Maps to the Second Draft - and Sales
copyright Holly Ingraham
Okay, maybe you didn't know how to organize
your head for the other form of revision. Here's something a
little more step-by-step to guide you through. It also starts
you writing your sales packet, the synopsis and three chapters
most publishers want from self-selling authors.
I started using this in 2004, and it works
for me as part of the revision process. I'm actually finding
I don't loathe writing synopses, either. Working from the shorter
ones up seems to help. So does simply doing more of them.
Step 1 -- Write what the book is about
in 25 words or less.
Yes, "less" is a joke. Avoid conjunctions,
particles, etc., as you can, but it must read like a sentence,
not a computer randomization of disconnected words and fragments.
This focuses you from now on. What you describe here would be
the most important part of the story, the aspect that made you
write it, the reason you're here. Try writing only about the
protagonist if you can't get under 25. You may include mood words,
genre words, stuff like that. Forget background. Think of this
as the micro-description in the publisher's catalog when you've
been mid-listed. This takes me about 15 minutes to a half hour.
I rewrite it about once a minute for the whole time.
Step 2 -- Describe the plot, the story
arc, in a single, if slightly long-winded, sentence, 50 words
Think of this as part of your cover letter.
(See, we're already into marketing work!) But it's not just a
hook. Say where the protag ends up as well as where she starts
or what she goes through. Don't bother with genre or background
or mood. Again, a 15 to 30-minute job.
Step 3 -- Write a 500-word synopsis.
This is worth ten pounds of weight loss, it's
so hard to do for a 100k-word novel, and may take several days.
It teaches you to focus on what the pivot points of the plot
are, what the changes of the characters are, and reminds you
that the Battle of Waterloo is only set dressing to the plot,
not the focus of the story. They are good for queries and hand-outs
to agents and editors at conventions.
Often, to get to the 500-word synopsis, I
write a 2000-2500-word one, then chop, chop, chop. This big synopsis
is more like 4-5 single-space pages, and will suit most publishers
when sent with the first 3 chapters.
But none of these descriptions of the book
are more important than the actual novel. When I'm through making
a satisfactory revision, I'll make the synopses fit the story,
rather than the story fit the synopses, if that's still staying
on track. Sometimes great plot twists occur in revision. "This
scene is dull. Let's turn it inside out!"
Still, after these three levels (okay, a sneaky
fourth), I have a much sharper idea of where the book needs to
go to completion.
I also have half my sales material: part of
the cover letter and the big synopsis. All I need then is three
good opening chapters and the hook of the cover letter, and I
can get it sitting in a 6-month or 2-year slush pile while I
finish polishing it up to match the synopsis.
Do NOT do that for your first novel, especially if you
haven't pulled together the plot, filled the scene holes, and
so on. Always see if you can complete the manuscript before
letting a first novel out of the house in any form. I did this
first on the fifth novel I finished when it was just begun, figuring
it would be a fast reject at the particular house, but maybe
tell me some things. It was just a screwball impulse.
Was I glad I could blitz draft when I got
a request for full manuscript a month earlier than I thought
possible, the book unfinished, and in fact headed a completely
different direction than that earlier synopsis! It was more hectic
than you want to face, and many writers could not have done it,
especially not freshman or sophmore writers.
Now, of course, I would never do anything
that crazy/stupid again. Until maybe next year.
Some people white-water kayak. I consider
this my form of extreme adventuring: bruises, exhaustion, big
smile. I also sent them to a publisher that I knew had at least
eight months of waiting time, and put those novels up to be finished
first in my work queues - and unlike most people, I can
do three novels in eight months, once I have my revision synopses.
I considered it a step toward selling on proposal,
on advance contract, where I do most of the work after
I get a contract and check, rather than doing it "on spec."
On speculation, you finish the book before selling, and for new
writers and oddball stuff by established writers, that's the
For those who can't guarantee they'll be able
to blitz and revise fast to deadline, on spec is the only sane
choice. With a revised draft, if no one bit on the S&3, I
could put the roughs away for later. I consider unsold but publishable
stories as future paid vacations.
Lesson #2: if your story fits the publisher's
criteria well enough to bother sending it at all, don't be humble
and assume they won't like it. Why shouldn't you be the one they
publish? You've been working hard enough to get there.
How helpful any of these are depends on who
you are, what you're writing, and where your head is right now.
So check all and worship none.
Overcoming the Fear of Writing a Synopsis
How to Write a Synopsis
Writing the Tight (Bare Bones) Synopsis
What to Pack in Your Short Synopsis (a personal favorite)
Synopsis: The Negative Image
Short and Long Synopsis Samples