November 8, 2008

There's More to Writing than Writing

There's More to Writing than Writing
By Dorinda Ohnstad

When I started out writing my novel, I didn’t give any thought to what it took to be a published novelist beyond a good plot, strong characters and realistic dialogue. The rest was supposed to fall into place once I got the damn thing done. But as I have drawn closer to finishing my first novel, I’ve become all too aware of what it takes to get published. Not a pretty picture. There’s the query letter, which made my stomach queasy, but I lived through it; chapter-by-chapter outlines, pure drudgery; the pitch, still yet to be conquered but doable; but then, there is the dreaded synopsis that potentially stands in the way of your masterpiece seeing the light of day.

Marketable manuscript or not, it doesn’t matter if you can’t get an agent or publisher to want to read it. So like it or not I had to suck it up and learn how to write a strong synopsis. I just finished spending the last two weeks in an online WriterU master class on synopsis writing taught by Laurie Schnebly Campbell. (As an aside, I highly recommend the class.) Together with ten other writers I struggled to break down my novel into four double-spaced pages.

Easy you say? I thought so before I tried my hand at crafting an effective synopsis. (After all it’s not difficult to write a bad synopsis; I should know I’ve written quite a few in my efforts to master the art of writing one well.) I’ve practiced law for years; that’s easy compared to this task. They were the most difficult four pages I’ve ever attempted to write. (Yes attempt, as I still haven’t honed it into a synopsis that I would actually send to an agent or publisher.) Writing never felt like such hard work before. Don’t get me wrong; writing a novel is no easy task. That’s why years after I started my book, it’s still a work in progress. But this was different.

One benefit of the course was learning that I’m not alone in finding writing a synopsis torturous. None of my fellow workshop participants found working on their synopsis a walk in the park. We all struggled to boil down our story to its basic elements, while at the same time attempting to make it sound like a story an agent or publisher would want to read. And did I mention that you have to do that in four pages—or less? I think that is what made it so challenging for all of us. A good book has a complicated plot and subplots, complex characters with internal and external conflict, and a distinct author voice. So how do you take what makes a book good and strip it down to its bare bones and still have something that sounds like a story readers would want to read? I think you get the picture. It's damn hard.

As my workshop came to an end this weekend, it finally struck me that ultimately it really is my manuscript that will determine whether I get published or not. My synopsis isn’t synonymous with the story I want readers to read. It is merely a tool of the publishing trade that’s needed to save agents and publishers time. I can’t blame them for not wanting to read entire manuscripts to determine whether there’s a story they are interested in. Who has that kind of time? Not me, and certainly not an agent or publisher. A synopsis helps them to narrow the field to only those stories that they truly are interested in. That means that when my synopsis triggers an agent or publisher to request my manuscript I know that not only will they read it, but that they want to read it.

So now, instead of seeing my synopsis as an evil, I have come to realize that ultimately it is my best friend. If my synopsis is good enough (that’s right it doesn’t have to be the best synopsis in the history of publishing) to get my manuscript in the door, it means that the agent or publisher who is reading my manuscript likes my plot and has an interest in the book itself. My writing will speak for itself, but it will now be read with a different motivation than it would if it was simply picked up out of the slush pile and read cold.

So while writing your synopsis may not be a pleasurable experience for you as well, take heart in that it is your ticket into the publishing world and worth the effort to do it well. And if, like me, you need some extra help, or motivation, there is help out there whether it’s WriterU ( or elsewhere. Just take the plunge; I guarantee you won't drown even if it may feel like you might.

Care to share your synopsis tips or just share your pain? I always like to know I'm not alone.

Labels: , ,


At November 9, 2008 at 3:53 PM , Blogger Josephine Damian said...

Dorinda: I had synopsis pain in stereo this week since I was at the Donald Maass workshop.

I said in the yahoo group that I have to completely re-group by re-doing syn. more from the male character's story line than the female's since he's the more appealing character.

Lessons learned, but I know agents use our syn's as marketing tools, so they are a necessary evil.

Best of luck!

Cool blog. I'll give you some link love in JD Land when I get a chance.

At January 8, 2009 at 7:31 AM , Blogger June Rodriguez said...

I'm not looking forward to this required writing assignment. But at least now I feel more confident about the purpose of it and how it is a truly helpful tool to attract the right attention.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home