Writing the Query Letter Synopsis

query letter synopsisA few weeks back I published a post about sending out a successful query, with a few thoughts on what I thought I did right. One of the main things on that list was spending time on my query letter synopsis to make it as good as it could be.

Since then, a couple of my regular readers (you know who you are) have been encouraging me to share more, to be more specific and post the actual content of my query. I hesitated, because it feels really personal for some reason. I guess it’s personal in the same way that my story is personal, and I’m still adjusting to the idea of it going out into the world.

The Query Letter Synopsis

But I get why it’s of interest. I did a lot of research as I was getting started (check out this article to get started) and I certainly benefited by reading what other people were willing to share of their queries. So today is the day. And even though I cringe to do it, I’m going to share the many iterations of my query letter synopsis along with the thought process I went through to arrive at my final version. My sincere hope is that it will help others out there who are writing their own queries.

Here goes…

Take 1:

I started by writing without too much self-editing, because that’s how I roll with pretty much all of my writing.

Here’s what I got:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old Tallulah Jones, who wants nothing more than to get out of her small, desolate town in the Mojave Desert. Just weeks before she is scheduled to leave the family ostrich ranch for a job in Montana, Tallulah’s grandmother dies and leaves her the sole inheritor of 142 ostriches. To her extended family’s disappointment, she decides to sell the ranch, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. As Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must face the reality of her grandmother’s suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, and her uncle’s deeply buried anger.

Things that work:

  • The title is front and center.
  • The setting of the Mojave is given early on, as is the family ostrich ranch.
  • My main character is introduced by name, along with her age and her greatest desire.
  • I explain the barriers to what she wants.

Things that are weak:

  • It’s wordy (“who wants nothing more,” “dies and leaves her the sole inheritor,” “does everything in her power”), and all of these phrases edge on cliche/boring.
  • It’s missing one of the key components of the story which is the question surrounding the grandmother’s death.

Take 2:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old Tallulah Jones who inherits her grandmother’s ostrich ranch in the Mojave Desert. Desperate to get out of their desolate small town, and having already been offered a job in Montana, Tallulah decides to sell the ranch as quickly as possible, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. As Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must face the reality of her grandmother’s suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, and her uncle’s deeply buried anger.

Things that are working:

  • Better words (desperate, desolate, thwarted, predicated) replace wordy phrases.
  • I get the question of grandma’s death in there at the end.
  • It’s 20 words shorter.

Still not good:

  • It would be good to get the question of grandma’s death in there sooner, because in the story that intrigue starts on page one. It’s not a side note.
  • It misses the fact that my main character is not a stranger to the ranch. This is her home. It would be a very different story if she were a city girl who inherits an ostrich ranch.
  • The second half is still kind of wordy and cliche.

At this point I sent it to a couple of trusted writer friends (who know my story) for feedback, so Take 3 actually gets longer as I try to work in ideas at their suggestions.

Take 3:

142 Ostriches is the story of 22-year-old ranch hand Tallulah Jones who inherits the family ostrich business after her grandmother dies under questionable circumstances. Desperate to get out of their desolate Mojave town, Tallulah decides to sell the ranch as quickly as possible, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. While guarding the secret of the missing eggs, Tallulah does everything in her power to force the sale through, while her family descends on the ranch like vultures. When Tullulah’s mother, whom she hasn’t seen in a decade, arrives days late for the funeral and wreaking of cheep rye, the fragile stability of her family, which has for fifty years been predicated on ignoring unpleasant truths, begins to crumble. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and her own aching loneliness.

Things that are working:

  • Got the “questionable circumstances” of grandma’s death in there at the top.
  • I added the fact that my main character takes a deceptive tact in trying to hide the fact that the birds have stopped laying eggs as she attempts to force the sale through. This gives a better sense of what she is doing to clear the hurdles in front of her.
  • I like the “pull her head out of the sand” line. It is a story about ostriches, after all.
  • There are more details about the family, but…

Not working:

  • It’s too long again.
  • Even though the I like the imagery of vultures, it seems like too many birds for one synopsis.
  • The “to take control of her own life” feels cliche.

Take 4:

22-year-old ranch hand Tallulah Jones wants nothing more than to escape the desolate desert town where she has lived and worked with her grandmother since she was a girl. But when her grandmother dies under questionable circumstance, Tallulah finds herself the sole inheritor of the family ostrich business. Still hoping to build a life for herself away from the ranch, Tallulah quickly arranges to sell her inheritance, but her plans are thwarted when the birds stop laying eggs. Guarding the secret of the missing eggs, Tallulah endeavors to force the sale through while her extended family descends on the ranch. To take control of her own life, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the 50-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.

Things that are working:

  • I like that last line, where I explain the title of the book.
  • There are some good verbs in there: escape, guard, endeavor, descend.
  • I’ve got the main plot points covered.
  • It matches the tone of the book.
  • I’m thinking I’m close but…

Not working:

  • Still hate that “take control of her own life” line. Ug.
  • Not sure about introducing her as a “ranch hand” in the first line like that.
  • The setting of the ostrich ranch has been pushed to the fourth line. Not good.
  • It’s still a little longer than I’d like.

At this point I was ready to say “eff it,” good enough, but my husband (what would I do without him?), encouraged me to dig in and get to where I was genuinely satisfied with it. So, deep breath,

Take 5:

142 Ostriches follows 22-year-old Tallulah Jones, who wants nothing more than to escape her life as a hired hand on the family’s ostrich ranch in the Mojave Desert. But when her grandmother dies under questionable circumstances, Tallulah finds herself the sole heir of the business just days before the birds mysteriously stop laying eggs. Guarding the secret of the suddenly barren birds, Tallulah endeavors to force through a sale of the ranch, a task that is only complicated when her extended family descends, threatening her ambitions and eventually her life. With no options left, Tallulah must pull her head out of the sand and face the 50-year legacy of a family in turmoil: the reality of her grandmother’s almost certain suicide, her mother’s alcoholism, her uncle’s covetous anger, and the 142 ostriches whose lives are in her hands.

Final tweaks:

  • I cut 12 words to get it down to 138 words, which will fit nicely into a query letter.
  • The phrases “just days before” and “suddenly barren birds” give a better sense of the urgency of story and the tight timeframe I use in telling it.
  • The phrase “threatening her ambitions and eventually her life,” hints at the fact that this is a story that goes beyond family squabbles. Shit gets serious.
  • I rewrote “take control of her life” into “with no options left…” Because that’s where a story should turn. She doesn’t step up because she’s all so eager to take control of her life. She steps up because she fucking has to.

So there you have it.

It would have been much easier to leave it as it was after the first pass, but I’m glad I pushed myself through the iterations to a version I’m satisfied with. It took hours of work, over multiple days, because walking away and getting some distance was definitely part of the process.

It’s not easy, but neither is writing a novel. You can do it.

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Not Just Done, But Done Right

A while back I wrote a post about something I heard an agent say at a conference. She said that our task, as writers, is to make her want to take the book to bed with her. I loved that. Because don’t we all read in bed? And isn’t falling into a good book a little like being seduced?

Well, after a more recent post about finding my agent, a new friend on Twitter asked me this:

I responded that I just kept working on it until I had a gut feeling that it was ready. And that’s true. But the question has been nagging me. I mean, I wrote so many versions of this story. I probably had fifteen different endings. How did I know that none of those drafts was the one that deserved a final polish and a hearty send off?

How to Know When It’s Done Right

For me, it wasn’t about done. Every draft I wrote checked the boxes of a legit book. Each one was long enough. Each had a beginning, middle and end. Each had interesting characters overcoming obstacles. Friends becoming enemies, enemies becoming friends. The way I see them now though, in retrospect, is that they were done, but they weren’t right.

I didn’t get the story right until I realized what it was I wanted to say.

And for this realization I give credit to the writer and speaker William Kenower. I was sitting in on his presentation at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in October when the light bulb went on.

Fill In The Blanks

He was talking about narrative arcs. I won’t go into detail, because I won’t do his ideas justice (I highly recommend you buy his book), but with one statement he helped me to see what my story was really about. He said to fill in the blanks of this sentence: My story is about the difference between _____ and ______.

I thought about that for a minute. For seventeen drafts, the one thing that remained consistent in my story was a main character who needed to learn to face her problems. My story is, and always had been, about the difference between avoiding our problems and facing up to them. Get this. It took me eight years of writing to realize that I was telling a story, set on an ostrich ranch, about people who live with their heads in the sand. I actually laughed out loud.

And the best part? When I got home and read through my draft I saw how that idea was already there. Just going on instinct, I had written this idea into much of my manuscript. It just needed a little tweaking. I spent the month of October rewriting a few sections, then November and December doing a fine-tooth-comb polish. And then I just knew. It was done.

That Gut Feeling

I knew it in a way that I hadn’t before and the difference was that I had finally put together a story that explored the ideas I wanted to explore. I knew that I could send it out to agents and even if (when) I got rejections (and I did) I would feel confident that the manuscript was what I wanted it to be.

That’s how it worked for me. How do you know when you’re done with a project? How about done right? How do you make the distinction?

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The Waiting Place

The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this passage from the Dr. Seuss story Oh, The Places You’ll Go. I hate waiting. But then again, does anybody really like waiting?

No. Nobody likes waiting.

But I’m finding it particularly difficult as I wait to hear from the editors in New York who have my manuscript in their inboxes. I feel like the guy in the Dr. Seuss illustration with the weird bird thing standing on his head. I catch myself just staring off into space.

Of course, I know that waiting a couple weeks, in the grand scheme of things, in the publishing world, is NOTHING. Seriously, nothing. I know editors are busy (and if you happen to be one of said editors – please know – I know you’re busy). It’s just that, for so long I worked on that manuscript every day, and now that it’s out of my hands, I feel adrift.

So I’m keeping busy. I am working on my next story, making good progress in fact. I’ve even allowed myself to start thinking about the outline for novel number three. I mean, a person does not spend nine years building up a habit of writing every day just to quit when the first manuscript is done. No sir. I’m in this for the long haul.

But the anxiety I’m feeling over having my work out there in the big old world is highly, highly distracting. I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because what am I writing really? I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled to have an agent who is excited about my work and is shopping it around. And I’m not trying to figure anything out. There’s nothing to figure out. I’m just waiting.

Maybe I’ll watch Princess Bride again. I love that movie.

Anyway. Sorry for the rambling post everyone. I promise to get my act together and come up with something useful to say ASAP.


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Highlight Your Adverbs (and More) with Scrivener

This post assumes you’re working with Scrivener 3.0. If you haven’t yet upgraded to 3.0, check out this post for a basic overview of the software update. 

If you’ve ever attended a writing conference or picked up a Writer’s Digest, you’ve heard how adverbs are the enemy of good writing. They weaken our verbs, and by association, our prose. But sometimes it can be hard to see our own writing objectively. Our eyes can skim right over things without seeing them.

So I’m loving this new feature in Scrivener 3.0. It’s called the Linguistic Focus.

Linguistic Focus in Scrivener 3.0

Select the text file in the binder that you want to focus on, go to edit -> writing tools -> linguistic focus.

When the option window pops up, click “adverb.”

As soon as you select the type of focus you want, everything else in the document will fade out and you’ll get something that looks like this:

As a fun side note, you don’t have to select adverbs. You can choose direct speech, nouns, verbs, prepositions and more.

It’s one of the many new functions that the folks at Scrivener added when they did their recent software update.

Stay tuned for more posts on all things Scrivener.

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Write The Ending That Everyone Expects

expected endingNot long ago I heard a piece of writing advice that went something like this: tell your friends the main idea of your story and ask them how they think it will end. Go there. Write the expected ending.

The Ending Everyone Expects

She had me up until that last part (I’m all for feedback and beta readers), but go there? You mean, take the story exactly where every reader will expect it to go? No way.

As writers, the last thing we want to do is tell a predictable story, miright? We want to amaze and surprise and do anything except what is expect of us.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

Satisfying Endings

Hear me out. When Luke Skywalker goes to take out the Death Star, you know he’s going to be successful. When Dorothy sets out to find her way back to Kansas, there’s really little doubt that she will get there. The endings of those stories are satisfying because the characters end up exactly where we knew they would.

I’ve always thought that endings had to surprise the reader, but when I really think about it, it’s not the ending that needs to be unexpected, it’s the path to the ending.

It’s About the Journey

Who would have thought that Dorothy would fight winged monkeys and melt a green witch when all she really wanted to do was go home?

And when Luke turns off his guidance systems and uses the force – I mean, that’s the cool part, the part where you worry for just a second that he’s making the wrong move.

It seems to me that this is our challenge as writers, not to blow people out of the water with an ending they never saw coming, but to instead make things so hard on our characters that it seems impossible that we can deliver them to the expected ending. Then, when you get them there, it’s not boring or tired, it feels super satisfying.

Exceptions Make the Rule

Maybe it’s just me. I know there are examples of outstanding stories that veer way out from what is expected. Fight Club comes to mind. As do some more narrative works of fiction like Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist.

What do you think? Should an ending be predictable? Is it more satisfying as a reader to land right where you pretty much expected you would?


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Reflections on a Successful Query
(aka I Have an Agent!)

About nine years ago, while I was still working on my masters degree in writing at USC, I took a class called The Business of Writing. On one of the final days of the class an agent came to listen to our elevator pitches and gave us each a bit of feedback. He said that we were all welcome to come meet with him in his office and that he’d be happy to give more feedback, but that in all the years he had been a guest speaker for that particular class, no one had ever taken him up on the offer. That sounded like a challenge to me.

A week later I was sitting in his office in Beverly Hills. I wrote a blog post about it, but I kind of figured he maybe didn’t want me throwing his name around, so I called him the FHA (Fancy Hollywood Agent). He gave me some advice on my story and said I could send him a few pages when it was ready. So I did.

Well, I am super excited to announce that the FHA is now officially my agent. I mean, how cool is that? He’s been at the top of my list for nine years and he loved my story.

His name is Joel Gotler of Intellectual Property Group. My agent. I’m so excited.

My Querying Story

I got a pretty decent response from my query letter, with four of my initial ten queries resulting in requests for the full manuscript. Of those, one passed, one had a death in the family and ended up unable to read it, and two asked to represent me. I talked with them both last week and by Friday it was official.

I’m feeling super lucky because I know this kind of timeline is not the norm, but I’m also allowing myself a bit of pride, because I worked damn hard to get here. And since I try to keep this blog focused on craft, I’d like to share a few of the thing I think I did right, just in case they might be helpful to my fellow writers out there.

Here are the steps I took. None of this will be revolutionary if you’ve done ANY reading on the topic of submitting your manuscript. I didn’t use any gimmicks or tricks. I just tried to present my story in the best possible light by being super professional.

Reflections on a Successful Query

  1. Finish the manuscript right. This should be a no-brainer. Don’t just call it done because you’re tired of working on it. Keep editing until you’re confident that it’s the best it can be. Have it fully formatted and ready to go in Word, and as a PDF.
  2. Write a professional query letter. There are about a gazillion websites on this topic, so read up. I like Jane Friedman’s blog – good, useful tips on how to present yourself like a pro.
  3. Query agents for a reason. I started each query letter with a sentence or two telling the agent why I thought my book might be of interest to them (and I wasn’t bullshitting). It took me two days to send out ten letters, so consider that personalizing these things takes time.
  4. Sweat the blurb. I agonized over my blurb, like, a lot. It was the second paragraph in my query letters, right after the two lines about why I was writing that particular agent, so I knew it had to be good. I asked writer friends to read drafts. I rewrote it a bunch of times.
  5. Send them what they ask for. Again, this should be a no-brainer. They wouldn’t go through the trouble of outlining what they want in a query if they didn’t care. Do your homework. Check their website. Ignoring their requests is just rude.
  6. Have a one-page synopsis ready. I know some agents ask for a longer synopsis, but I figured it would be easier to add things back in after cutting the story down to one page, so I started there. I had one request for the 1-pager, no requests for anything longer. (btw – I obsessed over the synopsis even more than the blurb – that baby took a WHILE to get right).

And that’s it, in a nutshell. I made a list of 30 agents, prioritizing from Mr. Gotler on down to agents I didn’t have a connection to, but who I would still be thrilled to have represent me.

The plan had been that, every time I got a rejection, I would just send a query to the next agent on the list. All in, I got 4 letters of “sorry, it’s not for us” and another three agents who simply never responded. But lucky me, by the time I got rejections, I was already in discussion with my soon-to-be-agent.

So there it is. New Years Resolution accomplished. I guess my revised goal for 2018 is to write a draft of my second novel.

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Ask Why 5 Times

ask why 5 timesI struggle with backstory. I’m never sure how deep to go into my characters. I’ve heard people say that you need to know everything about them, and there’s a certain logic to that, but EVERYTHING? Do I really need to know what kind of ice cream my antagonist enjoys? Maybe. Or maybe not. Who can say?

Well, I stumbled across this little trick I’m calling “Ask Why 5 Times.” I overheard someone talking about it at the Writer’s Digest conference, so I’m sorry I can’t cite my source, but stay with me here. It’s a good idea (I wish it were mine).

Ask Why 5 Times

The basic idea is to make like a toddler and just keep asking why. Start with something that your character does. All writers know how this goes: You’re writing a scene and your character says or does something you didn’t expect. For instance, I’m working with a character right now in my second novel who is a jerk to women. He just kind of came out that way. So I asked why.

  • Well, he had his heart broken recently.

Why was his heart broken?

  • He was naive and young and out in the world on his own and kind of latched onto this girl who was much more worldly and she just wasn’t that into him.

Why was he out in the world at such a young age?

  • Because his parents died, and he didn’t have anyone to take him in.


  • His parents died because they were in an accident. No one would take him in because times are tough, and his one aunt simply couldn’t afford another mouth to feed.

Why are times so tough?

  • It is the middle of the Great Depression.

What We Can Learn

Okay, so now I have a better sense of this guy. He’s not just a dick. He had a really rough childhood marred by the death of his parents and rejection by his aunt. He is (or at least was) really lonely and fell hard for a girl who brushed him aside. So he has repeatedly turned to women for comfort and been rejected. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but it does help me understand it.

Each answer in the above sequence could be a story all it’s own. In fact, I get little glimpses of scenes as I re-read my answers. I’m not going to write out all those details, not for this minor character, but I could. And if this were one of my main characters, I totally would.

It’s an interesting exercise to bring to my writing, especially now that I find myself at the beginning of a new project. It’s not so fun with the manuscript I just finished. When I ask why 5 times of my first novel it’s less exciting because I know all the answers already. I figured them out without this little trick, it just took me nine years to do it.

So there you go. May my eavesdropping save you a few years of floundering.

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Research for Fiction: Where to Start and How Much To Do

Research for fictionI’m working on the first draft of my second novel right now. It’s an idea I’ve toyed with for years, making random notes and tucking research away for safe keeping. Then, in November of 2016, while my first novel was resting in a drawer for a little while, I took the NaNoWriMo challenge and got a solid 50,000 words on the page for this story.

Now, as I go through the process of querying agents for my first novel, I am finding that it’s really nice to have a well-established work in progress to turn my attention toward.

It’s kind of a beast of a story, as it is now. It jumps around in time and POV. I am absolutely enamored of it, partly because it’s like a giant puzzle I have to figure out. Which parts of the story are important? How does it unfold? How much research do I need to do?

It’s that last question that I’ve been thinking a lot about.

Amor Towles

A few months ago, at an Open Book event in Pasadena, I had the pleasure of seeing Amor Towles talk about his book A Gentleman in Moscow, which is set in the early 1900s in Moscow. One of the things he talked about was the research he did. He said two things that were surprising to me:

  1. He tried not to do too much research
  2. He didn’t do it until he had the story down

His rational, which makes a lot of sense to me, is that your story is not (or at least it shouldn’t be) about the historical events that are happening around your characters. Novels are about people, their lives, their loves and losses. Find the human story first.

He was also quick to add that both of his acclaimed novels are set in times and places that he had a base knowledge about before he started writing, a general sense of things that came from simply being interested in the era. It wasn’t liked he threw a dart for the place and rolled dice for the year to set it in. He had always been curious about Russia in the early twentieth century so he knew what he was getting into.

Kristin Hannah

Contrast Towles with the Author Kristen Hannah. I heard her speak at the Write on the Sound conference in Washington just a few weeks before the Towles event. She said that, when she was working on The Nightingale, she researched everything. Everything.

She said she started with a world perspective. She read up on the global politics of the second world war in order to place herself in the world of her characters. Then she narrowed in on Europe, then France, then the small town, and the lives of specific people.

Her advise on researching was to keep going until you’ve read two non-fiction books in a row on the topic/time/place without learning anything new. Dang. That’s some thorough research.

My Own Research

I definitely fall into the Towles camp of wanting to focus on the human story. I also, thankfully, had the sense to set my story in a time and place that I am (and always have been) intensely interested in. So I’ve got that going for me.

But I’m also taking Hannah’s advice to heart. I’ve started devouring every book I can find that might be even tangentially related to the story I want to tell. I’ve been underlining passages and compiling everything I find into a Scrivener file I’ve set up with the draft (yet another reason I love Scrivener).

I know I have a long road ahead, but at least right now I am loving the process. Being a writer is like becoming a little mini-expert, over and over, with each new project. It’s kind of like going back to school for a mini-masters degree, but without the tuition.

If you’ve ever worked on a research-heavy project, how did you manage it? Did you start or end with the research? How did you organize it? I would love some advice as I start to sort through everything I have in front of me.

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Scrivener 3.0 ~ What You Need To Know

Scrivener 3.0If you use Scrivener, you are probably aware that the company recently released an update for the software: Scrivener 3.0. If you’re like me, you’re probably feeling a little nervous about it.

Worth It?

I like to think of myself as pretty tech savvy, but updates always make me cringe. Because even if they’re great (and let’s face it, software upgrades can be full of glitches) updating can mean wrapping my brain around new ways of doing things.

So even though I’m a total Scrivener nerd, I dragged my feet a bit on downloading the update. But last week I decided to go for it and let me just tell you now, officially, for the record: it’s good. You can update now and go right back to writing. Seriously, it didn’t require any extra brain power to get up and running with it.

And though they added a lot of cool functionality (which I will be blogging about in the weeks to come), it is basically like it was before with a slightly muted color scheme. It’s $20 for an upgrade from Scrivener 2.0 and $45 if you’re starting fresh. (Use the code APRILDAVILA for a 20% discount.)

What You Need To Know About Scrivener 3.0

There is only one tiny thing I would say you need to know to avoid frustration as you make the transition and that is the new location of the search bar. The search bar used to be at the top right. In the update they’ve moved it to the header, but it’s kind of hidden.

See the header bar at the top, and how it tells you want section you’re looking at. In this case, it’s my whole manuscript.
Scrivener 3.0

If you hover over the header bar, it now tells you your word count and word count goals. (more on this in future posts)
Scrivener 3.0

And if you click on it, you get the search bar:
Scrivener 3.0 So now you know.

Watch This Space

As I mentioned, I’ll be blogging about some of the cool new features in Scrivener 3.0, so make sure to check back, or sign up for my newsletter and get posts delivered directly to your inbox every Friday.

A few teasers of what I’ve discovered so far:

Ohhh… there are fun times ahead. Stay tuned.

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Create an Audio Recording of Your Manuscript for Better Editing

audio recording manuscriptIn November, while at a writing retreat at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, I took a day to record myself reading my manuscript out loud. It was an idea I got after listening to Lindsey Lee Johnson talk about writing her debut novel The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. (Yet another reason to go see writers talk about their work in person.)

She mentioned, just off hand, how she had recorded herself reading the manuscript when she thought it was done and ready, and then played it back to take it in aurally. She said that she noticed things in it that she hadn’t before, when she listened to it like that. So I decided to give it a try.

Here’s what I learned.

How to Make an Audio Recording of Your Manuscript

audio recording manuscriptI did a little research on good recording apps and settled on VoiceRecorder. I didn’t need any bells and whistles, just a good, reliable recording device that would allow me to easily back up my files.

I made one recording for each chapter and saved the file as that chapter name (see the image below with the heading “Recordings”). When I got to chapter 10, the app wanted to list it after Chap 1, which kind of messed up my system, so I had to name chapter 10 “Chap 910,” and chapter 11 was “Chap 911.” It’s a little wonky, but I found that when the time came to play it back, things went much smoother. In fact, the app doesn’t so much as click as it transitions between chapters, so when I had everything in order and hit play, it was super easy to listen through.

audio recording manuscriptAs for the actual reading, I debated whether to print out my draft, but settled on reading it from the screen. It turned out to be a good choice because I could fix little typos as I came across them, which saved me the hassle of having to go back over a paper draft to make quick and easy edits.

Because I was reading from the screen, I kept my notebook open beside my laptop for bigger notes. I tracked thoughts and ideas as they came to me, organizing them by chapter. When an idea hit (say I realized a continuity issue, or noticed an opportunity to add a detail), I would just hit pause on the app and scribble in my notebook. The app can hold the pause as long as you need, and in the playback it is completely silent. Good for bathroom breaks too.

One thing I learned a little too slowly was that I didn’t need to read loudly. I started as if I were reading to a crowd, nice and clear and strong, and by chapter three my throat was killing me. The mic is super sensitive. You can use a soft, quiet voice and it will pick it up just fine. And I highly recommend having some throat numbing cough drops handy. And tea. Lots of tea. It took me about nine hours to read it through. In hindsight, it might have been better to break this into two days.

When I was done, I backed up the files to my Google Drive, but you can also email them to yourself or upload them to DropBox. Your choice, but backing up just seems the wise thing to do.

Make The Most of Your Playback

I recorded myself reading my manuscript on the last day of my writing retreat. Then I came home to Thanksgiving week and the kids were off school, so I took a week away from it. When it was time to jump back in, I wasn’t sure how best to go about it. I didn’t want to read along, because the whole point was to take in the story as an audio book, but I didn’t want to listen to it while I was walking the dog, because I knew I would want to make notes.

I settled on sitting at my desk. I kept my notebook on my right, and had the manuscript open to the chapter I was listening to, but to keep myself from reading along, I used a coloring book. Yep. I colored.

The kids got me this coloring book for my birthday last year and frankly I hadn’t touched it. I mean, who has time to color? But it was perfect for keeping my hands busy while I listened to my story. And I actually love the pages I worked on. Coloring is fun. I had completely forgotten.

Anyway, I let the recording play through, pausing to make notes as they occurred to me. I broke the task into two days of work.

When I was done, I had three pages of notes to address. Partly, that was a list of words that I felt I used too much (felt, seemed), but mostly it was specific story notes, anywhere from three to nine notes per chapter. Some were simple and others required a little more thinking, but there was nothing dramatic. I finally have a story I’m happy with.

I took the first half of December to make all those edits, then sent the final draft off to a copy editor, because seriously, I can read a typo like fifteen times and not see it. She sent the draft back to me this Monday, so now I’m going through and making final final edits.

And then out it goes… Yikes.

So that’s how I created an audio recording of my manuscript. I will probably never listen to it again, but it was very useful when I needed it.

I’m a big believer in the idea that it’s the little things that make a big difference. These tedious final steps, the ones I’ve been so sorely tempted to skip over, have brought my novel to a place where I feel really good about it. From here, I guess only time will tell.


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