Synopsis Alive, Alive-Oh!

Why did no one warn me that writing a synopsis is so difficult? I’ve written book reviews of other people’s books (and one of an imaginary book when I was in Primary 3 and hadn’t bothered to read anything suitable during the Easter holidays). I’ve written blurb-like teasers under the misguided impression that this was what an editor or agent would expect from a synopsis. But, even after reading excellent advice on how to write synopsis here or here , my own efforts seem exceedingly bland. And anything but alive! Here’s the first paragraph that I slaved over for hours yesterday:

Melinda is a 40-year-old trailing spouse to a banker husband, Graham, and is finding it difficult to adapt to the expat community in Geneva. A dreamy mathematician of Romanian origin who turned accountant to accommodate the family, she does not have the right background or social skills to blend in well with the snobbish environment she encounters.

Yawn! See what I mean? Too much back story and it sounds vaguely like an autobiography (except I’m neither mathematician nor accountant, nor is my husband a banker). Besides, the book doesn’t really start there. It starts with a death. Of course it does, it’s crime fiction after all. So my question is: when you start at a certain crisis point in the novel, then move backwards to show how they got to that point, should your synopsis follow the chronological story or the way you’re revealing things gradually on the page?

I spent all day yesterday producing about 300 words of synopsis, which I then deleted in its entirety. [Or at least the part of the day that I wasn’t spending on phoning doctors and researching hospitals for my husband’s stiff shoulder, which he assured me was a serious emergency, until he actually went to see the nurse at his workplace and was told it could wait until the appointment I had already made for him for next week.]

So back to the drawing board today, in-between bouts of picking up a sick child from school and nursing him. Let me try with the ‘following the storyline’ approach. I found a step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis which I think might work for me. The author suggests the following stages:

  1. List your scenes (so you are following the order that you lay them out in the book)
  2. Condense them into a summary (this is where you can lose a lot of the back story)
  3. Enrich it to give a flavour of your style (this is a part which I found missing in most synopsis advice, which is why most examples I read sounded terribly dull)
  4. Check for sense (is it an accurate and honest representation of your novel?)
  5. Reflection (this is where you can test for plotholes or clichés, unrealistic motivation or other flaws)

I can see this is going to take much longer than I’d expected, so I’m glad I’m allowing myself time to do this properly (at least until the end of next week). Here is a first intuitive stab at that opening paragraph again:

Melinda and Rob, two bored expats in Geneva, are attempting a drug-fuelled tryst with a charismatic young gigolo, Max. To their horror, Max has a seizure and dies. Desperate to conceal their affair from their respective partners and afraid that the police will accuse them of manslaughter, they decide to hide the body in nearby woodland. What they don’t know is that Max was also the protegé of Adnan, the king of cocaine in the area, and Rob’s drug supplier.

That’s still not quite right, but a bit more likely to capture my interest. What do you think? For comparison purposes, here is an example of a synopsis of the original Star Wars.

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, a controlling government called the Empire takes control of planets, systems, and people. Anyone who resists is obliterated. Luke Skywalker, a naïve farm boy with a knack for robotics, dreams of one day escaping his desert homeland. When he buys two robots, he finds one has a message on it—a message from a princess begging for help.

By the way, if you are looking for a step-by-step critique of synopsis examples, there is a no-nonsense blog called Miss Snark who does just that. Anyone else willing to share their synopsis frustrations or examples?

 

Full Moon on Monday and Writing Plans

The setting full moon over the Jura mountains got me singing ‘Full Moon on Monday’. Although, a while later, I realised that the Duran Duran song of my childhood was actually called ‘New Moon on Monday’. The lyrics are as vague and nonsensical as all Duran Duran lyrics ever were, but the video seems to suggest a revolution in the making, so this is my personal writing revolution, rather than a New Year’s resolution. I will be, as always, ruthlessly candid.FullMoon

  1. No one else is going to write my novel for me.
  2. Agents and publishers have a short attention span and will not wait for me forever.
  3. In fact, it may already be too late for 2.
  4. But that is no excuse to lay down arms.
  5. The next few months may be my last chance to focus with anything resembling single-mindedness on writing.
  6. Yes, there are still major logistical hurdles before me (moving house and country, changing schools, job hunting), but I will worry about those nearer the time.
  7. So what if everyone and their dog are writing ‘domestic noir’ and I am getting bored with the genre? That doesn’t mean I should lose confidence in my own project. If I don’t believe it offers something fresh and unique, then who else is going to believe it? Besides, it’s more of a gangster and police chase novel than a pure domestic.
  8. Volunteering for all sorts of writing-related responsibilities and tasks may be fun, but do they help me to finish the novel? If the answer is no, then I need to be ruthless about turning down these requests.
  9. I will still read and review crime fiction – it helps to know what is currently being published – but I should also read more widely and critically, with particular emphasis on the writers that I can learn from. Not to copy them, of course, but to understand the mechanics rather than just be wowed by the style.
  10. I also want to read for fun, without reviewing, without pen in hand, according to whim and fancy. Because life is too short to be earnest all the time.
  11. And on that note, always have something to look forward to and something to celebrate. That is my remedy for depression. Yes, there are all the other possible solutions as well: medication or talking to someone, exercising more regularly, using my daylight-simulating lamp or just going out more above the cloud level, exploring the settings for my novel… Add to that things such as a writing conference in March, the crime festival in Lyon on 1-3 April, and a writing retreat in June, and you can see that 2016 will be all about drive but also treats!
  12. If I don’t take care of myself, no one else will, and I won’t be able to take care of others. Yet I must also allow those others to take more care of themselves, without agonising too much about what kind of a parent I am.
  13. Don’t think diet, think lifestyle change. I intend to write more than one novel, so I need to form lifelong habits.
  14. Stop caring what other people say about my decisions and my life. No one knows what pain feels like for other people, no one can live my life for me.
  15. And no one can write my life for me either. Or my novel. Or my poems.

#DiverseDecember: When Writers Are Silenced…

This is the first of two posts I want to write about how writers get silenced – not through writer’s block, but through external circumstances. Either life, work, motherhood or poverty getting in the way of their work (part 1, inspired by Tillie Olsen), or else through censorship, imprisonment and fearing for their lives (part 2, inspired by recent news).

SilencesFirst published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences revolutionized literary studies. By exploring the social and economic conditions that make creativity possible, Olsen also looked at circumstances which made creativity IMpossible. She revealed that even though working-class people, people from ethnic minorities and women have in fact always written, their work has been largely ignored. They have had to combat many disadvantages, which meant long periods of ‘silence’, a late start or an early retirement from the literary scene.

‘Constant toil is the law of art’ said Balzac and many writers have spoken of the Muse as a cruel, jealous and demanding mistress. However, few privileged white male writers have admitted why they were able to appease this mistress. Conrad mentions it almost by the by:

Mind and will and conscience engaged to the full, hour after hour, day after day… a lonely struggle in a great isolation from the world. I suppose I slept and ate the food put before me… but I was never aware of the even flow of daily life made easy and noiseless for me by a silent, watchful, tireless affection.

Needless to say, most women writers in history, most poor writers of either gender, who work three or more jobs at once to support their families, do not have this luxury. We have page after page of Kafka’s diaries attesting to the frustration of incomplete work, inability to concentrate, and wonder at how much work may have been lost to us, his readers.

When I begin to write after such a long interval, I draw the words as if out of empty air. If I capture one, then I have just this one alone, and all the toil must begin anew… Days passed in futility, powers wasted away in waiting… I finish nothing, because I have no time, and it presses so within me.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray in 1920, from hamhigh.co.uk

As for women writers, in many cases it took family deaths to free them. Virginia Woolf claimed her father’s life ‘would have entirely ended mine… no writing, no books – inconceivable.’ Emily Dickinson only managed to write by avoiding all social niceties. Katherine Mansfield voices something which will sound so familiar to anyone in a couple:

The house seems to take up so much time… I when I have to clean up twice over or wash up extra unnecessary things, I get frightfully impatient and I want to be working. So often this week you [her husband] and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes. Well someone’s got to wash dishes and get food. Otherwise ‘there’s nothing in the house but eggs to eat’. And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves and ‘will there be enough to go around?’ And you calling, whatever I am doing, writing, ‘Tig, isn’t there going to be tea? It’s five o’clock.’

 Angharad Pearce Jones installation of 'The Pram in the Hall', from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.
Angharad Pearce Jones installation of ‘The Pram in the Hall’, from Oriel Myrddin Gallery website.

Tillie Olsen goes on to ask, what happens to the creative need for ‘infinite capacity’, that sense that vision should know no limitations, that safe space in which to create, when children also come into the picture? She provides a far more nuanced and sympathetic analysis of motherhood and creativity, of course, than the simplistic ‘pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’. She says it is love, not duty, which makes us attend to the children’s needs, and they need one now. She talks about her own juggling act and periods of silence, while raising children and working full-time, what she calls ‘the triple life’.

… a time of festering and congestion… My work died. What demanded to be written, did not. It seethed, bubbled, clamored, peopled me. At last moved into the hours meant for sleeping… always roused by the writing, always denied… Any interruption dazed and silenced me.

From the personal, Olsen then moves into a feminist analysis of the cultural context in which we bring up our boys and girls, what role models they see, what beliefs are seeded early in life, always related to writing. Yet what she says applies equally to all minorities.

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft – but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one’s right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one’s own life comprehensions. Difficult for any male not born into a class that breeds such confidence. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.
Eton schoolboys, from The Sunday Times.

Now we understand the British public school system, which breeds such confidence. I have seen those who pass through the system arrive in the workplace with their breathtaking arrogance, firm points of view on everything, all ego and fireworks rather than substance. They can afford to be polite, mildly surprised and annoyed at the ‘over-reactions’ of others. They often impress and take over.

Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.
Smiling Busy Woman, from The Spouse House, a concierge service with a smile.

And what of the ‘Angel in the House’, the one who not only does the household drudgery and admin so necessary to the smooth running of everyday life, but also the unpaid emotional labour (as recently ‘rediscovered’ in the media – because women are just better at this kind of stuff)? The angel who charms, sympathises, flatters, smiles, conciliates, is sensitive to the needs and moods and wishes of others before her own, who has bought and packed all the Christmas and birthday presents for her family, her husband’s family, the children, all common friends… and then fumes that no one has remembered her birthday or anniversary – or has bought her absolutely useless and thoughtless presents. Virginia Woolf advocates killing off this angel:

It was she who used to come between me and my paper… who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her… or she would have plucked out my heart as a writer.

Of course, in extreme cases, the only way to escape this ‘essential angel’ is through suicide, like Sylvia Plath. In other cases, the women sacrificed not only their talent, but also their language and their identity, simply to keep themselves and their family alive, as the book on German women writers during the Nazi period demonstrates.

How much has life changed for non-white, non-male writers since the publication of this book? There are many milestones to celebrate – Marlon James as the latest Booker Prize winner, for example, or the many women writers who say how supportive heir partners are of their career and how comfortable the whole family is with less exalted housekeeping standards. And yet there are recent articles bemoaning the lack of diversity in publishing, hence the #DiverseDecember initiative. There is the fact that so many of the women in the Geneva Writers’ Group (and how many writing groups worldwide?) started writing once they retired or once the children grew up and left home. Personally, I have not cracked this dilemma yet, but would love to hear from any who have.

 

On Depression, Privilege and Staying Strong

I finally worked up my courage to write this post after reading Matt Haig’s outstanding book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’ and David Mark’s article a few days ago about access to mental health services in the UK.

Image from socialworktutor.com
Image from socialworktutor.com

‘Well, the blood tests seem fine. It’s just age – you’re not getting any younger, you know.’

And my French family doctor smiles ruefully, as if to apologise for being so ridiculously young and glamorous in the face of my galloping infirmity. I had been complaining of weight gain, migraines, insomnia, lack of energy, occasional palpitations. She suspects menopause or a shade of hypochondria.

I cannot complain that she is not helpful. After all, I am not entirely honest with her as a patient. I am reluctant to share my whole story, and not just because I fear breaking down in tears and using up all of the tissues from the box she has so thoughtfully placed on her desk. I also fear being labelled, once and for all, as mentally deficient or unstable or somehow missing that even keel that most people seem to be able to find. If most people can balance on choppy waters and tack against strong winds, why can’t I?

My mother tells me off each time we speak on the phone: ‘You’re just too bloody sensitive. It’s all in your head. Stop dwelling on things.’ This comes amidst many other helpful suggestions on how to fight obesity, be a better parent, earn more money and be more docile, loving wife. Unsurprisingly, our telephone conversations often end in shouting matches, so are becoming less and less frequent. But I fear she may be right (about the sensitivity bit) and I chide myself for being so weak, so helpless.

The other thing I fear is being given pills to dull my senses and make me gain even more weight. Pills speak of lifelong dependency rather than a temporary measure: it’s about acknowledging a long-term condition rather than a momentary blip in the system. Visions of 1984 hover in the sidelines. Fears of being sanitised and lobotomised swim towards me like shark fins. How will I be able to keep up with my children’s sprightly chatter and constant requests if I am dull as a cow laid out in pastures with grass too high for her to comprehend?

When I was younger, the periods of grim depression beset me mainly in winter, and were offset by manic bursts of activity for the rest of the year. As I get older, those moments of frenetic energy have become too strenuous and it’s greyness evermore. Everything is slowed down to the point of unbearable. I cannot think of more than one thing at a time and I’m forever forgetting what I was supposed to be searching for, where I left my papers, whether I’ve paid a bill or not. I leave everything for later because it is too difficult to do immediately or today or tomorrow or … soon. I get caught out without winter tyres when the snow begins to fall, so my car lurches and sloshes from kerb to ditch.

A sunny day makes me want to crawl under the duvet. You don’t even want to know or imagine what a rainy day makes me feel like. Above all, I want to dig my nails into my flesh, to escape this inner pain which seems to find no release, day after day after day.

When the self-pity has had its play with me, guilt and sneering take their turn. Middle-class ‘woman of leisure’ problems! The world is burning and this here woman can think of naught else but combing her hair! There are hundreds of people starving or dying or losing their homes all over the world at this very moment, while I’m boo-hooing about getting old, failing to live out my childish dreams of being a writer and an academic, being stuck to a faithless husband who doesn’t understand me – the oldest cliché in the book -, children grunting their way towards their teens, a family life which seems as alien to me as if I’d been parachuted somewhere in Papua New Guinea. Only the cargo cults don’t worship me – they despise and can’t wait for my ship to sail away.

My shepherd ancestors – tough cookies one and all – would despise my whingeing. They witnessed the rise and fall of empires, tyrants, wars, forced collectivisation, betrayals in the name of the fatherland or the Communist ideal or simply greed for one’s neighbour’s land or herd. ‘Life is hard, yes, but grit your teeth and carry on! Don’t expect anyone to help, love or understand you. Go up the mountains, all by yourself, find some peace and a mountain stream.’

But I’ve always been a weak urban sapling. The mountains I climbed, the streams that I found, I wanted to rejoice in them with others. I needed to believe that someone cared, that I could be my anxious, failing self and still be respected and loveable. Now I know that all love is conditional. And compassion is not an endlessly renewable source of water. Sharing is a weakness and each one of us is alone – that is the only thing we can count on in life.

‘My therapy is writing and reading,’ I used to say in my twenties with a faraway look in my eyes, hoping I resembled Emily Dickinson rather than Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen rather than Virginia Woolf. But, in truth, it has become more reading than writing now. How can I give voice to my grief and doubts without becoming annoyed with my privileged, spoilt self? How can I deal with the confetti of time left after anxieties, night sweats, endless To Do lists, yet another last-minute catch-up for work, yet another change of plan regarding parents’ evening? What words (other than swear words) will come when I tremble with fury after yet another point-scoring conversation drowning in logical circles? I cannot trust my own thoughts, my own words. I have to feed on the words (and pain and grapplings) of others. It gives me perspective, it makes me feel less alone.

Meanwhile, other than my compulsive reading, all I can do is flounder and flail. Now I understand my childhood nightmare of drowning. It was in fact not water but ash and sand in my mouth. The struggle to appear normal and smiley. The need to carry on.

 

What I Learnt from My Home Writing Retreat

Well, maybe this chalet in the woods might help...
Well, maybe this chalet in the woods might help…

For the past ten days I’ve been on my own at home, with my family enjoying their holiday in Greece. I was supposed to be travelling to Zurich for work, but the course got postponed. So I decided to reward myself with a home-based ‘writing retreat’ instead. After all, I’ve got beautiful landscapes all around me, a comfortable (and now blessedly quiet) home, and a self-imposed deadline: what more do you need to write?

And do you know what I discovered?

No, this is not going to be one of those posts lamenting how the saboteur of my writing efforts is no one other than myself. How I spend far too much time online or procrastinate mercilessly. How I fear failure and talk more about writing instead of doing it.

No.

P1030270I discovered I love it very much. It gushes out of me like a river that has been contained by a dam for far too long. I am perfectly content to write all day. I bury myself in my house, live like a hermit, don’t feel lonely at all (having an understanding cat helps), and my dull little routine is utter bliss.

I wake up at 7:30 or 8 (no early mornings to get children ready for school with last-minute surprises). I do my Twitter, blogging and reading of other people’s blogs with a coffee cup (or two) in hand. And then, usually at 9:30 or 10 at the latest, I start writing.

Images from a walk last week.
Images from a walk last week.

I spend the morning typing up (and editing as I go along) the chapter I wrote the previous afternoon. I have lunch when I feel like it, usually something simple like a salad or yoghurt or bread and cheese. Then I might have another quick check on the internet or read a couple of chapters and go for a walk. This past week we’ve been fortunate enough not to have a heatwave anymore, although another one is heading our way.

Then at about 3 p.m. I change my position, go upstairs or on the sofa and start handwriting the next chapter. I stop to watch the quiz show Pointless on the BBC (I like complaining that no one seems to know the answers to the literary questions – yes, I’m a priggish snob like that!). Then I write some more. And in the evening I read.

Claudia Cruttwell describes it perfectly in a recent blog post describing her escape to an isolated cottage in the Cairngorms:

I soon discovered how expansive time becomes when there is nothing – nothing – to interrupt your day. And it’s not just the not being interrupted: it’s the not anticipating any interruption. It made me realise how much this anticipation lurks in the back of my mind at home all the time. I’m always half expecting something to break into my concentration, be it the children, the telephone, the dishwasher cycle, some outside disturbance, or whatever. I realised how distracting this sense of anticipation is.

But when you don’t have to try and keep all of those diverse strands of unproductive worries in your head, when you can neglect everything but your characters and your story, the results may cause euphoria.

The more you write, the more you want to write. The fewer people to interrupt you, the simpler your life gets. The simpler your life is, the easier it is to have that wonderful ‘laser-focus’ all those self-help gurus talk about. Open yourself up to ‘blue-sky thinking’. Be in the ‘flow’. And all of those other expressions I use for my bread-and-butter but hopefully not in my creative writing.

The path ahead?
The path ahead?

It’s been a great boost to my confidence to discover that the true cause for the lack of writing does not lie within myself, but in external circumstances.

Now, how I can keep the momentum going when the ‘external circumstances’ return – that is a far more delicate matter…

For lovers of numbers, I am about a third of the way in: 10 chapters out of an estimated 30 (some much longer than others), 35 000 words committed to paper out of an estimated 90 000. I was hoping to be about halfway through at this point, but this is still quite good going, considering that I had only about 8000 words until 10 days ago.

No One but Myself to Blame…

This is the start of my two weeks of peace. The children are on holiday with their grandparents, I have finished most of the admin work relating to taxes and property letting, so I finally have the space and time to write.

If I don’t write 2000 words a day or so over the next couple of weeks (that is entirely feasible and realistic), I have no one to blame but myself.

Of course there are minor quibbles that are remarkably good at barging in, demanding attention and turning themselves into distracting obstacles: heatwave, headaches, a never-ending list of urgent admin tasks (because not everyone is on holiday in summer), book reviews to be written… Not to mention those underlying doubts about plot, characters, style, has it all been done before.

I will put those quibbles in their place, though, be ruthless and focus on my writing. Or else I risk proving to myself that I am all mouth, all excuses and no depth at all. I don’t want to start despising myself.

After all, if I wanted to lead a life of ‘dolce far niente’, I would come back as a cat!

Zoeresting

He Says She Says They Say

From nownovel.com
From nownovel.com

I don’t know how, I don’t know why
but one day
on the sly
and on the fly
my poems turned into surly teenagers.
No more tender night cuddles
no tear-smirched cheeks to smooth
seldom around for longer than it takes
to grunt and disapprove
of my repetitive attempts
to ask them
how
they feel.
***
Sometimes she constrains our flow
in dismally low fixed forms, barriers and the like…
Oh, pu-leee-ze, lady, make up your mind!
She twirls us endlessly,
frets, crosses out
the best among us.
Then, too late,
she introduces us to new words
still stiff from their dictionary plaid.
So why should we be easy, pleasant and obedient?
Stop trying to make us fit in!

And that’s about all you’re going to hear from me for the rest of the week, which will be dedicated, alas, not to writing, but to amusing and feeding the children, and going through an immense To Do list.