Posts Tagged ‘conferences’

Conquering the dreaded synopsis

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

I hate writing synopses. It’s so difficult to distill a 200-plus-word novel into two succinct pages or less without sucking the life out of it. I recently had to write a synopsis of my current novel, though, so I’m glad that I attended a breakout session on “The Dreaded Synopsis” (yes, I stole the title – it was just too perfect!) at the SCBWI WWA Conference two weekends ago. The session was presented by Joanna Volpe, an agent at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc., and some of the things she had to say came as a big surprise to me.

For starters, she said that a synopsis doesn’t have to contain a hook or a sense of voice. WHAT?! I thought that everything I wrote had to grab the reader and impress her with my voice, but according to Volpe, not so with a synopsis. The synopsis exists solely to give the agent or editor reading it a road map of the plot. Period.

The next surprise was that she recommended mentioning as few characters as possible by name. If Volpe were writing a synopsis of HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, she would only name Harry and Voldemort in the synopsis. The other characters would be “friends,” “enemies,” “teachers at the boarding school for wizards” (note: not Hogwart’s), etc. This idea really knocked me for a loop, because in writing a book we’re always told to be specific and include names. But again, the synopsis only exists to give a clear picture of the plot, not to list the cast of characters or give a sense of place.

But the instruction that really threw me was not to include any subplots unless they affect the main plot in an important way. I’d always been under the impression that I needed to give a blow-by-blow of every subplot in my synopsis. In a way, knowing I didn’t have to was a relief, but it was also overwhelming: How would I know which subplot points to include and which to leave out?

As I said, I’m glad I went to Volpe’s presentation, because knowing what I didn’t need to put into my synopsis made writing it much easier. It still took me over five solid hours to synopsize my novel, but it was doable. Here are the steps I took.

1. I decided which plot was the main plot. This might seem like a no-brainer, but for me it was a challenge. I realized I wasn’t actually sure which story thread was my main plot and which was the major subplot, so I had to clarify that for myself before beginning.

2. I listed all the important plot points in my main plot. This entailed going through my manuscript and deciding which plot points were true turning points, moments that affected the direction of the story.

3. I listed the important plot points in my major subplot.

4. I decided which of my minor subplots were pivotal enough to the main plot to include. Here, I looked for places where minor subplots intersected with and affected the main plot.

5. I listed the important plot points in my minor subplots.

So now I had four different lists, one for my main plot, one for my major subplot, and one for each of two minor subplots.

6. I decided which characters were important enough to name. Having the plot-point lists made this easier. I decided to name my main character, the two love interests (spoiler!), and the antagonist.

7. I wove my four lists together to make one long list with all the plot points in chronological order. This was actually kind of fun, like putting together a puzzle.

8. I used my list as a guide to write the synopsis.

Piece of cake, right? Well, not really – as I said it took me over five hours to boil everything down to two tight pages. But honestly, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it would be, and I have Joanna Volpe to thank for that.

How do you feel about writing synopses? Do you have any tips for making them less painful?


Yakking in Yakima: WLMA Conference

Monday, October 15th, 2012

I said I was going to pull back on this blog, but I didn’t mean for it to grind to a dead halt. I know it’s been many weeks since I’ve posted, but that’s because I’ve been busy revising my WIP and setting up events to promote the release of the paperback edition of FLYAWAY later this month. I did want to pop in for a few minutes, though, to tell you about the wonderful time I had this weekend at the Washington Library Media Association (WLMA or “Wilma”) Conference in Yakima.

Deb Lund, myself, and Janet Lee Carey at WLMA. (Not pictured: Jennifer Shaw Wolf.)

I was lucky enough to be part of a panel on school author visits with my esteemed colleagues Jennifer Shaw Wolf, Deb Lund, and Janet Lee Carey. We intended our presentation, which was titled “Show, Tell, and Do: The Future of Author Visits” to be a dialogue with our audience of school librarians, and it was. After we each introduced ourselves and our books, we led the attendees in a discussion of every aspect of school visits, from how to find visiting authors to asking for what you want in a visit to alternatives such as Skype and multi-author visits. We had a blast presenting, and our audience was enthusiastic and engaged.

My husband came with me to the conference, and the next day, we took the scenic route home through the Yakima Canyon, where we saw a herd of big-horn sheep grazing by the Yakima river.

Look closely at the river bank: big-horn sheep!

All in all, it was a lovely experience. Now I hope that some of those librarians will contact me about doing school visits!


SCBWI WWA Conference Takeaways

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Now that I’ve finally recovered from my exhausting but exhilarating weekend at the SCBWI WWA conference, I’m taking some time to reflect on what I gained there. Because I was on the faculty this year (woo hoo!), I wasn’t able to attend as many breakout sessions as I would have liked. (If you’re interested in summaries of the conference breakouts, scroll through the Chinook Update Blog.) But I did make it to all but one of the keynotes, and those speeches alone provided me with enough inspiration to keep me going until next year. Here are my takeaways from each of the keynotes:

Author Bruce Hale, in his speech “Writer’s Mind, Warrior’s Mind: Toughing it out and Getting Published,” asked us to examine the habits which are standing in the way of our creativity and productivity. I actually have a few habits that aren’t doing me any good, but the one I’ve decided to change after listening to his keynote is the practice of checking my email multiple – and I do mean multiple! – times a day. I know I waste a lot of good writing time that way, so from now on, I pledge to check my email a maximum of three times daily.

Matt de la Pena‘s speech, “Working Class Writer,” reminded me of how lucky I am. I’ve always taken for granted that I was able to attend college, and I forget that not everyone has that luxury. So from now on, I’m going to say a silent “thank you” every day for all the things that have supported my writing life: a college education, parents who encouraged my creativity, and a husband who cheers me on on a daily basis.

Bonny Becker, in her talk “Sometimes it’s Easy,” which served as her acceptance speech for the Crystal Kite Award, talked about a writer’s need for time, space, and quiet. I’m very guilty of leading an overpacked, hyper-crazy life, so I took her advice to heart. Starting now, I’m going to embrace the quiet times and give myself and chance to just “noodle,” as she puts it.

And last of all, Rachel Vail‘s hilarious talk “Building Characters: Creating Believable Kids” made me vow to get to know my characters better, to become the one adult to whom they’d trust all their secrets.

Thank you, keynoters, for inspiring me to take specific, concrete steps to make my writing  life more productive, creative, and satisfying.

Have you ever been inspired by a speech at a writing conference? What did you take away?

The American Idol Syndrome

Friday, April 20th, 2012

I ran into this post by agent Mary Kole last night about the unrealistic expectations some writers have when they sign up for a manuscript consultation at a conference. They anticipate that they’ll be “discovered” and immediately swept into publication stardom, a la American Idol.

I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms before, but as a beginner, I remember having those kind of expectations, too. I thought that the moment an agent or editor saw my opening pages, they’d know they had a prodigy on their hands and rush to offer me a contract so they could nurture my rough draft into brilliance. When the person with whom I consulted inevitably critiqued my work instead of shouting my praises, I was devastated.

I’ve come a long way since then. Now I know that opportunity, as Mark Twain said, “arrives dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Yes, kismet does happen, and writers do end up connecting with editors and agents at conferences. But that almost always happens because the writer has put in years of practice, not because she dressed up in silver lame and did the writerly version of belting a Whitney Houston song.

But we all have to start as beginners, and part of being in the brand-new place is having a sense that magic can happen, that anything is possible. So I don’t blame writers who are just starting out for falling victim to the American Idol Syndrome. I just hope that, when reality sets in, they can hold on to a little bit of that naive hopefulness that brought them to writing in the first place.


Did you ever have unrealistic expectations going into a manuscript consultation? What are your expectations now?

Five Traits of Highly Successful First Pages

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

I’ve been reading the first five pages of a number of manuscripts for critique at an upcoming conference. It’s been a great opportunity to be on the other end of the submission process, to see what editors and agents see when a manuscript crosses their desks. The manuscripts I’m reading are all very different, but I’ve noticed that the most successful ones, in terms of hooking me and making me want to read more, all share the following five traits:

1. They help me get to know the main character. 

The most successful opening pages tell me more about the main character than just his name and age. They give me some sense of the character’s physical appearance and outlook on life and at least provide clues to her quirks and interests, hopes and fears.

2. They make me care about the main character.

When I’ve finished reading a successful opening, not only do I have information about the main character, I care about him. I’ve found this sense of empathy and connection to the main character to be the number one thing that hooks me into a book. If I care about a character, a scene in which she’s packing a suitcase  can be more riveting than an opening where bombs explode and buildings burn.

3. They start where the story begins.

This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many manuscripts begin with a “throat-clearing” scene that takes place before the actual action of the story begins. Again, this doesn’t mean you need to start your book with gunshots or bombs exploding, but you do need to begin the moment just before everything changes for your main character.

4. They hint at a story problem or conflict.

Even if the main conflict of the story doesn’t start in their first five pages, successful openings at least hint that there is a problem or conflict to come. Make sure your first pages do more than set the scene and introduce your characters – toss in some tension!

5. They do all of the above, with confidence and style.

I always hated it when editors and agents at conferences talked about “voice,” because I had no idea what they really meant. Now I do. Highly successful first pages not only introduce and get you to care about the main character and the problem or conflict she’s about to face, they convince you that you’re in for a treat, because the narrator – and writer’s – style is consistent, confident, and unique.

Do you agree with me? Are there any other traits you think highly successful first pages share?