Friday, March 9, 2018

Organizing What I've Discovered & Writing a Working Synopsis

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

You all hanging with us? That novel you're writing just might be the one that turns you into an author with a completed draft, ready to edit. That is quite the accomplishment, friends, and I know you can do it.

After several discovery writing sessions, I've finally reached the point in my process where organizing my thoughts becomes necessary.


Organizing What I've Discovered

Over the years, I've done this several different ways. I've used index cards, notebooks, and tabbed binders. But, for my most recent projects, I've been using Stephanie's Story Workbook.

Quick note: If you sign up for Go Teen Writers Notes, you'll receive a free tutorial for setting up your very own story workbook.

This handy tool is an Excel spreadsheet that allows me to list details I don't want to forget as I move forward with my project. If I don't do this now, I'll waste time as I write, scrolling backwards through my manuscript trying to remember a character's hair and eye color, their stature, nickname, and other defining attributes. The Story Workbook helps me keep everything organized and never more than a click away. Here's a shot of what mine looked like before I started filling it in (click on the image for a larger view).

One of the things I like about using Excel (similar to Google Sheets) is that I have everything in one place. I can create various worksheets within the one document (people groups, settings, fantasy terms) and I can save it to my Google Drive. That means it's with me wherever I go. If I want to work outside my office, I don't have to gather up all my notebooks or my index cards; I can simply access the document from my phone or my laptop. Very, very handy.

It's also customizable. To start with, I'll simply add in everything I've discovered about my characters and storyworld during my early writing sprints. As I continue forward in my manuscript, I'll take periodic breaks to fill the worksheet in more fully and adjust items I've changed as the story has unfolded. Simple. Keeps me sane and makes subsequent books easier to draft if I'm working on a series.

Writing A Working Synopsis

Once I've got all my details in one place, it's time to scratch out a synopsis. There's a reason I do that now before the novel is completed, and I wrote about this in detail back in 2016. Here's what I said:

I have to tell you, I was thoroughly inspired by Stephanie's recent blog posts on synopses. If you haven't read them, you should absolutely do that. They're very straightforward and readable, and I promise you, not all blog posts on such topics can claim to be both of those things.

Stephanie's articles got me thinking about my own experience and how my relationship to the dreaded synopsis has changed over the past few years.

Like Steph, when I started out, I dreaded writing a synopsis (a summary of your novel). There were all these stipulations and formatting rules established by publishing professionals and, oftentimes, the advice seemed very conflicting. And, let's be real, I still stammer when someone asks me to explain what my books are about. The idea of trying to summarize 100k words into just a few pages can be daunting.

Over the years, my perspective has changed considerably. Initially, I considered prospective agents and editors the primary audience for my synopses. But, several books in now, I've found that I read my synopsis more than anyone. It has become a vital tool in both drafting and editing my novel.

In essence, my synopsis serves as my outline.

The process usually looks like this:

I get an idea.

I stew on the idea--sometimes for minutes, sometimes for weeks.

I sit down in front of the computer and I write. Not my synopsis. A chapter, maybe two. I do everything I can to simply BE the narrator of the story for a bit. This can last a couple writing sessions or it can last weeks. I write long enough to have some sort of an idea about the world, the main character, and where her journey might lead. In short, I let myself write by the seat of my pants for a little bit.

THEN! Once I feel like I'm in the story, I open a shiny new blank page on my computer and I TELL myself the story. (Steph's advice on telling in a synopsis is stellar. Go read it.) The writing of my synopsis can take several days. I come and go, making huge sweeping decisions for characters I've barely met and letting myself skim over motivations and lesser details.

And then . . .

I conclude the synopsis with what I see will be the end of the story. I do. I will not make myself stick to this ending, but I do write it. I write my initial conclusion and when I save this document on my computer I name it Working Synopsis.

Here's where it gets fun.

This Working Synopsis now acts as my outline, but it is also so much more. This short document is full of writing prompts and guideposts that help me when I get lost. At any given time, I can pick up my imperfect synopsis, select a paragraph, and use it to get me writing. I can read about the actions of my characters, things I've told myself will happen, and I can spend my writing session digging into those moments and looking for motivations while playing with cause and effect.

Here's a random paragraph from my current Working Synopsis.
The only way to free Lenore is to ensure Mars’ haul makes it to the same rebel camp. But Sylvi’s rig—the Silver Dragon—is too heavy to make the trek across the ice. She’ll have to stick to the Shiv Road and despite her protestations, she won’t be traveling alone. 
It's a prompt just begging to be written, right? Who's Lenore? Who the heck is Mars? What are they hauling and why is it so heavy? The Silver Dragon?! What's wrong with traveling the Shiv Road and who will be traveling with her?

There is just so much here to dig into. And for my purposes, that's exactly what I want the first draft of a synopsis to be.

It's especially helpful to have a Working Synopsis in place when you've had to step away from your manuscript for chunks of time. The synopsis (read: outline) brings clarity and focus and reminds you where you were when you left off.

Another thing: I'm not big on printing out my novels to read them and mark them up anymore--I work better on the screen--but I do print out my Working Synopsis and I scribble notes in the margins whenever I deviate from it or need to remind myself of new doors the drafting process has opened up for me. Every now and then, I take these notes and update the synopsis on the computer and print it out again. I keep my most recently updated version at my elbow the entire time I write.

How and when you choose to write your synopsis is entirely up to you and, like the rest of us, you'll carve out a system through trial and error. But if you haven't written a synopsis toward the beginning of your process, give it a go. It just might be the outline you never thought you could scratch out. It might give you the direction and motivation to keep writing when things get tough. And I guarantee it will give you hints about where your characters should go next when you've forgotten just which road they're supposed to be on.

Of course, if and when you decide to let other people read your synopsis, you're definitely going to want to lean on Stephanie's post, How to Edit Your Synopsis. A scribbled up document is fabulous for a writer, but not so much for those fancy industry professionals you're trying to impress. 

Tell me, friends, do you have a system in place for organizing your thoughts as you write? And what do you think of writing synopses? Do you love them? Hate them? Could you ever see yourself using the synopsis as an outline of sorts? I'd love to know your thoughts.


  1. I love the idea of using a synopsis as an outline. Not going to lie, synopses are not my favorite things to write, but I do like them to a certain extent.

    1. My opinion has definitely evolved. What helped was realizing that most of the time the synopsis is for you and not for an agent or an editor.