Writing the Mystery Synopsis

It’s Labor Day here in the USA and any writer will tell you…writing a synopsis is hard labor. After checking multiple author websites, and my own writing manual (free PDF here) I have refreshed my memory on exactly how to organize one. These tricky summaries of plot are basically story outlines in sentence form.

No subplots. Few characters, just the main one (or two). Include all major plot twists and/or turning points and spell out the ending with a super spoiler. Also, make the first sentence a sensational hook. And, use the voice of your book, so if it’s comic, write a funny synopsis. If it’s dark, write a spooky one.

That’s my best advice plus a wing and a prayer. Why am I putting myself through this grueling process? I want to get eyes on my work and Pitch Wars! has agents, editors and authors looking at synopsis and first chapter near the end of September. The window is only open for a few days. There’s still time, but not a whole lot of it.

Today I’m working on the synopsis with an eye toward sending it to my Michigan Sister in Crime Pitch Wars! partner, Zoe. We have already vetted each other’s first chapters. 🙂 Believe it or not, writing the synopsis is harder. Particularly when you have to do it all on one page, which is what Pitch Wars! asks for.

Lucky for me, Al has the day off and he’s barbecuing dinner.

How to Fix a Book

Novels are easy to write if you turn off your thinking and dive into the story stream. They might be easy, but the results are not always pretty. Such was the case with my WIP, Jane. I got a first very bad extremely horrible draft done in a couple of months last year.

This year I am revising. Jane needs to be almost completely rewritten, despite the fact that I really kept the first plot I came up with and all the original characters. I had to lose one subplot, snip an annoying thread and significantly improve upon one character. Nobody who read my early draft liked her, they wondered why she was even in the book. I considered cutting her but I couldn’t do it.

I liked her even though I didn’t know her very well. She intrigued me. That was good news but also a problem. I’d written Barb into a short story I wrote after Lily White was finished and I needed something to bring my critique group. I caught a charming criminal and pinned him to the page. It felt effortless. And just as easy to sketch was his foil, an FBI agent who captures him and suggests he change his ways.

Short stories are fun. In and out. None of this hundreds of pages stuff. But novels propel themselves from the inside out and after a few short stories, I had one in me, begging to be let out. And it involved the reformed and relocated criminal. Also, the FBI agent, Barb. Also a few other people, but Barb is the one my critique group was hung up about, she felt like air. How right they were.

In the short story, I’d been able to do quick and dirty FBI research. After months of thinking about it, trying not to think about it, making excuses to myself, and continually running into walls with Barb, I sat down and did my homework. With revision, I have to stop rewriting and do some research, because I don’t do much research in the first draft. When it becomes apparent to me that I need to research, I’ll just take a day to read, jot notes, form a first scene and, most important, adjust my attitude.

When I started Jane, I promised myself it would be a lighter book than Lily White. More caper than crime. Amateur sleuth falls into murder mystery. Sure there was a cop because with murder there’s always a cop. But the FBI? I decided to let Barb be on vacation. No FBI business to attend to. No FBI rules to follow. What I concluded was that Barb’s vacation was in fact my own vacation. From research and the hard work of revising a weak first draft.

When I first begin a novel, I have some set ideas. I have a firm concept of the overall theme. I want this character of this age with this background in this setting. I want X point of view voices. Usually there are at least a few elements I’ve never tried before. I like to challenge myself to try new things with each book.

For this particular book, I was determined to write the whole thing in one point of view. One character tells the entire story. That would be Jane. The problem before me was Jane. She is a law abiding civilian. She knows nothing about the FBI. From Jane’s pov Barb is just a woman in love with her friend who has come to St Pete on vacation. Sure she’s in the FBI but that doesn’t impact the story from Jane’s pov.

You can see where the problem comes in. I had to decide if I wanted to keep trying to stay in one person’s head the entire book. I’d never done it before. I just wanted to see if I could do it. By the end of that excellent FBI book in the featured image photo above, I had a lot of ideas about Barb, none of which I could convincingly convey via Jane. That’s fine. I know enough about revision to stay open to new ideas, to be flexible with my first idea wish list.

So I wrote a scene starring Barb. I like it. I think I just solved several problems, one of the biggest being the book was way too short. It needed a substantial meaty subplot. I’d made a start before I gave Barb a primo role, and it was good. But she’s going to take things up a notch. Sure, now there’s a huge problem I didn’t know about before my research weekend.

But huge problems are conflict by another name and novels thrive on conflict. Almost the minute I cracked open the book, I read this FBI mantra “Never fall in love with your informant.” In fact, agents are not allowed to socialize in any way with informants. It apparently always leads to tears. The pages I’d written for Barb on vacation and in love with George blew up and scattered around me like gleeful confetti.

Fine. I already knew this was a major rewrite. Now I at least have an idea how to fix it. And more conflict. Always a good thing.

Writing Description

The murder victim in my current WIP is an artist. And his art leads to the capture of his killer. So, art is key. My longtime critique group (not my new mystery group, or my Florida group) had a difficult time with a critical passage of mine last time we met. They couldn’t understand what I was describing, which was a simple thing, like a badly painted still life. This is not what I described but for example it could have been a blue bowl on a yellow table holding red apples. Maybe a slice of sunlight beamed across the table. The object was that simple. And it was an important clue. I was quite frustrated. The most straightforward words about an uncomplicated object and the way I described it seemed obscure to them.

They must have quizzed me for fifteen minutes on that paragraph. It was distressing to me that they could not picture what I had described. Reading this, you may form the idea, and you would be correct, that it still bothers me. What was so unclear to them about my straightforward and simple description? I had no idea how else to describe it. And I thought I’d done a good job. I still think that.

My best friend is a painter. In fact, several of my friends are painters. One of them bought me a watercolor set for my birthday. I’ve always wanted to try watercolors, but I’m a writer. I paint pictures with words. Or I try to. Somehow, with my recent work, I’d not been able to convey through words a picture so clear in my mind. It bothered me for weeks. It still bothers me.

A new idea began to take shape about a week ago. Not about the paragraph that stymied my writing group. I’m leaving that alone for now. But slowly my mind has turned to the other descriptions of art in the book. I describe this artist’s work several times. I wanted to open those watercolors and paint the life’s work of my doomed artist. For my book, for my own reference. Maybe it would help to put everything I see in my mind’s eye down onto paper. The watercolors were just sitting there. So was the art paper.

After a few crucial tips from my artist friend, I began by sketching and then watercoloring. The hours flew by. Nobody will ever see this watercolor. Nobody will have to try to understand it. Nobody will have any opinion on it. It need not be critiqued. It is just for me.

So, did I solve my description problem? Maybe not. But I feel better just for having, for once, taken what is in my head and put it to paper without words. It is exactly as I imagined it.

Spring Cleaning for Writers

My kitchen counters are cluttered with the contents of my pantry. This is good news for a couple reasons. One ~ If I’m cleaning, I must be over the flu that hit our house just before the holiday weekend. Two ~ If I’m ready to tackle my pantry, my WIP revision will be a piece of cake.

Not that I’m eating cake. The flu helped me get through a week without sugar. I must continue to resist sweets if I want my blood sugar results to come back clean at end of June. I want to stay off diabetes medication. I fear it may be too little too late, nevertheless I will abide by these new rules my body demands. I need to be healthy as possible to write this book.

I had flu, but I wrote anyway. It feels as if I am rewriting the book from scratch, that’s how much this second draft is changing. But in truth, I’m only rearranging the words on the pages like food on my pantry shelves. I’m getting rid of expired items and building a new and better structure to support the parts I keep.

My house, my health and my book are coming together. It’s springtime and my worlds, both fictive and real, are beginning to bloom.

Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.