Writing that dreaded, scary and frightening Synopsis

Writing a synopsis for a novel can be one of the most grueling exercises for an author. How can you compress your story full of twists and turns so much that it fits into the 3-5 pages range (or the scarier 1-2 page range)? It takes a lot of effort in making the reader feel the motivations of the characters of a novel. And it is really tough to make the literary agent or a publisher understand those feelings in so few words, and in words which convey the right mood of the story. If you search for methods to write a synopsis of your novel, you will come across many, many results. Some are good. Some will offer nuggets you know of already.

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So, what I am going to tell you about writing a synopsis is nothing extraordinary. However, a good thing about it is in its simplicity. Below are two methods of retelling your story in the form of a synopsis:

The Explosion Method: This method is akin to building a sand castle on a beach. Begin by assuming your page limit for the synopsis to be one or two pages at the maximum. Take your main 3-4 characters and weave the story around them. Offer only the major twists and turns of the story. The purpose of this 1-2 page summary is make it read fast. When you are done with your write-up, go through it. Is it fast? Yes. Does it convey the right mood? Yes. Is the soul of your story intact? Yes. Does your story run smooth? Yes. Does it make the reader want more of your story? Yes (after letting a few of reviewers go through it).

Fine. So, you are ready with the bare-bones structure. It’s time to build further on it. This time, the page limit is 3-5 pages. That means 2-4 pages extra. Now you can take the liberty of adding an extra character, a sub-plot or maybe even an extra shade to your existing characters.

Once you are done, ask yourself the same questions again, till you are done.

The Implosion Method: The implosion method is the explosion method in reverse. It is quite similar to what the waves do to your sand castle. They shear the sand off. That’s exactly what you need to do. You begin by writing a 6-7 page lengthy descriptive of your story. It will be easy.

Now, cut off characters. Remove some of them completely. For others, you may replace them with their professions or their relations with the main characters, e.g. ‘the professor’, ‘the journalist’, ‘his researcher friend’, ‘his henchman’. Remove the minor sub-plots. Reduce backstories. For thrillers, you might want to do away with sentences which eat up space without adding any value to the story. For example, you can remove phrases which convey how a character ‘feels’ in a particular situation or what the character does in his/her pastime.

Keep reducing the write-up till it reaches the 3-5 page limit (if that is what your agent wants).

If you want to reach the dreaded 1-2 page limit, you will have to continue with the same process and keep ‘right sizing’. Don’t forget to ask yourself the same critical questions over and over again.

Which method is easier? The Implosion method is easy to begin with. But, it becomes tougher as you start reducing the length of your synopsis. On the other hand, the Explosion method is so tough to begin with. But, the effort is worth it. Once you are done with that 1-2 page summary, you will realize the beauty of this method. You will get extreme clarity over what you are going to add next and how many extra words/lines it would take. Personally, I prefer the Explosion method. The choice is yours though.

A few examples of synopses

For thriller authors, below are some good examples of Synopses of a few thriller movies (thanks to Writer’s Digest and Chuck Sambuchino): Just click on the movie names…

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

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RANSOM

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PROOF OF LIFE

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THE ROCK

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SPARTAN

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COURAGE UNDER FIRE

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THE FLY

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THE IDES OF MARCH

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photo credit: “The Wanderer’s Eye Photography” via photopin cc

Reading freezing, bone-chilling thrillers

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I live in Chennai, a coastal city of India with three ‘distinct’ kinds of weather — hot, hotter and hottest. The ‘hot’ winter is now over and I am waiting for the onslaught of the humid summer. But I am braced up for this challenge. At least, mentally. I have packed my Kindle with thrillers set-up in freezing climates, chilling enough to make me shudder. Last summer was the time to devour cold and gloomy Scandinavian crime fiction novels from the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. This summer, I am looking for some variety. Below are the titles lined up for my reading:

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  • Ice Cold by Tess Gerritsen
  • Ice Hunt by James Rollins
  • The Terror by Dan Simmons
  • Thirst by L.A. Larkin
  • Antarktos Rising by Jeremy Robinson
  • Winter Study Nevada Barr
  • Shock Wave by Clive Cussler
  • Arctic Drift by Clive Cussler

If you have any better suggestions for other bone-chilling thrillers, just let me know.

photo credit: David Kracht via photopincc

11 Ways to Generate an Idea for a Thriller Novel

An author I met once told me about the birth pangs which preceded his first novel. He had a brilliant idea, a fantastic story that would become a great novel some day. Wherever he went, the story followed. When he slept, the story didn’t. He just had to put it into words. And when he actually did it, he could not go beyond 30 pages. Not a single page more. His ‘absolutely brilliant’ idea was in front of him — stuck in its own threads, refusing to budge. The characters would look at him and ask what to do, rather than the other way around. He had to really, really rack his brain to move further. And it was tough.

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The truth is that it’s tough for almost everybody. An idea has to be backed by a plot, and interesting back-stories and actions of the characters. How to generate such an idea and nurture it till it blooms? Well, these are a few ways:

  1. Read good thrillers: This is the easiest and the most enjoyable way of thinking of a great plot. Nothing beats a finely knitted and absorbing story with interesting characters. Such reading can almost be called educative. Every chapter that lures you read another one is an education. Every twist you never saw coming is an education. If you want to write a fantastic novel, first read one.
  2. Watch thriller movies and TV series: If you love thrillers, go watch them. Search for outstanding movies and TV serials on IMDB. Read their plot summaries. Watch foreign movies. Watch indies. Hell, even watch good documentaries.
  3. Read case transcripts: For those who want to write legal thrillers and police procedurals, going through case transcripts can be a rewarding experience. Look for landmark judgments by the Courts of your country and other countries of your interest. Case transcripts are treasures. And some are as riveting as top notch thrillers.
  4. Read book blurbs/summaries on novel covers: This one is my favourites. I love them so much that I have even dedicated a blog entry to this step: In Bed with Book Blurbs. Reading book blurbs is an amazing way of keeping oneself up-to-date with the new themes going around in the market. A good idea can be to join a crime writers’ community and then skim through the summaries of new releases. You can even join peer critique communities like YouWriteOn.com and Authonomy.com to have a look at books available for review.
  5. Surf the internet: How about looking for unsolved mysteries, complex crimes and weird serial killers on the internet? Why not worship Wikipedia?
  6. Read newspapers: Almost everybody reads newspapers, but how many actually read foreign ones? Dedicating a few hours every week to going through crime stories on foreign newspapers can be a good idea. Alternatively, you can even subscribe to news feeds of your choice through RSS readers like Feedly.
  7. Read biographies: That’s an odd one. Isn’t it? Though, I am not talking about biographies of very famous people. Read the ones written by less famous people. Read the life story of a cop. Of a spy. Of a sailor. Of a doctor who has worked in a tough, tough places. Of a journalist who has seen the dark side of the world. Of a mountaineer.
  8. Think and Dream: This is an extremely important way of formulating a plot. How about creating a character in your mind and put him/her in a difficult situation? You can take an observer’s role and then simply watch the story unfold. Begin easy and then keep increasing the complexity of the story. Ask questions to your characters: ‘Why did you do what you did?’ ‘Do you have a backstory?’ ‘You are stuck. How will you escape? How will you survive?’
  9. Observe: Another important step. Observe everything happening around closely. You will find your story. Look at things from the point of view of a thriller author. Challenge yourself: What if a crime happens? What if a disaster happens? How will the people react? How will the institutions (Police, Media, Judiciary etc. etc.) respond?
  10. Travel: Pack your bags and explore new worlds. Observe people.
  11. Write and improvise: When you look for stories, you’ll find many. Just keep thinking till you find that eureka moment. Once you find it, make sure you write it somewhere and keep it safe. Some authors prefer to completely work out the plot before beginning to write. Some others start writing with a rough idea, then guide their characters in and out of situations. Take your pick. But, your story cannot remain in your mind. It will fade away. So, it has to come out in the form of words. After that you can improvise and tweak.

photo credit: Preserved Light by Caillum Smith via photopin cc

A Current View of the Publishing Revolution

Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

It’s always been extremely hard for the outsider analyst (or any other uninitiated person of interest) to gather unit sales figures for books — Why? Simply because book sale data are secret. This nontransparency is not true of any other media outlet – only books.

However, some book and publishing industry entrepreneurs (and authorpreneurs) have devised their own analytical models based on certain assumptions and have produced some fairly logical conclusions RE unit book sales.

Now enters an author and publishing pro with a high level understanding of advanced programming who has designed software that supposedly grabs all this secret unit sales book data from online bestseller lists. With this data, more accurate charts with some interesting numbers can be produced (such as the one at left).

Let’s dive into these figures a little more with tonight’s great source reference article published on io9.com with exceptional links and comments from…

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A true crime to ignore True Crime

True crime is a non-fiction genre dealing with two things: a crime and people committing the crime. There is a third facet also – people impacted by the crime, but it is often packaged implicitly with the first two. For thriller authors, the true crime genre can often be a learning school and a benchmark for reality. Fiction novels with serial killers as main characters, books hovering over criminal cases, police procedurals – all can take a leaf out of true crime novels.

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The most recognizable work in true crime genre, undoubtedly, is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965). Immortalized in the movie Capote where the late Philip Seymour Hoffman gave one of his best performances ever, this book is credited with giving the much needed oxygen to a dying genre. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) took this genre to newer heights when it won a Pulitzer Prize. The interest in this genre has been increasing ever since. In India, too?

I don’t know. It’s confusing.

For a nation overfed with true crime shows on the TV, it’s a real crime that there are so few true crime novels in the market. What adds to the surprise is that shows like India’s Most Wanted and Crime Patrol – Dastak have been amongst the most viewed on the idiot-box. But what’s the situation when it comes to books? Let’s check out.

  • Books dissecting real crimes: This is a genre which has till now been neglected by authors and publishers. Books on such topics are few and far between with a few on political assassinations (Rajiv Gandhi and Indira Gandhi’s assassinations) and a few on famous murder cases like Neeraj Grover murder case (covered in Death in Mumbai by Meenal Bhagel) in print. In my opinion, these are the books which help thriller writers the most, because they cover real crimes and real procedures which differ across countries and states.
  • Biographies of criminals: The king of this genre is S. Hussain Zaidi, an ex-crime reporter, who has churned out gems like Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia and Mafia Queens of Mumbai. Another brilliant work is the auto-biographical Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which he wrote in a jail in Australia. Thank god he persisted with his book even after its manuscript being destroyed twice by jail wardens.
  • Anthology of crimes or commentary on the times in which the crimes occur: We have another great work in this category by S. Hussain Zaidi — Black Friday, based on the 1993 Bombay Riots. Suketu Mehta’s non-fiction novel Maximum City is also a brilliant commentary on the changing times in Mumbai, which contains many chapters dedicated to the mafia dons and the riots. On a similar theme, another work which stands out is Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash, a Professor of History at the Princeton University. The book is quite similar to Maximum City in its theme. It even covers the Nanavati case, which led to the abolition of jury trials of India (covered in one of my previous blogs The Last (and the most infamous) Jury Trial of India).

To summarize, in India, ‘true crime’ is a genre which is eagerly waiting for some mind blowing stuff. Hope the movie Bombay Velvet (starring Ranbir Kapoor, directed by Anurag Kashyap) sets things on fire, giving this genre the much needed boost. It is based on Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash.

Let’s see what’s in store for the future.

In Bed with Book Blurbs

A book blurb is an invitation from the author to a reader — to ease into the world created by him/her, even before going through the pages. It gives the reader a feel of the universe in which the events of a novel transpire.

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Since my childhood, it has been an absolute delight for me to skim through book blurbs at bookstores. I am a big fan of thrillers and going through an enticing blurb often makes my day. Nothing catches my imagination more than a superbly written blurb. Some of them have been so good that they still continue to stay with me, even after decades. I wouldn’t remember the name of the book or the author, but I would remember the small book description. They get imprinted into my mind like postcards.

It’s a pity that I cannot buy all the books I come across, even though I may like the blurb. And sometimes I begin to regret my decision (not to buy) once I am back at home. However, the next time I visit the bookstore, I make it a point to rush to that section where I found the book and pick it up. If I don’t remember the title, the cover or the author, I still shuffle through all the books in the rack till I find what I was looking for. And believe me, it’s a wonderful experience. Like a handshake with or a hug from someone you were looking for so desperately.

Today, a book blurb helps me get story ideas. If you read five blurbs, you come across five distinct universes, with characters having different motives, problems and histories. You can create a new universe, taking inspiration from them. This often motivates me to keep surfing through interesting book blurbs. I am not the only one. Am I?

 

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