Paul's Blog

14th August 2014: How do you write the most persuasive synopsis ever?

The problem of writing synopses has become an important one for me. As Children of Fire has reached the next stage of being published, I've had to write several synopses. There are three general types:-

  1. There are the short ones, sometimes less than the blurb on the back of a book. These are so limited by words that they seem to me to be of less critical use than the average blurb.
  2. Then there are the detailed, move by move ones, clear in every detail, though limited to not more than 2,000 words. They want the denouement, when the protagonist cleans her teeth, the works.
  3. Finally, the shorter ones which are no more than one page double spaced or 500 words. These have a habit of not saying what they really want but could be more about character than plot or was that more about plot than character?

Added to the issue of length, there's the argument that develops among writers about giving away the dénouement. Do you hold on to the ending, especially if you've got a twist in the tail of your novel, or just as an incentive for an agent or publisher to ask to see the rest of the book to satisfy their curiosity?

The upshot of my activity is that I realise that there could have been a whole exercise on synopsis writing on my Creative Writing MA, which would still not have answered all the problems and demands of writing the perfect, persuasive synopsis.

So when faced with the problem of a synopsis aimed at agents for Children of Fire, I did what so many of us do and hit the keys to Google. I came up with How to write a synopsis of your novel by Glen Strathy at www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis.html

Glen’s method has seven steps, the responses to which are put on a series of cards and then integrated to develop not so much a blow by blow account of the plot and events, as an emotional character-led synopsis including events. I did not find it an easy model to apply to Children of Fire and only time will see if it has the desired effect on potential agents. But I can say it offered some interesting insights and will probably prove to have changed my attitude to synopsis writing even if I don’t use it rigorously in future.

The root of its approach is the Dramatica writing theory. Dramatica is highly structuralist and as a result probably only useful for a minority of authors. More detail about Dramatica, which describes itself as nothing less than a new theory of story, can be found at dramatica.com

All this has at least led to one piece of definite advice: keep them guessing about the end.

12th June 2014: Are there really only ten rules of Good Writing?

Recently I reread Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Good Writing. Leonard, who died last August, wrote mostly westerns and crime fiction including Get Shorty, Glitz and Rum Punch. But unlike many genre writers, he was taken seriously in literary circles because of his extraordinary minimalist style. In an article for the New York Times in 2001 he wrote ten famous rules of good writing:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said” … he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.  

It made me wonder what my ten rules might be, so here goes:

  1. Don't get it right get it written! (At least on the first draft).
  2. Find a group of people you trust to talk to about what you write.
  3. Never send it to anyone (competition, agents, publisher, spouses, friends, authonomy, lovers…) until you really believe it is the very best final version you can make at that time.
  4. Remember things smell, taste and have texture as well as having colour and sound.
  5. At the end of the day's writing efforts, leave a hook to get you going again.
  6. Eavesdrop: people are experts at dialogue.
  7. Write about what you care about. If you didn't care about it when you wrote it then why should any reader?
  8. Remove anything that trips up your reader: abverbs, fussy punctuation, the wrong sort of word, complicated sentences.
  9. Read it aloud. If you can't read it with conviction then it's not likely to convince a reader.
  10. If you're really stuck for just the right word, then make one up. If it's right no one will notice and you might get a footnote in the OED. (Especially useful in poetry).

I leave you to make up your own list…Good luck.

1st January 2014: The Curse of the Literary Weresequel

Happy New Year! I hope all your literary plans for 2104 come to fruition!

It’s customary at this time of year to look back over the Old Year as well as forward to the New Year. Personally I take the view what’s done is done. To paraphrase Mark Anthony:-

The evil that years do lives after them, the good is oft interred (or should be) with their bones, so let it be with 2013.

One of the ‘evils’ which might live on from 2013 was the curse of the literary sequel. The old year saw three notable additions to this canon: PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley revisiting Jane Austen, Willam Boyd’s Bond sequel Solo and Anthony Horowitz’ new Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk.

Previous sequels have been added to Ian Flemings’ Bond canon, notably by Sebastian Faulks, Devil May Care and Jeffery Deaver, Carte Blanch.  To add to Bond does not seem too bad; we have all become used to re-interpretation of Mr Bond for the sake of the film franchise.

Nonetheless, literary sequels seem a bit like cheating. No matter how good the commissioned author, some of the basic problems have been solved by your predecessor, giving you a head start. The main characters and their relationships are likely to be set and the scope of plotting pre-defined. Of course these advantages may be accompanied by grave downsides, the worst being the expectation of devotees of the original that there can be no improvement on perfection.

So when I started to read The House of Silk as a member of my local readers’ group I wondered if I would be convinced. I can say that it’s been a treat. 

Apart from a slow start, where Horovitz takes care to provide necessary detail for readers unfamiliar with Holmes, the book cracks along. Horovitz does a brilliant job of integrating plot structure familiar to readers of modern who-done-its while preserving the core of the originals, especially the relationship between Watson and Holmes. Horovitz has also provided a postlude, giving insight into how he approached the problem of writing the book, and the rules he used. I’m look forward to reading this when I finish - it contains spoilers.


Before closing, let me recommend one of the presents Santa left me: Writing Maps by Shaun Levin, about which more details at http://www.writingmaps.com/  Each map consists of a well-designed and colourfully illustrated A3 sheet with 14 or so prompts to writing exercises. I was given two, The Character Map and The Café Writing Map. With the latter I have already had a couple of fruitful trips to the coffee shop since Christmas.

Again Happy New Year!

15th November 2013: e-Publishing and all that jazz I self-published my first novel, Heron Fleet, in June, available for Christmas from all good book shops as they say. It been published in paper form with Matador, though it has a e-form as well. The main involvement I've had with sales has been those I've made myself at readings from the 100 Copies I saved for the purpose. They have been steady and disproportionately rewarding. They have certainly focused my mind on my marketing and I've rapidly become aware of mistakes I made and opportunities I missed when preparing Heron Fleet For instance in copies of Heron Fleet I never thought to put notes for Book Clubs or Reader's Groups in the back of the book. Since I have started selling the book to Libraries as stock to supply their Book Clubs it would have been very useful. What's even worse I put nothing in the book about myself, no picture, no biography, no directions to this website. Those mistakes are going to have to be put right with some discreet inserts into at least the copies I sell. Last week I was in independent publishing action on my own account in a different way. Seven of us from the MA at Manchester Metropolitan University I took when writing became something more serious than a pass time, formed a small press after we graduated called Pandril Press after we graduated. We put together anthology of short stories called Panopticon. Last week we rolled out our second, much more professional job called Weird Love. Our ambition is not huge and we will rapidly have to do a second printing run at even very modest demand. But if we go ahead and make it available as a e-book it will be available worldwide very quickly. Making a book available in e-form has never been easier. Amazon supply tools that allow you to publish on the Kindle store simply. There are limits to how complicated a book can get using such tools but a text based book such as a novel or even a book with some photographs or illustrations can be done without huge technical expertise. It is true that to do a really good job, which some mainstream publishers don't bother doing, requires extra expertise but not an impossible level of technical expertise. Rumour has it that the book trade is waiting to see if this Christmas e-book sales will out strip paper sales. Of course e-sales already outstrip paper sales in the sense of number of books sold. With effectively a worldwide sales base and the advantage of lower sales price this seems unexceptional but remember that most e-books do not have the advertising backing a main stream book has, though people may well buy e-versions of main stream books. The really important threshold is when e-books take more money than paper books. If that happens this Christmas in the UK, a very significant barrier will have been passed. We will see.