Staying Focused as an Author

Many authors suffer from the greatness of their creativity, especially fiction writers. They will be in the middle of composing one manuscript that they have been working on for quite some time, and then Poof!, a MUCH more awesome idea pops into their head. They become an immediate slave to their creativity and begin fostering the new idea into something more, causing their first story to begin collecting dust. Worse yet, it most likely happens to them again and again. And in more extreme cases, their brain may be generating so many good ideas that they fail to even start on one. Does any of that sound like you or someone you know? I’ll offer some advice to help you stay focused on your project at hand.

So how does an author like this ever finish anything they’ve started? Well, it’s not easy, but no one ever said being an author was. Completing a manuscript is a long arduous process that requires self-motivation, determination, and focus. While it is possible to keep exploring every idea of your imagination, then you’ll be stuck with writing multiple books at once – which is a less than ideal situation. It’ll become a chore to remember the details and nuances of each of your works-in-progress. It’ll also most certainly degrade the quality of your work. Plus, if you are serious about becoming published, you will already be overwhelmed. One author described the publishing life as, “You will be marketing and promoting book 1, while editing book 2, while writing book 3.” Staying focused and concentrated on one book at a time is key to success. “But I want to have multiple completed manuscripts to increase my chances of getting published,” you say. Well, as someone that has tried multiple business ventures simultaneously in hopes that one gets traction, the reality is that it forces you to spread yourself too thin. Instead of having one great book/idea/business, now you have many crappy ones that don’t go anywhere. Pour all your energy and love into one book and success will follow.

If you are just overflowing with ideas and are having trouble just getting started, this is what I suggest:  Write down all of your ideas in short summary paragraphs. Compare them all to each other. Separate them by judging your own ideas so that you now have your “A-List” ideas and your “B-List”. Grade them using whatever criteria is important to you, for example, maybe one is better than the other simply because it would be more fun to write, or one idea could be made into a series, or perhaps one is more “commercial/salable” then the rest. The choice is up to you, but whether you think writing is an art form and shouldn’t be judged on it’s ability to sell, the bottom line that every author must recognize is that we are entertainers, and as such, we must please our audience. As entertainers, you have decided to choose a life of servitude, to create stories that are designed to captivate the imagination of the masses. And if you don’t judge your ideas that way, literary agents and publishers will. So now, looking at your A-List, most likely you have just honed your creative mind to concentrate around 1 or 2 (3 tops) best ideas. Pick one, then create realistic goals/milestones/deadlines for yourself and post it up all around your desk. Whenever you feel yourself getting distracted, look at your goals – they will keep you on a path toward success.

If you are a person that has no problem getting started on a manuscript, but gets ideas right in the middle of your novel, here’s what I do: I write down every new idea in a single document so they are never forgotten – I call that document my “bag of tricks.” Because I write in the fantasy genre (and because I am writing a series), many things can happen in my world. Whenever I have lost my muse/creativity, sometimes I will dig out an idea from my bag of tricks. It will help me create a scene, introduce a new character, or allows me to insert a minor conflict, etc.

While it seems like the mind can be working against you, you should never stop your mind from conjuring up new ideas. Find a way to work with it, to leverage your creativity while staying focused. You must create your own method or process toward completing your novel. Use my processes above if they seem right for you, but be sure you take steps to manage yourself, to corral your creativity, to focus your efforts. Feel free to offer any suggestions of your own in the comments section below.

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How to Write a Synopsis For Your Novel

Synopsis of Hamlet. This mind map gives a visual display of why it is so difficult to capture everything from a novel within the short length of a synopsis.

In my journey toward seeking representation, I have queried over 50 literary agents, all of which did not require a synopsis as part of the submission. I kept a reserve of ~20 other literary agents that I would submit to if my first round of submissions didn’t go so well. These 20 all require synopsis’s.  Unfortunately for authors, literary agents do not have standardized requests. Some ask for 1 page synopsis’s and others want 2 pages (a rare few even ask for a 3-5 page synopsis), which of course must be submitted along with your Query Letter and/or a sample of your work. While I do have one very promising agency reviewing my manuscript (fingers crossed!), I am preparing for round 2 (just in case) and just completed my synopsis.

SYNOPSIS TIPS & FORMAT:

At the top of the page (left or center) provide this info: Synopsis of “Title”. Genre: ____ Word Count: _____ By: “Your Name” (however, you can put your pen name if you wish).

Since most agents/publishers ask for either a 1 page or a “brief” synopsis, I think it’s best that you craft it to be within 1 page, single spaced. A synopsis is a narrative of your story, written with the same style and sense of excitement and wonder of your novel. Do not simply say, “Here is the main character, and this is what happens to him/her,” you must make the synopsis drool-worthy.

Synopses are always, ALWAYS, written in 3rd person and in the present tense. No exceptions! The synopsis must introduce your main characters. When you do so, you must make their full name in ALL CAPS, but only for the first time you mention their name. This makes it easy for a reader to locate the introduction of a character.

You do not have to detail all your sub-plots or all your characters, but the main story line must come across in your narrative. So it is best to ensure that you have captured all the major scenes and major plot elements and conflicts, and most importantly: The ending. Yes, you must give away your ending. How you conclude your story is especially important to agents and publishers.

PRO TIP #1:

Have a reader that is unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis and give you feedback. It can be difficult for you to be objective about your synopsis since you understand the meaning behind every sentence.

PRO TIP #2:

Think outside the box. You don’t have to write your synopsis in the same order of events as your novel. You can explain things out of order, which can help when you are trying to condense things down to one page.

PRO TIP #3:

Before writing your synopsis, bulletize the main points that you want to write about. This will help keep your novel at a high level and will help prevent you from diving into the details.

PRO TIP #4:

Don’t go down a rabbit hole. Beware of explaining one event/scene that forces you to explain another. Rabbit holes add additional details to your synopsis that only raise more questions than answers.

PRO TIP #5:

Less is more.

PERSONAL OPINION:

Why did I delay writing a synopsis, you ask? Because, summarizing your entire novel into one page is quite possibly the Achilles Heel of every author. Reducing my 100,000 word novel into an ~900 word page is difficult, to say the least. For most novels, there are so many complex sub-plots that hold a lot of weight to the overall story (as shown in the picture above), and not being able to fit them into your synopsis can be torturous.

When I joined NaNoWriMo this year, in order to fill out my profile, it made me write a synopsis of my novel before I even began writing it. I must say that writing the synopsis beforehand helped me identify character motivations that I hadn’t even considered in my outline. It was profound, and it helped me expand on my planning. However, if you were to write a synopsis before hand (which is similar to the Snowflake method of outlining, which I discuss here), you can bet, with a certainty, that you will need to revise it after you finish your novel.

STEPHEN KING’S APPROACH:

In his novel, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King doesn’t touch on writing a synopsis, but what he does talk about is plot – which is what a synopsis is supposed to capture. Steven King’s novels are not born from the conception of a plot, but are based on a single situation instead (I wrote more about it here in my discussion of the 7 basic plots). He is able to reduce his entire novels down to one sentence. It struck me that when writing a novel using this approach, it would probably be a lot more friendly when it’s time to summarize your novel into a synopsis. And even more helpful for the purposes of writing a Query Letter (explained here with additional detail here).

Write a Cover Letter for a Fiction Submission

As of late, I have been revising and submitting my fantasy short story, The Ravenous Flock, to fantasy magazines for publication. However, with every submission comes a cover letter. Usually, the submission page of the particular magazine’s website will tell you what sort of information to include in your cover letter, but 90% of the time they always want prior publication credits (if you have any), and subject matter expertise qualifications (if you have any).

As a side note: If you are having trouble finding magazines to submit to, I recommend going to the Writer’s Association that you want to join (SFWA, RWA, etc) and look at their membership qualifications. They usually have a list of magazines that they consider as qualified publication sources to become a member of that Writer’s Association.

If you are like me and don’t have prior publications (yet), it is hard to develop an impressive cover letter. But, if you are a fantasy writer and studied Medieval History as your emphasis in college, then that is the subject matter expertise that you should definitely include. But if you have neither, writing a cover letter can seem dry. (Also, please see my prior blog about writing an author Bio with no experience here).

When composing the cover letter, the salutation is very important. Always write “Dear [name of Editor in Chief]”. Personalizing the cover letter is critical to help you stand out among their slush pile (much the same way as a personalizing a query letter to an agent). To find the Editor’s name, it can sometimes feel like a treasure hunt. Most of the time, you can find it on the magazine’s website under the “About” page, however, once I had to view a free preview of their magazine to find the Editor’s name. In the event that you cannot find a name, you should resort to using their title: “Dear Editor,”.

Even though it is stating the obvious, it is important to describe your intentions in the body of the letter. In my opinion, it says something about your skill to be able to fit it all into one sentence. For example: Please consider my unpublished 5,000-word original fantasy manuscript, “The Ravenous Flock,” for publication at [name of magazine].

Remember to thank them for their time and for their attention/consideration. Be sure to end with “Sincerely” or “Respectfully” or “Regards” or any other polite sign-off. Always leave your full name, website (if you have one), and contact info such as phone number and email. But as I mentioned before, this is a rather short and dry letter that is all business and no creativity. I’ll leave the creativity up to you, as that can be considered risky. I chose to add humor to my most recent cover letter (below), but I cannot recommend it for everyone.

Dear [name of editor],

Attached, please find my unpublished 5,000-word original fantasy manuscript, “The Ravenous Flock,” for your reading pleasure. Oh! And please consider it for publication at [name of magazine] too.

Respectfully,

-Adrian V. Diglio

But be sure to check out these other sites that helped me craft my cover letter.

  • Underdown.org http://www.underdown.org/covlettr.htm
  • About.com http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/thebusinessofwriting/tp/coverslettershowto.htm
  • Streetdirectory.com http://www.streetdirectory.com/travel_guide/16061/writing/writing_a_cover_letter.html

NaNoWriMo

How better to start my first blog post in November than to share my experience joining NaNoWriMo?! National Novel Writing Month is the talk of the town, and it sets a great goal for any author of writing 50,000 words in one month. Now, that is a bit steep for me given my current situation of a full time job, grad school at night (plus homework), and my wife is due to give birth to our second daughter in a matter of days. With all that on my plate, my participation would be minimal, at best. But, even with such a large goal of 50,000 words, I realized that joining the movement couldn’t hurt. After all, it’s free!

After signing up at www.NaNoWriMo.org I began filling out my profile. They even allowed me to claim participation in NaNoWriMo for previous years, so I logged THE SOUL SMITH as my composition for 2011. They asked for my synopsis, a sample of my work, and the book cover, all of which I copied over from my website. Then it asked me the same questions for the book I plan on writing for the 2012 NaNoWriMo. Fortunately, I knew I would be writing THE CHROMIUM SMITH, book 2 of my fantasy series. However, I found that the simple, yet complex question of asking for the synopsis of my unwritten book was profound. Trying to convert the story concept from my head into words really helped shape my character motivations, and I found this simple exercise as a very helpful tool for planning my novel.

Another benefit of joining NaNoWriMo.org are the forums and Regions which help you connect with other local authors. I have already found fellow SDSU students to meet up with and organize write-ins, etc. Connecting with other writers keeps you motivated, and it’s not just on the forum boards either. The authors I follow on Facebook and Twitter are constantly asking for everyone’s current word count. The peer pressure keeps you motivated toward writing more.

In addition, the website has a Word Tracker tool (shown below), that helps you visualize your progress and easily calculate your daily writing average to help you meet the goal of 50,000 words.

Upon becoming a fresh, new member of NaNoWriMo, they shared a few tips toward achieving the 50,000 word goal. For those of you that do not have a plan in place, or a story concept in mind, I’ve written a brief summary of their main points below:

  1. Just wing it. It’s okay to not know what you’re doing. Write every day and soon enough, a story will appear.
  2. Do not edit, just write. Get your 50,000 words on the page and use the rest of the year to edit it.
  3. Tell people that you’re writing a novel. Sure enough, they’ll ask you about your progress. Use that peer pressure of “not wanting to look like a failure in front of your friends” as something to motivate you to keep writing.
  4. It’s okay to feel the urge to quit; just know that it gets easier as time goes on.

How To Design Your Story Outline

Sample Flow Chart Plan for The Mystery of Chimney Rock

I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.

With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.

So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.

I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”

What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.

What does an outline need?

  • Characters
  • Places and Scenes
  • Problem
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Tone

How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:

  1. Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
  2. White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
  3. Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
  4. Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
  5. Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
  6. The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
  7. Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as  a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.

I Learned More Than Just Writing Tips From My Critique Group

I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, to http://critters.org/ on 7/8/2012, where it sat in the queue. On Wednesday, 8/1/2012, it was released to their community of over 15,000 members. Later that week on a Saturday morning, I received my first 3 critiques. Verdict: It was worth the wait!

I learned some valuable lessons about my writing that I can now consciously pay attention to so that I can avoid them in the future. Some of which were just bad habits that had been formed long ago that had never been brought to my attention. For example, pay attention to the punctuation on this sample sentence: A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent, “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”

There should be a period after the word “accent” instead of a comma because it is actually a sentence and not a dialogue tag. This was an error that I had made a couple of times – an old habit that simply stayed below the radar of my critical eye. But the ability to learn things about your writing that you weren’t conscious of before is invaluable! The line by line corrections/suggestions that I received are immensely useful and will aid me in my next revision.

Another bad habit of mine shows in this sentence: The weight was lifted from his chest and Grindor began to hack and cough between his sporadic breaths. Did Grindor actually hack and cough? Or did he only begin to hack and cough? Words like “began” don’t help when trying to describe the actions in the scene and should be removed.

Lastly, I had some POV shifts that jarred the reader. Occassionally, the narrator switched from the point-of-view of Grindor to Ocamyr. I think I was trying to have an omnipresent narrator, but since the narrator spent so much time describing everything from Grindor’s perspective, it was odd to suddenly be in the mind of Ocamyr. These shifts in POV will be addressed and corrected so that the reader’s perspective of the events are all described through the eyes of Grindor.

I believe that by incorporating these edits and reworking the ending a little bit will strengthen my short story and prepare it for submission to magazines. Had I not taken the time to receive critique on my work, I may never have learned these flaws in my writing until it was too late. Having patience as a writer is a virtue. Take a moment and let that sink in. Maintaining one’s patience while on the cusp of achieving career-making milestones is difficult beyond measure. If a magazine purchases the rights to publish my short story, then I can join SFWA as an associate member. These two small events are what agents and publishers like to see on a submission and will get my foot in the door in this industry. Selling this short story could be the deciding factor as to whether my novel sees the light of day. So deciding to delay submitting it to magazines and patiently await for critique was unimaginably tortuous on the mind, but my desire to have the best chance of success for my short story overcame it all.

Become More Active, Join A Critique Group

As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier posts, reading is essential to being a good writer. (Do you think there ever was a successful band that didn’t listen to other music?) So to continue to improve your “chops” in addition to reading, you should become a reviewer. Either join Goodreads.com and write lengthy reviews of the books you have read, or join a Critique group (I did both). However, the critique group will improve your analytic skill, and open your eyes. You will learn to know good writing when you see it because you are not reading final drafts that have undergone professional editing.

Critters Writer’s Workshop (critters.org) is a free online sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writing critique group. While it is free, they mandate your participation. If you are not actively submitting critiques to other author’s short stories or chapters, then they will delete your membership. On top of that, they have “pro” members, such as SFWA Chapter Presidents and Nebula Award winner Ken Liu. They were established in 1995 and have over 15,000 members and are still growing.

Being that it is online can cause some uneasiness. “What if my original work gets stolen?” you might ask. They are huge advocates of the Copyright law. It is posted heavily, and there hasn’t been any problems with that yet. FYI, the protections afforded to you under the U.S. Copyright law apply as soon as you put something original on paper, so your work is already protected and there is no need to file with the USPTO. Your alternate choice is to join local in-person critique groups, but you usually have to have something to share in front of the group (which you might not always have) and they critique you on the spot. The benefit of this being online is that I can take my time with my review before I send it in.

Critters allows you to submit your entire novel too, and members can elect to become part of a dedicated reading group for your novel. The point is, they have a really good system, and I highly recommend joining if you write in the fiction genres aforementioned.

As an active member of Critters Writer’s Workshop, I had the pleasure to submit my completed fantasy short story: The Ravenous Flock. I wrote it to a fair length of 5,000 words, which I believe is optimal for submitting to magazines (which they state on their websites), though most short stories that I have read and reviewed are around 7,500 words. Once submitted, you get added to the queue (unless you are “pro” then you go to the front of the line). The queue is so long that it usually results in your manuscript being read 3-4 weeks from when you had submitted it. (Not bad). When I receive feedback, I’ll post my opinion of how helpful or not helpful this process was.

I’ll leave you with this final note: Short Stories are a different beast. Mark Twain once said, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I’ll write you a long one instead.” Terry Brooks also said, “Writing a short story was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He would rather have a 500 page project any day.” So when I read one of Ken Liu’s short stories on Critters.org and saw it was only 750 words, I was impressed. Then I began reading it…. it had a never ending comma… the whole 3 paragraph story was one sentence. I felt beyond inadequate; I felt unworthy… and it really opened my eyes. And I hope all new writers have the opportunity to experience the same. So go join a critique group!