Synopsis writing workshop, suitable for writers’ groups

Part 1.           

Select a well-known novel that everyone has either read or seen the film (Wizard of Oz, Sound of Music, or similar). Split the group into 4 subgroups and give each a set of questions from one of the first 4 steps below. Each group will work together to answer their 4 questions. Put the answers to each question on a separate card or paper.

Step 1            Plot Basics

  1. What is the inciting incident?
  2. What events obstruct the story goal?
  3. What is the decisive event at the climax of the story?
  4. Describe the resolution?

Step 2            Main Character’s Arc

  1. Describe the main character at the start of the story.
  2. Describe how the MC is thrust into a situation where they are pressured to change.
  3. Does the MC change, adopt a new approach, take uncharacteristic action or become more entrenched in attitude and approach?
  4. At the end of the novel, is the mc better off because of their choices? Does the reader feel the MC has done the right thing?

Step 3            Consider the Impact Character’s Role (The IC, or characters, provide the pressure for change)

  1. How does the IC express a different approach or attitude to the MC?
  2. How does the IC pressure of influence the MC to either abandon his old ways or learn a new way of doing things?
  3. At the climax, does the IC or the MC change and how is this illustrated?
  4. Is the IC better or worse off at the end of the novel?

Step 4            The Major Relationship

  1. What is the relationship at the beginning of the story?
  2. How does the relationship develop or is tested during the story?
  3. What happens at the climax (what is the decisive change)?
  4. What is the relationship at the end of the story?

Part 2

Share and discuss the answers from part 1. Together, work on Step 5.

Step 5: Include Thematic Considerations

Consider any issues, themes, messages and or morals of the story. If they are a crucial part of the novel, write them on separate pieces of paper.

Part 3

Collect all the number one questions and answers together (beginning of the story), number twos and so on. Finally put the step 5 notes into the appropriate piles depending on where they’re illustrated in the story.

Each group to compose a paragraph or paragraphs of the synopsis, which covers the portion of the story they’ve been given.

Important points:

  •  “All synopses are told in omniscient present tense.  There are no exceptions to this rule.” Sheila Kelly
  • Always check the publisher’s guidelines for format, length and content, as what is required in a synopsis varies a great deal.
  • Do not staple or fasten pages together. Include a header/footer on every page with page number, author’s last name and title.
  • Do not use excess adverbs and adjectives.
  • “Present ideas in as short a form as possible. Example:  “She was raised by nuns until she came of age to inherit her family fortune” can be converted into “convent-schooled heiress.” Sheila Kelly
  • Study TV guide & movie listings – this sounds funny, but it’s an excellent way to learn how to condense.  Hollywood can reduce a two-hour movie into a single ten-word sentence and still make it sound exciting. Sheila Kelly
  • Go on the internet and critically analyse sample synopses
  • “The biggest mistake most people make when they try to write a synopsis for the first time is to create a bare bones plot summary, along the lines of “First this happens, then this happens, then this happens…” Synopses written this way tend to be so dry and boring even the author would have trouble understanding why anyone would want to read the full novel.” Glen C Strathy

Information, for this workshop, was taken from Writing the Novel Synopsis by Sheila Kelly and How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel by Glen C. Strathy and From Pitch to Publication by Carole Blake.

Related articles

The Farther Shores of Historical Fiction.

La Hougue Bie Photo credit: Man Vyi

Is it possible to write historical fiction where there is no history to base it on? If a writer wishes to set a story in prehistoric times, he or she has to find a way through this dilemma. When I came to write my novel, Undreamed Shores[i] (set between Southern England, Northern France and the Channel Islands in c2400 BC), I was consciously inspired by writers such as William Golding (The Inheritors, Faber & Faber 1955) and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Reindeer Moon, William Collins 1987), but still had to find my own way of approaching the task. Where history has nothing to say, one falls back on archaeology – an easy option for me, since I have a PhD in the subject, and have taught it in various universities for many years. Many of the places in Undreamed Shoresare based on real archaeological sites, and many of the objects mentioned can be seen in museums. Even some of the characters are based on skeletons excavated by archaeologists. In all of these cases, I have tried to be as faithful as possible to the evidence as I understand it.

Undreamed Shores

Archaeology, however, only takes us so far, and not nearly as far as a novelist wishes to go. It tells us nothing of the languages spoken in prehistory, of the etiquette of prehistoric peoples or their modes of courtship. It has little enough to say about their clothing, the way they dressed their hair, the sorts of medicines they used, the sort of music they enjoyed. Some of this, of course, I simply made up (it’s what fiction writers do, after all), but I drew inspiration from a variety of disciplines, ranging from social anthropology to linguistics, herbalism, the psychology of myth, the craft of oral story-telling. The story-teller, Sally Pomme Clayton; natural food expert, Robin Harford; and survival guru, Ray Mears probably all deserved credits in a list of acknowledgements that could easily have got out of hand. I drew also on my personal experiences, especially in my youth – sailing, open-water swimming, hiking, bird-watching – the reader will easily spot these!

Ancient hair clasps

A lot of my inspiration came from the countryside, which one might almost consider a character in the book (my characters walk from Chesil Beach to Stonehenge, and I actually did the walk myself, making copious notes along the way about the plants, birds and animals that I encountered) but, as a Londoner, I also took full advantage of the museums that enrich our lives in the capital. The lyre played by one of my characters is based on an Ethiopian lyre in the Horniman; the painted jackets that some characters wear are based on Native American examples in the British Museum; even the map which plays a crucial part in the plot is based on an object in the British Museum – one of the earliest maps made in the Americas.

Novelists draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, and this is as true with the remote past as it is with contemporary fiction.

[i] Undreamed Shores is published by Crooked Cat Publications, 2012. (

Related articles, if you’d like some inspiration for your historical fiction:

Breaking the Rules

Last week, I spent time researching and putting together a writers’ workshop designed to help authors write the dreaded synopsis. It’s a crucial tool in getting published but often neglected on courses and in writers’ groups. There are plenty of rules to follow, if you want it to be effective.

Coincidentally, I finished reading A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale yesterday. I can’t imagine what his synopsis for this book would look like, as it breaks all the rules of story structure. Each chapter explores a different character at different times over a span of 60+ years, leaping backwards and forwards from the inciting event. Seven characters are looked at in depth with others important to the story included under their umbrellas.

It put me in mind of a book I read a few years ago called Olive Kitteridge. It was a novel but also a collection of short stories, each about a different character. The reader grew to understand the central character, Olive, and her story through the lives and observations of these others.

Writers are told to avoid having too many important characters and that you need a beginning, middle and end. Despite breaking these rules both books worked. The authors were so skilled; their characters came alive in my imagination. For all their flaws, I cared about them. Reading both books felt like doing a puzzle. Each chapter revealed another random piece until, gradually, the whole was revealed. Neither has the drive and pace of a thriller or crime novel but they are quietly compulsive.

Novels are what I read most and prefer to write but I’ve also written short stories, poems, plays and articles, submitting some for publication and/or competitions. This, I’m told, is good practice because it’s challenging and improves a writer’s skills. I once entered a short story competition with a piece inspired by my mother-in-law. Although told it wasn’t really a short story in the traditional sense, it won first prize and has since gone on to be included in the soon to be launched Forget-Me-Not memory book to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research UK.

I think my story worked because it was written from love and personal experience so people could relate to it. Like any art form, you need to understand the rules before you can break them and be skilled enough to pull it off.


she's a winner

She’s a winner (Photo credit: nick farnhill)

Just realised I had to contact Rafflecopter to discover the winner for my Once Removed giveaway ~ whoops! Well, it was an experiment.

The winner is Sarah Collie! Congratulations, Sarah, and I hope you’ll enjoy your prize.

Now that I’ve tested the system and learned how to use it, I’d be delighted to invite other authors to share their writing tips and (optional) offer a promotional giveaway of their books.

A-C Writing & Self-publishing tips

Maria Savva has kindly supplied today’s brilliant post. She has an impressive list of published works, which I’ve added at the end. Now over to Maria:

Firstly, I would like to thank Kimm for inviting me to write a guest blog for this wonderful site. I’ve decided to write a list of tips for self-published writers. This blog post will be the first of many. I will continue with a series on my own blog in the coming months.

I started writing my first novel in 1997, and before that I wrote lots of short stories. Over the years I like to think that I have learnt a few things about writing and self-publishing that might be of some use to those writers who are starting out, or those who just need a few ideas to help navigate their way in the minefield that is modern day writing and publishing/promoting.

I’m going to list my tips in alphabetical order, to make it easier to use as a reference guide. In this first in the series, I will cover A-C. So here we go:



These little punctuation marks seem determined to appear in as much fiction — or non-fiction — as possible; they are the literary equivalent of people who try to get into the background when they see someone filming a news item for TV. Apostrophes have a tendency to appear in text where they are not needed, and even the most seasoned writers will admit to accidentally putting apostrophes where they don’t belong. It’s as if there is an apostrophe gremlin who is determined on world domination. It’s important to know when and when not to use these little upside-down commas… perhaps they are just drunk commas; they are often there when they shouldn’t be and missing when they should be there. One thing to note here, though, is that I started this section with the intention of making it clearer as to when apostrophes should be used, but discovered during my research that there are many grey areas, and there are many usages that are acceptable to some but not to others (now I hope you are getting an idea about how stressful the editing process can be for writers!)

In the English language apostrophes are used:

1. To indicate possession e.g. Rebecca’s toy (the toy belongs to Rebecca);

2.  To replace something missing from the text e.g. didn’t — the apostrophe indicates that the o is missing from not; and,

3. Less commonly, they’re used to avoid a word being read as something else. For example, where you are writing a sentence such as ‘there are two i’s in limit’ to avoid i’s being read as is. Although I will explain later why I don’t necessarily agree with some of this type of usage.

Some common mistakes I have noticed:

I most commonly see apostrophes misused in dates. For example, I’ve seen: “Television programmes in the 1980’s”

That in my opinion, is wrong (although there are some that argue it is correct usage. There are many grey areas in regard to use of apostrophes, as I mentioned above). In my opinion, this should just say: 1980s i.e. plural of 1980. The reason I say this is because there is no chance of someone misreading 1980s as something else, so why use an apostrophe?

You do need the apostrophe if you don’t use the full year and condense it to ’80s. This is because the apostrophe is then being used to indicate that there is some number missing at the start. So, if you were abbreviating the word because to cause, you would put the apostrophe in front: ’cause — to indicate missing letters.

I’ve also seen misuse where people think it indicates the plural of something, like: I took some of my CD’s. Again, in my opinion, that is wrong. It should just be CDs.

There is one usage that can be quite confusing and stumps many new writers: It’s and its.

It’s indicates it is or it has

Its is used for possession, so ‘the cat stretched its paws’ (yes, grammar is confusing).

In general, I think you should remember that where you are indicating the plural of something you don’t need the apostrophe.

I’ve just realised I could probably write a book about the misuse of apostrophes and the arguments as to when they should be used… those little blighters would be happy with that, I’m sure.

Another common mistake is where there is more than one person possessing something. In that case the apostrophe goes at the end… for example parents are two people, so if you’re talking about your parents’ house, the apostrophe goes at the end.

Names that end with S can cause confusion e.g. James. The possessive is sometimes seen as James’s or James’

I would argue that the first usage is correct, because of the way the word is pronounced i.e. you pronounce an extra S, so should use one, however, it is not necessarily considered wrong to miss off the extra S.

I could go on for ever here, but I’ll just mention one more common misuse. They’re and their are often mixed up. They’re means they are (apostrophe is used to replace missing letter); their means something belonging to them… and when I say themI mean more than one person. That’s a whole other grammar lesson that I won’t get into here…

So, my advice is to check your usage of apostrophes carefully. There are many online resources you can use if in doubt. Just Google your query and you’ll find some answers on grammar websites or forums.

So, now I have thoroughly confused you about the use of apostrophes, I will go on to the next letter:

B is an indie writers’ forum. Suspense author, Darcia Helle, created the site in 2010, but before she launched it, she invited mystery author, Stacy Juba, and myself to join her on the site as resident authors. We launched the forum in the late summer of 2010 and it is a very successful forum where indie writers meet to chat and discuss writing projects. We also undertake group projects such as short story anthologies.

I would advise all writers to join a writers’ forum, even if it’s not BestsellerBound. The great thing about being part of a writers’ group is that you can bounce ideas off each other, you can support each other with promotion, and also you can just have somewhere you can go to rant about things like the unavoidable bad reviews.


I think it’s a good idea for a writer to have a blog. A blog helps your readers get to know you a bit better, but at the same time you are in control of what you post on the blog and so can reveal as much or as little about yourself as you feel comfortable with. On my blog, which is on my Author Page, I interview other authors and host giveaways of their books; I use it to promote my own books and keep readers up to date with my new projects; I also use it as somewhere I can link to interviews I have done, and just as a general place to let people know about my latest news. You can set up your own blog on WordPress or Blogspot, both seem to be quite popular with authors.

Here are links to some of my favourite author blogs that will give you an idea as to what you can use a blog for:

Quiet Fury Books:

The Tale is The Thing:

The Farthest Reaches:

Of Cats and Magic:

Goodread’s Blog of author Quentin R. Bufogle:



For most of my writing life I have entered short story competitions. I have found this a great way to keep my creativity and inspiration flowing. Many years ago I subscribed to a writers’ magazine and began to enter the monthly competitions. I haven’t entered them for a couple of years, but only because of lack of time. What I liked about entering the monthly competitions was that they were always a challenge. There would be either a theme given, a first line, last line, sometimes a photograph, or even a description of a character, and the challenge was to write a story based around this, and to keep to a certain word limit. I believe that by writing these stories regularly, I really developed my skills as a short story writer and these days I find it quite easy to write a short story without thinking too much or planning too much. I think any kind of writing contest is good for developing your writing skills and becoming a better writer. It’s not important to win the contest, but more important that you get something out of entering. I was short listed for many of the contests and I won one of them. Here’s a link to my winning story, The Game of Life, which is free to read on

As well as entering contests as a challenge, you should also challenge yourself in other ways with your writing. For example, I took part in an unplanned writing experiment on Bestsellerbound a couple of years ago, where I wrote an online novella with another author, Jason McIntyre. We wrote the story online, one chapter at a time. He wrote the first one, I wrote the next, etc., and we wrote the story without planning it or consulting each other about how it would progress. That was a fun challenge, and the interesting thing about it was that it gave me a bit of an insight as to how another writer, with quite a different style of writing, would approach a story. If you ever get the opportunity to write with another writer or group of writers, I think that can teach you quite a lot about your own writing. The novella I wrote with Jason McIntyre, Cutting The Fat, is available on Amazon Kindle:

Another challenge that other writers recommend is the NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month: which takes place each November, when you can challenge yourself to write a novel in a month. I’ve never taken part, but have been told it’s a fun and useful thing to do. Even if you don’t finish a novel in that time, you will have a good start for your next project. It could be used as a way to kick-start your writing if you find yourself in a rut. There is a community feel about the event as many writers take part.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and if you have, you can follow more of my tips at my Goodreads blog in the coming months:

Thank you, Maria, for your informative post, lots of things to think about. 

Maria’s published works:

Coincidences 2001

A Time to Tell 2006

The Game of Life a short story (Writers’ News magazine) 2008

Pieces of a Rainbow 2009

Love and Loyalty (and Other Tales) 2010

Second Chances 2010

Fusion 2011

Cutting The Fat 2011 (co-author Jason McIntyre)

Flames a short story (The BestsellerBound Short Story Anthology – Volume 1) 2011

The Dream 2011

Isolation a short story (The BestsellerBound Short Story Anthology – Volume 2) 2011

Winter Blues a short story (The BestsellerBound Short Story Anthology – Volume 3) 2011

Coincidences (second edition) 2012

Maria is currently preparing to publish her fifth novel.

She is a resident author at BestsellerBound where readers can meet and chat with indie authors.

Maria also writes book reviews for

Autobiography vs. Memoir

A few years ago the BBC ran a My Story competition and in the submission information they stated, “What makes a story special is how you tell it”.  Implying content may be less important than delivery. And delivery will depend on your audience. That shouldn’t be groundbreaking news; after all you might tell a young child a different version of the same story than you would tell your best friend, partner or granny. The same is true of written stories, even stories from your own life.

Your audience might be:

  •  Personal. You may want to write about your life just for yourself or your nearest and dearest. When my mother-in-law did that, my brother-in-law word processed it and added photographs creating a real treasure for our family.
  •  The short story market. There are competitions and magazines that offer good money for true-life stories. You will have to conform to the rules and guidelines of submission whilst also standing out above the competition.
  • Readers of full-length books.  When I gave up teaching to write full time, my story poured out. In four months I’d written 80,000 words but it took five years of study, editing and re-writing to craft A Life Less Lost into a compelling read. Along the way I learned the difference between autobiography and memoir.

An autobiography is the story of a life and a memoir is a story from a life.

Unless you are famous (and I am not) no one will be particularly interested in reading your life story ~ sad but true. However, if your book focuses on a specific event or experience there may be people interested in what you have to say.

My first drafts were autobiographical. I mistakenly thought people who didn’t know me would have to have everything spelled out in chronological order for it to make sense. Wrong. Readers make sense of what they read through the prism of their own experience.

Now, don’t worry, all that effort wasn’t wasted because I used it as a reference tool. But it bears no resemblance to the final draft.

Once I started writing a memoir, the book had more focus and pace. Several short anecdotes from other periods in my life were woven in to help the reader understand why I reacted or thought the way I did but only when they moved the main story along.

Blurb for A Life Less Lost:

‘You should consider carefully how you wish to spend what time you might have left with James.’

When a mother faces the ultimate threat – the suffering and potential loss of her child – every possible human resource kicks in, including her faith. A Life Less Lost charts the author’s journey through white coats, misdiagnoses, endless appointments and more.

KB Walker connects stories from her American childhood to the traumas that face her very English family to explain the hope that helps her hold her life together.

Radio opportunity

Thought I’d share this letter from Peter at ELFM radio, for anyone who fancies contributing or would like to listen:

Just a brief update on what’s happening here with Writing On Air over the next few months.

East Leeds FM

East Leeds FM

There’s no Side Salad tomorrow night as we’re broadcasting all evening from the Centre Stage finals:
So the next ‘words’ broadcast will be The Word Salad, part of the Sunday Joint on August 5th. The theme for this Salad is…
The Gift: a moment given, advice not taken. What is the gift? What do we hope to pass on? What is the best we can receive?
Do send in poems, stories, memories, dialogues to me at this address; deadline: Monday 30th July.
Salads after August will take a different form, though that’s all up for grabs at the moment. If you have your own ideas,
please get in touch. The Word Salad on Sept 2nd will be a programme about lyrics: what’s the perfect lyric?
And the Side Salad on Sept 18th will premiere new scripts from Snowgoose. More on that later.
In the meantime, ‘let the sun show begin’. Now that was a lyric.
Peter.  Director of Words East Leeds FM
47 Ramshead Hill, Leeds LS14 1BT  Tel: 07590 028327


Here’s a follow-up to two previous posts:

My friend, David, has done it ~ written a novel in a week, 60,078 words to be exact. If you’d like to know some of the surprising things he discovered along the way, pop over to his blog:

Finally, a reminder that this is the last day to enter the giveaway for a copy of Once Removed.     

I received these brilliant words of praise this morning:

Have just finished your book. Congratulations! I think its a terrific read and a great achievement. You have developed a very individual writing style. I particularly liked your descriptions of the countryside and your ability to maintain the mystery and forward progression. The clues were all there but the final revelation burst on me unawares! Your italicised passages were masterly. Very well done! 

Look out tomorrow for a post on autobiography vs memoir.

Giveaway reminder

Just a quick reminder that there are three days left to win a copy of Once Removed. 

Just click on this link and follow the instructions: a Rafflecopter giveaway

I’d appreciate any feedback on using Rafflecopter in this way (thank you Cathie and Nancy for your feedback earlier).

The bittersweet smell of success

Cornerstones is a literary consultancy. I learned an enormous amount on one of their weekend courses and used their manuscript appraisal service to help polish my novel, Once Removed. Kathryn kindly gave me permission to share this post from their blog,

At Cornerstones there’s nothing that gives us more happiness than placing our authors with agents and seeing them go on to get a publishing deal. Whilst what we do is rewarding in so many ways – helping authors find their way forward when they’ve got stuck with a story, shaping promising manuscripts into something that’s really dazzling – publication is everybody’s long term goal and it’s what we’re all working towards. So why do we always feel kind of sad when it happens?

It’s like saying goodbye after a long journey you’ve made with strangers who’ve become friends. It’s like handing over your child at the first day of school and knowing you won’t play such a big part in their life from here on in. It’s like the end of a love affair.

I think most people in the industry feel the same way to some degree – and authors will certainly know what I’m talking about. When you work on a manuscript for a long time it feels like you’ve poured a lot of yourself into it. You’ve got to know the characters and the plot so well you dream about them. You can’t help but think of it as yours.

But the crux of what we do is preparing authors for the publishing arena; for starting a career in writing. And so much of that is about learning to self-edit, perfecting those independent editorial skills that will stand you in good stead throughout your writing life. When authors first come to us it’s because they’re looking for advice on these techniques; putting their manuscript through the editorial process is often the start of a learning curve that can last months or years. And the end goal of that process is for an author to go out into the publishing world on their own two feet, without needing our help any more.

With every successful edit, a manuscript (and its author) becomes bolder and more confident and seeing that happen is the most rewarding part of all. But it’s also kind of sad to know that if the process is working then each edit is bringing us closer to the moment when we have to say goodbye.


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