The synopsis #amwriting

On Monday, we covered the query and cover letter. Today we are going over the synopsis, which is a short summary of your story or book. Indies will occasionally have to write a synopsis if they submit their longer work to contests, agents, or publishers.

When a contest or publisher asks for a synopsis, they don’t want a book blurb, which is a “this is why you should buy my book” teaser. They do want a short description filled with all the spoilers so that the work goes to the right editor or (in the case of a contest) reader.

Most submissions are electronic. I’ve mentioned before how important naming your files is. You want your work to be easily found, so don’t label your synopsis file “synopsis.doc.” Be specific and include the book title: Don_Quixote_Synopsis.doc

Try to be brief. For an average 300 – 400 page novel of less than 100,000 words, 500 to 800 words is good and won’t frighten off your intended editor/publisher. Length can vary—some agents and editors will want a longer synopsis, so be sure to check their website for their guidelines.

For a short story, a paragraph or so in the cover letter is usually all that is required for your synopsis.

Why do agents and editors want a synopsis when they can have the whole manuscript? They will ask for the first two or three chapters but are subject to time constraints. They don’t have time to read and judge an entire novel, so if they are interested at that point, they turn to the synopsis.

The synopsis, with its recounting of the events, will tell them if the rest of the book will keep the reader hooked. If they like the way the plot evolves, they will ask for the entire manuscript.

Your synopsis is not intended to entertain the editor. Your first few chapters should have done that. It is meant to be a brief, dry recounting of the who, what, where, when, and why of your entire novel.

If we are boiling a 350 page novel down to 500 – 800 words (which is only around one page), what do we include in our synopsis?

Harry Bingham of the UK’s largest literary consultancy, Jericho Writers, says:

A synopsis is a 500-800 word summary of your book that forms part of your agent submission pack. It should outline your plot in neutral non-salesy language and demonstrate a clear story arc. Every major plot twist, character, and any big turning point or climactic scene should get a mention. [1]

In other words:

  • Summarize your novel and include all the twists.
  • Don’t give it the hard sell.
  • Start at the beginning and hit the high points of the plot all the way to the end.

In this, as in most things, the internet is your friend. For a great article that includes both an excellent example of a synopsis, a good template, and many more details of how to write a synopsis, go to https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.

The following synopsis is of a book published in 1605, and which is 1,072 pages long. A book of this length would require a 2,000 word synopsis to cover the high points.

400-word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote is a metafictional account of the mid-life crisis and adventures of a nobleman (hidalgo) from La Mancha named Alonso Quixano. The first chapters are taken from “the archives of La Mancha,” and the rest is translated from an Arabic text by the Moorish author Cide Hamete Benengeli.

Nearing 50 years of age and living in an unnamed section of La Mancha with his niece and housekeeper, Quixano is usually a rational man. He is obsessed with reading tales of chivalry and knights-errant. However, by not sleeping adequately because he was reading, Quixano is easily given to anger. He believes every word of his fictional books of chivalry to be true.

While he is asleep in his bed, his niece, the housekeeper, the parish curate, and the local barber burn most of his chivalric and other books. The priest must decide which books are bad for morality, so he can know them well enough to describe every naughty scene.

After the books are burned, the niece and priest seal up the room which contained the library, later telling Quixano that it was the action of a wizard.

The loss of his books causes him to lose his mind. Quixano decides to become a knight-errant. He will revive chivalry and serve his nation, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha.

After a short period of feigning health, Don Quixote requests his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to be his squire, promising him a governorship. Sancho is a poor and simple farmer but is far more practical than Don Quixote. He agrees to the offer, sneaking away with Don Quixote in the early dawn.

They begin their quest to revive chivalry, starting with Don Quixote’s attack on windmills that he believes to be ferocious giants.

The two next encounter two Benedictine friars traveling on the road ahead of a lady in a carriage. The friars are not traveling with the lady but happen to be on the same road. Don Quixote believes the friars are enchanters who hold the lady captive. He knocks a friar from his horse and is challenged by an armed Basque traveling with the company.

As he has no shield, the Basque uses a pillow from the carriage to protect himself, which saves him when Don Quixote strikes him. The combat ends with the lady leaving her carriage and commanding those traveling with her to “surrender” to Don Quixote. [2]

I do recommend you go to the Jericho Writers site and follow their guidelines if you are asked for a synopsis. The article there is one of the most comprehensive and useful ones I’ve read anywhere. Again, that article can be found at https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] How To Write A Novel Synopsis: Includes Template & Example, © 2019  by Harry Bingham, https://jerichowriters.com/synopsis/ (Accessed 03 Mar 2020).

[2] 400 word Synopsis of the first 10 chapters of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, condensed from Wikipedia.  Wikipedia contributors, “Don Quixote,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Don_Quixote&oldid=943081150 (accessed 10 Mar 2020).

Don Quijote de La Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Don Quixote in the Library, by Adolf Schrödter, 1834 PD|100, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Wilhelm Marstrand, Don Quixote og Sancho Panza ved en skillevej, uden datering (efter 1847), 0119NMK, Nivaagaards Malerisamling.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Wilhelm_Marstrand,_Don_Quixote_og_Sancho_Panza_ved_en_skillevej,_uden_datering_(efter_1847),_0119NMK,_Nivaagaards_Malerisamling.jpg&oldid=376321256 (accessed March 10, 2020).

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The Cover/Query Letter #amwriting

Every author who wants to sell their work will be required to craft either a query or cover letter at some point in their career. This is frequently a requirement for submission to a magazine or contest.

Some authors despise that process so much that they go indie, thinking they won’t have to leap that hurdle, only to find there is no escaping it.

Writing queries and cover letters can be an inconvenience if you don’t know what is expected or what you should include.

I’ve attended several seminars on the subject and have written many of them. The best place I have found with a simple description of what your query letter should look like is at the NY Book Editors website.

Boiled down, what they tell you is this:

  1. If you are mailing it or submitting a cover/query letter as a separate document, be formal:
  • Your address at the top of the page, right-justified.
  • The agent’s address, this time, left-justified.

In an email, you don’t do step one. However, you DO make sure your personal information is in your signature.

  1. Be personal and polite. Greet and acknowledge the agent or editor by name: Dear Ms. Stuart

The body: This is important: the body of your query letter should not exceed three to five paragraphs.

  1. The 1st paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Perhaps you met at a convention or seminar, or you’re a fan of one of the authors they represent. If you have a connection with the agent or editor you are approaching, mention it but be brief.

If you have no previous connection, NY Editors suggest you get down to business right away with your attempt to sell your short story or book. Their point of view on this is that you only have a few paragraphs to sell your work, so make those words count.

The 3 most important things to include in the 1st paragraph are:

  1. Title of the story (or novel)
  2. Genre
  3. Word count

The 2nd  and possibly 3rd paragraph must give a brief description of the work—showcase the plot and tell them why you think it is a good fit for this publication. Do as briefly as possible—do not write a 3,000-word synopsis.

ALL prospective publishers, whether for magazines or larger houses, want the hook and the essence of that short story/novel in these paragraphs. They want to get a feel for who you are as an author.

Do NOT give it the hard sell. The www.NYBookEditors.com website has this to say about query/cover letters: “You must walk a very fine line between selling your manuscript without coming across like the parent who knows his kid is the best player on the bench.”

The final paragraph is where you post a short (as in BRIEF) bio of you. Mention your published works, and whatever awards you have acquired. If samples of your work are available on your website, say so.

When submitting queries to two widely different types of editors, anthologies or magazines, the submission guidelines will be different. However, the basic cover/query letter is the same.

Magazines: Most magazines are available online nowadays and they usually want electronic submissions. Many publishers use Submittable, a service offered by a submissions manager software that makes the process simpler for both authors and editors. If they want their submissions sent via email, the email you attach your submission to is your cover letter.

Large Publishing Houses: Most agents, editors, and publishers want a 1 page, 300-word description of your novel. This is the query letter, as described above. Your ms is not attached to this.

Every magazine, publisher, editor, or agent has a website detailing the way they want things submitted. In general, the larger publishers and agents want to receive letters and/or emails formatted to rules that are readily available on their website.  You must read and follow them carefully.

I have mentioned the word “brief” numerous times in this post—and hopefully you see why. Choose your words carefully so that your brief paragraphs showcase you and your work in the best way possible.

This is most important: don’t forget to double-check your letter for typos and spelling errors. We all make them, and we don’t want them to be our legacy.

A sample email cover letter might read:

Dear Ms. Editor,

My name is Connie Jasperson. I was introduced to you at the 2019 PNWA conference during the book signing event. I hope my story, A Cold and Dangerous Place, might be a good fit for you.

A Cold and Dangerous Place is a quest tale about forgiveness and human frailty, with some elements of high fantasy. It is 3,500 words and has never before been published. I have attached the manuscript as a word document in Vonda McIntyre’s manuscript format, as specified in the submission rules.

I live and write in the Olympia area of Washington State, and am active in several writing groups. I am a founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group have independently published nine novels. My short stories have appeared in several anthologies. One of my short stories was included in the 2019 anthology Swords, Sorcery and Self-Rescuing Damsels, featuring stories by authors such as Jody Lynn Nye and Katie Cross.

Thank you for your consideration,

Connie J. Jasperson

123 Writer Rd. S.E.

Buymybook, WA 01234

c.jasperson@writer.com (email)

123-456-7890 (phone)

The body of any cover letter will be laid out in the same fashion. Title, word count, and genre are important. Agents and editors want to know that you sent them the kind of work they specialize in.

Sometimes my queries get good results, and sometimes not. I’ve said this before, but query letters are like ice cream. Everyone likes certain flavors and have to be pushed to try out new.

You just have to cross your fingers and hope your manuscript and letter arrives on a day when the person in question is in the mood for a story exactly like what you are selling.

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#FineArtFriday: Dawn in the Hills by Julian Onderdonk, 1922

  • Artist: Julian Onderdonk  (1882–1922)
  • Title: Dawn In The Hills
  • Date    1922
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Dimensions: Height: 76.2 cm (30″); Width: 101.6 cm (40″)
  • Collection: Private collection

What I love about this painting:

Onderdonk captured the surreal essence of early morning near San Antonio, Texas. The mists are rising in the hills, slowly revealing the riotous splendor of deep blue wildflowers. It is a rolling sea of bluebonnets, with the occasional white of the blackfoot or fleabane daisy mingled in.

The artist perfectly conveyed the mystical quality of that singular moment of the morning when the air is still and golden, and the day ahead is full of possibilities.

I could spend hours in this place.

About this painting:

Art historian Jeffrey Morseburg writes, “In the fall of 1922, as he was just entering his prime, Onderdonk was rushed to the hospital with an intestinal blockage. He failed to recover from the emergency surgery and died on October 27, 1922. His sudden death created an outpouring of emotion for the man who had become “The Dean of Texas Painters.” Just before he died, Onderdonk had finished a beautiful early morning view of a Texas hillside carpeted with Bluebonnets titled ‘Dawn in the Hills’ and another work, a bold fall scene titled ‘Autumn Tapestry.’” [1]

About the Artist, Via Wikipedia:

Julian Onderdonk was born in San Antonio, Texas, to Robert Jenkins Onderdonk, a painter, and Emily Gould Onderdonk. He was raised in South Texas and was an enthusiastic sketcher and painter. As a teenager Onderdonk was influenced and received some training from the prominent Texas artist Verner Moore White who also lived in San Antonio at the time. He attended the West Texas Military Academy, now the Episcopal School of Texas, graduating in 1900. His grandfather Henry Onderdonk was the Headmaster of Saint James School in Maryland, from which Julian’s father Robert graduated.

At 19, with the help of a generous neighbor, Julian left Texas in order to study with the renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase. Julian’s father, Robert, had also once studied with Chase. Julian spent the summer of 1901 on Long Island at Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. He studied with Chase for a couple of years and then moved to New York City to attempt to make a living as an en plein air artist. While in New York he met and married Gertrude Shipman and they soon had a son.

Onderdonk returned to San Antonio in 1909, where he produced his best work. His most popular subjects were bluebonnet landscapes. Onderdonk died on October 27, 1922 in San Antonio.

President George W. Bush decorated the Oval Office with three of Onderdonk’s paintings. The Dallas Museum of Art has several rooms dedicated exclusively to Onderdonk’s work.

His art studio currently resides on the grounds of the Witte Museum.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Julian Onderdonk, An Illustrated Biography by Jeffrey Morseburg, © 2011 https://julianonderdonk.wordpress.com/tag/julian-onderdonk-biography/  (accessed March 4, 2020).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Julian Onderdonk (1882-1922) – Dawn In The Hills (1922).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Julian_Onderdonk_(1882-1922)_-_Dawn_In_The_Hills_(1922).jpg&oldid=278966540 (accessed March 4, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Julian Onderdonk,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Julian_Onderdonk&oldid=882101452 (accessed March 4, 2020).

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Self-editing: The Point of No Return #amwriting

Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for growth. We place obstacles in our protagonists’ paths that will force change on them. Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs.

In the editing process, we must ensure these opportunities are clearly defined, logical, and in the right place.

Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return.

Consider the engineering that goes into building and maintaining a dam.

Wikipedia says:

Dams are considered “installations containing dangerous forces” under International humanitarian law due to the massive impact of a possible destruction on the civilian population and the environment. Dam failures are comparatively rare, but can cause immense damage and loss of life when they occur. In 1975 the failure of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam and other dams in Henan Province, China caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history. The disaster killed an estimated 171,000 people and 11 million people lost their homes. [1]

When a mistake is made in the planning or construction process of a dam, it sets a chain of events into motion.

There are usually opportunities to notice the problem and resolve it long before the dam breaks, but despite the diligence of the engineers, the construction workers, and the maintenance personnel, the flaw may go unseen, and everyone is at risk.

Once the river begins flooding, the workers and people living downstream are faced with an event from which there is no turning back.

We must identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader. Knowing the flaw is there, and seeing the workers unaware of it ratchets up the tension. The moment cracks appear in the dam, you have placed the protagonist at maximum risk.

Many times, in my real life, I’ve been boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things I could have avoided, had I noticed the cracks in the metaphoric dam. When you look at history, humanity seems hardwired to ignore the “turn back now” signs.

In every novel, a point of no return, large or small, comes into play. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation, whether they are ready for it or not.

Arcs of action drive the plot. Sometimes that action is a chain of seemingly unconnected events. The first event is a catalyst, setting in motion the small events that follow. Each incident progressively forces the protagonist and their companions to a meeting with destiny.

In the editing process, we want to make sure the events are in a logical order, and that they serve the purpose of forcing the protagonist down the path we have chosen for them. Also, we want the reader to say, “Now I see the connections.”

Points of no return aren’t always large disasters. Events can force the protagonist to a confrontation with himself.

Perhaps a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems.

Events from which there is no turning back are the impetus of change, and that change is what the book is about.

Midpoint is often a place where a choice is made from which there is no turning back. From that point, the narrative rises to the Third Plot Point, an event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death.

This major event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be. Conversely, it can break them down to their component parts.

Either way, the protagonist is profoundly changed by this crisis.

The structure of the story must be closely examined in the process of self-editing to ensure the logic of the plot.

During the build-up to the final point of no return, we want to ensure these events develop our characters’ strengths, so they are ready to face the final crisis.

Structural editors identify both the protagonist’s goals and those of the antagonist early on. They look at the arc of the story to make sure the author shows why these goals are important and why they justify the struggle that will ensue.

  • How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  • How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  • How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  • How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and their companions or romantic interest?
  • What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  • How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions, no matter what genre you’re writing in. Whenever the protagonist overcomes an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.

I love books that allow us to get to know the characters, see them in their environment. An incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to the Lonely Mountain, or trying to head off a war.

In The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien set the first point of no return early. An acquaintance, Gandalf the Wizard, invited himself and twelve friends to dinner at Bilbo’s house, knowing that politeness would compel the hobbit to feed them.

The next day Bilbo found himself walking to the Misty Mountains with a group of Dwarves he only just met, leaving home with nothing but the clothes on his back.

By serving dinner to the unexpected guests, Bilbo passed the first point of no return. He heard the stories and listened to their songs. After having seen the map, even if he were to turn back and stay home, Bilbo would have been forever changed by regret for what he didn’t have the courage to do.


Credits and attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Dam failure,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Dam_failure&oldid=943367090 (accessed March 3, 2020).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Alfred Zoff – A River Dam.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Alfred_Zoff_-_A_River_Dam.jpg&oldid=283453136 (accessed March 3, 2020).

The Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster, Warner Bros. 2012 (Fair Use).

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Self-editing: Action, Events, and Introspection #amwriting

If you are a member of any writers’ forum on Facebook or through a private group, you know that today’s authors are constantly prodded to emphasize the action in their narratives. For new, inexperienced authors, this can lead to an imbalance, a narrative where the characters aren’t allowed time for introspection.

An editor looks at the scenes to see how they fit into the narrative and to ensure they are in the right order and flow into each other well.

Sometimes, I see a manuscript where it seems as if a horrific event has been inserted for the sake of shock value. In the revision process, you should examine these scenes to see if they do their job.

  • Was the event foreshadowed well, or did it come out of nowhere?
  • Is the scene necessary to force change and growth on the protagonist?
  • How are her fundamental ethics and ideals challenged by this event?

A structural editor will tell you that if there is no personal cost or benefit to the protagonist or antagonist, there is no need for that scene.

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. The fact that an idea doesn’t work for one book doesn’t mean it won’t work in another.

For my own work, I label that file “outtakes.” Having these unused scenes ready to adapt to other uses comes in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

In the rush of writing the first draft, it can be easy to focus on setting traps and roadblocks for our protagonist and her nemesis. We forget that readers need a chance to process what we have written.

Events must force the character to grow. Creepy scenes must have a purpose. If your story absolutely must contain that scene, it must deeply affect the characters involved in it. Events must be catalysts for the character’s evolution and growth.

We may think we have written evolving characters, but they remain stagnant if you don’t allow the reader time to see that evolution and process it.

We’re all avid readers. Consider how your favorite authors in these genres connect their underlying themes with the action and growth of their protagonists, and how they allow the reader to process each event.

Political thrillers are set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They feature political corruption, terrorism, and warfare as common themes. How the protagonist negotiates these situations and is affected by them is the story. Introspection is key to the reader’s understanding of the events and their root cause.

Romance Novels detail the developing relationship between two people and show how they overcome the roadblocks to happiness. Both the conflict and climax of the novel are directly related to the core theme of a romantic relationship with a happy conclusion. Without small chances for introspection, the reader won’t feel connected to the protagonist and their story.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative. This genre features introspective, in-depth studies of complex, fully developed characters. Action and setting are not the points here, although they frame the character and provide a visual perspective. In other words, opportunities for introspection are a key feature of literary fiction.

Science Fiction details realistic speculation about possible future events. All technology should be based solidly on knowledge of real world science, both past and present. A thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the Scientific Method is crucial. Events involving science and technology must be based on known and theoretically possible physics. Morality and the wider effects of  the choices we make are a strong theme in all science fiction. Without introspection, moral choices get lost.

Fantasy is my usual genre to write in. It is often set in an alternate, medieval, or ancient world. The common themes are good vs. evil, the hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Some fantasy is set in urban settings with paranormal tropes, but if that is the case, the author has similar constraints to those affecting the science fiction author. In urban fantasy, the reality must be true to life and contrast with the paranormal. This contrast highlights and emphasizes the fantasy elements.

These genres look widely different, but they all have one thing in common—they have protagonists and side characters who experience life-changing events. These moments become important to the reader.

In my mind, genre and setting are a picture-frame, a backdrop against which the themes that drive the action of the story are played out.

What is the underlying theme of your story? While you were laying down the first draft, did you notice a moral concept that was woven into the story? Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it the death of hope?

In the revision and editing process, we must identify the events that strengthen that theme, and frame them with moments of reflection.

Personal growth and the hero’s journey are often the central themes in my work. Those are the stories that hooked me as a young reader, and I still gravitate to them.

The idea of the heroic journey was first introduced by Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949). In this ground-breaking work, he discusses the monomyth or what is called “the hero’s journey.”

He describes how this motif is historically the common pattern of humanity’s myths and legends. Each of these tales involves an unlikely hero going on an adventure. This hero, in a decisive crisis, wins a victory, then returns home changed or transformed.

I often use Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Hobbit as an example. When Bilbo Baggins faces the giant spiders, he also faces his own cowardice. Bilbo is amazed to find he has the courage to fight them.

That scene was the first step in his realization that his bravery doesn’t depend on the magic ring he found earlier. He is afraid, but he is not afraid to be courageous. This is a core concept of this book, and of the entire Lord of the Rings series.

What is important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Those are the themes you should be writing to, what your events must support. You must allow your reader the chance to consider how those events affect the protagonist, to absorb the theme and deeper personal meaning of that character’s journey.

In that way, you will hook the reader and keep them firmly in your world.

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#FineArtFriday: Street Scene on a Rainy Day by Francesco Miralles Galup (ca. 1891)

What I love about this painting:

We see a perfect rainy spring afternoon in a busy cosmopolitan city. It could have been any large city at the end of the 19th century. The street is busy, full of carriages, and pedestrians must be careful where they step.

A cart full of flowers passes in the background, headed for the market. Two well-dressed ladies dodge puddles in their effort to cross the street. Around them, shoppers gossip and umbrellas abound.

Like every chihuahua I’ve ever known, the little dog is miserable, unhappy with the damp.

 

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Francisco Miralles Galup was born Francesc Miralles i Galaup (6 April 1848, Valencia – 30 October 1901, Barcelona). He was a Catalan painter, best known for his realistic scenes of bourgeois life and high society.

When he turned eighteen, he received parental permission (and financial support) to study in Paris, where he would remain until 1893, with occasional visits home. During his first years there, he copied masterworks at the Louvre and may have worked briefly with Alexandre Cabanel. He eventually had several small studios in Montmartre and on the Rue Laffitte.

He exhibited regularly at the Salon and the Sala Parés, back home in Barcelona. He also became a client of the well-known art dealership Goupil & Cie, attracting wealthy buyers throughout Europe and America. This was a relief to his family, who had initially been concerned that they might have to support him indefinitely. Their ability to do so had been compromised as they had lost much of their fortune in the Panic of 1866 and were losing more of it as they paid off their debts. In fact, they eventually moved to Paris so he could help support them.


Credits and Attributions:

Escena de carrer c1891, Francisco Miralles Galup / Public domain

Wikipedia contributors, “Francesc Miralles i Galaup,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Francesc_Miralles_i_Galaup&oldid=894995022 (accessed February 28, 2020).

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Self-Editing: Looking at Paragraphs and Sentence Length

I was recently asked how long sentences should be. There is no hard and fast rule, but opinions abound, so I will offer you some things to be considered in the editing process.

Let me say first that sentence length is a matter of the author’s personal style. Some of us write long sentences strung together with commas, and others break things out into shorter, more concise packets of information.

If you are familiar with the rules of punctuation and use your commas wisely, longer sentences will flow well.

If you’re unsure of how to use commas, and simply put them anywhere you pause, or take a breath, you’ll have a long, convoluted mess on your hands, similar to this sentence.

In writing genre work, we consider the age and reading experience of our intended reader. Generally speaking, for younger readers, we use shorter sentences and a narrower vocabulary.

For older readers who read in a wide variety of genres, compound sentences and a wide vocabulary pose no problems.

In the final chapter of his novel, Ulysses,  James Joyce enters the head of Molly Bloom. He spews an internal dialogue that runs on for more than 24,000 words with only ONE punctuation mark. The final paragraph of the book goes like this:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

As a side note, I had to take a college class in order to read and enjoy James Joyce’s work. Most of us hope our work won’t require a reader to take a college-level course to appreciate it.

Sentence length becomes problematic for most readers when:

  • The sentence contains numerous clauses
  • The clauses are unrelated.
  • The sentence runs on and on and on.
  • The author uses little or no punctuation.

Several factors affect sentence length. Commas and the fundamental rules for their use exist for a reason. If we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

Commas join two independent clauses. The independent clause is a complete stand-alone sentence. Sometimes, if sentences are too short, our work becomes choppy.

  • Greg worships the ground I walk on. His adoration never tires me. (Two sentences)
  • Greg worships the ground I walk on, and his adoration never tires me. (One compound sentence)

Dependent clauses are unfinished sentences and can’t stand on their own. They should be joined to the sentence with a conjunction.

  • Greg worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee.

You do not join unrelated independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:

Comma Splice: Greg kissed the hem of my garment, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

The dog has little to do with Greg, other than the fact they both adore me. The same thought, written correctly:

  • Greg kissed the hem of my garment.
  • (New paragraph) The dog likes to ride shotgun.

Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. A semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.

The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to Greg and his adoration of me.

Semicolons join independent clauses that could stand alone, but which relate to each other.

I recommend you avoid joining more than two clauses. Even when an author uses semicolons correctly, they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences. Sentences comprised of more than twenty to thirty words can be difficult to slog through.

Sentences all become paragraphs, whether they are comprised of one sentence or several.

Paragraphs are not just short blocks of randomly assembled sentences. A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea. That means that only one thought or speaker is featured in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

All through her book, Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones wrote two points of view into one paragraph. The story is brilliant, but that habit made the dialogue very difficult to follow in some places.

A paragraph done wrong:

Ron said, “You cheated on me.” Jamie clutched his arm. “I don’t want to lose you.” He pulled away. “You disgust me.”

That’s a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Ron’s accusation, Jamie’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally, Ron’s disgust.

Ron said, “You cheated on me.”

Jamie clutched his arm. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He pulled away. “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Jamie’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

In English, a good paragraph agrees with itself. It is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed.

Sometimes, we will end up with long paragraphs. In a paper book, paragraph length isn’t as much of a problem as in an eBook. I’ve noticed that versions of eBook novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as page after page of an unbroken wall of words.

That can be confusing, and the reader may decide to move on to a different book.

Thus, for a manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, consider dividing long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

Each author writes differently. Both sentence length and paragraph length are individual, part of the fingerprint that is the author’s voice. If longer sentences are your style, by all means, write them.

I no longer use as many compound sentences as I once did. Those who have read my earlier work are grateful for that gradual change.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from Ulysses, by James Joyce, published 1922 by Sylvia Beach

Wikipedia contributors, “Ulysses (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ulysses_(novel)&oldid=777540958 (accessed May 7, 2017).

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones, Tim Stevens, Illustrator, Greenwillow Books (US), Methuen (November 1986) Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 February 2020, 02:23 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Howl%27s_Moving_Castle&oldid=941685495> [accessed 25 February 2020]

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Self-editing: ensuring consistency #amwriting

Today I’m continuing a series on self-editing that I began on February 12, Revisions: Self-Editing.

The revision process is where some of the worst errors that can mess up a manuscript are committed. This is because making changes on a large scale within your manuscript is a tricky job at best. Ensuring consistency requires focus, the ability to be meticulous, and an eye for detail.

Good editors have these qualities, but if the services of a good editor are out of your financial reach, you must find a way to self-edit and still come out with a literate manuscript that flows well and engages the reader.

A tool I have mentioned before in this series is the style sheet.

In 2012, after reading the first chapter of my raw manuscript, my editor asked me for a style sheet. She was disappointed but not surprised to find I didn’t know what she meant.

My work was so uneven that it was clear I had never listed my made-up names. Things evolved as I went along. I forgot how I spelled that one minor character’s name in the one scene where it was mentioned. However, at the midpoint of the novel, the character had an important role and a slightly different spelling.

This happens because fundamental things sometimes change as we are going along in our first draft:

  • Character names evolve.
  • Place names evolve.
  • A different character becomes the protagonist—it may be someone you initially thought was a sidekick.

These adjustments happen because we realize something isn’t logical, make the changes, and move on.

Unfortunately, we’re only human and don’t always catch all the places we needed to change.

Once my editor pointed this out to me, I put together a comprehensive list of how I wanted to spell the names of every person, place, and creature in my novel.

Even though I spent several days doing this, the editing process was slow and agonizing because I didn’t catch half the words.

What the style sheet should cover:

All names, created or not: Aeos, Aeolyn, Beryl, Carl, Edwin, etc.

Real and created animal names: alligator, stinkbear, thunder-cow, waterdemon

Created words that are hyphenated: fire-mage, thunder-cow

All place names, real or created: Seattle, Chicago, Ragat, Wister, Sevya, Arlen, Neveyah

Some authors use a program called Scrivener, which apparently assembles all that information for them and does magic tricks to boot.

I’m happy for those who have figured it out, but be warned, there is a large learning curve if you go that route.

Frankly, Scrivener was a waste of money for me because my mind doesn’t work the way Scrivener does, and I became quite frustrated with it.

For me, it’s simpler to copy and paste my words into a spreadsheet or document labeled with the book or series title and the words style sheet, such as Bleakbourne_style_sheet.xls.

You don’t have to be fancy unless you want to. Google docs, Open Office, and MS Office all offer perfectly good word processing programs with both documents and spreadsheets, and all you need is to keep a simple list of people, places, and things.

I keep this document open while I am writing a first draft and try to be scrupulous about listing every name, place, animal, and hyphenated word.

In cases where your characters are traveling, you might need a simple map. I get fancy because I’m a wannabe artist, but you don’t have to. All you need are lines with north and south listed, and the names of towns and other places that have parts in the story.

But how do we make these corrections in our manuscript? We do what is called a global search.

I open MS Word, which is my word processing program, and do it this way: With your mouse or stylus, highlight the word you want to find every occurrence of. On the far right of the home tab, click ‘find.’ This will open the navigation pane.

Or, on your keyboard, press the ‘ctrl’ key and the ‘f’ key at the same time. This is the keyboard shortcut to the navigation pane.

With that word automatically highlighted, you have a choice to make: is it a word you want to delete or replace?

First, you must understand that you are about to embark on a boring, time-consuming task.

If you get hasty and choose to “Replace All,” you can inadvertently ruin your entire manuscript. I’ve used the following example before, but it bears repeating:

Your writing group tells you that you overuse the word “very.” You decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because that seems like the most logical way to resolve the problem quickly.

So, you open the navigation pane and  the advanced search dialog box. In the “replace with” box, you don’t key anything, thinking this will eliminate the problem. You then hit “replace all.”

Don’t do it.

Please.

Every, everyone, everything—you get the idea.

Every word in the English language is made up of a selection of letters chosen from only 26 letters. These letters are used in many combinations, with different meanings. Before you click “replace all” consider how many common words have the letters h-a-s in their makeup:

  • hasty
  • chase
  • chastity

Trying to cut corners in the editing process can easily mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Looking for weak words and phrasing is a time-consuming task.

Things to look for and possibly delete or change:

  • Any kind of qualifier or quantifier: just, a little, a bit, somewhat—these are words that show indecision. Active prose should not be indecisive.
  • Action-stopping words: started to, began to— these are word combinations that slow and stall the action. They are passive, so if you want to write active prose, go lightly with them. Your characters shouldn’t begin to move. Have them move and be done with it.
  • words that end in the letters ly: probably, actually, sympathetically, magically … etc. These are weak, telling words. It takes thought and intention to show what you mean rather than telling it.

Examine the eight forms of the word be. Decide if they are useful or not in the context you are using them.

  1. be
  2. was
  3. were
  4. been
  5. being
  6. am
  7. are
  8. is

Weak combinations using forms of be that you should look twice at:

  1. was being,
  2. has been,
  3. had been,
  4. is being,
  5. am being

Why do we look at each instance of weak word combinations? Sometimes the words and combinations I’ve noted in this post have a purpose, which is why they remain currently in use.

We may need them to make a certain point in conversations, but in the narrative, your prose is often stronger without them. That and very can easily become crutch words, bloating and fluffing word count.

Once you see the magnitude of what the editing process involves, you realize that most editors don’t charge enough money for the amount of work involved in doing the job right. However, while the process of self-editing is time-consuming and requires diligence, it is doable.

Don’t underestimate how savvy and smart your readers are. You can’t cut corners, and you can’t let small things slide.

Passionate readers care about the quality of what they purchase. We should take pride in the quality of what we publish.

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#FineArtFriday: Roland à Roncevaux, by Gustave Doré

Roland at Roncevaux, by Gustave Doré (b 1832 – d 1883)

Date: 19th century

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 149 cm (58.6″); Width: 114 cm (44.8″)

Collection: Private collection

What I love about this image:

First of all, this shows the battle as being dark, ugly, and doomed, which history tells us, it was.

Doré chose to illustrate a historic battle that took place in the year 778. However, he painted a heroic image of Roland, surrounded and his unbreakable sword held high. This is as the battle was portrayed three centuries later by medieval authors whose embellishments were romanticized fantasies rather than accurate historical descriptions.

About the Artist:

Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré, born 6 January 1832 –  died 23 January 1883, was a French artist, print-maker, illustrator, comics artistcaricaturist, and sculptor who worked primarily with wood-engraving.

Doré was famous for his highly detailed, romantic engravings of heroic classical literature and also the Bible. His illustrations are still considered to be among the finest ever produced.

What he is not as well-known for are his paintings, which are both detailed and vivid, and portray a wide variety of subjects.

About the Story of Roland

The story of Roland’s death at Roncevaux Pass was embellished in later medieval and Renaissance literature. The first and most famous of these epic treatments was the Old French Chanson de Roland of the 11th century.

Two masterpieces of Italian Renaissance poetry, the Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso (by Matteo Maria Boiardo and Ludovico Ariosto), are further detached from history than the earlier Chansons, similarly to the later Morgante by Luigi Pulci. Roland is poetically associated with his sword Durendal, his horse Veillantif, and his oliphant horn.

Roland also appears as a sometimes tragic hero in some Arthurian legends, and many Norse and Germanic tales.

The true history of Roland’s Demise at Roncevaux (via Wikipedia):

The Battle of Roncevaux Pass (French and English spelling, Roncesvalles in Spanish, Orreaga in Basque) in 778 saw a large force of Basques ambush a part of Charlemagnes army in Roncevaux Pass, a high mountain pass in the Pyrenees on the present border between France and Spain, after his invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Basque attack was a retaliation for Charlemagne’s destruction of the city walls of their capital, Pamplona. As the Franks retreated across the Pyrenees back to Francia, the rearguard of Frankish lords was cut off, stood its ground, and was wiped out.

Among those killed in the battle was a relatively obscure Frankish commander, Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court, into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages.

There are numerous written works about the battle, some of which change and exaggerate events. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature. Modern adaptations of the battle include books, plays, and works of fiction, and monuments in the Pyrenees.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Gustave Doré – Roland à Roncevaux.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Gustave_Dor%C3%A9_-_Roland_%C3%A0_Roncevaux.jpg&oldid=369725623 (accessed February 20, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Gustave Doré,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gustave_Dor%C3%A9&oldid=939834558 (accessed February 20, 2020).

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Revisions and Self-editing: repetition and inconsistency #amwriting

I just finished reading book two of a three-part sub-series, set within a larger 21-book series. I enjoyed it but would have liked it more had the protagonist not repeated his back story aloud every time he was asked. That was a flaw that ran deep into book three. All that repetition just padded the word count.

All through this 21-book series, numerous proofing errors and random cut-and-paste-mistakes make it clear to me that few people other than the author see these manuscripts, and they aren’t professional editors. Yet, his work sells because he has marvelous characters and compelling storylines. He is now putting out four or more books a year and is published by TOR.

The Big 5 publishing giants are just as tempted to rush a manuscript to publication as we indies are, and editing sometimes falls by the way. However, if an indie publishes work as badly edited as that, the entire indie community suffers abuse.

Since the large publishing houses aren’t doing editing the way we always thought they did, it’s up to us to find the flaws before we submit our work to them or publish it ourselves.

When we lay down the first draft, the story emerges from our imagination and falls onto the paper (or keyboard). Even with an outline, the story is forming in our heads as we are writing it. While we think it is perfect as is, it probably isn’t.

The revision process is about far more than merely grammar and word placement. It is about making sure the story arc doesn’t flat-line.

Those who regularly read my blog know that I frequently repeat an idea, phrased just a bit differently further down the post. My elderly brain seems determined to make that point, no matter what. We all do this in our first drafts, and very few things are more “first draft” than a blog post.

Inadvertent repetition causes the story arc to dip. It takes us backwards rather than forward.  What I have discovered in my own work is that the second version of that idea is usually better than the first.

Last week, in my post called Revisions: Self-Editing, I talked about the way I do my revisions, how I try to get an unbiased view of my work. Basically, I print out each chapter. Beginning with the last paragraph on the last page, I work my way forward with a yellow highlighter.

Then I put the corrected copy on a recipe stand beside my computer and make the revisions in a new file. (I never delete the old files, because we never know when we might need something we have already written.)

Here are a few things that stand out when I do this:

  • Repetition of entire ideas, each instance worded slightly differently.
  • Inadvertent shifts in the spelling of names for people and places, such as Dyljan becomes Dyjan. (Keeping a style sheet of how names and created words are spelled and doing a global search for each before publishing resolves that.)
  • Places where I have contradicted myself, such as a town being north of the main character’s location, but they travel south to get there. Making a simple hand drawn map resolves the location problem if you remember to look at it.
  • Punctuation errors and missing quotation marks also stand out when printed.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized on my desktop until it’s needed. I copy and paste every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to.

All the lists of words and things to look for, all my knowledge comes from having worked with editors who are passionate about writing. Many years ago, Maria gave me the list of weak words to watch for.

Carlie trained me out of using “that” as a crutch word.

Irene trained me to notice my inadvertent shifts in spelling and to love how grammar works. She kindled my desire to learn more about the craft.

Alison trained me not to be so thin-skinned and self-important.

If you have the resource of a good writing group, you are a bit ahead of the game. I suggest that you run each revised chapter by your group and hear what they have to say. Some of what you hear won’t be useful, but much will be.

And yes, you will have to make more revisions. I have discovered that the real work of writing comes after you have written the story.

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