Guest Blog by Kater Cheek

August 23rd, 2010 • Kate

optic-mold-paperweightSince I’m out of the office this week on vacation, I’ve turned my blog over to my clients, who wanted to share their thoughts with you on a variety of subjects. I let them have free rein because otherwise, well, just trust me, it’s for the best. Today’s post is by Kater Cheek, who lives in Tempe, Arizona. She has contributed to THE LIVING DEAD anthology, and has published fiction in Ideomancer, Big Pulp, and Coyote Wild, among others. She also writes reviews for Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing and writes/draws a webcomic about chickens. She has a B.A. in Linguistics, a brown belt in karate, and a garden that doesn’t yield nearly as much as she would like. She has folk danced professionally, taught English in Japan, and spent five months backpacking alone through Europe. She has learned six languages and forgotten four of them. When not writing, she throws pots, paints, binds books, and plays with molten glass (the glass paperweight pictured above is one of hers). Take it away, Kater!

Congratulations, you’ve finished your novel!

Now for the hard parts: final revision, synopsis, and a query letter. Even if you’re going to submit directly to the publisher instead of looking for an agent (which I doubt, because you’re reading this blog) you need to do these things. Here are some of the techniques I use.

First, CTRL-A your entire document. Then go up to where it lets you choose the font, and change it to Comic Sans. No, I’m not kidding. See, you’ve spend a lot of time with this novel, probably using some sensible readable font like Times New Roman or Courier. Good for you. But now you need to look at it with a fresh, objective eye. Changing the font is like altering the lighting. You need to be your manuscript’s brutally honest friend and full-length mirror.

You’re going to read it again, only this time, you’re going to read it out loud. This will help you catch if, for example, you used the word “flighty” twice in the novel, and both times were in the same paragraph. It will also let you catch unintentional alliteration, or if one of your characters sounds like a spaceman in an Ed Wood film. (Unless that’s what you’re going for.)

Okay, you read it. It sounds good. Now change it to Courier New, double spaced, and print it out. You’re going to read it again. This time, you’re looking for typos, missed periods, commas, etc. Use red or blue ink and mark the document, then go through the digital version and add your changes. If you made a lot of revisions during the reading-out-loud stage, you’re going to have some polishing to do. I always assume that it will never be perfect, but I can make it a little bit better with every error I correct. Did that? Good. Save a copy of that with a date or a draft number.

Now for the synopsis. A lot of authors find this difficult. How can they sum up their whole novel in just a page or two? Einstein said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So you’re going to get to know your novel until you can tweet it. Really.

Take chapter one of the manuscript you printed out. Read it as a chapter, or just skim it (I’m sure you have it memorized by now.) Now write down what happens in that chapter.

Eg. “Alicia meets the mysterious boy. The police find the missing girl’s body by the lake.”

You should be able to do this in two paragraphs or less. If it’s taking you four or five paragraphs to explain the general plot of the first chapter, you might have too long of a chapter, or you might be confusing character-building with plot. We don’t need the fact that Alicia is a vegetarian, or that she drives an Isuzu, or that her best friend is hospitalized for Anorexia. We just need to know what happens in the main plot of the story, and perhaps one or two of the subplots.

Good. Got it? Now do it for the rest of the chapters, one at a time. (This is where I invariably find out that I have two chapter fifteens, or that chapter twenty two is missing). You might learn some interesting things about your novel at this point. For example, if you have a chapter that’s seventy pages long, and nothing happens, maybe that chapter needs to be cut. Or if you have another chapter where several very important things happen, maybe it needs to be separated into more than one. But for the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that your earlier revisions are sound, and your manuscript really is ready to go.

When you’re done, you’ll have a few hundred words of disjointed sentences. Now you’re going to rewrite these stories into a several-page synopsis. Write them in third person, present tense. Like this:

“Alicia has decided that her sophomore year at high school is going to be different. The first week at school, she gets her wish when she meets Blake, a mysterious boy with a dark past, who seems to have some connection with a missing girl whose body turned up at the lake.”

It might come out to ten or twenty pages, which is longer than many agents want, but don’t worry. You’ll fix that later. Once you’re done with the rough draft of your synopsis, you’re going to go through and see if you can cut it by half. The easiest way to do this is by cutting sub-plots and secondary characters. Your synopsis needs to concern itself with the main plot, and at most one or two subplots. (If you’ve found that your sub-plots have taken over the main plot, you might need to go back a draft and revise.) Only mention the names of the main characters. Too many names will confuse the reader.

Once you’ve gotten it down to 5-8 pages, save this as a separate draft. You might need it later; some agents and publishers want longer synopses. Now take the draft and winnow it down to half its length. You might have to cut some really fun scenes that build character but don’t contribute to the main plot. You might have to cut one of the subplots. Be brutal. When you’re done, re-read it and tweak it so that it sounds like the back flap of a paperback (except with an ending.)

At this point, you should be so familiar with the story that you can tweet the gist of the novel. “High school detective finds out the cute boy she’s dating is murdering her classmates in dark rituals for his demon lord.”* You’re not going to use this anywhere, but being able to tweet the gist of your novel is like being able to snatch the pebble from the master’s hand—you’re ready.

There are plenty of blog entries here to help you with a query, but here’s a hint: it’s a business letter.

Dear Mr. Thompson:

My name is Ellen Cruz, and I am a restaurateur.(1) Our friend Heidi Goh mentioned that you were looking for kitchen equipment for your bistro. (2) I recently closed one of my restaurants, and have two deep fryers for sale. The fryers are GE, 8 liter capacity, and are in new condition. (3) Would you be interested in purchasing these? I can send you photos if you like.

Thank you for your time. (4)

Sincerely,
Ellen Cruz
Full name and address
Phone number also good.
Working email.(5)

1. Here you would say your name. The agent will assume you’re a writer. If you have pertinent writing credits, you can list them here, but keep it short. Having no writing credits will not hurt you as much as you think it will. Every novelist has a first novel.

2. Here you can mention how you know the agent. Eg. if you met the agent at a convention, or are friends with a client, read her blog, etc. Agents are people, and people don’t like form letters. Ellen also shows that she knows what Mr. Thompson is looking for (restaurant equipment for his bistro).

3. Ellen Cruz mentions what she has to offer. Here you’d give a very brief synopsis of your story, paying special attention to what’s different about yours from all the others in the market. To be fair, Ellen should have mentioned price, but you’ve already read the agent’s website or listing and know the percentage that he/she takes, so we’ll pretend that Ellen knows what Mr. Thompson is offering too.

4. Offer sample chapters/synopsis, or mention that they’re included, if that’s what the agent likes in a query. Also, it never hurts to be polite.

5. Accurate contact information is crucial.

Notice what’s not there? Ellen doesn’t mention her two adorable dachshunds and that she likes to knit. She doesn’t mention that these are the best deep fryers ever, and that her mother loves them. She doesn’t mention that she has sold cars on autotrader (Non-pertinent writing credit). She’s not offering deep fryers to a man who has a carpet-cleaning business (because she’s done some homework.)

The agent wants to know if your manuscript is one she would like to represent. If you can quickly and clearly help her make a “yes, send more” or “no” decision, your query letter has done its job. Most of the time the answer will be “no,” and that’s hard, but don’t worry, there’s always your next novel.

You are writing another novel, aren’t you?

* This is not my novel. I just made this up. Sounds pretty fun to me though, so if you want to steal it, please do.

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10 Responses to “Guest Blog by Kater Cheek”

  1. Sara Says:

    Brilliant! Sound advice that should be required reading.

    (Also, this couldn't be more serendipitous pour moi, since I'm currently trekking the back forty of Synopsis Hell…)

  2. Carrie Harris Says:

    I think I'm going to write all my manuscripts in Comic Sans from here on out.

    I second the brilliance!

  3. Krista V. Says:

    Helpful post. I especially liked the step-by-step instructions for writing a synopsis, since that's what I'm gearing up to do this week…

    Thanks, Kater. Oh, and I know exactly how you feel about having a garden that doesn't yield as much as you would like:) (I live in Mesquite, Nevada.)

  4. Suzanne Casamento Says:

    Going chapter by chapter and writing out what takes place in each one is a great way to identify what to cut. Excellent suggestion. I'm definitely going to do that from now on.

    I agree with Sara. This should be required reading.

  5. Rena Says:

    Thank you! Having just finished a MG, I'm going to print this up and give it a go!

  6. Sudam panigrahi Says:

    Useful advices. You have done a great job by this article. I have almost finished my novel and will go through there processes in a month or two or later this year. The simplicity of presenting the steps is really marvellous. Thanks a lot.

  7. Deborah Says:

    Solid advice, full of wit and whimsy.

    In addition, I suggest Donald Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook." His final chapter, The Pitch, outlines 5 steps to boil down a WIP to one paragraph then to one sentence (or 2) like the tweet it idea here.

    Plus there is Appendix A: Outlining Your Novel. As a literary agent, Maass sells 150 books a year to publishers and his writing on writing is the gold standard.

    If you would like to swap writing tweets, find me on Twitter @dtfpress

  8. B.E. Sanderson Says:

    Great post. I love your idea about changing the font to give yourself fresh eyes. Since I'm about to have another go-round with my current WIP, I'm definitely going to give that suggestion a try. Thanks. =o)

  9. Jess Says:

    I like that you used a real business letter as your format for what goes in the query. Shows clearly what it's supposed to be like.

    And that *does* sound like a fun book. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your post with us while Daphne's away.

  10. kt literary » Blog Archive » Vacation Reading Round-Up Says:

    […] again to all of my fabulous guest bloggers for covering for me last week: Kater Cheek, Carrie Harris, Suzanne Casamento, and Amy Spalding. And thanks to YOU, my readers, for jumping in […]