Sunday, 17 November 2013

Writer's Wilderness

I’m in the writer’s wilderness. It’s that place when you’re not writing your main project, but need to get down to the nitty gritty other things involved if you want to get published. I need to get down to that query letter, and the two short story ideas I have bubbling away, waiting to become actual writing. I’m also in writer’s limbo, waiting to hear about my novel competition entry, my pitch for a feature article, my article on counselling and a poem that I have submitted to magazines.

Like all writers, I’m in it for the writing – the times when I can’t wait to get to the computer and spend every spare minute working away, with a clear task in mind and the creative juices flowing. The nitty-gritty stuff does not do that for me. It leaves me feeling that I’m in a wilderness between those true creative times when I feel that my brain is doing what it was created for. I’m sure it’s what T. S. Eliot meant when he said:

‘Ridiculous the waste, sad time
Stretching before and after.’

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

 All right that’s probably not what he meant, but at least I have shoe-horned one of my favourite ever quotes into this blog. Even if you get nothing else out of this post, you will have read that wonderful line and it will ring in your ears next time something so wonderful happens that everything before and after it seems unbearably mundane.

In my waste, sad time, in my wilderness/limbo (yes it’s tragic isn’t it?) I have been reviewing writing for other people – firstly an excellent query letter and first 30 pages from a dear friend in Hong Kong, which certainly left me wanting to read more.

Secondly, a brilliant first novel by a writer who I discovered through blogging. Below is a brief summary and my Amazon review. Buy this book – I really enjoyed it and was gripped and pleasurably frightened thoughout.

Krakow, 1585
Summoned by the King of Poland to help save his dying niece, Edward Kelley and his master, alchemist and scholar Dr John Dee, discover a dark secret at the heart of the Countess Bathory's malady. But perhaps the cure will prove more terrifying than the alternative...
England, 2013
Jackdaw Hammond lives in the shadows, a practitioner and purveyor of occult materials. But when she learns of a young woman found dead on a train, her body covered in arcane symbols, there's no escaping the attention of police consultant, Felix Guichard. Together they must solve a mystery centuries in the making, or die trying.

Rebecca Alexander has produced a blend of fantasy, historical and crime genres in this chilling, fast-paced novel. The story, of Edward Kelly in the past and Jackdaw and Felix in the present, grips the reader from the very outset and the pace never lets up after that. There were times when I thought, ‘right, they’re going to do a bit of sleuthing now and things will slow down’, but then the ever-present sense of jeopardy would explode into the foreground once more and the tension would be ratcheted up another notch. I am not usually someone who enjoys fantasy as a genre, but I found more than enough here in the themes of theological orthodoxy and heresy, love, loss, life, death and everything in between to keep me engaged, and the author’s examination of just what lengths we might go to in order to keep a loved one alive were particularly haunting. Having been led to expect a mix of three genres, I also found effective touches of horror; there are moments in the novel that are truly terrifying, and when I stayed up one night to finish it, it gave me nightmares. This in my view can only be a good thing, since a story that looks so long and hard at the boundaries between life and death, and our reactions to them, should fascinate and disturb as this one does. A really accomplished debut from Rebecca Alexander; if there is another one to follow, I will be first in the queue to read it.

That’s all from the wilderness. I’m going away to think of a way of getting, ‘Time held me golden and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea’ into my next post.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Great Tips for Writing Your Synopsis (in Which I Also Get Query Letter Envy)

Thanks to

The reason I dreaded writing the synopsis for my novel is that it is much too much like work, and not enough like writing. I love finding time to write, sitting down and letting the creating juices flow, or if I’m at the revising the revision stage as I have been lately, letting my nit-picking instincts ... well, pick nits. In my day job as a book editor, I love editing books but huff, puff and procrastinate when I need to write marketing copy. This reluctance stems from a similar root to my synopsis writing anxiety – the worry is that, if the book you are editing or the novel you are writing doesn’t come out sounding lip-smackingly irresistible, it may be because there is something lacking in the product itself – and you really don’t want to be discovering this at the copy-writing stage, when you have already invested a lot of hard work. This is why many novelists write a synopsis at an early stage, and revise it as they go along; and it’s why as book publishers, we write marketing copy when a new book is being proposed, then refine the vision for the book at an acquisitions meeting, and finally create a book to fit the glowing write-up with which we started.

When I sent an earlier draft of my novel, Unspeakable Things, to a consultant, one of the first things she asked for was a synopsis, and her strong recommendation was to access the free downloadable workshop on synopsis writing from Mslexia Magazine. I could not agree more; there are several great workshops here, and when I could put off synopsis writing no longer, I turned to this one:

The workshop explains exactly what the synopsis is for, who will be reading it and when. There is great advice on layout, structure and contents. What’s really good, though, is that the workshop takes you through an unthreatening series of exercises, and when you have completed them all, declares – there you go, put that together with that, add these bits where needed, and you’ve got a workable draft for your synopsis.

I launched in and soon found myself writing a 25 word ‘elevator pitch’ or summary paragraph for Sleeping Beauty, Pride and Prejudice, and a film of my choice. Here’s what I wrote – you have to guess what film is is (it’s my favourite – answer at the end of this post).

Thanks to:

 Here’s what I wrote:

  •      ‘A princess is cursed by a bad fairy to sleep for 100 years until a lover awakes her with a kiss.’
  •      ‘A lively, intelligent woman is annoyed by a fascinating man, but his pride and her family’s shame keep them apart, until a crisis unites them.’
  •       ‘A kind psychiatrist has failed a suicidal man and must redeem himself by helping a sensitive boy who is constantly terrified by visions of ghosts.’

I then had to write a 25 word summary for my own novel, including, if possible, the main character, his or her main quest of challenge, his or her main obstacle and the main setting. This was probably the biggest challenge, but the warm-up exercise had got me thinking hard about what the key elements of a story are, and made me assess my novel in a useful, summarising way. My summary paragraph went through at least six drafts as I worked out what was the really central dilemma driving my main character and plot. I settled on:
  •          ‘Pregnant editor Sarah is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Is the family secret darker still?’

When I had completed the draft of the synopsis, I had a few words to spare, so went back and refined it further to:

  •        ‘Pregnant editor, SARAH, is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Sarah must discover the family’s dark secret before her baby is born.’

Having dreaded writing the synopsis, I found myself enjoying it, fascinated by the process of cutting through to the very essence of the story and laying it bare. I hope the synopsis will be needed because I’m hoping that the judges of the Mslexia Novel Competition will want to see it, along with the whole novel. If not – gulp –  I’ll at least have a strong synopsis to send out to agents. And I’ll be looking up Mslexia’s advice on writing the opening pages, and the query letter...

With all this going on, I also agreed to read and assess a friend’s combined query letter/synopsis for her first novel – yes, can you imagine, she has been advised that US agents want the query letter and synopsis squashed into one page! Have they no attention span?! It was when reading my friend’s writing credits that I became distracted by what I can only call query letter envy. My friend has writing credits. She has had short stories and essays published in a Hong Kong-based anthology, and in a book about expat women in Asia. Having written for most of my life, novels and screenplays and poetry (as a teenager), for the most part my writing hours –  weeks, well let’s be honest, years – have been spent crafting long, much rewritten works that have not seen the publishing light of day.

 I realise that I have to put this right. I was asked to write an article for a counselling organisation’s magazine, but never quite got round to it – well, I have written it now, and hope they still want it. I have written an article on coping with OCD in the family – I’ll be looking for a support website to send that to. A screenplay I wrote would make a good short story. I will pitch an article to Mslexia Magazine, and write a poem for their latest theme, Troubled Minds. My mind is buzzing with ideas – that workshop helped me get my synopsis out there, now my query letter needs to sparkle like my friend’s!

With thanks to
The answer to the film synopsis quiz was of course, The Sixth Sense.