Tag Archives: publishing

In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

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Last Orders For 2016!

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It’s Christmas this weekend. For those that celebrate it, I hope you’re all stocked and good to go. For everyone, no matter what your religion, I wish you a very happy winter solstice. 🙂

51gwxkqatwlThe final days of 2016 have been pretty good to me, I’m pleased to say. Not least because L. A. Little’s SFF anthology Outliers of Speculative Fiction is now available for purchase on Amazon, and it contains two of my stories!

‘The Death of Mohenjo Daro’ looks at the worst decision a general under siege has to make, and a possible link between real-life archaeology and the Indian epic The Mahabharata.

‘Souls in Other Space’ follows Giacomo Moroni (Jack the Idiot to his enemies) the space-scavenger (he prefers ‘pirate’ – it’s more dashing)  as he investigates a strangely empty wreck.

Next year I will be starting a very exciting collaboration with an artist friend of mine (the same artist, in fact, who did the cover for my Moonlight is Third anthology ). She is illustrating some of this year’s Twitterature – the mini-fics I post every week day on Twitter – and we’re going to put together an illustrated journal which will be available to buy. Her work is available as prints on etsy over at Paint Magpie – check it out.

There’s also some plans for an anthology of stories inspired by my serialised November project, Read This First, exploring more of the world of The Collection. This will include tales by other talented writers and more of Paint Magpie’s fantastic art. So keep your eyes peeled for that!

And finally, I offer the traditional New Year toast in my circle of friends:

May the coming year be average: better than the last, not as good as the next.

Nine Worlds: Barriers to Women in SFF Publishing

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Science fiction, fantasy and horror writing seem to still be very much a boys club. Men are consistently reviewed more often in genre-related publications while also dominating ‘best of’ and ‘most anticipated’ lists. Is this because there are fewer women writers? Are publishers publishing fewer women? What about the marketing? We know there are brilliant female genre writers out there, so why aren’t more people reading their books, talking about their work, and including them in lists of favourite writers?

Megan Leigh, Charlotte Bond, Lucy Hounsom, Gillian Redfearn, Lydia Gittens, Alasdair Stuart

downloadRegular readers of this blog have already met Charlotte Bond, one of the hosts of podcast Breaking the Glass Slipper, thanks to her recent guest post. Well, I was lucky enough to get into a very select audience of a live recording of BtGS‘s tenth episode at Nine Worlds. True to the general theme of equality, both of the Con and the podcast, this episode looked at why there is an imbalance of gender in published SFF authors and how this might be addressed.

I’m not going to write up the session for the simple reason that you can listen to it yourself by clicking here. And if you listen really carefully, at 1:09:00 you can even hear me ask a question!

Next week: telling stories in an expanded setting.

Socrates & Apple Inc.: Censorship in publishing

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Warning: politics ahead!

Censorship by a governing body has always been a tense subject. On hearing the word ‘censorship’ people generally assume that this is a historical thing, or something that happens in dictatorships abroad. Censorship doesn’t really happen in modern democracies, right?

Yeah.

In the early 4th Century BCE Socrates was put to death by the Athenian government for heretical teachings that he refused to withdraw (detailed in Plato’s Phaedo). This is one of the earliest acts of censorship on record, and sets the tone for much of what followed.

Until the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1440s, relatively few texts were published in Britain and the Church had almost complete control of them. Movable type was a considerable threat to the Church’s authority – suddenly it was possible to produce large numbers of books on immoral or heretical subjects that far more people could afford. The Church fought back, with notable cases such as Francois Rabelais and Galileo, both of whom were placed under house-arrest and their books banned. In 1543 it was decreed that no book could be published without the Church’s approval. Any books that went against the Catholic creed were banned – added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Forbidden Books) in 1559 – and a number of Protestant printers went to the stake.

It was not only religious monopoly that drove censorship. In 1557 the Stationers’ Company was granted a royal charter to control printing in England. Only members of the Company were legally permitted to print, and censorship became a matter of corporate monopoly and anti-competitiveness. The Company was given powers by the Crown to seize and destroy dangerous and seditious material. This lasted (on and off) until 1694, when the Company charter was not renewed. But censorship on the basis of corporate interest hasn’t gone away. In an example so ridiculous it’s almost funny, Laytonville, CA banned The Lorax in 1989 because it ‘criminalized the foresting and logging industry’.

In the modern age, censorship is less explicit but very much present, for the most part on the basis of security or immoral/obscene content (although who defines that is an interesting point).

‘98.6% of UK internet traffic consume a service called the child abuse image content list which uses data provided by the Internet Watch Foundation to identify pages judged to contain indecent photographs of children. When such a page is found, the system creates a ‘URL not found page’ error rather than deliver the actual page or a warning page.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship_in_the_United_Kingdom)

Since 2013, any internet sites containing pornographic, violent, suicidal or addictive content are automatically blocked from every UK household (unless specifically requested). Also in 2013, the book Pandaleaks: The Dark Side of the WWF – a book accusing the WWF of eco-tourism and eco-vandalism – was banned from Britain for a year when the WWF threatened lawsuits.

Which, finally, brings me onto the US All Writs Act of 1789. The FBI are proposing to use this Act to enforce IT companies to put a backdoor into their operating systems, so the FBI can access any device to look for dangerous content. You might have seen Apple’s open letter about this recently. That’s not censorship on a book basis – that’s censorship on an individual basis. And if you think it only affects Americans, think again. Anyone with an iPhone will be affected, regardless of where you live, because Apple is an American company. More than that, though, any device company operating in America is being subjected to the same pressure, and their devices worldwide would also be affected.

So, all of them, then.

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Censorship is no longer an explicit legal matter in Britain. There are no trade bodies or authorised personnel (such as the position of Master of the Revels, or Examiner of the Stage, a government appointed official that lasted from 1600 – 1968). Freedom of the press, and the explosion of self-publishing, make it almost impossible to restrict content. Nonetheless, it still happens. We just don’t see it.

Your Fears Are Boring.

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I can’t take the credit for this. I can’t even take the credit for finding it. But it is absolutely worth reading, and taking to heart. Don’t let your brain gremlins stop you.


 

‘The other day, a brilliant friend of mine let me read the first draft of a book she’s been working on for years. It was wonderful. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is what happened AFTER I told her how wonderful her book was. She sent me a long email detailing all her fears about how bad her book actually is, and about how nobody will like it, and that it’s overly simplistic, and critics will call it self-indulgent, and that I’m just being polite when I say that it’s good.

(To reiterate, her book is GREAT.)

Normally, I would have responded with a long, tender, compassionate letter — trying to convince her once again of her talents, and of my support and faith in her.

But I was tired and in a hurry. So instead, I just wrote the truth.

I wrote this:

“Listen, honey — I read through all your anxieties and your fears here. And I just have to say something very bluntly: Your fears about your book aren’t very interesting or very original! I can say this with complete authority, because they are exactly the same fears that I have, whenever I am about to release a book into the world. And I know for a fact that my fears are not interesting at all. (Like yours, my fears alway sing this familiar, droning old song: ‘Your work is garbage, it will be criticized as self-indulgent, it’s too simplistic, it has no value, nobody will buy it, your friends are only being nice to you when they say it’s good, you just wasted a whole bunch of time for no good reason, you are done for and washed-up’).

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“Moreover, I have it on good authority that these are exactly the same fears that EVERYONE who has ever finished a book (or created anything) feels. In other words, your fears are just regular old mass-produced, made-in-China, sold-at-Walmart fears. Nothing fine or precious or artisanal about them. So don’t treat them like they’re precious.

“I realized this about my own fears a few years ago — that they are always exactly the same, and that they are always exactly the same as everyone else’s, and therefore they are nothing special and actually just kind of boring. (I want to say to my fears sometimes, “Really? That’s the best you can come up with? This old song again? REALLY — you’re telling me once again that I’m not good enough? That my work isn’t good enough? That’s it? That’s seriously the best you got, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS? Jeez, get some new material, dude.”)

“So now I just come to expect those completely boring and unoriginal fears to show up every time I write anything, and I don’t even pay attention to them anymore, because they never have anything new to say. They’re just the neighbor’s dogs, barking incessantly in the yard next door, blah blah blah. But they never bite. They can never escape the yard. They have no real power. So I just move ahead and do my work. There’s that old Bedouin line: ‘The dogs bark; the caravan passes anyhow.’ Your caravan needs to pass along now on its journey, whether fear barks at you loudly or not. It’s time.

“Because here is what IS interesting and original: This book that you just wrote. And here is what else is interesting and original: Whatever is about to happen in your life next, when you send that book out to publishers. Because god only knows what will happen. Could be good, could be bad. We have no idea. Because the future is a mystery And mysteries — unlike fears — are always interesting. So let’s focus on the interesting parts (the creativity and the mystery) and forget about the fear. Time to be stubbornly brave, and dignified in the face of any fate.”

So that was my letter, and my friend said it made her laugh (which is good, because I was a little afraid it might make her cry)…and since laughter is good, now I’m sharing the letter with you all.

In summation: Your creativity is fascinating, but your fears are not.

Now go make your thing.

By Elizabeth Gilbert

 

From JRR to LOTRO: the Descent of Creative Ownership

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I’ve talked plenty in the past about writing being a collaborative effort – how I wake the raptor at 1am to check a story idea with him, borrow character traits from my friends, use roleplay for inspiration, etc. All well and good on the amateur scene (although I obviously try and get permission from the people I’m borrowing from), but when it comes to publication there are these things called ‘copyrights’ that come into play.

Which Middle Earth?

Peter Jackson’s films of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit necessarily required copyright permission to retell those stories on the silver screen. Unfortunately the Tolkien Estate had already sold the copyrights to some of the lesser known works, so anything that was covered in those works could not be referenced in the films. Rumour has it that’s why, in the film of The Hobbit, the Necromancer is never referred to by his original name. Now, I’m a huge fan of what Jackson has done with those stories and, for the most part, he’s stayed fairly faithful to the original plot. Changes, however, have been made. It’s an interpretation rather than a pure retelling.

Then it starts getting really interesting. Off the back of the films came Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) – an online multi-player game. The Tolkien Estate promptly sued Jackson and New Line Cinema for copyright infringement in 2012. The response? That the content of the games was based purely on Jackson’s films, which were themselves covered by copyright. In effect, the Middle Earth of LOTRO was no longer Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

Cover Versions

There’s a strong argument for saying that reinterpretation gives the audience a chance to learn something different about the story, and that that development creatively belongs to the cover artist rather than the original. That a radical repackaging essentially creates something new – or at least as new as we get in a world where, according to Andre Gide, ‘everything that needs to be said has already been said’. As an example, I’d like to share one of my favourite covers ever which – despite keeping the same words and essentially the same tune – is nonetheless a very different song to the original:

When Fanfic Goes Bad

Fanfic,  for the uninitiated, is ‘original’ fiction based on published settings and characters as written by the fans. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad and some of it’s really, really ugly. Don’t google Harry Potter fanfic unless you’re absolutely sure you can take the fallout. I mean it.

Anyway, 50 Shades of Grey is famously fanfic that made it big – stories based on the world and characters of Twilight, with a few tweaks to disguise the fact. E.L. James is now as big as Stephanie Meyer, complete with upcoming films. It’s the kind of success that every budding author dreams of. To my knowledge, however, there were no copyright purchases involved. Meyer’s story was simply repapered, repackaged and retold.

Community buy-in to a story is key to its success and, as Charles Caleb Cotton said, ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.’ But at what point does building on the original become a form of creative theft, in the moral sense if not the legal one?

Three LARP Writing Lessons

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Today Andrew Knighton is kindly joining me again and, in complement to my last post, he’s sharing the things he takes away from our mutual hobby. This man has a gift for creating memorable characters – his Stoneburgher mentioned below is still remembered more than 6 years on, and he’s the person the raptor goes to for brainstorming. Listen up, kids!


For many years one of my biggest creative outlets has been live roleplay (LRP), a hobby I’ve heard described as a type of free-form theatre, Dungeons and Dragons with costumes, and even cross-country pantomime. With such a creative hobby it’s hardly surprising that I, like Everwalker, have taken some lessons from it over into writing.

So here, in no particular order, are the three most important of those lessons.

Set your own agenda

A lot of my LRP has been at large festival systems involving thousands of players. Within those systems, people create their own groups representing communities or organisations. It’s a fun exercise in shared world-building, leading to such grand institutions as knightly orders, wizards’ covens and noble families.

The first time my friends and I created our own group it was called Stoneburgh, and it was a reaction against serious groups where everybody had a grand title and their father’s ancestral sword. We became, for a weekend at a time, the inhabitants of a small, inbred mountain community who believed their town to be as big and important as the rest of the world put together, and who approached every situation with the question of ‘how can we fix this with mining?’

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

Of course I can cure your plague! Just let me fetch my pickaxe.

We instantly had a reason to meddle in any situation. We weren’t achieving the same noble ends as the dozens of heroes fighting the golem menace, but we were the only ones who knew it was made from granite. Our skewed perspective brought the ridiculous to any situation. We gave lip to kings and princes if they couldn’t recognise quartz. We played combat croquet through great centres of government. We ‘mined’ anything with a rock on it.

We had enormous fun.

And the lesson for writing? Actually, this is two lessons in one.

As a writer, setting your own agenda will be far more satisfying than writing like others do. And if what you write is good then setting your own agenda, your own style of story, will help you to stand out from the pack.

And for your characters, make them look at the world differently from everybody else. Part of the appeal of Crispin, the protagonist of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, is that he sees the world through the eyes of a mosaicist. This affects his understanding of, and interest in, the politics around him. It makes his agenda far more interesting than if he were one more noble jockeying for power.

Combine humour and tragedy

LRP isn’t all wizards and warriors. I used to play in a small Victorian fantasy / steampunk system called the Crimson League, in which I was Jackson, the valet to Viscount Buffington. Jackson was a dedicated servant capable of providing tea at any opportunity. Any opportunity including the middle of a firefight, when I walked around calmly with a tray full of cake and bullets.

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But this absurd figure had a serious side, as his employers found out on the dark night when, having met an old acquaintance from a mental asylum, Jackson had a breakdown. Because of course no sane man carries a tea tray calmly through a gunfight. Jackson had seen terrible things in his past and he was not a well man.

The tragedy of Jackson was all the stronger for coming from the same place as his calm and his absurdity. It was a lesson we’d learned in Stoneburgh too – anger and tears are all the more powerful when they come unexpectedly from a comedic character, comedy all the sharper when it emerges from darkness.

Give all your characters light and dark sides, serious and silly ones, and try to make them come from the same place. It will make them more interesting.

Turning up is winning

One summer we played a group of chivalric knights called the Chevaliers D’Or. We joined an established nation in a huge game, and we only played those characters for two events, but years later people were still asking about them because we stood out. We ran headlong into every opportunity for death or glory. We got in people’s faces. We drank a lot of wine, ate a lot of cheese, killed a small number of monsters.

We were just one more knightly order in a nation full of swords and swanky tabards, but we got noticed.

Chevalier

Sir Jacques thought he looked like a dapper man around town. Everyone else thought he looked like star-spangled tit.

Here’s the dirty little secret, both for you as a writer and for your characters. Most people don’t turn up. Most people don’t make the effort. Just by committing to what you’re doing, by following through no matter how people react, you will stand out.

To the writer I say this – make the effort, write the book, publish it, tell people about it. That puts you ahead of most folks who want to be writers.

To your characters I say – if you just turn up and do something different you will stand out. Turning up and acting up is a form of winning. Committing gets you somewhere, even if that somewhere is in trouble.

And now to the drinking

Live roleplayers risk turning into terrible bores, droning on and on about how great their own characters are, what brilliant things they’ve done. It’s only natural given how fun the hobby is, but it’s also somewhat annoying, so we invented a drinking game to shame people into shutting up and giving others a turn to talk.

After an article like this I am duty bound to go drink my own body weight in scotch.

I hope my liver’s sacrifice has been worth it, that I’ve at least provided some food for thought. But now it’s your turn. What writing lessons have you learned from your hobbies, whether live roleplay or something else? Share your thoughts, let’s all learn from each other’s experiences.