The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (A Cautionary Note)

During  my original run of outline posts over at Wyrdsmiths, my friend and fellow author Lyda Morehouse brought up something that I felt was quite important

Lyda said. “It might not matter what you call it, but when I first started writing novels I felt I HAD to outline like that and it pretty much scared the crap out of me.”

This is the most important thing to know about outlines:

If outlines don’t work for you, or if you need to call them something else, or construct them in a different way—say as clusters of words on a whiteboard, do that. There are a 1,001 ways to write a novel, every one of them right. If something works for you, do it. If not, don’t let anyone tell you that it should. Move on and find something that does work. Everything we say here is meant by way of suggesting things that may help, not as laying out the one true path to novel success.

Lyda does things in her process that would drive me over the edge and vice-versa and yet both methods produce novels that sell. The only thing that really matters processwise is that you write and that you finish at least some of what you write.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 30 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (Part II)

Outline, a personal lexicon:

Sketch/Brainstorm: When I have a new idea for a story I always write it down in brief and tag on ideas for expanding the idea into something with a plot, characters, and fully realized setting. This can run anywhere from three sentences for a short or poem to two or three pages for a multi-book idea. I have hundreds of these in my ideas file, including probably 30-40 novel outlines sufficiently fleshed out to start writing.

Working: When I actually start in on a new project I take the sketch outline and expand it to something that gives me a good idea of the first third of the story, a rough idea of the middle bits and a good handle on the ending. How much work this is depends on how fully fleshed out the sketch outline was. This will typically run around 3-5 pages and include notes to myself along with the narrative paragraph blocks–things like “establish ruthlessness in dialogue here,” or “she will return in book two as a ghost.”

Timeline: In order to keep the days of the week, dates, moon phases, holidays, etc. organized, I almost always create a timeline for each novel with important events attached to specific days and dates and sometimes times of day or other time indicators. I do this both for the arc of the story and for historical and future events relative to the story. That last part is where it becomes more like other outlines as I use this as another type of sketch/brainswtorming tool.

Ongoing: As I’m writing, I constantly update the working outline with ideas for upcoming bits of business, plot points, character nuggets, and magic system chunks. At some point, generally when I hit the place where the working plot goes all sketchy I will sit down and lay out a chapter-by-chapter scene-by-scene outline for what happens from there to the end of the book. This can run as much as 30 pages single spaced.

Length: This is a specialized form of ongoing outline. By the time I move to the ongoing outline I generally have a very good idea of the book’s natural chapter length which can vary widely depending on all sorts of factors including number of POV characters, type of POV, and target audience–I generally write shorter chapters for YA. What this allows me to do is take my ongoing outline and figure out how long the book is likely to be based on chapter length and how much material needs to go into each chapter and scene. More importantly, it allows me to add or subtract story elements to help me achieve a target length–I’m usually within a thousand words of target length when I finish a draft. Since writing to length can be very important to editors and for specific markets, this is an enormously valuable tool and simple to use. Do I have too many chapters? Collapse some scenes and ideas together. Do I not have enough, open some scenes out into full chapters or add others to achieve effects I hadn’t thought I’d have room for.

Narrative/Proposal/Pitch: This is largely a sales tool, though I also use it to do brainstorming/sketch work for books that are part of a proposal but not yet written. These have to have a very specific form and often have set lengths–particularly for newcomers to the field. They can run from 1-5 pages either single or double spaced depending on submission guidelines and they must be in present tense (with the exception of quoted material from the book). They also can’t keep secrets.

2013 Update: The last couple of books I’ve pretty much taken the narrative outline and worked off that, with with my ongoing outline done as voice notes and bits thrown into the text at the end of the book, and my timeline bits tossed into the master timeline for Fallen Blade. After novel fifteen (Broken Blade) I moved into a looser process. I still use all the processes described here, I’ve just gotten much better at doing them in my head.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 28 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

The Spanish Exposition-Outlines (Part I)

I started to write a comment in Sean Michael Murphy’s post on outlines, but it quickly turned into Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch—my chief use of outline is as a book writing tool…book writing tool and book selling tool..selling and writing… My two main uses for an outline are book writing and book selling…and structuring. My three uses are… and so on. Now it’s become so big that I’m actually going to do it as a two or three part front page post.

Over the years I’ve become a militant outliner. My first two books were written off the cuff, and though I still love the bones of both stories, I can see how knowing where I was going from the beginning would have produced a better end product. My third had a crude outline, and my fourth had a cruder one. Since then, I’ve gotten steadily more efficient and focused with outlines and it’s led to big improvements in writing speed and quality.

Brief digression: I hated outlining in college. Absolutely hated it. I would go to great lengths not to have to write outlines for papers, even going back and writing outlines post paper in classes that required them so that it looked as though I had followed the desired process. To all the professors who tried to get me to outline back then, mea culpa, you were right, I was wrong.

2013 update: second brief digression. The last couple of books I haven’t outlined as completely on paper, but that’s mostly because I can hold an entire book in my head much better now, and I do much of my outlining as voice notes these days.

Back to the main topic. I use many different types of outlines in my work (updated to add timeline):


These each have their own foibles and uses, and I’ll get into that in part II tomorrow.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 28 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Pitching Your Book Part V: Pitch Sheets

Most of what I want to say about how to write a pitch sheet I’ve already said in the previous four parts of this series talking about synopses. The main difference between the two forms is length.

So, what I’m going to do here is post a diverse set of examples. 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 it’s out with an editor who would like to buy it), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. I will also include the long form synopsis for WebMage for comparison. 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 “Pitching Your Book Part V: Pitch Sheets”

Pitching Your Book Part IV: What a Synopsis Should Do

I’ve been mulling this over a lot lately. 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. I’m not sure that I agree. Those seem like good minimum conditions, but I think 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, because that’s what’s going to convey the important parts of the book’s flavor. Perhaps this is another instance where strong voice is important.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 20 2007 (this one is out of its original sequence to include it in synopses week), original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

*Once upon a time there was an agent who also blogged under the nom-de-blog of Miss Snark. She was smart, funny, and extraordinarily helpful. Enough so that as a reader/working writer, I went through and read here entire blog front to back and created an index for it. That index was one of the most useful tools for educating writers that I’ve ever created. It was  originally published at Wyrdsmiths, and now I’m mirroring it on my site.

Pitching Your Book Part III: Bite Sized Advice

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.

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.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 2 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


Pitching Your Book Part II: Building The Pitch

Synopses suck. Really, they do. It’s pretty much a truism that if you the writer could have condensed what you wanted to say down to five pages, you’d have written a short story. So, we’ll just take as a given that you are going to lose a lot of detail in the process of converting your baby into its operating instructions. This is doubly true of pitch sheets (more on those later) and pitches, which have the added benefit of performance anxiety, a live audience, and any issues you personally have with public speaking.

So, first, the pitch. A pitch is the verbal version of the pitch sheet, which is your novel on a page, and worse, it begins with the tag line, also known as the one sentence version. Aiee!

There’s all sorts of advice out there on how to do this, what to include in the synopsis, proper format, etc. I’m just going to assume that if you want to look for those things you can, and focus on the key internal emotional context. If you can get that, the rest is an extremely aggravating exercise specific to the book.

What someone is really asking when they ask you about your book is not all the fiddly details, though those are important too. What they’re 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 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 some of the back story 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, 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 off the top of my head as I sit here, 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 eighteen novels 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.

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, because 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.

I’ll go into more specifics on pitch sheets and synopses later—though it looks like I may have to write a brand new part four to this series to do it, hmm.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 30 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Pitching Your Book Part I: The Elevator Pitch

This will be a multi-post discussion of pitching, pitch sheets, synopses, and proposals, none of which are much fun for most writers.

We’ll start with the elevator or, personal, pitch. Why do it at all? That’s the first question since it’s really the book that makes the sale. What’s the point? I’m not too fond of them myself, for reasons I’ll explain below, but here are a number of reasons why you might want to do this.

1. Many writers have never actually had any interactions with an editor beyond the profoundly impersonal form-rejection. A pitch session allows a writer to actually verify the existence of a real live human being at the other end of the process as well as exerting their own personhood to the editor. This may not do any good, but it can help a writer feel that they’re not up against some giant inhuman system and make them 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 their 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 the writer’s skills on that front—a related but not identical skill to novel writing—they 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.

Okay, so here’s my promised explanation of 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, what should you do when you’re on the spot? I’ll talk about that next time in part II, Synopses Suck.

This post was originally written in part to respond to a thread over at making light. In the original thread there was some discussion of the pluses and minuses, real and perceived, of pitching a book to an editor.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog January 29, 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)