NaNoWriMo 2016: Writing a Synopsis and Creating a Concept Outline

Warning, Warning: This blog post contains spoilers from an upcoming novel.

One of my favorite pet projects is a book called Memento Mori, which is an urban fantasy set in a version of our Earth where radiation does… rather interesting things to people.

Before I dive into the synopsis and outline portion of this post, I want to take a moment to share the prologue of this title. Why? This is how I ultimately began the writing process on this book. I had an idea, and I tapped out a very quick prologue for it. Then I began the synopsis process. Normally, I start with the synopsis or general outline, but my writing approach changes with every novel.

This is completely unedited drivel, so please excuse the clutter.

Prologue: Memento Mori

Of all the gemstones I could have picked, why had I fallen for the black opal’s trap?

It had lured me from my home in Twin Lakes, Colorado to the irradiated wasteland that had once been Australia. From the ruins of Sydney, I found my way to Lightning Ridge.

Like the rest of the continent, all that remained of the old mining town were scraps of bomb-twisted metal, ash, and the whispers of ghosts on the ceaseless wind. Sometimes, when I stood still and listened, their pleading questions filled my ears and chilled my heart.

Why had I survived?

Why hadn’t they?

It took me three weeks to find the stone. During the day, the pale gray ash seemed normal enough, but when night fell, it glowed with the blue-white radiance of the moon.

It was on the dawn when the sun and the moon rose together I found the stone. The black opal devoured the light, and when the first rays of dawn struck it, the stone flared to life. Blue and gold plays of color rippled across its surface.

I think it accepted me only because there was no one else for it to choose.

I wanted to believe it had something to do with my willingness to take the time to photograph the dead. I lacked the film needed to grant them the Memento Mori they deserved, but even my digital camera would capture their images.

Through me and the photos I took, they wouldn’t be forgotten. Their nameless faces would haunt my album, a reminder of everything they had lost.

I wouldn’t forget.

I carried the stone and my guilt back to the United States. To hide my theft, I fell to temptation. The warding rune was a minor enchantment meant to turn watchful eyes away from what I wanted to hide. All of the research I had done promised it was the safest of magics.

The books left out the most important detail. If I had known the truth, I wouldn’t have answered the opal’s  distant call.

Once woken, magic never returned to sleep.

Spoilers Ahead!

When I write a book using a synopsis, it is not uncommon for my first two or three synopsis drafts to be completely discarded. I will take concepts from the synopsis and use them in the next version of the synopsis, so it isn't wasted time. This is the first synopsis. It basically has ideas regurgitated onto the page with absolutely no regard to good plotting.

I'm brainstorming in synopsis version, plain and simple.

What is a Synopsis?

Before you write a synopsis, it's important to understand the difference between a synopsis and a book description. The book description is the summary you give others to entice them into reading your book. They don't include spoilers and give readers a general idea of what the book is about.

A synopsis is a complete detailed summary of the book, including all spoilers. Someone who reads the synopsis knows exactly how the book will end.

A lot of what is presented in this photograph has been changed for the books, and you can see where I've begun the process of figuring out the mechanics of this world.

When I conceptualize a brand new world, I often build characters and world at the same time, as characters are a product of the world they live in, and the world is the product of the characters who came before them.

They go hand in hand. Thinking in parallel can be difficult, but I find I end up with a much better, richer world when I muddle through it and do both at the same time.

In total, I have twenty-four sheets (Yes, 48 pages) of synopsis I've retained and probably an additional thirty I've recycled as the ideas weren't suitable or were too much of a bridge synopsis to keep. I kept the original idea concept (image below) and the final product, carrying over the bridged synopsis information in margin notes as necessary.

memento-mori-synopsisAs another interesting note, take a look at my handwriting quality here; it's sloppy. When I'm conceptualizing in synopsis form, I am al lover the place. I don't care about my handwriting because I'm just vomiting up words and making ideas happen.

I'm not putting a great deal of time into the first synopsis. My handwriting gets progressively neater as I approach what is much closer to what the book is actually about.

Yeah, it's a quirk, but I like it.

Let's Talk About Outlines…

Outlining is hard. It's one of the hardest skills you pick up while working on a book. In order to outline, you need to distill your book down to the basics. That's hard. Worse, if you're like me, you have to distill the outline down to actionable items.

My outlines are tools to help me remember important plot devices, events, and establish timing. Some books, like Memento Mori, I write the outlines before I draft a single word. Water Viper is a book I did not do this; I wrote everything off the cuff with very limited preparation work. I outlined after the fact, and I took the opportunity to close and fix plot holes while working on the outline.

Both ways are right. Both ways are equal amounts of work in different ways.

The point here is this: do what you need to get the book written.

That's the name of the game; you're using these tools to accomplish a goal. There is no right or wrong way to go about it.

As I plotted everything on Memento Mori in advance, it's important to note that I have checkboxes. When I cover an item, I check it off. I only check off the lead box as a general rule. The indented text is reference notes for me and reminders of things I need to happen. Sometimes, these notes cover more than one arc, so they aren't checked off. Sometimes, they're just little notes to keep me fresh on what i want to make happen.

As you can tell, I've made a point of dating and noting times in the outline to help keep track of things and close plot holes.

memento-mori-arc-1-summaryAs you can tell, I've made some changes while I drafted, noting them in the margins. This helps me track things later when I plan on editing the book.

Unlike Water Viper, which involved a lot of going back and fixing things while I worked, Memento Mori required very little going back and fixing things–I already did that work during the outlining process. The time investment is (approximately) the same.

Facts & Fiction

One thing I really love about the Memento Mori series (yes, it will have more than one book) is the fact I have to rewrite history.

World War II changed the Earth. Everything after was colored by the destruction of many cities. People still died during the nuclear bombings, but the bombings were far more prevalent. Nuclear attacks continued… and World War III began in 1991, triggered by the assassination of the US President.

Nations of the world took sides, and a few notables didn't choose any side at all, which colored the relationships the United States had with the rest of the world. The Vice President, now President, authorized the use of atomic bombs, targeting countries around the world. Most of the nukes used were low-radius bombs, often with a mile blast diameter and relatively limited fall out. This was done by both sides, as nuclear bombing had a risk of birthing supernaturals. Low yield, low intensity bombs would run higher chances of having survivors without strong supernatural abilities. This cut loss of life and focused the bombings on strategic targets without a high chance of giving the enemy supernatural allies.

However, towards the end of World War III, they discovered that certain types of bombs just wiped almost everyone out with very low chance of survival.

World War III ended when New York City was completely destroyed, leaving an exceptionally low survivor rate–and the birth of some of the world's most dangerous supernaturals.

The hardest part of this process was trying to figure out just how much would change–and the policing forces required to keep supernaturals in line. While a tedious process, I really enjoy whenever I get a chance to step into this world.

This page shows the timeline for the evolution of the supernaturals following Hiroshima's bombing, which is when Earth's timeline takes a sharp left turn from reality.

I have have 3 pages of date notes leading up to New York City's destruction in 2000.

As a side note, I really have it out for New York City. I keep trashing that place in my books. I have a lot of New Yorkers. Why New York?

New Yorkers are so damned resilient, which makes them such a fun populace to write about. It's a great setting, too.

timeline-memento-moriWhile I wish I could offer good advice for how to approach your outline or synopsis, writing is a very personal endeavor. You have to find what works for you.

These glimpses into my method are meant to show you a path, not the one true path. There is no one true path. I use multiple methods when I write a book. Why?

Every book is different, so I write them differently. Don't force consistency in how you create a book if that's holding you back. Just write. No matter how you get the job done, get it done.

Making the book work, making the plot make sense, and making it go from garbage to gold is for the editorial process. If you like editing while you work, do that.

Do whatever it takes to get the words on the page. But, I will say this much: my outlines, synopsis, and notes serve me well down the road, especially when I have to leave a project for a few months. It lets me jump back where I left off with little time wasted. They're useful.

They're work, but it's work that pays off in the future when you need to find something important in a book.

Good luck, writer!


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