Do you ever feel paralyzed at the outset of revising a manuscript? I usually do. For me, it’s due to the sense of scope. I mean, there’s so much to be done, right? It can feel overwhelming.
Take my new project. The manuscript will be the middle edition in a planned trilogy, based on a lengthy older story. It’s not a separate story yet. In its current form, the opening is just another chapter that happened to come after the events that formed the end of part one. To add to that difficulty, I’ve spent the last two and a half years revising what’s now become part one. Quite a few things have changed. The overarching goals haven’t changed for the major characters, but their motivations have either altered or deepened. Not to mention about a hundred story details that have changed (many are inconsequential, but consistency must be maintained).
For me, incorporating critique is always a part of the overwhelm of the revision process, too. We’ve all heard it, right? Take in what resonates and dismiss the rest. But what if it resonates that you indeed have a problem (or four, or six), but you aren’t quite sure how to solve it (them)? Or if solving one will likely create others? Muddling the puddle even further for this project, I have received critique on the original complete story (before dividing it), as well as additional (new eyes) critique on the part one portion.
Reconciling it all can be tricky. I always need a “pondering period,” but inaction is obviously no solution. At some point pondering alone can become unproductive, or worse, lead to procrastination. And for me, simply diving in to another comma-shuffling editing session can be a diversion from meaningful revision.
So what’s an overwhelmed, pondered-out and paralyzed writer to do?
Stumbling Into the S-Word
Actually, this time I stumbled upon proactivity. Just to make my way from pondering to actual words on paper, I went through the middle section of the lengthy original manuscript and listed each chapter, briefly noting what happens in each. All I thought to gain was a simple status report. It certainly helped me to grasp the sweep of book two. Plus, I saw where I wanted to end up, which is huge. I could see the events that might be shaped into a resolution. Of course it would take work, particularly finding my way to a satisfying story arc for my primary protagonists as they moved into the final edition of the trilogy. But I’d taken a step.
And, as proactive steps often do, this one led to another.
Once I had my status report, I thought how nice it might be to have a writer friend to talk to about what was still a daunting undertaking. Because, as we all know, talking to our fellow writers leads at the best to an infusion of insight and excitement, and at the very least to commiseration. But how would I ever even get anyone up to speed for such a conversation?
That’s when it hit me. What I needed was a brief description of where the story stood, including the resolution I intended to strengthen. And I thought, “Oh crap. What I need is a synopsis. Duh.” But I hate writing synopses! Talk about accidentally stepping in the s-word.
Writing Begets Writing, Right?
“Don’t prepare. Begin. Good things happen once we start. Our blood heats up. Courage begets more courage. The gods, witnessing our boldness, look on in approval.” ~Steven Pressfield
I’ve done some straightforward plotting before revision, even in the form of a scene chart (something I still intend to do for this project). But I’d never attempted to synopsize a manuscript before revising it. I somehow overcame my aversion long enough to begin. The first thing I noticed was that I was actually writing. Er, that may sound obvious. What I mean is, the words came pouring out, in a way they hadn’t in weeks. Much more so than they would be if I’d plunged in cold, or if I’d started a scene chart. In just a few days, I had fifteen pages. No, they weren’t pages that would be used in my next manuscript, but yes, they are most definitely pages that will go toward making the story easier to write.
Setting aside the potential story benefits, it just felt great to be writing. And whether or not you agree with Pressfield’s divine approval of boldness, I think we can agree that writing begets writing, right?
Tapping and Channeling the Hidden Flow
The next surprise came in the form of story revelations. Dozens of ‘em. For example, I noticed the long chunks of the manuscript that were missing something: my protagonists! (Something that definitely needs attention.) But I noticed more than the characters’ presence (or absences). I noticed how characters might be feeling, about each other and about the unfolding events of the plot. These are insights I hadn’t made while drafting, and that I doubt I’d have made while charting my scenes as I normally do.
In some cases the revelations led to issues and questions. But it feels much better to be examining issues and asking questions on the front end. For me, telling the story in a succinct linear fashion forced my brain to make connections. And some of those connections required leaps—leaps that might well have resulted in complete stalls if they’d appeared in the course of drafting.
Something about the process of telling myself the story in linear, sentence form seemed to tap into my creativity unlike any other form of plotting I’ve tried. I expected synopsizing to feel like cleaning muck and debris from the storytelling gutters. Instead it felt like channeling an existing and natural flow of creativity into a storytelling collection barrel. Better still, it’s a resource I can store and utilize during those inevitable droughts to come.
Maybe most importantly, the context of the synopsis kept the feeling of overwhelm at bay. I was just working through the story as I currently know it. I wasn’t worried about how on earth I would get it right on the page.
Synopsis Tips to Get Your Synapses Snapping
I’m not claiming that this is a surefire way to start every project. I firmly believe in the value of just about any sort of pre-writing. I also believe not only that every writer finds their own process, but that their process is likely to change. But if you ever find yourself overwhelmed and in need of proactivity, it’s certainly worth a shot. So in the hopes of helping you set aside your S-word dread, I humbly offer a few tips.
1- Format? What Format? This, to me, is the most important thing: There are no rules, no expectations. It’s just for you! So all of those rules and formatting issues that help lead to S-word dread—stuff like: using present tense, capitalizing character names, not including subplots, etcetera—throw ‘em out. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you change your approach midcourse. Write it however it suits you on that day. The idea is to tap into a story flow. Heck, write it in haiku if that’ll get you into the flow.
2- Stick to the Story: Sounds simple, right? If starting with backstory will get you going, do it. Forget about description of any sort, and concern yourself with setting only as it pertains to story. As questions arise, put them in brackets or another color right then, and move on. If a tangent arises that will require research, note it and move on. Just keep the story flowing. As with all synopses, brevity is key. Think map-making rather than landscape-painting.
3- Write it to Yourself: Get in touch with what makes you excited, what made you want to tell it in the first place. Treat it as shorthand emotional dictation for future reference. Don’t worry yet about how you’re going to convey those emotions to readers. Just remind yourself what it is about this story that moves and compels you.
4- Write it to a Friend: Do you know about Stephen King’s concept of an Ideal Reader? Do you have one? Write your synopsis to them. Or do you have a particularly insightful writing friend? Write it to them. Imagine where they might need explanation and offer it. Write it to them conversationally, as you might if you were telling them about a favorite book or movie. Don’t get bogged down or side-tracked—they’ll be bored. Stick to the point… For them. Even if you have no intention of sharing your synopsis, telling it as if to a friend will put you into storyteller mode and keep you there.
Getting My S-Word In Gear
I think the most important thing about my synopsizing discovery was that it forced me to get out of my head and onto the page. For me writing has always been about finding my way to momentum then maintaining it. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been too close for too long to really see this project. Getting bogged in detail can stall my progress. Free-flow synopsizing not only jump-started my momentum, but offered new perspectives that have kept me rolling.
Your turn! Ever stepped in the S-word? Have you ever synopsized just for your own use? How do you handle “revision overwhelm” and find your momentum?