Posts

The ego has landed: Musing on reviews

This week I learned that The Magpie Lord would be coming out in print. I am not a print snob – it’s a real book if people read it – but there is still something entirely delicious about the idea of putting a copy of my book on my shelves, and knowing that in years to come, the kids will pick it up and scream, “Ew! Mum, you wrote sex! That’s disgusting!”

Anyway, along with checking my print galleys, I’m required to put together a selection of review quotes. I’ll be honest, putting a bunch of nice reviews together into a single document is a whacking great ego boost, of the kind that causes you to wonder if it would really be that bad to get them printed up on, like, a mug, or maybe a T-shirt. But as I went on, it began to feel rather odd.

People have read this book and thought about it and applied serious consideration. People have embraced the characters, burrowed into their backstories, got in touch with me to ask about them. People have recommended it to their friends, sometimes with amazing enthusiasm, or even bought it for them. (! !!! Just … !)

Not to say that everyone loved it. Some people wanted to convey that there were very few spelling mistakes and the file was well formatted. Some people wrote really thoughtful reviews that analysed exactly why it didn’t work for them. Some people put a surprising amount of energy into explaining why they hated it.

I sat there, bewildered that so many people I’ve never met have found the time in their life to discuss my book. To tell the world, “here is a good book, read it”. Or “a bad book, avoid it”. Or “a book with no spelling errors, react accordingly”. I thought: That is one hell of a lot of work that people have put in on my book.

And then I realised that I was completely wrong to think that.

People have written about The Magpie Lord. Not “my book”. It stopped being “my book” when it was published, ie made available to the public. Once the book is out there, the interaction is reader/book, not reader/author. Robert Jackson Bennett wrote interestingly on this.

I did this for you, for you to read. I didn’t do this for me. And when you discuss something I made, what you are discussing is what you read, but not – and I really cannot stress this enough – it is not what I wrote.

… I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.

There has been a lot of discussion, since the recent Goodreads kerfuffles, of negative reviews. What’s appropriate for reviewers to say, and how should writers respond? How much should you engage with reviews? Is that good social media behaviour, or unpleasant heavy breathing down the reader’s neck?

Well, it seems to me, if a review is part of an interaction between the book and the reader, then for the author to force her way in to that is like joining in someone else’s conversation on the tube. (I’m a Londoner. Having strangers speak to me on public transport is the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.) Anyone who’s read a published book, is entitled to comment on it as they choose (within the confines of the law) – positive, negative, overwhelming joy, seething hatred, total indifference. And unless they actively invite me in to their conversation with the book by bringing it to my attention/talking directly to me, I think I should keep out of it. Much as I want to leave grateful comments on every positive review or send round black-clad chocolate delivery ninjas to everyone who said something nice; tempting as it might be to respond to someone who said something that wasn’t. I think I just have to put it out there, let people get on with it, and concentrate on writing the next one.

What do you think? Should authors interact with reviews or keep a distance?

But That’s What He’s Called! Late-stage changes to a character name

When The Magpie Lord was in edits, my editor asked me (very carefully, and giving the impression of typing while positioned behind a protective surface) to change the name of one of the heroes.

This was a perfectly reasonable request. I’d made a schoolgirl error in giving the two main characters names beginning with the same phoneme.  Sounds trivial; is not. At a normal reading pace you chunk* text, rather than taking in each letter, so that you don’t so much read the name ‘Crane’ as see ‘Cr—’ and fill in the rest. Therefore, if Hero 1 is Crane and Hero 2 is Crispin (which he was), readers may actually get confused – not because they’re idiots but because that’s how reading works.

So, fair play to my editor, she was quite right. Nevertheless, being asked to change my hero’s name was unbelievably hard.

I know it’s absurd. I know these are imaginary people I made up. I know it’s a story. The fact remains that when I got that email, I stared at the screen for about five minutes, with a hollow feeling in my stomach. I actually felt sick. I went for a very long walk on my own, and spent the first half of it getting my head round the very idea of changing the name. I described the request on my book group as ‘the most invasive thing that’s happened to me since my son’s suction-assisted birth’, and I stand by that as a not-at-all-overdramatic statement. (Ahem.)

Then I got over it and renamed the character ‘Stephen’, which is a far better name for him –still with the cadence and that slightly Old England ring to it, which was what I needed, but more solid, less fragile – and now I can’t remember why I ever imagined anything else. Listen to your editor, kids, she’s always right.

Of course it’s easy for writers now. David Copperfield started life as ‘Thomas Mag’, which is so glaringly wrong it’s almost impossible to imagine. Dickens’ notes show he went through Trotfield (horsey), Trotbury (clerky), Copperboy (weirdly metal) and Copperstone (too hard) before finally hitting on Copperfield. (Victorian nerd klaxon: Dickens readers may recognize that Trot– and –stone were important sounds for the book that made their way into other major character names.)

But Dickens couldn’t write the book with Thomas Mag and change it in edits. No search and replace for him.  You had to get it right at the start, or live with it. My husband has a theory that Thomas Hardy named his characters as a shorthand reminder of their plot role — “Hmm, this guy needs to be angelic, sturdy and very English. I’ll remember that if I call him Gabriel Oak.” — and then found himself stuck with them. (Thomas Hardy fans, please address critiques of this theory to my husband. It’s nothing to do with me.)

There’s a lot to be said for doing it the old-fashioned way and getting it right at the start. Not least that I never want to change a main character’s name again.

* this is a real technical term, honest.

 

Ever changed a character name? Can you imagine your favourite characters called anything else?

Teasers and backstory: Holmes vs Harry Potter

“Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson,” said Holmes in a reminiscent voice. “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

Conan Doyle was the master of the teaser. The Holmes tales are packed with little throwaway references to past cases, hinting at a world of untold stories, and spawning a healthy publishing industry of pastiche writers who are only too happy to speculate about ‘Merridew of abominable memory’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’ or the madness of Isadora Persano, involving ‘a remarkable worm unknown to science’. (Although the one about ‘the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant’ is taking the mickey, if you ask me.)

These little references give us a hinterland. A confirmation that the character exists outside the page, a sketch of landscape to populate with our own imaginations. If there were no untold stories, some of the magic would be lost.

And then there’s Harry Potter. A massively realised, detailed world, where the author knows everything down to preferred brands of cereal and the parentage of characters who appear once on p.312 – and where the reader hears about it. If JK Rowling had come up with the giant rat of Sumatra, we’d know what part of Sumatra it came from, how giant it was, and that the captain of the Matilda Briggs was a Hufflepuff who once dated Ron Weasley’s aunt.

Remember the fuss when Rowling announced that a ‘major character’ in HP4 was going to die? It turned out to be – I had to look this up – Cedric Diggory, and a lot of people felt very cheated, because he was not a major character by any definition. But in Rowling’s head, he was a major character, because in this massively realised world in her head, everyone was major. There was no Basil Exposition or Jimmy Plotfunction, just there to do a job in the service of the story. Everyone had a fully developed existence. Which, when that information is in the author’s head, informs the text on the page, creating a huge richness and reality.

I tend to think some of it ought to stay in the author’s head.

Many will disagree. A large part of the pleasure in Lord of the Rings / Harry Potter / The Kingkiller Chronicles is the fact that the author puts every possible bit of worldbuilding on the page, and the reader can wallow for hours and know all there is to know.

Me, I don’t want to know all there is to know. I want the author to know it, sure, but I like the sense of a story existing in a larger world. I love China Miéville’s books because of the joyful wastage of invention: he’ll casually toss out a two-sentence mention of some brilliant abomination that anyone else would use as the basis for a trilogy, and then never use it again. (But now we know it’s out there…)

This isn’t an ‘I’m right/you’re wrong’. HP/LoTR etc are vastly popular with good reason. The immersive experience of reading a mammothly detailed series is an incredible one. But the untold story has pleasures too.

I’m thinking about this because there’s a point in The Magpie Lord,  where our hero, Crane, is asked why he has seven magpie tattoos.

“Whim. I was being forced to have a very large and expensive tattoo, and it seemed a change from the usual dragons and carp. I rather liked it, as it turned out, so I added more.”

“…forced to have a tattoo?”

“It’s a long story.”

It’s a long story I didn’t tell the reader (Crane tells it off-page), and quite a few people have commented on this in reviews, wanting to know what happened. I’m delighted to the point of embarrassing public dancing that anyone cares enough to mention it. And yet…

For me, the throwaway line conveys that Crane’s life has been so extraordinary that he regards being forced to have a huge tattoo as, meh, just one of those things. By leaving it as an untold story, the reader can fill in the gap with her own speculations and ideas. As a told story it’s a little piece of his past nailed down, a little mystery revealed. And I wonder if a single truth (about the tattoos, the giant rat, or even that stupid trained cormorant) can be as pleasurable as the imaginative vistas opened up for the reader by not knowing. After all, seven is for a secret never to be told…

Then again, it’s a pretty good story.

 

Should authors tell all? What do you think?

Warning Signs You Might Be Living in a Book

I was heading into work this morning, down a busy London street, when I noticed the footprints of a giant cat (bigger than tiger size) splashed in white paint across the road. I looked up to note that the digital temperature display ahead of me was reading -93°. At this point a man walked past me with a huge hawk on his arm.

I think it’s fairly clear I’m about to be an urban fantasy heroine.

So, while I’m waiting to develop my magic powers and pre-planning my sassy put-downs, here are some other warning signs that you might be in a book.

Warning sign: You’re walking home at night after working late, alone, your heels sounding loud on the street. A tramp holds out a hand, mumbling a request for money.  You ignore him, hurrying past with thoughts of a glass of chardonnay with your lovely partner and kissing your sleeping child.

Book alert: You’re in the prologue to a serial killer book. You are not going to make it to chapter 1.

Warning sign: You are required to marry someone you’ve never met before in order to conclude a business deal or satisfy an elderly relative.

Book alert: Check your surroundings. If you’re in a boardroom, fictional Arab kingdom or luxurious Italian villa, this should work out very nicely. If you’re in unflinchingly realistic India or China, you’re screwed.

Warning sign: You are called any of the following (capitals required): the One, the Lost X, the Chosen X. You have a mysterious scar, brand or tattoo. You don’t know your real parents. A sword may be involved.

Book alert: This is going to take anywhere between three and seven volumes to sort out. Bring snacks.

Warning signs: A lawyer summons you to his dusty office to reveal that an unknown great-aunt has bequeathed you her isolated old house.

Book alert: If you’re under 12, this should be brilliant. Watch out for the invisible servants and don’t trust the butler. If you’re a single woman of marriageable age, brace for the incredibly handsome yet horribly sexist asshat of a neighbour. If you’re a novelist suffering from writer’s block, don’t go.

Warning sign: People address you by your name in every second remark they make to you. You take an inventory of your features every time you look in a mirror, instead of just checking for jam smears. You find yourself thinking of people as ‘the tough-talking yet kind-hearted Irishman’ instead of, eg, ‘Jim’. You like to do a critical assessment of the art and architecture of major European cities while running for your life through them.

Book alert: You’re in a thriller of the [Famous Arty Dead Person] [Mystery Word] type. If you just accept that the villain is your beloved elderly mentor, like the readers are screaming at you to do, we can all get through this a lot faster.

If you’re an overworked magician falling for a gorgeous tattooed nobleman, you’re probably in The Magpie Lord, out on 3 Sept. Comment here before 7pm GMT on 24 Aug to enter the draw for a free electronic copy!

Playing with the past: some thoughts on historical settings

Friend: I hate the Victorians. They never had sex.

My first book, The Magpie Lord, is set in Victorian England (with magic). So, obviously, is the sequel. My WIP is a country house adventure set just after Victoria finally popped her clogs. I’m plotting out a long alternate-Victorian fantasy now. What, you may well ask, is my thing about the nineteenth century?

Well, I love it. I’ve guest-blogged about why the Victorians aren’t nearly as boring as they’re cracked up to be (widespread drug abuse, sex toys, eyewatering spiky devices…).  But, as well as being fascinating in itself, the era’s a boon for authors, which in turn makes it fun for readers.

Secrets and sex. Because if there’s one thing that’ll give you a plot, it’s secrets.  And if there’s one thing that people actually did in Victorian times – constantly, in private and public, in the weirdest combinations, and in a world bound around by social and legal restrictions of class and gender and sexuality, repression, secrecy and double standards – it was have sex. Check out My Secret Life, the eleven-volume pornographic diary of a man who could really have used some time in therapy or, preferably, prison. Much more enjoyably, try Sins of the Cities of the Plain, the classic gay erotica work (which includes fan fiction based on the real-life notorious Fanny and Stella sex scandal). Prepare to be surprised.

Grotesque social contrasts. The seething, filthy poverty of the darkest rookeries, the glittering jewels and swishing dresses of the balls. It invites melodrama at its finest.

A world of possibility. Just imagine for a moment what it was like to live in a period of accelerating change that makes ours look comprehensible. From horse and carriage to the London Underground in a handful of years. The invention of electric light, telegrams and telephones. The concept of evolution turning everything you ever knew on its head. Medicine triumphing over disease and pain. Of course this was when science fiction took off: the Victorians were living it. The world seethed with wonderful new ideas, the sufficiently advanced technology that is indistinguishable from magic, and anything seemed possible. This is why steampunk is Victorian: the explosive sense of the period that technology could, quite suddenly, do anything at all.

What I’m getting at is, my friend’s an idiot the Victorian era is not all top hats and the duller sort of corset, and you’re missing a trick if you think it is. It’s a wild blend of restrictions and indulgence, mysteries and possibilities, repressive laws and social change and the death of old certainties. You wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s a hell of a place to visit.

The Magpie Lord is out 3 September. If you’re reading this before 24 August, go here and comment for a chance to win a free electronic copy. If you’re reading this after 24 August then either I forgot to take this paragraph down, or you’re a time traveller and should hop off to 1860 forthwith.

Why Bad Books Get Published (or, Nobody knows anything)

So you decide to buy a book from a major publisher, one you’ve seen everywhere. There’s adverts, 3-for-2 promotions, a publicity blitz, it’s the Next Big Thing everyone’s talking about. And you pick it up. And it’s crap. Badly written, clunky rubbish, for which you just paid the best part of fifteen quid.

Why would they publish this book? Why would they do all this marketing for it? Why can I name half a dozen amazing self-published authors who can’t get a look-in, while the Big Six bring out dirges like this? Why???

Well, there are many reasons, and you can probably guess most of them (bandwagon-jumping; contract fulfilment; the simple fact that someone honestly thought it was good), but here’s a slightly less well-known phenomenon: The Boss Book.

Fifteen years or so ago, I worked at an independent general publisher. The founder/owner was highly educated, a very bright man. It was (and still is) a very successful firm. But every couple of months, this happened.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats]

Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –

Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –

Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

Editorial Director Lisa [goes purple]

Boss: Set up interviews. I want The Times. I want The Telegraph. I want The Daily Mail.

Publicity Colin: I want gin. Has anyone actually heard of this author? Is there anything worth publicizing about this? Why do you do this to me?

Boss: Bring me a marketing plan tomorrow.

[Boss leaves. Percussive thudding of heads on desks]

Two things about the Boss Books.

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

For every ten bricks the boss threw at us, one was made of gold. I’m sorry if you bought one of the other nine.

You may be thinking, ‘But that doesn’t happen now. Books have to go through gatekeepers and editorial meetings and all that publisher-value-added stuff, right? Publishers are much more professional now, right?’

Well, there is another Next Big Thing coming out shortly. Huge promo spend. It will be everywhere.

It’s rotten. Dull, clumpily written, unengaging. I struggled to finish the first chapter. I don’t know anyone who’s made it more than half way through. Nobody likes it. Its editor doesn’t like it. It’s bad.

This was a Boss Book – championed by an Incredibly Important Person. And yes, it went to an editorial meeting, but the IIP will have presented it as, ‘This is wonderful, I will not rest till we have published it, I absolutely insist we do this, it will be huge’, and I am quite sure that a lot of people sat there looking at their nails and thinking, ‘I can’t be the only one to say something. Nobody else is saying anything. Did they all like it?’

And maybe it will come out to a slew of 3*, 2*, 1* on Amazon, and the rest of the books on the contract will be shoved out in cheap editions, and the publisher will write off the advance and curse the IIP under their collective breath.

Or maybe it’s a gold brick. Maybe the hugely experienced IIP spotted something that a big chunk of the market will love, and it will be wildly popular and the publisher will make a fortune, while frustrated readers throw it across the room and unpublished authors seethe at the injustice of it all, and superb published authors fantasise about having ten per cent of that marketing spend, one per cent of its sales. Maybe the IIP is the only one marching in step. Maybe nobody knows anything.

All I know is, it’s a bad book.

Where [oh God please please don’t say it] do you get your ideas? An unexpected inspiration

Gabriel García Márquez was driving his family on holiday when a childhood memory of touching ice came into his head in the form of the first line of what would become One Hundred Years of Solitude. Apparently he slammed on the brakes, turned the car around, jettisoned the family holiday, and returned home to write. I somehow doubt his Nobel Prize for Literature is on the shelf next to a Father of the Year award.

When C. S. Lewis was sixteen, he had a daydream of a faun carrying an umbrella and a bundle of parcels through snowy woods. With somewhat less urgency than Marquez, he got around to writing a novel around that two decades later, adding a lion, a witch and a wardrobe.

Stephen King got Misery from a dream. Arthur Conan Doyle got Sherlock Holmes from his tutor at medical school. Chuck Wendig claims to get his ideas either from shady men in trenchcoats or from you while you’re sleeping.

Mostly, let’s face it, there isn’t an amusing story. You think of a thing and there’s another thing that kind of goes with the first thing, and a what-if, and a where, and then you wonder what kind of idiot would get into that situation, and then you have the outlines of a plot. You didn’t get the idea, it just grew in your head, like blue woolly stuff on forgotten cheese.

All that said…

My four year old likes to play with fridge magnets and present the results.

‘Mummy, how do you say that?’

‘Kgeuntbd.’

‘What does it mean?’

‘Nothing, sweetie.’

‘WELL WHY IS IT WRITTEN, THEN?’

The other day he called me over to display the word ‘feximal’. Well, if ‘feximal’ doesn’t mean something, it should. Is it a superlative like ‘optimal’, and in that case, what would be a feximal outcome? Is it a classification of nature – animal, vegetable, feximal?

Or is it a name? And if it is a name, whose name is it? What kind of person has a name like that? And what first name could possibly go with it?

Well, I can now tell you. Simon Feximal is a Victorian ghost-hunter, in the mould of Thomas Carnacki and Dr Silence. He has a complicated private life, and a set of living occult tattoos constantly rewriting themselves on his body, and his first story has just been submitted to a publisher.

So that’s where I get my ideas, apparently. Kiddy fridge magnets. How about you?

Book Shaming: ‘You Don’t Read *That*, Do You?’

A: Hey, what are you reading?

B:  It’s called The Screaming Girls and it’s a thriller about a serial killer who horribly tortures pregnant women to death and then nails their uteruses to the wall. He’s called The Virginia Woolf Killer because he’s creating a womb of his own. I’m really enjoying it. What about you?

A: It’s about two people who fall in love.

B: God, I don’t know how you can read that stuff.

Or, as George Moore said, “I wonder why murder is considered less immoral than fornication in literature.” That was in 1888 and nothing’s changed.

The world is full of people ready to tell you what you should be reading. You should be reading plotless lapidary prose about the slow decline of an aristocratic family in pre-war Hungary. You should be reading books written 150 years ago, at least. You should be reading the genre I like, the ones with the good covers. Scandinavian crime in translation, not cosy mysteries. Thrillers > sci fi > fantasy > romance > erotica. You certainly shouldn’t be reading books for children. Reading the wrong books is just wasting your time. God, you don’t read that, do you? I thought you had to be an idiot/pervert/nerd/pretentious jerk to read that stuff. You actually like that? What’s wrong with you?

And it’s worse as a writer, a thousand times worse, because now it’s not just your interests being attacked but your abilities and imagination. Especially if you write either romance or children’s, both of which are frequently regarded with a sneer. (Hmm, which gender is heavily associated with those two genres of writing? Oh, what a coincidence.)  When are you going to write a proper book? Don’t you want to write something more challenging? Aren’t you good enough?

The excellent children’s writer Jenny Alexander blogged about being made to feel lesser in ‘Are you a Proper Author?’

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me; I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

Well, I’m an experienced editor, published author and holder of a degree in English Literature. I’m entitled to judge ‘proper writing’. And to anyone who tells me what to write or read, I am now summoning up all my well-honed literary powers to say: Get stuffed.

I write romance, fantasy, thrillers, blogs, sticker storybooks. I do all of those things to the best of my ability. If I feel the urge to write a villanelle, literary novel about the futility of existence in fin de siècle Paris, history of the Victorian transport network or YA zombie apocalypse space opera, I will do that to the best of my ability too. I will keep writing, and I will try to keep getting better at it, and if you want more than that from me, then get in the goddamn queue, because I’m busy.

I’m not talking about being undiscriminating. There are plenty of books I think badly written, plotted or edited, or all three; lots of genres I don’t care for; lots of subjects I find repellent. I don’t have to read them; I don’t have to be nice about them. But nor do I get to say that you’re wrong, stupid or lesser if you love a book I loathe, or read a genre that strikes me as absurd. All I can say is, you saw something good where I didn’t. It’s even possible that if I ask you what you saw, I might learn something.

Matt Haig’s tremendous piece on book snobs deserves a complete read but I’m just going to quote my favourite bit here:

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Read the books you love, love the books you read. If you write, then write the best book you can, about whatever you want. Do what you want, as long as you put your heart into it. And don’t presume to tell anyone else what they ought to be reading or writing. That’s their heart.

Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)

 

So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…

Cruel to be Kind: Don’t let your characters off too easily

‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.

During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)

Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.

Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?

No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.

He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.

She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.

Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.

If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.

And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)

About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?

I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.

Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.