How to Write a Synopsis – Notes


The Literary Consultancy (TLC) were good enough to write about how to write a synopsis and cover letter. Here are my notes on what was written:

  • Synopsis definition: ‘a brief description of the contents of something’
  • Purpose: “to inform a literary agent or publisher of the type of book you are writing/have written in a concise, appealing fashion”
  • Submissions to agents and publishers should include a “cover letter, synopsis and sample chapters” rather than a whole work
  • A synopsis demonstrates that you know your story and that it is clear, persuasive or gripping
  • think of the project as an enjoyable literary exercise and an opportunity to show your work off in its essential form
  • For examples, refer to book blurbs or plot summaries in reference books or on Wikipedia
  • A synopsis should demonstrate where your work fits into the market. Think of marketing ‘hooks’ or current hot topics
  • A “fiction synopsis should comprise a brief summary followed by a more detailed synopsis”
  • But before this, know which genre you are writing in
  • Begin with a brief summary of 30–75 words (like you would see on the back of a book) to whet the appetite
  • Follow this with a more detailed synopsis of 350–450 words, but not a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown
  • Give “a detailed overview which clearly and concisely conveys how the story flows and unfolds and […] what is interesting about it”
  • Confirm when the story is set, the setting/background, the central and other pivotal characters, the dramatic turning points and any other salient information
  • The cover letter should be economically written and confident sounding
  • Address a well-researched literary agent by name
  • Say you are enclosing the synopsis of a book called ‘[title]’, which is a [genre] novel
  • Refer to writers you feel you are similar to
  • “If you have something interesting to say about yourself, such as that you have won a writing competition or published before in relevant publications, do include this briefly in the cover letter”
  • “Whilst it is worth spending time ensuring you have a good, short, confident cover letter, synopsis and it is important to stress that there is nothing as important to an editor than the quality of your writing and your ability to sustain the interest of a reader in the main body of the text.”

Note to self – next step: write the synopsis and cover letter.


Connecting with the Earth – a Workshop

Creative Writing UK BK Eco Retreat 29 – 31 March 2019 at Worthing

“Creative Writing UK BK Eco Retreat 29 – 31 March 2019 at Worthing. Our final session of the day was with Robert and showed us how we can use creative writing to discover our own inner ‘genius’ and connect with the Earth.”

I stood, and sometimes sat crosslegged, in front of a dozen or so people and did the same thing I always do at short workshops. I told them that there are two ways to write: planning and pantsing and that I’m a panstser so that’s what we’re going to do today. A planner plans out what they’re going to do before they write and a pantser just makes it up as they go along.

The raison d’etre for this is that if a writer can switch off their critical facilities for long enough, they can just write down the words that their unconscious processes suggest, in much the same way as word-association games works.

To demonstrate this, I took the group through a warm-up exercise that involved me supplying a seed-word and then, going around the room, the next person just saying the first word that came into their head. I suggested to them that if there was any hesitation in this it meant that they were using the conscious processes (the ones that planners use) and that these were what we were trying to circumvent. After a few rounds, they started to get the hang of it and got quicker. It was time to move to phase two.

The next exercise involved each member of the group drawing a mind-map using a seed-word of their choice. They got five minutes to do this, which involved writing one word in the middle of a piece of paper, four words that they associated with this word around it, then a further three associated words for each of the four. In all, we ended up with seventeen words each.

Their challenge then was to, individually, use all of their words in a story, that could be as long or short as they liked, but they only got ten minutes to complete it. This meant that they had to do it, as much as possible, without thinking. The instructions were to just write a word and they write whatever next word that popped into their head. Everyone, without exception, completed a story within the ten minutes.

I asked them then to think a little and then extract an affirmation from their story that they could take away and use. We then went around the room and people shared their stories.

With only one exception, everyone shared. It was surprising the variety of styles that people drew on: functional, short, long, flowery, metaphorical, terse, lyrical etc. But, whatever the style, they were all totally on target for the theme of the weekend: eco-friendship.

It was a fun way to spend an hour. I got to get people to enjoy themselves and write stories about making the world a better place. What’s not to like!

The Future of Fiction (what I think)

In the future, writers will be able to choose their own readers, and it will be an informed choice. Maureen Freely and John O’Brien have announced that publishers have declared that readers are only willing to spend money on commercial fiction and that’s that. So, if you are content to write for money, then write commercial fiction and if you wish to write for love, then write literary fiction (or whatever you fancy).

But is that all there is? Do we have to choose penury or profit, or is there a third gate; a middle way?

Call me an optimist, but I believe that there is. I’m one of those guys that believe that if we carry on the way we are, this one-and-only jewel of a planet will die, that social systems will collapse, that economies will slump and that aliens will eat us for breakfast. Unless … and this is what I really, really believe in … tech saves us.

I think that as well as saving Earth, society, economies and mankind from alien depredations, future technology will save the publishing industry.

Imagine the best features of a novel combined with the benefits of movies. Imagine intelligent, no, wait … imagine conscient software that will run, not just on hardware platforms such as computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, watches and other wearable computers, but on wetware. And by that, I mean we will be able to install it on our brain using self-organising nano-based chipsets that are capable of migrating to your neural pathways via either the optic nerve or the auditory pathway – your choice.

And here’s what this software will do. It’ll convert the book you’re reading into a movie. In short, you will be able to see the words transform themselves into pictures before your very eyes. At a stroke, the film industry will be dead; television will be the domain of Luddites and as for radio … well, as any fule kno: video killed it long, long ago.

Of course, in the initial stages, writers may have to adapt their prose to the new medium. Whilst software is still in the mere intelligent phase, it will be able to do little with tosh such as this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
(Jane Austen, 1813)

I mean, what kind of imagery can any intelligence derive from such limp and lethargic language? On the other hand, the following (first paragraph of the) masterpiece that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will have intelligent and conscient beings (software based and otherwise) rubbing their little hand/tentacles together with glee and painting such pictures as would make Da Vinci blush for shame:

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
(Douglas Adams, 1978)

And, best of all, the brain-chip version of the software, due to its ability to access the 90% of the brain that’s currently unused and alter your consciousness and perception of time in the process, will be able to render to you an entire novel within your tea break. In fact (and don’t tell your boss this) you’ll be able to read novels while you’re working. I mean, who’s going to be able to tell!

So, there you have it, the future of the publishing industry: everyone writes like Douglas Adams for an audience of nano-chipped readers who will be able to ‘read’ whilst sitting, slack-jawed in their own living room. I, for one, can’t wait. How about you?

The Future of Fiction (part two)

In 2012, Maureen Freely wrote:

The Strange Case of the Reader and the Invisible Hand

In 2019, I say, in reply, that Maureen writes well and in a way that interests me. She speaks of the future of literary (as opposed to commercial) publishing in such a way that I think she is saying that there isn’t one.

She then said that UK readers are looking for books with a strong narrative that has echoes of the latest prize-winner, that are not philosophical novels (ones that have more speculation than plot), are hard-edged thrillers with multiple murders in the first page, psychological thrillers with a female (rather than a male) lead, are stories packed with exotic sights, sounds and smells and are novels that race to a dramatic conclusion that confirms their (the reader’s) world-view; in other words – commercial novels. So if you happen to be a literary writer, what are you going to do?

Then she rounds it all up by asking us to imagine what more we, as writers, could do if we could cast off the chains of the reader. Well, I say hurrah for Maureen and hurrah for the seductive enthusiasm of optimists.

The Future of Fiction (part one)

In 1996, John O’Brien wrote

31 Questions and Statements about the Future of Literary Publishing, Bookstores, Writers, Readers and Other Matters

In 2019, I have this to say:

You’re full of falafel, Mr O’Brien. When you say that people are falling out of love with literature and books and that publishers will no longer be able to support those forms of fiction that make little money then you’re right, but only if publishing stands still.

We won’t stand still. We’ll move on to other forms of writing that are disseminated in different ways. Instead of books and screens that try to imitate books, we’ll have the software and hardware that make reading a book as easy and enjoyable as watching the movie version.

I’ll tell you more about it later, but believe me – it’ll be good.

Interview with Robert about Experimental Fiction

Q. So, Robert, now that you’ve come to the end of the experimental fiction chapter and completed all the exercises, I wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions?

R. Surely.

Q. Here we go then: has your attitude to your work changed?

R. This chapter has taught me that, although it’s fine to push back the frontiers of literature, it’s also worth bearing a few things in mind. The first thing is that if you’re going to experiment it’s good to equip your reader with the ability to make the journey with you. The best experiments don’t just blindly go where no writer has gone before and expect others to follow, they lay a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can both be followed (in terms of being read and being emulated) and be able to make their way back home. There’s nothing worse than going out on a limb only to find that it is too thin to support you. It’s necessary to know what path you have taken and be able to make your way back home afterwards. This can take the form of being able to experiment one day and write a conventional story the next day. Or it can be in terms of knowing the methodology of your experiment so that you can repeat it in the future and, more importantly, other writers can too. (in experimental methodology, reproducibility means an independent researcher should be able to replicate the experiment, under the same conditions, and achieve the same results) A second thing I have learned is that it’s good not to tick too many people off with your experiments. For example, I spent a couple of hours this afternoon writing an experimental piece about the Hillsborough Disaster. I made the mistake of treating the subject flippantly. This doesn’t work unless you can show that the humour has some purpose; something that helps heals or transforms the situation.

Q. Hmm; deep. Thanks for that. Will you incorporate any of the experimental approaches you’ve tried out into your work in future?

R. I think that I already incorporate experimental approaches into my work. It’s just that I do it so inexpertly that they’re indistinguishable from the ravings of a madman. Not that I have anything against madmen, mind, it’s just that I need to learn more about the art and craft of experimenting than this chapter has taught me. Still, I have some avenues that I can explore. Practising is one. Reading more contemporary experimental fiction is another. I have a long way to go here before I practice with any kind of competence.

Q. Appreciate your thoughts. What have you learned from reading and critiquing your fellow students’ experiments?

R. There’s a great mix of talent here on this course and this is brought sharply into focus for me by this chapter. Some, like me, need more practice, but others have mastered the art of experimental fiction. It’s actually quite illuminating to critique someone’s work. It shows me how well I’ve absorbed the teachings and it allows me to see more clearly what I need to do to improve. Exemplars are very useful, whether they follow the criteria in the teachings or not. I specifically have learned that it’s important to follow instructions closely when completing exercises and that punctuation, sentence length and even genre style make big differences in how a piece of writing is interpreted/perceived.

Q. And finally: how might this feed into your critical and reflective writing?

R. I find that the more critiques I do, the easier they get. The more I reflect on any kind of writing, whether it be that of established authors, that of fellow students and even my own work, the more insight I get into the process of writing. TMA03, in particular, was a huge learning experience for me. For perhaps the first time in my life I read (and reread) books whilst thinking consciously how specific effects were achieved. I don’t think I did a particularly good job of the TMA, but I still took a lot of benefit from doing it. It’s strange, but I find that I can either read a story for the enjoyment of it, or reading it whilst thinking how it works, but I can’t do both at the same time. I would like to know how to do both simultaneously. Any tips? Anyone?

Q. Well, thank you, Robert, for your thoughtful and illuminating replies to my questions. I’m sure our readers will join me in saying that it truly is worth reflecting on the things we have learned.

R. Thank you; I’m sure you’re right.

Disconnected Narratives

There’s a certain kind of literature that doesn’t behave normally. It doesn’t have a plot arc, the characters don’t do things that advance the story and time doesn’t go from past to future. Instead, things jump about, often without there being a connection between one scene and the next, or one event and another. This literature is called experimental.

Historically, people used to write books that reflected reality. Then someone decided that reality was too difficult so people started to write books about what they thought reality was. Then this got boring so people wrote books about people writing books about what people thought reality was. Then they got confused and wrote books about people finding that writing books about people who don’t understand the way that people write books about the state of the world was a little too recherché and so they went back to writing trite poems about weevils.

And so here we are:

I am a weevil
My name is Bill
I don’t like top hats
And neither would she.

But seriously. Could I use the kind of disconnected narratives that I find in stories like Lipskybound by Lindsay Barrett, ‘Three Stories About Love’ by Anne Enright, Speedboat by Renate Adler or The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson? My answer is: only if I lose faith in life being a connected and coherent experience.

Authors who find that life is confusing will either write stories about being lost in confusion or about trying to make sense of that confusion. I prefer the latter because I think of life as being what we make it.

If I want life to be one big experiment where all bets are off, boundaries disintegrate, people are lost in their own selfish individuality and all the gods are dead or dying then that’s what I’ll write. But I happen to think that the world’s a better place for putting something more heartwarming into it. So that’s what I’m going to do. What about you?