Nicola Morgan: how to write a great synopsis

Nicola Morgan is the author of around ninety books for all ages, fiction and non-fiction. To writers she is known for the no-nonsense expert advice in her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! and her highly acclaimed book for writers, Write to be Published, as well as Tweet Right – The Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter. Nicolas's latest book, Write a Great Synopsis (WAGS), tackles one of many writers' most feared foes, the dreaded synopsis. I kicked off the questions as follows.

I found writing a novel terribly unpleasant at times. Then when I'd finished came the most unpleasant experience of the lot - writing the synopsis. I hated it and I know that I'm not alone. Why does the humble synopsis cause us writers so much distress?

No, you're not at all alone. I'm one of the few writers I've come across who never feared them. Anyway, to answer the question: I think there are three main reasons. First, there are a lot of apparently conflicting messages about how to do them or even what they are, so writers go into them never sure whether they are doing it right. And that's very stressful, like doing something blind. And second, most writers don't fully grasp WHY they have to write a synopsis. If they remember that the reason is to show the agent (or whoever) that the story works well and what sort of a story it is, that makes the whole task simpler. Third, we are too close to our book. We care too much. Sometimes I think a reader will find it easier to write a synopsis than a writer. (Until the writer reads WAGS!)

I think my fear was less of the synopsis itself, but of messing up my chances on something so… well… something that isn't the actual thing - the real writing. How much does a synopsis really matter?

Ah, I'm glad you asked me that! The very good news is that it is easily the least important part of the whole submission. It is very unlikely to lose you a deal if your synopsis isn't as brilliant as it could be. On the other hand (and this isn't bad news, not really), if you are a writer, ALL of your writing is important. You want it to be as good as you can make it, which is I think what you are meaning. But I think it's important to realise that it is only going to lose you a deal if it's really bad and if your actual sample chapters also aren't cracking. Is that more reassuring?

It is reassuring, but putting that into practice might be more difficult. I am Captain Pernickety and do like everything to be nice and, you know, perfect. But anyway. I know that you are right. Are these the kind of problems that made you want to write a book on synopses in the first place?

Captain Pernickety is good, up to a point. Captain Over-Analysing is not because he is married to General Procrastination and together they produce Major Paralysis. Anyway, yes, that's pretty much why I wrote the book. To be honest, I never had a problem with synopses myself (sorry) but it became more and more apparent that many writers do and when I see a problem I like to don a cape and swoosh in to fix it. So, I swooshed.

You say that part of the reason a synopsis can be daunting is because of conflicting information. Where does that conflict usually come from and is there such a thing as the right way to do it?

Conflicting only in the sense that it comes from different sources and is often not talking about the same things. As I say in WAGS, there are several different types of synopsis for different occasions, and what's right for one occasion is not for another. But the one that we are bothered about is the one that an agent or publisher wants before deciding whether to take the book. And then the right way to do it is the way that a) follows any specific requests of that agent, for example about length, and b) shows that your book works and what sort of book it is.

That's the one rule I've always told people when I've been asked: do as you're told. Would you say that's good advice? And if so, is it always good advice?

Not always, no! When it's part of submission guidelines - in other words, the agent or publisher has said "This is what we want you to do," - then yes, you must do it. They know what they want and there's every reason to give it to them. But if it's something like me or someone else saying "you shouldn't mention the subplot" or "you shouldn't use unanswered questions", no: IF you genuinely feel, after reading all the advice and UNDERSTANDING the reasons for it, that your book actually suits a slightly different way, do it your way. Rules can always be broken WHEN you know what they are and what they are there for; and when you are so confident about it that you know that your reason for breaking the rule is stronger than the rule's reason for existing, break it.

I did mean do what you're told if you're following submission guidelines, and I totally agree that it's all about understanding the rules and what they mean before making a decision. Finally, WAGS is the third book you've published via your own means - how's it all going and will there be more?

It's going well, thank you, especially the non-fiction titles, because the particular market is not hard to find. So, yes to more! Next in the pipeline are (not necessarily in this order) Dear Agent (the dreaded covering letter), How To Promote Your Book Without Bugging the Pants Off People, and something about writing a non-fiction proposal. Now I just need to write them! But I'm also supposed to be writing some fiction, hoping for "normal" publication, so I need to get going on that, too. And I want to. Fiction is where my heart is; non-fiction is where my head is.

Thanks so much for your questions, Iain. It's been fun batting them back and forth one by one! Good luck to all your readers and remember: Don't panic - it's just a synopsis!

Write a Great Synopsis by Nicola Morgan covers: the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, different requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, how to tackle non-linear plots, multiples themes, sub-plots and long novels, and it answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. Nicola also introduces readers to her useful Crappy Memory Tool, explains the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrates with real examples. Gold-dust for writers at all stages.

Edward Hogan: writing about villages, literary versus genre, and coats with big pockets

Edward Hogan is the author of Blackmoor, his first novel which was shortlisted for the was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel, The Hunger Trace, was published earlier this year and his first YA book, Daylight Saving comes out on 12 February 2012. In 1996, we played for the same football team. This is less relevant.

You can follow Edward on Twitter, check out his profile on the Simon & Schuster website or buy one of his excellent books from your local independent bookshop. Or one of the links above. But mainly the bookshop.

I kicked off our conversation, as follows.

So we’re both handsome, worldly-wise young men, yet we’ve both written about the ins and outs of living in a small town or village. Why do you think that is?

Ha!

Very good. The idea of writing about ‘where you’re from’ is actually quite complicated, isn’t it? The worst review I got for Blackmoor was from my hometown paper. The day before the announcement of a prize for which the book was shortlisted, they went with the headline: ‘Author Paints Bleak Picture of County.’ (!!)

The suggestion was that I was a fraud, and how dare I suggest that Derbyshire has some complicated problems. In my defence, I did also write about the rare natural beauty of the area.

Blackmoor is set in two fictional villages. One is a comfortable semi-suburban place called Church Eaton, which is close to Derby, and hosts only the odd reminder of its industrial past. Church Eaton is very much like where I grew up. The other is Blackmoor, a former coal-mining village which is brought to its knees by factors such as physical isolation, the end of an industry, and the brutal treatment it receives at the hands of governments and institutions. I suppose villages are always about the tension between an individual and a community. They’re lovely places - as long as you fit in.

I was aware that there was this huge historical and political shift (the miners’ strike and its aftermath) that had happened in my county when I was young, but I wasn’t directly touched by it. I wanted to know about that. I was 21 when I started, and writing the book was a process of finding out where I was from. Funny that you can live somewhere pretty much all your life, and still have to do five years of research to write about it. I think you feel the responsibility of getting it right more keenly when you’re from the place you’re writing about.

You’re from further north, no? Chesterfield? Anyway, I guess you lived closer to places like Arkwright Town. Blackmoor is a fictional place, but the strange story of Arkwright - the village that crossed the road - was a big influence on the book.

What was it like for you, writing about villages?

Who’s the interviewer here? Oh go on then.

Not Chesterfield, but near. I was born in Alfreton and we moved to Swanwick when I was about six or seven. Basically, one of a cluster of villages and towns sat between two cities, Derby and Nottingham, and without any real affiliation with either. I bear no malice towards the place I grew up in, but I do remember that all I ever imagined was getting away. And I think that most of my friends felt the same.

At the same time, the idea of being anywhere else seemed (and seems) quite ludicrous to my parents. The generational gap in the villages and towns of England strikes me as less about the difference between vinyl and iPods, more about staying and going. It’s like our parents experienced what used to be there (mining, opencast, other industries), and we can only ever know what’s left. And it’s typically unappealing. So we leave.

Anyway, I think that small places make for great stories essentially. But this isn’t about me, so here’s another question. You say you did five years of research. How did you go about it? What’s your advice to a new writer who just wants to get cracking?

I suppose that was a bit misleading. I was researching as I went along. It was all trial and error with the first book. I wrote six or seven drafts before I even wrote about Beth, who is a central character.

In terms of research, it was fairly haphazard. I spent (and continue to spend) quite a bit of time hanging around local studies libraries. For Blackmoor I read medical textbooks and first person accounts of puerperal psychosis, diaries of women during the miners’ strike, science books about mining, anthropological studies about new-style housing estates, and I also went down a mine at the mining museum in Huddersfield, after which I immediately wrote one of the chapters.

They say write what you know, but I didn’t know anything. In some ways Blackmoor was my first book, but in other ways I rewrote it so completely, so many times, that you could also say it was my third or fourth book.

That’s fascinating that such a central character wasn’t in your first few drafts. Does that mean you subscribe to the ‘get something down then edit like mad’ approach to writing?

It wasn’t something I did on purpose. My first two books grew in a parasitic way, using a bad idea as the host. Similarly, I didn’t write Louisa, the main character in The Hunger Trace, until I was well into the truly awful first draft of something else. She became the driving force of a very different book.

I’m not sure I’d describe it as an ‘approach’, though! I’m still a beginner, and there are a lot of things I haven’t worked out yet. That’s why I’m wary of giving advice. “Do this and you’ll end up like me,” could easily be a warning rather than a recommendation!

One thing I like to do is wake up early and write down anything for a while before I start on the work-in-progress. It’s a way of trawling the depths before I’m properly conscious, to see what muck I can dredge up.

It was during such an early morning session that I came up with the idea for Daylight Saving, my first YA book. I approach those books differently, because there is a genre element. There are certain conventions that have to be dealt with in a thriller (even if you choose to subvert them), so I plan the YA books a bit more, beforehand.

I find your humility just as fascinating. I reckon most people would assume that with two successful novels under your belt, it would be fair game for you to toot your horn a little. It’s something I bang on about a lot on Write for Your Life - the need to stay grounded.

Tell us more about writing for young adults, or the kidz, as I think they’re known these days. Why the change in direction (or slight diversion)? How are you finding it?

I love it! I’d re-watched some of my favourite movies from when I was young. Back to the Future, E.T. etc, and I just thought: well these are obviously brilliantly constructed stories with fantastic central concepts (if there’s a wasted second in Back to the Future, I haven’t found it).

I also noticed, watching them as a 30-year-old, that they are very moving stories about families. Marty McFly has to get his parents to fall in love, and in E.T., we’re watching a broken family come to terms with caring for - and losing - another member. I wondered where such stories were on the bookshelves.

Turned out they were in the YA section. Since then I’ve been reading a lot of brilliant stuff by people like David Almond, Patrick Ness, Tim Bowler, Alan Garner, Louis Sachar, Siobhan Dowd, B.R Collins. These novelists often confront big, philosophical ideas, and take quite a lot of formal risks.

I also noticed a lot of generic conventions that in some circles might be sniffed at, but I found myself really excited by: big hooks at the starts of chapters, cliff-hangers at the ends, humour. I wondered if I could do that. So I had a go, and we’ll see what happens.

See, I’ve never really got why those things - hooks, cliffhangers and whatnot - have to be something separate to literary fiction. Good writing is good writing isn’t it? (now there’s a question for you)

Uh-oh, are we talking about readability?

I think there’s room on the shelf for everything. Slow, fast, experimental, conventional, intellectual. Let’s not dismiss an entire sub-genre, but let’s not dismiss formal ambition, either.

When I’m writing, I find that the idea, the material, the mood, suggest the form rather than the other way round. The Hunger Trace is about two women dealing with the loss of an important man in their lives. In the beginning, Maggie and Louisa are sort of frozen by loss, and the writing reflects that. The pacy narrative devices aren’t appropriate until they thaw out.

In terms of literary vs genre, I find all that fascinating. I just read an interesting essay about the borderland between the two, by Michael Chabon after which I happened to re-read a very smart thriller by Susanna Moore called In the Cut. It’s about language as a weapon, and it’s absorbing and complex and political and stylistically interesting.

I haven’t resolved any of these issues, writing-wise, but in terms of reading, why limit yourself? There’s nothing that says you have to choose between Dubravka Ugresic and Nick Hornby. You can read both!

I wasn’t talking about the dreaded readability specifically, but as everyone else is…

Anyway, let’s take a final diversion. How do you write? I mean literally. What’s your process? Paper and pen? Some fancy app on your telly-phone? Gosh, the options, the options.

Again, I haven’t quite settled on one approach. I find that the process tends to change with the project, and also with my living/work situation.

These things, however, usually play a part:

A notebook (I always buy coats with big pockets, and it ain’t because I’ve got loads of money). I find, when I’m working the day job, that the walk to and from the station can be fruitful for ideas.

Index cards. In the early stages of a novel, I write ideas for scenes and events on these, and keep them in a little box.

Pen and paper. I have a nice fountain pen with thick black ink.

Computer. I’m not eccentric. They’re good.

I find there are usually bits of paper on my desk with complex systems of numbers and letters on them, and the events of novels (sometimes mine, sometimes those of others) boiled down to short sentences. At the moment, the 30-odd scenes between the two central characters in the brilliant film Fishtank, are scrawled in note form. I like trying to work out how good things are done.

Speaking of good things, let’s finish on what you’re reading right now. Or have been reading recently. Any recommendations?

Yes, I’ve had a good run of reading, recently.

Irma Voth by Miriam Toews, is a funny and beautiful and strange book. I reckon it’s her best yet, and she’s always brilliant. I laughed and cried within the first 7 pages.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is, as most people already seem to know, ace.

Breath by Tim Winton really shook me up. So disturbing and frightening.

And After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld, is an immense book. A shocking and careful study of what war does to people.

Huge thanks to Ed for giving up his time for such a smashing interview. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter and buy his marvellous novels from your local bookshop.

Jane Travers: Tweet Treats and turning a great idea into a published book

One day, aspiring author, Jane Travers, had a great idea - to collect 140-character recipes via Twitter, put them in a book and give all the proceeds to charity. That book is called Tweet Treats and is published by O'Brien Press. You can buy Tweet Treats right now from Amazon.

I had a chat with Jane to find out more about the project and how she managed to turn her lightbulb moment into an actual book with pages and everything.

IB: Tweet Treats is such a good idea for a book that I can't believe no one thought to do it before. Tell us a little bit about the premise and how the idea came to you.

JT: Why thank you! (pauses to preen briefly)

It really was a lightbulb moment. I had just finished rewriting my first novel, one that I had tinkered with endlessly already. I turned back to the beginning to read it - and it sucked. Every word made me cringe.

I cried on Twitter's shoulder (one of many reasons why I love Twitter) and all my writing buddies basically said, 'Jane, step away from the MS. You may not look at it for at least three weeks. It'll look better then.' I had no idea how I would survive without writing for three weeks, but I walked away from the computer.

I sulked my way into the kitchen where I realised the child was eyeing the smallest dog hungrily, it was already 6.30 and I hadn't even thought about dinner. I took a packet of chicken thighs out of the fridge and stared blankly at it for about 10 minutes. Time was of the essence, I didn't have time to trawl through reams of prose in traditional cookbooks for inspiration, and I was totally stuck. Once again, I tweeted.

'Any suggestions for what I can do with a packet of chicken thighs? No rude ones, please!'

Within a minute I'd received four or five perfect little recipes, each one tweet long, all different and a lightbulb pinged on over my head - how many such recipes could I collect, I wondered? Would people be willing to contribute? Could I fill a book, and donate the royalties to charity? And most of all, would this fill the awful hole in my life while I was on hiatus from the novel?

So off I went. Two days later I had the blog up and running, a hashtag going strong and had collected over 100 recipes.

So this is a book with contributions from other people. Did you consider writing the 140-character recipes yourself?

Good lord, no. I am the person for whom this book is written - harried, cooks because I have to feed my family, wants easy ideas but doesn't want to make the same thing over and over again. I contributed some of the recipes, sure, but I'm no cook!

I knew straight away that if I didn't get help from the Twitterverse I was sunk. I only hoped I could hold people's interest for long enough, since Twitter moves so fast. I was really afraid that the whole thing would fizzle out in a couple of weeks and I'd be left with a bunch of recipes, but not enough to do anything meaningful with.

So what about the celebs? *swoon* You have a lot of big names who have contributed to the book. Was this the plan from the get-go or something that came later? What do they bring?

I always hoped to snare a few celebs! One of the many great things about Twitter is the accessibility of people that you may look up to or have an interest in.

Many celebs took to Twitter like ducks to water, enjoying the fact that they can chat openly with fans without having to run the gauntlet of press, paparazzi, etc. Twitter really levels the playing field that way, so I had high hopes of snagging a few.

I didn't anticipate what actually happened, though. I put the call out to get some help with targeting celebs, since I couldn't do it all myself. A group of friends suddenly banded together, declared themselves to be Team Tweet Treats and set about tracking people down.

They were relentless! In a nice way, I mean. Suddenly they were bringing tweets and good wishes from huge names like Milla Jovovich and Paula Abdul, Boy George and The Script.

Mostly what the celebrities bring is themselves. The use of their name is valuable to the book, sure, but what's really enjoyable is the fact that so many of them manage to convey their own personalities, along with a recipe, within 140 characters. Paula Abdul's recipe is a perfect example, wait till you read it.

The celebrities tweeting and using the hashtag also hugely raised the profile of the project. One retweet from a big name could lead to hundreds of hits on the blog, for example, and encouraged fans to contribute also. I'm hoping that that loyalty will also translate into sales.

Finally, through tweets and retweets from celebrities, we've managed to raise the profile of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) - many people who contributed had never heard of the charity previously.

Tell us more about Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) and why you chose that charity?

I've known about MSF for about 10 years, ever since some friends who were getting married asked for donations to that charity in lieu of gifts. I looked into the charity and was very impressed with the work they do.

They are a global charity who provide healthcare in places where it is needed most, countries stricken by war, famine and natural disaster. The charity is utterly non-partisan and without any religious or political affiliation; if someone needs help, regardless of beliefs or background MSF will give it. I really respect that.

When I thought of the idea behind Tweet Treats, I knew I'd get submissions from all over the world, so I wanted to chose a truly global charity to be the recipient, one without an agenda that some people might find objectionable. MSF was the obvious choice.

Fantastic. So how did you get the book published? It's one thing to have an idea and get people enthused, but it's quite another to see it through.

I was lucky to have Vanessa O'Loughlin of writing.ie in my corner, she gives a lot of help and advice to new writers. She told me to write a proposal once I'd collected all the recipes, then kept sending it back to me saying it wasn't good enough, to add certain information, etc. It was hell, the hardest part of the whole process - blood and sweat went into that dratted proposal!

When Vanessa was happy that it was good enough she put it on Michael O'Brien's desk at O'Brien Press and told Michael that he should have a look. Ten minutes later I had a phone call from Michael O'Brien...

Obviously, thrashing out a deal, deciding on format for the book, etc took longer, but I was genuinely amazed at how (relatively) easy the process was. Previously I'd tried to get some fiction published, but I know now that it's considerably easier to get non-fiction accepted for publication.

Blimey, that sounds like a very straightforward and highly unusual happening! Has the editing process helped with your own writing at all?

I don't think it's helped with my fiction writing. In fact, I got so absorbed in all the nerdy little details involved in producing a book like this that I didn't write anything new for months!

However, it's been a fantastic introduction to the world of publishing. I now have a pretty good grasp of how it works, who does what job and when. The whole business has been demystified for me a great deal, and I feel more confident about being able to do it all again.

Tweet Treats is a fantastic idea and I highly recommend you support a great cause and buy yourself a copy right now.