Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Feedback? For A Synopsis? Are You Crazy, Jake?

Synopsis Series: Part 11

Finding Weaknesses In Your Synopsis

Just like any first draft, your synopsis is not going to come out perfect. Unlike a novel, its not going to take re-writes and multiple drafts (hopefully!), however it will need some tweaking, particularly the first time you attempt a synopsis like this.

The first thing to do is to read through and look for weaknesses. Ask yourself the following questions:

- What haven’t I researched? What have I assumed?
These will be either factual or societal, and you might not realize they are a problem, because you might be clinging to ‘common knowledge’ or stereotypes that are just plain incorrect.

- Where have I not filled in the details I should?
Despite my best efforts, when I finish a synopsis I usually go back and find places I have written stuff like: “He solves the problem.” Without outlining how he solves the problem. Sometimes without even outlining what the problem is.

- What scenes are unnecessary or no longer fit?
Sometimes, by the end of the book, stuff has become redundant, or we realise we need to let go of a scene that serves no real purpose. Do that now.

- What scenes have we left out?
Sometimes as you read through at this stage, you will realize there is information readers need, or character growth that needs to happen, which is not in the synopsis. You may need to add a new scene in.

Strengthening Your Synopsis

However more important than finding weaknesses is strengthening what is already there. To take your novel from ‘good’ to ‘great’, you need to go through, plot point by plot point, and make every element stronger and more emotional. Raise all the stakes and find ways to make them more personal and heart-wrenching.

Your plot may already be good, but you can probably find a bunch of ways to make it even better. EG: maybe your plot is about the pilot of a plane who was crashes in the wilderness and has to make her way back to civilization. Its a story of woman against nature.

But what if the plain was carrying medical supplies to a remote outpost where half a dozen children are dying of bronchitis? What if the medicine survived the crash and she has to take this bulky kit with her, as she tries to survive the hostile wilderness? The stakes go from her life, to the lives of half a dozen children.

What if one of the children is her daughter? What if she promised to be home for her birthday, which is only two days away? What if she is curled up in a dug out, with wolves circling in the darkness, losing her toes and fingers to frostbite on her daughter’s birthday, imagining her dying daughter getting word that the plane went down, that her mother is not coming?

See how the stakes can always get higher? More heart-breaking? More emotionally intense?

Everywhere you have narrative traction, stakes, motivation, goals, barriers, etc, find ways to make them more. Make them bigger. But don’t make them random. They all have to fit together cohesively into the plot and be personal to the characters and make sense.

Getting Feedback On Your Synopsis

Really Jake? Feedback on a synopsis? Yes. I want you to get feedback on your synopsis. However this is the time you really need and experienced hand to give you feedback. Someone who knows about the publishing industry, someone who knows a lot about narrative structure and style. (If you ever get really stuck for synopsis feedback, email me and we can negotiate an editing fee.)

You want your beta readers looking for weaknesses. You want them looking for problems. And you want them looking for anywhere they don’t understand what is happening, or WHY it is happening. Because all of that SHOULD be in your synopsis. Unfortunately, it won’t be. Even with detailed synopsises, there is still often a lot of stuff we leave in our heads and assume is implied by the synopsis.

But guess what? If you do that in the synopsis, you’ll do it when you write the novel too. So suck it up, clarify all the things your beta reader I unclear on, and give it to them again to ask if you have fixed all their concerns.

If you have any minorities or even just people from a gender or culture you are not a part of, you should also give it to several of people who are in that group, for a sensitivity read. I like to think I am pretty aware of social issues and sexist tropes, but even I get caught out. Sometimes its really dumb stuff, where I should have seen it and known better. (EG: in a recent novel, all my healers were women.)

Don’t be defensive if you get caught out or called on this stuff. Just say: “Shit, how did I miss that?” and FIX IT.

Finally, It Is Ready

Its done. I bet you were starting to think I was never going to say that. However I promise you writing a novel with this technique will be the quickest first draft you have ever written. And it will probably be the best book you have ever written too!

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.

1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire
7. The Skeleton Of A Novel
8. The Meat & Flesh of Your Novel
9. The Fur and Feathers of your Novel
10. Planning Scenes That Make Writing A Breeze
11. Feedback? For A Synopsis? Are You Crazy, Jake?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Planning Scenes That Make Writing A Breeze

Synopsis Series: Part 10

The Bricks That Build A Novel

Scenes are the bricks that build a novel. I’ve talked about what scenes need to really be spectacular in my last post. However you should fill out each section in the detailed synopsis as it is listed, so when you are planning, you will be writing the details of the scene, based on your simple synopsis, before you get into the emotional beats and narrative traction anyway.

What separates these scene summaries in your detailed synopsis from the ones you wrote in your simply synopsis though, is details. You want to add in a lot of details. Depending on what sort of person you are, each scene summary could be a half a page long. Longer, even. Your synopsis could end up like an abridged novel.

Mine are not that long. My average scene summary is between 100-300 words. I often include snippets of dialog, particularly pivotal dialog or dialog that summarizes the tone of the scene, or the emotions of the characters in the scene. I also often write ‘note:’ and jot down anything I don’t want to forget, such as things in future or past scenes that relate to the one I am working on. EG: ‘Note: remember Anna still has an injured shoulder.’

It’s All In The Details

The goal of planning scenes, is to remove all decision making from the writing process. If you want to write very quickly, this should be your focus at this stage.

That means  ABSOLUTELY NO “I WILL LEAVE THIS FOR LATER” PARTS. As much as possible of the physical and mechanical events of every scene needs to be worked out in detail. Its not enough to write ‘she breaks in and steals the papers’. It should read something like: ‘Maria breaks in by climbing through the window with the broken lock in Peter’s office. The papers are in the top cupboard, over the sink, and coated in a layer of dust. A preliminary glance reveals that Annalise signed all the documentation for the construction, so she was lying when she said didn’t know about the project, or someone forged her signature.’

Writing is only slow when you have to stop and think about what is happening. When you take decisions out of the process, you allow yourself to focus entirely on writing great prose, and strengthening all the elements we talked about in the previous blog post: narrative traction, purpose emotional beats and so on.

Character Emotional Growth

If you are a bit emotionally stunted when it comes to writing like me (and even if you aren’t), you also need to track how the characters feel during the events of the scene. This is to make sure their mood is consistent and doesn’t see-saw all over the place in illogical ways.

Clear character emotions make the scene feel more grounded and tangible to a reader. However if the character’s emotions are flopping all over the place, or don’t make sense to the reader, the scene can feel confusing, and confusion breaks immersion.

What Readers Need To Know

As well as the literal events and character feelings, you also need to note what things readers need to know in each scene. That is to say, what questions they should be asking, what information they need about characters or setting, and what hints for future scenes they need in order to feel the pull of narrative traction. EG: ‘Lydia needs to mention that no one has come back alive once they enter gate 31.’ Or ‘Gordon needs to see the train departing and hear the train whistle, so the reader knows this story has steam power.’

Too often when giving feedback to writers, I know they have good things in their plot, but they neglect to tell readers about them. Its sort of like being a millionaire, but never taking your turn shouting lunch when you are out with your friends. Its a negative experience for them, and you, because they think you’re a cheapskate asshole. Likewise, if readers don’t have the fun of anticipating what is going to happen, they won’t enjoy the story. Which is, if you forgot, what narrative traction is. The sense that something better will happen if they keep reading.

What Readers Don’t Need To Know

Telling readers too much is also a cardinal writing sin. Most of the time, the right time to tell readers something about your world or characters is a few pages after they want to know. Use that information as a way to keep drawing them through the story, but don’t leave it so long they get frustrated and put the book down because they are confused. The exception to this is any central mysteries that aren’t explained until the end of the novel. EG: You don’t tell the reader who the killer is on page two of a thriller novel. That is revealed in the climax.

However it is important you have the things YOU need to know in your synopsis, even if they don’t actually appear in the scene itself.

When writers first start out, the first chapter of their books is often twenty pages of world building, establishing waffle. This is always the writer doing all the world building and planning for the novel that they SHOULD have done in a synopsis—instead, they think its a first chapter.

Anything you need to know, that readers don’t, feel free to put in your scene notes. Stuff like: ‘The captain of the Hemmes is the same captain that ferried Nathan from Augusta to Mal Cove.’ Nathan may never see the Hemmes or the captain again, and smart readers might pick up it is the same character, but if Nathan isn’t in the scene, there is no way for me to explicitly state it, as the characters on the Hemmes weren’t present when Nathan went to Mal Cove. Its still useful for me to remember though.

So that’s it. You have all the parts you need to start writing your synopsis. Next week, we are going to talk about what to do when you have finished your synopsis and, pro tip, its not starting to write your first draft.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.

1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire
7. The Skeleton Of A Novel
8. The Meat & Flesh of Your Novel
9. The Fur and Feathers of your Novel
10. Planning Scenes That Make Writing A Breeze

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Fur and Feathers of your Novel

Synopsis Series: Part 9
“Jake, Tell Me About All Those Weird Unnecessary Looking Bits.”

The weird extra bit are what keeps your novel balanced and compelling. They may seem unnecessary now, maybe even overwhelming. However they will pay off when it comes to editing and selling your novel.

If you try it once, I promise you won’t go back, even if you end up tweaking my methods a little to design a system that suits the way your mind works, and plays to your own distinct weaknesses. The important thing is, that you do focus on your weaknesses and not your strengths. That is where a well-planned synopsis will make the most difference.

What Are Beats and Why Do I Need Them?

I’ve said it before, but the stronger your readers feel when reading your books, the more likely they are to recommend those books to other people. Word of mouth is still the most powerful selling tool in existence. If you really want to be a best seller, people need to be talking to each other about your books.

So if you are writing a horror novel, you want it to be the scariest horror novel that reader has picked up all year. Your sad scenes should make readers teary, your tense scenes should have them squeezing the cushions with white knuckles.

When you are planning your synopsis, ‘beats’ refers to the emotional beat of the scene. What is the reader supposed to be feeling? Tracking this is important for two reasons. Firstly, before and after you write the scene, you can consider what the reader should be feeling. You can ask yourself how you can intensify that feeling. How you can make it so intense its almost unbearable.

Secondly, it lets you balance for emotional fatigue. If you hit the same beat in every scene, that emotion will lose its impact. You have to balance highs and lows. Different genres have different emotional ‘shapes’ and you should familiarize yourself with what is effective. Then you will know where and when you need to hit emotional beats to make the novel as satisfying as possible.

What Is Narrative Traction?

The shortest, simplest explanation of narrative traction is that it ‘promises the reader something interesting will happen if they keep reading’. If you write: ‘no one who goes through door 31 has ever come back’ the readers want to know what is behind door 31. It also tells the reader what is coming: a character will go through door 31. If you say something like that, and the the reader is never shown through door 31, you will disappoint and anger them. It is misleading.

I have done a whole series on how to create narrative traction and you can find the links here:
1. What Is Narrative Traction
2. Types Of Narrative Traction
3. Infomational Narrative Traction
4. Event Based Narrative Traction
5. How To Create Narrative Traction
6. Troubleshooting, Plotting & Identifying

When writing your narrative traction into your synopsis, you should ask two questions:
1. What is the reader itching to find out?
2. What is the reader eagerly anticipating?

Some of these things will stay consistent much of the way through the book. The first kiss is something romance readers will be anticipating from page one, but may not get until the end. The trick is to make readers want that first kiss more and more desperately as the novel progresses. Likewise, maybe the main character doesn’t go through door 31 until near the end of the novel—maybe it is a part of the climax. However to build the traction for that moment, you have to keep making the door more and more interesting.

However you should have multiple narrative traction threads, and they should always overlap. If you resolve one (going through door 31), you should have two or three more already in place and drawing the reader forward. You can’t have any places were narrative traction is dropped completely.

The stronger you can make your narrative traction, the harder it will be for readers to put it down. At the very least, you need to know what it is. However as much as possible, spell out how you are going to build narrative traction in your synopsis. So when you get to the first draft, you always know what your traction is, and you can ask yourself: “How do I make this more compelling? How can I make readers desperate to know/see this?”

Why Track Purpose?

Every scene needs a purpose. Actually, I believe every GOOD scene needs at least two, preferably three or more. Occasionally in beta reading or feedback someone might say: ‘What was the point of this scene?’ If someone is asking, you’re probably in trouble, but at the very least, you should be able to answer instantly—there should be a solid reason why every scene is critical to the plot.

However scenes that are only serving one purpose can be boring. You can make a scene a lot more interesting by having it serve many purposes, packing it full of conflict, information and character development.

Here are some of the purposes a scene might have:

- Introduces new information about the setting or characters
- Raises the stakes
- Shows characterization or character development
- Moves the plot forward
- Builds suspense
- Introduces a character
- Climax
- Resolution
- Inciting Incident
- Establishes setting, mood, atmosphere or themes

When you get to your first draft, make sure the purposes of the scene are clear to you and the reader. People should never be asking what the purpose of a scene was, they should always feel like every scene they read is vital.

Why Track Characters?

Tracking characters usually comes down to balancing. Some authors suggest that after you finish your first draft, you highlight every single line of dialog in the novel in different colors—one color for every character. This shows you who is dominating the script. (It also shows you if male characters are doing 90% of the talking.)

I finding tracking how often characters appear before I start writing can help me balance how much screen time each of them has. It allows me to either put some characters in more often, or take out the ones who are dominating more than they should. Which is MUCH easier to do at the synopsis stage.

It also helps in those times a character is supposed to be in a scene and I forget about them completely.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Completing all these parts of a synopsis before you begin writing takes a lot of time. Instead of taking a few days, a synopsis could take weeks. Even months. However it will save you so much time in the long run.

If done correctly, it will leave you with a fantastic, complicated, heart-wrenching book, instead of a mediocre one. It will save you years of editing and rejections when people ‘liked it, but didn’t love it’, or ‘can’t quite put their finger on what isn’t working.’

A novel doesn’t have to be ‘well written’ to be a best seller. But it does need narrative traction. And it does need to invoke strong emotions in the readers. That is why books you might despair at, books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray, sell millions of copies, but better written, more intelligent books languish in the mid-list. You can do both, but you have to plan for it.

So take the time, try planning it all in advance, and see what sort of book you end up with.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.

1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire
7. The Skeleton Of A Novel
8. The Meat & Flesh of Your Novel
9. The Fur and Feathers of your Novel

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Meat and Flesh of Your Novel

Synopsis Series: Part 8

The Layout Of The Detailed Novel Synopsis:

Okay, we have looked at the character sheet for the Jake Corvus Method and we have a simple synopsis, which has the basic details of the plot, and the right number of scenes, for you to build on.

This week, we are going to look at the way I lay out a detailed synopsis. Over the next two weeks, I am going to talk about how to correctly fill out the detailed synopsis. It may look a bit daunting, but I promise with the work you have already done on the character sheets and the simple synopsis, it won’t be as difficult as it looks!

The following template is the template to use for every SCENE. Every scene will need its own copy of this template. So you may use between 20-100 of these in a full synopsis.


Chapter: (You may have several scenes in one chapter, or you may have scenes that bridge chapters. That’s fine. This is to help you organize things, its not set in stone.)
Day: (If I don’t track the day at this stage, I completely lose track of the time line.)
Scene: (There will be a whole blog post dedicated to what you should and shouldn’t include in your scene description. In general though, it should be as long and detailed as you can make it. I will even include sections of dialog and description when I am planning this stage. If you go up to 500+ words, don’t stress, its less writing for you at the first draft stage.)
Narrative Traction:
What is promised or anticipated?
What questions do readers want answered?
(If you haven’t read my narrative traction series, this part is going to be difficult or impossible. However this is all getting its own blog post too, and I will include the links to the narrative traction series then.)
Purpose: (Every scene has to have at least two purposes for me to keep it in the book. Those purposes might be: furthering the plot, raising the stakes, providing information to the reader, character development, or world building. Most scenes that only do one of these things will be boring scenes, so its a good idea to try and work in AT LEAST two to every scene. When you do this in the planning/synopsis phase, stuff doesn’t get forgotten in the heat of the moment writing phase.)
Characters: (A list of what characters are in each scene. This is 1) so no one is forgotten or ignored in a scene and 2) so when you finish your detailed synopsis, you can go through and check the ‘visual weight’ of each character.)
Beats: (This is where you list the emotional beats of the scene. The emotional beats of the scene are what you want the READER to feel, not the characters. I typically just write ‘romance’, ‘horror/fear’, ‘action/excitement’, ‘drama/angst’. However you may wish to be more explicit. EG: “I want readers to be afraid Bill won’t survive.” Or “I want readers hearts to ache with longing when Christine leaves.” Strong writing makes readers feel strong emotions, so don’t dismiss this section. You can’t make readers feel strong emotions if you don’t even know what you want them to feel.)

Organizing Your Synopsis:

I prefer to do my synopses in scrivener. This allows me to have multiple files that I can access and have open at one time. If you were trying to get the same effect in word, you would need not just multiple files, but multiple folders.

In scrivener, I like to have my overview, my simple synopsis and my detailed synopsis as separate files in one sub folder. I like to have my character profiles in another sub folder and my wold building file in a third sub folder, with any art or maps I have gathered from the setting. All of these sub folders usually end up in the ‘research’ folder scrivener self generates.

When I am writing, I then work with a vertical split screen, so I can have my detailed synopsis to the right of the scene I am working on. When I am writing a novel, each scene is its own file, so they can be easily moved around. I then compile them all in a single word document for editing.

If you are just working in word, you’ll need to flip back and forth between your synopsis and the scene you are writing. Which could be a major pain in the ass. Alternatively, you could print out your synopsis and character sheets and keep them in a binder, but that doesn’t allow for editing on the fly. If you use any sort of text to speech program for writing, it should be quite easy to have the synopsis open while you work.

The point is, you need a system where you can regularly access your detailed synopsis and character profiles while you write, so when you are setting up your folders, do so with that in mind.

Do You Really Need All That?

Yep. My synopsis system allows you to track not only the EVENTS in your story, but the reader’s emotional arc and why they are turning the page. This guarantees you have a page-turning book, one your target audience can’t put down. You might be thinking this is more important in genres like romance, which people tend to associate with ‘emotion’. However romance often has a slow emotional build with a few peaks along the way. The genres that are really high emotion are action, thriller and horror, which require a reader to be very on and emotionally engaged, on the edge of their seat for the entire novel.

Think of emotion levels as excitement levels, or (non sexual) arousal. If your pulse isn’t racing during an action or horror, its not a very good action or horror. And that emotional intensity often has to be sustained AND build for the entirety of the book.

Comparatively, the books you may think of as emotional—the ‘women’s fiction’ books—may have a much lower emotional arc for the reader. Readers might be biting their lip, but they’re not biting their nails, you get me? (That said, there is a lot of high intensity romance novels too, but the sweet/low intensity ones sell just as well.)

Male readers like to think they are more interested in the plot and events than the characters—this is almost universally untrue. Men need to relate to the main character, moreso than women in many cases. The proof is in the pudding. Books targeted at men only sell if they have male protagonists. Never ignore your tension, emotional arcs and narrative traction, just because you are writing for men. Explosions alone won’t keep them reading.

Next week, we look at characters, narrative traction, beats and purpose in the detailed synopsis. The week after, we will be taking a close look at scenes—what to include and what not to include.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.

1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire
7. The Skeleton Of A Novel
8. The Meat & Flesh of Your Novel