Tag Archives: novels

Writing a Synopsis? Jane Friedman to the Rescue

Is there ever a time when Jane Friedman’s writing advice is not worth reading? Just today, checking out her newsletter, I’ve discovered more wonderful posts than I can feasibly share.

Torn up draftsI decided to link to this Jane Friedman piece on writing synopses because recently members of one of my writing groups have been plagued by their struggles with that demon of demons. Oh, how we all hate that one task!

But listening to the synopsis drafts, I found myself wondering if the writers had searched the lovely Internet for the many helpful examples, guidelines, and templates that excellent writers have shared. The first thing you learn when you do is “Do not try to create a blow-by-blow of every single thing that happens in your book!” Yet over and over, that’s what drafts of synopses seem to do.

Getting from the blow-by-blow to the contained, focused, emotionally revealing creature (in one page, no less) that agents and editors say they want is HARD. I’m not for one second denigrating the incredible effort it takes. But I’m sharing these resources just on the outside chance that some readers haven’t encountered them. Friedman lists no fewer than six sites that prove both instructive and inspirational, including one that critiques more than 100 drafts.

I’m not at the synopsis stage right now, but I will be again soon, and I will mine every one of these sources. I hope they prove helpful to you.

Do you have a favorite tip site for writing synopses? Share!

 

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Something Fun! “Hemingway” Does Hemingway!

Via Jane Friedman and Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur, I came across this delightful exercise from The New Yorker. Dave had reviewed four top “editing” programs, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway, and ProWritingAid. He linked to an article in which writer Ian Crouch takes Hemingway the App on a spin in Hemingway’s actual prose.

Apps for editing writing

Do these apps cut the fog from our writing?

You probably know somebody who claims to write like Hemingway (I do). Or who claims to want to write like Hemingway (I sometimes do). So it’s interesting to see that Ernest’s scores vary from a bad, bad 15 to an excellent 4—which means a fourth-grader could understand it— depending on which text you choose. Crouch’s analysis of a passage from The Sun Also Rises also shows how sometimes it’s the broken rules that make a passage work.

Hemingway the App has a free online editor you can play with. I thought that would be fun as well. In general, I find these editing apps annoying, not least because they miss some really basic stuff. For example, in the first page of my novel Blood Lies, published by Bantam/Doubleday way back when and republished by me online, the sentence that is tagged as VERY HARD TO READ (bad, bad, really bad) is actually two sentences connected with a semicolon. Yes, I know some people think there’s a rule: no semicolons. I’m not there yet.

On the other hand, I do find that much of my line editing involves simplifying those sentences that rolled so sonorously through my head when I wrote them. I find that I’ve become more skilled at hearing the ones that need a weed trimmer taken to them. The trick is to give yourself some distance from your prose and come back to it with a stranger’s ear, as much as possible.

In any case, here’s my annotated page with the Hemingway comments. They gave me a Readability grade of 3, only “good.” Crouch says, “The app suggests that anything under Grade 10 is a sign of ‘bold, clear writing.'” Maybe my writing is too simple! See what you think.

Key:

red—adverbs (I am supposed to cut one);

yellowish—my 4/51 “hard to read” sentences;

green—passive voice (they say I’m okay with only 3, but I take exception to “was scorched’; “scorched” is a predicate adjective in this construction;

purple—my VERY BAD HARD TO READ sentence. But I had only 1.

MY PAGE

Two days and a night. Bitter roadside coffee, the slimy stars of dead moths on the windshield. Poisonous truck fumes on 1-75. An hour’s fitful sleep in the back seat of the Firebird, an hour in which he dreamed that it was Holyhead that had burned.
 
He had never been to the trailer, but he knew exactly where it was. Alejo had said, “You know the big tree in Langston’s south pasture that lightning hit? Just down the hill from that, on the corner.” And Ted had answered, “Oh, yeah.”
 
Alejo spent every spring and fall in the fancy doublewide on the small square of land. “Now I am so rich,” he said, “all America is my home. But Keeneland Racetrack was always good to me. I will always ride there. Even when I am more famous than Willie Shoemaker, I will always go back to Kentucky.”
 
“Yeah,” Ted had answered. “And maybe one day Lexington will elect you mayor.”
 
“A statue in the paddock at the racetrack is all I ask.”
 
Alejandro Asolo had not earned his statue. He had not become more famous than Willie Shoemaker. He had not had time.
 
Ten years ago, Ted’s thirteenth summer, three broodmares had been killed when lightning struck that tree in Langston’s pasture. He found the trailer easily. Very little had changed.
 
The cops had stretched a large sheet of black plastic on the trodden grass. On the plastic they were dumping small, charred piles. Ted could not believe the framed win picture had survived. He reached to pick it up. It was scorched, blistered, but the row of familiar faces grinned bravely through the soot: Alejandro’s, Teresa’s, Sunny’s, his own.
 
One of the policemen turned and saw him. “Hey! Put that down!”
 
He straightened. The cop waved a buddy over and they both advanced, arms held out from their sides.
 
“Something we can do for you?” one of them asked. He had round, soft-looking cheeks, and a plump, pursed mouth, but his hard little eyes glinted under his hat brim.
 
Ted dropped the picture wearily at their feet. “I’m looking for Mrs. Asolo.”
 
“She’s gone. What’s your name?”
 
“I was a friend of Asolo’s. I drove up from Miami when I heard.”
 
“Friends got names,” the cop said.
 
He could smell it. He had told himself the spring wind and the harsh overlay of charred wood, fused metal, and melted plastic would have carried it off, but he had been wrong. He stepped backward, groping behind him. Maybe the fat-cheeked policeman thought he was bolting; he shoved him back against a tree. But the other policeman, a younger, leaner man, said, “Sit down on the ground a minute, kid. Put your head between your knees. You’ll be okay.”
 
The inner walls of the trailer had been reduced to gummy filaments; the cops sorting the rubbish brushed them gingerly aside, shaking their hands afterwards, as if freeing themselves from cobwebs.
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3 Ways The Verb “To Be” Is Your Friend

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

I came across this in a blog post on “Words to Seek and Destroy in Your Writing“:

“Is, am, are, was, or were—whatever form your “is” takes, it’s likely useless.”

And this:

“Students need to memorize the “to be” verbs to avoid using them and to revise those that they have used in essays.”

Now, in both cases, the authors don’t mean that all “to be” verbs should be eliminated. But for writers trying to develop their skills, such well-meant exhortations all too easily become sacrosanct rules.

Wearing three hats (at least)—as a writer, as a member of critique groups, and as a student of language both as a teacher and writer—I have an ambivalent relationship with “rules” like this that I encounter in my groups, in Facebook posts, and in conversations where my identity an a “English teacher” apparently defines me irrevocably as a language crab.

Police officer woman

On the one hand, I believe that anyone who aspires to be a “writer” should make him- or herself an expert in the conventions and usage of Standard Written English, if only to be able to make sound judgments as to when the rules should or should not apply. If you’re going to set yourself up as a writer, you’re claiming to practice a craft, and you should know your tools.

At the same time, I know from long study of language that many of the supposed rules are actually judgment calls (I’ve posted about this issue several times).

And some of them aren’t rules at all. They’re myths passed down and around because they give the impression of expertise when they’re really evidence of hearsay, or of history at work. How many times have you been told you can’t use adverbs because Stephen King said so? Or that you can’t say “hopefully” because Strunk & White say you can’t? (You can’t chair, host, or debut, either, if you worship at that fount—though I must say I do wish that people who cite Strunk & White would actually follow it more often than they do).

The trouble is that too much reverence for rules can banish perfectly good writing strategies. And approaching  “to be” with a silver cross brandished before you is one way to kill off some useful and even necessary tools. Beware of writing contest scams!

I have always been among the first to argue that strong, precise verbs are the crux of good writing, and that a sentence built around an active verb is more compelling and often clearer than one built around “is” or “was.” But fearing “to be” can result in some painful sentence contortions. More to the point, here are three things you can’t do without “to be”:

1) The progressive tenses

Fear of “to be” means that all actions have to take place in the simple past or one of the perfect tenses (the ones with “have” or “had” as auxiliaries). Nothing can be in process, ongoing, when another action occurs or interrupts. Intolerantly striking every instance of “is” or “was” leads to absurdities like “She read the newspaper when he entered.” The sentence says either that his entering caused her to start reading the newspaper or that the two actions occurred simultaneously. The natural layering of time and events in narration inherent in “She was reading the newspaper when he entered” disappears. (Yes, I see people doing this all the time.)

2) The “it cleft”

I refer you to Martha Kolln’s discussion of this device for controlling rhythm and emphasis if you would like more examples. In short, read these two sentences aloud:

a) It was Thursday that I fell off my horse.

b) I fell off my horse on Thursday.

Same information, but different meanings. In a), it emphatically wasn’t Monday or Friday when I fell; it was Thursday. We can hear in this simple arrangement the implication of doubt or disagreement as to what day it was. And while falling off a horse matters in both sentences, in b), it’s far more foregrounded, a simpler assertion bereft of the undercurrents in the first. Which you choose should be dictated by your needs in that particular language situation. Fear of a word removes the first option from your repertoire.

Try these two:

a) It was on my fiftieth birthday that I fell in love.

b) I fell in love on my fiftieth birthday.

I leave you to unpack the subtle, but potentially important differences, in these two ways of saying the same thing.

3) The Passive Voice

Out, dreaded fiend. Let me get my silver cross.

I am well aware of the ways that careless reliance on the passive voice can lead to disaster, and certainly to a gush of red ink from an editor’s pen.

But the passive voice, used with deliberation, can serve many functions, among them the same function as the “it cleft.” It allows you to manage where emphasis falls in your sentence.

For example:

a) Maggie had long been traumatized by flying insects.

b) Flying insects had long traumatized Maggie.

(By the way, before continuing, it might be a good idea to make sure we all agree on what the “passive voice” actually is.)

I submit that the next sentence after sentence a) is likely to begin with “She.” We will immediately learn more about Maggie. She will be focus of our attention–the why of her terror.

In contrast, the sentence following example b) will begin either with “They” or some synonym for “Flying insects.” The nature of these insects, including how they acted on her, will take precedence. We may end up with the same information. But if we want Maggie front and center, sentence a) puts her there.

As Kolln and Loretta Gray’s book Rhetorical Grammar and Joe Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace will tell you, the passive voice has other important functions. For example, as Kolln points out, you couldn’t write

Joe was wounded in Vietnam

without it. It also supports the “Known-New Contract” (more about that in a future post).

You can’t benefit from these options without that much-disparaged verb “to be.”

Love for Literary Fiction!Nuances this subtle should matter, and be within the reach, of any writer. They should be choices, made with mindful attention to their effects and whether or not these effects serve a writer’s needs at any given moment. Don’t kick them out of your bag of tools because somebody said they were “weak” or “passive.” They have jobs to do. When you need them, use them.

(You may have noticed that I just love this “grammar” stuff. What about you?)

 

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How To Write A Scene That Works: The Story Grid Way – by Valerie Francis…

Here’s an article that breaks down the basic elements of story structure to the scene level, with excellent, clear examples. Sometimes I suspect writers think they’re too “literary” to observe the basics that this article (from The Creative Penn via Chris the Story Reading Ape) lays out. But these guidelines are just that: basic. Because they work. Pay special attention to the discussion of the “literal” and “essential” elements of a scene. Enjoy and apply!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

 on The Creative Penn:

Intro by Joanna Penn:

It can be easy to assume that writing a story is just about getting words on the page. After all, we’ve read and watched and listened to so many stories that creating one can’t be difficult, right?

The truth is that writing a compelling story involves a lot more than words. You need to understand aspects of story structure. 

In today’s article, Valerie Francis breaks down the elements of a scene.

Continue reading HERE

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The Dangers of Premature Editing: Pruning Our Stories vs. Pillaging Them…

This a long piece, but it is so on the mark! I find Kristen’s advice especially good for those of us involved in critique groups. It’s so tempting to try to fix every little thing some (wonderful and much appreciated) reader suggests. NO! That way lies madness. Keep the critiques and come back to them when you have a sense of how the whole book played out with your group. And you will read your work very differently after a long interval of absence. So check out this advice and let me know what you think!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

By Kirsten Lamb:

Editing is essential for crafting a superlative story. We clip away the excess, delete the superfluous and prune away the detritus to reveal the art. Yet, editing is something we’re wise to handle with care.

While lack of ANY editing is a major problem today, editing too much, too soon is just as big of a problem. Perhaps an even a bigger one.

For clarity, not all ‘editing’ is the same.

Continue reading HERE

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PLOT HOLES AND POT HOLES: 8 COMMON MISTAKES READERS HATE—AND HOW TO FIX THEM…

From Ruth Harris at Anne R. Allen’s blog via Chris the Story Reading Ape! My pet peeves fall into the category Ruth discusses as “plot contrivances.” Pet peeve #1: The cell phone somebody forgot to charge, so that the hero can’t call for help. #2: Police who are so abysmally stupid or unprofessional that the hero gets thrown in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, with no hearing or Miranda rights or lawyers; #3: This is more or less related to Ruth’s No. 1, Lapses in Logic—the rescue or physical action that couldn’t possibly happen unless sixty million stars were aligned and even then would need divine intervention. Example: a book I read in which the villain supposedly killed the victim by throwing a rock and hitting him in the head while the victim was riding a horse a hundred feet away. Next time I want to commit a murder, will have to try that one!

Right now I’m working on a variation of the “girl walks into the warehouse to confront the killer alone” pot hole identified in the comments. My girl does something pretty stupid. The payoff is spectacular, though. Waiting to see if my group readers will buy that as her excuse. Who/whom solution

 

 

What “plot holes” are your pet peeves?

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Ruth Harris  on Anne R Allen site:

We all come face to face with them, those pesky glitches, oopsies, OMGs and WTFs that ruin a story, turn a reader off, guarantee a slew of one-star reviews—and kill sales.

Beta readers will often point them out. Editors are professional fixers, always on the lookout for booboos. You will realize them yourself when you wake up at 3AM sudden realizing that the MC’s beloved pet who started out as a friendly, tail-wagging Golden Retriever, has somehow become a snarling, saber-toothed attack dog.

These unforced errors range from plot holes, small and economy-size, to lapses in logic. They also include poorly conceived characters, blah settings, pointless dialogue, and momentum-killing info dumps. Even a few will make your book—and you—look like a loser on amateur night.

You need to find them—and fix them—before readers do.

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The Kind of Writers’ Conference I’ll Pay For!

What’s not to like about writers’ conferences? They offer terrific opportunities to learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing from people who know what they’re talking about (as opposed to the neighbor who figures your book can’t be any good since Barnes and Noble didn’t display it on that table right inside the front door).

Of course, there’s the expense. A conference means registration, travel expenses, motels, and sometimes meals (and in my case, board for a rather large dog).

For some, the workshops and lectures and a chance to get autographs on mint copies of presenters’ books may justify those costs.

But if you’re interested in becoming traditionally published, it’s worth stretching your budget for a good conference. A well-chosen conference can give most of us developing writers what no cold query can:

  • A chance to sell ourselves and our work face-to-face, where we can slip a memorable impression into a busy agent’s or editor’s mind.
  • A block of time all our own, instead of the few seconds a hurried intern can spare for that laboriously written letter.
  • A hard-nosed reaction from a publishing professional unfettered by the need to make the writer feel good.

If, like me, those perks are the ones you want from a conference, here are the top five things I look for before I send in my registration form.

1) Location

I don’t want this to come first, but for many of us, it has to. The good news is, you probably don’t have to travel a thousand miles to find a good conference. In the past two years, I’ve attended two within a two-hour drive of my home. Search online, read writing blogs, and network with writers’ groups in your area to get on email lists. Conferences within your range and budget will turn up.

Of course, if you DO travel a thousand miles, make sure it’s someplace fun, since you can deduct the expenses from your taxes if you can show you’re really writing to sell.

2) Pitch sessions*

The right kind of conference for this stage in your writing must offer a chance to meet face-to-face with agents and editors. Most conferences charge a moderate fee for these sessions, but that ten minutes will garner a lot more attention to your work than the dozens of hours you spent honing a query letter that may never get read.

Many conferences offer “pitch practice,” usually also for a fee. Some will allow you to send in a written version of your pitch to be critiqued. Take advantage of these opportunities if possible. With luck, you’ll get voluminous and often painfully honest comments that will propel you into feverish revision the night or morning before your pitch. But that’s the point, isn’t it—to move you to a new level? You’ll get there faster with a push.

3) A chance to submit actual pages for critique

You really have one immediate goal as a writer seeking publication: to be read. Maybe once in a while your query letter elicits a request for pages, but the ultimate response, more often than not, will be “We’re not the right agency for this book.” No reasons. No chance to ask for reasons. (Okay, maybe it will be different for you.)

But at a good conference, you can submit part of your work and then meet with your critiquer to follow up on what worked and what didn’t. Good conferences will assign real agents and editors, empowered to ask for more, to this task.

Yes, you’ll pay extra. And no, your readers might not agree in their assessments, leaving you confused and frustrated, just like your critique group at home. But you’ll hear truths that no warm-hearted “supportive” writers’ group friend will ever tell you! Put on your thickest skin and sign up for as many of these critiques as you can.

4) A range of agents and editors

Conferences will publish the credentials of their faculties beforehand. Follow up on agents’ and editors’ web pages. Go to Amazon and read the first pages of books they have handled. Be sure that at least two or more of the people you can pitch or submit to like the kind of thing you write.

5) Opportunities to socialize with the conference faculty

Some of us are really good at button-holing people we hope to impress. I’m terrible at it. Still, I’d like the chance! A good conference will require its faculty to show up for receptions and banquets. Show up yourself, this time in your bravest skin. You may find that the agent who sorta-kinda-seemed-to-like your pages is also a fan of that obscure Korean horror director you adore. When you send your follow-up query letter, he’ll remember that long chat you shared over wine.

You can’t always tell ahead of time whether this criterion will be met. If it isn’t, make a note for the future, and by all means, include your disappointment on your evaluation form.

It Worked for Me!

I met the agents who sold my first books through the conference process, and since my return to writing after a hiatus, I’ve received far more requests for partials from conference pitches than from written queries. And I’m not even very good at the conference process! But conferences provide me with the best chance to see how people who actually make buying decisions react to what I’m doing.

So once you and your writers’ groups have tweaked your manuscript as much as humanly possible and once you think you’ve done what all those books you’ve read say you should, pick a good conference to see what you’ve achieved.

*A “pitch session” doesn’t call for a synopsis or an elevator pitch. It’s a five-to-ten minute talk (usually breathless on my part) whose sole purpose is to tell the agent or editor what your book is about. The conference will specify how long you have. Maybe you’ll have time to throw in the extras from your full query; maybe not. The hook is what counts. Before you plan yours, search online—advice and examples abound. And if pre-conference pitch critiques or on-site practice is offered, sign up.

What about your experience with conferences! Share!

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