Archive for the ‘Publishing Industry’ 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!


Landscapes of Fantasy

For those who attended my presentation at PNWA, here is the book list I promised:

LANDSCAPES OF FANTASY. A presentation by Kay Kenyon

The Books


  • The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Last Unicorn, Peter Beagle
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman


  • A Green and Ancient Light, Frederic Durbin
  • Roses and Rot, Kat Howard
  • Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner

Read More…

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

Today I continue my musings on the top myths of the writing life. Wherein I share some of the odd notions I started out with; and how they just ain’t true.

My journey in writing started over two decades ago. I don’t blame myself for not having had a clue about things. In fact, I’ve been delighted to be proven wrong. Over and over again.

Wrong about what? Things like how one big introduction or connection will launch my career; how cool and glamorous being a published author is (Go ahead, fellow authors, snicker!)

And today’s myth: how in this cut-throat competitive arena, authors basically wish you ill.

Myth #3: Other Writers Will Stab You in the Back

When I first started out, I was concerned about the hyper-competitive publishing environment. It’s a dog eat dog world, I reasoned. All those raging egos and jealous fellow writers!

What I was conflating is the competition for visibility and sales, which is real, but not the result of other authors working against you–and relationships with other writers. (Perhaps spawned in the memory of those horrid high school cliques of oh-so-together people.)

To be fair, the publishing world is tough, and one is going to get bruised in ego and pocket book. It should give aspiring authors a few moment pause before plunging in. But we don’t need to worry about everything. Some things will be remarkably rewarding.

Like people. Yes, published authors are usually highly competitive. They have enormous energy to invest in creation and promotion. We can’t help but envy them and worry that we’ll never achieve what they have. That’s natural. And if you find yourself feeling these things and wonder whether you have a nasty, paranoid mind set, stop beating yourself up. We all experience those feelings. Um, perennially.

The fact is, however, that other authors will end up being among your best friends. Remember, everyone is basically lonely and afraid. It’s human nature. Most writers relate to the uncertainty and frustration of the writing life, and are generous with each other. No one else “gets” the writing life as much as another writer. I even think that there may be more generosity among writers than in other fields.

And inevitably, you’ll click with a few writers, and you’ll share the journey with them–through the ups and downs, at conventions and signings, at writing retreats and worry sessions over the phone if your buddies are far away. When you make a big sale they’ll email you a picture of them toasting you! They’ll give you blurbs for your books. They’ll help you strategize, celebrate, and survive.

So much for stabbing in the back.

It’s a dog help dog world. And even when it isn’t, if you’re open to building friendships, there’ll be a group of writers who’ll be on your side. I guarantee it.

For the other posts on my Myths of the Writing Life series.

Myth #1. It’s All in Who You Know

Myth #2. The Glamour and Prestige


Oh, the unbearable glamour

This is my second post on the myths of being an author. Some of these casual assumptions are great fun, but they may not be at all true to life. The reality of being an author and getting and staying published is far less dramatic than many people believe when they start out. But the truth of it is also less daunting!

The last post on “myths” was on finding Mr. Big, or the person we assume will save us and how (not) to get this person’s attention.

Myth #2. The Glamour and Prestige

Most of us starting out would never admit that there’s a teensy part of us that imagines life as an author is glamorous. We say instead that we have always wanted to write, that we have stories inside us that demand to be written, or more self-deprecating: we just don’t feel suited to doing anything else.

But deep down, there are images: sitting at a desk in front of window, sun streaming in, ink flowing from the pen; the line of people at the bookstore eager for our signature on a book; holding forth on Oprah on How I Wrote this National Bestseller. “Oprah, it started when I found a tattered newspaper on a park bench with a minor story on the Prime Minister’s cat. . .” Read More…