The Dreaded Synopsis

This week I had a wobbly moment. Old fears resurfaced. Past anxieties tried to sink their claws in.

Efforts to prepare my work for submission saw me make blundering attempt after blundering attempt to write a synopsis. What is it with these short forms of message conveyance that terrify me so?

writing_humour_synopsis-scaled500

Over the years I’ve had no shortage of conversations with fellow writers on this subject. We say their names with scorn and undisguised disrespect: Log lines. Blurbs. Outlines.

A common question is uttered with disdain: How am I expected to condense my entire novel into 25 words, 1 paragraph, two pages? (choose your poison)

We sigh. We cringe. We try not to show how daunted we are at the prospect of doing these very things.

And so, for my part, I remained dismissive of these stalwarts of the publishing world’s submission requirements. I put those unaddressed fears in an envelope, put the envelope in the post addressed to a day that’s always tomorrow.

Except, this week, I was forced to peek inside the envelope. And there it was – the fear that my inability to address flaws in my last project were back and a ticking time bomb at the core of this current project.

These flaws include:

  • An overreliance on back story
  • Key moments that occur outside of the scope of the novels’ time frame (that possibly should not)
  • And the worst one of all – that the character’s struggle does not make sense.

Questions (criticisms and self-chastising) ensued.

  • How could I end up here again?
  • Have I learned nothing?
  • Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?

I wobbled. My stomach did a few flip-flops. I spent a testing 50 minutes on the train home from work wondering whether eight months of work was about to slip through my fingeman-writing-booksrs. It was all disappearing and the version of reality where I am not good enough was bearing down upon me.

Then I made the decision not to accept this – to fight back. I swallowed my pride. I reached out. Through social media and email I asked friends for help with writing a synopsis. Saviours came to my aid. Their kind words and offers of assistance gave me renewed hope.

The wobble passed and I was still standing, my latest project still intact. And the synopsis?

It’s three pages long with aspirations to be a slender two. I’m getting there…with a little help from my friends.

The Necessary Delusion

I’ve written extensively these past few months about the various ways in which my last manuscript fell apart and the effect it’s had upon me as a writer, and person. In the end, where I fell over was a combination of insufficient planning and my rewriting skills not being up to scratch. More than 8 months since making the decision to step away from that project, I feel the coldness toward it only time and absence can bring.

However, for the 18 months I lived and breathed life in the fictional Northern Oregon township of Kennedy I was convinced of the immenseness of what I was working on. When I look back now, I can see there was a clear axis around which the helices of a double-helix spiralled.

Digital illustration of a dna

One helices was the writing process.  The practical act of writing, planning, revising, plotting, rewriting. Creating time in my day to execute the task of getting words from my imagination onto a computer screen.

Carried along the second helices, though, was the fuel that stoked the fires of my imagination. The flames began as small thoughts: Wouldn’t it be great if this novel was published? Moments of pure serendipity and hours of hard work were kindling to the fire: How will getting published change my life?

In no time at all a great inferno was burning: Imagine this book was really good, really important?

As the story’s characters and struggles became infused into the very core of my being, so did the fantastical notions I had about the impact I was about to make on the literary world. I can tell you know, at different times I imagined winning the Man-Booker Prize, being on Oprah’s Book of the Week club and even winning an Oscar for Best Screen Play for the movie adaptation of the novel. These were all intensely lived fantasies. Each left an emotional mark upon me and served to spur me on the write more, write quicker.

BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

In my head, I was on top of the world. As one part of me toiled away with the pragmatic business of producing a novel, the other part of me basked in all manner of glories that were soon to be bestowed upon because of the impact this book would have.

Yes, you can say it. It’s okay.

I was delusional. A part of me had lost the run of itself.

For a time as I stood in the smouldering embers of the novel when I had burnt it to the ground, I was quite hard on myself because of how far I had let myself go.

But now, I’m softening. Why?

I think a writer or an artist, any creative soul, needs a healthy dose of delusion to help fan the flames of inspiration and motivation. I’ll keep the ‘we’ out of this as I don’t want to be overly prescriptive, and instead stick to the ‘I’ of this matter.

I need to believe my story is fresh and original – only I can tell this story in this way, no one else. I need to believe I’m expressing an idea that speaks to people about some facet of humanity they can understand. I need to believe that some greater good will come to me as a result of all the time, effort and passion I will pour into this project.

I’m learning how to manage this idea of ‘greater good’ so that my delusions remain healthy and in check. Greater good is writing for my own pleasure. It’s about being grateful for the sense of purpose expressing myself through writing brings to my life. And, how being a writer connects me to likeminded souls.

I’ve been working on my latest novel since January. What’s helping keep my emotions and expectations in check is a mantra designed to quell the rampant demands of my writerly delusions:

I’m writing for my own pleasure, for the joy it brings me and how being a writer gives me the courage to live more intensely.

Everything above and beyond this is a bonus.

I still have desires to be published, to see my stories on the shelves of books stores everywhere (or anywhere!). I’ve reigned in thoughts of international literary awards and Hollywood fame.  Now, though, I keep my focus on the work I do each day. Page by page, scene by scene, toward the completion of a complete manuscript. And the resolution to the puzzle this story poses me.

From there, well, let’s wait and see.

Being a writer: what do you need to make it happen?

I once heard someone say, ‘We would never talk to another person the way we talk to ourselves.’ As writers our self-talk can be highly critical and extremely biting:tumblr_mbffz2ntyg1rtheg4o1_400-323x450

‘This is terrible.’

‘I’ve written nothing today.’

‘I’ll never finish this.’

‘I’m a failure.’

While we’re not always gentle with ourselves, sometimes the gloves need to come off. There’s a state of agitation that exists between satisfaction and dissatisfaction where creativity and motivation are born: the constant arm wrestle between low and high pressure weather systems that vomit thunder and spit lightning.

In these moments we can be at our very best and at our very worst – the line can be very thin. It’s not easy to be both Good Cop and Bad Cop to the vulnerable and sometimes insecure writer inside of us. As I battled, knee-deep, through the detritus of rejection and seeming failure during the latter part of last year I found my only companion was Bad Cop. It wasn’t long before his tired cynicism began to sound like Truth.

And just as I felt the vestiges of one novel and eighteen-months of work slip through my fingers, I experienced a moment of quiet calm. Soon though, whispers of doubt grew louder and seeds of undoing sprouted stems. It was as I resisted this return to negativity that a question emerged from the ether of my subconscious: What do I need to write?

A challenge and carrot. A push and a pull. In the tug-of-war between Good Cop and Bad Cop, the little agitated atoms within me were shaken into a state of heated friction and proposed a way forward.

It didn’t take me long to come up with the three core things I needed to enable me to write and remain committed to my practice of writing on a regular basis:pencil-writing-ftr

 

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Energy

 

  1. Space

Need:    Somewhere I can go where it’s conducive to be a writer and to write.

Action:  I converted the spare room in my house into a writer’s den. I moved in my book cases and stacks of CDs. My notes and plot structures adorn the walls. I’m cocooned in my craft and my stories and my characters.

Result:  I’m writing more regularly, more spontaneously and I’m really enjoying how and what I’m creating.

 

  1. Time

Need:    To carve out thirty, sixty or more minutes per day (or at least five days a week) to write.

Action:  I’m eating more lasagne. I’ve found the 40 minutes while the dish is on the oven a great time to work on some new scenes. On the nights where I’m not eating lasagne it’s either the second I get home from work (thirty minutes of power writing leaves me free to relax for the rest of the evening) or just after a scalding hot shower (the ideas I have in the shower never cease to amaze me).

Result:  Slowly but surely the first draft of my new project is coming together. I’m making steady progress which is very satisfying and keeps Bad Cop at bay.

 

  1. Energy

Need:    To not be fatigued, hungry or tired when I sit down to write. To have the reserves to bring passion and intensity and clarity to my writing.

Action:  Eat better throughout the day. A better breakfast. A good lunch. Some fruit. Something in the afternoon before I leave work. A good dinner when I get home. Exercise – basketball mid-week, football on the weekends. Get a good night’s sleep.

And when I’m not writing, don’t attack myself for not writing. If I’m going to chill out and watch a movie or spend time with a loved one or friend, enjoy that as much as I can. No guilt. No regrets.

Result:  I’m able to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. My writing desk is at a height where I can comfortably stand and type – so I do. And this allows me to bring a lot of movement and dynamism to how write. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing.

 

This is the prescription that’s helping me stay on the edge and be sharp in my practice. It’s going to be different for everyone. Each of us will have different elements we’ll need to bring to the table to make our writing work for us. So there’s no one size fits all approach here.

But by starting with one simple and direct question, you’ll be amazed, given application, patience and dedication, where it will lead you. Here’s the challenge:

What do you need to write?

 

Ken Ward

 

Body Image credit: morethanflesh / http://www.lydiamccall.com/heal-negative-body-image/

Why am I afraid of failure?

erasing-fearIf I think about it clearly, I’ve encountered failure in some way, shape or form as often as I’ve eaten cooked dinners . Big fails (taking a job not suited to me, letting important relationships fizzle out). Little fails (making the train on time, getting my mash potatoes the right consistency). And everything in between (learning Paranoid Android on Guitar, speaking German ).

Why have I failed?

Lack of ability. Lack of application and discipline. Expectations set too high. Unreasonable and unachievable goals.

How’s that for a dispassionate and disinterested assessment on why I don’t always succeed. But you know what?

I am still shit scared of failing, of being seen as a failure.overcomin-failure-in-life

If there’s one thing I want to be known for in this life, it’s as a person who does what he says he will do.

And failure gets in the way of me keeping my word (see above as to why I’m not always able to make good on my promises).

But failure is just a word, only a label, imposed by me (or others) upon me.

Definitions change. People change. Labels fade and become redundant, as the world changes. The adhesive dries, the corners come loose and curl inwards. Soon it’s easier just to tear it off and throw it away .

There are many dimensions to who I am, multiple threads of my life that are interweaving concurrently with other threads.

So here’s what I tell myself: Don’t let failure become a cul-de-sac or full-stop. Follow failure with ‘OK, so here’s what I’ll do next…’

In practical terms I’m learning to give failure meaning and context by using it as a link in the chain:

I (my novel) recently failed to get selected for the advanced round of a manuscript development program I was involved in. My opus, my era-defining statement, slighted and overlooked .

Pow! Bam! Take that, you Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis wannabe!

As the sting of rejection lessened a realisation began to form.

I still haven’t worked out what my novel is about. The core message, and therefore the voice, of the novel isn’t clear. The jumble of ideas I have in my head for this project, are still just that – a jumble.

So yes, it’s a setback along the way, but nothing more. A reminder that the twinge in my gut, the snap of frustration, the bitter taste in my mouth is because what I’m doing means something, and I need to go again, work harder, persist, persist, persist .

No-Pain-No-Gain-550I came across a quote recently, during a seminar I attended:

Fail Fast. Fail Early.

Embrace it, don’t be consumed by it. Take the lesson on the chin then move on.

Keep fighting the good fight, because it matters, to you, if no one else.

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas — Review

BarracudaBarracuda is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Loaded.

Danny Kelly, known as Barracuda, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school, where he overcomes bullying through his drive to become ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. He sacrifices everything to his Olympic goals, but he doesn’t make it as a swimmer, and commits a violent crime out of anger and humiliation. As an adult, he has to overcome the shame of his past and create a life in which he can respect himself.

Barracuda simultaneously tells the story of the young, ambitious Danny, and the same character after he has ‘failed’. Tsiolkas tells a well-paced and engrossing story, populated with compelling characters — above all its flawed protagonist. The book offers reflections on a number of issues without descending into wankery or preaching.

The novel considers class issues in Australia through the clash between working-class Danny and his privileged schoolmates who make fun of his hairdresser mother. Several characters challenge the myth of an egalitarian Australia, but it is ultimately Danny’s experience at school — wearing the uniform he can’t afford to outgrow, intimidated by his classmates’ designer houses — that the book makes its most persuasive argument.

Danny’s character is also a vehicle to explore the idea of ambition. When Danny doesn’t make it as an Olympian, he realises there is only a ‘hole’ where he used to be. Gradually, he attempts to re-create himself as a decent person, who supports his family, earns his living and atones for his past. The book forces readers to consider whether our society pushes us to be great at the expense of being good.

Barracuda also offers a gorgeous meditation on the body — Danny’s fit, young body flying through the water, then losing control of itself as he faces failure and shame. It compares the sculpted bodies of Danny’s privileged schoolmates to the ‘slovenly’, ‘pear-shaped’ bodies of his family. Gradually, Danny comes to an understanding that class itself is expressed through the body.

Tsiolkas offers an insightful reflection on contemporary Australia, in an engaging novel which is possibly his best so far.

Four stars

Penny Jones