I always write a synopsis for my novel before I write the novel itself. There are two basic reasons for this: one is to communicate what I’m doing to the people I work alongside, so that they know what I’m writing. If my agent or publisher’s response was: ‘Really? Are you mad?’ then I’d trust their judgement and rethink. Secondly, it’s a useful way of planning the ‘shape’ of the novel. Characters and situations may change as I write: ideas and solutions will become more apparent. But a synopsis is an interesting and useful initial exercise and one that is quite important in terms of an overview.
It’s quite hard writing a synopsis for a novel. First of all, you have to discipline your scattered thoughts, put events in order and give away all the good bits as it’s destined for the scrutiny of professional readers. It’s not a novel, where you create tension, where you might hint or signpost events to come or save the shocks until the end. You have to be clear, precise and factual. Then you have to consider how long you need the synopsis to be. The three-page synopsis has more detail than the 250-word synopsis, so what do you include and what minor points do you leave out? It’s interesting to write a synopsis in a sentence. Or explain the theme of the novel in five words. Or one. It all helps to make the writer become focused and clear about her or his intentions in the novel. I’ve written a synopsis for the novel I’m writing at the moment and it has helped me put my thoughts in order, enabling me to think not only about characters and action but about theme too.
A synopsis may be a brief explanation of the plot but it’s not, in essence, what the book is really about. A theme is what takes the storyline forward and gives it a perspective. Being clear about themes is important to me: it’s more about the emotional sense of the novel than the storyline. The storyline is led by the theme.
I’m 80,000 words into my latest novel, not far from the big finale, and it’s all chuntering along nicely. I know where it’s going and how it will end. I’ve known from the start that I like the characters and I understand their motivation, their flaws, their issues. In many ways, a novel is a journey. Characters go to places: they travel. I’m fond of travelling and, for me, setting and place are important, creating mood and giving me the chance to evoke an interesting location.
But characters also go on emotional journeys, journeys of self-discovery or they change their view of themselves or their world as the novel progresses. Moving forward is always a major theme in the book. Characters want something and throughout the novel, they seek to find it, whether ‘it’ is a second chance, a change of mind or simply that they are trying to make peace with themselves or with someone else. In many ways, all of my novels are about change and second chances.
The protagonists in this particular novel are a couple. It’s the first time I have focused on two people who are together in a relationship and are, mostly, happy. Their unhappiness doesn’t come from their partner; it comes from within themselves, from issues that need resolving. The protagonists’ story is a journey, a need for change: it’s about how people come to terms with the past and focus on enjoying the present.
The love interest in the novel is not only found in the two central characters that do, indeed, love each other and are fiercely loyal to each other: there are other characters who seek emotional fulfilment. There is a single lonely man who lives with his elderly mother: what would happen to her if he found love and left her alone? There is a married couple whose lives are bound by routine and they are deeply unhappy; they have unspoken issues to resolve based on their past and their inability to talk about it.
Another theme I often revisit is about judging and pre-judging. Prejudice arises from assumptions and fears and a lack of integration with or investment in the people who are misunderstood. One character in particular in my current novel is ready to assume the worst about others and he likes to find fault as it is only then that his own insecurities are temporarily masked: he is only comfortable when he can put someone else’s shortcomings into sharp focus.
Interestingly, I have spoken about what the novel is about without mentioning anything about the storyline. The story is the usual mix of humour and pathos I enjoy creating. There are, I hope, laugh-out-loud moments when the warm and loyal characters come together to enjoy mischief and frivolity. There are moments of sadness when characters have to deal with difficulties, human vulnerability and life’s ups and downs.
I have set previous novels in Dublin, the South of France, Paris, Brighton, London. The setting in this novel is not an exotic one this time, although I have a more colourful setting planned for the next novel and I’m currently researching it with the help of two intrepid voyagers. This novel is set in North Devon, against the backdrop of the ocean, sand dunes, country lanes and a busy terraced street of houses.
The ending of the novel is, as always, important in terms of resolution and the characters’ journeys and, at eighty thousand words, I will finish it over the next week. The synopsis deals with the climax of the novel in three sentences but I will enjoy the ten or fifteen thousand words it will take to bring the story to its conclusion.
Then comes the editing. I like to walk away from the computer, leave the novel for a while, and return to it freshly critical. Then I can go through it several times and see what needs changing. If the novel is good, it will only be a matter of phrases, inaccuracies, details. If it’s not yet right, chapters will be shredded and characters will be overhauled. After all, it has to be as perfect as I can make it before it is edited again. Once a book is published, it’s no longer mine. I can’t change or improve it. It has been given away and, like all presents, it has to take the form of a gift that someone wants to own…