Query Problems: Writing That Synopsis

Probably the thing I hate the most about querying (aside from the hours spent researching and emailing agents, only to get very polite but still disheartening rejection letters) is writing the synopsis. Not ever agent I research asks for one. Some will only want the query letter, others a few chapters, a blessed few who just want you to send the whole dang thing along. But many want a synopsis, so they know what the story is about before they decide to ask for more and dive in.

I get it. Agents don’t have a lot of time, and a synopsis is a quick way to figure out what you’re trying to sell them before they invest more of their reading hours on your stuff. But it’s hard to do.

Take a book you have spent years writing, where you’ve changed and reworked and perfected all the twists and turns. Now condense the whole thing into a page. Maybe two.

wp-1472136525235.jpgI have to decide what events are important enough to describe, what plot twists need to be left out because it takes too long to explain. I have to keep the whole thing concise, while also making it perfectly clear what happens, and why.

The issue for me is that the story has swollen to something so big in my head, I feel like I’m taking a mountain and shrinking it down to a vaguely detailed fist-sized rock: you look at it, get the gist of what it is, and can still imagine how impressive the real thing is. That’s not something I do easily (which is why I’m sure I failed miserably at #PitMad last time I tried), so I spend a lot of time staring at my notebook, or my screen, and feeling very frustrated.

It is useful, though. Not just because if I can figure out how to do it, writing a decent synopsis can get my one step (half-step?) closer to getting published. But also, if I learn how to shrink down the description of my story, I feel more confident when I describe my novel to other people: friends, family, maybe by some luck a person in the publishing industry. Other than it being required for some queries, I want to get good at this, so I will keep working at it, tweaking it, and I will force ask very nicely that my friends and writing group mates take a peek and give me their own opinions, and maybe I can figure out how to concisely, and intelligibly, describe what the heck my novel is about.

What do you have trouble with when gathering your query materials? Do you have trouble writing synopses as well?

For useful synopsis advice, I’d check out Jane Friedman’s post on her blog.

Writing Problems: I Want to Be Done

So a couple months ago I finished polishing up my manuscript, and sent it to my critique partner and posted it in my critique exchange group. I’d finished inputting criticism from the last round of critiques, and I thought to myself, “I’m in a good place.This will be easy.” Not that I believed that there wouldn’t be problems — of course there will be problems, there are always problems — but there would only be a few. Things I could fix in a few weeks. Then I’d clean it up again, and boom, off to agents I go.

Well, no.

While problems of plotting aren’t getting mentioned (thank goodness) and there don’t seem to be overwhelming instances of my characters not being up to snuff, my to-do list for this manuscript keeps growing, and growing, the more I read my criticisms. And I realize my original goal of being ready to ship out by the end of June was laughably naïve.

This is not what a page from a manuscript you’re “almost done with” looks like.


I know I can’t let myself get hung up on everything that critique partners tell me. Sometimes you just have to leave a piece of advice behind.


But, you have to take some of it, too. Especially when there are persistent problems — wishy washy character, descriptions that don’t go far enough — that you know about your writing, and that people are still noticing when they read it for you.

I want to be done. Not because I’m sick of my story (I wouldn’t have gone through this many revisions if I was capable of getting sick of it), or because I have other ideas (I do, though), or that I just don’t want to do the work (though yeah, I’m lazy). No, I want to be done because I don’t want to do it forever. I don’t want to be caught spinning my wheels, rewriting and editing the same things over and over again, never reaching a real stopping point. I don’t want to put of getting published. And I don’t want to keep finding so many problems that I decide my story is unfixable and quit on it altogether, burying it as far into my drawer as I can.

I don’t want to get frustrated, and leave my story unfinished. I want to see it through to the end, and make the best attempt that I can to put it out into the world.

To do that, my story, my characters, my writing, have to be as flawless as I can make them.

Which, unfortunately, means I’m not done, as much as I wish I was.

Critiques: What to Take, What to Leave

As a writer, it’s really wonderful to have people who are willing to take on the time consuming task reading your work and giving you feedback. Outside eyes can see where things aren’t working, can look without sentiment on the parts that have become too precious to you to know if it’s really good or not, and they can reaffirm decisions that you were hoping, hoping, hoping were the right ones when you put them to paper. And, possibly most important, they can give you a perspective you didn’t know you were missing, rounding out your stories, and your characters.

But it can also be a little too much.

20160606_105650The problem with so many new voices is that there are so many new voices. If more than one person is looking at your story, you’re bound to get more than one opinion on different parts. Or one reader will find they don’t like one bit of your story that you always thought worked, that reads to you like one of the best bits of the manuscript. You get a list of things you feel you should change, to the point that you feel you’re rewriting everything every time a new critique comes in. It’s overwhelming, and makes you feel as if you’ll never, ever get this damn story finished.

It’s really important, when working with critiques, to take readers’ opinions of your work seriously, to accept that you’ve made mistakes that other people have found, and now you have to take the time to fix them.

But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to take every single bit of advice you’re given. When your book finally makes it out in the world, it’s basically an impossibility that it will be universally beloved. No matter what you do, or how you change it, someone will think that it doesn’t work, that it fails, even if others love it. Some of that opinion will have to do with your own skills and the quality of the work, and some of it will have to do with that person’s point of view and life experience and how that causes them to relate to what you’ve written.

I have a problem with internalizing every critique I get, and trying to apply a fix to my manuscript. It’s how I wind up with stories that get rewritten too many times, that get changed one way and then back again, stories that never feel quite done. I love getting all of these opinions, knowing what’s boring or preachy or what is good or clear or exciting. But I also have to trust my own self on some things: that this bit of word choice is what I want; that this flashback does add to the development of my character; that the timing of this joke works just fine. When I agree with the criticism, when I can’t ignore it, I’ll change the wording, I’ll work out the puzzle — it’s something I actually enjoy doing, after all. And I’ll give every bit of criticism its moment, analyzing it, weighing whether or not it will make my story better.

But I won’t make it perfect for every individual who ever picks it up — it’s not possible, and it’s not something I would expect when people take in my critiques. I’ll take what works for me, and make my story the best in my own eyes.

How do you deal with critiques? Do you ever have a problem with suggestions you disagree with? How likely are you to change a large chunk of your story based on what a critique partner says?


Writing Problems: How Weird I Must Look

Sometimes I wonder how weird I must look while I’m writing.

I rock back and forth in my chair.

I shift my position so I’m cross-legged, sitting on my feet, gathering my knees up to my chest, all within a handful of minutes.

I write frantically, hunched over my desk.

I lean back, sitting straight, writing slowly.

I stop writing entirely to draw circles and weird sketchy faces in the margins of my notebook.

I take long, slow, loud breaths, like I’m trying to calm down, or I’m pacing myself for a jog, while I try to get out the dozens of sentences screaming in my head all at once.

I whip out my phone and check Twitter, even though I’m obviously mid-paragraph, sometimes mid-sentence.

I chew on my pen and stair out the window, watching raindrops hit the road, or sometimes absolutely nothing at all.

I do a bunch of other strange little habits that I don’t even notice, because my brain is somewhere else entirely, and I’m no longer aware of what my body is up to.

Basically, I’m glad it’s usually just the dog in the room with me, snoring on the floor; anyone else probably wouldn’t be able to keep from asking what the heck is wrong with me.

What to Do While Waiting for Critiques on Your Manuscript; A List

I finished another edit on my manuscript. I sent it to my critique partner, posted it in my new writing group, and gave everyone over a month to get back to me with any kind of response.

Now I’m waiting.

And I’m trying to figure out what to do in the meantime.

Here are some ideas.

  • Go back to that other manuscript you shelved for a little while…though you’re sure you still need to wait on it.
  • Take on the vague story idea and do some research so you can slap some more vague ideas on it and maybe get something that resembles a plot.
  • Actually blog on your blog.
  • Read. Read a lot. (You need to read more kids books anyway.)
  • Actually clean your house, maybe finish unpacking those half full boxes in the basement.
  • Draw.
  • COLOR.
  • Critique everything you can on your writing group. (Oh wow I should actually do that one.)
  • Just keep writing. Something. Every day. Whether it’s a story or a query letter or a weird listy blog post and even if you don’t think you’ll ever do anything with it, keep writing, because it’s the only thing that consistently makes you feel like you, that makes you feel like you accomplished something with your day, and keeps you sane enough that the people you care about can tolerate you being around.

Yeah. Those might be a start.

Writing Problems: Trying to Write While Moving

Life likes to get in the way of writing sometimes, doesn’t it?

When moving out of our condo, I had to choose between finishing up my writing, or filling up boxes with books and clothes. We put most of our stuff into a storage unit, taking a fraction of what we had to my in-laws’ house, and then I had to figure out how to get my writing done in a cramped space with only a handful of my belongings to rifle through. And now we’re actually getting a house this week, and every time I sit down to write, I have to sit down to sign a new form, look at a new thing.

It’s tiring, it’s frustrating. I haven’t been as productive as I think I should have been.

But. I have been producing. I’ve edited pages, plotted out chapters. I’ve committed to writing blog posts and actually sticking with it.

It’s hard to get things done when outside forces mess up your funky flow. But at least I’m getting something done.

And hey, I’m getting a house, with a backyard and a basement and everything, like real adults have. So there’s that.

Writing Problems: Doing SOMETHING

As a writer, I know I’m not unique in having this issue. I sit down, and try to hack out a book or a review or something of that sort, and I feel like I’m doing little more than shuffling forward at hundred-year-old tortoise speed. This first draft is taking forever, I take ages between querying new agents, augh, I have to come up with another blog post.

This morning I decided to flip through a writer/artist book I haven’t skimmed in a while, The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre. And I landed on this quote in the book:

How perfect. A reminder that writing, or any kind of creating, is a laying of bricks. You do these things one at a time, and it doesn’t seem like much, but you look back and you realize you’ve built a wall, a house, a skyscraper with each little addition.

It doesn’t matter that I only wrote a page this morning. I have one more page than yesterday. I entered a contest yesterday — one more contest. I’ll query an agent this week — one more agent. I’ll run today, and that’s one more mile. I’ll hit the Publish button, and there’s one more blog post.

It all adds up eventually, hopefully to something.

The Artist in the Office by Summer Pierre
Might be time to reread this book.


What’s one thing that you’ve done today? Did you read a book? Draw a picture? Outline a chapter?

Writing Problems: And Then…And Then…

The above is one of my favorite writing quotes, because it applies almost directly to the way I write my stories. I outline only just enough to keep track of things that I’ve thought up that I think I want to get to at one point, though any scribblings I do is more brainstorming than laying down any sort of a map for the story. I think this is a great way to write, for me at least: it keeps me excited the whole way through, as I figure out what will happen in the next few scenes, and I discover things about my characters and their world as I go.

Of course, writing this way comes with some problems. Much of the world building and back story has to be put in after I’ve done the first draft, simply because I wasn’t aware of most of that stuff before I first started scratching away in my notebook. My “research” is done concurrently, or after the fact, since I didn’t know what I needed to read up on until halfway through the story, when the plot and theme became apparent to me.

Still, I love to write my novels this way — but sometimes it can put me into a bit of a panic. Such as, when I’m approaching the end of the story, and I have sort of an idea of what the conclusion should be, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how the heroine will actually achieve that goal. All the solutions I come up with are cheesy, or weak, or simply don’t fit with the character I’ve come to understand. And of course, I begin to worry: that I’m not going to figure it out, that I’m going to slam face first into a wall, and as I hobble away to tend to my battered self I leave the almost-finished-but-not-quite story behind never to be touched again…

Then, as I’m doing my as-I-go “research”, I come across one idea, a single word really, that sparks an idea, that blooms into a bigger idea, and suddenly…I know what my heroine does. I know how everything gets fixed, and how the story slides into its conclusion. I might change it (I’m certainly changing most of what happened before, this is a gross-messy rough draft), but now it feels solid, like something I can work on without having to worry about the whole thing collapsing.

It worked out. Just like it always seems to do.

How do you write? Do you just pay attention to what’s in your headlights and review the trip when you’re done, or do you need to map out the whole road before you can even get in the car? Let me know!

Response: You Will Be Forgotten

Last week, Hank Green posted a vlogbrothers video titled “You Will Be Forgotten…And That’s OK.” This was in response to a popular Tumblr post where the original poster revealed a fear of living an average life and never doing something to be remembered by, and he was concerned about the fact that so many people seemed to share this anxiety.

Watch the video, definitely, it’s less than 4 minutes long, but here’s a gist of what he said: oblivion is inevitable, and it’s impossible to be actually remembered for forever. Besides that, the idea of being permanently successful is a myth; as he points out from his stance as a “successful” person, you can have many successes, but being successful and satisfied one hundred percent of the time just isn’t a thing.
Hank Green None of it exists

This struck me, because, I think, that’s something that bothers me, too. I want to be remembered, I want to be known. But…why?

It’s a hard thing to grasp, but I believe this feeling comes from not quite understanding my own motivations. I want to be a writer. Being a writer makes you sort of famous, so that seems like a “why”. But is it?

If I can be a famous enough writer, I’ll make enough money off of writing to be able to make that my vocation. I’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve done something well when other people like what I’ve done. When other people know that I’ve done this thing, and like it enough to pay me money for it, I will feel “successful” and “remembered.” With that as the seeming goal, having not reached that point yet is, well, kind of depressing.

Hank Green’s video helped remind me to not get caught up in this. Becoming known for my writing is a byproduct of what I want, writing for a living. It’s not what I’m actually aiming for. If I don’t ever become “famous”, or whatever, that’s not a problem, because that’s not what I’m trying to do.

Hank ends the video emphasizing that what’s important is the good things you have done, and the good things you will do, “…things that you’re gonna make and have already helped make.” Who cares if I won’t be remembered. I’m WRITING now, and I’m going to keep writing, and creating, and just doing things that hopeful add an ounce of happiness to the world (even it’s just my own world). That’s the thing that matters.

Here’s Hank’s video, embedded below. But check out the whole vlogbrothers channel; they’re really smart, sensitive dudes.

Writing Problems: Passing Time in a Coffee Shop

Snow removal at my condo timed weirdly with a hair appointment, so instead of moving my car and then fetching it less than an hour later, I decided to pass part of the morning in the coffee shop alongside my hairdresser’s.  I crammed a notebook and book into my purse, ordered a croissant, and took up a big portion of a table, set to get some work done.

Mmm, croissants... photo credit: Castle Pantry - Croissant via photopin (license)
Mmm, croissants…
photo credit: Castle Pantry – Croissant via photopin (license)

I’ve left the house to write before. For a week when I still lived with my parents, I spent the better part of the morning in the local library editing away on the then current story. Since then I’ve pulled out the notebook on airplane trips and when I’ve waited in hotel rooms, but it’s been a long time since I left my house with the specific intent of writing.

In the course of an hour, I got quite a bit done. I picked up a momentum and got a few pages written. When I took a moment to pause there was plenty to look at: the town cops coming in for their regular coffee, an older couple saying grace over their egg sandwiches, a pair of teenagers yammering away, happy. At home I have the distraction of the TV, the dog (though I love her so), the mess of my house that really ought to be picked up, those novels that actually should be organized in a different way… I still had my phone to distract me a little, but all the pointless junk I usually look at becomes less important when I move myself to a different scene. A quick skim of Facebook became less a death to my productivity, and more a chance to breath before diving back into the deep end.

I’m lazy. Once I’m home, I have a hard time pushing myself out the door. But maybe I can try a little trip outside of my nest on a more regular basis, and who knows — maybe I’ll finish my work. (As long as all those buttered croissants don’t choke my heart.)

Writers and creative types, do you ever leave the house to get your work done? Do you find it helpful, or even more of a distraction than your desk at home? Do you thrive in coffee shops, or is a nice calm quiet library (oh, I crack myself up) more your thing? Let me know!