Monday, April 30, 2007

The Dreaded Synopsis

By Josi S. Kilpack


My book is written in first person, shouldn't my synopsis be in first as well?
In a word: No.

In about 700 words, here is why.

A Synopsis is not like a novel, short story or any other piece of creative writing. It is far more similar to technical writing--like the instruction manual to your treadmill--and it is always always written in third person, from a narrator's POV, never a character.
A synopsis is not designed to build suspense, reflect your writing style, or make an editor beg for more . It has one purpose--to lay out your story in a narrative form from page one until the end. It's point is to condense your entire book into something an editor can read on their way to the bathroom. In it, the editor gets to know your main character, your plot, your main subplots, your climax and your conclusion. If any of these parts are weak or missing, it will show up in your synopsis and the editor will exercise their SASE and send it back to you.
You're probably thinking "Sounds like one more hoop to jump through." You're absolutely right. A synopsis is a test, not only of your ability to follow instructions, but your willingness to do so, your understanding of the business of writing, and to test your writing skills. Anyone that has written a synopsis knows it is HARD to do. but the process itself helps you to become a better writer, not only with your next synopsis, but for the book you're currently knee-deep in.
So, here are some tips.
1) Synopsis length varies from one publisher, agent, editor to another. Read their Writers' Guidelines and give them whatever they ask for. Write the longest option they give you, for instance if they say 2-5 pages, for heaven's sake write five. It will allow you show some of your style and include more elements. Any length 2 pages or greater should be double spaced. If a length is not stated, the general rule is 2 pages double spaced or 1 page single spaced (the word count is within about 25 words in either format).
2) 1 inch margins all the way around (no cheating)
3) 12 pt New Times Roman font (don't get fancy, they hate fancy)
4) Put the following information in the upper left hand corner:
Title here (in italics)
Genre here--novel word count here
Synopsis Word count here
Author's name here
*This information should be single spaced even if your synopsis is double spaced.
5) Make the synopsis fully inclusive-It's up to you the writer to know what are the most important elements of your story and include them. And TELL THE ENDING. Never say, "And then....please contact me at for the rest of the story." This is breaking the rules and defeating the purpose, because the point is to tell the whole story so the editor knows if it's something they are interested in. They don't have time to read the full manuscript until they know if they like the story.
6) Introduce characters in ALL CAPS the first time you mention them, then regular case thereafter. (UPDATE: Per some feedback from Agents and Editors at a recent writing conference, I have been informed that this is no longer in favor for book submissions. It's still in place for Screenplays, but using the typical format of first letter capitalized is the preferred formatting for novel synopsis)
7) Write the story chronologically, as things happen in the story.

there should be no:
*Bulleted points like this
*Reader opinions

Just write a super-condensed-fully-inclusive-narrative of the story. That's all :-)

If you have more questions about a synopsis, please leave them in the comment trail. thanks.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Being Inspired

By Lu Ann Staheli

I once attended a lecture by noted children’s author Kimberly Willis Holt in which she told the audience about the book that inspired her to write: If You Can Talk, You Can Write:
A Proven Program to Get You Writing & Keep You Writing by Joel Saltzman.

I already had the book in my personal collection of writing instruction texts, so I got it out and started reading.

Saltzman’s ideas were simple, and I found myself sometimes guilty of them:

• Writers love to complain about writing and they will do anything to avoid it.

• “Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”—John Steinbeck

• “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”—Robert Frost

• When in doubt, throw it out.

• Write a page a day. Make writing a part of your daily routine.

• Stop abandoning your writing at the first sign of trouble.

• Write.

Reading Saltzman’s book inspired me to consider another author who was inspiring to me—Gary Paulsen. His semi-autobiographical novel Harris and Me was the inspiration for my own first novel, Leona and Me, Helen Marie. As Paulsen’s story told about his summer spent with his cousin on the farm, my novel wove the events of a year of my mother and aunt’s childhood growing up in Southern Indiana during the Depression into a completed manuscript.

Writers gather inspiration from all over the place. Every piece we write—fiction or non-fiction, short or long—has its inspiration from somewhere, even when sometimes we don’t recognize it.

As you write this week—and if you are following the advice from Saltzman’s book you will write this week—think about the place where your inspiration is coming from. It might just be a goldmine where you find your next character, scene, or entire novel.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Point of View: First Person vs. Third Person

By Heather Moore

If you just said, "Huh?" this blog is for you.

When we read a book, we don’t always pay attention to the point of view. Instead, we enjoy the story. But when you write a book, point of view becomes an integral method of telling the story through the character.

First person point of view is almost always used in YA novels. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly popular in adult fiction, especially the suspense genre.

In Orson Scott Card’s book, Characters and Viewpoint, he says: “When you use a first-person narrator, you are almost required to tell the story in someone else’s voice—the voice of the character telling the tale.” (143)

1st person/present tenseGood Grief by Lolly Winston

On Halloween, angels and ghosts and pirates flock to my doorstep. A tiny pumpkin hoists her leg over the threshold and clings to my calf like a koala bear.
“No Jenny,” the baby’s mom says, and laughs. “We don’t live here.”
This is a busy year for trick-or-treaters. It’s only seven and I’m already running low on candy, since I never made it back to Safeway to load up. (p.34)

1st person/ past tenseLife of Pi by Yann Martel

My fellow castaway came into view. He raised himself onto the gunnel and looked my way. The sudden appearance of a tiger is arresting in any environment, but it was all the more so here. The weird contrast between the bright, striped, living orange of his coat and the inert white of the boat’s hull was incredibly compelling. My overwrought senses screeched to a halt. (p.160)

Third person point of view is by far the most common and reaches across all genres and age groups. Third person has two methods: limited narrative and omniscient narrative.

Orson Scott Card says a reader is “led through the story by one character, seeing only what that character sees; aware of what that character thinks and wants and remembers, but unable to do more than guess at any other character’s inner life.” (155)

You can also change viewpoints with limited narrative, as long as you have a clear division like a scene break or new chapter.

3rd Person—Limited Narrative: At the Journey’s End by Annette Lyon (all in different scenes)

Maddie’s POV:
A rifle shot split the air with a crack.
The sound halted Maddie in her step, and she looked around for the source. Maybe Peter or James had bagged some game for dinner—a wild rabbit, perhaps. It would taste good after eating dried fruit and jerky for nearly two weeks. But something told her that wasn’t right. (1)

Clara’s POV:
Another coughing fit gripped Clara Franklin, one so intense she didn’t even reach for her handkerchief on the end table. Her frail body curled up against the pain piercing her chest with each cough. As the spell ended, she found her hands clenching the bedclothes like claws. She had to consciously release each finger and make her breath even out. (35)

Abe’s POV:
Taking his hat off, Abe entered the building and wiped his sleeve across his brow. He was tired of the heat. First Utah’s, now California’s. He knew he might as well get used to it, at least until he reached Snowflake. (55)

The narrator can see into more than one character’s mind, switching back and forth at will. (Card, 156)

3rd person—Omniscient: Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (all in the same scene, 77-79)

Nora's POV:
“I already have calendars for next year.” That was news to Nora, who was biting a fingernail and holding her breath.

Luther's POV:
Luther caught himself for a second and allowed his anger to settle in. As if buying a calendar was the only measure of his pride in the local police force.

Treen's POV:
Since Treen could think of no intelligent retort, he grew hot too and decided he would get Krank’s license plate number and lie in ambush somewhere . . .

And finally . . .
Before you start writing your novel, decide on which point of view you’ll use. Do you want the readers to see the entire book through just one character’s eyes? Then try 1st person. Are you writing a romance and want the POV of the heroine and the hero? Try 3rd person narrative. Just be sure that you don’t POV hop when writing either 1st person or in 3rd person narrative. When in 3rd person narrative, you can switch POV when there is a scene or chapter break.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Just Words

By Julie Wright

Yesterday, Miss Snark showed a rare moment of tenderness. If you don’t read Miss Snark’s blog, then I can only assume you aren’t serious about writing. The post from yesterday is “It’s just words.”

Just words . . . An entire industry balances on the point of those mere words that we authors write. Entire generations morph and grow on the point of those mere words. Revolutions are started, wars tamed into peace, lives changed all for the sake of a few silly words.

It’s the cool part of being a writer. I know I will live in the pages of my books long after I am dead and strumming my harp (or shoveling coal in the eternal hot place . . . you never know with me).

There should be a lesson learned here in this blog I’m writing and so the lesson for today is: if you love words and want to write, then do it. I am here today, published, and not too shabby because some absurd little English teacher in tenth grade told me I never would be. I had to prove him wrong.

There will be lots of people to tell you how hard the road is (it is hard). There will be lots of people patting you on the head and giving those twisted little patronizing smiles where you know deep down they don’t believe you’ll succeed (but they're wrong).

I am honestly telling you that if you want it, then you can have it.

As an informal poll, I am curious how many writers out there write because someone told them they couldn’t?

Here is the formula to becoming a successful writer:
Sit in a chair in front of a computer or in front of a desk with a pad of paper and a pen.
Write one word
(do not stop here to check your email)
Write another
(wait a little while to get your snack)
Write a few more until you feel justified in closing the sentence with a period.
(ignore that ringing phone)
Repeat this until you feel justified in closing the novel with the words “the end.”
It’s that easy.

Take a chance on yourself and find out what you can do with mere words.

Monday, April 23, 2007

What's in a Name?

By Josi S. Kilpack

Writers tend to use names they are familiar with in their books, and this is okay so long as you don't make your mother-in-law the evil vampire. However, keep a few things in mind:

Is pronunciation easy to figure out based on spelling? Hermione makes me nuts in Harry Potter. I'd never heard the name before and stumbled over it every time until I saw the first movie. Ask yourself if you really want to trip up your reader by naming someone by throwing a Thaidya or a Schven in there for them to fumble with. Even Phoebe and Chloe throw me off.

Does the name end in S? If it does, such as Chris, you'll be using Chris's or Chris' over and over again, which can also be a bit daunting for a reader--especially younger ones. That doesn't mean you can't use ending-s names, but in regard to your main character you might want to give it some thought.

Are some of your names too similar? If you have a Lisa and a Leslie and Liesel and Libby, you might have trouble. If you have a Chrissy, and a Stacy, and Tracy and a Chris--again, you're readers might have a hard time remembering who is who. As a general rule, try to have your characters names start and end with a different letter. So Lissa and Stacy works well, as does Jessica and Leslie. It allows your reader to identify a new character right away.

Do last names and first names match up? We don't often refer to our characters as Lisa Andrews, it's Lisa or maybe a Miss Andrews now and then. In my first book, Earning Eternity, I had a boy names Jackson, and a love interest of this boy's mother with the last name Jackman. it wasn't until a year later that I caught onto the Jackson Jackman thing. Five books later I wrote about two secondary characters from that book--Matt and Maddie. Their names were cute when they were secondary characters, but confusing as the main characters of their own story. I made sure to point it out and be very clear when they were speaking to one another, but it would have been a lot easier if I'd just names the guy Bob in the first place.

Are you using too many names of people you know? I can all but guarantee you that if you use your neighbors name, she will think you were writing about HER. And your brother-in-law will also think the doctor is really him even though he does drywall for a living. They can't help it, and even if you simply liked the name, they will identify themselves with your character. So be careful. Don't use your sister's name for the prostitute or have your neighbor's name for the doctor who looks like a bloated rabbit. It's not worth the angst.

The key is awareness--pay attention so that someone doesn't have to point it out to you later.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Becoming Better Editors

By Lu Ann Staheli

One of our readers recently asked for more insight as to how to improve the editing quality of a critique group whose members she described as “middling writers.” Well, the answer is easier than you think. Here are ten suggestions you might apply to improve your own skills and to help you guide the other members of your group into being better trained as editors.

1. Be a voracious reader. The more you read, the more you will recognize what works and what doesn’t work in your chosen genre. Read the best, and read a few of the worst. Learn to recognize the difference between the two.

2. Know that good writing is more than good grammar. As you read, consider how the author uses ideas, organization, sentence fluency, voice, and word choice to hook the reader. Read your writing aloud as your group critiques, and mark those spots where you notice word repetition or awkward construction. Also point out those places where the writer was successful.

3. Know your grammar basics. For many writers it may have been a long time since they studied the rules. I’m not suggesting you bring back bad memories of parsing sentences, but do locate a good handbook that covers punctuation and grammar rules. I use Writer’s Inc. (Great Source Publishers) at school. This book not only has easy-to-follow instructions about the rules, but it also includes maps, conversion charts, and other supplementary materials that can be an asset to writers as they research.

4. Teach a skill. If you notice that someone in your group continues to make the same mistake time and again, take a few minutes to teach the correct writing principle to them while giving your critique. For example, say one of your group members is confused about the use of dialogue tags. They often end one paragraph with the tag (said, asked) that actually belongs to the speaker in the next paragraph which leaves you, the reader, confused about who is actually saying what. Instead of becoming frustrated and marking the same error each week, show the writer how the tag needs to be tied to the quotation.

5. Read books about writing. Everyone from Stephen King to Janet Evanovich has written about themselves as writers it seems, and many of them had great tips to share with you. Keep a log of errors you know you personally need to work on improving. Make a list of words you sometimes overuse. (See The Ten Percent Solution by Ken Rand.
Use what you learn for your own writing, but also share it with the members of your group as appropriate.

6. Read magazines such as Writer’s Digest. For a long time, this magazine included a feature where aspiring authors sent in their first page for an edit by a professional. Carefully reading articles such as these and others in each issue show you exactly what an editor wants.

7. Understand genres. Although it is important that your ideas be unique to you, it is also important that the writing you do will actually fit into a niche in the market. Novels can often include two genres if one of those genres is either romance or adventure. For instance a historical romance works, as does a science fiction adventure. But historical science fiction is a little hard to fathom.

8. Talk about books. Be knowledgeable about what is being published. Follow the trades, local bookstores, or online marketplaces such as Barnes and Noble or Use books as a place to gather new ideas (see the earlier blog entry: “Your First Chapter” by Heather Moore), but also use them as a textbook for becoming a better writer. Study those opening paragraphs. Listen to the character’s voice. Know why you love, or perhaps hate, the main character. Then talk about your ideas with the other members of your group. Consider their opinions because all of you make up the buying audience you someday want for you own writing.

9. While all group members are learning to improve their skills, use a few meetings to practice on the writing of others. Choose a short story or the first chapter of a published novel and read it for an evaluation. You’ll be surprised to learn that even published authors who have been through the editing process experience the same slow spots, occasional typographical errors, or word repetition problems your groups members find in their work. Even if this exercise doesn’t improve the writing you are currently working on, it will at least let you know you are not alone when it comes to the problems associated with writing, and it may even give you a good laugh if you find a book that’s a real clinker.

10. Believe that your editing skills will grow, as will your writing skills. I’ve been a member of a critique group now for nearly ten years, and I can promise you that I catch many more spots that need edits now than I did back then, and it’s not because the members of my group are untalented writers. That would be far from the truth. Learning to edit has a rhythm of its own, and like any task we undertake, we tend to become more proficient as we practice that skill.

Good luck, and know that the time it takes to improve your group members editing skills will be well worth it once you see those magazine articles and books being accepted for publication.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Your First Chapter

By Heather Moore

Are you stuck on that first chapter?
Even when you’ve finished your first draft, do you keep coming back to it, rewriting, editing, then rewriting again? First pages and first chapters are what an agent or editor will read first. If they aren’t drawn in by the first few lines or paragraphs, you’ve given them a reason to set your submission aside.

Consider these solutions:
1. Perhaps your first chapter isn’t the first chapter. Maybe your story really begins somewhere in chapter 2 or 3. Have someone read through the first 50 pages of your manuscript and ask them to tell you where they think your book really begins.

2. You may have overwritten the first chapter. Have you tried to cram too many details, unnecessary back story, or become lopsided with too much internal dialogue? If you continue writing the rest of the story, then come back to the first chapter after a few weeks or months, and you’ll have a fresh perspective.

3. Does your first chapter have a hook in the first sentences/paragraph? Start in the middle of a scene—right where the character’s life is about to change. If you start with external dialogue (what the character says) or internal dialogue (what the character is thinking), it needs to be unique, compelling, even surprising. Internal dialogue is usually considered stronger than external.

4. Visit a bookstore or library. Select ten books by well-known authors. Read the first page of each book. Out of the ten, which first page makes you want to continue reading? And why? Put yourself in an agent or editor’s place. They go through the same process.

5. Don’t be afraid to cut and rewrite. Some authors save multiple versions of chapters or scenes they’ve either cut or significantly rewritten. That way, you aren’t grieving the loss of throwing something away you spent a lot of time and thought on. Read the first chapter, then open a blank document. Start writing the beginning again, taking a different angle. Maybe instead of external dialogue you start with action. Maybe instead of description, you start with internal dialogue.

Finally, realize that the first chapter sets the precedent for the entire book. If you find yourself saying, “But it gets really good on page 45,” you need to take a second look. And remember if you are writing non-fiction, the introduction needs to have a compelling hook, as well as the first pages of chapter one. No pressure. Just make sure it's perfect :)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Another word on self editing . . .

By Julie Wright

A lot of discussion takes place about the self editing process when you’re with writers. I am here to confess that for my first two novels, I believed it was the editor’s job to edit me (isn’t that why they call them editors??). So I wrote two books, turned them in and voila they were published (okay, it wasn’t voila, but let’s pretend for a moment).

The second book was a complete first draft. I ran a spell check after typing it and sent it off. The editor’s published it without asking me to change a thing.

Of course, I assumed this happened because I was brilliant. Brilliant people don’t need to have their material edited. But in reality, I was with a newer publisher. They were in the process of finding themselves and decided to take me along for the ride.

As much fun as it would be to say, “Shame on them!” I have to say, “Shame on me.” (only without the exclamation point, why would I want to shout at myself?). I hadn’t done my homework when I went to find my fame and glory in publication. I hadn’t looked around, read any books, attended any conferences, and I didn’t know any writers.

So when my third book came along and I turned in a rough draft again, I was horrified to have it rejected. How could they reject me? I was brilliant; didn’t they know that?
I know some who say, “well you got published so obviously you did it right the first time.”

Well, I thought so. Remember, I thought I was brilliant.

I started out this whole writing career with the impression that the writer comes up with the idea, and the editor polished it. I thought that the editor would be like my writing teachers in college who gave me clues on how to tighten a story or how to rearrange a poem to make it flow better. And a hundred years ago that may have been the case. It isn’t the case any more. Most publishing houses have been through our wringer economy and have downsized and where they may have had a team of editors they now only have a handful in some cases they may only have one. I was looking for a teacher type mentor. My publisher was looking for a real writer. Sadly, they did not find one in me. I stand before you now humbled by my foolish imaginations.

And thus began my real education as an author. Brilliant authors are people who write good books, and then cut them, and shape them until they bleed fountains of red ink.

I learned to self edit. I learned to send manuscripts off to readers to rip apart before I ever considered sending them to a publisher to put in print. And then I learned to self edit some more. I read a few books on the self editing process (I strongly suggest SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King. HarperPerennial, 1994.)

I can’t teach a whole class on self editing here, but I wanted to bring it to your attention as something you need to be doing. When people tell me they bought one of my first books, I cringe and have to bite my tongue to keep from asking if they want a refund. People generally like the books, but I, alone, know they are shadows compared to what they could be if only someone had told me.

Monday, April 16, 2007

That "that"

By Josi S. Kilpack

I’m the first to say I’m NOT a grammar guru, and I know many people that will easily second it. I’m pretty good at content editing, (if I say so myself) not so good at grammar other than knowing that some things sound good and some things don’t.

However, I’m am always looking for ways to improve. A year or so ago I picked up Ken Rand’s book The 10% Solution. I haven’t finished it yet—in fact I’ve misplaced it and trying to find it, not to mention that it takes me a loooooooong time to read writer-help books. But I did read the first few chapter and for my blog today want to give you a task that will make your book better and make you just a little bit smarter ☺

In Word (yes, I’m assuming everyone uses Word, if you don’t, then adjust to fit your word processing program.) Go to “Edit” and then click on “Find”. Type in the word “That” and hit “Find all” or “Highlight all items in main document”—what it should do is then tell you how any times you used the word “that” in your manuscript.

Do it, for real…

Are you surprised by the number of times that one word shows up in your text? I was. I had over 3,000. The book was 85,000 words, so “that” made up about 3% of my book. Wow. And “that” was only one of a whole list of ‘extra’ words the book suggested I look for.

The 10% solution is based upon the theory that when a book is done, its got 10% too much of quite a few things. The way you fix it is to take 10% of it out. This results in a tighter book. You waste less words, your description is clearer. Well, being the prodigy that I am (or a grammar idiot), I ended up cutting almost 40% of my “that”s. By going through one “that” sentence at a time I realized how many “that”s were wasted ones. For example

“It’s just that, that guy said…”

can be

“That guy said”

*not only did I get rid of a “that” I got rid of two other words and the context wasn’t changed. “That” should almost never be two in a row. It’s almost always not necessary.

…other than knowing that some things sound good and some don’t.

can be

…other than knowing some things sound good and some don’t.

It was the only thing that she could do.

Can be

It was the only thing she could do.

Notice that none of these sentences were harmed by taking out the “that”. Now, it’s not always the case. Some “That”s need to stay, but YOU need to know the difference between an extra “that” and a necessary one.

So open you document and run a check, see if you can cut out 10% and enjoy the tighter writing.

(how many “that”s are in this blog? I didn’t 10% it ☺)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Why join a critique group?

By Lu Ann Staheli

How would you like to start a critique group?” Stephanni asked.

I had been in a group before, and it had been a miserable experience. Filled with too many writers more interested in a social group than to work on writing skills, I soon discovered most attendees were unskilled at offering valuable commentary. My ego enjoyed hearing “I loved it,”even when I knew the writing needed work, but praise alone will never help anyone improve his or her writing. Frustrated, I left the group.

When Stephanni called, I knew she was a talented writer and editor. I needed motivation to complete those unfinished books on my hard drive. A successful critique group would give me reason to write, people to tell me if my stories needed work, and support and suggestions from other diligent writers. I said yes.

Years later, we are a tight-knit group of close friends who aren’t afraid to tell each exactly what a manuscript needs, beg for ideas only minutes before a final deadline, and give suggestions that make each manuscript ready for an acceptance letter.

The payoff has been huge for each of us: 14 published novels, 2 non-fiction texts, an optioned movie script, a variety of magazine articles, newspaper columns, and electronic media among us, plus a body of work still under construction as we continue to meet each week and critique away.

If you are serious about being published, find yourself a critique group, then get busy honing your skills. Remember, you attend to learn and grow, not to be patted on the back and told your writing is wonderful. Leave that task to your spouse or mother.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Miss Snark

By Precision Editor

Has anyone read her blog? Several of my author friends have recommended reading her stuff--she's a literary agent who tells it like it is.

Today she replied to a question from an author who is querying agents and publishers. She told them to stop querying the publishers and focus on the agents.

I agree to a point. But several authors I know found a publisher first, then an agent. Sometimes it's easier that way. Also an agent is more likely to sign you on if you have a contract pending. Who wouldn't? 10% of something is more than 10% of nothing.

In another blog (April 3, 2007), I recapped a presentation given by fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson. He also found a publisher before his agent signed him. Obviously there are some publishers who don't accept unagented submissions, so you can't query them. But be smart. Don't mass query publishers. If an agent does take you on, it wouldn't be good if all the publishers he/she wants to submit to have already rejected your work.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


By Precision Editor

By way of introduction, we are Precision Editing Group, comprised of five authors/editors who have come together to help others on their path to publishing. This blog is about YOU, not us. We want to talk about the things that you want to know, from writing and editing, to landing a publisher or agent. We are considering topics by request at: We offer everything from a basic line edit to ghost-writing. Mention this blog and you'll receive an additional 10% off our editing fees.