Query Time!


(alternatively titled “Synopses Suck”)

With the second draft of Ciphers complete and safe (probably) in the hands of my five wonderful beta readers, I decided to pass the week with a focus on agents, query letters, and finally writing that dreaded synopsis.

You know how there are some tasks you forget to do in a kind-of-accidentally-on-purpose way?

Not all agents require a synopsis. For the initial contact, some want only a one-page query letter. Some ask for the first few pages of the novel along with that. But that doesn’t mean synopses can just be slapped together for those agents who do want one. In fact, if novelists had their own version of Dante’s Hell, one of the rings would surely have synopsis-writing as the punishment.

Okay, May. This won’t be so hard. At least, not as hard as with Lavender. Ciphers is only half the length, and of much higher quality…

Some synopsis-wanting agents will be specific about how many pages it should be, usually one or two. But if not you’ll just have to go by the general rule of thumb, as told to you by… Google?

Synopsis-writing Rule #1: There is no rule about length.

So what Google tells us is that you are squashing an elephant into a sardine can in the most artful way possible. Some authorities say one or two pages for the whole novel; some say one or two pages for every hundred novel pages. The other option is to trust that what holds true for some agents will hold true for others. From my agency webpage searches, synopses of “no more than two pages” seem to be preferred, when there is a preference stated. The danger in this is that every agent is different.

So, in the end, you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart. Personally, I wanted to stick with the two page limit and just hope it didn’t drive me mad. That will work fine for most agents, including several who specified two pages… Not so much for that one agent demanding a single page. Which means that regardless, I’m writing at least two variations of a synopsis.

As we say in Korea… 헐.

Once you’ve set your limit, it’s time to decide what to include. With a 200-page novel, there’ll only be room for the really important stuff — the plot skeleton, picked clean of any literary flourishes, details, and character depth. A cold outline serving no other purpose than to tell the agent/editor what happens, whether it’s interesting, and whether your plot carries through. Right?

“Maybe reading it this way will make it less boring.”

Synopsis-writing Rule #2: Your synopsis must convey plot, voice, and character development.

When I finished my first novel and learned of the wretched existence of the synopsis, I found a lot of advice on the web that told me to forget about everything except for the hard facts. “Explain what happens, caps lock each character’s name the first time you use it, and for god’s sake don’t finish with a teaser.”

Yes, explain what happens. Yes, spoil the ending. Erm, I don’t think anyone wants to see characters’ names in caps lock anymore. But make sure you have this perspective: agents and editors only have so much time to allot each submission. Therefore they have to limit what they see, and make a snap decision based on that little sample. You can have an engaging query letter and a sample of pages that scream with potential, but if the essence of your writing doesn’t carry through in your synopsis, whoever’s reading can and will forget about everything else that makes your submission great.

Imagine Terry Pratchett writing a synopsis that reads like a Tolstoy. The agent would probably think, “okay, this is the usual epic fantasy; but what’s with all these inappropriate place and character names?”

Ciphers is written from two main 3rd-person points of view: Siph’s and Bridget’s. Our hero is cynical, short-tempered, and articulate, while Brid is uncertain, stubborn, and loves lingo. Oh holy Hell how am I supposed to convey that in only a page or two? It would be nice if I could just state it; but then the synopsis would remain dry and lacking any real voice.

What the Internet would have me write: “Siph is a short-tempered cynic. Bridget is a tomboy. Siph resents having to observe Bridget.”

What will actually impress agents: “Siph is glad to finally be allowed outside headquarters; not so glad to be stuck with the idiotic Gard for his partner, or to be baby-sitting a tomboy with a skateboard.”

Much better… but look at how long it is!

This is where you fall into the Pit of Synopsis Despair only to land on the Giant Hamster Wheel of Cyclical Editing. Take your dry, voiceless words and pretty them up. Then it’s time to hack them down again to meet your page limit. By the time you’ve removed all the “unnecessary” words, it’s a skeleton again.

And you keep on dressing up and cutting down, over and over, for that little sliver of a chance that before you go mad you might look up from your work and find yourself with something presentable…

And that is why synopses suck.

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Ciphers Update and the Importance of Character Motivation


Where have I been lately? Just the usual: recovering from pneumonia, getting shuttled all over Cheollanamdo for Chuseok, sinking to my knees in Korean mudflats in search of snails to fry up in their shells, chatting with my host mom’s good-looking 27-year-old brother, watching the family pull bee larvae out of their honeycomb and eat them, getting ready to move this afternoon…

I am a horrible blogger. XD

But I’m trying not to be a horrible novelist. Once again, it is Friday afternoon and I find myself at Cafe Vill, working on Ciphers. I have just under two months until my self-appointed deadline of a query-ready manuscript, and while I haven’t been able to work on the novel half as much as I would have liked, I still have hope that I can actually make this deadline. Especially now that I’ve wizened up and remembered I have Writerly Tricks up my sleeve!

In a nutshell, my lack of productivity has been more due to being overwhelmed than anything. At first I thought the last six or so chapters of the book would need a horrendous amount of rewriting. I figured out a way to avoid that (which also happens to strengthen the villain’s character a lot) but have still been procrastinating because…

Monday: Ugh. Really? I’m too tired for so much thinking today. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Tuesday: Four classes. In a row. Sorry, novel.

Wednesday: What novel?

Thursday: Zzzzz…

Friday: Hey, I think I got this! Blog time!

I know, I know. But I promise this post is going somewhere!

Because there was a scene in there I REALLY couldn’t stand, in which one character used a kind of emotional hypnosis (“psychic persuasion”) to make another character do something. It was random, illogical, and — I realized — a total cheat. I was just avoiding letting the hypnotized character be responsible for his own actions, because I didn’t have a good reason why he would actually choose them.

In other words, I’d completely overlooked that character’s motivation.

And I couldn’t figure out a motivation strong enough to make him do what was necessary.

Solution: revisit this. My own plotting technique. I almost kicked myself for forgetting about it. Even though it’s such a simple guideline, it’s really an awesome tool for me because, as a scatterbrained author, I need the organization. Using this template forces me to break complex plot lines into individual events, and then break the events down into five very simple parts: task, motivation, method, obstacles, outcome.

I won’t get into more detail because that’s what the linked post is all about. But I will say that using the guideline I spent all of five minutes on my motivation problem before figuring out what would finally get the character to move, and exactly how that would affect the outcome.

Five minutes. After hours of dithering and weeks of cringing at that scene thinking “this needs to change” and then marking it to work on later.

In conclusion, don’t forget the motivation!

The Major Issue with the Hunger Games Movie


Or, “How I Procrastinate on Studying for My Exit Exams”

I try to remain open-minded when a book or story I like makes it to Hollywood. I’m much less likely than my friends to rip on the movie for not being wholly accurate or for a few instances of silly acting.

That being said, I actually enjoyed the Hunger Games when I saw it last weekend. Jennifer Lawrence and Elizabeth Banks were spot on, and I love how they showed a little bit of the game control room. I thought that making Seneca Crane a bigger player was great for his character. And thank god, they did Rue right! Some of my friends were much harder on it for the changes that were made — changing the significance of the Mockingjay pin, cutting out small events that really affect character development — but while I can agree that I wasn’t happy with those things, either, they weren’t complete deal breakers for me.

BUT. There was a deal breaker.

I’ve been a writer for more than a decade now. (I’ve known I wanted to publish since eighth grade.) More importantly, I’ve been a reader since before I can remember. So while I may not be able to do basic math problems or explain the political causes of high gas prices during an election year, I do know something about how to tell a story.

A GOOD story.

Now, the Hunger Games movie does achieve some good story-telling. Most of the scenes in the arena were done really well — I’ll give it a check mark for “good action story.”

Good suspense story.

Good coming-of-age story.

Hell, good socio-political commentary.

NOT a good love story. And I mean love on any level. In the book, we know that Katniss loves her sister, but can’t bring herself to forgive her mom or to love anyone else. Now, let’s forget, for the moment, about the whole bread scene — which lacked all the context that made it important!!! — and focus on the cave scene. It’s clear that Katniss likes Peeta, but until this scene she refuses to let herself get close to him. And even then, she won’t admit her feelings to herself. In the book, we can clearly see the difference between

1) Katniss making the audience believe she’s in love with Peeta,

2) Katniss actually beginning to fall in love with Peeta, and

3) Katniss making herself believe she is not in love with Peeta.

This triad makes the cave scene one of the most important moments of character development in the whole novel. And yet somehow in the movie the whole scene just looks like a big jumble of “OMG Peeta suddenly I LURV you!” with 1 and 2 smashed together and none of the subtlety of 3.

In fact it’s SO bad that we don’t even get the gut punch at the end of the movie when Peeta realizes she’s just been ACTING all this time, and Katniss realizes HE’S not been. In fact, as far as the audience can tell, they’re a couple… Maybe? There may be a sense that something is off, or I could just be perceiving tension that isn’t there because I know it should be. In any case, the development of Katniss as a human being and an adult with romantic emotions just doesn’t seem happen, and that whole internal struggle gets left out. And guess what that means for Peeta’s character? He doesn’t get one. He effectively becomes an Object.

Again, this may just be me, but it looks like Twishite tropes are worming their way into the Hollywood subconscious.

At this point, I can’t think of a way this bad story-telling can be fixed in the second movie. As a friend of mine said, it’s not even a time issue; thirty seconds here and there can do a LOT for character development, and the movie wouldn’t be that much longer. And if it is? Take one more action that can make this a better love story: cut out the random shots of Gale. Because, frankly, those should have been shots of Prim — you know, the only person Katniss is sure she loves? The one she sacrificed herself for in her first defining scene as a character?

I’m not saying that fixing these bits would have made the movie perfect, but it definitely would have been far better. As it was, I left the theater thinking that a good job had been done, but also that there was just something off. And I’m willing to bet that even viewers who haven’t read the book felt that, too. That’s exactly what happens with bad storytelling: everything seems alright on a technical level but there’s just something you can’t put your finger on.

What do you think, lovely readers? Have you seen the movie/read the book/both? I’d love to hear your opinions!

A Plotting Technique: Cause and Effect in 5 Steps


Today’s been a long day and I refuse to look at anything having to do with work right now. I’ve also been meaning to post this technique I came up with for a while now — ergo, productivity without the brain damage. 🙂

I’ve mentioned a few times here that for Smoldering, I forced myself to complete an entire outline before writing any further than the second chapter. And oh, it has made writing so, so much easier. There were still some points, however, that until recently had been giving me trouble, and one in particular that had gotten too convoluted even in the outline. For more than a week, this one scene had me at a standstill every time I tried to write. And when you have as little writing time as I do, that can get very frustrating, very fast.

Eventually I realized that the problem was cause and effect — character motivation and subsequent actions.

But there were a few more components to it than that.

After playing around a little (while waiting during my lunch break for a student who never showed up), I finally settled on five key subjects that can be addressed, with quite beneficial results. They are:

Task
Motivation
Method
Obstacles
Outcome

Task is what the character is supposed to do, whether by their own volition or because of external forces. This can be a decision they have to make or an assignment they must complete; something trivial or something important; something that’s over in a second, or something that takes the whole book to accomplish. Let’s say, for instance, that my character Cipher’s task is to observe candidates for his organization’s new linguist position. It may be more intricate in reality, but this phrasing captures the heart of the task.

Next comes Motivation. Why does he want to do it? Even if he’s not thrilled about babysitting random people, if he at least attempts to complete the task then there is some reason for it. Maybe your character has no other choice: they’re being threatened, or controlled some other way. In this context, that still counts as Motivation. In Cipher’s case, going out into the world for any purpose gives him greater freedom than he normally has — and if there’s one main thing Cipher wants throughout the novel, it’s freedom.

Once we know the why, we can look at the how. Method is, along with Outcome, the most elastic variable in the set. It can refer to a physical method (“with a gun and a good poker face”), an attitude (“nonchalant on the surface, stomach in knots”), specific actions the character does (“charging in blindly, almost getting killed, and finally bluffing his way out”), or any combination there-of. Depending on what you already know of your plot, Method might take up a line or a page. I prefer to keep it simple, myself, but it’s really a matter of preference. Since I already know that Cipher is just reluctantly tagging along with his partner, for the write-up I just added that his  attitude is “serious yet sardonic,” as revealed by their interactions.

I haven’t come up with a Task yet that doesn’t have at least one Obstacle staring the character down. (I see this as a good thing, indicative of strong writing, but that’s another blog post altogether.) Again, Obstacle can be as little as a single, insignificant vexation or doubt, or as complex as a dozen potentially fatal trials, just as long as it fits the Task. Poor Cipher’s Obstacle is that he’s got a pair of crazy, murderous twin stalkers after him, and they find him.

Last, we consider the Outcome. If we take everything that’s come before, and everything we know about the character, what must inevitably happen? So Cipher craves freedom and is even willing to play babysitter for a taste of it, he’s humorless and a little mean and is terrified because he already knows who is trying to find him. On top of that, his stalkers pop up just when Cipher and his partner are about to make contact with a particular candidate.

So what does he do?

This is where you need to be particularly careful that you’re not just writing for the sake of plot. If the Outcome doesn’t naturally follow the other four variables AND your character’s personality, then scrap it and think of one that does. Once I had all of these things organized for myself it was really easy to see that this very thing was the reason my inner writer’s voice had shut down: the Outcome I was working toward just didn’t make sense when considering the Motivation, in particular.

Even if it needs to be fixed, Outcome is very flexible in terms of how you can write it. Because it’s so open-ended, I’ve used anything from the binary “pass/fail” to very specific conclusions. Also, the Outcome of one set, unless it is the final event in your book, should naturally feed into the Task of the next. In other words, “Cipher is forced to escape, dragging Bridget back to headquarters with him” as an Outcome will have its own consequences and thus will set in motion the next set with something like “Task: pass the linguist exam and get officially hired” for Bridget.

While any more on that would be a spoiler, here’s the main example in its entirety, as well as a not-as-spoilery one for Bridget.

Cipher
Task: observe and report on linguist candidates
Motivation: gets him out of the Hub (freedom)
Method: serious yet sardonic
Obstacles: the twins find him
Outcome: has to take Bridget back to the Hub

Bridget
Task: get an internship with an applied linguist
Motivation: proving herself (to herself)
Method: paper application, all-nighters
Obstacles: the deadline
Outcome: failure

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