Month: October 2010

I spent some time this weekend, despite flying a number of hours, working on what I had called–until recently–a synopsis for my NaNoWriMo project.  I now realize I’ve been using the wrong term and, if my information is correct, the product I have actually been developing is called a premise. 

That particular insight was mined from James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers, a fantastic book to have just digested considering my busy November.  Another great I finished only last week is Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel.  If you haven’t read these both, I highly recommend them.

To be clear, a synopsis is second cousin to an outline or treatment (although I believe the term treatment is more commonly used for screenplays).  A synopsis’ purpose is to detail all the differing plot lines, scenes, etc.  In other words, it’s a semi-detailed recipe of what happens.

A premise is more basic and simply sketches the broad outlines of the story in general terms, with enough detail in a few lines to catch someone’s interest.  This is also similar in scope to a pitch.  If a synopsis is a photograph, a premise is a watercolor painting.

My preference in a premise is to try to capture three primary components:

1) The chief story problem/inciting incident.

2) The action/reaction of the main character to the story problem or situation.  This sustained motivation and the obstacles encountered become the general confict arc of the novel.

3) Complications or reversals needed to sustain the second half of the story, and keep up conflict.

What I discovered over the last year–and this seems more true of story ideas I am confused about or unsure of–is that the act of getting the premise down on paper really focuses things.  I am forced to choose specific actions through careful verb choice, pick main characters, untangle confusing scenes or deal with unrealistic motivations.  Nine times out of ten, I walk away from the premise-writing exercise with a much clearer understanding of the story I am trying to write or edit.

At this early stage, this is also true of my NaNoWRiMo project, Daisy.  Here it is for you reading pleasure:

Doctors diagnose Daisy who’s been in and out of hospitals for most of her sixteen years with a rare and lethal form of brain cancer.  Opposed to an experimental treatment that promises to turn Daisy’s final days into a torturous, excruciating nightmare, her father Kodi “kidnaps” her. 

Together father and daughter flee across the country, trying to outwit law enforcement and stay one step ahead of Daisy’s mother, who has made their flight—and the uncertain future of her daughter—a national news story.  On the road, Daisy and Kodi each discover a love they never bargained for, and learn that life is about more than looking for an exit.

I’d be very interested in hearing your comments or suggestions.  It will be fascinating to see if this premise is still accurate after the first draft is done.  I’ll keep you posted.

What about you?  What process(es) do you use to refine your understanding of you WIP?  Got a premise you’d like to share in the comments?

NOTE: The pics that backdrop some of my template have up and disappeared (!!!!!!:( ).  I will see if I can load them up before the day ends.

Wow!  This week totally flew by, and when I say flew, I mean in more than one way.  I was basically in the air almost every day this week–not a usual occurence, but one I do enjoy when it happens.  On Monday, I headed out to Naples and back, Tuesday brought some training, Wednesday we flew to Rota, Spain and then we flew the return leg Friday.  This morning, I’m in early again for a trip to Greece and then back to Naples.  In total, more than 25 hours airborne.  I feel like a world traveler, a vagabond of some sort.

As is the way with real life (RL we can call it for short), it gets in the way of some things–writing for example.  I do have some concern that I will have trouble maintaining the required pace to complete NaNoWriMo if I draw a busy flying week or two in November, but I am still committed to trying to pull if off.  If push comes to shove, I’ll drag the laptop along and hole up in my room in the evenings to make sure I make my goals.

But I’m not overly concerned about it, because I’m in it for the long haul.  In fact, on one of the flights I got to talking with my co-pilot about the book I’m currently reading (Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife) and that lead to a discussion of NaNoWriMo, and all that writing a novel entails.

He was surprised (beyond simply finding out that I wrote or tried to write fiction–a very unpiloty occupation) that I had not one but three ideas for novels, all of which I expected to complete over the next two to three years.  Wouldn’t it be better, he questioned, to put all my effort into one novel, send it out, see how it does, before I start into another project?

After sharing that some novelists never even “break out”–to steal a term from Donald Maass–until their third or fourth book, if ever, I explained that I was expecting to stick around for a few years.  I wasn’t expecting quick success.  If I got it, so much the better, but based on an evaluation of my current writing skills and the market, I still have plenty of work to do.  Thus, I think it is unreasonable to expect to achieve overwhelming success on the first try, although I do understand that it happens from time to time.  It’s a question of whether people are buying what you’re selling.

A thousand years ago, in another life, when I sold life insurance and financial products door-to-door for a national insurance company, I had one of my sales managers explain the problem thusly:

1) Assume that for every ten doors you knock on, you get in three doors.  In other words, they want to hear your presentation, hear what you have to say.

2) Then assume that for every ten customers who hear your presentation, three say yes they are interested.

3)  Then assume that for every ten that say yes, seven are qualified (after seeing the doctor, etc.).

What that means is, if I wanted to sell ten policies a month (enough to make a living on), I would need to knock on 159 doors.

In the interest of showing my work:

159   x .3 =  47.7 let you in.

47.7  x .3 =  14.3 show interest.

14.3  x .7 =  10.01 are qualified and purchase a policy.

For me, the takeaway is that you can’t predict what people will like.  You can’t judge the market or time your submission to give you an advantage.  You might get lucky and market realities or some new buzz might help you out, but the opposite is just as likely to happen.  The only choice left then, IMHO, is to keep slogging away until some agent somewhere bites–and that means knocking on a lot of doors.  In my mind that means having more than one novel in the planning phase–and querying anyone and everyone with the one completed.

It’s like when Isaac Asimov–who wrote more than 700 books in his lifetime–was asked what he would say if his doctor told him he had only six months left to live.  “Type faster,” he said.  😀

What about you?  What is your approach to planning your next writing project?  Do you have subsequent projects in the works, even before you’ve completed the one you’re working on?  How do you go about knocking on doors, or querying?

It’s Friday afternoon here.  I’m home, sipping a beer, enjoying some downtime.

It rained all week, so it was a surprise to wake this morning and find the sky clear, the distant line of mountains visible, and the air cool–like a forest when there is no wind.  Driving in, I found I was humming to myself–no tune in particular–but happy with the sun and shade, and my lot in life.

It’s been a week now that I’ve been back to posting on this blog.  It feels pretty good to have once again found my rhythm.  In fact, there’s a little part of me that marvels frankly that I was able to go so long without it.  It’s ineffable, but hanging out here with you all in this thing called the blogosphere makes a real difference, at least to me.

Basically, I still got the writing fever–the one I caught late last year in Baghdad.  There was a moment or two late this summer, when I hadn’t posted in ages and hadn’t written a word on my WIP or on any of my short stories, where I wondered if I had gotten “over” my sickness.  I puzzled at the symptoms, speculated that maybe this whole writing thing was a passing fancy, a lark, an experiment.  Maybe writing fiction was an avocation that looked inviting when living in a desert far away from home, but not an endeavor essential to an easy, well-defined life among family and friends and responsibilities.  Maybe I was no longer “sick” to write at all.

Being back has told me exactly the opposite.  I still got the fever–and it’s not going anywhere soon.  Yeah, it’s morphed some, mutated, transformed into an illness a little less desperate and a lot more grounded, but I still feel a deep affection when I read a new novel, and I still drive home of an afternoon thinking on how to solve a particular plot or character-related dilemma, only to arrive at my front door having no clue or memory how I got there.  (Gawd, I really love that!).

No, in a word, the prognosis is bad–uh, er, good!  I got a fever, and the only prescription is more writing!

Since I totally lifted that line, and since I want to send you off to the weekend in a good mood, I now present the comic stylings of Christopher Walken and Will Farrell!  Enjoy the video, and have a great a groovy one!

I can hear it now, me sayin’: “Yeah, but when I put my pants on, I write blockbuster novels!” 😛

I thought I’d combine my several semesters of college art classes (don’t ask!) with my deft Powerpoint skills and throw together a faux-cover for my upcoming NaNoWriMo project.  I thought: “Everyone else is doing it!  Why not me?”

I found that designing a cover is considerably harder–nigh on near impossible!–when the book has yet to be written, but hey I figured I’d run with it and see what happens.

Thoughts?  Critiques?  Too floral?  Too literal?  I am curious what kind of story you think it is based on the cover…some feedback would be great!

The suggestion box is now open!

(BTW, the background photo is the work of Bas Lammers–used under the creative commons license.  He has a cornucopia of other amazing photos.  Go check them out–if you dare!  :D)

P.S.  All this talk of pantsing it and working without a net has been extremely inspirational, and has definitely pumped up my own internal volume for this project, but one thing I refuse to work without is a synopsis.  I find that forcing the idea into the synopsis format helps me distill things down to a basic conflict and action.  Do you find that?

Long story short, I hope to put up my synopsis in a few days and you can throw stones at that too!  And remember, throwing stones doesn’t mean you’re not still groovy!

Love letters and poems aren’t the least bit difficult to write, if you write directly from your heart into the ink and don’t channel through your brain first.  

~~Graycie Harmon