Wednesday, February 28, 2024

To sum up… by Eric Beetner

A query, an outline, and a synopsis walk into a bar, and a writer/bartender shoots themself. Publishers and agents often want one or all of these thinga-ma-jobbies. Any advice for writers who are flummoxed by how to create them? 

 So this is the post where I fear I make a lot of enemies. I don’t mind synopses. I outline all my books, and I’ve rarely had to query. 
Still with me? 
The synopsis can be a daunting task to many writers, but I feel like most people overthink it. It’s really just a boiled down version of your story. But let’s boil that down even further – it’s the hook. That thing that made you write the story in the first place. The thing you’d read on the back cover that makes you take the book home. I find far too many books miss this crucial step in the execution of the full novel. (perhaps this happens when people don’t outline? Who’s to say?) 
But if you’re cornered at a party and it slips out that you’re a writer, invariably someone will ask what your latest book is about. Do you start from page one and tell them chapter by chapter the entire story? No. You give them the hook. You give them that first twist that makes us want to know more. And here’s a tip when you’re writing the full manuscript: if that hook doesn’t happen until page 50, rethink the top of your book. How many times have I picked up a book and read about it inside the jacket flap and then had to slog through 20, 30, 40, 50 pages of nothing until we get to that thing you used to sell me the book in the first place. THAT’S your story. Start there. 

 As for outlining – again, you’re overthinking it. We all outline. Yes, even you pantsers. Don’t pretend you don’t, because I’m here to tell you that you do, in that you go through the same process, just at a different time that an outliner. At some point, we all make up the book from a blank page. Whether you make it up in notes and bullet points or you make it up in paragraphs and chapters, it’s the same thing. You get it all down after thinking it all up. I feel that creating an outline makes the writing easier and allows me to be more focused and concentrate on prose and details when I get into the scene, because I already know the basics of it. Some people don’t, and that’s fine because it works for them. No wrong answers. 
If you want to wing it, again, you’ll end up in the same place, just at a different time. You’ll do it in revisions. I have very light revisions and you’ll never hear me complain about a messy first draft. That notion has got to go. “Your first draft should terrible,” is, to me, the WORST writing advice you can ever give or get. 
Why would you not work to make the first draft as close to the real thing as you can? You don’t build a house with crooked walls, holes in the roof and no bathrooms and think, “Eh, I’ll fix it later.” That would be crazy, right? 

 As for queries, don’t try to write them for what you think someone wants to read. Be honest about your book and return to that spark that made you take the weeks, months or years to commit to write that book in the first place. If it was that interesting to get you to go through the process, then it should be good enough to hook and agent or a publisher. If it doesn’t, then they story isn’t for them and no amount of spit and polish you put on it will fix that. Surely we’ve all read some big best seller that didn’t connect with us. You just don’t get how that could have been the talk of the town last summer. Well, someone loved it. Taste is subjective. The market is vague and shifting like smoke. Write for you. Describe your story in a way that would make YOU excited to read on. You’ll find that kindred spirit who feels the same way and that’s the right agent or publisher for you, not the one who was tricked by your fancy query letter. Then you hand in the manuscript and they want to change it all around because it’s not the same voice in the query. Give them you and your style, right from the first thing they read of yours. It’ll save you agony later. 

 So to synopsize this – don’t overthink it. Get to the core of your story and trust it. 

 With that in mind… My new novel, The Last Few Miles Of Road is hot of the presses and it is about Carter McCoy, a 72-year old man who just received a terminal diagnosis. With his final days he decides to make a bold choice and do something he’s thought about for decades: to kill the man responsible for his daughter’s death. But Carter is no killer…yet. Can he right this injustice and still remain the man he has been his whole life? And once you kill, can you ever go back?


Brenda Chapman said...

Eric - Terrific, sound, and practical advice. Thanks!

Catriona McPherson said...

We all outline. Hmmmmmmmmmm. My day tomorrow . . .

Susan C Shea said...

Eric, you're too generous. Never mind the symbols and numbers and indents. I assure you I never do anything that could possibly be considered an outline. Sadly for my writing productivity, my brain just doesn't work that way! I write my characters into a room and keep trying different ways to get them out again!