Saturday, July 18, 2009

When stories attack



One of the things that might baffle our readers is how often myself or my friends on the blog talk about the books as though they weren't controllable. As if they are ... identities external to ourselves that lurk in the dark alleys of the mind and pounce on us when we least expect it.

It’s not exactly that. At least I think not. They’re not really independent from ourselves, but they come from somewhere so far deep inside that we can’t really control them or know which ones will be compelling enough to make us write them.

In the diner – my conference in Baen’s bar – one of the habitues made a big deal of the fact that I was posting my third or fourth beginning and hadn’t – to his knowledge – finished any of them. His knowledge wasn’t EXACTLY accurate. Like most professional writers I submit some books on proposal and if they sell somewhere other than Baen I don’t feel I have the right to take up the publisher’s bytes to post other house’s stuff. All the same it is true that sometimes I wake up with a strong, imperative beginning that, after I noodle around with it for a while, I realize is not something that I’m destined to write. There are novels that “belong” to you and others, no matter how good they seem, that perhaps you’d like to read, but you, yourself, can write.

On more than one occasion I’ve wished these misfits on other writers. Others just quietly go away after a while. And, of course, some novels I’d love to write go out in proposal and never sell, and therefore never get written. Of the twenty I sent out over the last five years, I have five of those in that uncomfortable position. Not a bad sell through, of course, but all the same, those always feel like reproaches to my mind.

Because of that – perhaps – I’m struggling with an attempt at changing my proposal-writing style. Perhaps it is entirely my imagination, but I think I’m a better novelist than an outliner. In fact, I think practically everyone is. It’s very hard to write an outline that won’t be – at best – skimmed over by a bored reader. At least it’s very hard for me.

I’ve bought a couple of books on the subject, but none has taught me anything I don’t know about it – so I’m throwing the question out there. Do you know of any site on writing outlines? Do you have any idea of how to make them more interesting? I don’t mean a chapter by chapter outline (I think those are of necessity deadly dull and not a good sales tool) but what some books call a synopsis – written in the present tense and taking the form of a “little story.”

Anyway have any ideas how I can make such a thing sing?

*Oh, the pictures are the latest way my stories have taken to attacking when I least expect. And no, I have absolutely no clue who these people are. Yet. I daresay I won't be lucky enough to escape KNOWING.*

18 comments:

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, you just hit one of my biggest problems right now. As for sites with "hot-to" information, there are some several, all of which either begin or end with the caveat of "check the publisher/agent website". And that is where things get really confusing. Some want two pages. Some want five. Others say five to ten. Then you get the ones who want you to list every single detail, all the characters, sub-plots, etc. It's all very frustrating and very confusing and if someone has a magic pill on how to make it work, sign me up. I'll do the clinical trials now.

Kate said...

I second Amanda's request! I always end up with a dry as dust "this happened then that happened" that completely loses what the story is actually about.

Someone who knows, please enlighten....

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Don't you find that the book you end up writing bears only a passing resemblance to the book you outlined in your proposal?

In the end, the emphasis is not on the revelations you thought the characters were going to discover, they go off and uncover other things, more interesting things than you originally thought up.

Yes, I'd love to polish my proposal writing skills.

KylieQ said...

I've been working this week on a synopsis (for submission to an agent of a completed ms)and also struggling with the fact that some want 1 page, some 1-3, others 2... At the moment I have a 3-page synopsis that is a very general overview. It's not necessarily chronological and I've mostly summed up sub-plots in one paragraph rather than showing how they weave through the main story. I've mentioned some supporting characters but not others. Is this the way to do it? I started trying to do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis but with 50 chapters, it got out of control... I'd love any pointers!

Amanda Green said...

Kylie, I sure don't have the answers, but I do have a recommendation. If the agent you're subbing to has a blog, check to see if he's written about queries and synopses he's liked. Or what he wants in a synopsis, etc.

Mike said...

Wasn't there a website/blog where someone critiqued synopses? I can't find it in my bookmarks right now, but... scathing critiques, as I recollect, plus a standard "outline" -- and as I remember, the person who was doing them was an agent?

KylieQ said...

Mike, are you thinking of Query Shark?

Chris McMahon said...

Certainly a tough call & I rarely know when I have hit the mark.

5 misses out of 20 subs? I'd be happy with that. Just give me one hit, damnit:)

Amanda Green said...

Mike, Kylie, Query Shark and Miss Snark -- how I miss the Snarky one -- both have critiques of queries and synopses. Check the crapometer for Miss Snark (misssnark.blogspot.com). I think Nathan Bransford has also done similar posts as have a number of other agents with blogs. Another possible source for help concerning what a particular agent or editor wants is the Absolute Write Water cooler (www.absolutewrite.com/forums). Hope this helps.

Mike said...

Miss Snark and the Crapometer was the one I was thinking of! Thanks.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Rowena,

It used to be that my book barely resembled the synopsis. Now it's not so mucht hat -- it's that the synopsis is "tight" i.e. shorn of all subplots, etc. I have this feeling that somehow my books turn out more substantial than the proposals and since I sell on proposal, I think I'm being held back by my proposals.

OTOH if I don't have something out there making the rounds I feel awful. So I'm splitting the difference -- doing about three which are relatively "lighter" than my other books in proposal, then finishing the manuscript on the others. Probably a great deal of the most complete one over the Atlantic on my trip to Portugal.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Dear Kyllie,

The thing is that my agent sent back a 12 page proposal and told me to "firm up the plot and give more detail" and grow the synopsis to about 25 pages. I don't know if this is a new trend. I have sold books on a half-page synopsis.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Actually the scary part of that is that I wrote seventeen proposals in three months, the other three was requested over the last five years.

It was exhausting, both intellctually and emotionally because you're creating these things, but you never know if you'll be "allowed" to finish them.

matapam said...

I think a synopsis needs to have the same feeling as the story. If you're writing a horror, the synopsis has to not only describe the story progression, it has to give you the creeps. Light and bubbly, or fast paced and tense, I think demonstrating that you can evoke emotions is critical.

Sarah, 25 pages? That's not a synopsis, that's a skimpy first draft.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

meh -- matapam, my first selling synopsis for Heart Of Light was 100 pages, which Lucienne asked me to make "smaller" so it ended up at 60. probably why it took so long to sell -- people had to READ it. :)

And that was the "selling" synopsis, not the working one.

matapam said...

::Whimper:: That's a gawd-awful lot of work. But every job has the part where you have to sell it, to management to get funded if nothing else.

Anonymous said...

I have to confess to being much intimidated by this post and its comments but encouraged at the same time.

While the sheer length of a book project sends me into mind-blow, I might could handle a synopsis. I have written a Master's thesis which was published into long-lost academia, but it was about 100 pages long. Being non-fiction, it was much easier on the mind-attack front. It was simply a research and an organization of facts sort of thing.

If however a synopsis is 25-50 pages, I might could handle that length. I could view it as a mini-novel and then expand from there. I'd feel much better about having a plot and characters in place before I attempt a book.

Some of you guys are accomplished novel writers and can and do sell on synopsi (what is the plural of synopsis?). Being a first time writer, I think I'd be required to have the full book to offer an agent/publisher. While it might be wasted effort since I've read that few writers sell their first book ever submitted, it still would be a good thing for me. I have to start somewhere. While I love the length of short stories (I can wrap a plot and characters around a few K words), I realize that to eventually sustain myself on writing with even a solid part-time income, I will have to write and sell books. Yes, it's scary to me, being very much a newbie. Plans though have a way of calming the word panic. The synopsis sounds like a workable plan.

Linda Davis

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

Sorry, I should have answered this earlier but -- speaking of panic -- I'm getting ready to go to Portugal and it's a mess.

I sold my first novel on proposal. And every other novel since. So have a considerable number of authors I know.