Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year - Now Get to Work!

Most writers hate synopsizing. There’s a meat-grinder aspect to the process of cutting your novel down to its essentials and yet not losing the spirit of the thing. (Constructing a synopsis also has a tendency to reveal the smallest structure flaw or missing character motivation in your novel – which is always discouraging if you think you’re done writing it.) Writing/publishing blogs and guides suggest a synopsis should be no more than 2 pages and should only refer to the 3-4 most important characters by name. As soon as you sit down that seems impossible. But I can't leave out the part about the car accident...and then there's the old lady -- she's an important character... And before you know it you have 4 pages of explanation rather than synopsis and your prized work sounds like the trashiest trash since Harold Robbins. (Wow, that reference really dates me.)
Having said all this, I have found a method of synopsizing which works for me and I thought I would share it. I use an Excel spreadsheet but you could do it longhand as well.
The first column I make is called “What Happens.” Under it, for each chapter, I note only the biggest event(s). I keep this very short – not even full sentences. For Part 3 of How to See the Elephant, the entire “What Happens” column reads:

T. crosses PA, OH with Sheba. Changes mind about S. Convinces S. to go on.

Part 3 is actually fairly long and has quite a bit of adventure. But that’s not what I’m trying to set down at this point. I’m trying to focus on the most important thing in Part 3, the event that underlies all the drama – and that’s the changing relationship between Thetis and Sheba.
The next column is “Drama.” Here I number the particular events and points of conflict in the chapter – basically what keeps the reader interested. For Part 3 I broke this down to:

1. T. decides to take S. for selfish reasons.
2. Conflict at Altoona and on train.
3. T. decides to abandon S.
4. Convent. S. defends self. T. dislikes but begins to respect.
5. Rejected. Peddler, Josiah, Cincinnati
6. Disappointment in C. S. breakdown. George. T. convinces S. to go on.
7. Boat to Louisville.

This pegs out for me the most important events, but even so it’s probably a little more detailed than it should be. That’s OK – I’ll make the decision on what to include/not include when I do the final column. Now, this is where it can get tricky. You may not use all the points you just listed. Likewise, you may want to introduce some introductory information. You may rewrite it a couple of times, moving stuff in and out. But keep it short and simple and stick to what you've outlined. When I come to actually write the sentences, I usually attach each one (or part of one) to the pertinent conflict point in the previous column. The final column for Part 3 is below. I've put the points from the previous column in brackets. Notice that I didn't end up using 1 and 2. I decided that neither was important enough to go in.

The two girls flee from Delaware to Ohio by train and on foot. Thetis wants to find her father, while Sheba, who has no experience of the world, simply wants to get away from Miss Veda. Sheba attracts attention everywhere for refusal to be treated differently from Thetis. Thetis, who finds Sheba spoiled and insufferable, decides to abandon her as soon as she decently can. [3] Travelling across Ohio over four days the two girls sleep out in the open, ride with a peddler, outrage the laws of hospitality and are nearly shot for chicken thieves. [4-5] A tense partnership emerges, with Thetis respecting Sheba while still not liking her. [4] In Cincinnati, where Thetis had hoped to get help, no riverboats are running and Louisville is rumored to be under Confederate attack. Sheba breaks down but Thetis persuades her the only thing she can do now is to go on. [6] The two girls find a boatman to take them downriver to Louisville, which is under military rule. [7]”

The above lines condense 21, 686 words and balance the underlying theme of the chapter with the actual events. Even so, I will rewrite it as it goes into the final document, condensing some of the longer sentences and redundancies and giving it a narrative flow. Ultimately, using this method, the synopsis for How to See the Elephant was under two pages and mentioned only the 4 most important characters.
I think the key here is keeping an eye on the bigger theme of the novel (in this case, what the two girls learn from each other) while not leaving out the smaller events (the ups and downs of the journey) which hold the reader’s attention. This method helps me find that balance. I thought I’d share it in case it helps somebody else.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Nice work Laura. Be proud!
I'll consider your methods when I tackle that dreaded synopsis.

Yvonne said...

Just thought I'd stop in....writing and gardening . . . that's what I do too! And the 2010 seed catalogues are arriving.

The art of the synopsis is a fine one indeed. I got mine down to ONE single-spaced page after much work. You're first my beloved novel sounded like trashy pulp so brutally condensed.

But the query, for me, was the harder to write.

Happy 2010.