I had invited Hilary MacLeod to guest blog here some time ago. Weeks passed, then months, and I thought she had changed her mind. Meanwhile, she had written the blog, as promised, but either forget to hit ‘send,’ or did and her contribution ended up in the place where missing words mingle with errant socks and the mates to those single running shoes we see lying on the highway.
Being Canadian, I finally got around, rather timidly, to asking her if she still wanted to do a guest blog and found out she thought she already had. Ahhh yes, Canadian writers. We are all great communicators except when it comes to, well, communications.
Hilary, I am happy to report, was the winner of this year’s CBC Book Club Bookie award for her somewhat nasty cosy, Revenge of the Lobster Lover. (For this, she had hoped to receive their golden beaver statuette, but will apparently have to settle for a certificate. Beavers … lobsters … miscommunications… revenge … what could be more Canadian?)
For more info on Hilary MacLeod and her books, you can check out her website at www.hilarymacleod.ca Or you can read the various comments to my blogs — she’s a regular contributor, particularly to the one I wrote about cozies, to which she responded with a post I called “Noir cosies (or when cozies go bad.” (My original post about cozies can be found under ‘Genre.’)
In any event, here — finally — is her long-awaited guest blog about writing a synopsis, entitled ‘The Long and the Short of it.’ Thanks, Hilary!
Cutting words and trimming phrases is as much a writer’s job as using them in the first place.
Writing the book is the easy part. When you begin the round of agents, publishers, and contests, everyone wants a synopsis. That could be 250, 500, rarely more than a thousand words. Sometimes they also want the first 3000 or 5000 words. Or one chapter. Or three. No-one wants the same. It all has to be personalized.
In the synopsis, they really want the whole story in as few words as possible. Ninety thousand words distilled into a thousand? 500? 250? What a pain.
Not necessarily. A writer, like an athlete, has something to gain from flexing writing skills, to take the challenge and wrestle it to the ground.
Oh, the agony. But, oh, the ecstasy of doing it. And the rewards.
First, the synopsis. You write a brief version of the story. It’s too long. It’s dry, but it’s a start. You go at it again. Chopping, cutting and slicing, then paring down, word by word. Once you strip it to the essentials, you have to add colour so it’s still lively and interesting. That produces more words. That means more paring, until you strike the perfect balance of a synopsis that tells the story, and captures the energy and emotion of the novel.
I get quite obsessive, a terrier with a bone, chewing away at the words. I take a long time to write a synopsis, because I’m squeezing out the juice to produce a concentrate. Just when I think it’s finished, new ways of adding more detail occur to me. I include more content, the word count grows, then I cut it back again to achieve the right word count — by making every word count. That is the ecstasy.
It’s also the writer’s job. Saying a lot with a few words. Precise words. The synopsis can hone these skills.
If you’re asked to submit the novel’s first 3000 to 5000 words, you have an opportunity to assess your story in those critical pages. I’ve changed book beginnings and scene order for agents, publishers, and contests – why wouldn’t I do it for readers?
Still, when I found a publisher, the first thing I said to my daughter (who followed me word for word on these queries and cut a few herself): “No more synopses!”
I was wrong.
An immediate request followed from my new publisher for synopses of my next two books!