Dreaming in Character

G.L. Jackson

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I love writing a synopsis, said no one ever.

A woman in front of a laptop anxiously biting on a pencil

These days, I usually I write craft posts over at the All The Kissing blog but I know a lot of people who are nervous (politely put) if not outright panicking about writing a synopsis. I’m going to try to help get those of you all flustered about synopses to a point where you can breathe, say aha!, and get that synopsis to reflect your story the way you want.

At its heart a synopsis is nothing more than a marketing tool, but there are a few things we need to remember about them.

1. Don’t be stingy with plot details.

Why? The synopsis is a short description of your book, not a short description of your hook.

A common mistake I see in first-time synopsis writers is that they don’t want to include the big reveals. You have to include the spoilers. The whole point of the synopsis is to give the reader an idea of the important things that happen in a story. So instead of saying “And if Mardina doesn’t tell Alaric about her big secret, their future will be in jeopardy,” we need to know what you’re referencing. “If Mardina doesn’t tell Alaric she’s got a two-year-old child with death-by-staring powers, he’ll never forgive her once he uncovers the truth. But if she does tell him, that knowledge will tie them both to the planet, demolishing Alaric’s dream of exploring the nebula.” (I kind of like where this is going. Plot bunny for the taking, anyone?)

2. Take a tip from the world of screenwriting.

Why? The intricacies of the story belong in the book narrative, not the synopsis. Often, your synopsis will be used by an industry professional to help gauge their interest, or to ensure that you’re representing the genre correctly, before they read your pages.

In drama shows, many episodes have two discrete yet complementary plots. The main one is referred to as the “A” plot, and the minor one is the “B” plot. While the “B” plot is often fascinating, it isn’t the sole or main focus of the episode. Make sure that your synopsis focuses on the “A” (main) plot of your story. As tempting as it is to weave all the intertwining sub-plots into the synopsis, we need to chop mercilessly. The gist of the story needs to be there, but without all the detail.

3. Use names sparingly.

Why? Ease of reading. Ease of remembering. Ease of understanding who’s where when, and which characters are most important.

Pick a handful of your most important characters—two or three, no more—to refer to by name. All the rest can be referred to by description (“the roommate” or “her father” or “the Imperial Juggernaut”). When you’re including characters in your synopsis, ask yourself if they’re part of the “A” storyline or the “B” storyline. If the answer is “B,” it’s best to leave them out.

Tip: current synopsis style favors capitalizing the first instance of the named characters (“GIOVANNI is first mate on the USS Sinksalot”) and then use regular capitalization rules for the rest of those instances.

4. A simple recipe: pitch, query, synopsis, novel.

Why? Some books present well in queries. Others present better in synopsis form or in pitch form. If you have all these pieces at hand, you’ll always be able to share something that showcases your book beautifully.

Each book needs at least four pieces:

  • the novel itself, which is your brilliant labor of love
  • the synopsis, which is a short distillation of the novel
  • the query letter, which is a short distillation of the synopsis, and
  • the pitch, which is a short distillation of the query letter.

Some authors write the novel first and then the supporting pieces. Others start with the pitch or query letter or synopsis. Discussing how to write a synopsis before the novel is beyond the scope of this blog post, but I’ll give you a little hint: you do have some kind of outline, don’t you?

Once you start looking at all the marketing pieces this way, they start to seem a little less daunting. At least they do to me.

5. My favorite synopsis-writing resource

I wouldn’t be able to say much of anything about writing a synopsis without crediting my favorite resource at Pub(lishing) Crawl: How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis. It’s become my go-to for each synopsis I’ve written. I highly recommend this tool, with examples from Star Wars: A New Hope. I find it so flexible, I’ve been able to adapt it to fit all of my books regardless of genre. With a little imagination you’ll be able to see how to adapt it to fit books told from more than one point of view, and still keep your synopsis focused and succinct.

Good luck!

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It’s That Time Again – RWA National Conference

Photo by Aaron Sebastian on Unsplash

There are so many reasons to go to the professional conferences for whatever occupation you hold. As a writer of romance and women’s fiction, that means the RWA national conference is the place to be and to go.

This year, the conference has a special meaning for me. It’s in my home town (that’s right, I’m a Manhattan girl by birth). As if that’s not enough, I’ll get to spend time with family and friends. Make new friends, meet new people, and stay in the heart of Times Square. When I was growing up, Times Square was not a place I frequented. But it’s changed so much, and I’m looking forward to seeing it as a new! improved! tourist attraction!

Beyond tourism, I can’t wait to soak up knowledge, experience, and atmosphere. Being around 2000 romance writers is so empowering in so many ways that it’s hard to describe. But we are all there because we love writing and love the genre. Romance writing has gotten a bad rap lately for a lot of reasons. At its core, it is by women and for women, and if you don’t think being around that much positive energy for a week is an uplifting experience, then I’m guessing you haven’t attended the RWA national conference. Just being there—just soaking up the happiness and glee and good vibes—is one of the highlights of my writing life. Heaven knows I spend enough time face to face with my laptop screen. Being face to face with writing friends is a slice of bliss.

So this conference always recharges my batteries. It can be such a beautiful time for Romancelandia. I hope if you’re there, we get a chance to meet!

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Making the Leap from Fanfiction to Original Fiction

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

I’m a sucker for backstory. I love it more than is probably healthy. I’m the one who’s always asking “what happened before? Where did that character trait come from? Who made this person into who they are? Why why why why?”

For someone like me, fanfiction was the perfect venue. I could take these mostly full-formed characters I loved and fill in the blank places. The world I chose to start with was Harry Potter, but I didn’t want to write about Ron or Harry or Hermione. I wanted to know why Lucius Malfoy hated Muggles so much, and what Sirius Black’s birthday was, and how Sybill Trelawney became so forgetful. Once I found The Sugar Quill and saw that other people were also interested in exploring the nooks and crannies, I was hooked. I started writing (terrible) fanfiction, filled with the worst, most melodramatic trope overuse. Luckily all of that is lost to the annals of time.

Slowly, though, I got better at it. I finally wrote a story I liked enough to submit to the Quill, one I was proud of even though deep down inside I knew it probably sucked. But the powers that be there liked it! They liked it enough to shelve it with their favorites, and thus was born my first authorial acceptance letter. I kept writing, kept exploring the pieces not only in the Harry Potter fandom but in many others, and a funny thing happened.

I became a better writer for all that inane poking around in the backstories of other peoples’ characters.

For the record, I’d always dabbled in writing original fiction too. I just didn’t think it was very good at all. I’d switch back and forth between fanfiction and original fiction and slowly, slowly, the light dawned. With original fiction, no one could claim my MC was acting out of character. No one could tell me that I’d gotten the background details wrong. No one could say I hadn’t read the right chapter or watched the right episode. No one argued with me over whether what happened was wrong or right.

After being constrained by canon for so long, writing my own worlds and characters was a breath of fresh air. I became very good at writing characters and knowing them and giving them backstory. Always backstory, because I’m still a sucker for it. And little by little I learned that I’m the one who needs to know the backstory, but it doesn’t have to be a part of the story. It’s enough that I know it.

Making the leap from fanfic to original fiction was a little bittersweet. I didn’t sit down and say no more fanfiction, not now, not ever! But once I’d tasted the freedom that came with writing my own worlds, I was hooked. I still had to figure out big-picture things like how to plot and how to use story beats, and in many ways I’m still and will always be figuring that out. Somewhere along the line, my focus for original fiction outshone my focus for fanfic. Fanfic became harder and harder for me to write, where original fiction flowed like a river. Eventually I stopped writing fanfiction altogether–and now I doubt I’d even know how to do it any more.

I was able to fill the need for it in a unique way, though. It didn’t take me too long to realize that writing sequels for my original stories was exactly like writing fanfiction for my own canon. What can I say? Where there’s a will, there’s a way?

Even though I don’t write fanfiction any more (my last one was written over three years ago), it will always have a special place in my heart. It taught me so much about the craft and skill of writing, of imagination, and of infusing writing with emotion. So if you’ve got a background in fandom and write or wrote fanfiction, wear that nerd banner proudly! It serves us well.

And before you know it, people will be writing fanfiction for your characters.

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Sticking the Ending

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

JK Rowling taught me a valuable lesson: in an ongoing series, don’t get too attached to any one character. The author might kill them off. The jolt I got after reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was palpable. I felt it in my gut. In my heart. Right then and there, I resolved to never fall in love with a fictional character again.

Of course, that didn’t really stick. But it did teach me that in anyone else’s fictional world, the ending is out of my control. I remember watching the finales of a few memorable TV series: Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy. These days I watch even less television than I did in the past. Part of that is because I have less trust in the writers to give me an ending that satisfies. Part of that is because there’s too much to choose from. Another part of that is my excuses: I should be writing my own stuff. I should be doing this or that. I should get away from a screen, any kind of screen, and interact with other humans face to face.

The latest show I watched in its entirety was HBO’s Game of Thrones. I know a lot of people who are extremely disappointed in the ending. Without getting into specifics about the show, the writers, and the expense involved in such a production, I will say that by last Sunday night, I finally felt I’d truly learned that lesson from back in my Harry Potter days. I had let go of any personal investment in the ending, and sat back and watched simply as a spectator to the story. Without caring overmuch about the fate of any of the characters, I watched. Looked for nuances. Saw various storylines neatly tied up while others were left dangling or largely unresolved.

I thought back to the other shows I mentioned above. I might be in the minority but I did love the ending to three of those shows (Lost, you lose, your last two seasons were so poorly executed). The final scene of Breaking Bad was a reference to Lost as well as a genuinely complete wrap-up for that series; The Sopranos had an ending that left a great many people highly unsatisfied, although I thought it was brilliant. We still have discussions about that in my home every now and then, and it’s been years since that aired. Sons of Anarchy was a Hamlet retelling, so its ending was inevitable. And while I am curious about whether or not George R.R. Martin is ever going to finish the series that spawned Game of Thrones and I would like to see his take on the end to his sprawling saga, I’m actually sort of relieved that the TV series is over.

Even though it didn’t stick the ending, the ending was someone’s version of fanservice at its most encompassing (and so was Endgame, if we want to bring movies into the discussion). There’s really nothing wrong with fanservice, but fans are a special breed with very distinct notions of what their story’s end should and should not be.

I watch all of this with rapt attention. Most of my friends who hated the ending to Game of Thrones are avid readers of the books. Then there were others who never read any of the novels and didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. It was just TV, right?

For me, as a writer, having a good ending is something of a moral imperative. I would hate to lead my readers along for hundreds of pages only to have an ending where the characters weren’t true to themselves, or the story didn’t wrap convincingly or successfully. I nearly always go into writing a book with the visuals for the final scene set in my mind, or at least the emotional requirements of that scene firmly established. I would hate to write the kind of book where someone said “oh, now I have to write fanfiction to fix that!”

To bring the lesson JK Rowling taught me home to roost, though… the fifth book in the Harry Potter series might have devasted me because of my attachment to her fictional people, but everyone still acted in character. I might not have liked what happened, but it all made sense with the progression of the story. In Breaking Bad I might not have liked who Walter White became, but it made sense. In Sons of Anarchy I might not have appreciated Jax Teller’s desperation, but it made sense given all the other occurrences. And in The Sopranos, I learned that what I wanted to have happened didn’t need to have happened. In fact, I don’t know what happened, and that was okay. The ending made sense given the rest of the story.

I won’t talk about Lost. That was disappointing, especially from a characterization perspective.

But without all of these examples, including the Game of Thrones adaptation, I would have less material to draw on when coming to terms with how I want to end my own series. I want the characters to remain in character. I want the arcs to be complete. I want the resolution to incorporate what came before, without introducing something new or having some Deus Ex Machina nonsense. Mostly, I want the ending to satisfy. I don’t ever want any of my readers to finish only because they feel they have to pick it apart, or to be thinking “wow, what a waste of time.”

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On Writer’s Block

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I have a love-hate relationship with the term “writer’s block.” Part of me likes it, because it makes for a convenient excuse. But another part of me doesn’t ever want to pawn off my own decisions or abilities on anything else–even a phrase.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ability to write, or not to write. Then I realize it’s not really about ability. It’s about willingness. Willingness to sit down and force words onto the page when I’m not in the mood, or when they’re not flowing for me. I’ve never been one of those writers who says I must write every day, come hell or high water. I have been one of those writers who says today’s words kind of suck, and writing them was like pulling teeth, and that makes me want to take a break from it. Sometimes I do take a break. Other times, I grit my teeth and battle my way through the obstinacy.

What I’ve come to realize, at least for myself, is that there will always be days when writing is a struggle and nothing is easy, where there’s little or no joy in putting words on the page. On those days, I give myself permission to try and fail. Or to not try. To do something else, unrelated to my work in progress, so that my creative well can refill. But I don’t blame those days on writer’s block. I take responsibility for them, and for my productivity or lack thereof, and get on with life.

The day hasn’t arrived yet when I’ve forgotten how to write. The day has arrived where I’m low on motivation or creativity, or hate what I’m working on and don’t want that to translate to the page. My way of dealing with that might be different from yours. I do know writers who write regardless and to those wonderful people, I say congratulations! I’m envious.

But I also know myself, and know that I’ll make up for it. I’m competitive with myself that way. And if I ever give myself a hard daily word count goal, I will meet it (I haven’t met a NaNoWriMo I haven’t bested yet). Like any other creative endeavor, the personal oomph I need to get it done well can sometimes be elusive. Since I’m a big believer in self-care, I try not to be too hard on myself on those days. Even as I take responsibility for them. I know the focus will return, and personally I’ll feel all the better for not blaming my lack of productivity on someone or something else. Your mileage may vary!

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Fear and Twitter Pitching (#amquerying)

Photo by Melanie Wasser on Unsplash

Probably the single scariest thing I’ve done as a writer was to enter my first Twitter pitch contest. It’s like standing on the edge of a precipice knowing you’re about to jump, but all the “what ifs” crowd for dominance in your mind. What if I don’t make it to the other side? What if I miss the lake and end up on the rocks? What if the chasm is too deep? What if the ground opens and swallows me up? What if, what if, what if?

Then there are Twitter pitch contests. The fear with those is every bit as real, even if they’re on a more cerebral level. What if no one likes my tweet? What if my pitch is terrible? What if everyone laughs at my ideas? What if all the agents and editors snicker at my idea? What if I mess up? What if, what if, what if?

The truth of the matter is that if we want to be published, we have to put our words out there for people to see. Yes, a Twitter pitch contest like #KissPitch for romance manuscripts or #PitMad for all genres or #SFFPit for science fiction and fantasy can be a daunting thing. But it can also be really fun! #PitMad was the contest that started me on the roundabout path to my wonderful agent, Michelle Richter of Fuse Literary.

Before you jump in with a random tweet on a contest day, there’s a checklist you should pay attention to.

1. Do you have a completed, polished manuscript?

This is the most crucial element. If you’re sitting with an almost-finished manuscript, or you haven’t gotten around to doing those edits that your critique partners and beta readers suggested, or you know that saggy middle needs to be tightened up…don’t enter. You’re not ready. On the other hand, if your manuscript has been workshopped, edited, proofed, and you’re ready to query that sucker, by all means enter.

2. Do you have a pitch or three or four ready to go?

You only have 280 words to hook someone’s attention. That includes the contest hashtags, the genre hashtags, and any other hashtags you want to use. In general, the shorter the pitch, the more likely it is to be read.

Remember back in the days when we only had 140 characters per tweet? Remember Polonius going on and on about how brevity is the soul of wit? Forget the rest of Hamlet if you must, but when you’re crafting a Twitter pitch, remember those wise words. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Shorter tweets are easier on the eyes. They stand out in a flurry of other tweets. But whatever you do, don’t add graphics to your tweet. Unless the specific pitch contest you’re entering allows for that, it’s frowned on.

If you’ve got your pitches ready, by all means, enter.

Or be like me. Workshop the hell out of your tweets…then write flippant tired ones the night before and throw caution to the wind. Sometimes, the flippant tired ones are the best.

I could write a whole post on crafting tweets, but that’s a different beast so we’ll save it for another day.

3. You’re querying, or ready to query.

That’s great! It means your manuscript is ready to be evaluated by agent, editor, or publisher eyes. If that’s the case, by all means, enter. The pitch contest is a way to get your manuscript in front of agents, editors, and publishers that you might not have on your list.

But what about the fear?

Conquering fear is something we all need to do as writers. We have to put our words out there. If we’re going to be published, we’re going to have an audience. Some of that audience will love our words. Some will not love our words. It’s one of the truths of being an author: no book pleases everyone.

Don’t let that stop you.

At some point, you have to take the leap. And it is a leap of faith, but experience has taught me that this particular leap gets easier. It goes from paralyzing to scary to not so bad to downright fun. Remember those questions I asked up top? I’ll try to answer them.

What if no one likes my tweet?

That’s happened to me! And look, I’m still standing. An entire pitch event goes by, and not a single like from any agent or editor or publisher. It’s depressing, but it’s not the end of the world. The truth of the matter is that some concepts tweet really well. Others need a little more finessing.

If no one likes your tweet, make sure your query letter and synopsis do a better job of explaining your premise, Make sure your query doesn’t give away the whole book–it should end in a hook. Then query the agents on your list anyway.

What if my pitch is terrible?

We all write terrible pitches. If you think your pitch is terrible, rewrite it. Don’t be offensive, don’t be rude. Stick to the main plotline of your novel, give us stakes, hook the reader, and make it voicey. No problem, right?

Seriously, your pitch will only be terrible if it’s vague. “A pirate has to save the princess, or awful things will happen.” Now that’s a terrible pitch, because we really have no clue what’s at stake. But if you tell readers just enough to make it interesting, you won’t have a terrible pitch. “A dashing pirate must rescue his beloved princess from a fiendish tyrant before she’s bound to him forever, or the life essence will be forced from his body.”

That’s just one way to pitch The Princess Bride. I’m sure you can think of a million more. That’s not even a great pitch, but at least it has stakes! And a little personality! And it leaves a few questions: how will the life essence be forced from his body? How is a princess the pirate’s beloved? Why would she be bound to a fiendish tyrant? You get the picture.

Since you have multiple tweet opportunities in most contests, mix it up. Have a tweet featuring Westley, and have one featuring Buttercup. If you’re feeling brave, put out a tweet featuring the Rodents of Unusual Size too.

What if everyone laughs at my ideas?

They won’t. Promise. But if you can write a tweet that makes people laugh for the right reasons, it will be memorable.

What if all the agents and editors hate my idea and talk about it behind my back?

Trust me, they don’t have time for this.

What if I mess up?

You can’t.

Ultimately, the only thing you can do is try. If you’re ready to take that leap, do it. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Nothing. You’ll be no worse off than you are now. You won’t have ruined your chances. Remember, an agent’s inbox is open to your query regardless of whether or not they favorite your pitch.

Now, go on and take that leap of faith! The only way to lose is by quitting.

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Book Review: Dating by the Book, by Mary Ann Marlowe

Dating by the BookDating by the Book by Mary Ann Marlowe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I was reading this book (I received an ARC and yes, you should be envious) I kept thinking how sweet it was. How cute. How easy it was to read, and how relatable all the characters are. But once I finished and realized how many layers this book has, I was even more impressed. It’s still sweet and cute, and if you devour it in one sitting like I did, that might be all you need. However, there are similarities between happenings in the main character Maddie’s life and the selections she offers up to the participants at her failing bookstore’s reading club. Even if you’re not intimately familiar with those titles, you will be deftly guided toward seeing the parallels between them and the goings-on in Maddie’s life.

To complicate matters, Maddie’s sworn off romance but when her upcoming release under a pen name garners a harsh review from anonymous blogger Silver Fox, she breaks the first rule of negative reviews and argues back. As Maddie and Silver Fox become closer online, the potential romantic heroes of her day-to-day life become frustratingly difficult offline. There are a few mysteries thrown into the mix: could one of her bachelor friends be the mysterious reviewer, or is Silver Fox truly a stranger? And which one of them, if any, is sabotaging her bookstore? It’s not just the graffiti on the front door: a series of mishaps occur…could the person behind them be her ex-fiance, who has her over a financial barrel? The childhood friend eager to turn the bookstore into a cafe? The ex-boyfriend rock star who wants her back? Or the English teacher who’s allegedly only there for the sweets and free wifi, but clearly has something else up his sleeve?

As the complexities of Maddie’s situation broil and stew, her online relationship with anonymous reviewer Silver Fox heats up. Uncovering Silver Fox’s identity will be a delicious treat for readers of this book.

Five stars because it’s fun, breezy, and far more complex than it seems on the surface. Thank you, Mary Ann, for another wonderful book.

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