Monday, June 20, 2022

Writing the dreaded synopsis ...

I thought it might be useful to talk about how to write a synopsis. Or how I think they should be written anyway. I've read quite a few in my time and they have demonstrated that many people don't really know how they are meant to work. 

Having a synopsis for your book is very handy. It is a tool you can use for a variety of purposes. A good synopsis written before you get started can help you complete the writing of your manuscript. And a synopsis is not set in stone. It is not the bible on which you have sworn the lives of your children. If your story changes you can adjust it accordingly. And once the manuscript is done you can use the synopsis to help pitch/talk about your story, find a publisher and promote your story. If nothing else it is a handy dandy summary of your story that demonstrates to yourself and others that you have an appropriate structure, that there is a coherent plot, underlying themes, that your key characters have realistic motivations and challenges, and that you have a satisfying ending. Writing a synopsis can show you where there might be gaps or problems with your plot so you can go back and fix them before you submit your manuscript to a publisher. 

A synopsis needs to summarise your story. Ideally it also conveys something of the voice and tone of your work. 

Follow the direction of the story in the order in which you have written it and summarise it as neatly as you can. Each chapter might become one to three sentences? A synopsis should also help the editor/publisher/judge answer a series of questions. What kind of story is it? (Horror, lit fic, crime, romance, magic realism, sci fi etc...) Who is/are your main character(s) and where is the story set? What is the problem to be solved, the goal to be achieved by the main character(s) or the great question at the heart of the story? And what is at stake if they don't solve or achieve or answer it? What steps do(es) the main character(s) take to solve or achieve their problem/goal and what stands in their way. What do they obtain and/or learn along the way and which key folk assist them? How is the problem solved or the goal achieved or the question answered? To what do our hero(es) return? Does your synopsis do this?

You should include the ending of your story. It might feel like a spoiler but an editor/publisher wants to see at first glance that your story is a cohesive whole with a satisfying denouement. You might want to save the 'ending' for when they read the manuscript but they may not read the manuscript if they think the novel is without a good ending. Reading a full manuscript is a big investment of time.  When I see a synopsis with the ending/conclusion/solution left off I wonder if the author is hedging their bets, or hasn't been sure which way to go or has been unable to end their story. If it's just that they don't know how to write a synopsis, a publisher won't know this. And they might assume the former is true.
You don't want background or why you wrote your story in your synopsis. The synopsis is a summary of your story, in the style in which you have written it. Nothing more and nothing less. You need enough detail so the summary makes sense, but not so much that it ends up looking more like your manuscript than a brief run down of events. Some publishing houses want your summary to be 300 words or less. Others are happy with two pages (or sometimes more). If they want a synopsis included with your submission they will tell you what form it needs to take. Summarise your story and include the flavour of your telling of it. That is all. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

A little something for you ...

I am busy with other things - working on some poetry for submission, preparing content for some talks and workshops I'm doing soon, and I'm on a selection panel reading over 84 submissions, so in the meantime here is something I prepared earlier for your reading enjoyment - a short story, Rich Pickings, from my collection Time Machine and Other Stories (Ahoy! [Cuba Press], 2019). And there are teaching notes on this story (page 11) here.

Rich Pickings 

You might think it strange, how no one noticed. Although a few centimetres a day isn’t that obvious, at least to begin with. I mean, bamboo grows heaps faster – over 30 centimetres a day in the right conditions. But this wasn’t bamboo.

It was Jess that first spotted what was happening.

“Has someone been watering the cactus in the hallway?” she asked as she wandered into the kitchen one Monday morning.

“Oh my goodness,” Mum said. “I forgot to water the plants. Again.” She turned to her husband. “You’re meant to remind me.”

“And who’s meant to remind me to remind you?” Dad replied with a smile.

“Well somebody must have done something, cos it’s grown a fair bit,” Jess said pulling the fridge door open. “Who ate the last yoghurt?” she grumbled.

Izzy said nothing, shrinking a little further down in the lounge chair just beyond where the kitchen opened out into the sitting room, carefully placing the teaspoon into the empty pottle in her lap. She sniffed as quietly as she could, before silently picking her nose.

“I’ll have to water everything tonight, when I get home,” Mum said. “Don’t let me forget.”

“Sure thing,” Dad said, before tipping his head back to drain the last of his coffee.

“Well the cactus doesn’t need it,” Jess said closing the fridge door with a thunk.

And then they forgot about it.


Mum remembered the watering on Wednesday, making her way round the aspidistra, the African violets, the mother-in-law’s tongues, and the peace lily, with a soda bottle filled with water. She finally reached the hallway after a quick refill in the bathroom.

“Is that normal?” she asked.

Dad emerged from behind his computer in the study, his eyebrows rising at the sight of the cactus. “When did you buy that?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” Mum said.

“It’s Izzy’s, isn’t it? Jess said wandering along from her bedroom to see what was going on. “The one she bought a year ago at the school fair?”

“But that was just a little nub. Thumb sized. Without arms,” Mum said. “I thought it was dead.”

It looked like a little person now. If that person was green and covered in little white prickles, and was the height of a ruler.

“Maybe cacti have growth spurts,” Dad said. “Maybe we have the perfect cacti raising environment.”  

“Well it doesn’t look like it needs any watering,” Mum said tipping some of the soda bottles contents into the pot plants on either side of the cactus, bookends of sweet but straggly little pansies.

“Maybe we should buy more, if they grow like that without water. That’s so low maintenance. And I wouldn’t have to remember to remind you to water the plants.” Dad grinned at his own cleverness and slid back behind his computer.

And then they forgot about it.

Later that evening Izzy ambled along the hall from her bedroom at the front of the house, to the kitchen at the back. She was thirsty, unlike the cactus. And as she passed the pot plants on the book shelf she dropped a little rolled up greenish ball held between her first finger and thumb onto the soil the cactus sat in.


On Sunday, Dad stood in the hallway scratching his head.

“Not as low maintenance as I thought,” he said to his wife who stood beside him also gazing at the cactus now two rulers tall and as fat as a doughnut, the glazed pot it sat in cracked from top to bottom, a scattering of soil like a reflection of the crack, on the top surface of the book case.

“Hmmm,” Mum said, a frown digging down her forehead. “Should we be worried?”

“It’s just a plant,” Dad said uncertainly. “A cactus. It can’t keep growing forever without water. Can it?”

“I’ll repot it,” Mum said.

“Use a bucket,” Jess suggested. “And best put it on the floor. Just to be safe.”

Izzy sniffed loudly.

“Get a tissue, why don’t you sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Bad for the environment,” Izzy said. “Anyway, don’t worry. I don’t really need one. And she looked at her fair-bought cactus with a sly smile.

But the others forgot about it.


On Monday evening Mum hung her jacket on the coat rack as she swung in the front door, and hummed her way down the hall.

“Hi my honeys, I’m home,” she called.

In the kitchen dad chopped onions, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Jess grated cheese at the table and Izzy sat hunched over her homework on the other side.

“I love that new coat rack,” Mum said to Dad. “Did you get that today?”

“We don’t have a coat rack,” Dad said looking up from his chopping, tears streaming down his face.

“That’s the cactus,” said Jess. “It’s grown again.”

Mum’s face dropped, turning pale with a hint of green. Then the colour flooded back and she pressed her lips together firmly.

“Well,” she said. “As I don’t know who’s going to hit the roof first, me or the cactus, I think it’s time that plant moved out.”

“Lucky Jess suggested putting it in the bucket. It’ll take all of us to move it now though,” Dad said, glad for an excuse to move away from the chopped onions.  

And it did.

Strangely the cactus stopped growing outside.

“Maybe it’s too cold?” Dad wondered.

“Or too wet,” Jess offered.

Izzy just smiled to herself.


“Hey,” Jess said one Monday morning as she ventured into the kitchen, “Have you seen those pansies on the book case? It’s happening again. This time they’re climbing the walls.”


The End

Melinda Szymanik

Saturday, May 14, 2022

Barking up the right tree ...

 When I do picture book manuscript assessments, one of the questions I am often asked (whether literally or subliminally) is whether the manuscript is publishable. Sometimes I think it is, and sometimes it isn't. A yes is helpful information to the extent that the writer is on the right track with how they are approaching picture book writing and whether they might be 'close' or not. However it bears no relationship to whether the manuscript will actually be accepted and published. There are many reasons why a perfectly publishable text might be declined.

1) The publisher has something similar in their catalogue of current titles. And this might mean similar themes, and/or similar plot, similar title, similar main character, similar manner in which a story is told.

2) The story is really well told but it brings nothing new to an idea that has been seen before. I have seen this in competitions, assessments and elsewhere and it is a good sign for a writer (the writing is of good quality) yet feels like frustration for them - all you can do is keep working on more stories till the required freshness is found.

3) It doesn't fit with the publishers usual kind of story - they might prefer more philosophical, less philosophical, more humour, less humour, slapstick, dark, light, rhyming, prose, creative non fiction, no non-fiction, self help, local stories, international stories etc... Make sure you look at what they've put out over the last few years - would your story fit in their line-up?

4) It just isn't the commissioning editor's cup of tea. Or others in the publishing team don't agree with the editor, even if the editor loves the story. I've had this happen to me but the book has been accepted by a different publisher. Taste is always a factor. Not good or bad taste, just different taste.

5) It might be charming, touching, moving and lyrical but the perceived market is just too small to make the book viable. They want the book to pay for itself and it needs enough buyers to do that.

6) The timing is wrong - either a) the trend is seen to be over, (publishers don't always make the right call on trends - Scholastic US were in the process of winding down their fantasy publishing and then the Harry Potter books turned up - but these are uncommon events). Trends tend to go in cycles though so it might be worth holding on to your story and trying it again in future. Or b) the topic is either no longer hot, or is still too hot yet. You cannot provide a comforting resolution for a real life crisis if the crisis is not yet resolved in real life. Or it's just too soon and feelings are still raw. 

7) It's too risky with a debut author. A known author might tip the balance with sales. Sometimes however being a previously unpublished author can work in your favour.

8) No obvious reason that the editor can put their finger on - it just wasn't for them. I think a level of excitement must be reached and they can only know that when they feel it. Accepting books is not a mathematical science. 

9) some combo of two or more of the above

And this is why it can be hard to tell a new writer where they are going wrong. Sometimes they aren't going wrong. I will do everything I can to help you ease out any kinks or wrong turnings in your story telling (although there are times when it is tricky to put one's finger on exactly where the problem might lie), and I will try and show you the thinking behind why some words or styles work better than others. But sadly some great stories will never make it into a book. Sometimes there will be nothing to fix, there will be nothing you can change that will change the outcome. But I guess it is good to know if you are barking up the right tree.   

Saturday, April 30, 2022

The shine will return ...

In June I'm running a creative writing workshop for young people as part of the 2022 Featherston Booktown Karukatea Festival on Sunday the 12th at 1pm. You can check out this year's programme here. It's my first time being a part of this iconic Featherston event and I'm really looking forward to it. Book Festivals are a love song to literature and it's always a huge buzz to immerse yourself in all things book. I'm hoping I'll get to visit some local schools in the preceding week too - fingers crossed.

In July I'm giving a picture book writing masterclass as part of the Storylines Children's Writers and Illustrators Hui to be held in Auckland. You can check out their programme here. I love hanging out with other writers and illustrators, it's really energising, and reassuring, and grounding - an opportunity to talk as much shop as I can handle, to feel the warmth and generosity of this lovely community I am a part of. But there will also be lots of fantastic sessions to attend, publishers to pitch your work to, and new connections to be made. The Hui is open to everyone, no matter where you are in your children's literature journey - I hope you can come along.

In the meantime I continue to try and work on my own stories and provide assessments of other peoples. Bad news, rejections and the like, can really do a number on our creativity sometimes. Our writing bones can feel broken. It's okay to step back, bandage yourself up and give yourself time to heal. But it's also important to remember that manuscript acceptances and other measures we might have of success aren't the best means for keeping ourselves in good spirits as we keep the writer's path. Anything for which you cannot control the outcome might be immensely satisfying when it does turn out like you hoped, but can be crushing when it doesn't. And the satisfaction, if the news is good, isn't sustained. So, make a list of the things over which you do have control that bring you joy. They don't need to be flash or 'big' or important things. Just things that you value that will reliably put a smile on your face. And if you lose your way check out the list and make sure you are doing at least some of the things on it. Most of all be kind (to yourself) and don't panic if you are feeling a bit lacklustre. The shine will return.    

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us?...

In my last post I wittered on about the absence of New Zealand books from our regular cultural conversations here in New Zealand. Actually I should have extended that discussion to a lack of interest in celebrating books in general. Not long after I wrote the post, a report came out talking about the poor state of literacy skills in our fifteen year olds. As the report says - 

        a staggering 35.4% - over a third of fifteen-year-olds – struggle to read and write.

The link to the report is here

There has been subsequent discussion, including on television news, about what educators need to do to fix this. But I can't help wondering, if books were just a normal part of our everyday conversation, especially in the media, if drawing attention to them wasn't so fraught and awkward because there just isn't a perceived angle that apparently justifies our interest like there is with sport, would our literacy levels be better? Is holding books at arms length like some slightly squiffy and unnatural artefact actively bad for us? I think it is bad for us. I think it's bad for the upcoming generations. We need to include a celebration of books in our wider daily conversations. So many studies have proven the wide ranging benefits of reading, not just for our children in school, but for all of us for the duration of our lives. If we know this to be true, why don't we talk more about books? It can't just be down to the educators who are already working incredibly hard - society at large also needs to take some responsibility for this. We need to get over ourselves and this aversion we have. Our children need us to.

Why don't we have book clubs on regular TV like they do in the US and UK, or a 'book of the week' segment on The Project. We get movie reviews and interviews with actors of upcoming films, we sometimes get box office top titles for the week, so why not a NZ bestseller top five in Fiction, non fiction and children's. NZ music was transformed by mandated attention and celebrating our NZ literature could have an even bigger impact. We tut-tut at research that says our children are struggling but think the solution lies with someone else. It is everyone's problem and we need to change the conversation.  

In other news, I am thrilled to say I have signed a contract with Scholastic for a sequel to BatKiwi - again to be illustrated by the wonderful Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, and hopefully out this year in time for Christmas. This is my first ever picture book sequel and it was fun working with Bat and Kiwi again. I have seen a first rough by fab illustrator Vasanti Unka for our book, I'm Dark coming out with Penguin RH next year, and whoo-wee! its perfect. I am so excited to see how the whole thing looks. Also, the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 (including a poem by yours truly) was launched, and has been reviewed by Erica Stretton, and blow me down, I get a mention. It's all a bit much so I am off for a bit of a lie down. Talk soon.      


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome ...

Someone posted an article about the difficulties of selling New Zealand literature to New Zealanders the other day and it has had me thinking ...

They were looking at how well Australian literature sells in Australia and asked why are we so different. The massive differences in economies of scale must help in Australia. A population of 26 million is a much bigger opportunity for publishers and the bigger the print run the cheaper it is to 'publish' the book. But this only changes the total number of books sold. It can't account for the different ratios of NZ adult fiction accounting for 5% of fiction sales here and Australian adult fiction 30% of sales in Australia.

I wonder how this translates for children's fiction (won't someone think of the children)? We never seem to appear in the top ten overall children's sales here although adult fiction sometimes does. We don't tend to get mentioned in articles like this either. Some years back someone mentioned that local children's books, made up about 16 or 17% of children's book sales while local non-fiction (presumably adult) accounted for around 30% of sales (I think). I wonder if this is still the case. Are these numbers good, bad or indifferent? They don't feel super great. I wonder what the relevant comparable stats are in Australia (thanks to Leonie Agnew for letting me know Australian children's books make up 45% of children's books sales). They certainly seem to celebrate their children's writers more but this must be easier in a bigger population. Each state seems to have a dedicated children's book festival. They have a national book week with many schools participating. We can't replicate that here with our much smaller population. Everything must show a return for investors, it can't just be mandated for a long game return. We all lament how NZ national book month never took off like music month did. We seemed to lack the resolve to push through from forcing folk to focus on our ghettoised literary products when there was no tangible rewards for doing so, to achieve a genuine change in culture that would have made our local books a force to be reckoned with. Can we try again? I think the current environment would not be in our favour. But if not now, then when?

I ran a workshop on picture book writing last weekend and asked the class if anyone could name a book by me. I have eleven picture books published - three of them out just last year, as well as a bunch of other publications. No one could and I didn't feel insulted by this result. I guess it was more of a resigned kind of feeling - it is a challenge to have any kind of profile with the general populace. When I held up one of my books a few minutes later one person mentioned they'd read that book just the week before. But clearly there was no cut through with my name. I asked each student to name their favourite picture book. I don't recall a New Zealand author being named. There was Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler and Dr Seuss and Eric Carle. A couple struggled to name a picture book.

New Zealanders do read. We are big library users. But so much of what is read is not local content although I know our books are in the libraries. I know there is room for improvement in what we produce. I know our local literature can do so much better when it comes to representation. I think the call for this is loud and clear and changes are happening albeit slowly. The article talked about how our literature is seen as gloomy, depressing and dark and research has backed this up. But this is a perception rather than a reality and is not so relevant for children's literature anyways. Did we ask New Zealand children why they don't pick up local titles? I think too that there is an element of cultural cringe and our own literature is always judged more critically because of this. It's us, just this little infant country existing at the fringe of the civilized world that will always be wishing we could be as cool as our older siblings abroad. I think this does us a massive disservice. We do create good books here but somehow the overseas offerings always appear more sophisticated. We always expect more of ourselves - you must run twice as fast to keep pace with everyone else. International books often come with bigger marketing budgets and sales sweeteners. How can we compete?

There are factors against us - a smaller population and economies of scale, a resistant population, a lack of will amongst those who might make a difference (the media, commercial and political entities), a still emerging cultural identity. I know there are amazing groups that work incredibly hard to have New Zealand creators seen in schools, to create events and festivals that celebrate literature, and booksellers who stock and promote us to their customers, but this isn't changing the playing field. We can't keep doing the same things and expect a different outcome. I don't know what the answer is, I only know it needs to be something no one has ever seen before. Something dramatic and surprising. Something game changing. Maybe even shocking. I hope it happens soon ... 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Learning a new skill ...

Most writers will tell you how having a project on the go, especially if there is a deadline, results in a lot of household chores getting done. We are world class procrastinators who would rather vacuum, make beds or wash dishes than write 1000 words, or 500 words, or 50 words, or 5. This truism, this time honoured tradition, is a source of (bitter) humour amongst us. And despite being aware of this we seem powerless to act against it.

Well folks, hold on to your hats, I have discovered a way to beat this! The trick is (are you ready??) to have a task to do (especially if it has a deadline) that is even harder to do than your writing project. Your writing then becomes the chore you do to procrastinate from the other thing. Of course you will all already have recognised the flaws in this plan, but for a short while it worked for me - for two happy days I actually added around 1500 words to my WIP and it was lovely. 

There is so much going on locally and internationally that is worrying, terrifying, stressful and exhausting that in addition to some top order procrastination, I am also in a constant search for distraction. Looking for things to occupy my mind in a safe way. Jigsaws, sudoku, and code-crackers are extremely comforting to me in times like these and I secretly hope they contribute to keeping the creative part of my brain nimble enough for those times when I return to making new stories. But part of me is also thinking I need a distraction that is actively challenging my creativity. When things aren't crazy, don't we all have goals and ambitions that we are working towards? I know when the world is being so unpredictable it can be too hard to think about creating, learning or adding extra challenges beyond the one of getting through the day with our sanity intact. And even this feels out of reach some days. But as time has passed I have been conscious of an itch that definitely wants scratching. Puzzles aren't enough after two years - my brain wants a different kind of exercise. Maybe puddling about in a new world is just what I need. 

To that end I'm trying to further my poetry writing skills for both adult and children's poetry. I've often made small incursions into this field of creativity, but never really stayed long enough to make much progress. Now I'm keen to improve this aspect of my writing. So far I'm trusting my gut, and my ear, and the results are not all bad. But I need to do more. And right now I feel a bit frustrated by the process. There is too much staring at a blank screen going on. Ideas come at odd moments, and while the raw form of the poem does pour out quite quickly and then it's the somewhat slower journey of massaging out the discordant wrong bits, I feel thwarted by my ambivalent, uncooperative subconscious and the haphazard way it doles out ideas. I need ways to warm up, and maybe ways to organise my thoughts so I spend less time just flailing about. Secretly this is probably how my process will always remain with lots of flailing and disorganised thinking. I guess if I manage to produce more poems I will feel less affronted by my own undisciplined inner brain twirlings but we are a long way from that point. Anyways I sent away for an instructional book by Mary Oliver. Wish me luck. Deep down I know that if I exercise my poetry writing muscle enough it will become a little easier but exercise is work and I am very lazy, and writing poetry is HARD. I've heard too that reading and writing poetry is very good for one's picture book writing skills which would be a win-win. For now I'm trying to keep expectations low cos adding pressure right now seems like a bad call. If nothing else, poetry feels like an appropriate response to the times we live in. It's something I've always wanted to explore more. I'm giving it a go. What are you doing to keep your brain limber? Are you trying to learn something new too?