Archive for the ‘Writing Advice’ Category

Writing a novel synopsis

The two-page synopsis is one of the toughest things I have to write. Yes, even harder than the chapter outline.

I mean, if I have 20 or so pages to convey my story in a detailed way, it’s kind of like writing a short story. The old line “Sorry this response is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it short,” carries a hidden truth. In many cases, long is easier than brief.

So, yes, I do think the two-page synopsis is murder. I like to start long and gradually pare down. (There are people who can pound out a synopsis in one sitting, but these people can never be my friends.)

For basics on the synopsis, you can find  plenty of suggestions (such as here) from people who are smarter than I am. So I’ll skip right to:

My special tips for the two-pager

  • Head up the synopsis with an elevator pitch in italics. Start the elevator pitch with “What if.” Using At the Table of Wolves as an example: What if, in inter-war England, when magic has come into the world in the form of psi-abilities, a woman uses her gift for hearing the truth to uncover a Nazi plot to subdue England with a devastating power over ice and cold?
  • Then write the rest, focusing on plot and character, and aiming for 4-5 pages. That length takes the pressure off and helps you get past the fear and loathing stage. You gain confidence from having distilled the book down that far. Try not to fuss with wording on this pass. I know you want to, but it’s a waste of time if you’re going to cut half of it out.
  • Once you have this longer version, sit back and consider what’s crucial for plot, character motivation, world-building, and emotional appeal. What’s  missing? Any key people/events needed for story logic?
  • Now start to cut. Edit out the fat, the repetition, the extraneous sequences. Aim to cut a full page.
  • Another pass, and start revising for a more lively style. Try out one-liners for reversals.
  • Set aside for a day.
  • Then print out what you’ve got so far and edit with a pencil, marking it up and making a mess. Use specific, vibrant nouns and verbs.
  • Cut to 2 pages.
  • Read the pages out loud, noting ideas and final tweaks as you go. Incorporate these and print it.
  • Set aside for a few days. With these breaks, you’re letting the work marinate and your mind recover from a natural “revision blindness”
  • Finish and give to a few people to critique.
  • Make last revisions.

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Pitching a Novel

How do you pitch a novel? And why lavish time on it? Is it just so that we won’t be caught flat-footed when someone asks what the story is about?

The Point of Pitching

A pitch is more than a conversational gambit. It’s true that an intriguing, quick blurb for a novel makes us look more professional–and saves us the embarrassment of stumbling through a painful and confused rendition. But a pitch also has a deep marketing purpose that goes beyond elevator encounters with editors.

A pitch for your novel positions your story amid the world of books. In that larger context, it gives instant perspective on the story, pinpointing genre, tone, and unique features.

Although we may consider our deep and carefully crafted novel impossible to boil down to a couple of sentences, publishing today depends on branding and brevity.  For better or worse, we are in the world of entertainment and marketing with its thirst for audience definition.

The pitch is not just for the elevator. The novel’s “handle” will follow the book through the whole path of publication, affecting–whether explicitly or in the background–cover design, choice of titles, author blurbs, and promotion.

Pitch Patterns

To process information, people sort input into patterns. So with the pitch, we are helping people to quickly identify our novel’s pattern, making our story “known” at an instinctive level.

“Adventure novel,” “coming of age,” “family story” are all familiar patterns that begin to narrow the universe of our story. That’s a good place to start.

Taking as an example my latest book, At the Table of Wolves, I started with:

“A historical fantasy . . .”

I’m a big fan of establishing the “kind” of book immediately (historical fantasy) so that one can grab onto the most salient positioning feature. Then I needed to move on to extra information that would bring my story into sharper focus. Setting is a major feature of Wolves, so I added in:

” . . . set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world . . .”

This opening quickly zeroes in on genre and sub-genre. Not just a historical fantasy, but the interwar years. Not medieval fantasy, not sword and sorcery, but psychic abilities.

But we still don’t have a grasp of who or what, so I add in:

“. . . and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”

This leaves us with “A historical fantasy set in 1936 England when psi-powers have come into the world and a young woman with a gift for hearing the truth is recruited into espionage, uncovering a Nazi plot to invade England with a mysterious power over ice and cold.”

The strengths of this pitch are clarity of genre, a hint of world-building (a gift for hearing the truth; a power over ice and cold) and the story problem (Nazi plot to invade England.) What can make it stronger: A comparison to other stories:

So we tack on: “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy meets the X-men” – this tells us that the story deals with super powers (adventure) with an overlay of espionage (thriller). Comp titles are very effective in pitches. As in the above example,  the pattern can be “____ meets ____.” Comps not only describe the work, they suggest who the audience for your book is.

Another approach using comps is to establish contrast: My book is like “A” except for “B.” Using  Naomi Novik’s Uprooted as an example, “A fairy tale but with a heroine who rescues the dragon.” Further along in the pitch you might add in more titles. Again, for Uprooted: “The violence of the Brothers Grimm deepened by the friendship of two women.” You don’t need to stick to two.

Is it easy to create the perfect pitch? No, indeed. But it does help if the pitch seems effortless.

As a mentor of mine once said — and whose advice I’ve adhered to ever since: Never let ’em see you sweat!

This post, and others noted in the link below, are part of a Zombies Need Brains kickstarter.

Check out more posts on creating winning pitches here.

Zombies Need Brains is proud to present its 2017 Kickstarter, featuring three new anthology themes! Join us as we explore the thin line between being a rebel and an insurgent in military SF&F anthology THE RAZOR’S EDGE. Sharpen your blades and work up your dark magic for the sword & sorcery anthology GUILDS & GLAIVES. And travel through time with Gilgamesh in a time-traveling bar in SECOND ROUND. Help us bring these themes to life by backing our Kickstarter at and find out more about the small press at!


Writing on a Bad Hair Day

Here’s my next installment on author myths.

Myth #5  Writers depend on inspiration to get through the writing day.

This one comes from the idea that writers are artists. And artists, as we all know–or think we know–are so very sensitive and subject to crippling moods.

It’s a persistent idea that writers are subject to unbearable sensitivities. The idea goes like this: writers are obviously creative people, and their fragile artistic selves have to wait for inspiration. The creative process, after all, must be fueled by the muse. When she’s snubbing you, you’re toast.

Is it true? Well. I’ve been inspired at times and bored with my work at times, and I’d much prefer to have aOvercoming Writers Block big dose of inspiration. Truth to tell, sometimes I’d settle for even a tiny spark. But if nothin’s there, a journeyman writer can’t wait for the muse to make an appearance. Nor is it a time–even with a big deadline looming–to break out the whiskey and work through the night.

The reality is, I’ve never blown a deadline so badly that I had to work all night. (Don’t ask about the whiskey.) This is because, even in times when I’ve been bored with my work in progress, I’ve been writing anyway. This is true even when I’m thinking the story may be terminally ill, my writing chops aren’t up to the challenge, and I’m so not in the mood to write.

Bad Hair Days

The reality of the writing life is, you may not get a great idea every day, but you write anyway. You refuse the excuse of writer’s block. It’s just a mood, not a cardinal principal.

You write through the blahs, because sometimes inspiration comes only after you’ve been typing for awhile. If you don’t have a great opening sentence, start with an adequate one. If your opening line is totally lame, just get it on the page and fix it later.

I know. It’s hard to watch yourself write lines, paragraphs, pages that lack elegance, interest, and originality. But you soldier on. If you’ve been writing long enough you know that eventually you’ll find your sea legs. And here’s the thing: Sometimes it’s because you wrote the lame material that the good stuff comes. You were just warming up. Your brain was not in the mood to write, but once it saw that writing was inevitable, it said, Oh for crying out loud, ALL RIGHT.

And then, because you’ve seen it work over and over again, you tolerate bad writing because you know that rewriting will be loads of fun. OK, strike that last idea. I know only a very few, highly annoying, people who love to rewrite, but at least most of us know that it can all be fixed on the next pass.

So, do you write when you’re feeling down, beat up, or just plain blah? Yes, you do. Because you know that while inspiration is the spice of the writing life, it isn’t the most important thing.

The most important thing is to practice your craft and have faith that the deep, beautiful story is within your grasp . . . but only if you keep writing.

Myth #1. It’s All in Who You Know

Myth #2. The Glamour and Prestige

Myth #3. It’s a Dog Eat Dog World


The Best Little Writing Conference in the West

What do Steven Barnes, Agent DongWon Song, and indie publishing guru Anthea Lawson Sharp  all have in common? A: They’ll all be in Wenatchee WA for Write on the River in 4 weeks!

Anthea Lawson Sharp on Indie Publishing

Join us on the sunny side of Washington State for a day-and-a-half conference on the beautiful campus of Wenatchee Valley College. The Write on the River Conference annually attracts approximately 120  writers to learn from the experts, this year including nationally recognized writing teachers like Steven Barnes and Wendy Call.

Yes, we’re small, and proud of it! Our events and programming give you a chance for personal feedback and interaction with twelve expert presenters. Plus it’s fun! Join us for Saturday workshops, a Sunday morning fiction seminar, and then spend Sunday afternoon touring the wine country, renting bikes on the loop route along the Columbia, or hiking the beautiful sage-filled hills!

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Worldbuilding with Tananarive Due


Photo by Daniel Ebon

For our concluding interview in my Ways into Worldbuilding series, I am honored to welcome a distinguished voice in fantasy and science fiction, Tananarive Due.

Tananarive Due is an author, screenwriter and educator who is a leading voice in black speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. She is the former Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Spelman College (2012-2014) and teaches Afrofuturism and creative writing at UCLA. Read More…