Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic

I’m posting about synopses as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

First, and, IMHO most important, is the question of what a synopsis should do. If you don’t get that right, the details hardly matter.

Now, the marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. Now, those seem like good minimum conditions, but I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.

I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.

A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer as I did in the elevator pitch post, because that’s what’s going to convey the most important parts of the book’s flavor. Since I already covered that in detail I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of bite sized thoughts on the matter followed by examples in the shape of the proposals that sold WebMage, The Fallen Blade Series, and School for Sidekicks.

Practical advice on writing synopses.

1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.

2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.

3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.

4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV, and be sure to check before sending it along.

5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.

6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.

7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.

8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.

9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.

10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.

11. It goes to eleven!

12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.

13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.

14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.

The examples are going behind the cut, because they’re enormous.

Continue reading “Synopses, A Lengthy Discourse on a Pithy Topic”

Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat

I’m posting about queries as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

I’ve never written directly about queries before because I’ve never actually written one myself* so take everything I say after this with a grain of salt. That said, the query is basically a combination of the cover letter and the single page pitch both of which I’ve done about a zillion times at this point in my career, often successfully.

So, first, the cover letter part. Keep it as short and simple as possible. My cover letters go something like this:


I’m Kelly McCullough, author of (three most relevant publications here**).***

(Insert personal connection if appropriate here)****

I am looking to place the (novel title here) or, I am looking for representation, my latest novel is (novel title here).

One page or shorter novel pitch goes here (more on that below the break).

Thank you,

Kelly McCullough

____Arbitrary break to provide someplace for cover letter footnotes_________

*I got my agent through a truly bizarre process, but he’s done very well for me.

**If you’ve you’ve got them.

***Which three of my publications or series are most relevant depends in what I’m pitching and who I’m pitching it to. Basically, my novel resume is not the same as my fiction for science education resume, and it’s important to remember audience.

****”I met you at ArghCON, we discussed my work, and you suggested I send you something” and the like is appropriate. Most other things probably aren’t.


Now for the short pitch segment, I’m going to play to my strengths, laziness and organization and pull from previous things I’ve written on pitch sheets and only update the bits I feel need it. So, stealing from myself:

I’ve already covered some of what a pitch needs to do and how to do in the post on elevator pitches and I’ll go into it further in my post on synopses, so I’m just going  to post a diverse set of examples here. Below you will find a pitch for a novel I’ve never written, one for a novel I’ve written and haven’t yet sold (though I’ve had it almost sell three times), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. After each pitch I’ll include a brief note. Oh, and there will obviously be major spoilers.

The rest of this post is beyond the cut to hide the spoilers and because it’s enormous.

Continue reading “Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat”

The Elevator Pitch—My take.

I’m posting about elevator pitches as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:

The elevator or, personal, pitch, question one: Why do it at all? It’s really the book that makes the sale, so what’s the point? So, here are a number of reasons why you might want to at least be ready to make an elevator pitch.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows you the writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting your own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help you feel you’re not up against a giant inhuman system and let you feel empowered.

2. Mad personal skillz. Despite what stereotypes might say, many writers are social creatures and some are even very good at personal interactions. Writers who fall into this category may believe (with some reason) that they can do a better job of convincing an editor to give a novel a look using tone of voice, gesture, eye-contact and other interpersonal tools than they could through a query and synopsis or pitch letter. Depending on your skills on that front—a related but not identical skill set to novel writing—you could well be right.

3. Multiple projects. Some writers are idea fountains. They have ten or twenty novel ideas at any given time. And, as part of deciding which one to work on next, they’re interested in editorial opinion, believing (not unreasonably) that an editor is going to be more likely to buy a novel on a subject they liked from the inception.

4. Nothing else has worked. After the tenth rejection on the fifth book, a writer can get to the point where anything that has any chance of moving their career along looks like a good idea.

5. Choose your own adventure. I’m sure there are many other reasons, and I’m sure some of you could name them.

So, next question: I’ve decided I want to try an elevator pitch, how do I go about it? I think the most important part of an elevator pitch understanding that when someone asks you what your book is about, the answer they’re looking for isn’t all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re really asking is:

Why should I read this book? What’s exciting about the story?

Now, you can never really pick out what will excite someone else about your work, because everyone outside your head interacts with your story in strange and mysterious ways. What you can pick out is what turns you on about the story. For example, I’m a world-driven writer. I do all the other things too, plot, character, theme, prose, etc, and as a part of a full length pitch or synopses I need to talk about those things. But at core, what gets me going is coming up with a cool world and exploring it through story.

It has been my experience that when I start with setting, and let my enthusiasm about the world drive the conversation, editors and other writers become involved in the conversation and interested in what I’m telling them. Contra, when I start with what I think they want to hear, I bomb.

So, with my novel The Black School, I might start out with “It’s an alternate World War II novel set in a world where industrial scale black magic— sacrifice magic—has become the most important means of combat.” Then I’ll go on to give my audience a description of the scene that popped into my head fully formed, the one that got me excited about the book, and move on to some of the backstory of the world because that’s where a lot of the cool is-like, there is no white magic, at least not at the beginning of the book.

After that if I haven’t lost my audience, I’ll address the specific setting and the characters involved: The Black School, a young mage student, his mage girlfriend, the teachers, the enemy—shape changers from another dimension—etc. As I go along, I’ll also explain my themes: industrial impact on environment, the ethics of war, the implications of fighting a genuinely, verifiably, evil enemy, when does the end justify the means?

That’s all rough and it was off the top of my head when I wrote this post, but it’s also the product of a lot of practice. I’ve been answering the What’s it about? question for years on more than 20 completed novels, something like a hundred proposals, and dozens of short stories. Mostly those questions come from friends, family, and fellow writers, but that’s all to the good. If you practice with a friendly and genuinely interested audience, you’re going to have better results at crunch time with an editor or agent.

The things you’re excited to tell your sci-fi buddies about your work should be the exact same things you’re excited to tell an editor or agent. Always remember that agents and editors aren’t the job, they’re people who are really interested in the same kinds of stories you are. Neither job is one that someone gets into without loving the genre (Note: the same is true no matter the genre). Run with that, talk about what excites you in the field and what you love about your story and others. You may not make the sale, in fact, considering the odds against any particular sale, you probably won’t. But you might make a friend and you’ll have a hell of lot more fun.

Now, I know how much you all hate the idea of pitching your novel, because it’s something I have trouble with too, so I will digress a bit and tell you why I hate it, and point out that as much as I don’t like pitching, I do it anyway, because it’s part of the job. So…

Why I don’t like to pitch my novels. First off, I’m a writer. If I wanted to work with a live audience I’d have stayed in theater. I really really don’t miss stage fright, and pitching triggers it for me. When an editor asks me about my current book I’m not fool enough to decline to talk about it, and I do practice thinking through what to say in those situations. That’s because if I have to improvise on the subject of novels I turn into a babbling cretin. The question “What’s your novel about?” induces instant split personality disorder.

The half that is still a theater person usually goes into “wit” mode and tries to say things like “it’s about a hundred thousand words, why do you ask?” This is not a smart idea, and the frontal lobes are pretty good at stepping on the impulse. But having half of your brain trying to turn a serious conversation about your work into a stand up routine leaves only half a brain for the actual conversation. Worse than wit mode though is the actor’s nightmare, when the actor side of my brain suddenly realizes it’s in a terribly important performance and that it doesn’t know its lines!

Then there’s the writer half of my brain, which immediately starts whining to itself. “If I could tell the story of my book in two minutes I wouldn’t have had to write a novel.” This is true on some level, but also pointless. Then my writer brain starts trying to condense and synopsize, both of which are important skills, but are much easier to deploy at the keyboard with plenty of advance notice—or at least that’s what my internal writer voice says.

Basically, without proper preparation, it’s all bad. The separate parts of my brain make horrible individual decisions and then start yelling blame at each other when it all goes to shit.

So, my final advice: Plan ahead. Rehearse.

Direct links to the other posts:
Harry Connolly: (Added 9/19/2017)
Elaine Isaak/E.C. Ambrose: (Added 9/19/2017)
Kay Kenyon: (Added 9/19/2017)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: (Added 9/19/2017)
Joshua Palmatier: (Added 9/19/2017)
Phyllis Irene Radford: (Added 9/19/2017)

Reblog: Proposals and Series Vs. Standalone

Part 1: The Blueprint

One of the bigger changes in my mental model of writing over the last five years is that I no longer loathe and fear synopses and proposals. In fact, I have actually come to enjoy writing them. In part this is a function of practice. I’ve done a lot of these at this point, something on the order of 30, and as with all writing tasks, it gets easier with repetition. But even more, I think it is because I’ve spent the last five years working in the WebMage world with all its interesting bugs and limitations.Now, don’t get me wrong, I love WebMage and it’s been enormous fun to write. At the same time, it’s not a story that was originally intended to become a series. In fact, it wasn’t even originally intended to become a novel. The process went like this:

It started out as a short story. Then it grew a second (never published) short story. Then those two merged into the first half of the book. Then I wrote a third short that eventually became the opening of book II which grew from there. Then I had to come up with one more rough plot, CodeSpell, and a sketchy idea, MythOS. Then I wrote a series closer that had to incorporate all the earlier stuff and tie it up into a neat package.

This was a lot of fun but it also involved a lot of work in terms of making it all fit together and look like a cohesive whole. Picture a one room cabin that slowly accretes additions until it becomes a small mansion. It can be done in a way that produces something with architectural integrity and style, but it’s a hell of a lot more work to do it that way than it would have been to start out by designing a mansion from the blueprints up.

The same is true of series book proposals. In the past five years I’ve written series proposals for four separate series, two with a complete book attached, two with chapters. In all four cases, I knew from the first moment that I was writing a multi-book saga and was able to put all the story equivalents of pouring the slab, electrical runs, plumbing, and facade into the blueprint ahead of time instead of ripping out and replacing the original inadequate hookups or simply making do.

The end result of that advance planning should be a much more cohesive and seamless whole. In the case of one of the series (a trilogy actually), where I went ahead and wrote book II on spec as well, I was able to see how much simpler it was to get book II written and running with all the foundations waiting for it. It wasn’t a perfect fit and there were things in book II that made me go back and make minor adjustments to book I, but overall it was a much simpler and stronger process. The proposal is the blueprint, and if you get that right it means a lot less work and kludging down the road.

Part 2: Structure without planning—WebMageSo, as mentioned abve, WebMage accreted into a series rather than being planned as one. But what does that mean? How is planning for a series different?

Let’s start with the short-story version of WebMage’s plot and the things I didn’t think about beforehand. The short story WebMage was all about Ravirn’s successful escape after a hacking run. Because it was essentially a chase story, it really didn’t matter why Ravirn had hacked Atropos beyond for the hell of it (strongly implied in the short). Fine motivation for a short story, but ultimately unsatisfying for a novel. Because it was a short the long term effects of the cost of that escape didn’t matter when I was writing the short. So, at the end we have Ravirn with the enmity of one of the Fates, a knee that’s thoroughly hashed, short a fingertip, and in no real shape to do anything but lie in bed and recover. Fine in a short, more problematic in chapter three of a novel with a whole book left for him to limp through.

Then there’s world. In the short all I had to do for the magic system was put together the rough framework and then decorate it with the bits that I needed to make the plot work. A novel needs a lot more than that, and if I’d been planning for more story, there are things I would have made simpler or stronger. Names are another issue. At short story length I just grabbed cool stuff and didn’t worry too much about making a coherent culture of it. Likewise culturally, the colors my characters wore and the pseudo-Elizabethan court structure, both done because they were cool and at short length coherence wasn’t really an issue.

Finally, character: Ravirn and the Fates were basically perfectly workable characters for the longer run of a novel, so no real problems at the first order build-out level. Cerice and Melchior however both needed a lot more room to grow. A good part of the familiar underground subplot was by way of making the expanded Melchior make sense. As for Cerice, I don’t think I really got her to work fully the way I wanted until book V.

So, a good deal of the structure of WebMage the novel went into mitigating and justifying the cost of the events of the short and into making that set of scenes make sense in a larger context. A fair amount of work also went into ret-conning the magic system to make it work for the novel. Culture had to be justified and characters twisted and expanded. I’m quite happy with the result but it was an enormous amount of work to get it there and I suspect that if I’d been planning ahead I could have achieved better results with less wordage, which in turn would have given me room to make things richer elsewhere.

There were similar problems moving from the stand-alone WebMage novel into an open ended series a piece at a time as I did, most notably with Cerice (who worked very well as a love interest in the original happily ever after ending of WebMage but not so much over multiple books), Tisiphone (who I straightjacketed in book I much more than I would have had I known how big a part she was going to play going forward), the magic system (see the handing off of the mweb system from Fate to Necessity), and plot (having your main character go up against Fate in book I doesn’t leave you a lot of room to step back down into a more human scale of story or, on the other end, much space for a bigger badder baddie). Again, I’m happy with the results, and in particular with some of the choices forced on me by the original structure of Tisiphone, but I think it could have been done better with only a little more forethought.

I don’t regret a single choice I made with WebMage but man, looking forward, a lot of them are choices I’m glad I won’t have to make with the next set of books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog in two parts Nov 17 and Dec 3 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Book Proposals…I’ve Gotten to Kind of Like Them

So, I’ve been working on the proposal for a successor series to the WebMage books. The funny thing is that somewhere along the line, writing book proposals went from being an awful task to kind of fun.

Because of where I am in my career, I no longer have to have a completed book to synopsize, and it’s much easier to plump a cool idea out into a book outline then it is to condense a novel done into one. That helps…a lot. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve been working on the screen porch on a lounger surrounded by cats and a beautiful Wisconsin spring. But the most important change is that I’ve done this enough (way more than 20 times) and read enough successful proposals (30-50) that I no longer worry about the mechanics. It’s just another form of the story/play that is what I love most about my job as a novelist. I feel like I am finally becoming truly comfortable in my skin about all of the aspects of being an author.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I will continue to have a career under this name, because that’s entirely dependent on book sales, and I have very little control on that front beyond writing the best book I can every time, which I would do anyway, just for me. But that’s just how the business works. I guess the point of the post is simply this:

It gets better.

Every one of those writing tasks that seem daunting now, eventually gets easier and less painful. Keep practicing, keep growing, keep sending stuff out, and some day, when you’re not expecting it, the tasks that seemed impossible once might even have become fun.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog  May 5 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

The Plot Synopsis Strikes Back

As part of Joshua Palmatier’s Plot Synopsis Project II I’m posting the proposal synopsis for CodeSpell, the third book in the WebMage series. Links to other writers’ synopses will be at the bottom of this post.

For my full thoughts on how to write one of these you can see my posts on the subject. Pitching and Synopses parts 1, 2, and 3. Plus, what a synopsis should do.

Update: For those who have read CodeSpell you may notice that while the overall sequence of events and emphasis follows the book, there are any number of minor but significant departures. That’s pretty typical and expected. Enough so that this book went straight from delivery to the copyeditor with no revisions. For comparison here’s the synopsis for WebMage written after the book was complete.

Book Proposal for WebMage III (CodeSpell)

The story begins a few days after the end of Cybermancy with Ravirn receiving an invite from Zeus. The big guy is throwing a party of divine proportions. Among the reasons for the party is the coming-out of the newest power in the pantheon, Raven, so Ravirn’s attendance is not subject to negotiation.

The party is held on Mount Olympus in a huge outdoor venue. Ravirn attends with Cerice and Melchior in tow. During the course of the afternoon he encounters Cerberus, Hades, Persephone, the Fates, Dionysus, the Furies, and his own parents. His mother snubs him, his father does not, and in the process we find out that his father is the son of one of the Muses. He also runs into Dairn (last seen being dumped unconscious into a faerie ring in WebMage).

Something is horribly wrong with Dairn, though Ravirn is unable to decide what. This becomes much more important to Ravirn in a few minutes, when Dairn tries to kill Ravirn using powers beyond anything he’s ever previously exhibited. Ravirn is able to escape the attack, but only by the skin of his teeth.

There are a number of things going on that Ravirn doesn’t know or find out about for some time:

1. In the process of falling through the faerie rings, Dairn lost big chunks of his personality and memory. As he was wandering the worlds over the next year by randomly leaving and reentering faerie rings he became merged with the goddess Nemesis. Mythologically the role of Nemesis has a lot of overlap with the Furies, though she is less constrained, because she is without any controlling authority. She is also a bodiless entity, something like a non-replicating computer virus. In merging with Dairn she’s developed a powerful hatred of Ravirn.

2. Zeus is not the buffoon that Ravirn believes him to be. The sex-addled idiot thing is a carefully cultivated and personally rewarding act he uses to help throw his enemies off and reduce his workload. He is not fond of work if it can be avoided.

3. The damage to Necessity in Cybermancy includes a number of things that pose problems for the pantheon in general and Ravirn in specific. Among those is the loosing of Nemesis. Previously she had been confined both in location and power. Also, the resource locator forks for Tartarus (the prison of the Titans) have been destroyed. This last means that Zeus can no longer maintain a tight watch and leash on them, and that they are likely to free themselves and restart the Titanomach (the ten-year war with the gods that ended with the imprisonment of the Titans). Another major result of the damage is severely restricted access to Necessity, both electronic and physical. Not even the Furies are able to access her physical location and they can only speak with her intermittently. There are many other points of damage, but these are the ones of primary interest for this story.

4a. In order to prevent the escape of the Titans Zeus needs to arrange for the repair of Necessity. He believes he could take them in battle again if he had to, but it would be better if he didn’t have to. Fortunately, he sees a perfect out that involves a minimum of effort on his part——make Ravirn fix Necessity.

4b. His method for doing this is to nudge Nemesis into an encounter with Dairn and then to provide an opportunity for the merged being to have an unsuccessful shot at Ravirn, hence the party. Thereafter, in order to get rid of Nemesis Ravirn will be forced to repair the portion of Necessity that also contains the Tartarus forks.

4c. Zeus is also concerned about the increased power of the Fates in the computerized era and would like to see them taken down a peg or two. By framing them for the creation of Nemesis/Dairn he hopes to set the Furies, who are very jealous of the role of Nemesis, against the Fates. He also hopes that in the course of fixing Necessity Ravirn will introduce an anti-Fate bias that will come into full effect once Necessity’s powers are restored.

The initial attack by Nemesis is quickly followed up by further attempts, forcing Ravirn into a running battle with Nemesis while he tries to figure out some way to stop her. Because of Zeus’s machinations Ravirn becomes convinced that the Fates in general and Clotho in particular are responsible. This puts Cerice in the position of either joining Ravirn in direct opposition to her grandmother or of recusing herself. While she is being torn about this decision, Fate intervenes, literally. Clotho acts to remove Cerice from the equation, imprisoning her. Without Shara, who is still trapped within Necessity, Cerice is unable to resist effectively and is largely removed from the scene.

This is the opportunity Tisiphone has been waiting for, and because of the opposing roles of Furies and Nemesis, she is able to act as a desperately needed ally. Nemesis is a full-fledged goddess and her powers are nearly as great as those of Eris or Hades. Only the combination of the fact that she has to work through the relatively fragile medium of Dairn’s body and the intervention of Zeus allowed Ravirn to escape the first attack in one piece.

Over the course of the next several days Ravirn and Tisiphone discover that it is the damage to Necessity that unleashed Nemesis. A significant part of this discovery process results from communications with Shara from within Necessity. These communications are only possible because of Tisiphone’s tight connection to Necessity. Shara literally has to speak through Tisiphone. We also learn here that something truly strange happened with Ahllan’s disappearance in Cybermancy.

Once this is all established, it becomes clear that Ravirn is going to have to try to repair Necessity. He’s going to need to figure out some point of access. He’s also going to need more computing power. Necessity is simply too big a job for Melchior’s current specs. It’s time for a major (i.e. risky) upgrade. Melchior’s goblin shape and personality will remain the same, but he’s getting a new case and (in line with Ravirn’s chaos powers) a new quantum computing architecture that will make him significantly less mweb dependent.

Just as Ravirn completes the upgrade and reboots Melchior, Nemesis arrives. It’s touch and go, but at the cost of a really severe beating, Tisiphone is able to buy enough time for Ravirn and Melchior to escape. Unfortunately, they are now without the link they need to reach Necessity. In a stroke of apparent coincidence that is simply too much for Ravirn to buy, Megaera show up and offers to provide the missing link. She says she’s doing it for Tisiphone’s sake, but Ravirn realizes there’s more going on here than he thought, and he makes the conceptual leap to link it all back to Zeus.

Tired of being manipulated, Ravirn heads out to confront Zeus with Melchior vociferously arguing that it’s a bad idea. The whole way. Zeus’s role is revealed in the plot, including his actual nature. Ravirn is stunned beyond words, and deeply angry with Zeus, but he admits that at this point their goals coincide and he will go through with the scheme to fix Necessity. Scene ends with an accommodation similar to the one Ravirn enjoys with Eris, affection tinged with fear and grudging respect.

When he arrives at the physical location of Necessity however, he discovers that Nemesis, using Tisiphone as a link, has preceded him. A pitched battle takes place, one that Ravirn is able to win with the aid of Tisiphone, Melchior, and Shara-who can act directly for him in the House of Necessity. The fight is won with the death of Dairn and the apparent destruction of Nemesis through the physical destruction of portion of some of Necessity’s hardware.

Then Melchior and Ravirn proceed to repairing Necessity. Unfortunately, complete repair is far beyond their limited resources at the time. They are able to tie up Tartarus, but the Nemesis portion of the system is totally inoperable and the Furies are going to need do considerable hardware repair over the course of the next several years in order to get Necessity back into a state where Ravirn can take a true crack at the software problems.

The book ends on the first day of spring when Shara is ejected from Necessity. Ravirn is triumphant, but a number of loose ends leave him with a great deal of work to do and food for thought. Necessity is still controlling the mweb, but only portions of the destinies of the gods. Cerice and Ravirn parted under very stressful circumstances and Ravirn has developed further feelings for Tisiphone over the course of their conflict with Nemesis. This is further complicated by Tisiphone’s anger and grief over the damage done to Necessity’s physical form in the battle. She feels personal responsibility for that and her fellow Furies also blame her, but she also holds Ravirn partially to blame. And, where is Ahllan? All of which will lead into WebMage IV, MythOS.

Joshua Palmatier

Alma Alexander (Will post on the 20th instead.)

Sam Butler

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Daryl Gregory

Simon Haynes

Jay Lake’s comments and his synopses

Kelly McCullough

Jeri Smith-Ready

Jennifer Stevenson

Edward Willett

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog September 19 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Don’t Be Afraid To Change Your Mind.

As anyone who reads my status updates or blog posts knows, I’m an outliner. I tend to know how the whole book is going to go by the time I start writing. I write an outline, fill in the details and then follow it.

Except…when I don’t.

Yesterday* I got almost nothing done because I didn’t like the way a scene I’d written the day before tasted. It felt like there was something structurally wrong. So, before going to sleep I spent some time mentally going over the scene and looking for different ways to deal with it.

I ended up completely removing a major character from the scene and that has a series of cascading ramifications for the next two chapters. The new version is better. So, I changed the outline for those chapters and everything else that hinges off them. Then I went in and reset the foreshadowing to give the new stuff a better lead in.

If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change your mind and do something else that does. An outline is just a tool. So is any method you might use to envision the story in advance. Don’t get too tied to your tools.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Dec 05 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


*Dec 4th 2008


Conception to Completion (pt. 3 of 3)

The Final Installment--in which the book gets finished and a party is thrown.

Further Chapters: This happens concurrent with the following section. In essence it’s very simple, put in-scene the narrative you’ve developed. In practice it’s messy. You may find out that one of your clever ideas doesn’t work. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to find a good critic to read your working draft, they may point out things that need to be changed to make a better story. For one novel not all that long ago, I scrapped two chapters worth of working outline and started over. I kept some of the same events, but shifted the emphasis and removed the supporting characters entirely to emphasize the central role of the protagonist.

Advanced Blocking: This may or may not be necessary depending on your own individual process. I find that when I’m having trouble with a scene it usually means that I need to take a step back from the actual writing and figure out what I’m trying to achieve with a scene and how best to achieve it. So I might put together something like “Chapter 12, Scene one” with a description of what I want to happen and why, then follow with “scene two,” etc. until I’ve fully blocked out the chapter.

Finish/Clean-up/Ongoing Rewrite: Once the first draft is finished (if you haven’t already) it’s time to go back and clean up any messes made by the changes that will inevitably have drifted in from the initial conception and do things like throwing in foreshadowing for a scene not originally anticipated. A person can also do all of this as they go, going back and inserting whatever adjustments that need to be made as soon as they occur, and this is actually the model I follow though I don’t necessarily recommend it. For many writers what it leads to is a dead stall where they are continually rewriting their first chapters and never actually moving forward.

Celebrate: This is key. If you’ve finished a book you owe yourself a dinner out at the very least, and possibly a blow-out party.

A Final Note: I can’t emphasize enough that this is only one way to reach the goal of a finished book. I know writers who have no idea what’s going to happen with the story from day-to-day and who just “follow my characters around and see what happens” and who write excellent novels. I know writers who would be paralyzed by my model, sinking hundred of hours into blocking and outlines and not working on the text at all. Think of this as one possible starting point. Use the parts of it that make sense or help you move forward, discard those that don’t.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Conception to Completion (pt. 2 of 3)

Part 2–in which I talk about actually starting work on the book. Okay so this is a bit of cheat because I do do some of the initial writing in tandem with the earlier stuff.

Three Chapters: At some point in the process, beginning as early as halfway through basic blocking or anywhere thereafter, I need to actually start writing the book so that I can get a handle on who my characters are and the style I’m going to use to write the story. I find that I am often surprised about some of the details of the story and characters both here and later, despite the fact that I have a very good idea of what the story will look like in overview. I typically start these chapters during the blocking process and finish them in tandem with the basic narrative outline as the two inform each other.

Note: Three is not entirely an arbitrary number, because the basic book proposal format is three chapters (~50 pages) and a detailed narrative plot outline. As a writing tool, three chapters is purely a suggestion as it may well take longer than this to really figure out where the story is going to go and how it will get there. In an adult-length novel ~100,000 words, I will usually nail this down somewhere between 15-20,000. First time authors would be advised to have a completed manuscript before submitting the proposal version in any case.

Working Outline: This is a very different critter from the narrative outline. Here my goal is not to tell the story to a third party reader, but rather to blueprint it for myself. It will include both the events of the story and the structural reasons for those events. So, it might include something like “Draft student into school. Establish teachers, also the student TAs.” This tells me that at this point in this chapter I need to write several short scenes showing my lead character in his classes. One of the purposes of these scenes is to establish some of my other characters and make them distinct. The depth of description in a working outline will vary widely from author to author, and should include everything that you think is important in the scene at the minimum level of detail necessary for you to remember it. This isn’t the story itself and all the time I spend here is time that I don’t have to work on the actual finished product. Generally, the more inexperienced the writer, the greater the detail they should put into this sort of outline.

A working outline should at the very least lay out all the major events. In my case, I like to lay it out chapter by chapter. For Black School what I did was looked at my first three chapters to get an idea of what my chapter length was going to be (this can vary wildly depending on the story) and then mapped it against the max number of words. YA is short: 30,000 at the low end up to 75,000 at the extreme high end. I chose to shoot for 60,000 as a ceiling and to bring it in shorter if possible. That meant 16-20 chapters. Just getting in all the events listed in the narrative outline took about 14 chapters leaving me 2-6 chapters for unexpected surprises. I determined this by looking at the events in the narrative outline and seeing how much space they had taken up in my three demonstration chapters. This is an extremely inexact science, as one event might be a paragraph in narrative because of its importance, but only a short scene in text, while another might be a sentence in narrative, but a chapter and a half in text.

To Be Continued (As always YMMV)

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 24 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Conception to Completion (pt. 1 of 3)

How do you put together a novel? There are 1,001 and one ways, every one of them right. I thought I’d talk about how I do it in hopes that it might be of some use to others, or at least a good place to have a discussion of ways and means. So here’s the first part of my process using the book Black School as my model.
Before I start writing the actual book.

Conception of idea: What do you want to write about? This is question one. In my case I usually start with a world or magic system. Starting with a character or a scene or a situation all work too. It helps if you can articulate the idea in a sentence–I want to write about ___________. Or a pitch “World War II with sacrifice magic and dark fey Nazis” for example. That’s a gross oversimplification, but when I say it, my listeners will have an instant sense of where I’m going, and so do I.

Basic blocking: Write out the idea in some detail. Shoot for at least two to five single spaced pages. Put flesh on the bones of the one-sentence description above. Try and think through the ramifications of the ideas, i.e. How would a military magic school work when the magic is built around sacrifice? How big a school? How many students? How many teachers? Where is the school? What is its relationship with the local military? Etc.

By the time I reached the end of this process for The Black School I knew the number of buildings on the campus and what their purpose and design was, my total student body, student rank in relation to general military, class schedule, dorm arrangements, etc. That let me open the first day of the book knowing where my lead character had to be and when, if he followed his schedule. This is not an exhaustive list of everything I needed to know, but it gives the flavor. I come back to this and add to it all through the writing of the novel as more details become clear.

Narrative Outline: What is my actual story? In my case I started with a solid idea of where I wanted the story to start, where I wanted it to end, what kind of general transformation I wanted in my main character, and who that character was. That’s a good start for this model. Other models can work just as well and may mean knowing a lot less about the overall story.

For the narrative outline I typically end with a five page overview (standard length in 12pt Courier). In this case, a page on the school, magic system, and main character, to set the scene. Then I started with my opening scene and wrote a very loose description of events over the next four pages, introducing new characters as they came into the story.

The outline had to answer the following questions: What does the main character want? What do they need? What are they going to get? What obstacles do they have to overcome to get there? What do they have to give up to get what they need? How are they going to fail on the way? Failure is key to plot. If the main character doesn’t fail from time to time, then there’s no dramatic tension or payoff when they succeed.

The final version of the narrative outline should tell the main points of the story in a voice as close to the actual fiction as possible.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 23 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)