Lately I’ve been suffering from a lack of confidence in my story, and thus in myself as a writer, and it came about not because of any criticism or anything similar that came my way. It came about because of a writing contest, a contest I did not even enter!
How can not entering a contest cause me to lose confidence, you may ask? After all, this was (still is, in fact) a contest that specifically does allow unfinished works, so it would seem like a perfect fit for me, yes?
Alas, as with most contests of this nature, the entry requires a synopsis. Nothing particularly unusual about that, and every writer eventually needs to come to grips with producing the scary synopsis. However, typically for contests, this synopsis is limited to a single page, double-spaced, in 12-point type, with 1″ margins all around. Oh, and the first line really should be a heading stating “Synopsis,” so that’s one less line to work with. That means the synopsis is pretty much limited to somewhere between two-hundred and two-hundred-fity words, which is not a lot.
The typical five-page synopsis written for an agent or editor’s consideration has an opening statement about theme and genre, a closing statement about character arcs, and in between summarizes all the major plot points that impact and influence the main characters.
That’s impossible to do for a novel-length work in two-hundred-fifty words.
So, a one-page contest synopsis should instead focus on theme and how the character’s growth and conclusion illustrate that theme, and that’s about it.
Trust me, while it might be just one-fifth as many words, it is five times harder to write! And to give you an idea of what two-hundred-fifty words looks like, we’re at about three-hundred right here.
Still, this is a very good exercise for any writer to go through, and it should not be impossible. Indeed, it should be mandatory!
But describing how a character’s growth and plot arc illustrates the novel’s theme is difficult to do when you don’t actually yet know how the story ends, or even perhaps what theme you are illustrating, because you’re making the story up as you go, by the seat of your pants, in an episodic nature because you publish each scene online as you write it.
After spending an entire day struggling mightily, and ultimately in vain, with this one-page synopsis, I came to the conclusion that my story has deep structural flaws, because I’m currently unable to figure out how the main character’s plot progression drives, or is driven by, the theme! I’m not even sure if the story has a theme. Surely a contest loser.
I brooded on this for most of this past week, and a couple days ago came very close to stopping all further development of The Silence of Ancient Light and starting over on an entirely new story, one that would not be pantsed, but instead properly and traditionally plotted. Which, interestingly, is what I was trying to do two years ago when I started SoAL as an exercise to distract me from my analysis paralysis of developing a plot.
The good news? After two years of this distraction, I still really do want to go back to that original project. I still think it has fantastic potential, and I now have some better ideas for how to work out the plot roadblocks I had encountered. That project, by the way, was tentatively titled A Drive of Light and Shadow, but I will probably change that (but I love the title, so I’m keeping it, even if it ends up stuck on a different story).
The other good news? After two years, I still think The Silence of Ancient Light has promise, and I still like the story — even if it is devoid of any theme and the main character is flat and without growth. I know some of you are enjoying it, because you have told me so and I trust you when you do, but I also know that not very many people have read it, so the sample size is not large.
So no, I am not discontinuing SoAL, I will continue to churn out (or drizzle out, more likely) episodes for you, and I will try to figure out my own angst along the way. Perhaps I can pass some of that to Anna in the story to amp up the tension, although it’s not as if she doesn’t have enough on her plate to keep her angsty already!
Crisis averted. Though I have decided, for the health of my own stress levels, to pass on the contest this time around.
For SoAL readers curious about that original story from two years ago, there’s an oblique reference in a casual comment Anna makes to Laxmi in the 2nd scene. Yes, that’s right, these stories take place in the same universe. Can you spot it?
And for those curious about the contest I almost entered, it’s the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Unpublished contest. The deadline for entries is in about a week, so technically it’s still not too late! But no, I’m not ready, so you go right ahead.
header image credit: user:Free-Photos / Pixabay under Pixabay License
4 thoughts on “Crisis of Confidence”
Shorter pieces are definitely much harder to write. It’s a bit like the “elevator pitch” concept… always assume you have less than 30 seconds to elicit a meaningful response! Also you’re 100% spot-on about an impossible synopsis revealing flaws. I experienced the same with a story I wrote, and that’s when I knew it needed an overhaul.
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Another writer friend of mine tells me that this very problem turned her away from trying to pants novels (which is how she did her first), and now she writes the synopsis first, then outlines from there, and then begins writing. Of course, that’s a full turnaround to classic plotting, but I can’t deny it makes perfect logical sense, and in most things it is how my brain tends to work.
On the other hand, writing without a clear outline or more than a vague idea of the plot does tend to free the imagination to go down avenues not previously considered, and it can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing.
My goal is to find a happy medium. The analytical side of me, so critical for my “day job,” really wants to be a solid plotter, but some of my most creative prose is only very lightly planned. I think having a sold synopsis, at least of the one-page “contest” variety, before writing, might end up being that middle ground. The five-page variety is halfway to being a fully-fleshed out plot already.
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This is exactly what happened to me! My first book was originally written without any planning. I dove right in, thinking that I had a ton of wiggle room since it’s a story about a very mixed-up young guy growing up in the late 1990s (and it’s told in first-person, which allows even more license to break/ignore rules) but it turned out to be a disaster. I scrapped it and started over by writing a clear synopsis, which eventually grew into a full plot. After that, I had a great time simply expanding upon plot points until there was a book in front of me! Now I’m working on a new book, and the synopsis/plot/expand method is going extremely well. By the way, my day job also requires a lot of right-brain stuff, and I’ve always operated best within a “controlled chaos” framework. Thanks so much for your comment, and I look forward to reading more thought-provoking posts on your blog!
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