Friday, February 12, 2010

The Secrets of the Dreaded Synopsis

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I’ve yet to meet an author who looked forward to writing their novel synopsis. In fact, many believe it’s more difficult to write than the novel itself. Not to say it’s easy, but a few simple tenets can get you started.

Let’s first ask if a synopsis is even necessary these days. From reading the submission guidelines of agents, I see many don’t request one and that leads me to believe it has lost much of its influence. However, some still do, and as an aspiring author never knows which agent will represent them, it’s a good idea to have it ready.

The second question is why would an agent would feel a synopsis necessary. The critical reason I found in researching this article is it can be THE pivotal item that gets an editor to read your manuscript. That’s enough for me right there. However, if you need more, consider the following. A well-crafted synopsis can assist the author in finding weak plot points and point you toward ways to polish your story arc. It also assists in improving characterization, plot and setting. Further, it is often utilized by various departments of a publishing house once they accept your novel.

We now know the if and why, but what about the what? What, after all, is a synopsis? Many confuse it with an outline which describes what occurs in the storyline, to whom it happens and when it happens. In contrast, a synopsis portrays the “why” of your story. The novel outline describes the action or what happens, whereas the synopsis offers the conflict or how your characters react to that action.

The essential components to a novel synopsis are:

1. The Opening Hook
2. Character Sketches
3. Plot Highlights
4. The Core Conflict
5. The Conclusion

If you think about what the synopsis is supposed to accomplish, these five aspects make perfect sense. It will give the various readers a good feel for everything they might need to know about your story. Let’s look at each of these components.

The Opening Hook: Start strong. Remember this is about conflict, how and why your characters react the way they do. It is not about action, what happens to them. For example, you would not open with the first line following for it speaks of the action in the story, whereas the second tells the reader about the characters’ REactions.

Two men fight over a woman.
Two brothers lose their friendship when a woman comes between them.

As with any reader, the agent looks for something that will engage them. If your story doesn’t’ sound interesting right away, they’ll probably not read further. You’ve got ninety seconds, so power your way through them.

Character Sketches: This does not mean you describe your characters but rather get to their individual core conflict and the conflict between your two or three main characters. What makes your hero undertake his great quest? Why is your villain working with such diligence to thwart your protagonist? Think motivation rather than descriptions.

Plot Highlights: Give some detail to the first and the climactic scenes and a couple of those in the middle of your story. Use only those scenes that highlight the emotional action and conflict within your story. Make sure whoever reads your synopsis knows just how much trouble befalls your hero.

Core Conflict: Your Opening Hook will probably introduce your core conflict, but make sure you enhance it here. Don’t allow anyone to misunderstand the “why” of your story. If you have multiple conflicts, highlight the premier point then maybe the next couple of levels.

The Conclusion: Show the agent your novel is worked to its completion and flesh out the ending. They want to know the entire story. If they don’t know the ending, they’ll assume it doesn’t work. Tie together any major loose strings and point to a sequel if your novel is one of a planned series.

That’s all there is to it. With things spelled out like this, it doesn’t seem quite so onerous, does it? Use your writer’s voice as you did with your novel and the agent will have a good idea of what it is you’re offering for him to sell.

Best of luck and know I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

How Setting Influences Your Characters

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As I performed my research for this article, an idea came to me I should have visualized long ago. That is, setting serves as much more than a mere vehicle to cement my readers in the time and place within my story. It is a psychological force upon my characters. In contemporary writing, setting stands as an influence that acts upon the characters.

Readers now know that in life, environment is part of what molds one’s personality and their background is among the many factors that help to shape who he is. Further, they understand one’s choices in life indicate the “real” person within. It’s psychology 101. Therefore, the successful author will use setting as an indicator of personality.

To put this in perspective, consider these examples. We’ve all known someone who drove a red convertible and someone else who drove a used Pinto. Without doubt, these people possessed differing personalities. With this in mind, consider how a murdered parent might push the child toward a life or good or evil. Will a coonskin cap show a wanderer’s proclivity to the hunter’s life? Will the slums of Elizabethan England act upon the street rat to make him a thief. How might an American woman be influenced if a book was set in a Muslim nation? All these aspects of setting play upon the personality and mind of the characters.

How might a writer go about presenting setting as a psychological force? I see it in subplots. In my current manuscript, my hero’s parents are murdered when he is a child. This event then determines his choice of careers. Further, this subplot takes him to places in the world he would never otherwise visit and force him to commit actions he would never consider had he not become an orphan. Further, I wanted to use a pocket watch as a subplot. My hero purchases this when he is a young man with the idea he would bequeath it to his firstborn son at the appropriate time. He never has children. What happens to the pocket watch? It becomes a symbol of those unrealized aspects to his life.

All this behooves the author to look at his setting as even more authentic, more realistic than ever before. Readers will pillory an author for these kinds of errors, so a thin setting is no longer acceptable. Caution and adequate research is necessary, now more than ever.

Setting is more than place and time. It’s a power that creates your characters and influences their lives. Get to know your setting as you would your main characters and your novel will be the better for it.

Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Build Suspense in Your Novel

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Conflict, as we all know, is a critical component of a successful novel. In fact, without it, you probably don’t have a novel. One technique used by most successful authors to enhance conflict is to build suspense by judicious use of scenes.

What, you may ask, constitutes a scene? It’s a part of your novel that includes character interactions that moves your story forward. It places your reader in a position to “see” what is taking place. Therefore, a narrative of the landscape is not a scene as there are no characters speaking to each other. In contrast, two characters describing the landscape is a scene.

The purpose of your scenes is to:

·         Move your story forward and toward its end
·         Introduce and flesh out your characters
·         Create a problem or heighten it
·         Solve a problem
·         Set up the scenes to follow
·         Create setting or atmosphere

Within the concept of scenes, you have what are called, “Master Scenes.” These portray the most critical moments in your manuscript, the turning points in the story. For example, two people describing the landscape as above is a scene, but isn’t a master scene. Include the enemy army charging over that landscape toward your speakers and you may well have a master scene.

By combining the critical elements of your story, characters, dialogue, conflict and setting into scenes, you create your novel. And these scenes should interlink like a chain – one linking to the next is logical order. (And yes, your story is only as strong as your weakest scene.)  

How you connect these scenes together is another important aspect of your novel. You need to write your story so that the intensity of your story rises and falls in a rhythm intended to generate excitement. (I’ve designed a nice little chart, but it refused to upload into this blog, so you can see it by downloading my free eBook, “An Introduction to Writing a Novel,” HERE.)

Think of the way your scenes rise and fall from scenes to Master Scenes and back again as a roller coaster ride for your reader. The scenes build excitement, then release the tension, then build again, then fall again. By the end of the book, your story develops to its climactic crescendo before everyone is allowed their final sigh of relief.

As you see from the graphic on page 22 of my eBook, your Master Scenes would have the most tension and interest for your reader and your hero. The other scenes build to these crescendos by always “setting up” the Master Scenes to come.

The last scene, in this case K, brings your reader way down in intensity. This is your “Happily Ever After” scene.

Further, you see that your story should never, ever, be the least bit “Not So Interesting.” At all times, your reader must be enthralled by what is taking place.

Must your story follow the exact graphical guideline I show in the eBook? Not really. In my example, I have three Master Scenes. Your story may have more, though it should have no less.

Can you have more peaks and valleys than shown here? Absolutely! Just make sure your downs always lead to another up.

A secret for many writers, me included, is to create the climactic scene first. After that, create your other pivotal scenes, then fill in. This often makes the story much easier to write.

By employing this technique of ever-increasing tension followed by release then more tension, you’ll have a stronger story and a better chance of finding representation and publication.

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Secrets to Effective Descriptions in Novels

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When you, as the author of a novel, describe a scene, character or setting, you’re painting a verbal picture for your reader. You’re using sensory detail to immerse your reader in your words. A well-written description should do the same thing as dialogue; it should move the story forward and add to characterization. 

The secret to presenting descriptions in a novel is all about discipline and imagination. It may seem odd to relate those two things, but it’s important for the successful author to understand this association. The discipline, I’m afraid, is the responsibility of the writer while the reader gets the fun part, the imagination.

As writers we must discipline ourselves to give readers what it is they want to read. And this takes us to why people purchase novels in the first place. After all, they know its fiction, and therefore a lie. Don’t we spend most of our lives trying not to buy someone else’s lies? Why then would the reader put up his hard-earned money to purchase a stranger’s lie? It’s because novel writers take the reader on an adventure, someplace they can never experience, but only imagine. The reader uses his imagination to create personal pictures your words represent. These mental pictures are relevant to him and him alone, making the story more realistic and personal. His imagination does most of the author’s work of transporting the reader to that netherworld he craves.

Consider, if you will, a warm, sunny day with you racing down the open road in a sleek convertible. Your favorite music is blaring as your hair whips in the wind and the love of your life snuggles next to you.

Oh, I forgot to mention, the convertible is pea-green.

I just gave you too much information, didn’t I? The enjoyable picture you’d fashioned in your mind just slipped a notch, didn’t it? It might have been ruined altogether, because of one word too many. So it is with descriptions in your novels.

It’s all about their imagination, not your writing skills. You may be able to paint a wondrous image with your words, but its’ not about your words. It’s about the pictures the reader creates.

So, the true secret to describing anything is to discipline yourself to describe only those necessary things, and then to describe them with no more words than necessary to evoke the readers imagination.

Here are some tips on how to create your descriptions.

Blend, don’t list, characteristics. That is to present details within action. Instead of telling the reader about the many multicolored wildflowers in the field, have the protagonist picking the flowers. Have him mention the many colors, hand the multicolored bouquet he’s gathered to his love, etc. Unless they’re important to the story, don’t just describe the flowers use them within the actions of your characters.

Don’t describe too many things. Descriptions slow a story and the more of them you have, the worse your writing will appear.

When you do describe something, consider the not so obvious details and offer the reader something to spark their imagination. For example, you might mention not only the bright light seeping into the room from between the slats of the blinds, but how the plants on the desk arch their leaves toward the limited sunlight.

I’ve already mentioned descriptions slow scene. You might use one, however, if you wish to retard the action and give your readers a breather.

Use nebulous rather than specific words. This allows the reader to use their imagination. For example, she doesn’t have eyes the size of silver dollars, she has oversized eyes. The reader will determine for himself what “oversized” means.

Avoid flowery language, especially the abuse of adjectives and adverbs. His “gangly approach toward the cusp of manhood” might be reworded to say “he turned fifteen.”

A rule of thumb is a description should be kept to no more than four or five sentences. Never use five when two will do the trick.

Describe those things that differ every time you see one. There’s little need to portray a red rose, as it’s pretty much a red rose everywhere you go. (Yes, I know there are a million varieties, but when you write, “rose,” the identical image come to almost everyone’s mind.) An antique pocket watch, however, is unique almost every time.

Effective descriptions are difficult to master, but mastering the technique will lift your writing to a new level. Best of luck.

Until next time, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

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