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.

How to sync Scrivener with any text editor (and go mobile too)

I’ve just spent the last hour or so transferring all the bits and pieces of my second novel into Scrivener, the popular writing app for Mac and Windows.

This is not my first time using Scrivener. After hearing lots of great things, I first gave it a try early last year. In the end, I felt that using one app to do all of my writing didn’t quite fit with how I work. It seemed too restrictive

I like to make notes on the go with Simplenote and have it sync to all of my devices (laptop, iPad and iPhone). I also like the simplicity of using plain text files in apps like TextEdit or iA Writer, again with documents synced to all of my devices via Dropbox. For me, flexibility is really important.

Scrivener seemed fantastic for those who write in the same place and on the same computer, but not for someone who likes to move around a bit more. I now know that I was wrong, and that with a little setting up, Scrivener can be used alongside any text editor and in any location.

Using Scrivener with any text editor

At its heart, Scrivener is a word processor. It provides a blank page for writing on. But it has many other features too, which although very handy for some writers and might see them use Scrivener for every element of their writing, for me they can occasionally get in the way.

That’s why I wanted to find a way to separate the two elements of my work. I wanted a way to organise my novel, make notes and store research in Scrivener, but be able to use another writing app to do the actual writing.

This is completely possible. Scrivener has a fantastic sync feature, which I discovered via Dave Caolo’s excellent instructions on how to set up Scrivener to work with the iPad app, PlainText.

It works by taking your one giant .scriv file and separating all your Scrivener documents into separate files in a folder called ‘draft’. To set that up, your first task is to choose where on your hard drive you’d like that folder to go.

Use the menu as follows:

File > Sync > with External Folder

From there, you’ll see a dialog box and the option to choose a ‘Shared folder’. Do exactly that, making sure that you’ve got the option to ‘Sync the contents of the Draft folder’ selected. Once you’ve chosen your folder, hit ‘Sync’ and you should end up with a ‘draft’ folder full of text files in Rich Text Format (.rtf).

You should now be able to open and edit those files in any text editor on your computer, from Microsoft Word to Notepad on a Windows PC, Pages to Byword on a Mac.

However, note that when you next open Scrivener, your work will not sync automatically. To make sure that you’re working on the latest versions of your documents, you’ll need to repeat the process described above.

Head to:

File > Sync > with External Folder.

Hit ‘Sync’ again and all should be well.

Go mobile with Scrivener and Dropbox

You know all about Dropbox by now, right?

If not you should rectify that situation immediately. It’s a brilliant tool for any writer who wants to have their work available wherever they are across different computers and devices.

Dropbox works by creating a folder on your computer that syncs with the cloud. Because it’s so good, many other apps have implemented a ‘sync with Dropbox’ function to allow users to sync data between their desktop and mobile devices. And that’s exactly how you can use it to go mobile with Scrivener.

Essentially, you need to follow the same process as before. However, there are two very important differences.

First, instead of choosing to create your ‘draft’ folder in any old place on your hard drive, you need to put it somewhere within your Dropbox directory. Second, you should change the format of your synced files from .rtf to plain text (.txt), as it’s the simplest, most universal format and what most mobile apps use.

You can change to .txt from the same dialog box as before. It’s at the bottom under the ‘Format’ heading and ‘Format for external Draft files’. Choose the Plain Text (TXT) option and again, hit ‘Sync’.

This time you ‘draft’ folder’s contents will be synced to the cloud via Dropbox and the files will be in Plain Text format. All you need to do now is find a text editor on whatever mobile device or tablet that you happen to own that allows you to sync files with Dropbox.

My particular favourite is PlainText, which I use on both my iPhone and iPad. It works seamlessly and allows me to open, edit and save my Scrivener documents without any trouble at all. It’s like magic.

How I’ll work in the future

Using the methods described above, I intend to use Scrivener as the place where I organise my novel. I’ll keep everything in there and I’ll never have to spend hours trawling through Word documents again. It will be the font of all knowledge.

But I will also use other text editors when it comes to the writing itself, which means I will hopefully avoid the temptation to tinker with Scrivener’s many settings and lose myself in research when I should be writing. Best of all, I’ll be able to make notes and continue working when I’m not at my laptop.

I’m really impressed with what Scrivener can do and now I’ve found its capacity to sync and be mobile, it may well become my very best writing friend.

iBooks Author changes a lot, but not everything

Apple has just announced iBooks Author for Mac amidst a whole host of other announcements destined to further shake up the publishing industry.
iBooks Author gives the everyday you and me a simple, drag and drop interface with which we can create multimedia, multitouch books. That’s books without an ‘e’. Apple has decided that it’s time for the ‘e’ to go. Books are books, however you read them.

Anyway, this launch is incredibly exciting, especially for people who want to self-publish their work. I want to publish my novel traditionally, but I can also see lots of ways that I might produce and publish content using iBooks Author, especially the sort of stuff I already produce and publish here on Write for Your Life.

The technology may be moving forward and the old publishing industry may be falling further and further behind, but there’s still one thing that I want you to remember in all of this excitement: be professional.

Self-publishing has previously suffered because many authors put their work out in a hurry. Whether through lack of knowledge or not having the finances, too many people publish work without getting it edited and designed by someone who knows what they’re doing.

In recent years, this has been changing. More and more self-publishers are investing time and money in making sure that their work is polished and professional. This is a good thing and long may it continue.

What iBooks Author presents is a way to produce a professional-looking book using a pre-defined template, which means the author doesn’t have to pay a designer to do it for them. But being a designer is a real thing. It’s a profession. To become one takes years of training and experience.

All I’m saying is this.

Please, do take a look at iBooks Author and feel free to use it to publish your work. Seriously, it looks fantastic. Just don’t forget to be professional. Don’t think of it as an easy option and if you can, hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Or at the very least, get them to check it before you share it with the world.

Essentially: always present your writing in the best way possible.

Blogging in 2012

I was going to share some of my upcoming plans for Write for Your Life, but I’ve heard so much about what other people are doing in 2012, I decided against it. I figured that maybe you’ve also had your fill of writing resolutions and things to look forward to that aren’t really things for you to look forward to.
As I was deciding not to tell you about my plans because everyone else is telling you about their plans, I had another thought. Maybe, when Valentine’s Day or Easter or some other arbitrary date comes around, I might not tell you about anything related to those things either. Because that’s what everyone else will be doing. Obviously.

But this is where I ran into a problem. Now I had two things that I’d both thought about and decided. If I could come up with one more thought or decision, I’d have what could legitimately be referred to as a list. So maybe it would be fine for me to write a blog post after all. I could write a list of thoughts and decisions.

Because people love lists. Lists and statistics.

Being social

You’re a writer, right? And you’ve got your own blog about writing? Of course you do. Everybody is and everybody does. So you need a profile. You need to spread the word about your work. You need to do social media. Or something.
You’ve had a Twitter profile since 2006. You were an early adopter before being an early adopter was even a thing. Twitter was fine back then. You talked to Mike for a couple of days. Mike talked back. Online and off. You worked with Mike. If you reached out, the both of you, you could touch fingers. If you leant a little, you could high-five.

You stopped using Twitter, but now it’s nearly 2009 and time to try again. There are more people on there and it makes more sense. It seems more interesting. More useful.

The best thing about being on Twitter in 2009 is that you have something to talk about. You have somewhere to point people towards. A creative hub. A home for your thoughts. A website on the internet. You can talk to people who are not Mike. Such possibilities.

First you need to get your profile in order. No more messing around. You’ve read blog posts about this sort of thing. There are rules and regulations. You can dominate, if you want to. If you really, really want to. Domination, you’re told, is desirable.

You should start with the bio. The trick is to write a bio that makes you sound awesome. Not totally awesome, exactly. Not too awesome. Too awesome might put people off. You need to sound somewhere between really very awesome indeed and actually quite a nice person really. And you have to include a link to your website. That’s very important.

The picture. A good picture is essential. First you need to appear normal. Normal is an excellent place to start. Many people are perfectly happy with normal. If you can somehow look writerly too, that would be perfect. You could hold a pencil, perhaps. That oversized pencil you’ve seen in the office. That’ll do. That’s ideal.

And so you are ready. Ready to be social.

Time passes.

It is 2011 and you have been extremely social. You have followers. Many followers. Your website has subscribers, not followers. Not too many, but more than you could have hoped for. Things have gone well. Really, very well.

So you must update your profile. You absolutely have to. It needs to sound better. It needs to look better. You need to start taking these things seriously. Far more seriously than you did before. Because now you have an audience. People follow you.

The bio needs some work. You need to tell people how brilliant you’ve become. But you can’t sound too brilliant. And it can’t be too personal. Just give them the facts. This is who you are and this is what you do. This is why you’re brilliant and this is where they can find you.

Your picture. Normal is not something to aspire to. Not any more. And no holiday snaps or silly props, which means the oversized pencil has to go. Your new picture must look professional. You need to seem intelligent. Handsome, if possible. Handsome on a plain background. And smiling. Smiling is vital.

Because this is the new reality. Image is important on the internet. What you look and sound like makes a difference. It has impact. A name, a bio and a picture. That’s all people have to go on. You have to get it right. Exactly right. One chance only. Domination.

So what you should do is this.

To avoid embarrassment, wait until no one is around. Make sure that the house is empty then find your favourite pullover. The black one with the old-fashioned collar. Put that on and tend to your haircut. Assemble it as best you can. Take off your glasses. Put them back on. Handsome. Intelligent. Find a balance. Make a decision.

Take the picture from the wall to create your background. Use the expensive camera that you have never learned to operate correctly. Leave it on auto-shoot. Stand in an appropriate position and hold the camera back to front at arm’s length. Begin to point and click. Look into the lens. Look into the middle distance. Smile an imaginary smile.

When happy or satisfied, upload the images to your computer. Deliberate. Pick a favourite. Crop and crop again. Make black and white. Renew your profile.

Next year, in 2012, you must do all this again. You must also worry less.