Month: October 2011

Writing the Synopsis

I know at least one writer who thinks that writing a synopsis of her novel is a form of torture.  The trouble is, though, that writing synopses is one of the things writers need to do in order to bring their works to the attention of the greater world. Most publishers and agents request a synopsis as part of a submission package, along with the first few chapters of a novel and a covering letter.

It’s important to emphasize that a synopsis is not the same as the “blurb” found on the back or inside the front cover of a published novel (or in the brief description of an ebook). The blurb is a teaser, intended to provoke a potential reader’s interest and turn him or her into an actual reader or (most important) a purchaser of the work.

A synopsis, on the other hand, is intended to summarize the novel for someone who will engage with it in a role different from that of an ordinary reader — an agent or publisher who must decide whether or not to represent or publish the work, or a member of a critique group who needs a context for the excerpt from the middle of a novel they are expected to read closely and critique. The synopsis must lay out the entire plot and present the main characters, the setting and the flavour of the novel.

A synopsis a distillation of a novel. Distillation can be a tricky operation, and so is writing the synopsis. For one thing, there does not seem to be a universally agreed upon length — I have seen anything from one to twenty pages recommended. Knowing the current preference for brevity in everything from covering letters to novels themselves, I would say the shorter the better — one or two single-spaced pages, 500 to 1,000 words. If a detailed synopsis is specified, something longer would be in order — up to 5,000 words, perhaps.

Novels with complicated plots, multiple narrators and symbolic overtones are perforce more difficult to summarize than those with simple, linear plots and few or no subplots. Authors of complex works may benefit by writing two or more synopses, each with a different degree of detail — sort of like zooming in on the novel and presenting more details each time. That way you end up with a synopsis for every situation in which one may be needed. In fact, it’s good to have a whole range of descriptions of your work, from a single sentence to a jacket blurb to synopses of varying lengths.

Still, it’s tricky. You can’t write the synopsis in the same voice that you wrote the novel, but you don’t want to present it in such a detached way that all the life is sucked out of it, turning it into a dried specimen. Some writers may do well to write their synopses at leisure, in the interval between novels, when there isn’t much creative ferment going on. Others may do better under pressure, when an agent or editor has expressed interest in a face to face meeting at a writers’ conference, and you want to get your offering into their hands before that interest cools. For those who really hate synopsis-writing, it might be an idea to ask a fellow writer who has read the work in question to draft a synopsis of it. That gives the author of the work something with which to get started.

Critique groups are good venues for testing synopses and blurbs. When you join a group, or a new member joins your group, a synopsis is a good instrument to introduce a novel. Ask for comments or suggestions on your synopsis as well as on the real work. Since synopses are short, they are easy to read and comment on. My critique group has just had a flurry of synopsis writing. In fact, I’m about to send one to the group myself, for the first volume of my forthcoming novel, Islands of the Gulf. Having written several synopses, I can say with confidence that it does get easier with practice.



A couple of days ago, I did in a plant, a sprawling, hideous monstrosity of a rubber “tree” that had lived in a low-ceilinged, south facing basement room for years. It was deformed by the unsuitable situation I had inflicted upon it, but even so… It was impossible to get to the window to water the other potted plants that sat on the sill without crouching to get under the rubber tree’s branches. Most of the leaves were on the ends of the branches, making the thing look like a somewhat arthritic tentacled monster. There was no way to improve it, so when I managed to air-layer a cutting last summer, I decided to dispose of it.

I find it hard to kill plants that I have watered and otherwise cared for.  In a way it’s like euthanizing a pet animal, except that in the case of the plant, one usually does the job oneself, and it’s doubtful whether one is really putting it out of any misery. Lugging the rubber tree outside, lopping off its branches, finally yanking the trunk out of its pot and hacking up the root ball, I felt like a brutal executioner. Plants don’t scream, but rubber plants bleed latex. Now that the deed is done, however, I certainly appreciate the spaciousness of the room where it used to live, and the unimpeded access to the window.

The rubber plant was an ugly, misshapen specimen, so you can imagine how much trouble I have killing a healthy, attractive plant of almost any sort. Only the worst weeds fail to generate a twinge of compunction. This brings me back to those wretched maple  trees that  dominate my garden. In theory they could be removed quite readily. There are several tree-removal outfits in town. Indeed, one of them cut down yet another maple here some years ago, one that grew in the 12 foot wide space between my house and my neighbour’s. It was so obviously in the wrong place that I didn’t experience many qualms about its demise, and since then I’ve planted a perennial border in that space.

But the two maples on the west side of my back garden present other “issues.” One of them supports a hearty climbing rose of unknown variety (at least to me), that has hundreds of small, fragrant, fully double pinky-white blooms every June and July. I suspect that it would tolerate being cut down and repositioned, but the prospect of doing this doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the general disruption and chaos brought by men and machines to the plantings (such a grand word for my collection of tough survivors!) near the trees. Finally, those trees are homes to other creatures — a gang of squirrels and the local crow family, as well as other birds I hear singing on summer mornings. So I dither and defer, all the while muttering and complaining mightily about roots and shade.

Autumnal Ruminations

(OK, that’s a silly title for a post, but I like it better than the others I thought of — Fall Bits & Pieces, Autumn Thoughts, etc.)

I was actually stumped for a topic this week, so decided to ramble on about the state of the garden at the end of the 2011 season, and my plans for next year.

I can’t say that this was a spectacular year, garden-wise. The spring was rather cold and damp, the first part of the summer also.  After the middle of July the weather dried out but remained cool, which was fine with me, since I’m not a heat-lover. I got a good crop of tomatoes from my potted plants, and two HUGE crops of apples. Today I made apple crisp with the last of them.

The blue poppies? Not so good. A few of them bloomed, but not much. Late in the summer, most of them succumbed to crown rot. On the plus side, I do have a couple of dozen seedlings coming along for next year (if they make it through the winter, that is).

The single word that best describes the garden right now is “overwhelmed.”  Trees and shrubs have grown too big and are taking up too much space on this modest lot (50 by 120 feet). The wall of rose-and-clematis-overhung maples and vigorous hollies on my western boundary has become oppressive, and a magnolia in the front garden is now wider than it is tall.  It’s a dark pink, lily-flowered variety called “Ann” (or maybe “Susan,” I can’t remember which). In any case, the lady is a thug. Something Must Be Done, specifically removal of at least 3 large limbs near the bottom of the trunk, a process I’m somewhat apprehensive about, because I have read that magnolias really should not be pruned.

The vegetable patch is a lost cause — not even scarlet runner beans do well any more, due to maple shade and maple roots. Herbs, even sun-lovers such as lavender, are quite successful, so I intend to repurpose the space into a herb garden. At some point this winter I will read Henry Beston’s Herbs and the Earth once again, to develop enthusiasm for the project, which I fear will involve improving the narrow brick walkways and other efforts requiring digging and lugging.

In the meantime, there are the maples. Eventually one or both will have to be removed, as well as the Ailanthus in the northeast corner. Not just yet, however. Maybe some judicious crown-thinning will do the trick for another couple of years. This year all that remains is the business of raking up the fallen leaves, something that won’t happen for a few weeks, it seems, because 90% of them are still on the trees and a good many are still green. Altogether it’s been a rather peculiar gardening season, with just about everything happening later than expected.

Foliage of fireweed (Epilobium) turning colour

Obsession is the Wellspring

Last Wednesday evening, Victoria artist and writer Robert Amos spoke to members of the Victoria Writers’ Society about his joyful obsession with Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s mystifying novel which has flummoxed countless readers and spawned innumerable academic dissertations. An eloquent speaker, Mr. Amos described the beginnings of his preoccupation with Joyce’s novel and how it eventually flowered into a wealth of creative works, including a handwritten short-line transcription of Finnegan’s Wake, calligraphic quotations from it on painted paper, and wonderful calligraphy scrolls in the tradition of that art as practiced in Asia.

Robert Amos has also recorded himself reading Finnegan’s Wake in its entirety — twice. He emphasized that the work was really an enormously long poem, rooted in the oral tradition, and therefore best comprehended by listening rather than reading from a text. He recommended that writers try moving their words from one creative medium to another — from printed text to calligraphy, or to music. This deepens one’s appreciation of them and transforms them into new works.

Listening to Mr. Amos reading from Finnegan’s Wake and describing its incredible complexity, I kept thinking that if Joyce were a new author in the present day, he would have the devil of a time finding a publisher willing to take a chance on this work. I expressed this opinion during the question period following the talk, and no one disagreed.

So what did I take away from this informative and entertaining talk? Reinforcement for my belief that writers would do well to resist the compulsion to distort or truncate their works solely for the purpose of making them fit a formula or a set of rules propounded on behalf of the legendary tired, overworked editor who needs to get through the slush pile before night falls on the wicked.

I’m not advocating sloppy writing here. Prose must be honed, sharpened and polished like the best of Damocles’ swords. And if one wants to be published by a “real” publisher, it goes without saying that one must play by the rules set out for the willing and submissive author. But for those whose works don’t seem to fit any mold, there are other avenues now. It is no longer a choice between The Rules Writers Must Obey and the pile of manuscripts slowly turning into cellulose fragments in the fabled bottom drawer. Now there is self-publishing on the internet, including Smashwords, that great salon des refuses in the electronic ether. Making this project happen seems to be the obsession of its founder, Mark Coker, a tireless advocate for electronic self-publishing.

Obsession — that’s the other thing I was reminded of by Robert Amos — creative obsession, not the pathological kind (although who knows where one becomes the other). In my experience, almost any worthwhile creative work is fueled by some sort of irrational compulsion. Writing that is compelled in this way is far easier than that which is done under external pressures such as deadlines or obligations. Note that I don’t say that such writing is better, only that it flows more easily. At some point the writer has to go back and revise, again and again. But writing a first draft in a state of happy obsession produces raw material for revision far more readily than anything else. It’s the opposite of writer’s block — one can’t wait to get back to it, stealing time from work to scribble down snatches of dialogue, losing track of conversations while visualizing a new scene. Aside from anything else, this state is a deeply joyous one. It is, however, difficult to share with others. The experience of creative obsession is most often solitary. The thing to be shared, eventually, is the finished work, and in this I’ve always thought that visual artists and artisans have an advantage over us writers. It is far easier to ask someone to admire a painting or hand-knitted sweater than a 100,000 word novel. “Wow, that sure is a big pile of paper!” isn’t quite the reaction you want.

Apple Adventures, and Happy Birthday CBC!

In August I wrote a post about too many apples, Yellow Transparents at that time, and speculated that I might have a repeat performance in September, because my other apple tree was ripening a big crop as well. So it happened — buckets of apples, many of them a nice yellow colour with red cheeks. All through September I admired them from my kitchen window, until I finally persuaded myself to climb onto the garage roof and pick some.

I had no idea what variety of apple this was. The tree has been here longer than I have, likely planted by whoever built the house next door to mine, back in 1913. Subdivision happened at some point before my house was built in 1931, so now one of those trees, or an offspring, grows on my lot, rather too close to the back of the garage. The tree is rarely pruned and never sprayed, but this year conditions must have been especially amenable to apple production, because it produced abundantly.

Lots of Apples!

Coincidentally, our local CBC Radio station decided on an apple theme for its Oct. 1st open house celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Apple pie was available, there were people from the LifeCycles Fruit Tree Project there, and folks from the BC Fruit Testers Association, who could identify mystery backyard apple varieties. I turned up with a bag of the better specimens from my tree as an offering for LifeCycles. They were duly identified by the experts as an old variety called Maiden Blush.

It was fun to meet and see in person radio personalities familiar only as voices, and to mingle with fellow CBC listeners. And when I went home, I spent part of the afternoon baking a couple of apple pies.