the synopsis: the final frontier

For us writers, that is.

To those of you thinking about publishing, maybe you know or maybe you don’t, it’s not as simple as sending your manuscript off to a publisher with a letter introducing yourself. But it’s pretty close. ūüôā

Query letter, synopsis (usually 1-2 pages), and a manuscript. Three things a fiction writer (non-fiction is different) needs before contacting an agent or publisher. It took me¬†months¬†of writing and re-writing¬†and a lot of feedback from other writer friends to finally develop¬†a query letter that I feel is compelling and polished enough to use. Is it perfect? Of course not, and I don’t think it can be the first time out. But I’ve decided that I’ve done as much as I can with my query letter, and it’s time to see what it can do.

I thought I was done. Until I started researching fantasy lit agents (my manuscript is fantasy) and realized that 99% of them want a synopsis. I had written synopses before, in film school. We don’t call them that, though. We refer to them as treatments or outlines or beat sheets. Unfortunately, treatments are usually too long and outlines are too dry to meet the criteria for a great synopsis. So I went back to research, and I thought I would share the most important, seemingly universal pieces of advice that I’ve found on what a synopsis actually looks like on the page.

First, about the formatting: a synopsis is either single-spaced or double-spaced, although most agents seem to want one that’s double-spaced. It doesn’t really affect the length of the synopsis word-wise, though, since a synopsis should be somewhere between 500 and 1000 words regardless of how you space. It seems, then, that the question of spacing was more relevant when letters and synopses were printed out and mailed. Although it seems to be strongly suggested that if you are going to single-space your synopsis, separate each paragraph with a blank line, sort of how your query letter looks.

Second, use the standard font type and size. This will most often be 12-point font Times New Roman. There really is no need to use any other, but if you do use a different font, use one that has a serif. Also, use one-inch margins on all sides. This won’t really be noticeable when you paste it in your email along with your query letter, so I presume it’s to make sure your synopsis isn’t too long (again, 1 or 2 pages). Indenting each paragraph is recommended.

Write the synopsis in present tense (is, not¬†was) and in the third-person (he/she, not¬†I)–even if your manuscript is in the first-person. I found this surprising, but this is how we write things in the film industry. Scripts, treatments, and outlines are all written in present tense, third-person. The reasoning for this is that it adds a sense of urgency to the reading experience.

I know none of this really has much to do with the actual content or style of your synopsis. As I’m reviewing my notes, I suddenly realize just how much I need to communicate about this. I’m definitely going to have to add another post. Maybe more.

I can’t emphasize the importance of your synopsis enough–if the agent/publisher you’re looking at requests one.¬†The synopsis will often be the only representation of your voice and skill as a writer that the agent reads–even more so than your query letter. While some may ask for the first ten, twenty, or thirty pages–or the first few chapters–of your manuscript, your synopsis will impact their expectations and perception¬†first.

So will this take time? Absolutely. Weeks? Probably. Months? Possibly. Years? No. ūüôā

But is it worth it? Oh yes.

nothing new, or, why i love 22 jump street so hard

There’s nothing new¬†under the sun, right? But is this true? Is it a bad thing?

Sometimes it is. We look at films like Dances With Wolves and we generally agree it’s a great film. Then we look at Fern Gully,¬†The Last Samurai,¬†Pocahontas, and¬†Avatar and some of us wonder… didn’t we see this already? Well, in a sense, yes we did. The same could be said for other similar narratives as¬†Star Wars,¬†Harry Potter,¬†Eragon, and… I don’t know, maybe¬†Percy Jackson. And the list goes on. John Woo films in the 90’s. Michael Bay films… ever.

Sometimes these efforts turn out terribly and (no pun intended) predictably so. But sometimes they surprise us with something fresh, intelligent, and (paradoxically) refreshingly innovative.

Take¬†22 Jump Street, for example. (Don’t worry. I’m going to avoid spoilers.) From almost the very beginning, the film unapologetically calls out how it’s going to be mostly–almost exactly–like the first film. (Stick around through the end credits for even more thematic hilarity.) The dialogue even takes us into extremely metaphysical territory with the theme of formulaic storytelling¬†in Hollywood franchise films. Including itself! Somehow, it makes the entire effort hilarious and brilliant. In my opinion, and in everyone else’s opinion in the theater full of people I saw the movie with.

I didn’t think I would like¬†21 Jump Street. I was probably one of the last people to see it while it was in theaters. I generally don’t like reboots. I especially don’t like TV shows rebooted into feature films. (The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, Dukes of Hazzard,¬†Miami Vice,¬†I’m looking at you! Yes, I watched those TV shows and I loved them. No, I’m not even going to mention my favorite childhood cartoons that have been cinematically beaten¬†and left for dead.) I didn’t like Jonah Hill, and I was only only okay with Channing Tatum. All the pieces were in place for me to seriously dislike/hate the movie. I can’t remember what made me try it. But I did. And I loved it. (Except for the Johnny Depp cameo near the end.) Was it a good movie? I don’t really recall. I just laughed my ass off for 99% of it. Channing Tatum and Jonah were a comedic dream team of unlikely proportions.

Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. I was feeling bored with energy to burn. I was out and about, and I had the option of either going home to watch my DVR or Netflix or stay out and see what was playing at the local cinema. (Naturally, writing was completely out of the question.) There are a lot of movies in the theater now that I don’t really care to spend my money on.¬†Sex Tape,¬†Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,¬†How to Train Your Dragon 2,¬†The Fault in Our Stars,¬†Tammy… none of them move me to fork over the cash. Maybe if I was still working at the theater I’d check out¬†Sex Tape or¬†The Fault in Our Stars or even¬†The Purge: Anarchy. The dollar theater near my house had some films I definitely wanted to check out:¬†The Lego Movie,¬†Million Dollar Arm,¬†Neighbors. Alas, showtimes for those didn’t work for me, either being in the morning or at night. So I reluctantly picked¬†22 Jump Street.

Wow. I missed the first few minutes, but as soon as I sat down I was hooked. This post isn’t a film review, so I’m not really not going to talk about plot, theme, or characterization (but those were all good!). My point is that, although it wasn’t breaking new ground, it wasn’t boring or repetitive. It’s not news that, pretty much for the entire 2000s,¬†Hollywood has been on a sequel/prequel/reboot kick. Prepacked content is highly sought after, not only for film but for television. (Don’t get me wrong. I love all the superhero stuff, but it’s reached an all-time saturation high.) Even many films that appear to be original concepts turn out to be based on something else. (Blue is the Warmest Color?) I recently read an article titled “Has Hollywood Lost its Way?”, which provides some charts and numbers on this trend. While it was written back in 2012, the trend has only increased since its publication. And although I don’t know how I feel about its emphasis on producing short films, I generally agree with the rest of the article.

What does this mean for the writer? Well… in film school, they taught us that it means we should prepare ourselves to write for other people for the first several years of our career. Write things we’re not wholly devoted to, in love with, or even particularly like. It was, as maybe I should’ve mentioned on my blog last week, all part of paying your dues in Hollywood. For some of us, it was eye-opening, for others it was a challenge. I land somewhere in the middle of the two. There are stories I want to tell, that I¬†need to tell. But I love the medium (film, TV) enough that I am more than willing to tell other stories, stories that are not necessarily personal to me. I can¬†make those stories personal. I think that’s part of the task of a writer.

That story you’ve been working on? Maybe they did turn it–or something like it–into a major motion picture. Does that mean you need to stop working on it? Absolutely not. It may mean some tweaking is in order, but don’t give it up. I have a friend who is going through exactly this issue, and I think I’ve told her more than once not to give up on her project if she still loves it.

So there’s nothing new in Hollywood. So what? Hollywood is churning out more content than ever. More people are going to movies worldwide than ever. Hollywood is not, as Spielberg predicted, about to implode. (No offense to the maestro himself, but he needs to look to his own career first, I think.)

Literature may or may not be a different creature. I have oft-heard accusations flung at this series or that of being too derivative of something else. A¬†Harry Potter rip-off or¬†Twilight fan-fiction (true or not) or¬†Hunger Games-lite. Maybe in some cases it’s well-deserved. Maybe the story is too similar. And maybe you’re worried what you’re working on is too similar. That’s really no cause for you to give it up. Take the concern to heart, I suppose, but never just throw in the towel. There have been countless comparisons between¬†Harry Potter and¬†Artemis Fowl. I guess I can see the similarities, but I can also see the differences.

If there’s nothing new in Hollywood, then I say you’re looking in the wrong places and you’re looking at it the wrong way. There is an old wisdom saying that there are only seven stories in the world (or 33 or 21 or whatever number you please). Possibly. But there are an infinite number of ways to tell those seven stories. So don’t count it out just because it¬†seems unoriginal. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.

paying your dues

You’ve heard the expression. But do you always know what it means?

It’s usually pretty obvious. Don’t expect to start at the top. Everybody starts at the bottom. This is common wisdom my mom has repeated to me more times than I care to admit. She most frequently brings it up when we talk about me finding a really good job. And I guess, for a lot of jobs, this is true and fully to be expected. It’s unreasonable to hope to be hired on as the VP of… whatever. Oh, there are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions.

And there are jobs that this sort of thinking doesn’t necessarily apply. Like mine, for example. I admit, there’s no real¬†trick to becoming a published writer or produced screenwriter (actually, I think there are some secrets that help with the latter), and I’m not talking about achieving Rowling, Patterson, or King success. There doesn’t seem to be any particular process to follow. A writer writes, then endeavors to sell said writing, then (hopefully) sells it, and umm… gets paid. ūüôā

It’s not an especially complicated, climb-the-corporate-ladder sort of career. To be a published writer. (The publishing industry is a little different, of course, and that’s for another time.) For a while now… weeks, months, (years?), I’ve been sort of marching in place in between steps. Writing? Done. Try to sell it? Umm… not… so… much… yet. But I know what to do next, and the only thing in my way right now is me.

But I also want to work in film. That’s my ultimate goal. And that’s much trickier. There are many ways in. Most, however, involve the concept of paying your dues. Hoping to be hired as a director for a multi-million dollar feature film your first time out is not something you should count on. Even hoping to be hired as a director for a no-budget indie is a stretch–though more realistic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do it for yourself. Work for yourself, as my mom puts it. Produce your own film. Raise the money yourself–or with a partner or team or whatever. Maybe even direct it, if you’re the best choice. Many of my film school classmates have gone on to do just that. One in particular, Joshua Overbay, recently completed work on a film titled¬†As It Is in Heaven (not to be confused with the 2004 Swedish film of the same name), and by all accounts it’s very impressive. How did he achieve this? Undoubtedly, a ridiculous amount of hard work and perseverance. Another classmate has just launched a web series called¬†Movie Night, and while I haven’t yet seen it, I hope and expect it¬†to be extremely entertaining. There are others, and it both encourages me and fills me with just a¬†teensy bit of film-envy. And impatience. (Like why can’t I do that? Well, I probably could¬†if I set my mind to it.)

It’s no small task to set out to do something like that. And even in a way, it does involve paying your dues. But not in the way I’m used to thinking of it. To me, paying your dues just means to prepare yourself for the long haul. This will not happen quickly, and it will not be easy. It may not even be all that “fun” sometimes. And maybe that’s what it means, ultimately, to pay your dues. Get ready to work hard.

running on fumes

Sometimes, a lot of times, I don’t really know what to say. This happens most often in social situations, where I am the worst. On one of my favorite TV shows, Joss Whedon’s¬†Angel, there’s a great quote that sums up my skills at chit-chat and general socializing.

“I”m so glad you came. You know how parties are. You’re always worried that no one’s going to suck the energy out of the room like a giant black hole of boring despair. But there you were in the clinch!”

Exaggeration? Maybe, but not far off. I try, though. Sometimes I end up with something witty. Sometimes… most of the time, it just comes off as awkward and unsettling. When it’s with strangers, this is pretty bad. But when it’s with people I know, when it’s with family, it’s a hundred times worse.¬†Sometimes, I wonder if it’s better not to try and just stick with what I do best. Which is play the wallflower.

Sadly, this won’t work if I hope to make something of myself in Hollywood. You have to be noticed. You have to put yourself out there.

In writing… well, it’s the same principle. Sometimes, I don’t know what to write. And not just for the blog, although that can be an unhappy challenge unto itself. It happens when I’m working on a story. It took forever to finish my book. It’s been a year or so since I’ve been staring this script project in the face. My screenwriting partner definitely does not appreciate this, and he recently called me out on it. It’s not that I dislike the story. No, I’m still sold on it. It still interests me. It still¬†excites me. So why?

I think in some cases, it’s fatigue. You’ve devoted so much of yourself to a thing, that you’re burned out. Now I haven’t written anything for the script in a while, but I think about it almost all the time. I don’t always have something brilliant to write down, but my brain constantly works on it. My brain has been constantly working on it for over three years. It was the same way with my book. Even now, I think about my book and occasionally jot down some notes.

I think my brain’s tired. But I really don’t know how to turn it off. I live in my head. It’s my strength and my weakness. I can think something through even when I don’t realize it. I see something. My brain deconstructs it, then builds it anew. Stories, people, whatever. I’m tired, but it’s difficult to explain to people.

I have a friend who, I think, is going through a similar difficulty. I wish I could help her. I wish someone could help me.

I have a little vacation time saved up from work. Maybe I need to take it. Now if I just knew what to do while on vacation…