News and Inspiration

  • Joanna Campbell

I didn't wait until I had finished writing Instructions for the Working Day to begin compiling the synopsis. I made a summary at the end of every writing session, like the example in the picture above. The main thrust of these was:

  • what has just happened (action)

  • who was involved in the scene (characters, main and minor)

  • how the scene has affected my main character(s) (whether psychologically or physically, and also more broadly, in terms of obstacles to their mission, relationships and conflicts)

  • how it has advanced the plot

  • how it has developed the main character(s)

  • any motifs or foreshadowing

Once the novel was written, I collected all these rough and ready summaries together. The resulting 'synopsis' was far too long and wordy to submit with the manuscript to an agent or publisher. They usually request one, at most two, pages. However, because all the information was there, my only task was to condense it, select the most salient points, delete all writerly ponderings and opinions, then keep trimming until it was succinct.

I enjoyed working on this, because after I had tidied up the summaries and made them into an overview of the entire novel on one page, it looked like a certificate of authentication. It showed I had created a story with a beginning, middle and end, invented a main character with a mission, constructed an inciting incident, a string of setbacks and conflict.

And if I hadn’t?

What if I'd discovered plot holes, glaring omissions, inconsistencies, or weak characters the story could manage without? Luckily there was nothing too serious, but there were definitely a few sections I wanted to revisit, a timeline I needed to check, a minor character who needed an extra scene. It’s exciting really, how the synopsis reveals so much. Without the summaries and synopsis, I wouldn't have spotted these issues. And it's often more straightforward to fix them than you might imagine. I made corrections on my plan or timeline first, to avoid too much tinkering with the manuscript. For example, I wanted to change my protagonist's age by a year, so I altered it on my timeline, which then told me at a glance how his revised year of birth might affect other important events and historical references in several sections of the novel. Once I had located and listed the affected places, I could go to the manuscript, finetune it accordingly, then make the same corrections on the synopsis.

I didn't mention every twist and turn of the plot in the synopsis, nor introduce every minor character. And I didn't relate the storyline chapter by chapter. It was more effective to relate some events out of sequence to explain the narrative in the best, most comprehensible way.

The most important thing is to be clear and precise, to explain who is in your story, what they are doing and why they are doing it. Don't leave the reader puzzled.

Since its purpose is to outline the entire story, the synopsis may sound a little dry and emotionless when you read it through. But it won’t seem that way to the grateful agent or publisher, who only needs a general idea of what actually happens in your story:

The above is the first paragraph of the synopsis I sent to Fairlight Books. The whole piece was just over 600 words and one page long. I kept all the paragraphs as short as possible. All the major plot points were there, including the ending. Submitting to publishers or agents isn't the time to worry about spoilers. This is the time for all the important revelations, demonstrating that you have a complete - and hopefully irresistible - story to offer.

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  • Joanna Campbell

After making an outline plan for Instructions for the Working Day, I wrote a large number of short scenes. Simple, quick, rugged splashes, like the cat above. A brushful of paint released into water and allowed to diffuse. Not much to look at, but a burst of creativity nonetheless.

The purpose of these small scenes was to highlight the beats of the novel: vital elements of the story, shifts in the mood and pivotal moments of change.

This method helped ideas to unfold at a fairly fast pace. These scenes were not necessarily as intense as a piece of flash-fiction, in which a huge amount of story—beginning, middle and end—is condensed and packed tight. But they still needed to engage me from the first sentence and keep me captivated throughout.

I wrote these scenes in the same way as I would write flash-fiction, but, like the unkempt cat, there was no need for a polished finish. Splash-fiction, perhaps. With an element of tension in anticipation of the scene to follow.

The next task was to add length - although some scenes worked well as they were and I kept them short. The most important part of this process was to decide which aspects to develop and how the action could reveal more about the characters.

As the scenes grew, they gradually turned into rough chapters, which became the basis for my first draft. There was still a lot of work to do, but those small beginnings were the first flashes of inspiration.

So if you write flash-fiction and are contemplating a novel too, this construction method might work for you. Although it was important to keep in mind the larger picture of the novel’s theme and rhythm, writing small was an effective way to be imaginative, build foundations and stay focused.

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  • Joanna Campbell

I was thrilled to be asked to run this masterclass for Retreat West as part of their Short Story Festival - and overwhelmed by the positive response! So I'm delighted to have been invited to run it again on October 1st, as part of their Saturday series of Zoom workshops.

In this masterclass, I deconstruct a story from my collection, When Planets Slip Their Tracks, exploring a variety of ways you can develop hints of the extraordinary within your character's ordinary world.

Discover how to unsettle your reader by booking now. Price £5.