Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Pardon me if I don’t trust you. But I don’t know you, right? So I’m not about to divulge the whole plot. I’d like to give you the synopsis so you can follow along more easily. But even that – how do I know you’re not going to take my idea, get to a publisher first. Then I’m the one accused of plagiarism. Don’t laugh. It could happen.

In any case, at this point I don’t know the whole plot. I do have a 2-page synopsis that outlines a plot, but it very likely won’t be the plot.

I should preface this by stating, I’ve always been a little fuzzy about the elements of a story. So the definitions that follow are my own take on them.

What is a synopsis? Basically a brief (2-3 page) summary of what the finished novel will be, a proposal, if you will. It usually outlines the plot and the main protagonists. But it can also be “high concept” in whole or in part. Meaning, rather than lay out each step of the plot, you lay out the concept that drives it. Theme. If plot is the skeleton on which the novel is built, then theme is the soul. The theme is usually high concept. It isn’t what you write into the work of fiction, it is what you hope the reader gets out of it. Generally a synopsis is written for a purpose that has nothing to do with the actual writing of the novel. Like applying for a grant or to accompany a query to a publisher.

For me, the synopsis is the most difficult thing to write. I rely heavily on my subconscious to work out a story, so I can let things sit on the back burner for months. I generally have a direction, and a sense of whether I want a positive or poignant or tragic ending. But I usually don’t know how things are going to turn out, or how things or people will connect. The most bizarre and shocking and even beautiful (if I may say) bits of my work come out of that. My Muse, I suppose. The synopsis doesn’t leave room for that – time and space being limited. I am usually working to a deadline to get a submission in the mail, and I just need to tie up my vague ideas with a neat bow for someone else to look at. Not that easy. It has to have the basic elements of the novel - a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to introduce the main characters, indicate the crisis point. It has to make some kind of sense. It would be easier to write – that is, create – a new story in 2 to 3 pages. The problem is, by the time I am writing a synopsis I already know it is going to be a novel, and I probably have much of it worked out whether written in draft form or just in my notes, and it is much more difficult to scale it down without it feeling dead. Whereas I would like to retain some of the artistic quality that I hope to capture in the finished novel. And most of all it has to prove itself to be a worthwhile project; that is, to be interesting enough to make the reader of the synopsis want to invest in the finished work. Invest being the key word, as here this generally involves someone who will eventually pay me.

Some writers use an outline. Which calls up Paul Simon: “when I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” Teachers drilled this into us, the necessity of the outline. I can still remember agonizing over composition assignments at age thirteen, grade 8, when we had to turn in an outline. This misconception - that an outline is necessary - quite literally held me back from attempting a novel until I was well into my thirties. For one thing, I can’t stick with an outline. I have ideas popping up all over the place, some that connect threads that run throughout the story in a way I am not even aware of as I am writing them individually. These ideas are uncontrollable; they are little sparkling gems that come out of nowhere and throw out wonderful new threads that have to be woven in. They sometimes involve substantial reworking, but not substantial change of plot or character – it’s more a matter of structure – order of chapters or scenes, for example – and of adding detail and depth.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I understand that I am not a linear thinker. That I don’t have to be. And that these seemingly undisciplined thoughts are much more necessary to my process than sticking to an outline or a pre-existing synopsis. It’s simply how I work.

And yet ... editors do want to see an outline. When the time comes, how do I explain non-linear thinking to them? Hmm....

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