Jude Hardin

Author, Drummer, Turtle Whisperer

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Location: United States

Monday, March 26, 2007

How To Park a Buick in a Wheaties Box

I’m talking about the dreaded synopsis, folks.

Boiling a complete novel down to three pages is no more difficult than, say, packing ten pounds of rice into a shot glass. Of all the writers I’ve talked to about it, only two say they actually enjoy writing synopses. They’re mutants, I tell ya.

The majority of writers simply loathe them. When you get down to it, they’re harder for most of us than writing the novel itself.

Why are they even necessary? Can’t an editor tell by reading the first few pages of the manuscript if they’re interested enough to read on?

Some can. Some editors hate synopses as much as writers do. But editors are busy people, and many of them like to get an idea of plot--whether it’s serviceable or not--before they invest the time it takes to read an entire manuscript. Sometimes, the synopsis is your only chance to make an impression.

So how do we, as writers, make that first impression a good one? How do we make that synopsis sizzle, and entice the editor to dive into Chapter One?

Here’s the first half of the synopsis I recently sent to my agent:

When a routine teenage runaway case turns into a complex murder and kidnapping, it’s up to private investigator Nicholas Colt to navigate a terrifying labyrinth of conspiracy and betrayal. With no real evidence to offer the police, Colt must rely on instinct and sheer will to bring a ruthless killer to justice...

He’s having a damn good day. Before the brain-baking north Florida sun rises, Colt catches and filets a few bass for breakfast. Later, he snags a thousand dollar retainer from Leitha Ryan--legal guardian for Brittney, her fifteen-year-old sister. Brittney, it seems, has run away from home. Colt figures to wrap the case tomorrow, in a few hours tops. He does a little research, and spends the rest of the afternoon and evening in bed with his girlfriend, Juliet. He’s weeks behind on his car payment, his home phone has been disconnected, and Juliet constantly gripes about his living quarters--a 1964 Airstream Safari travel trailer. He’s forty-five, and living paycheck-to-precarious paycheck; but, all-in-all, life is good. Not bad for a Tuesday, anyway.

Rule #34 in Nicholas Colt’s
Philosophy of Life: If you have a good Tuesday, Wednesday is going to be a bitch.

When a runaway girl has a forbidden boyfriend, she’s usually easy to locate. Find the boyfriend, find the girl. Colt strikes out there, but learns Brittney is working as a “lingerie model.” With a little help from a sawed-off shotgun, he convinces the pimp to do the right thing. Brittney reluctantly leaves with Colt, but says she can’t go home. Someone is trying to kill her, she says.
Likely story. But, if Colt forces her back home with Leitha, he knows she’ll only run away again. He takes Brittney to his campsite, teaches her how to fish, and works on getting to the root cause of why she ran away in the first place. Brittney doesn’t budge. In fact, she says it was all a lie. No one is trying to kill her. She wants to go home. Now.

While waiting to hand Brittney over to Leitha, Wednesday turns to Thursday and grows significantly worse. Colt’s Airstream is shot at. He unsuccessfully gives chase and, when he comes back, Brittney has disappeared. Maybe she went home. Hitchhiked, or something. When Colt goes there, he finds Leitha brutally tortured and murdered. Colt is horrified, sorrowful, and
pissed off. Whoever killed Leitha must have kidnapped Brittney. Is Brittney dead, too? Colt is determined to find out.

Does this make you want to read the book?

First of all, synopses are always written in present tense. No exception. I started with a short hook, the protagonist’s main story problem. The second graf reveals a little bit about the hero’s ordinary world--the setting, his financial and marital status, age, etc., and his attitude toward the case he’s accepted--that it’s going to be a cakewalk, an easy and much needed thousand dollars.

In the third graf, I hint that the protag’s ordinary world is about to change--for the worse.

From there, I start telling the actual story. That’s right, telling. The old rule “show don’t tell” doesn’t really apply to synopses. You should make the language as colorful as possible, and try to maintain a smidgeon of “voice,” but you simply don’t have space for much description and nuance. You have to squeeze a hundred or more pages of story onto one page. Tell, don’t show.

Unlike jacket blurbs--those teasers designed to compel a purchase--synopses are the entire novel in miniature. Editors want to know how the beginning, middle, and ending are handled. The synopsis is, in essence, a tiny version of the whole book, the Reader’s Digest Super Duper Ultra Condensed five-minute version. It’s like chugging a can of Boost when you don’t have time for a seven course dinner.

Here’s what we all know: Boost sucks. Most synopses suck. Try to make yours the exception.

Synopses are necessary tools for selling your novels. Might as well get used to the idea of writing them. With a little practice, maybe they’ll more closely resemble a tasty appetizer--making an editor hungry for more.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Top 5 Days of My Life

These are some days I’ll always remember, jumping-up-and-down happy days. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

17 September 1969: I hit a grand slam, playing “batball” on the playground at Hazelwood Elementary School. Batball has the same rules as baseball, only there’s no pitcher and you hit an inflated rubber ball with your fist. This was huge. In elementary school, I was the fat kid. I’m sure those of you who grew up, like me, in ancient times, remember the fat kid. Don’t you? These days, thanks to fast food and video games, about half the prepubescent population is overweight. Not so in 1969. Anyway, I was slow and not athletic at all, the last person to be picked for teams (right behind the skinny little redhead boy with glasses and arms like toothpicks). But, the day I hit the grand slam, I was a star. All the kids on my team were cheering. They loved me. For one breezy September afternoon in 4th grade, anyway.

10 November 1976: I got my driver’s license. This is a big event in any teenager’s life, but in mine it was momentous. I grew up with my grandparents, neither of whom drove a car. Getting my license was a whole new level of freedom. I could go places. I could play my 8-tracks loud as I wanted. I could make out with my girlfriend in the park. It was a grand adventure, being able to drive.

26 February 1983: Eric Clapton had a song out called “Rock and Roll Heart,” and he was coming to town for a concert. One of the local radio stations sponsored a contest to win a Fender Stratocaster, signed by the legendary guitarist himself. You had to write, in 25 words or less, why you have a rock and roll heart. I hadn’t planned on entering. On the morning of the deadline, the day of the concert (I already had tickets and was going with some friends), I lay in the bathtub and composed this: Cupid’s rock and roll dart, sounded, pounded, found my heart. The sound was Clapton’s claim to fame--heartbeat and rock beat, one and the same. I rushed to the music store where the entries were being collected, made it there just a few minutes before the 2:00PM deadline. Later that afternoon, drinking some pre-concert beers at my friend Dave’s house, the radio station called. Perhaps there’s still a tape, in a dusty archive room somewhere, of me shattering the DJ’s eardrums with howls of joy. I won the guitar, and I still have it twenty-four years later.

30 July 1992: My son was born. He is--and always will be--the best thing that ever happened to me. I witnessed his birth, and I had tears in my eyes. He’s 14 now, a fine young man, but it seems only yesterday I was rocking him to sleep. He still gives me a hug and says “I love you” before going to bed each night. It’s difficult to comprehend, before you are one, what it’s like to be a parent. There’s no way to describe that kind of love.

7 March 2007: I’ve already emailed a bunch of you regulars, so you know what’s coming. I fell asleep last Wednesday afternoon, and when I woke up there was a message on my phone. Area code 212. New York City. I played the message a couple of times, thinking I still might be dreaming. It was real, and my hands trembled as I called back. Mr. Jay Poynor, literary agent extraordinaire, put me on hold for a few seconds while he said goodbye to a client. When he clicked back on, he told me how much he loved my novel. He wanted to represent me, and a contract would soon be in the mail. I know I probably sounded like a moron. I don’t remember what I said, but I can’t imagine it was anything very intelligent. Electricity was flowing through my veins, and when I got off the phone I started doing the Snoopy dance (appropriate, since Jay used to work with Peanuts creator Charles Schultz). Dig: Jay was the first agent I queried, my top choice. He called me the same day he received the manuscript. A referral from my sweet angel was the catalyst, but this just doesn’t happen. Not in a writer’s wildest dreams. Can you even imagine my level of excitement? A week later, it still doesn’t seem real. I guess it is real, though, since I received the contract in the mail yesterday and mailed it back, signed, to New York today. I guess it is real. I have an agent. I have an agent!!! The Call. One of the top 5 days of my life. When I get a book deal, I’m afraid that grand slam in 4th grade will have to drop a notch.

Okay, hate to do it to you guys (not really), but I tag Erica, Lainey, Aaron, and Kathy. Let’s hear about your top 5 days. If you choose to play, tag four more of your contacts. Let’s party!


Friday, March 02, 2007

Stormy Weather

I woke this morning to the sound of thunder. I looked out my window at the molten-lead sky, the fierce lightning flashes, the bleak landscape. It reminded me about how my life has been going this week, and it reminded me about adding inner conflict to my fictional characters.

To me, characters who are emotionally tortured ring truer than those whose lives are always golden.

Maybe you’re developing a character, or maybe you have a finished novel and are looking for ways to add texture. Either way, adding inner conflict is one of the best ways to garner reader sympathy. Readers relate to characters with emotional holes, because we all have them.

Let’s say for now that you’re developing a character. Let’s say his name is Bill.

Bill is a doctor. He’s 29 years old, sandy blond hair, blue eyes. He’s 6’2” tall, weighs 185 pounds, drives a Jaguar. He reminds people of a young Brad Pitt. He has money, looks, brains, and he’s great with the ladies. Great in bed. He graduated first in his class, publishes regularly in medical journals. He is articulate both professionally and casually. He’s funny, and a pleasure to hang with at cocktail parties.

Bill is boring me to tears, because he’s too friggin’ perfect.

Let’s take that same character and mess with his head a bit.

Let’s say he has a controlling father who steered him into medicine, while all Bill ever really wanted to do was build oak furniture. He loves the smell of sawdust mingled with his own sweat, the feel of the wood, the sound of a power saw. He loves the clean lines, the perfect joints, the simple and stout designs of Gustav Stickley, and would like nothing more than to emulate him. Stickley is his hero, and wood is his passion.

When he was 14, Bill went out to the garage and built a table from scraps while he was supposed to be doing his math homework. His father came home, took an axe to the table and burned it in the fireplace. After that, he beat Bill with a belt and made him stay up until 2:00 AM until his math was finished. No son of mine is going to be a fucking carpenter. I bust my ass every day so you can have a chance at a better life. You’re going to med school, and that’s that.

And that was that. Now Bill is stuck in a stressful career that he hates.

He’s all grown up now, so why doesn’t he just quit being a doctor and go make some furniture?

For one thing, he has a ton of student loans to pay back. He has a nice house and a nice car, and Dad would blow a gasket if he threw all that away and moved into a one-room flat. All his money goes to paying bills, with only a little left over for a retirement account. How can he start a woodshop with no capital? How can he sustain himself for several years until his furniture designs start making money?

He’s figured out that he will be forty before he has enough money to even think about quitting medicine. Eleven more years of this soul-sucking existence. And what about his fiancé? The wedding date has been set, and they both want kids, and she is in love with the idea of being married to a doctor. She doesn’t even know about his passion for wood. If Bill gets married and starts a family, how will he ever be able to get back to his true love?

Bill is very unhappy. He’s having bad headaches, and starts taking Percocets prescribed by a friend. When they stop working, he switches to Dilaudid. Now he’s hooked on painkillers, and has to take them all day every day just to function. The painkillers give him chronic constipation, so he has to take laxatives and enemas. He keeps everything a secret, can’t allow his fiancé and his parents to discover how weak he really is. He has a loaded pistol in his underwear drawer, and sometimes thinks about putting it in his mouth.

One night, he sneaks into the hospital’s pharmacy and steals a bottle of pills. He doesn’t know it, but the tech on duty sees him. Now Bill is getting anonymous letters, threatening to expose his theft and drug addiction if a certain amount of money isn’t coughed up every month.

Bill is a mess. At twenty-nine, he can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. What will become of him?

I’ll let you finish the story.

The thing is, by giving Bill an emotional hole, I’ve made him interesting. On the surface, he’s everybody’s golden boy. Underneath, he’s a complete wreck.

Do you have some characters who are just a little too perfect? Give them some inner conflicts, and see what happens.

I just looked out the window again, and it’s still dark and cloudy. The thunder and lightning have stopped, though, and surely the sun will eventually shine.

If you want to sell books, let it shine on your character in the end. At least one little ray of hope. Their inner conflicts will still be there, but maybe there’s a chance they will overcome them.