The hardest thing about writing

Shipyard #11, Qili Port, Zhejiang Province, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

I’m preparing one of my novels for submission, and I’m writing a synopsis.  I hate synopses.  Like all prejudice, it’s an irrational loathing–I always feel like I’m crushing the story, stripping away the beauty and leaving just a skeleton, and I can’t help but think that if people want to know what a book is about they should just read the book.

But this is only true for my book; I quite enjoy reading a good dust-jacket description and have a hard time buying a book that doesn’t give me some hint at what lies within.  And I’ve seen many an exposed framework in other media that looks just as beautiful as the finished product.  A house, for instance; the ribbing of a ship in the shipyards; a sketch for a painting.  If a story is good, you should be able to strip away the finish and still see the wonderful potential in the bones.

Still, accepting the value of a finished synopsis is a far cry from being able to write one, and my instinct as a storyteller is to start telling a story, and I always have difficulty distilling my fiction to this essential, bare-bones extent.  So I started poking around for some straight-forward advice on how to do one, because when all else fails, I still go back to exercises.

There are some great examples of synopses online and in books, but without the novel itself to compare with, it’s hard to see how the author stripped it down.  Sometimes even when I know the novel, I keep thinking, But they left out this part, and this character, and this scene….  I discovered, eventually, that as much as I like to overwrite and then edit down a story, stripping away this much is simply too hard, and I needed to come at my synopsis from the other end, starting from scratch and building up.

But what to include?  What speaks loudest, what is most essential?  Worse:  What am I forgetting?  I stared at my blank screen for a long, long time, feeling very much like a brand-new writer, utterly unsure of what to do next. My beginner’s mind is not always a comfortable place to be.

Then I found this exercise, by H. L Dyer, which is somehow the best of both approaches.  The description is a bit convoluted, but the short version is this:  Go through a book chapter by chapter, and for each chapter, look for only three things–the beginning, the middle, and the end.  Talk about going back to basics!  Actually, Dyer suggests looking for the set-up, the conflict, and the resolution, which casts the beginning, middle and end in their more functional lights.  Then, with one sentence for each aspect, three sentences per chapter, you’ll roll  through a synopsis in no time.  Or at least, not much more time than it takes to read your own book.

Going through my own novel this way, I realize I was doing this in grade school when we had to write book reports.  We called them summaries back then, but the idea is the same, and the process is the same, too.  And writing this synopsis–this summary–of my own book, remembering all those grade-school book reports, is allowing me to read my novel as a reader.  That’s a pretty exhilarating experience.

I remember an interview with Tom Franklin in Southern Literary Review, in which he was discussing his novel Smonk.  He explains that his editor resisted the novel, kept telling him it was the wrong book to work on at that time.  And the interviewer asked why he kept writing it anyway, why he insisted it was the right book.  Franklin says, “I knew I was writing the novel that I most wanted to read.”

Going back over my novel now, reading it like a reader and distilling it into a synopsis as though for a book report, I feel the same way.  Giddy.  Delighted.  This is the book I want to read, and it sometimes surprises me that I’m the one who wrote it.

* The title is from a birthday card I have long kept attached to my writing desk:  It shows Winnie-the-Pooh scratching his head with a pencil, and underneath are the words, “‘The hardest thing about writing,’ though Pooh, ‘is finding the right words.”

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

9 thoughts on “The hardest thing about writing

  1. Hey, very interesting post you have here. I’m personally a write myself, but just a rookie, I learn as I go along, but one thing I noticed that sets me apart from other writers who I had the chance to read their blogs,I see that they have problem with mostly two things: Finding a right title for their book and making a synopsis.

    Ironically those are the first things that I come up with and are the easiest, the difficult part for me is to set my ideas in a proper outline, I always end up with bits and pieces.

    1. Great point! I think building fiction is a lot like rebuilding an engine. When I was a kid, my dad and I did a lot of work on car engines. I wasn’t always a willing helper, I admit, but those were some good times out in the winter chill or the sweltering summer heat, wearing gloves in either season because the metal was either too cold or too hot to hold onto for long. But no matter how many clutches we replaced or engines we reassembled or heads we rebuilt, we would always wind up with extra parts at the end. These were the same parts we’d extracted from the engine, and when we’d taken the thing apart they seemed all to have a necessary place and function. But then we put the engine back together and here was this bucket of spare bolts and washers that, for the life of us, we could not figure a home for. The analogy ends there, I’m afraid, because I can’t vouch for how well any engine we ever touched ran when we had finished with it, but the point is this: Fiction, like engines, consists of all sorts of bits and pieces, and even the tightest stories in which every piece seems so necessary at first can in the end wind up with extraneous junk destined for the greasy coffee cans of our literary minds.

      I’ve become a fan of writing from the experience, of not worrying so much about outlines and focusing instead on the natural flow of the story. Outlines are outstandingly useful (much to my disorganized chagrin), but once you have the basic idea on paper, I say, explore from scratch and see what happens. Sometimes the most amazing discoveries work themselves into a text by accident, and only an unfettered writing frenzy can produce those. I’ve also become a huge fan of NaNoWriMo for that very reason, and if you haven’t participated in that yet, prepare yourself to dive in this coming November. (Are you a scriptwriter, too? April is Script Frenzy month, and though I don’t expect to finish a script this year, I am planning to tackle that as well.)

      Thanks for reading and double-thanks for the comment! Look forward to hearing more from you in the future. 🙂

    2. BTW: I was looking at your blog and saw your interest in surrealism as well as writing the Weird. Are you familiar with Alfred Kubin? He’s a Viennese artist and author whose work influenced Kafka–I haven’t pick up his surrealist fiction yet, but his artwork is fantastic.

  2. I am an obsessive researcher when it comes to writing. I spent nearly a year trying to build a perfect short synopsis, and through that research I think I’ve figured out what agents want in a one page query letter (haven’t quite figured out the two page synopsis). The best query letters are the ones that can explain a book in the fewest words. It speaks hugely on your ability as a writer to choose the best words that make the deepest impact (which agents want to see before ever touching the story). I practiced by turning paragraphs into sentences, then sentences into one word. Its hard, but once you master it, a synopsis and query become almost a fun challenge and test your abilities as a writer. Once I figured it out, I had an agent ask for my full MS.

    1. Thanks for the comments! I have to say, one of my biggest hang-ups is the whole “best words” thing, because I work awfully hard to choose the best words for the novel, so that evil editor on my shoulder keeps telling me that the synopsis is always going to be weaker than the book because I’ve already found the best words–they’re in the book! But, like I said, I love the exercise of writing, and figuring out this synopsis thing is turning out to be quite interesting, and it’s helping me think of my fiction is ways I don’t ordinarily think. Like you, I enjoy the challenge.

      But oh, you mention the query, and that feels like another creature entirely…. Bring out the Holy Hand Grenade! 🙂

      You mention your own manuscript–is that book in print now? Forthcoming? What’s your experience been like?

  3. My experience has been an emotional roller coaster. It’s only been a month since I sent out my queries for my new story. My first one was shot down quick until I finally had to just flush the whole thing. But that’s just part of the process I soppose.

    I had an agent interested in my new story, but was ultimately turned down. I have queries out now and still waiting for responses. Right now I’m starting another story and just keeping my fingers crossed. When I first started writing seriously, I never realized I’d spend the majority of the time waiting.

    What type of book have you written?

    1. The novel I’m working on now is a Civil War novel, though the war never makes much of an appearance–it’s about two women trying to survive in the marshland of southwest Louisiana, and a neighbor who’s deserted the war in moved back home to seduce one of the women, and a lunatic officer who dresses like a werewolf and aims to kill them all. It’s a happy book.

      My other novel, which it still a bit of a mess at the moment, is about dead people–the whole thing is set in an afterlife.

  4. Those both sound very interesting. The officer dressed as a werewolf has my interest peaked. Are they quirky, or more serious?

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