linear versus non-linear

Successful Synopses

By
Lisabet Sarai

Writing
a novel is an heroic endeavor. It takes not only imagination and
creativity, but also more prosaic virtues such as perseverance,
discipline, and attention to detail. Anyone who can generate 60,000
to 100,000 words without giving up in self-disgust has my admiration.
I’ve done it myself, so I know how difficult it is. Yet many
novelists quail in the face of a far less daunting task: producing a
few thousand words for a synopsis of their work that is often
required by publishers.

I
think that one reason why so many writers claim to have trouble with
synopses is that they may have misconceptions about what a synopsis
is supposed to accomplish. Also, this may be a forest-and-trees
phenomenon. Novelists are so deeply involved in the complexities of
their fictional worlds, they may have a hard time pulling back and
taking a more generalized view.

What
is a Synopsis?

A
synopsis is a summary of a longer work—for
purposes of this article, a novel or novella. Publishers have
different standards for the length and format of a synopsis. One
common format is a chapter-by-chapter summary, with one or two
paragraphs per chapter. Assuming 200 words per paragraph and 10 to 20
chapters, the length of a typical synopsis will be in the same range
as the average short story: 2000 to 4000 words.

You
should of course always consult your target publisher’s guidelines
before creating the synopsis. Some publishers want more detail, while
others may ask for less.

Although
a synopsis is of comparable length to a story, the similarities end
there. A synopsis does not need to establish the setting, set a mood,
or develop characters. Fundamentally, a synopsis is about plot. It is
a prose outline of the major events in your novel. Your synopsis
needs to introduce and identify your major characters, then explain
what they do or experience during the course of the novel. Given the
constraints of word count, your synopsis should not include much
description or backstory. It does not need to create suspense. It
should never contain dialogue.

The
purpose of a synopsis is to convey information to the publisher (or
editor or agent). The synopsis allows the publisher to evaluate
whether the action flow of your novel makes sense, and whether it
will be of interest to their target audience. If your novel is not
yet completed, the synopsis also demonstrates that you have worked
out the resolution for the conflicts and problems that you introduce
in your early chapters. (It’s sometimes possible to sell an
incomplete novel on speculation, based on initial chapters plus a
synopsis. In fact, I’ve sold four of my novels in this manner.)

A
synopsis is part of your marketing package, but it is not intended to
demonstrate your fabulous writing style. Your sample chapters should
do this. (Of course, the synopsis must be free of spelling and
grammar errors, but that should be true of every bit of writing you
show to the world.)

A
synopsis is also different from a “blurb”—the
few brief come-on paragraphs included on the buy page or the back
cover. A blurb is intended for readers, not publishers or editors.
Blurbs (which I find much harder to write than synopses) must be
clever and engaging. They’re designed to hook potential readers and
to make them want to read your book. A synopsis, in contrast, needs
does not need to be particularly snappy or creative. Rather, it needs
to be clear and comprehensible, communicating the essential structure
of your novel while leaving out extraneous details.

How
to Write a Synopsis

There
are a variety of strategies that can be applied to creating a
synopsis. They vary somewhat, depending on whether your novel is
already complete or you’re writing a synopsis for a speculative
submission. Different strategies might feel more natural, depending
on your cognitive style: linear and hierarchical versus non-linear
and associative.

1.
The outline approach.

This
strategy works well for linear thinkers. Create an outline of your
novel. Create a major item for each chapter. Within each major
section, list in order the most important events that occur in that
chapter as sub-items. Try to limit the number of sub-items to three
or four. Focus on the one chapter you are considering. Don’t go back
or forward in the narrative flow.

Once
you have your outline, turn each major section into a paragraph. Each
sub-item should generate one or at most two sentences.

The
result of this process will be a synopsis, but it may be hard to
follow because it is missing transitions. Go back and add, as
necessary, sentences that link chapter events back to previous
chapters.

Once
you have tried this approach a few times, you’ll probably discover
that you don’t need to create the intermediate outline. You will be
able to move directly from a mental summary of the major events in a
chapter to the sentences of the synopsis.

A
variant to this approach is to use the scene breaks in your chapters
to identify the sub-items. In other words, one scene will become one
sentence in the synopsis.

2.
The Post-it Note approach.

Some
writers do not feel comfortable with outlines, either when creating
their stories or afterwards. Yet a synopsis is, structurally
speaking, an outline. For non-linear thinkers, the scene-based
strategy, in particular, may feel terribly artificial. For these
authors, the Post-it Note approach may be more natural.

Sit
down with a pad of Post-it Notes. Start thinking about your novel. On
each Post-it Note, write down one story point that you think is
important to your novel. Don’t worry about temporal order; just jot
down your first impressions. However, you should try to focus on
actions or events rather than characters or setting.

Continue
until you have twenty or thirty items on your Post-It Notes. Then go
back and arrange them into the time sequence in which they occur in
your novel. Next, survey your notes and satisfy yourself that all
items are equally important. Try to remove items that are not
critical to the plot, even if they illuminate the characters or
perform some other narrative function.

Finally,
turn each of your notes into a sentence or two. Fill in transitions
as necessary. The result should be a reasonably coherent summary of
the major happenings in your book.

3.
The dictation approach

You’ve
lived with your novel for a long time. Now, tell the story of to
someone else. Record your narration. Then go back and transcribe your
oral recounting of the tale.

When
they tell a story out loud, people often discover a natural ability
to select relevant detail and to focus attention on the essentials. A
real audience will provide feedback, in their expressions and body
language, that will help you to realize when you’re getting into too
much detail and when you are missing connections.

This
strategy is particularly appropriate for unfinished novels. As you
tell the story, you may find yourself making decisions about the
course of the plot.

Some
Common Problems in Creating Synopses

There
are a variety of issues that can arise when following the strategies
above. Some of these are general, while others are specific to
writing synopses of erotica or erotic romance.

1.
The plot is not linear in time.

Some
novels contain frequent flashbacks that reveal information important
for future events. Other novels (particularly in the science fiction
or paranormal genres) may include parallel time lines. The guidelines
above suggest that the synopsis should be linear in time; how can you
deal with these aberrations?

My
recommendation is to linearize as much as possible. Describe the
prior events that are contained in the flashback before the events
that they influence. For parallel time lines, try to deal with each
one as a separate thread, and then include coordinating information
that helps the reader to relate them. This approach can also be
applied to novels in which several characters pursue separate
activities which ultimately connect.

Remember
that your goal is to explain the events of your plot, not to build
suspense or gradually reveal the nature of the truth. The sequence in
which you describe events in your synopsis does not need to match the
exposition in the novel itself.

All
this being said, there are certain novels—for
example, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife—which
can be extremely difficult to linearize. Even this novel, though,
could be summarized by breaking its narrative into several phases:
Claire’s childhood, Claire’s married days; Claire’s life after
Henry’s death.

2.
Many characters need to be introduced.

In
presenting the strategies above, I haven’t said anything at all about
characters. Yet characters are responsible for most of the events in
the plot; where do they fit in to the synopsis?

Typically,
a novel will have a few major characters. Your synopsis should
introduce them as early as possible, as soon as they begin to act or
affect others’ actions. You will need to provide some description for
each character; try to focus on the attributes and historical
information that is critical for the story. Usually, you can sum up a
character in a phrase or clause. Once you’ve introduced the
character, get on with the action.

If
your novel has many characters, you may not need to mention them all,
especially not by name. Restrict your introductions to the characters
who serve as the engine for your plot.

3.
Most of your novel is sex scenes.

In
many erotic novels, the primary action occurs in bed (or on the
kitchen table, in the shower, in the back room at the office, and so
on!) Clearly you can’t summarize the details of each scene, and
probably you wouldn’t want to:

“Lisa
sucks George’s cock until he comes. Then Roger comes out from the
broom closet and takes Lisa anally while George jacks off”…

So,
if you don’t want your synopsis to read like a list of body parts and
sex acts, what can you do?

For
each sex scene, ask yourself: what changed because of this scene? How
did this scene modify the relationship between the characters, or a
character’s self-image? This is what you need to describe in your
synopsis; the sex itself should get no more than a mention.

You
may want to highlight salient points. If this is a character’s first
experience with BDSM, for example, the audience may need to know.
However, it’s better to say too little about the sex than too much.
Once again, you’re not trying to arouse your reader (the publisher).
You’re trying to convey information, as succinctly as possible.

4.
Your novel isn’t finished.

How
can you summarize a novel that doesn’t yet exist? Clearly, you as the
author must have a plan for the plot, even if you haven’t yet
implemented it. This plan should be what you describe in the
synopsis.

Don’t
worry too much that you may change your mind later about the details,
or even about major issues like the ending. Your synopsis is not a
contract or a commitment. Publishers understand that writers
sometimes have new ideas.

Editing
Your Synopsis

Like
anything you write, your first draft of the synopsis will probably
need work. My synopses are always too long. I need to go back and
consider what can be cut. Another common problem is lack of
coherence. You need to communicate not only the story’s events but
how they are connected.

Get
someone else to read the synopsis, then find out if he or she has any
questions. That will help you identify points that you might have
omitted, or areas that you have not clearly explained.

Obviously
you want to spell check your synopsis and make sure that your grammar
is correct. With the synopsis, you are not trying to dazzle the
publisher with your literary brilliance. However, you do want to
impress the reader with your basic competence.

Examples

This
article is already much longer than it should be. However, if you’d
like to see some examples of synopses which have actually sold books
visit www.lisabetsarai.com/synopses.html. And please feel free to
comment or ask questions here on the blog.

The Right Way to Write a Novel

By Lisabet Sarai

Many erotica authors get their start publishing short stories. Anthologies, webzines and more recently self-publishing offer many opportunities for selling short erotic fiction—possibly more than in any other genre.

I’d argue that it’s far more difficult to craft an exceptional short story than to produce a longer work. With only a few thousand words available, you must choose each one with special care. Short stories leave no room for sloppiness. The stories I love most are jewels, masterpieces of symmetry and clarity that shine with inner light.

For some reason, though, many erotic authors I know believe that writing a novel is somehow a more worthy endeavor than crafting short stories. Again and again on writers’ lists I’ve heard my friends and colleagues lament that they can’t seem to spin a story longer than a few thousand words. They feel inadequate, unfulfilled, second rate. Only when you see your name on “real book”—a novel—can you truly call yourself an Author, or so they seem to think.

Well, pish tush to that. Anyway, if you can write an effective short story, you can create a novel. You just have to go about it the right way.

Before you close your browser in disgust at my arrogance, let me reassure you that the title of this post is intended to be facetious. I do believe that if you want to write a novel, if you have a story deep and complex enough to support 50,000 words or more, you can do it. However, there’s no one right way to go about it. Different authors use different techniques. My goal in writing this article is to introduce some of the approaches I’ve encountered in my 15 years of publishing, and encourage you to explore them.

You can write a novel. You just need to figure out the method that works for you, personally.

When I went to Amazon, chose “Books”, and typed “How to write a novel”, I got 2,859 results, with titles like “How to write a best-selling book in 21 days!”, “How to write a novel: simple and powerful 4 steps to your first novel”, “Write good or die”, “How not to write a novel: 200 classic mistakes”, even (egads!) “Fiction writing for dummies”. It seems that if you really want to make it big—write a how-to book about writing novels.

I haven’t read any of these books, and I’m not likely to. Still, I’ve published eight novels and I’m halfway through writing my ninth.

I’ve listened to lots of successful novelists discuss their methods, and I’ve introspected on my own. That’s the main source for the observations that follow. I’ll talk about six approaches to novel writing: the Jigsaw method, the TV Serial method, the Character-driven Random Walk, the Dump and Sift method, the Snowflake method and the Dissertation method. In reality, these are abstractions. They’re not monolithic methods, but rather, points in a multidimensional space. What are the dimensions?

– Analysis versus intuition

– Linearity versus non-linearity

– Continuous editing versus staged editing

You may well find a method that works for you in some other region of this space.

Jigsaw Method

People who write novels using this method write scenes as the story inspires them, without worrying about temporal order or connections. When caught up in the fever of an idea, they write furiously, trying to capture the images and events playing out in their imaginations. Often, though maybe not always, jigsaw people tend to visually oriented. They see scenes from their book, as if played out on an internal movie screen, then work to describe those inner films in words.

Creating a novel from these disparate chunks of prose involves fitting them together (like a jigsaw puzzle). Indeed, it can be quite puzzling trying to determine the relationship among the different segments of the book. Unlike a real jigsaw, the author may need to alter the shape of the pieces to make them mesh, or create new pieces to mediate the fit.

The Jigsaw method is located at the extremes of all three dimensions. It is highly intuitive, very non-linear, and requires staged editing to achieve consistency.

My good friend and crit partner C. Sanchez-Garcia mostly writes this way. He calls this the “clothesline method”, another apt analogy. There’s no way I could use this method, but for him (and for many other authors I know), it works.
 

TV Serial Method

This is the method I’ve used for most of my own novels. The TV Serial method is highly linear and uses continuous editing. It’s mid-way between analytical and intuitive.

This method builds a novel chapter by chapter. Chapters are like episodes in a TV series, each one featuring a minor conflict and resolution, and often, ending with something of a teaser to bring the viewer (reader) back next week. Each chapter gets polished (at least to some extent) before the author moves on to the next.

When I begin a novel I’m writing this way, I have in mind a set of characters, a premise, a setting, and a rough trajectory for the overall book. I will usually have some notion of how the book will end, but I don’t necessarily know how the characters will get there. I’ll also have a scene list (sometimes written, sometimes in my head), high points I want to hit over the course of the book.

I then sit down to write the book, from beginning to end. I try to finish each chapter in one sitting or at most two. I polish and edit as I write. Then, when I start my next writing session, I first reread and do further edits on the previous chapter.

If I finish a chapter with time left, I often will move to some other project rather than starting a new chapter, in order to preserve the structural integrity of the units.

As I write, my imagination fills in the details. I learn more about my characters. Occasionally, I have flashes of inspiration that dramatically change the course of the story. The final result is never exactly what I’d envisioned. It’s almost always better.

I suspect that this is the way Joss Whedon wrote Buffy. He began with a fairly superficial high school girl killing vampires. He ended up with a dark, twisted world where the characters lose as often as they win.

Character-driven Random Walk

When I ask many of my author friends how they approach the process of writing a book, they respond, “My characters talk to me. In fact, I can’t shut them up.” It’s an old joke—we writers are crazy, because we have voices in our heads. All humor aside, though, many authors’ process is completely driven by their characters. They don’t have an outline or a scene list. They simply listen their characters, following where they lead.

Of course, to do this, you need a pretty clear vision of who your characters are and what they want. Still, I gather from listening to my colleagues who use this method that characters can be a surprising and ornery lot. One friend had the experience of starting an erotic romance with a hero and heroine, only to discover a quarter of the way through that what she really had was two heroes.

The Character-driven Random Walk is almost totally intuitive, but unlike the Jigsaw method, it is usually linear. Characters act and react, while the author writes everything down. Gradually the story unfolds, from start to finish. The story line corresponds to the characters’ life lines.

I’ve been experimenting with this method in my current WIP. I’m not sure how effective it is for me. I seem to be having a great deal of difficulty moving the plot forward. My characters keep stopping the action to have more kinky sex. At some level, that’s what the novel is about, the development of their D/s relationship as they come to know and trust one another. I know that I need conflict, though, something that challenges that trust. While I have some ideas, my hero and heroine are resisting.

This method can be used with both continuous or staged editing. As usual for me, I’m on the continuous side. However, one could also write the whole book, following the characters without editing a word, then go back to revise.

Dump and Sift

The Dump and Sift method is just what it sounds like. You sit down and write whatever comes to mind, freely and uncritically. You stop when you’ve reached a pre-decided word count. Then you go back to select, analyze, polish and rearrange the raw material from the “dump” stage.

Dump and Sift is the model behind NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s an antidote to over-thinking and perfectionism, and can get you past bouts of writer’s block.

I’ve occasionally used the Dump and Sift method (sometimes known as Write or Die, supported by a fun application that forces you to do so), but only for short sections of prose. I’m too analytical a person to just let the words flow without some selection or editing. The Dump phase of this method requires a level of intuition that comes hard to me. Dump and Sift is usually linear (though it doesn’t have to be—you could dump your scenes in any order). And the method is pretty much defined by its staged editing, where stage 1 involves no editing at all.

Snowflake Method

The Snowflake Method was introduced by Randy Ingermanson. I haven’t read his book. What I know about the method comes from an excellent blog post by Kathleen Bradean, about her attempts to apply this method. (A post, alas, which I now cannot find!)

As I recall her discussion, the method is hierarchical. You begin with a single sentence that summarizes the point of the book. You then expand this to a paragraph, something like a blurb. Next you write brief character profiles, focusing on goals, motivation and resolution. Eventually you get to the level of an outline. You then expand the outline into chapters. And so on. You iterate back to earlier levels as necessary, when your explorations lead you to the conclusion that some change is required.

You can find Ingermanson’s own description at his web site.

Ingermanson is a scientist by training. He treats the process of writing a novel as a process of systematic design. As a software engineer, I find this process very familiar. However, I’m pretty certain I couldn’t manage to apply it to my own writing. For me, when it comes to fiction, discovery trumps intention.

However, for some authors, it may be the perfect approach. Indeed, this fairly simple breakdown of steps might be useful to two very different types of authors: authors who already take a highly analytical approach to their work, and authors who crave discipline and structure but don’t know how to get it.

Dissertation Method

The Dissertation Method treats a novel like a doctoral thesis. It involves extensive research, copious notes, pages of character profiles, multiple level outlines and chapter summaries. Authors who favor this method may create timelines of their fictional world history, glossaries of terms, genealogies, maps, and a raft of other documents to support their writing.

For some books—I’m thinking of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy—creating this level of background documentation may be necessary. And I know some authors really enjoy investigating period details and assembling supporting material, almost as much as the writing process itself.

That isn’t me. I’ll do the research that’s required for a particular book, but no more (although I have sometimes spent significant time doing research for books I decided not to write). I’ve tried once or twice producing detailed character profiles. I found it an interesting exercise, but once I began the actual story, I pretty much ignored the profiles.

That’s just me, though. You may be the kind of writer who gains confidence and clarity from having a wealth of background material and supporting detail at her fingertips, should she need it.

I do appreciate reading books set in a historical or fictional world so fully imagined that it feels real. Frequently something like the dissertation method will be required to create such books.

Summary

I haven’t covered all the options here, but I hope that I’ve accomplished three things.

First, I hope I have demonstrated that there are a wealth of different alternative techniques for writing a novel.

Second, I want to emphasize that there is no one “right” way to do so. You need to find a method that matches your cognitive and emotional styles and that fits with your available time and writing schedule. If your current method isn’t working, though, perhaps you should experiment with something different.

Finally, I want to encourage you to write that novel you’ve been turning over in your mind, if that’s what you really want to do. If you have a story to tell, don’t be intimidated. Let it expand to fill the pages, in whatever way is most natural for you. Then send it out to the world.

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