Love That Synopsis

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Friday night at the SCBWI Writers’ Conference, I sat on my balconey looking out on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City, contemplating my consultation with Krista Marino of Random House Childrens’ Books, coming up the next day.

I’ve been revising my third novel, Morning of the Mermaid, the story of the first mermaid. At my first SCBWI conference, three years ago, when I thought the manuscript was pretty complete, I was told that actually it needed to be “taken to the next level.” It took me a couple of years and the writing of Alex Bullied before I figured out what that level was and how to reach it. Since finishing Alex, I’ve begun a complete revision of the mermaid book. I submitted the first ten pages and a synopsis to be critiqued at this year’s conference. I wasn’t expecting much, but thought perhaps she would let me know if I was headed in the right direction.

Then a thought occurred to me — had I changed the synopsis to reflect the changes in the story? I couldn’t remember. I know I sent the pages in a hurry. I’d waited until the last minute of the deadline. And the synopsis and I — well, let’s just call a spade a spade — are not on the best terms. It seemed likely I’d botched the synopsis. I hate being anything less than professional, but it seems I’d done just that. I could have gone on my laptop to check, but I decided to let the crap fall where is may. It was too late to do anything about it.

I sat there a bit longer hating the synopsis.

It’s a common feeling. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t hate the synopsis. We complain about it, agonize over it and search relentlessly for the magic formula to write a good one. They are a necessary evil. But we don’t have to like them.

Or do we? I had an epiphany. What if I decided to love the synopsis? Change your mind, change your life, right? What if I entered into the writing of a synopsis with the same joy, the same determination to have fun, as I do when writing a story? Why not embrace the process? Why not enjoy it? Would that not be reflected in the finished product?

The internet is full of advice on writing the synopsis. Every writer’s, agent’s or editor’s website has tips. Every writer, agent, or editor has probably written an article or given a talk on the synopsis.

The amount of information can be overwhelming. And yet, we continue to read, hoping we’ve finally found The Answer. I say, take it all in. Read it all. Make notes. Try it all. And enjoy it all. Love the synopsis.

One of the workshops I took during the conference was all about this subject. There was sensible advice about format: it should be in twelve point font, one page, single spaced (approximately forty lines at a twelve point font will fit a page), written in third person, present tense, and the first mention of a character should be in ALL CAPS.

Here are some of the tips given at the conference:

* Focus on the primary plot, no subplots

* Summarize each chapter into no more than two sentences.

* Link all the best sentences in a single, chronological block of text.

* Revise the block of text for length and clarity.

* Read each finished draft aloud.

So if you are not already full to the brim of synopsis advice, this is a good start. Let go of those bad feelings about the synopsis. Start fresh with enthusiasm and confidence. You can do it. I hope I can. Stay tuned.   

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That All Important First Sentence

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I belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – San Diego chapter. Award winning author of forty-one (and counting) children’s books, Richard Peck, spoke at a recent meeting. His topic was First Lines and he gave examples of great ones. Would the opening to my Alex Bullied be one of them? I thought not. It’s certainly no Charlotte’s Web, which begins “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”

Back to the drawing board. How do I make that first sentence sparkle? Sometimes a writer works and reworks a first sentence. I did that with my first book, Riding On The Wind.When I finally wrote–  “Carrie could barely sit still on the hard wagon seat. Never in her fifteen years had a trip into town taken so long.” I knew I had my opening.

When I first thought of writing Morning of the Mermaid, I was inspired by a line I thought would be the first sentence — “When Calista’s parents died, an hour apart, she thought, now I will experience great grieving and utter desolation.” I thought that had punch. But it just didn’t work and ended up somewhere in the middle of the book.

Anything else in the whole two or three hundred pages can be changed. We all know the quote — credited to everyone from Hemingway to King — “kill your darlings.” We know we cannot become attached to our words. But we fall a little too much in love with our first words. They’re our first-born. The words that make up our first line are the favorites of our darlings. But sometimes, woe is us, they have to go.

Here’s the thing about that first line, that first page. When we write the original, it feels fresh and right and pulls us in to keep writing all of those 200-300 pages. When we have to go back and start the book again, it can feel forced. Not like the first time when we were so inspired. We are all too aware, this second or third go-around, of how important our first lines are.

After listening to Richard Peck speak, I knew I would have to rethink the opening to Alex Bullied. I kept staring at it, hoping, I suppose, that it shone with such brilliance that it jumped off the page, snaring the reader. It didn’t. It began — “Geeks and losers streamed int Gureville Math and Sciences Charter Middle School.” Not exactly Richard Peck-worthy. I continued with — “September sunlight blinked off eyeglasses and mouths full of braces. I’d never seen so many buttoned up, tucked in, wrinkle-free shirts or high-waisted khakis in one place in my life. Where were the jocks? Oh yeah, no sports, unless you count chess or glee club.”

Don’t judge.

My first attempt was even worse. I had the kid imagining himself in an old black and white Twilight Zone. That really didn’t work, for so many reasons. Three pages in and I knew if I didn’t change it, the entire book would fall flat.

I kept thinking how important that first impression is, to the agent’s assistant, the agent, the publisher, the reader. And that’s when I came up with this, the final first sentence and opening to Alex Bullied — “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” my mom said.

Seems to me that says it all.