Last night I was with a group of Memphis writers who get together monthly to critique each other’s works in progress. I submitted a first draft of the synopsis and first 14 pages of a new novel. Their suggestions were nothing short of inspired. I’m so grateful for these brilliant folks who have also become my friends. Next we critiqued a query letter for another writer, and I don’t remember when I’ve had so much fun! Names were flying (for her protag’s hunky boyfriend) and fingertips were sailing across laptops as we helped her sharpen the letter, which was already point on. I came home inspired but tired, with no energy for a post today. So, I’m going to do something I hope you think is fun.
A couple of years ago Ron Borne put together this fun little book, Beginnings & Ends: A selection of favorite first and last lines in stories by contemporary Oxford writers (Nautilus Publishing, Oxford, Mississippi). Every now and again I pick it back up for inspiration.
And since today is commemorated by some as “One-Liner Wednesday,”I’m going to share 10 opening lines from nineteenth and twentieth-century literature. See if you can match them with their authors/sources (at the end). Have fun.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
“All children, except one, grow up.”
“The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.”
“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
“All this happened, more or less.”
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge Of Courage (1895)
George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan (1911)
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963)
J.D Salinger: The Catcher In The Rye (1951)
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813)
George Eliot: Middlemarch (1871)
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (1878)
Meanwhile, I’m trying to finish up a manuscript to submit to a writing workshop (it’s due Friday) and the workshop director requested a SYNOPSIS to go with the first chapter for those submitting a novel excerpt.
Since this new novel is in the very early stages of conception, the synopsis will most likely change quite a bit by the time the novel is finished. But it’s helpful to get one done at the outset. It’s kind of like an abbreviated outline. A guideline for the plot, which will take many new twists and turns that the author isn’t even aware of yet. And sometimes the synopsis helps show the holes in the plot, where more work is needed later.
Actually, this is shorter than a more fully developed synopsis, but it’s a starting point. Since I don’t know how the novel will end yet, it has to be a little loose.
And now to finish that first chapter!
Red, Black, and Silver
A novel by Susan Cushman
Red, Black and Silver is a work of historical fiction. The setting is Manhattan and the East Hamptons from the mid 1950s to the present. Some of the characters are based on real-life artists from the Abstract Expressionist circle, including JACKSON POLLOCK, his wife, LEE KRASNER, and his lover, RUTH KLIGMAN.
The protagonist, ESTHER, is completely fictional. As the love child of POLLOCK and KLIGMAN—born after POLLOCK’s death in 1956—she holds the key to one of the art world’s modern mysteries: the authenticity, survival, and eventual public appearance of POLLOCK’s final painting, “Red, Black and Silver.”
KLIGMAN had claimed that POLLOCK painted “Red, Black and Silver” as a “love letter” to her. POLLOCK’s jealous wife, LEE KRASNER contested its validity for many years.
Over a half century later, modern forensics would prove it to be the work of POLLACK. Some critics would say it represents an embryo in a womb, and POLLOCK’s desire for a child, which his wife wouldn’t give him. KRASNER died in 1984 and KLIGMAN in 2010.
ESTHER’s role in the story is to bring to light the layers of human desire which were hidden—as was the painting—for all those decades. Adopted as a newborn, ESTHER does not discover her parentage until after the death of her birth mother, KLIGMAN. “Esther” means “hidden” in Hebrew.
Every stage of the writer’s work—well, maybe I should only speak of my own here—can be crazy-making. Having read dozens of books on writing by writers, and dozens more anecdotes about writers and how they work, the only commonality I find is that most do not live “normal” lives like other good people. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I believe other people don’t work hard, or don’t keep long hours. I’m married to a scientist, so I’ve lived with his work ethic for almost 43 years. But it’s the writer’s MO that fascinates me.
At present I’m juggling several projects: (1) Working with an editor on revisions of my essay for an upcoming anthology; (2) Doing research for a new novel; (3) Working on the first draft of a new novel; (4) Querying agents for my first novel; and (5) Organizing a writing conference which starts on May 2. The first and third projects are the hardest for me. They require a lot of “letting go” so that my right brain can be free to make a big mess during the intuitive, creative process required for writing and revising. Some writers would disagree with me on the creative aspect of the revisions process, seeing it as more of the “craft” than the “art” of writing. But it still requires that same freedom and willingness to be messy. The second, fourth and fifth projects on the list are easier, and in some ways more “fun” for me, because my left brain tends to be a bit stronger than my right. This is probably unusual for a writer, but my analytical, logical side just loves to organize things. Writing a synopsis or an outline for a book is much easier and more fun for me than actually laying down the prose.
And so I enjoy mixing it up a bit. A well-meaning writer friend has strongly encouraged me to back away from social media, conferences, and speaking engagements and just focus on writing. I’ve tried to explain that I’m just not wired that way. I need the rush that organizing and socializing offer. The satisfaction of discussing my writing with other writers and readers. And I feel almost compelled to organize workshops and conferences—to give something back to the writing community that has been the very air that I breathe for many years.
So this morning, as I pondered what to share, I found myself returning to a book given to me by a friend twenty-two years ago. On my 40th birthday. I was writing and editing several professional newsletters at the time, and publishing a few freelance articles in magazines, but with three children at home, I hadn’t begun to write “seriously.” I love what she wrote on the inside cover of the book. She didn’t say, “May you publish best-selling novels and become rich and famous.” She said, “May you be blessed with a lot of fun and fulfillment through your love of writing.”
My love of writing.
Do I really love writing? Sometimes, although the process is excruciatingly hard. As other writers have said, I love to have written. Anyway, here’s a wonderful excerpt from that book, given to me in 1991. The book is The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. It was first published in 1989. Enjoy her story:
It should surprise no one that the life of the writer—such as it is—is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world…. Inside the small room, the writer is deeply preoccupied with things hitherto undreamed of. He finds himself inventing wholly new techniques in the service of his art.
Once, for instance, I had an office in the halls of a university English department, which was of course deserted nights and weekends. There I began writing a terrifically abstract book of literary aesthetic theory. The kindly secretaries gave me a key to the faculty lounge so I could boil water for coffee at odd hours. The faculty lounge was around the corner and out of my earshot; it had a sink, a single stove burner, and a teakettle. The first night I used this arrangement I forgot all about the water I was boiling and scorched the kettle….. The secretaries said they would give me another change.
It was a whistling kettle, but the secretaries did not want it to whistle, so they jammed the circular, perforated lid of an old percolator in its mouth. This aluminum lid became a hot item in the teeth of all that steam, so someone had devised a method of removing it with a springy wooden clothespin….
After I burned the kettle, I had to discover a method to remind myself that I had water boiling on the stove in the faculty lounge, so I struck the clothespin on my finger. It was, as it happened, a strong clothespin, and I had to move it every twenty seconds. This action, and the pain, kept me in the real world until the water actually boiled…. So this is how I wrote those nights, wrote a book about high holy art: moving a clothespin up and down my increasingly reddened little finger. Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.
It’s time. After two and a half years of drafting and revising my novel, Cherry Bomb is ready to leave the nest and find a new home. Somewhere she will be loved and sent out into the world of brick and mortar bookstores, to be snatched from shelves and tables by eager readers. And yes, I’ll be happy for folks to read her on their Kindles or iPads. But first, she needs a literary agent. A gatekeeper who can help her crash the glass ceiling of a big publishing house. Or maybe a wonderful small press.
I’ve made my short list—agents I’ve met personally or have a connection with through one of their clients. And the ones who represent books whose readers will also love Cherry Bomb. And of course the newbies promoted by Writer’s Digest and other trade publications—the ones without a slush pile yet, eager for new work. I’ve done my homework.
Just two more tasks before I start querying: a novel synopsis and a query letter. Well, more than one query letter. Each one will be personalized to the agent I’m writing. I enjoy that part. (Three years ago I got several requests for manuscripts from agents when I queried them about my memoir, which I later decided not to publish. A story for another day.) The hard part? The synopsis. So, I did some research.
I started with industry professional, Jane Friedman. In “Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis” she begins by defining the synopsis:
“The synopsis conveys the narrative arc of your novel; it shows what happens and who changes, from beginning to end.”
This is different from what you read on the inside flap of a novel. It’s more than a teaser. You actually have to include spoilers. They want to know what happens all the way through to the end. Piece of cake. You simply summarize your full-length manuscript in (preferably) one page. Two at the most. With a brilliant economy of words that will knock their socks off and make them want to read your book. Oh, and of course they want to care about your characters, so be sure and include their emotional growth, their conflicts and how they change from the beginning of the book to the end.
C. B. Wentworth has a nice post, “Decoding the Novel Synopsis,” in which he includes this fun illustration that he uses with his students—the synopsis hamburger.
I had actually written a synopsis before I wrote the novel. (And an outline.) For those us who work this way, the final synopsis is a bit easier, because we’ve already found the holes in the plot and some of the other mistakes that a synopsis throws up in your face. But I decided to write one from scratch and compare it with the one I wrote two years ago. Friedman recommended this model, “How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis” by Susan Denard. Following this pattern, on my first draft, I ended up with 804 words. By the end of the day I had it down to 610. She recommends 500.
Nathan Bransford (former literary agent-turned-author) says:
“I’d shoot for two to three pages, double-spaced. If it’s longer or shorter than that I don’t think anyone is going to be angry, but that should be enough to do what you need to do.”
My book has three protags (protagonists) instead of the usual one. This makes the narrative arc a bit more complex. Denard recommends only naming 3 of the characters in your book in the synopsis—protagonist, antagonist, and possibly one other supporting character. She suggests that you refer to minor characters generically, i.e. “the mailman” or “the librarian.” But when you’ve got 3 protags, that leaves no room to name the supporting cast, so I ended up naming 5 characters: Mare, Elaine, Neema, Lou and Sister Susannah. Want to know more about them? I sure hope an agent does!
Writing on Wednesday. Lots more fun than Mental Health Monday, right?