Tag Archives: Joni B. Cole

A Synopsis and a Critique: Distance is a Good Thing

A few months ago, I took a novel writing workshop. Most of us in the group had little experience critiquing another’s work. And, several of us were beginners when it came to writing a novel.

Everyone looked forward to the critiques; no one wanted to tackle the required one-page synopsis. In fact, several groans broke out as the word hung in the air above us.


I had never attempted a synopsis, and – since this was a class for beginners – I stuck to my motto of “I have nothing to lose.” I remained optimistic.

But, it was hard to write. In an essay, entitled “Writing a synopsis can rock your novel,” Roz Morris explains – in a more concise way – why writing one overwhelms most writers.

[W]riting a synopsis is hard…because we’re so close to the detail that we can’t see what to include and what to leave out. It’s all important, right? Writing a synopsis requires you to view the novel from a distance, which is all but impossible when you’ve been living in the thick of it. But it also gives you distance. Like looking at a maze from above, you can see patterns you couldn’t see when it’s all wood and trees.

I didn’t have that distance. I spent too much time on the back story and the beginning and very little time talking about the end of the story. When I took my synopsis to class for critique, I expected pointers on how to tighten it up, maybe thoughts on what to delete or add (like a few forgotten characters). But, being the first to go under the knife, that critique ran long, detailed and painful. My spirits fell, and I left wondering if I should continue to write the story.*

Joni B. Cole published an article in the July 2010 issue of The Writer on the “7 Myths About Feedback.” Two stand out for me as reasons why that particular critique was so discouraging.

“Writers should be silent during their story discussions.” This was my first face-to-face critique. When the workshop leader suggested the writer sit quietly while everyone else discussed the story, I did exactly that. In Cole’s article, she says that many workshops use the “silent writer” policy, but there comes a time when the writer should speak up.

…[When] negative comments are flying at you like the arrows at St. Sebastian, don’t just sit there.

Much of the criticism that night came across very harsh, a lot of it based on the synopsis alone. Critiquing a synopsis to such depths while still in the revision process threw me off track, especially because I sat quiet and fielded the “arrows” with my open chest.

That said, another myth – “The goal of feedback is to help ‘fix’ a story” reminded me how reeling in the negative part of the experience and focusing on the positive can keep a writer moving forward.  Cole says a writer should:

…[T]hink of feedback not in terms of fixes, but reader responses. And by this I mean any response that gets the writer to write more and write better.”

After my experience, I took several days “off” from my story until I recovered from the sting of some of the other writers’ comments. Then, I looked deeper into the issues their comments addressed: problems of clarity, character development, and plot.

Next weekend, I’m heading out of town. One of my writing goals during my vacation (because a writer is always writing, even when we’re digging our toes in the sand or traipsing through the woods) is to look at the chapter one rewrite of my current novel in progress, with the first draft of the full manuscript, and write out a new synopsis. Then, I hope to give the first chapter and synopsis to a friend for critique.

After reading Morris’s essay and Cole’s article, and after reviewing my own past experience again, I’m confident of a few things. First, I know I want to write a synopsis early in the process again. I agree with Morris when she explains how a writer can use a synopsis to her benefit:

Summarizing like this lets me kick away the clutter to see the strong core of the story. I’ve seen patterns I didn’t know were there and given real punch to my plot.

I love the image of looking down on the story from a distance and seeing the patterns unfold, seeing the core of the story and the path of the character. I need that kind of perspective in revision.

Second, when I send the synopsis and first chapter out for critique, I will remember:

  • This synopsis is a draft, a first draft.
  • To find a critique partner who knows how to talk about what works, as well as how to ask questions about what doesn’t work.
  • That I don’t have to sit and listen to critique with my heart in my hand and my mouth closed. I can ask questions.

A synopsis doesn’t have to be a thorn in my side, and neither does another writer’s feedback. With a little distance, I can incorporate both into a successful revision.

* I did eventually put that story down, though the decision wasn’t a result of that particular critique.