blogged about synopses. I've written several, but I've never felt confident doing so.

Several things always bother me. First, a synopsis is pretty dry and boring. It's hard to evaluate how effective it is, when it makes me yawn. Second, I always have a hard time deciding which characters and events to include, and which won't make the cut. I feel sorry for my wonderful sub-plots that don't even get a mention.

I almost skipped Joanna Volpe's synopsis workshop at the writing conference I attended recently. The synopsis I've got is adequate, and there were so many other sessions to choose from. But now, I'm so glad I went. I think it was the most practical of all the workshops I attended.

First off, Volpe, an agent with Nancy Coffey Literary, set our minds at ease about synopses in general. The synopsis will never be the critical factor in an agent's decision to offer representation. And it could actually be a writer's saving grace. 

Volpe says she always asks for a synopsis, but doesn't always read them. If she's partway through a fantastic manuscript, she might glance at the synopsis to see if the plot is working all the way through. That will bring her to a decision on representation faster. Alternatively, if there are issues with the manuscript, sometimes a great synopsis can keep her reading the novel because she knows the issues can be fixed.

She also uses a synopsis once she's offered representation. There are many people an agent needs to "sell" the book to. Most of those individuals need a sense of what the book is about, but they won't have the time to read it immediately. A synopsis can give them the bird's eye view of the project.

Secondly, Volpe assured us that the synopsis is supposed to be boring. It's just a collection of names and facts. She described the synopsis as a book report, while a query letter is the coming attractions.

As part of the workshop, Volpe conducted an interactive session where the group helped her come up with a synopsis for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. A book like that, with a broad scope, and a huge list of characters and events, would seem like a nightmare to summarize. But Volpe's techniques made it a short, fun exercise.

Tomorrow, I'll share the details of Volpe's synopsis method. Come back to check out her secrets.

Oh, and here's something she posted on her Twitter account the other day. Since I pitched to her, I hope my novel was one of the ones she was talking about!

Do you enjoy writing synopses? If you've got any hints, I'd love to hear them!

Meeting Virtual Friends for Real

Stacy Jensen and I
In the virtual world of writing, we make lots of friends. Fellow bloggers, Twitter followers, forum members, and many more. But what's really fun is when you get to meet some of them in person.

This past weekend I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference(which I'm now recovering from). It's a great conference, even if you're from out of state. Agents and editors vie for invites to this conference, since it has a reputation for collecting good writing in one place.

One top agent, with 35 years of experience in the business, said that out of all the conferences she's attended over the years, this one produces the best writing. And PPW runs a fantastic contest each year (deadline in early November) that gives writers fantastic feedback on their submissions. This year I was thrilled to place second in the YA category.
One of the highlights at the conference was meeting Stacy Jensen. We "met" on our blogs by commenting back and forth, and it was so nice to be able to visit in person. When I waited to do my pitch to an agent, Stacy was there, offering wonderful calmness and support. Check out her blog, Writing Through My Life.
I also happened across another reader, though we had never "met" online. When talking with fellow contest finalist Amanda Hosch, I gave her one of my business cards. She took a look at it and said, "Writing While the Rice Boils! I've read your blog!" Amanda has a blog of her own, which I'm looking forward to reading.

Both of these mom writers are working hard at finding time to write, even though they have small children. It's amazing to see how to find time in the middle of crazy days.
Have you ever met an online friend in person?


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