Of Synopses and Query Letters

Today’s post is somewhat late because I’ve worked most of the day on a two-sentence synopsis for a query letter for my “baby-in-the-wall” novel. Who knew summarizing 83,000 words into two sentences would be so hard. I mean, I’ve been to several query letter workshops and panels at various writing conferences, so how hard could doing a summary be? A lot harder than I thought.

I will add, I’m having some help from an instructor from a workshop I took this year. He’s doing the shopping to agents, but he needed a summary from me, as well as a writing bio. So here was my first iteration:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative brings a secret from the past into the present and forces the novelist to confront what she has denied about her  life.”

I thought I should have some other eyes on it, so I posted it on the Facebook page of my online writer’s group, Shenandoah Valley Writers, and after some back-and-forth and some really good suggestions, I ended up with this:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season is a literary novel of approximately 83,000 words, which follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

That took the most part of the morning, but I was pretty satisfied with it. Even then, I let it sit for a while, decided it was pretty much perfect, then sent it off to my workshop instructor. A few minutes ago, I got an email from him, indicating he had “tweaked” the summary a bit, and here is what he did:

Supreme Madness of the Carnival Season follows a romance novelist’s investigation into the origin of an infant’s skeleton she and her older, literary-minded husband find while renovating a room in a house they’ve just bought in the Shenandoah Valley town of Ewington, VA. The two-track narrative uncovers an old secret, and what she finds forces the novelist to confront what she has long denied about her own life.”

Subtle edits in both latter versions but effective. Now, in just about every workshop I’ve taken about query letters, the agents have indicated they want to know genre and word count, the two items my instructor edited from the first sentence. However, he is someone who has dealt with a wide range of agents, so I trust his instincts.

I’m giddy that one of my manuscripts is getting sent to agents, but I’m also trying to temper my excitement. Nothing at all could come of this, but I’m beyond honored that this instructor felt strongly enough about my manuscript to give it his personal attention. I frankly have no clue how to repay that–not that he’s expecting remuneration–but as I said to someone today, the list of people to include in the acknowledgements section of the novel is growing long.

We writers are very often a solitary lot. We lock ourselves into our writing spaces and occupy worlds of our own making, our company only the characters we’ve created. And yet, it turns out the writing is the only solitary part of the process. Being published in the traditional manner means you leave your cozy, self-made world and venture into reality, a reality replete with editors and agents and proofreaders and copy editors, all of whom are working with you to make your novel a success. That’s exciting, well, happy-dance-inducing, but it’s also daunting and, not to mention, a little scary.

Still, I’m all for the process.

NaNoWriMo – Day 3

Update: I added 700 words this evening for a daily total of 4242 and a three-day total of 11,140.

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Combine going to bed at the ungodly hour of 2000, a time change, and an early wake-up, and you get another 3,542 words–and all before starting another jam-packed day of choir rehearsal, choir, and a birthday party for the two best five year olds in the world. That brings a three-day total to 10,440 words. And I’m glad for the cushion because I know there are days ahead where I’ll be lucky to get 1,000 words.

Here’s today’s excerpt from Chapter 3, Power Play:

Boyd Wahler stood before the painting, which had hung in every office he’d ever occupied—when he was a Congressman, a Senator, White House Chief of Staff, National Security Advisor, now Director of the CIA. He had painted it himself, based on a picture someone had snapped of him during his first tour in Vietnam. He stood alone in a field of high grass, a Huey in the background, and stared at something in the distance. Improvised camouflage adorned his helmet, and his rifle pointed at the ground. For the life of him, though, he could not remember what it was that caught his attention, what he stared at so intently. The photo, which he’d carried in his wallet, had long since disintegrated, and he’d done the painting from memory.

It reminded him that, at all times, no matter how many people worked for him or supported him, he always stood alone. When he needed someone to rely on, he could only count on himself. A carry-over from the previous administration, he knew the ground he now stood on was as mine-filled as the fields he trod in Vietnam. He knew, as well, the leverage he had over this Administration would take him only so far. Still, it hadn’t been a difficult call when one of his agents, Winston Everette, had requested Wahler’s presence at Everette’s cubicle in the Executive Office Building.

“Tell Agent Everette I’ll be glad to see him in my office at his earliest convenience,” he’d told his secretary. Her admiring smile had bolstered him for the rest of the day.

 (c)2013 by Phyllis Anne Duncan

NaNoWriMo Day 1

An excerpt from what I drafted today for this year’s NaNoWriMo project, Meeting the Enemy – Book 2: Retribution, Chapter 1, “Twilight in the Tunnels”–

“Alexei,” Sergei said, hand on his brother’s arm, “don’t go out there.”

“I’ll be fine, Sergei. I trust her with my life. If I didn’t she wouldn’t be with me. Besides,” he said, lowering his voice and smiling, “she likes me in bed. We’ll be drinking vodka together, soon, brother. Don’t worry.”

Sergei gripped Alexei’s shoulders with both hands. “Alyosha, I’m sorry for the things I said, about you being a traitor…”

“No need for sentimentality, brother. All that’s in the past. Now, no one is going to die here except maybe that presumptuous Muj out there, eh?” He released his brother before the emotion rose too high. “What do see out there, Mai?”

She waited until he was beside to answer in a low tone. “Just the one,” she said. “What did you say his name was?”

“Osama bin Laden.”

(c)2013 by Phyllis Anne Duncan

Planning How to End it All – Part One

No, no, I’m not about to jump off a bridge. This weekend I attended a half-day workshop called “Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, VA.

Some of us can nail the beginning of a story, novel, or essay. Some can do the middle. Some can do both. What stymies most of us is ending it all, i.e., putting those two words down when we’re finished: The End.

I’ve drafted a very complex novel about the year 2000 in what was then still Yugoslavia. The story involves assassinations of government officials, the criminal underworld, ethnic cleansing, election politics, and even disillusioned Russian soldiers. In other words, a lot of plot threads. And since the bulk of my writing has been non-fiction (government reports), I like all my threads tied up loosely.

Also, because my work is based on current events and recent history, as events move on, sometimes that affects what I’ve written. I have to go back and “finish” a thread–either by weaving some more of it or snipping it.

Some feedback I got on that draft was that the ends were tied too neatly, so much so the ending went on and on and on and…

You get the picture.

Hence, my attendance at Rebecca Makkai’s excellent workshop, “Ending it All.” Makkai is a novelist (The Borrower), short story writer, and non-fiction writer, and her workshop was eye-opening. I never knew there were so many different types of endings! Over the next few days, I’m going to recap this workshop and the useful points Makkai made.

Here are her “rules” (and she acknowledges rules are made to be broken) about an ending:

  • It has to “feel” like an ending, and the best judge of what that feels like is the writer.
  • It has to honor any promises you made to the reader, i.e., if it’s a murder mystery you must reveal the killer.
  • It needs to add to the story, i.e., “and then this happened.”
  • It needs to be poetic, even musical.
  • It needs to be “surprising, but inevitable.”
  • It needs, in some small, subtle way, to refer to the beginning.
  • And, sometimes, it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Makkai says when an ending doesn’t work, “It’s quite likely because it’s not long enough.” We’re tempted, she says, to get to the zinger of our last line when we should be imbuing the penultimate paragraphs with meaning. She uses a musical term for this–ritardando, or the gradual slowing which marks the end of a musical composition.

Despite the fact Makkai says we can’t really categorize or classify endings, she did provide “descriptors” of the kinds of endings writers have used. For each descriptor, she provided examples, some from contemporary literature, some from the classics, and even some from movies and television programs.

In discussing types of endings I may refer to the actual endings of the examples Makkai provided, so Spoiler Alert; however, I’m only talking about the ending as a stand-alone, pretty meaningless unless you’ve read the entire piece. And I was heartened that I’d read or seen most of her examples; that gave the workshop even more meaning.

Here are the descriptors of endings I’m discussing today:

1. Endings that deal with resolution, or lack thereof

The first sub-descriptor for this type of ending is Stasis, which is the intentional lack of resolution. Anton Chekov was a master of this, and the example Makkai provided was his short story “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which is the story of two people, married to others, who meet at a Black Sea resort and fall in love (a common theme of Russian writers even into the 20th century). The ending shows both of them wondering what to do about their situations and, boom, that’s it. Makkai mentioned this is very difficult to pull off and that most literary mavens consider it a rather old-fashioned device. What seems to work better for contemporary fiction is the “stasis of a character,” i.e., a character who doesn’t change even though the world around him or her has, often in significant ways.

The next sub-descriptor for this type of ending is the Intrinsic Ending, which involves a final, decisive act or event. This is so dramatic and so final that the story has to be over, it can’t continue. Examples were Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and John Updike’s story “A&P.” If this is the type of ending you chose, Makkai says, you have to make certain you don’t just show the final, concluding event but also its impact.

Next is the Game Changer, an ending which destabilizes everything else in the story, or, as Makkai says, “pulls the rug out from under you.” Examples were the movie The Sixth Sense (where the protagonist finds out he’s been dead all along), Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (where we find out the previous 300 pages was just the protagonist introducing himself to his therapist, who is now ready to begin), and Ian McEwan’s Atonement (one I haven’t read). Other examples of the Game Changer ending are Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Makkai’s only admonition about using this type of ending? “Do not ever, ever, under any circumstances, have a character wake up and realize it was all a dream, or anything equally insulting to the reader.”

The final descriptor for this type of ending (resolved or unresolved) is The Breakup, where the author abruptly pulls us away from characters we’ve come to like. Examples were Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, and John Updike’s Couples. Makkai adds you can’t do this just to be perverse to the reader, but only because it’s the right way to end the story. In each example she provided, she indicated the story could end no other way than how it did.

Tomorrow: Endings that Address Meaning and Endings that Emphasize Musicality and Sound.

The Places We Write

This past weekend I spent a brief time in a place where I used to spend a lot of time–eastern Connecticut. My ex, before he was my ex, and I spent as many weekends and holidays as we could on a small lake that spanned the Connecticut/Rhode Island border. The lake is called Beach Pond, and up until a few years ago it had a small beach on the Rhode Island side; hence, the name. Our lake house on the Connecticut side had a small lakeside yard and dock, a large deck, and a great view, which looked across the lake onto the Acadia State Park in Rhode Island.

On the drive from Providence Airport to Preston, CT, where I stayed at my ex in-laws, I have to pass by Beach Pond. I’ve only done this three times since I was last there in 2005 before the ex became the ex. For some reason, last Friday on the third time, I recalled that I wrote most of the rough draft of what’s now a four-book series at the little gray house on the lake.

Now, I’m not much of a water person. I’m a pool swimmer, and bodies of water with fauna in it make me a bit nervous, but sitting beneath some good-sized oak trees with a beer at hand, and notebook or laptop with me, I was in writer heaven. On the weekends, the place was very active in the afternoons–water skiers, JetSki-ers, canoers, kayakers–but in the mornings, the place was quiet and still.

My ex had, as one of his many good qualities, an ability to understand what writing meant to me. He knew it went far beyond the fact I did technical writing for a living. He knew what I wanted to do with my writing, and he encouraged it. He never once complained about the fact a notebook accompanied every vacation we went on and that some part of the day had to have writing in it.

At Beach Pond, he would hop into a small row boat and explore all the various nooks and crannies of Beach Pond, and I would write–pages and pages, sometimes by hand, sometimes on a monstrosity of a laptop (This started in the late nineties.) After two years of these getaways, I had a complete rough (very, very rough) draft of a novel.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that until last Friday as I passed by Beach Pond and felt nostalgia for the happy times I’d had there, but the feeling was something like remembering where you had your first kiss or the first time you made love to someone. The place has an unending significance. This is where I wrote my first, real novel. This is the place whose quiet beauty helped inspire me to do that.

Now, inextricably, that place will always be associated with that particular manuscript. Someday, I’ll turn the pages of the books it has become, and I’ll hear the lap of wavelets against the bulkhead, the rhythmic splash of the oars on the row boat as my ex explored a place he’d known since he was a child all to give me the time to create.

Place, or setting, within a novel is often crucial to its plot, but don’t forget the place where you wrote it. That could be just as crucial–and special.

Line Editing Blues

Well, not blues actually, but that caught your attention, didn’t it?

One of my beta readers for the novel I’ve been working on exclusively this summer not only sent comments back but a line-edit of the manuscript as well. And here’s the lesson learned: No matter how great an editor you are (and I have thirty-plus years’ experience editing other people), you cannot use yourself as your final editor. This beta reader didn’t find many typos (my bane), but she did find overuse of words, overextended dialogue, and over-explaining. However, those incidents of “overage” weren’t pervasive, just here and there, and I can make those fixes, easy-peasy.

Her general comments as well were good, and here’s another lesson. There is one suggestion she made, with which, right now, I disagree. It’s the merest hint of a new relationship for one of the characters at the very end of the work, and since I’m a sucker for happy endings (I didn’t get one), I don’t want to cut that. Don’t get me wrong. I respect this writer’s opinion, but for now I’m leaving it as is (maybe a little editing to make it even more subtle, though). I am, however, open to cutting it completely based on additional feedback.

When you’re open to feedback from others, especially people whose writing you respect and admire, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how their comments/edits improve your work. When I saw this beta reader’s line-edits, I smacked my forehead so often I may have given myself a concussion. They were obvious, so why didn’t I see them?

Duh, because it’s my work, and don’t you know my words are all gems?

Except when they aren’t. That’s why we’re word-blind for our own stuff. You can edit and revise, revise and edit, and then someone else still points out something you need to fix. These aren’t “happy to glad” edits; they tighten the work, they make the story more tense and intense, and they improve the overall product. I am forever grateful, and she and the other beta readers will be high on the list in the Acknowledgement section of the published work. When this novel gets published (I’m being positive, here), I know it will be in large part because these fellow writers helped make it publishable.

So, Indie authors, the next time you decry the use of professional editing and/or the use of beta readers because you think they’ll ruin your stellar work, think again. Let’s open our minds to the possibility they can make a good work brilliant.

September Friday Fictioneers

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow.

Some lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Try to Remember,” from the great musical The Fantasticks. Except that life has been anything but slow and mellow because, hey, it’s September already. How did that happen?

However, fall is my favorite time of year, with the colors changing and the air cooling. From my deck the mountains are crisp and clear, and you can see why they’re named the “Blue Ridge.” Fall is a great time of year for writing, for creativity in general. It must be the colors or the change in the angle of light or the unrelenting march of the need to do holiday shopping. I shift from writing in my office to writing on my screened-in porch or my deck. The air is fresh, the ragweed is annoying, but there’s just something about change in the air which makes for great writing.

A little progress report on the novel draft I sent out to beta readers: I’ve got three sets of comments back, and there are no major gaps and gaffes, just some great line-edit suggestions and some plot-enhancement comments. I’ll get started on that next week, and then I’ll have a decent third draft to send to my workshop instructor for his opinion. Exciting stuff, and I have a really good feeling about this manuscript.

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs inspiring as the change of seasons can be, the photo prompt for Friday Fictioneers is downright rousing. One look and a lot of memories came back–packing up my grandmother’s knick-knacks from her apartment after she died. Because I lived in an apartment then a small townhouse, they stayed packed for almost forty years. When I moved into my new house, I had room for a curio cabinet, so I unwrapped them (great to read newspapers from 1973!), and they’re now on display in my guest room.

Each one has a story behind it–some were gifts from her husband, my stepgrandfather. Some she bought for herself. Some of them my brother and I gave her for birthdays or Christmas. I suspect the same is true of the tchotchkes in today’s photo prompt, which inspired me to write “Memory Lane.”

If you can’t see the link in the title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Obsessive Manuscripts

Well, I finally finished the line-edit of the rewrite of my rough NaNoWriMo 2012 manuscript. Actually, it was two line-edits: a mark-up of a printed copy of the MS, and an on-screen edit after I’d incorporated the first set of line edits. I reached the point where I was tweaking the tweaks or making what, as a magazine editor, I used to call “happy to glad changes.” Enough was enough. I stopped editing and sent a copy off to four writer friends who had agreed to be beta readers.

So, what did I learn, aside from remembering not to do “happy to glad” changes?

Well, for one thing, I found I can re-write a 400-page manuscript in two months’ time, but only if I do little else except that.

Excessive use of dialogue tags is great for padding your NaNoWriMo word count but tedious when you’re editing.

A manuscript can take over your life. You think about it when people are talking to you about something else. You dream about it. You bore other people explaining about how you decided to cut a whole chapter because it didn’t really add to the story. It intrudes when you’re trying to write about something else, and you feel guilty when you’re paying attention to it and not other writing projects. Then, you feel guilty when you’re working on other writing projects and not it. It (the MS) obsesses you; you’re obsessed with it; it’s an obsession.

And that’s a good thing.

I suppose.

No, no, it is, it is. Really. But, even after you’ve sent it off to the beta readers, you still think you should be editing it. Nothing big comes to mind. No plot holes except those you’ve already found, but it’s hard to be patient and wait for the betas’ comments.

I have to say, though, I’m really, really proud of this manuscript. I like the characters, the story, the settings, the twists and turns. I’m glad what started out as a suggestion in a comment on a 100-word Friday Fictioneers story turned into a 385-page, fully developed novel not involving spies and guns and intrigue.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t ever stop writing about those things. Rather, the change of pace was challenging, and I hope I met the challenge. We’ll see. It’s another of those things you have to be patient about.

Did I mention I’m not a very patient person? I’m more the “why wait for it when you can go out and get it done” kind of person. (Of course, as anyone who knows me will allude to, I’ll think it to death before I act on it.) I’m more than eager to get this MS before some agents, but I also want those agents to see the best possible manuscript; so, patience it is.

Sigh.

Friday Fictioneers–and a Finish!

The first rewrite of my “Tinker Mountain” manuscript is done! Woo-hoo! I worked for the most part of twelve hours the other day and got it in the can. Scrivener has a great tool–Compile–which, after a couple of mouse-clicks, renders a fully formatted manuscript. In my case it came to 398 pages. Oi! Too much for either of my printers, so a quick email to my local Staples, and I had a copy.

Oh, I was so tempted to pick up my red pen and dig in! Patience, though. I want to set it aside for a week or two, get it out of my head, then delve into the line edit. I have some decisions to make: Do I want to show the bad guy (who seduces one girl and rapes another on the same day) exhibiting some redeeming quality? As in, he saves the men in his unit from a German machine gun assault on D-Day? Or do I just acknowledge this as fact and let his egregious behavior stand on its own? Rather than just show another character’s “fatal flaw” (the fact he can’t keep his fly zipped when a younger woman is around), do I include some back story to explain why he is the way he is?

So, those thoughts, and more, will be bouncing around inside my head for the next couple of weeks. I hope they’ll be resolved by the time I sit down with the red pen.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt comes from a place I’ve been lucky to visit twice–our 50th state, Hawaii. It’s an incredible shot from Mauna Kea on the Big Island, across the ocean, to the smaller island of Maui. Truly beautiful, and it was very inspirational. I love Hawaii, with the mixture of modern, urban life and native Hawaiian spirituality. And where else can you get up close and personal with extinct and not-so-extinct volcanoes?

I hope you enjoy “Free Flight,” and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

My Three Rs: Rereadin’, Rewritin’, and Revisin’

Some days you have to choose–blogging versus spending quality time with the grandkids and one of your BFFs. Yesterday, the grandkids and the BFF won. So, no blogging, though I did spend a couple of hours in the evening working on the novel rewrite/revision.

I have about forty pages left from the original, rough draft to rewrite/revise. In the process I’ve added about 10,000 words to a manuscript, which was “just” 63,000 words to begin with. I’ve been told 60,000 to 70,000 words is a good length for an MS you’re going to shop to agents. Of course, I’ve also been told, at a different writing conference, that 100,000 words is tops for such an MS. So, who knows?

I think this first revision will end up at about 76,000 words, give or take a thousand. That doesn’t bother me, since the next step–after letting the MS gel a while–is to do a line edit. That should bring me back closer to 70-72,000 words, which I think is enough to tell a story in two time lines.

Why did I add words in a rewrite? Well, that happens sometimes, especially after time has passed since you wrote the draft and a re-read shows you scenes, which have no context. The actions, dialogue, setting, etc., seem to have just fallen from the ether onto the page. The context has to be there, or the reader will spot the disconnect right away. Sometimes the additional material has to be there to make a character two- or even three-dimensional. Other times it’s because what is obvious to the writer isn’t always to the reader. Yes, readers like it when you give them just enough for them to make the leap of logic; however, you can’t give them a chasm to jump. Readers are not Evel Knievel.

Here’s an example: A character in this novel is obsessed with the unborn child of her own son, killed in World War II. It wasn’t enough to just state this. I needed to show examples of this obsession, and this led to a scene of a frenzied woman going to the house where her daughter-in-law has sought refuge from her and making a scene. And of course, I had to write other scenes to show this tendency so that the final scene had context and was believable. Also, of course, those scenes may not stay, but at the time I needed them to understand this character better. You can’t condense until you have the context of the characters, the plot, even the setting.

Another example: Since I made up a town in the Shenandoah Valley, I had to give it a history, some of which is based on three different towns where I’ve resided, as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The history is great–I both researched and relied on my memory, and I’ve created what comes across, to me, as a real place. However, again, how much of that history is essential to the overall story in the novel remains to be seen, but I needed that to fully realize this fictional town in my head.

Of course, this fixation on rewriting/revising means I’ve created very little original material, at least not novel length. I average two pieces of flash fiction a week, which keeps the writing brain engaged. I do, however, miss the process of sitting down and churning out a novel-length work.

Then, again, that’s what NaNoWriMo is for–and that’s only three months away.

Three months? I guess I better start thinking about something new to write.