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Archive for summary & synopsis

Three key mile markers for a story’s journey


Summarizing who’s in your story, plus a single sentence that guides the story, and writing a synopsis, are golden nuggets to mine. When you share your work for editorial evaluation, these are the mile markers.

The synopsis is the hardest. I had to do one for Sins of Freedom back when it was called Monsignor Dad. I entered the first 10 pages in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest and earned a spot as one of four finalists.

They only gave us 275 words for our synopsis.

Years later, the synopsis sentence for my book that’s now become Sins of Freedom is

Faith can be a weapon to protect hope and dreams, or kill freedom and justice with no remorse.

That’s my latest theme sentence. The story is driven by faith, shows us the promises fulfilled for Anna, plus the damages that faith brings her.

In the pages of Robert McKee’s masterwork of narrative craft, Story, he says that once you get a sentence like mine above that you can live with, everything in your story must serve that sentence.

How a proposal can get your book published

Every book needs a game plan to play its way into a publisher’s lineup. Things like comparable books and the heartbeat promise of a story are the same for fiction and nonfiction. Unlike what you might have heard, every publisher makes an investment and wants to earn it back when they buy a book from an author — whether that book is a true story or not.

The difference is that a nonfiction book doesn’t have to be finished before it sells. Some key parts of the book need to be finished and look very good, though. Otherwise, you’ll just hear crickets. What follows is a two-page summary of making the proposal, the first look at any book telling a true story. Think memoirs or yoga books, or that passionate story about living every day because you might die tomorrow.

Process

In short, a proposal is finding books that are like yours but missing a key element. Plus, finding a gap in the market where nobody’s writing a book like yours and being able to name that gap. You also find a specific way to describe your readers and where you will find them. You will need ideas and promises about how you will help market and sell the book. Finally, you write: a table of contents, plus a summary into the inside flap or back cover copy. You create and polish a few sample chapters, and buff up an inspiring bio that shows you’re the best-qualified person to write your book.

Comparables and competition

We might as well start here, because it’s the point where the publisher’s sales and marketing team will decide to buy your book. You’re either filling a wide and well-identified gap — holy cow, no books about being a minister and working for gun safety — or you can add something captivating and essential to what’s already on the shelves of bookstores.

If you don’t know it already, you need to think in terms of bookstores while you create a proposal. A publisher will think of them first, since more books are bought in paper than any other medium. If you get the deal done, the audiobook opportunity for you to narrate will follow.

Where to look? I like the daily reports of Publisher’s Marketplace, the thorough reporting from Publisher’s Weekly, the grassroots bookselling stories in Shelf Awareness, and the fun of Edelweiss+ catalogs, and even Amazon’s Also Purchased books. Shelf Awareness has a nice element called Shelf Talker, which suggests what a bookseller might say to a customer about a book.

Dig in. Ask your author friends if they know of anything like your book. Come to this part of the proposal prepared and you will look more professional. Being perceived as professional is much more important for a nonfiction author.

Knowing your audience

Saying that a book is for mothers or dads just won’t do. Those are chunks of the world too big to target. If you say it’s for divorced dads with tough custody agreements, you’re much closer. (My memoir Stealing Home targets those readers among its audience. It also appeals to baseball fans who are fathers of Little Leaguers. “This book is for readers who enjoyed Dan Shaughnessy’s Senior Year.”)

If your book is “For everybody,” it’s really for nobody. That’s because it’s too difficult to discover a book to read while it campaigns alongside the bestsellers published by Bigger Companies Than Your Publisher. Who use Bigger Discovery Budgets: marketing.

Nothing helps you find readers for your book — and convince a publisher you can lead those readers to a purchase — better than specific descriptions tied to resources. For one memoirist I’ve coached, we tracked down associations covering counseling for suicide, another for legislative staffers working to get bills passed, plus associations of law enforcement. Putting membership numbers onto these helps a publisher visualize sales.

Everybody knows somebody. If you have a friend or an author acquaintance who is a police officer, or who works on a senator’s staff, or helps on a hotline, you find out where they gather and trade messages. Believe it or not, Facebook can be a great resource here, if you don’t know people like your prospective readers. And if you don’t know your prospective readers, well, that’s something to look at while you’re choosing a book to write.

The overview writing: table of contents and summary

This doesn’t work quite as well for memoirs, but a table of contents is an essential element in any nonfiction book proposal. (A memoir has episodes that it uses as its backbone.) As an author, you probably already have one of these lists which you call an outline. If you don’t have one, it’s time to go back and create it — as much for the book’s chances at being a good book as for your chances to get a publishing contract to finish it. Good books just sell better at every step, including the step where you sell your book to the publisher.

This is the spot where you look over your contents and then write that summary — the one that seems way too short and turns out to be the very thing you use to decide to buy a book yourself.

The sample writing: your best chapters

The beauty of proposing nonfiction is that your best foot forward does not have to be your first one. You can include a sample chapter from the middle of the book, or a rousing conclusion, and get just as far as submitting an introduction. The writing has to be stellar, which will usually involve an editor or a key reader who also is an author. You can’t see everything that your writing should be, as well as everything it can be.

If you have a couple of chapters, or three, that demonstrate varying styles of voice from the same book, that’s a good reason to include a smorgasbord of writing. For example, you might have case histories as well as an inspiring overview. The point of submitting a sample is to show you’re a good enough writer to invest in; be ready to be edited once your deal is closed. Your book will be different than your samples. Nobody can say for sure how different. Publishers prefer authors with experienced voices.

Bio, or why it’s gotta be you

Authors arrive at the bio with some trepidation, secretly knowing all of the things they haven’t done as well as someone else. This is something to cast aside when you tell a publisher who you are. There’s something personal about your life that made you want to write the book. There’s also something professional or accomplished about you that makes you an expert. Not the expert — that’s too much to ask. As just one expert, you will still know more than most readers. If you’re an expert at testifying before legislators’ staffs because you’ve done it for years, that counts. If you created a style of yoga that puts thousands of people onto mats, people who never thought they could do yoga, that’s expertise, too.

Don’t think this bio is going to be its best on your first draft. It can be a good strategy to have outside eyes help you with the bio. An interview conducted by somebody with journalism skills, just like the one you’d hope for at a resume service, is a grand tool to build a bio.

If you have recommendations or references you use to practice your life’s work, or your superior volunteering career, you can call on this to show who you are, too. LinkedIn offers a way to solicit recommendations. You can use this to fill up your testimonial cup.

Marketing and Selling: It’s kinda on you

Despite how it might seem, a publishing deal to create a book still falls back on you every day. Yes, your publisher has details and experience to guide you, as well as people who do the marketing and sales for a living. However, you are the only person who cares about your book every single day. Publishers recognize this and sign up the authors who know they are the starters in the publishing lineup.

Not only do you create the content, but you also find the readers and sometimes close the deal. Nobody will track down book clubs and blog communities and even TV-social media-Web like you will. If all of that is beyond your experience, you can fix that. Hire a publicist or a social media expert. Lots of big-time authors do this, because publishers have a finite bandwidth to help authors in the publishing stable.

You will need specifics to get a proposal accepted: I’ll approach these communities. I’ll write and submit for these blogs. I will stock a YouTube channel and connect with these existing contacts. I will approach these library systems. If you’ve been covered in the media, this is where you bring it up.

Get yourself out there

Be brave and have swagger. As Brenda Ueland said in If You Want to Write, “Be bold, free, and truthful.” She also says you should “Be careless, reckless — a lion and a pirate when you write.”

Get Brenda’s book. It will feed you like a lion tamer and fill your treasure chests with courage. Writing a proposal is brave, good work.

If you’d like help with your proposal process, I like working with authors who want to make bold strides toward publication. Publisher’s deals are a good thing to pursue, once you add up everything you must do to self-publish. Contact me so we can talk.

Publish yourself — but truly publish

Genuine publishing drives readers to the discovery of your book

This week a mystery author asked me about my plans for publishing my forthcoming memoir, Stealing Home. My book is the story of a father and a son on a road trip to the perfect game. I choose to self-publish because midsize and larger publishers have a limited appetite for memoirs from writers without a big platform, established fiction readerships, or swelling social media accounts.

For me, the story and the writing is the thing. This time through on the self-publishing journey, I will truly publish. Not just produce a professional looking book like my Viral Times and drop it onto the online sales outlets. Publishing means selling, the end result of finding an audience for your book by letting them discover it through your efforts.

I’ve hired an editor, then revised and expanded the story based on Dan Crissman’s evaluation and close edits. I have a publicist to consult with about my push for the book. I manage my own mailing list and I’ll be submitting review requests to bloggers, to review sources like Midwest Book Review, and to my friends and supporters.

There is a lot to recommend when selling paper books. Indiebound is a good resource to get yourself into bookstores. A distributor (Ingram Spark) can make that happen. Nobody will sell but you — first to the bookstore owners, then to the readers you can gather via emails and signing.

Any company that sells the services to edit and produce your book isn’t really publishing, but simply producing the book. Professional or not, this doesn’t drive sales. Getting it sold involves more work than that. Every author hates marketing — and without it, our books have a much shorter reach. Traditionally-published authors still operate their own publicity and marketing efforts to be most successful.

Ebooks may not be enough. Some review providers, for example, won’t review a book unless they can get paperback copies. That means your official release date has to be set months later than the actual availability of your ebook file and printed copies. You can do presales for months in advance on Amazon, for example.

The book advertising and discounting company BookBub shared a checklist from author Debbie Macomber about the steps needed to publish. Summarize with a synopsis (some reviewers need that). At the same time, a publisher must be scheduling for print production and create a cover to begin to draw interest in the book. Everyone must work up a set of author webpages as part of their website.

Reading and signing in Austin is on my own list. I’m considering a trip through the Midwest to the ballpark cities in the book, a tale of two weeks spent with my Little Leaguer in a convertible. I was driving to redeem my fatherhood after a divorce. I found a perfect game and the reasons why my own dad failed and ended his own life.

It’s useful to write such a summary over and over, because things like those descriptions, or podcasts, or video trailers, or appearances on radio and TV, all help people discover any published book. If this all makes the head spin, it’s a least a list of things to ask a prospective publisher about. The good ones can earn their keep and give you the 15 percent royalty.

Getting an advance is the tough part. Publishing yourself doesn’t give you an advance. Your book can be discovered, though, once it’s professionally produced. Your readership doesn’t start to grow until someone commits to publication. Sometimes that best person is you.

Use the power of premise to pump your stories up

Most of us start a story with an idea. You develop it into a concept. Then you build a character to turn that concept into a premise.

  • Secrets of church history hide in plain sight.
  • What if the DaVinci art held the secrets?
  • What if a professor of Renaissance art found secrets of church history that put his life in danger while they threaten leaders of the church?

Two elements work to create good stories together. That’s making a concept and then taking it to a premise. It’s all in service of making characters who can populate that premise.

“A big city cop moves to a small coastal town” is a premise. Your next step is to make a what-if, like “What if a big city cop moves to a small coastal town in South Carolina, then discovers a marijuana ring that’s illegal. The locals look the other way — can he?”

A story’s premise is more than a quick synopsis, or a simple thesis statement defining the theme or argument of a story. It is your canary in the storytelling coal mine and your lifeline as a writer.

A story premise, along with its tool, the premise line, is a container that holds the essence of your story’s right, true and natural structure. When properly conceived, it expresses your whole story in one or two neat sentences. Finding this premise line is no small task; in fact, the process of premise development can be the literary equivalent of skiing the black diamond trail. But when you get it right, the payoff in saved time, money and creative blood, sweat and tears is worth the agony.

That’s from a fine article by Jeff Lyons in The Writer magazine, a great craft publication.

There’s a five-step process in there to master. The essential component is a character to care about. Plot is just the plaything we use to enjoy our characters and their fates.

There’s more on using premise — and this is all character work that builds great plots — in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering. The book includes exercises. We all love those, just to know we’re learning. When you work with a coach on your writing, you have an expert who looks at your exercises to help see what’s working. Get the book and do some exercises. Let premise power your book.

Themes, power, and how they make queries easier

Theme is among the most mysterious and powerful elements of storytelling. In the classic pyramid of writing crafts from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, theme stands at the pinnacle. Theme is represented by symbols in that pyramid, the icons such as candles in a story about being lost. Even though it’s at the top of that diagram, theme is the nuclear reactor, the molten magma of your story. It bubbles up from the writing. It’s also got another superpower. Theme, and knowing yours, makes writing your queries easier.

If you’re just writing for the first time on a story, book, or script, theme will be lurking under the surface. Your motivations for your characters are your primary concerns in early drafts. The needs and conflicts of the characters drive your plot. Remember that plot is about events, and story is about yours characters and how they change. When you consider what each character needs, you may find the needs can align around a bigger idea. Freedom. Justice. Redemption. That sort of thing. Some characters oppose the theme to provide conflict, too.

The Da Vinci Code is about the power of knowledge versus the power of the Church. The Great Gatsby is about the American dream and how it fails. Your theme can be downbeat as well as uplifting. Lonesome Dove is about the power of friendship and it can push a man across a new frontier of his life.

The gift that theme gives to query is better focus. In a good query letter you have to sum up your story relentlessly. What’s the book about? You begin the task of answering by writing a synopsis. Then it becomes a paragraph. Finally, it’s tight enough to state in a single sentence. It’s hard to do, but you’re the best person to find your theme. You’ve lived with the story longer than anyone. You knew what you meant to convey with your book. Not the telling part; that’s plot. You want to convey a feeling, because the feeling is central to unlocking the meaning of the story.

Theme usually emerges later in the creation process. It’s almost like you have to write a draft all the way through to understand what you were meaning to show with the story. Theme then becomes a good tool to polish and pare down and redirect a story.

Answer these questions to discover a theme under the surface of your storytelling.

  1. What stories are you drawn to the most? What issues do you struggle with in your own heart?
  2. Why do you feel compelled to tell this story?
  3. What is this story about if what happens is…

Your characters’ voices will sound clearest when you listen for theme. Let them report on the theme. Write what they’ll ask about their challenge.