31 August 2011

Fantasy in real life

I'm going to finish August—the month of synopses-related epiphanies—with a real-world example.

There I am in Foyle’s bookshop, in the Fantasy & Science Fiction section. There I am picking books up and putting them down again. And again and again ad nauseum. I’m on a fantasy kick, catching up on years neglecting the genre, but I’m hampered by a few inconvenient truths.

1. I’m tired of some of the most common fantasy tropes, such as the outcast thief/orphan child who is discovered to be the most powerful somethingrather ever, or the group of three guys—one roguish, one tough, and one magical—who set out from home to rule the world.

2. I don’t think females have to be kept to the roles of dead mother/spunky tomboy/The Girl.

3. I’m not much interested in war and politics. If two kingdoms have been at war for so many thousands of years and only deft political manoeuvring will resolve the issues, I get a little sleepy.

4. I’d rather read a great 300 page book than a so-so 1000 page book. Imagine.

The person shopping with me asked, “Are you sure you like fantasy?”

I do! And these inconvenient truths don't rule all. For example, I’m currently reading The Name of the Wind and enjoying it immensely despite that it's very long, it has the most useless Prologue ever, it includes an orphaned child who grows up to be the most powerful somethingrather, and as of page 180 the only female character is a dead mother. Still, it’s a great book. You can get away with a lot if the story, characters, and writing are good enough. And as we've learend, a well-written synopsis will demonstrate what makes the book unique, not what makes it into a stereotype.

On the other hand, sitting on my coffee table is The High Lord, book three in The Black Magician trilogy. The book has female characters (well, one) who aren’t dead or plot props, it’s the right length, and it’s more about the characters than the war and politics. That’s all good. I’ve read books one and two, and actually read 300 out of 440 pages in book three. And yet I’m not sure I’ll finish it. It has a slow-zombie pace, the plot is predictable, and the characters have a good long think about everything they do, then do it for half a page, then have a good long think about what they’ve done. The best reaction I can have to the most exciting event in the books so far is to shake my head, punch a shoulder and say, “Oh, you.”

There were some synopses that interested me at Foyle's. For example, Blake Charlton’s Spellwright.

Imagine a world in which you could peel written words off a page and make them physically real. You might pick your teeth with a sentence fragment, protect yourself with defensive paragraphs, or thrust a sharply-worded sentence at an enemy’s throat. Such a world is home to Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice at the wizardly academy of Starhaven. Because of how fast he can forge the magical runes that create spells, Nicodemus was thought to be the Halcyon, a powerful spellwright prophesied to prevent an event called the War of Disjunction, which would destroy all human language. There was only one problem: Nicodemus couldn’t spell.
I’m hooked. There's someone meant to be the most powerful somethingrather, but it has its own twist, a unique kind of magic. And there's a wizard academy, blah… but he can’t spell, and spelling is integral to the magic. Very interesting.

I was also caught by C.S. Friedman’s Black Sun Rising.

The Coldfire trilogy tells a story of discovery and battle against evil on a planet where a force of nature exists that is capable of reshaping the world in response to psychic stimulus. This terrifying force, much like magic, has the power to prey upon the human mind, drawing forth a person's worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life.
Here there are battles, but the landscape itself is unique. It's magic, but again with its own slant. Fascinating.

For contrast, here are some synopses that alienated me immediately.

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen's rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

Young Fitz is the bastard son of the noble Prince Chivalry, raised in the shadow of the royal court by his father's gruff stableman. He is treated like an outcast by all the royalty except the devious King Shrewd, who has him secretly tutored in the arts of the assassin. For in Fitz's blood runs the magic Skill--and the darker knowledge of a child raised with the stable hounds and rejected by his family.

Thanks to Paks’s courage, the long-vanished heir to the half-elven kingdom of Lyonya has been revealed as Kieri Phelan, a formidable mercenary who earned a title—and enemies—in the neighboring kingdom of Tsaia, where Prince Mikeli suddenly faces the threat of a coup…

Photo: llibreria by MorBCN on flickr

27 August 2011

Evidence of improvement

I was looking through my photos on flickr the other day. I began uploading them in 2005, and I've uploaded photos I've taken back to 2001. One decade of my photography is displayed on that site. A lot has changed in that time.

For example, here is a photo I took in summer 2001:

And one I took in July 2011:

Let's ignore for the moment that the first photo was taken with an older SLR (purchased in the 80s, possibly the 70s) and had to be scanned. We can also attempt to ignore the filter on the second photo but really that's part of the point. I think my skill has improved. The first photo demonstrates my ability to identify interesting colours and focus with a macro lens, but the latter photo demonstrates a lot more: perspective, framing, and the ability to choose a suitable filter.

As I looked through my photos I found some of what I uploaded years ago a little bit... not good. Or possibly downright awful. I considered purging my flickr site of those old photos. Even though flickr is the only place some of those photos still exist, it seemed better that they not exist at all.

Then I realized it would be very much like burning or deleting old stories and poems because I've realized they're not very good, and whenever a friend does that it makes me really annoyed.

I say "a friend" because I have never done this. I hold on to writing as if it's one day going to edit itself and become instantly publishable. I'm two parts pack-rat and one part superstitious, so not only do I have boxes and boxes of old, terrible writing, I also have a newish Mac laptop filled with my writing saved in ancient DOS formats no longer viewable by any operating system anywhere in the world, except maybe that one work station in that jungle in that movie where the hacker kept the oldest system still running so he'd always have a back door into the Pentagon or wherever. Sorry, I can't remember the title of the movie. I don't think you'd want to see it anyway.

But I have friends who purge their writing all the time. Deleting files, shredding binders of old pages. Funeral pyres for manuscripts they no longer adore. I just don't understand. It doesn't matter if those old stories are ever going to be published or even shared with another human being. It's evidence! Evidence not only that you were writing way back when, and that those characters and stories existed, but that your writing has improved. Maybe it hasn't improved from yesterday to today, and sometimes not even from last month, but from sometime, somewhen. If you have continued writing, you are a better writer now than you used to be. And you can become better still. Why would anyone want to forget that?

Like with these two photos, it can also be a demonstration of how your writing has changed, and what areas still need work. Between 2001 and 2011 I learned about framing and filters. But what hasn't improved? Are there some weaknesses that still need attention?

So I don't think I'll purge my photos, either. Or if I delete them from flickr I'll make sure they're saved elsewhere. I don't mind stumbling on an old picture and thinking, My goodness that's awful, if I took it years ago and not last week.

And if I took it last week, well--Maybe it will be a good thing to see that I got better before, and I can get better again.

22 August 2011

A police procedural in a grain of sand

Last week I wrote a short fiction piece called “Searching,” about a murderer trying to create his own miracles. You can read it right here.

Usually my flash stories don’t fit so neatly inside a genre. This one is Mystery/Thriller, a police procedural complete with crime scene, corpse, and detectives. It contains most of the essential elements of a crime story of any length: the crime, the mystery, the pinnacle moment when our hero succeeds or dies, and the resolution: catching the bad guy. This is a lot to cram in under 1000 words.

Most of the novel-length fiction I write is Mystery/Thriller, but my short fiction ends up being something else. It always ends up being something else, so I intentionally wrote “Searching” to find out if I could create a well-written Mystery/Thriller in under 1000 words. Although it seems to have worked, it’s still missing some of the important elements of a mystery story, very notably: the process of solving the mystery. We skip right to the end, post-epiphany, and we must take it on faith that Beatrice discovered the truth in a believable way.

What I like in a flash story is the photo-quality of a few moments, the skilled development of a scene or a character. This doesn’t allow for a full-scale crime investigation with the development of a cast of suspects. I have seen stories that push the boundaries of the definition of “flash,” but making a story longer to accommodate exposition or description is one way to fail the intent of the form. To mash in all the important parts of a full-scale mystery? Is it possible?

I don’t think I could get away with skipping the investigation every time the way I did with “Searching.” I feel that flash fiction is better suited to speculative, literary, or horror fiction than mysteries—at least, the way I write them. I’m happy to be convinced otherwise by someone who regularly writes police procedural and crime flash, though. Point the way.

And enormous thanks to everyone who read and commented on "Searching." Obviously I wasn't sure how it would go over, so I'm very pleased by the response!

Photo: Question Everything by dullhunk on flickr.

19 August 2011

Friday Flash: "Searching"

by Jen Brubacher

The corpse lay in the chancel, legs spread, one arm folded across her chest. The other hand pointed to the altar, and from her fingers trailed a spray of small beads. The beads were shiny in Beatrice’s torch beam, but dulled when the SOCOs set up the main spotlight. The corpse’s skin turned a ghastly white.

Beatrice’s partner Virgil pointed at the beads. “You make of that?”

“Rosary beads.” Beatrice knelt and examined the dead hand. Two fingers curled lightly around nothing.

Virgil tapped his foot near the beads. “I heard a story about a woman in Africa who had rosary beads falling out of her mouth.”

A SOCO in a white paper jumpsuit looked up from scraping the bottom of the corpse’s shoe. “I heard that. She was spitting them up for days. The village thought it was a miracle.”

Virgil shrugged. “If you were puking up rosaries, wouldn’t you believe in miracles?”

“Not if you’d eaten them beforehand.”

They grinned at each other.

Beatrice glanced at the dead face. It stared beyond her, so she twisted around to look up at the clerestory. The small windows allowed lines of morning sun that lit the highest spaces in the church. None of it reached the floor, dividing the space so that they—Beatrice, Virgil, any human being that walked the aisles—would always be in darkness compared to to that glow.

Virgil pressed a gloved hand against the corpse’s face. “I heard a story about a girl in Pakistan who cried diamonds.”

“Owch,” said the SOCO.

“No, it didn’t hurt her. Somehow they appeared just as they fell away from her eyes.” He looked at Beatrice. “But this woman in Tibet died when a statue of the buddha was desecrated in front of her. Some thugs lit it on fire and she went up, too. Burst into flame even though she was fifty feet away. When the statue was put out, she was gone. Poof. Miracle.”

Beatrice said, “The ME is pretty sure this one died of strangulation.”


Beatrice sat in the choir stall. The setting sun had traced a jewelled path behind the stained glass but now she sat in darkness. The body was gone, but the spotlight remained, a hulking presence in the shadows.

Movement brought her attention to another presence in the aisles.

“Hello, partner.” Virgil stepped up and took a place beside her. “Did you hear? Autopsy found foreign items beneath the victim’s skin. More beads, some silver figurines, and a coin.”

“In her hand?”

He shifted. “Close enough.”

Beatrice bowed her head. He wanted so much for the details to be right. “Thanks for letting me know. You could have called, though.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Too late for that, she thought. She considered her next words, hoping she could make them sound normal, could speak to her friend as she always had, with trust and ease.

She took too long.

There was a whisper of fabric and then she was choking. A cord was around her neck, and Virgil’s hand was in her mouth.

A moment of brightness when she thought she saw the ceiling of the church fully lit, the spotlight come alive—and then nothing.


Beatrice lay in the chancel, staring up at a line of dark windows. Her body was numb except for a sharp ache at her hand, where Virgil carved into her skin. Beside them on the floor were the badges of her rank, metal pins that he intended to make a part of her flesh. Something to be discovered and marvelled at by some other investigating officer.

Bile rose up in her throat and she swallowed. If she threw up now, she’d choke on it.

“You can’t just make your own miracles,” she said.

“Why not?” Virgil looked up with scalpel in hand.

Beatrice saw her blood on the blade and a mist came over her vision. “All right, maybe you can.”

He went back to work. “There’s this girl in Brazil who sheds scales instead of skin. Whole patches of green—”

“Let me tell you one,” Beatrice said. “There’s this woman in England who was betrayed by a friend. But she was able to record everything that happened around her, and people who weren’t even there could hear every word, and knew exactly where she was.”

Virgil froze. A thud carried from the church doors and then a dozen booted feet stamped over the stone floor. Torchlight shone across the room and lit Virgil's pale face. He still held the scalpel but it was a pinprick in the chaos. Whatever he did would be too slow. Beatrice knew the feeling.

“It's a miracle,” she said.

Photo: Rosary by liz west on flickr

17 August 2011

Synopses reviews in review! Plus one more.

I promised to evaluate a children's book before I finished this mad crusade to unlock the secrets of synopsis greatness. Since I don't write children's fiction, I'm unsure what it will teach me, but I don't want to dismiss potential epiphanies.

What have we learned so far?

From The Da Vinci Code we learned that the point of a synopsis is to describe the book well enough that those reading it know what they'll get, and that can include everything from plot and character description to quailty of the writing (unfortunately.) We also learned to avoid unnecessary modifiers because they waste space, weaken language, and make Jen cry.

Old Man's War taught us the importance of focussing on what makes a story unique and interesting, rather than falling back on cliches. It also showed us that a synopsis can be mysterious and compelling, and doesn't have to dryly recite facts and events.

The Silent Girl's synopsis told us that if we're writing a series we need to keep the synopsis both unique and familiar enough to satisfy both new readers and old fans. It also made a sad point about how popular books don't need brilliant writing in their synopses because people will buy them anyway. But that doesn't help us much until we're all famous.

The synopsis for Bridget Jones's Diary demonstrated how much flavour can come over from the style and genre of the book into the synopsis. It showed that a book with a lot of personality can let that personality speak in the synopsis to great effect. It also reminded us that publisher chosen reviews printed on a book's cover are not useful.

Finally, It's synopsis pointed out that although repeating ourselves drives the point home, it doesn't create any more interest or tension than saying something once. There's no need to waste the space. It also shows that even a popular, well-read and extremely best-selling author can have a dull synopsis right on their very own website. Alas.

And now, a children's book. I'd like something popular, accessible, that most people will recognize. Whatever will I choose?

I will evaluate a longer synopsis than seen on this back cover.
If I didn't I'd be finished already.

Harry Potter is an ordinary boy who lives in a cupboard under the stairs at his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon's house,
First of all he’s ordinary. Then he lives in a cupboard with his Aunt and Uncle. I don’t know if this would fascinate a 10 year old, but it’s caught me.

which he thinks is normal for someone like him who's parents have been killed in a 'car crash'.
I’m not sure a 10 year old would recognize why the ‘car crash’ is in quotations, but I do, and I wonder. I also like that he thinks his life is normal.

He is bullied by them and his fat, spoilt cousin Dudley, and lives a very unremarkable life with only the odd hiccup (like his hair growing back overnight!) to cause him much to think about.
Juxtaposition rules all in this synopsis. First of all the ordinary versus bizarre, and now the odd hiccup like growing your hair back overnight. It’s all very fascinating.

That is until an owl turns up with a letter addressed to Harry and all hell breaks loose!
I want to laugh out loud. It’s a fun idea, owls with post.

He is literally rescued by a world where nothing is as it seems and magic lessons are the order of the day.
Oooh, owch. I was so impressed by the clarity of language until now. "Literally rescued?" As opposed to figuratively rescued? I like the magic lessons, but “nothing is as it seems” is so cliché and boring compared to the great last few sentences.

Read and find out how Harry discovers his true heritage at Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft,
“True heritage” makes me think of boring speeches at historical centres. Heh.

the reason behind his parents mysterious death, who is out to kill him, and how he uncovers the most amazing secret of all time, the fabled Philosopher's Stone!
Excitement. I love it.

All this and muggles too. Now, what are they?
This is a wonderful final line. This final line is better than any of the others I’ve evaluated. What are they, muggles? It would be difficult to pull off quite the same thing in an adult book, but they should at least try, rather than drizzling away to cliché as they reach their conclusion.

So this synopsis starts great and ends great. There’s an awkward middle, like someone edited the thing to make sure it fit the boring quotient of the average synopsis. Otherwise it’s pro. Difficult to compare this to adult synopsis, because this much cheery weirdness would be annoying for a lot of adult novels, but it’s good to be reminded that a little wonder goes a long way.

I'd like to review the synopsis of a book I haven't read, but I want to find out afterwards if it was effective. Anyone have a suggestion of a book they've read that I might not have read, so I can evaluate the synopsis and see what we can reveal?

Also, if anyone wants to throw themselves into the fire and allow me to evaluate their own synopsis... I'm willing if you are.

15 August 2011

SEO: So Eloquently Overwhelming

SEO is a term thrown around in blogging circles the way that USP is thrown around in sales circles, and it’s just as wanky. It stands for Search Engine Optimization. It means that when someone puts a few keywords into Google or another search engine, the correct results appear, ie. your blog. You can’t throw a virtual rock online without hitting an article devoted to teaching you effective SEO. This is not one of those articles.

Say you have a blog about writing and libraries. When someone searches for “writing” or “libraries” or “writing and libraries” or possibly “fiction and dewey” you want your page to appear. There are tools for discovering which keywords produce your site. For example, here are some keywords that have recently produced this site as a result:
  • jen brubaker
  • elif safak, circles, video
  • frodo ring
  • opposite of rose colored glasses
  • “perfect parting”
  • 2011 movies about writers
  • bilbo reading for the ring
  • great teachers
  • insanity justified
  • it is your right, m’lord
  • life in the uk test
  • read pdfs on sony touch
  • three sum sex scene
  • rose brubacher divorce blog

Some of these are great, for instance jen brubaker, movies about writers and read pdfs. They work for me. Perfect parting likely refers to a Friday Flash I wrote, and great teachers refers to a post about the same. Popular posts start turning up as results because they’re visited often and ranked higher. Other keywords are more peculiar: bilbo reading and frodo ring? I do like Lord of the Rings but I don’t talk about it much—those hits are the result of one post that celebrated Lord of the Rings day when I watched the films back to back. I don’t know who or what rose brubacher is but this is most definitely not a blog about divorce. Three sum sex scene? I don’t know where to start.

What’s more interesting is that these are keywords that produced my site and then the user clicked to come here. So whatever bit of metadata Google showed, the person said, “Yes, that’s the site I want.” I hope they were more or less satisfied with what they found.

Keywords cause problems with all kinds of searches. Witness a hapless patron searching a mystifying library catalogue, or someone trying to find a document that they know exists somewhere on their home computer, called something, something something... I had an interesting experience searching job sites for library work. Most of the time keyword searches for “library” produced computer science jobs. Can you figure out why? Give up? The search engine was picking up “Java class library” in the job descriptions.

A search for "SEO" on flickr produced this fabulous photo of a couch.

All this is just to say that I’m not very concerned with SEO. Unless I’m willing to title each post JUSTIN BIEBER LADY GA GA SEX TAPE, I’m not convinced it has great effect. Either a post is popular and it starts to turn up in the strangest places, or it’s mundane and sinks into internet purgatory.

12 August 2011

Perspectives on social media during the riots

It's about time I make some comment about the recent events here in London, UK. And it's about time because David Cameron has responded to the riots by expressing an interest in restricting access to social media.

I hope it's obvious that I'm anti-censorship and pro-information. If it's not, I'm not doing this whole social media thing correctly, myself. But just so it's clear: I am anti-censorship and pro-information. Consequently, I am pro-accessible-methods-of-communication, for instance: social media.

Amnesty International has published a statement about the balance required between freedom of speech and controlling risk:

"Freedom of expression is not an unlimited right and can be subject to regulation where risks are legitimately perceived.

"But David Cameron must ensure that the fear engendered by the recent riots and the determination to ensure that there is no repeat or escalation of the events of the last week, does not result in a knee-jerk reaction which curtails freedom of expression in a disproportionate way."
And PC World has published an article that sums up the situation, including disbelief that the government is "serious" from the executive director of the Open Rights Group, and a statement by a Conservative MP:

"Social media isn't any more important than a train station, a road or a bus service. We don't worry about police temporarily closing those."
It isn't? And we don't?

Anyway, it's a touchy situation. The view from my window on Monday night revealed a scary world. I didn't particularly want to help the people who set the car on fire on my street get in touch with anyone else who wanted to set anything else on fire, anywhere.

Thank you, fire brigade!

Then again, social media was the only reason I knew that my friends throughout the city were all right. It was how I knew what was going on when the regular news programs were showing the same video of the same building burning down, and when I couldn't get to a television. And in the morning it was how I shared the state of my neighbourhood with those who cared about me, while also reassuring them that I was okay.

Screw you, looters.

One problem with the MP's analogy of social media being like a road or a train station is that if you really need to go somewhere, you find a new route: on a different road, or via a different station. It's true that if Twitter shuts down I can use Facebook or Google Plus, but then does that stop the sites being used for nefarious purposes? Wouldn't the criminals be using Facebook and Google Plus, too? Or will we shut them all down--every method of communication, so nothing bad or good can get through, like putting a city in lockdown and saying, "Nobody can go to work, go to the store, or be with their loved ones."

I'm not fond of that idea. And I very much hope that the government will do as much as possible to find other solutions that do not limit freedom of information before they present us all with a world like that.

10 August 2011

It synopsis review

London is rioting. Actually, a few English cities are rioting. We spent Monday night awake, listening to shouts and sirens, and for a little while watching a car burn across the street from our home. I haven't fully digested everything that has happened here lately, and since it isn't just protesting and looting but car-jacking, home invasions, arson, and muggings, it seems a lot like terrorism to me. Although I'm sure I'll eventually have a lot to say about it, right now I'm at a loss. And instead of silencing myself now, I'm going to post the article I'd planned before it all began.

I’m examining fiction synopses to see how they’re written, why they put me to sleep, and what I can learn about writing my own synopses. For more detail about why I’m doing this, read this post.

Art from a 25th anniversary edition of the book.

Do you like horror fiction? I like horror fiction, mostly because my introduction to the genre came from Stephen King when I was an impressionable age. Supernatural horror is also a terrific escape from some of the more horrific elements of real life. Eventually I'm going to review the synopsis of a book I haven't read, but for horror I have to go back to my favourite: It, a book I had to hide cover-down in a drawer every night before I could sleep.

A promise made twenty-eight years ago
The presentation of time passed is interesting.

calls seven adults
Adults? Well, if they made the promise 28 years ago, I hope they’re adults by now.

to reunite in Derry, Maine,
Hooray, a setting. Also, for anyone who reads a lot of King, they’ll recognize this as one of his towns.

where as teenagers they battled an evil creature that preyed on the city's children.
I know that the evil creature is a scary clown. I can’t forget that, no matter how much I’d like to. So when it mentions an evil creature that preys on children, I imagine a scary clown. I’m not sure how scary the image would be without my preconceptions, but I’m going to say it’s interesting at least.

Unsure that their Losers Club had vanquished the creature all those years ago,
"Losers Club?" That makes me interested in these kids.

the seven had vowed to return to Derry if IT should ever reappear.
It's fleshing out what was previously said: these adults made a promise/vow, and so they’re back. As far as stories go, that's not fantastically compelling. I want more about the adults themselves, or what they're sacrificing to return.

Now, children are being murdered again and their repressed memories of that summer return as they prepare to do battle with the monster lurking in Derry's sewers once more.
I already figured it was happening again, considering that they were called back. I would prefer more information on a few of the characters, or the nature of the monster: possibly its motivations or even whether it’s psychological horror, how gory, etc. This is also a bit awkward: the repressed memories might belong to the murdered children, depending on how it's read. But those memories are the only thing really interesting about the final sentence. I know it’s trying to suggest that we’ll see what happened all those years ago, but it’s a tame way to state it, and doesn’t let a potential reader in on the fact that half of this book is from the kids’ perspectives. If I didn’t know the book, I’d assume we were talking about a few repressed memories, with most of the story revolving around the adults. This would be incorrect.

This is a sparse synopsis but it comes from King’s own site. That doesn’t mean he wrote it, of course. Still, I’d want the information on my site to reflect the books I wrote. I’m not sure this satisfies. It performs the same disservice to his story that so many movies have done: removing the characters and the emotion and concentrating solely on the horror elements. Too bad. The strength of his horror (and all horror, I think) is in the characters who experience it with the reader.

I should note that this synopsis also completely ignores my new "represent the genre within the blurb" rule.

I think next time I'll evaluate a synopsis for children's fiction. It's due.

08 August 2011

Bridget Jones's Diary synopsis review

I’m examining fiction synopses to see how they’re written, why they put me to sleep, and what I can learn about writing my own synopses. For more detail about why I’m doing this, read this post.

Let's delve into chick lit for more synopses-related epiphanies. Alas I can't find a back cover image for this one, either, because all that comes up in a search are DVD boxes. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding is well known and accessible chick lit, relevent even to Jane Austen snobs (we studied it for one of my university courses, so that's important, right?)

Bridget Jones is on an optimistic but doomed quest for self-improvement.
We have a character, we have a personality, we even have a genre (you know, those books about women who want to be better but are just too wacky.)

Cheered by feminist ranting with friends Jude, Shazzer and 'fag-hag' Tom,
Here finally is an example of a synopsis mentioning characters in a bad way. Up until now I’ve been impressed whenever it’s happened. This time I’m not. Jude, Shazzer, and ‘fag-hag’ Tom? It’s specific but overwhelming. I suppose it tells us they have fun names, though I’m confused by ‘fag-hag,’ which is meant to be a woman who hangs out with gay men, not a gay guy who hangs out with women (am I wrong about this?) But who are these people, apart from possibly annoying? I don’t know or care.

humiliated at Smug Marrieds' dinner parties,
Without prior knowledge of Bridget’s term “smug marrieds” my brain kind of tripped on this, but it’s a good example of what’s in the book as well as the tone of the book and Bridget’s diary entries.

crazed by parental attempts to fix her up with a rich divorcee in a diamond-patterned sweater,
By... in... wha? I had to read that twice before it made sense. Still a good example of Bridget’s entries, so I have to laud that.

Bridget is convinced that if she could just get down to 8st 7lbs, stop smoking and develop Inner Poise, all would be resolved.
This is a true statement. She is convinced. I already knew it from the very first sentence of the synopsis, but it shows a bit of character. It will also scare off anyone who will be uninterested in a book that centers around a woman trying to lose weight and be perfect, ie. chick lit.

In this brilliantly funny picaresque tale,
To heck with your brilliantly funny picaresque modifiers. Wait... picaresque? Yes, it is a word. Seemingly out of nowhere, a vocabulary lesson.

Picaresque adj \ˌpi-kə-ˈresk, ˌpē-\: of or relating to rogues or rascals; also : of, relating to, suggesting, or being a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist (a picaresque novel)

There you go. Does this promise a particularly clever novel for its genre? Click lit has a reputation for being vapid. Clever language goes some way to fight that, though they could have left off brilliantly and just let it be funny.

Fielding shows us a year in the life of a girl determined to 'have it all' - the second she's finished this cigarette and phoned Shazzer.
This is cute. Suits the genre, and we already have a good idea of the character so it suits her too. It also tells us about the format of the book. We know it’s a diary, now we know it’s a year. The determination to ‘have it all’ is an acceptable vagueness since we already know that 'all' equals a hot boyfriend and the ability to fit into skinny jeans.

The synopsis then descends into reviews.

"A brilliant comic creation. Even men will laugh" Salman Rushdie; "Gloriously unedifying" Libby Purves; "I cannot recommend a book more joyfully...Hilariously funny, miraculously observed, endlessly touching" Jilly Cooper, Books of the Year, Daily Telegraph; "Wild comedy...observed with merciless, flamboyant wit. A gloriously funny book" Penny Perrick, Sunday Times
That’s nice.

It’s great fun to examine a chick lit synopsis after the others. The difference in voice, tone, even the tolerance of awkward sentences marks it as a very different kind of book. Writing this kind of book, I’d want a synopsis with this much flair. And I am now convinced that a synopsis must reflect the flavour and genre of the novel.

It's also comparatively short. This possibly reflects assumptions about the target audience's attention span. The synopsis is trying to be catchy, quick, and full of personality. It suits its genre and the book.

I don't write in this genre but I'd be interested to hear what those of you who do think of this blurb.

Next, horror! Muahaha.

06 August 2011

Write Anything: The Future

Good news, everyone. I have joined the staff at Write Anything. The intention of the site is to be a home for writers, a place to "exchange ideas, find new points of view, discuss innovations in the industry, and to practice and enhance our skills, to forge writing partnerships and find kindred spirits." Their by-line is por scriptor, per scriptor. It goes pretty well with scribo ergo sum, I think.

You can read my inaugural post here, and if you aren't already a regular reader there I hope you'll check out what else the website has for you. There are some terrific writers who regularly post (and some terrific writers who regularly comment!)

The theme for posts this month is The Future.

05 August 2011

The Silent Girl synopsis review

I’m examining fiction synopses to see how they’re written, why they put me to sleep, and what I can learn about writing my own synopses. For more detail about why I’m doing this, read this post.

Jumping genres now to crime fiction, I’m looking at the blurb for Tess Gerritsen’s new book The Silent Girl (brand new, so there's no back cover image yet.) I’m a fan of her books and I was excited to see she had a new Rizzoli/Isles story out.

Okay! We have evil, we have setting, we have big important capital letters. It’s not specific but I assume the ellipsis is going to help with that. It’s intended to draw us into the next paragraph. I don’t know, but I think I should read the next paragraph regardless of that ellipsis.

When a hand is found in a Chinatown alley in downtown Boston,
That’s a hook, though I must take this opportunity to mention a standard synopsis programme: So and so is this, but when such and such happens they must realize/decide/acknowledge/accept something else, and their life is changed forever. Clearly not all synopses follow this formula (it's all too common in movie trailers) but when I read “When such and such...” I start to wince. It’s difficult to concentrate on content when the structure of the sentence is railroading my imagination. Something to keep in mind.

detective Jane Rizzoli climbs to a nearby roof-top and finds the hand’s owner –
I’m glad to see mention of Rizzoli. She’s a well-known character within the series.

a woman whose throat has been slashed so deeply that her head is nearly severed.
Ew. The power in this sentence is that it’s specific without adding “brutally” to slashed or substituting “cut off” for severed. Good use of language.

Two strands of silver hair cling to her body.
I’m not sure why this is important yet.

They are Rizzoli’s only clues,
Oh, this is why. I would have preferred it to say, “Rizzoli’s only clues are two strands of silver hair clinging to the body,” so I understood right away.

but they’re enough for her and pathologist Maura Isles to make a startling discovery.
Oh good. Maura Isles is back, too. And two characters=interaction, chance for conflict, and startling discoveries.

This violent death had a chilling prequel.
As opposed to a peaceful death and a heartwarming prequel, I guess.

Nineteen years earlier, a horrifying murder-suicide in a Chinatown restaurant left five people dead.
A murder-suicide is always horrifying, but I’m interested that this case stretches back so far.

But one woman connected to that massacre is still alive:
A link! And another character. Brilliant.

a mysterious and beautiful martial arts master
Mysterious, I can accept. But beautiful? Is that necessary in a book? It’s not like I get to watch her on screen. I’m more interested that she’s a martial arts master, considering the whole severed hand and head situation.

who knows a secret that lives and breathes in the shadows of Chinatown.
This is cheesy, but it sets a mood.

It soon becomes clear that this is an evil that has killed before and will kill again –
It seemed clear already, but it’s good to point out that the stakes are high. I wish it didn’t add to the cheese, though.

unless Jane and Maura can track it down, and defeat it...
That’s a snore of a final line in a series where every book demands that Jane and Maura track something down and defeat it. But if someone is approaching the series for the first time, I suppose it works. I’m also sad that this is the second ellipsis, but I’m guessing they feel they can get away with that because people expect a bit of razzle dazzle in popular thrillers. And that is what this synopsis reflects: a popular thriller with recurring characters, a Chinatown mystery with a long past. That’s what the book delivers, too.

This is a usful synopsis to examine if we're writing a later book in a series. Then we can be reminded that people keep reading series because they like the characters they’ve met before, they know what to expect, and the extra details—in this case the Chinatown mystery—are unique enough that it won’t be exactly like reading a previous book. That sounds unfair when I consider how unique some of Tess Gerritsen’s books are, but not when I consider that the books will sell to a lot of readers who don’t care about unique, and just want another McBook. The synopsis performs fine for that.

Having read the book and heard what Tess Gerritsen says about it, I wish they’d included the detail that this was a personal book for the author, based partly on the stories her mother told about growing up in Chinatown. That’s the kind of thing that would have hooked my interest even if I hadn’t read the rest of the series.

Next time I veer wildly and examine the synopsis of a popular chick lit title. Do I? Yes I do.

04 August 2011

Old Man's War synopsis review

I’m examining fiction synopses to see how they’re written, why they put me to sleep, and what I can learn about writing my own synopses. For more detail about why I’m doing this, read this post.

For my second review I chose the science fiction novel Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. It’s modern sci fi, published in 2005, the first of a series that now has four books. It has a potentially very different audience than our first pick, The Da Vinci Code.

John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday.
Hooray, a character!

First he visited his wife's grave.
And he has a personal history. That’s nice.

Then he joined the army.
Good hook. He joined the army at 75 years old? That needs explaining.

The good news is that humanity finally made it into interstellar space.
The explanation seems to be coming right away. Brilliant. And it’s also getting to the science fiction part, which is important for my expectations.

The bad news is that planets fit to live on are scarce-and aliens willing to fight for them are common. The universe, it turns out, is a hostile place.
So here we have conflict, a tumultuous setting, but still: how does a 75 year old fight?

So: we fight. To defend Earth (a target for our new enemies, should we let them get close enough) and to stake our own claim to planetary real estate. Far from Earth, the war has gone on for decades: brutal, bloody, unyielding.
They’re losing me. Okay, we fight, but I got that earlier, and it's standard sci fi stuff. What I'm most interested in is how this character can fight. It's starting to feel like they've let down their hook.

Earth itself is a backwater.
Aw! It’s not an original idea, but it always makes me sad.

The bulk of humanity's resources are in the hands of the Colonial Defense Force, which shields the home planet from too much knowledge of the situation.
Censorship. Figures. Now it’s aroused my sensibilities, so I’m interested in that.

What's known to everybody is that when you reach retirement age, you can join the CDF. They don't want young people; they want people who carry the knowledge and skills of decades of living.
This is interesting. They want older people for good reason. But I don’t yet see how it works.

You'll be taken off Earth and never allowed to return.
So you can’t go home. That’s interesting, too. It's all... very... interesting.

You'll serve your time at the front. And if you survive, you'll be given a generous homestead stake of your own, on one of our hard-won colony planets.
That's nice, I guess. It's a bit superfluous at this point, since we still don't know how a person can be a soldier at 75, let alone how they continue on with a generous homestead on a hard-won planet (they were doing so well. Don't start with unnecessary modifiers now!)
John Perry is taking that deal. He has only the vaguest idea what to expect.
This is a reiteration of what has been said, but since it’s bringing everything together with the character we started with, I'm ok with it. I’m starting to understand how the book develops from this character's perspective.
Because the actual fight, light-years from home, is far, far harder than he can imagine-
*snore* Sorry, what? Yeah. Whatever.

and what he will become is far stranger.
Er—Become? Did that say become? This is a hint of an answer to my questions, and I really want to know more.

I read this book a while ago. This is a very good synopsis for representing the book, like the last one I evaluated. But it has another strength: it also promises to represent the writing. Clear, without (many) unnecessary modifiers, presenting new ideas with compelling mysteries. It also describes science fiction with the emphasis on character, my favourite kind. In fact that’s why I loved Old Man’s War: it was much more about the people than it was about battles (although the battles were there, too.)

The synopsis annoyed me because it took a while to get back to the mystery that had hooked me. But the synopsis is only a few paragraphs long, so it can get away with that. And it did keep me reading. That might be a good tactic for our own synopses: introduce something compelling, hold it back, and finish with it again. It's a better than finishing with a limp cliche and an ellipsis.

Next up is a brand new exciting crime thriller with a synopsis that finishes with a limp cliche and an ellipsis.

03 August 2011

The Da Vinci Code synopsis review

I’m examining fiction synopses to see how they’re written, why they put me to sleep, and what I can learn about writing my own synopses. For more detail about why I’m doing this, read this post.

Our first victim? The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. This book, as you might know, sold extremely well—beyond how well it probably should have sold. I worked at a bookstore during its release and I'm certain that every person in Edinburgh owns at least ten copies. I thought it would be a good example to start with.

Harvard professor Robert Langdon
Look, a character already. Excellent. Why are characters important? Because otherwise it’s just a bunch of ideas or plot points. That’s an interesting thought exercise but not an interesting book.

receives an urgent late-night phone call while on business in Paris:
The first unnecessary modifier: urgent. Surely if the phone call is late-night we can assume it’s something urgent. But okay, something exciting is about to happen. I’m impressed we got to it so quickly. Keep going.

the elderly curator of the Louvre has been brutally murdered inside the museum.
The second unnecessary modifier: elderly. Does that matter before we read the book? I don't care that he's elderly, I'm interested that he curates the Louvre. The third: brutally. I’m happy enough knowing he was murdered. Few people are kindly murdered. Few murders, even the mundane ones, are considered mundane.

Alongside the body, police have found a series of baffling codes.
Okay, this is interesting. I can assume they’re baffling, but still, I’m not turned off.

As Langdon and a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, begin to sort through the bizarre riddles,
Another character! A chance for interaction and conflict! I’m happy with that. Though she doesn’t have to be gifted to be useful for this scenario. We can decide if she’s gifted when we read the book, thanks. And the riddles/codes are now bizarre as well as baffling. Goodness.

they are stunned to find a trail that leads to the works of Leonardo Da Vinci-
Zing—I love Da Vinci stuff. Everyone does. Good call.

and suggests the answer to a mystery that stretches deep into the vaults of history.
The... the vaults? Of history? That’s just stupid. History doesn’t have vaults, does it? Do they mean literal vaults? No need to get too artsy in a synopsis. It doesn't come over well.
Unless Langdon and Neveu can decipher the labyrinthine code
Now the code is labyrinthine as well as bizarre and baffling. Golly.

and quickly assemble the pieces of the puzzle,
I didn’t assume they’d slowly assemble it.

a stunning historical truth will be lost forever...
There are a stunning number of unnecessary modifiers in this synopsis. Let’s count them up: urgent, elderly, brutally, baffling, gifted, bizarre, labyrinthine, quickly, stunning. That’s 9 of the words that fit on the back of the book, absolutely useless. I have definitely learned something from this synopsis. At best these modifiers put me to sleep, and at worst they antagonize me out of reading the text.

The synopsis ends with an ellipsis. I’m not sure about that. I get it: we’re meant to feel like the story goes on, that we must find out what happens next, here it comes, wait for it... But I’d rather they end the sentence with a full stop. I can add the anticipation with my own brain.

Otherwise, what this blurb tells me is that the book is some kind of pacy thriller/adventure involving murder and historical mysteries, and it might be a tad cheesy (due to the presence of The Vaults of History.) Having read The Da Vinci Code I can say that’s bang on. Whether or not I enjoyed the writing in the book, I can’t say it wasn’t a pacy thriller etc. This might be why it sold so well. It delivered exactly what it promised.

Well done, synopsis writer. Just get rid of those bloody modifiers.

Next time: science fiction.

Synopsis-induced Narcolepsy

There is a standard sequence that occurs as a person chooses a book.* It goes book cover, dust jacket (or back of the paperback,) then text itself. At that point it’s either theirs or discarded.

On this occasion I'm just one of the herd. I always judge a book by its titles and cover, and reject covers that signify certain clichés unless I desire that cliché (eg. the painted "here's a man with a sword" fantasy covers.) I always check out the synopsis and become frustrated if I find a bunch of reviews instead. (I care little for reviews that were chosen by the publisher.) And then I always peek at the writing to see if I actually want to read the thing. I try to read some of the first page, knowing how hard authors work on that, but I also want to read a bit of the rest so I don’t get suckered in by a hook that has nothing to do with the rest of the book. That happens. It annoys me.

From this examination comes an epiphany: the synopsis is the most important part. It’s the deal breaker in the process. I can get past a terrible cover, but no matter how great the cover or title might be, I can be stopped by a dreadful synopsis. And no matter how wonderful the writing is, I won’t get there if I already think the book is a dud.

And now I have to accept that I have an awful weakness: synopses put me to sleep. I mean they really, really bore me. It’s difficult enough trying to write my own, for books I love. Reading someone else’s? When the publisher or editor or whoever has done their best to strip away originality for fear of alienating the audience? Ugh.

I was browsing in my library the other day. I picked up and put down a dozen books that described intense battles, conflicted characters and events “that will change everything.” I can’t tell you what the books looked like, or what they were called, but I can assure you I didn’t get as far as reading the text.

Why do synopses put me to sleep? Why do I skim over the words emotional and interstellar and let my eyes drift past marital breakups like they could never matter to me? I understand my aversion to the phrase coming of age, but what’s wrong with an unstoppable chain of events? Everything, it seems. I stop them with a thought.

To read synopses I must strain my attention so as not to miss a great book because its synopsis is boring. To write my own synopses I need to keep all this in mind: make it short and original, avoid clichés and delusions of grandeur, mention a character (one at least,) and try describe something that won’t sound like every other book on offer—even though it’s only the gist of the story, and it has been pointed out there are only so many stories. No pressure.

I'm going to find a few examples of published synopses, good and bad, to deconstruct, evaluate, and see what we can learn.

First up: The Da Vinci Code.

* A paper book. For ebooks, a slightly different sequence, but the synopsis issue remains.

Photo: Narcolepsy anonymous by Danny Coen on flickr
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