All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

A reblog of a very handy post that links to all Emma Darwin’s great writing tips. The post that affected my writing the most was Psychic Distance (top of the list). She first blogged about it in 2010 and has recently expanded her explanation of this brilliant concept. There is very little out there on Psychic distance, but if you have ever been accused of head hopping, then this is the post for you.

Emma Darwin is the author of ‘Mathematics of Love’ and ‘A Secret Alchemy’.

Her website can be found here.

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Two for writers: My method for writing a synopsis

For those who have been following my literary journey, One for writers: how not to get a literary agent, you’ll remember I promised ‘The Agent’ the opening chapters of the novel by the end of the month. The chapters are going really well and I have posted the first four on Authonomy for feedback. I reckon I will have the first draft completed in a couple of weeks, if I stick to 2000 words a day (the schedule has slipped a little, but essentially I am on target).

So the time has come to write the ‘dreaded’ synopsis. Nothing is likely to strike fear into a writer more than a request for a one-page synopsis. You want to shout: “If I could have told the story in one page, and not three hundred, I would have.” 

But shouting is not going to get the darn thing written. Nor is hoping it will magically appear on your laptop one morning. The only thing you can do is sit down and write it and hope you survive to send it.

So what is a synopsis?

Essentially it is what the story is about. What happens (to the character/s)? What are the major plot points; the highs and lows, twists and turns. It must include the ending, cliff hangers are a ‘no,no’. The agent wants to know if the story holds together. If the conclusion is – if not expected- then plausible and satisfying. But, and this relates more to general fiction than genre, the synopsis  also needs to convey the themes of the novel, or in other words, it must answer the why questions. Why does the character/s react like that? What is their motivation? What is their goal?

A novel’s readability is all about the tension you create. A character wants something and spends the whole novel trying to get it. The plot derives from their attempts being thwarted (what happens). And also, and more importantly, how they react to those events (why it happens). This is what drives the story and the reader forward. The ending should either give the character what they want or not (with the attendant nuances, such as they didn’t want it in the end anyway, or they got something different and better, or they got something worse).

There is plenty of advice out there, but if you try to follow all of it, your synopsis will be as long, if not longer, than the novel itself. 

However, I have come up with method that is relatively painless and seems to work (i.e. I’ve had full requests).

It came about after reading about surface and story-worthy problems. A detailed explanation can be found in Les Edgerton’s book on writing craft, called Hooked, and a summarised version can be found on his blog, here.

Essentially, he shows, through the example of the film, ‘Thelma and Louise’ – how the two levels work. 

The surface problem is what is happening (the plot). What?

The story-worthy problem is what drives the surface problem. Why?

Louise wants to go on a road trip with Thelma, but she knows her husband is likely to say no. As she begins to ask him, he brushes her off. Louise decides to go without telling him. This out of character behaviour already indicates that the story-worthy problem will involve Louise, but as yet the reader, nor Louise, knows what it is.

Emboldened by standing up to her husband, Louise persuades Thelma to stop at a bar. Initially Louise is happy to be chatted up by a man (Harlan), but outside in the car park, he won’t accept ‘no’. This shows Louise is not only under her husband’s thumb, but generally unable to stand up against men (story-worthy problem). Thelma ends up shooting Harlan (melodrama/action). Louise urges Thelma to call the police, but in the end decides to go on the run with her, which kicks off the plot proper.

The surface problem gets bigger and bigger; disobeying her husband, which leads to them being in the bar, and Thelma shooting Harlan, which leads to them running from the law. This relates to the story-worthy problem, which is, Louise is finally standing up to all the men who have abused and dominated her all her life (but again she and the reader do  not see this clearly until the end scene). Ideally, the protagonist and the reader need to discover the story-worthy problem at the same time.

The road chase is not only about whether they will get caught or not, but it is also a metaphor for Louise’s emergence from the shadow of men (the cop chasing them represents men’s oppression of women in general). This is what makes this film enduring.

So how does this help with synopsis writing?

I start with the surface problem. What is the inciting incident that kicks the story off? Sometimes it comes right at the beginning and sometimes a little way in. It is not always the most dramatic event. It can be something quite small and seemingly insignificant, but it’s repercussions are far reaching.

In Thelma and Louise, it is when Louise disobeys her husband, and not when Thelma shoots Harlan. Even though the plot-action results from the shooting, it’s because Louise stood up to her husband that they end up in the bar, and because she stood up to her husband,  she refuses to let Harlan bully her into submission.

Once I have identified the inciting incident (it is not always what I think it is when I begin writing), then I consider what the story-worthy problem is in relation to this. Why did the character do that? What’s going on subconsciously?

It is Louise’s attempt to assert herself against the way men have treated her, which drives her to go on the run with Thelma, rather than handing herself in. The police are a metaphor for men in general.  Legitimate but unjust power.

After you’ve  identified the inciting incident and the story-worthy problem, the rest of the synopsis is easy (honest). You pick out the next big thing that happens (which should be a worsening of the original surface problem)? How does this event, drive the story-worthy problem?  And so on, until you reach the end, where the surface problem and story-worthy problem come together.

If Thelma and Louise hand themselves in, they have not achieved freedom from male domination, and they will be back where they’ve started. For Louise, now she has had freedom, going back is not an option, so plausibly if dramatically, there can be only one outcome – to drive over the edge of the cliff.

I find thinking of my story using these two layers, helps me to pick out what is important for both plot and character motivation in the synopsis. I still need to cut and trim. The first draft or three are always too long, but essentially this approach has saved me hours of frustration and helps when I am writing the novel too. Keeping the story-worthy problem in your head as you write, helps to ensure scenes evolve from the character’s internal motivation, giving the scenes depth (layered).

Synopses will never be fun things to write, but hopefully they will be less distressing if you stick to the above method. Unless you’ve got a better one to share? How do you do it without tearing your hair out, or your manuscript up? Do you write it at the beginning, or leave it until the end? What’s the best advice you’ve found on synopsis writing? Please share.

AGNUS CASTUS – a cure for PMS, and why you won’t be able to get hold of it in Boots: An open letter to the European Medicines Agency

Dear European Medicines Agency,

Imagine, for a moment, a drug that could cure Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS/PMT), which has minimal reported side effects, and is easy and cheap to produce. What a wonderful drug that would be. A drug that could give a woman her life back after years of excruciating cramps, which even morphine was unable to control. Imagine what it would be like for that woman not to live in dread each month, and even get to the point where she forgets she is about to have a period. Imagine how much money could be saved because that woman no longer needs a hysterectomy and then years of HRT (with its increased risk of womb, ovarian and breast cancer). Imagine how many lives that drug would save if women did not have to have a general anaesthetic, nor the risk of post-operative infection.

Imagine how that woman feels to be in control of her life once more.  

If only a drug like that existed, instead of the current treatments on offer such as Prozac, with its increased risk of suicidal thoughts, or drugs like Danazol, which can deepen the voice and stimulate facial hair growth along with many other horrific side effects.  Or, taking oral contraceptives, which stop ovulation, and with it, the natural rise and fall of libido, while increasing the risk of blood clots, acne and fluid retention.

If only a herbal remedy existed with hundreds of years of safe usage, and clinical trials proving its effectiveness, like this one reported in the British medical Journal in 2001, and this one reported in the American Journal of science in 2012, and this one also conducted in 2012 at Hamedan University of Medical Sciences, Iran. And this list of studies on google scholar, citing highly significant results compared with placebos. If only there were a study that the EMA agreed met the criteria, something like this:

“There is one publication proving efficacy for the indication “Premenstrual syndrome” for an extract
specified as follows: Vitex agnus-castus L. dry extract (6-12:1), extraction solvent: 60% ethanol
(m/m) / 20 mg per day corresponding to 180 mg drug per day on average. This preparation fulfils the
requirements for WEU.” European Medicines Agency Assessment report on Agnus Castus.   

Just imagine…

What would you do EMA, if you had all this research, alongside hundreds of women’s anecdotal accounts and clinicians testimonials?

Would you force manufacturers to reduce the dosage per tablet from 20mg (the known effective level a cited in your own report) to 4mg per tablet? But not tell women that at this dosage, the drug will be ineffective?

That would be madness, wouldn’t it? Why would you render a drug, as clearly effective as Agnus Castus, ineffective, by restricting dosage, making the treatment unaffordable for thousands of women, even if they did know to take 5 TABLETS  A DAY(costing around £20 a week).

Who would this benefit? The women with PMT? The doctors who are treating these women, with the limited and often dangerous chemical or surgical solutions on offer?

No. A move such as this could only benefit the multi-million pound drugs industry, whom bring new drugs to the market with a short history of efficacy and lack of data on the long term side effects.

Restricting dosage on not just Agnus Castus, but a whole host of herbal treatments, such as St John’s Wort, is a conspiracy to keep the drug companies in huge profit and the public captive to their demands.

If you buy your tablets from Boots and take (the recommended) 4mg of Agnus Castus a day for PMS, it won’t work, your symptoms will not improve (your own report shows this to be the case).  For women who buy these tablets and find no relief, they will believe the drug is ineffective and return to their gynaecologist begging them to take out their ovaries and womb (a huge decision, with huge repercussions). And gynaecologists, despite knowing how effective Agnus Castus 20mg is, will be unable to tell you about it, because it is not listed in their prescribing manual.

Why?

Because there are no profits to be made on a drug that already exists, is not concocted in a lab. No concoction. No patent. No profit.

“The pharmaceutical industry is in crisis because companies are rewarded for developing new drugs that have few clinical advantages over existing ones, experts say. They pointed to independent reviews that found between 85 and 90 per cent of all new drugs developed over the past 50 years have provided few benefits and considerable harms.” Read more here.

Forgive me if I sound a little paranoid with my conspiracy theory, but what else am I supposed to think? Either you recommend the drug or you don’t. Recommending it, as your reports final conclusion does:

“Except for severe allergic reactions, there are no documented severe adverse events. Therefore the
use of the above mentioned extracts – in combination with an adequate labelling as included in the
monograph- can be supported.” EMA report on Agnus Castus.

but rendering it ineffective, by only allowing it to be sold in a dose too low to work, smacks of underhand tactics.

If you have an honourable reason, then I for one would love to hear it. In the meantime, I will continue to tell every doctor I meet and every women with PMS, how Agnus Castus gave me my life back, and I will unashamedly plug this Guernsey based company, that can sell you 20mg tablets, despite your mean and sinister directive.

Any woman reading this, who has PMS, check the evidence out for yourself. Be empowered! Take control of your body. For the most common type of PMS, I have yet to find a woman this has not transformed the life of. However, you must take 20mg (dried fruit extract) a day. 

Just think… no more mood swings, breast tenderness, irritable bowel, and no more pain so bad, you vomit and lose control of your bowels at the same time. No more lost days, lost months, lost sleep, lost life.

And my final message to the EMA – you should be ashamed of yourselves, condemning women to unnecessary medical interventions and possibly even death; very, very ashamed.

Yours ungratefully,

Juliet O’Callaghan – free of PMT for five years since taking Agnus Castus 20mg (dried fruit extract) once a day.

Anyone else found the EMA’s interference in herbal medicines has been detrimental to their health and pocket? Angus Castus: Has it worked for you to? Tell me your story. I would love to hear it.

Writers who write about cancer

Time is tight this week. A new school year has begun and I am determined to stick to my 2000 words a day, particularly as I have promised the agent the completed novel by Christmas. However, I have been wanting to share this poem since it was sent to me a few months ago, and it got me thinking about how many published literary authors had grappled with the sensitive subject of cancer.

As it turns out a lot, as you can see on this list. It includes a number of my favourite authors such as, Margaret Atwood; Anne Lamont; Ian McEwan; and this poem by Raymond Carver.

Cancer is an emotive subject. It is also one that a lot of people don’t want to read about, and certainly not in fiction. However, authors have always written about subjects that others may find distasteful and morbid. They write about things that matter to them, or have scarred them. As cancer invades so many of our lives, it is inevitable that writers will write about it; having it, beating it, and watching the ones they love die from it. I, for one, seek the words of those who have survived the aftermath of losing someone they love to cancer. It helps me to heal. So while this post and the poem may not be for everyone, I hope for some it will bring comfort and the knowledge that they are not alone.

Collin Tobin is a writer I met on Authonomy (a website where writers can try out their work and get some feedback). Collin sent me the poem after he read the opening of my novel. I like it because it is not maudlin. In fact the voice is often light and mocking, although the final verse reveals the writer’s true feelings, and his sense of helplessness in the face of the relentless onslaught.

Your Cancer

I don’t want to kill your cancer
I don’t want to choke you both
With a cold cocktail of poisons
I don’t want to irradiate it
By setting your house on fire
And recklessly believe
You will be able stay
And only it will flee
I don’t want to excise it
Taking a merchant’s pound
Of your precious flesh

Instead, I want us to love it
Embrace it
I want us to nurture it
I want it to feel the warmth of my hand
Each waking morning
As I place it over your sleeping skin
And hope its fibrous tissues
Can reach out too
And feel the reassurance of a caring touch

I want us to feed it
Engorge it with raw, red meats
Permeate it through and through with carcinogens
I want us to find some old red dye #2 M&M’s
And spoil it rotten
I want to sit cross-legged with it
Each night on the floor of our quiet living room
And trade deep puffs from the Hookah pipe
While we three sit
In companionable silence

I want us to take it out into the blessed sun each weekend
Lather it in baby oil
And let it simmer contentedly next to us
Like a slab of happy fatback
Floating in a heated skillet

Because maybe then
It will not just grow, and attach
But grow, attached
Maybe it will pause just long enough
Grow sentient enough, to reconsider
To maybe scale back its self-defeating
Blind growth within you
And content itself with co-existence

Develop the intelligence enough
To want what we want
Just a fair measure of days
Through which we can carefully pick our way
To find those rarest days of all
The carefree ones

You can find Collin’s latest work here, and more about him here.

Collin Tobin on Facebook. Colin Tobin on Twitter: @coljtob