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December 10 2013 3 10 /12 /December /2013 12:01

P1010019It is not an outline, a blow by blow, chapter by chapter account, a summary of the plot; it sells the idea of a book. It can give an indication that you are not just about fine writing in your first three chapters, but that you understand how to structure a plot. Often it is read after the sample chapters have got the publisher on your side and wanting to know more.

This is where you must not be laboured and tedious and where you must tell a good story – in brief. If you convey your interest and enthusiasm for your own plot, that’s a positive.

One thing you can indicate is the character arc of the main character – where they are starting from, how they resist change then gradually commit to it, how they experiment with a different way of being; the darkest moment, when all seems lost for that person’s desires; the collaboration with, then the commitment to, other people and new aims; the resolution.

What is a synopsis for? What are some of the uses of the synopsis?

The synopsis is a really professional document and should be a really useful one. It has a range of functions:

1. Tells an agent or editor what genre your book is

2. Gives a sense of the author’s voice

3. Gives an idea of the audience the author is aiming at

4. A quick guide that tells the publisher/agent if it is what they are looking for at that time – can tell them if it’s too close to something they are already marketing or if it will fill a void they have identified

5. Offers a guide to the marketing department of key themes – books are marketed long before they are printed – at book fairs, for instance

6. Suggests whether the writer actually can write/visualise/conceive of, a whole book

7. Clarifies, or should clarify, the timeline

Some of these points by me and some by Nicola Morgan Write a Great Synopsis – an Expert Guide Kindle book – very short, not best value for money perhaps (IMHO)

Sue Moorcroft, in her book Love Writing says a romance/erotica synopsis is often only one or two pages and is written in the present tense, third person, in the same tone as the book.

She suggests that the synopsis tells the editor if the number of characters is right; if the storyline is focused; if there is a terrific ending. “A synopsis is written using broad strokes,” she says, “using memorable words and descriptions that add drama. Its job is to bring your book to life so that the professional wants to read more.”

a. Begin with a sentence that sums up the theme of the book; then the next sentence covering what kind of novel it is and where it is set.

b. Introduce major characters, their motivations and how one character’s actions impact upon another.

c. Pick out high-spots or pivotal plot points – crisis, obstacle, resolution.

d. Setting and atmosphere.

e. Emotions of characters, enthusiasm of writer.

f. Hooky first paragraph, synopsis crammed with conflicts and resolutions for the fascinating major characters. Fizz with excitement over the central romance. Never say ‘the novel’ or ‘the book’ use its title every time.


Follow the latest guidelines you can find - in 1999 Carol Blake was asking for 4 to 10 pages of synopsis, but now her agency guidelines say 1 to no more than 3 pages – because they do not have the time.


John Jarrold (science fantasy, no Young Adult fiction) says follow the guidelines on the agent’s website and, the synopsis should not be bleak and bland but should offer a frisson of the author’s personality. It should give a sense of the book (rather than a plot outline). A proposal for a series would contain a synopsis with a really detailed story arc for book 1, be less detailed for book 2, and less again for successive titles in the series.


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June 2 2013 1 02 /06 /June /2013 01:34

Five hundred years of printing history in Scotland is encapsulated in Edinburgh's survival of the trials, successes and pitfalls of producing bestsellers.

Only fifty years after Gutenberg printed his bible using moveable type, King James IV of Scotland granted Orkney-day-4-5-005.jpg permission for Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar (Chapman and Miller) to set up a printing press in Edinburgh. Soon after, their press began producing books at premises in what is now Cowgate.

 Examples held by the National Library of Scotland show that Chapman and Miller set a high standard for a burgeoning industry to follow, and featured Scottish authors.

 The printing industry spread slowly, and many books by Scottish authors continued to be printed outside of Scotland during the sixteenth century, but the printing trade gradually developed, particularly after 1550. During the eventful seventeenth century, when Scotland shared a monarch with England, King James I and VI, his interest in a new version of the Bible in English, published 1611, led to an Edinburgh printing of it. By the end of the century Edinburgh had a solid book trade and a library.

Edinburgh Publishes Bestsellers

Disturbances and disputes during the eighteenth century, alongside the failed Jacobite rebellion, saw a slower development of the industry in Scotland, but a number of printers offered a variety of print services. The invention of steam-powered printing machines brought about rapid expansion of the industry.

Early in the nineteenth century several major publishers in Edinburgh were producing books for growing markets. The most well-known are:

  •  Archibald Constable in High Street
  •  William Blackwood moved to Princes Street in the new town in 1816
  •  Oliver & Boyd, in Tweeddale Court, off High Street

Sir Walter Scott had bought into a partnership with Richard Ballantyne, the printer, in 1805, to help the firm through the unexpected pressures of producing Scott's runaway bestseller, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Eventually Scott and John Ballantyne formed a publishing partnershipwhich unfortunately had to be bailed out by a complex web of investments from Scott's acquaintances and Constable, who was another of Scott's publishers.

Scotland's printing and publishing industries came under pressure in the financial crash of 1825. Thus an effect of Constable's investments in London stock is magnified and he died, leaving Scott to deal with the aftermath, effectively writing to pay off debts for the rest of his life.

 Edinburgh Printing Industry in Modern Times

By the 1860s, Edinburgh employed over three thousand people in printing, and a century later, by the 1960s, the industry provided employment for over five thousand workers. More recently, reports show, eighty five publishers working throughout Scotland employ only about twelve hundred and fifty workers. Finkelstein sees this as the result of nineteenth century expansionism followed by twentieth century specialisation.

Audiences, business structures and world markets for the published product have changed.

There are substantial archives and collections of artifacts from the printing industry in Edinburgh. The National Library of Scotland, the Writers' Museum and the People's Museum host accessible historical exhibits, while three Edinburgh universities all host extensive online facilities.


David Finkelstein (2005) History of Scottish Publishing Books from Scotland.com

The Scottish Archive of Print and Publishing History Records

Edinburgh City of Print

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March 3 2013 1 03 /03 /March /2013 12:43

This review first appeared at Suit101.com in October2009.


The Tale of One Bad Rat by Bryan Talbot


This graphic novel for young adults is used for therapy in child abuse centres across the world but its visual artistry makes it a storytelling classic.

Picture Credit: Recent Dark Horse edition © Bryan Talbot/Dark Horse Comics

Tale-of-One-Bad-Rat-new-edition.jpgIn a four-page self-justification, ironically labelled The Rat's Tale, within The Tale of One Bad Rat, Talbot defends graphic media, especially the comic, as valid forms for telling serious, mainstream stories rather than being merely entertaining. The critics agreed, and showered this book with accolades.

Recently republished, it has been awarded two UK Comic Art Awards, a Comic Creators Guild Award, two Don Thomson Awards, an Eisner Award, a Parents Choice Award, and the Internet Comic Award for Best Graphic Novel. It was nominated for a Harvey Award, the National Cartoonists' Society of America's Rueben Award, and a James Tiptree Jr. Award, has been published in a dozen languages and is employed therapeutically in America, Britain, Finland and Germany.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Tale of One Bad Rat is the adoption of a female cultural icon Beatrix Potter (herself a neglected child who kept a journal of her misery) as narrative motivator, and of a female hero, Helen, the child sexual abuse victim who’s mental, emotional, and physical journey the reader shares.

Paying Tribute to Children’s Classic Book Illustration

A disclaimer at the front of this book declares a satirical intention, and Talbot produces a postmodernist, style conscious creation, presenting the critic with an interesting combination of parody, pastiche, and intertextual reference.

He makes ironic use of the clear, bright visual styles and trademark blue-line edging of popular comic classics emerging in the 1920s Hergé's The Adventures of Tintin and Rupert the Bear. This technique provides a complex illustration of the pain and isolation of the victim of child-abuse juxtaposed not only against the safe values inherent in the style, but against narrative and visual references to cosy Beatrix Potter texts, and Potter’s beloved Lake District.

Helen's triumph is that she endures through all the traumas, trials and tribulations which beset any hero on their quest, and evolves from rebellious schoolgirl inarticulacy to young adult artistry, not omitting her angry confrontation of her father. Eventually the fragmentation of self which Talbot narrativises heals, Helen's newfound wholeness skillfully presented by Talbot in the diegetic allegory, The Tale of One Bad Rat, authored and illustrated by our hero, a pastiche of Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers.

Illustrating Psychological Pain

Talbot's technical mastery particularly exploits perspective, concentrating on the viewpoint character or on whatever she is concentrating on, be it visible to, or visualised by, her. Perspective also conveys mood and emotion that might take many paragraphs of text-only narrative to describe.

This imaginative and innovative graphic artist creates stunning visual dramatizations of internal (psychological) action. Saturations of black and red express anger, danger, sexual innuendo, but the layering of meaning is too sophisticated to seem clichéd. The layout of claustrophobic, horrific scattered frames that yet remain in correct geometric relationship to the underlying nine-frame grid keeps focus on the victim’s feelings. For instance

  • A red bedroom blind with the black Peter Rabbit silhouette cast upon it in powerfully emotive and ironic contrast as her abuser menacingly rattles the doorknob
  • The terrifying cat who converts Rat from sympathetic reality to symbolic fantasy

Developing her own artistic talent as she goes, Helen travels a long and challenging personal road to free herself from her trauma, echoing the journey historically made by Beatrix Potter from London confinement to country freedom. Talbot captures the emotion and conveys its conclusion vividly.

Zigzagged steel fencing on the grimy Motorway approach from where Helen's journey to renewal begins is visually mirrored later when, rescued by loving foster parents in Beatrix Potter's Lake District, she mounts a zigzag path on a clean clear hillside, putting herself in perspective against the eternal peacefulness of the sheep-grazed Cat Bells.

The World of Peter Rabbit


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February 16 2012 5 16 /02 /February /2012 15:30

Are you a fan of Charles Dickens? I never used to be. I own (and have read) the complete set of his work, was forced to read Hard Times and Bleak House for school exams, and as a PhD student encountered his female unfriendly views on whether women could be professional writers (not if, like Elizabeth Gaskell, they had a husband, apparently). However, when I had to teach university students about Dickens’ place in English culture, I began to see him in a different light.

A Christmas Carol had been my son’s favourite book for years before this, but only when I realised how much that book and its ghosts and its original illustrations had affected English traditions did I really revise my opinion. (And I must admit to a closet admiration for David Lean’s 1946 movie of Great Expectations, which I watch whenever it is repeated on TV).

Meeting Monica Dickens

An-open-book-Monica DickensI once met Charles Dickens's great grand-daughter Monica Dickens, also a popular author, and sat with her in the bar at a writers’ weekend. She was delightful, thrilled to be surrounded by writers, but said that her (rather posh) branch of the family rather despised the whole writing profession and were somewhat ashamed of the family members who had been involved in it.

Monica was a lively and vibrant person, who was as content writing columns for women’s magazines as adapting popular novels into Readers Digest book club editions. Just a jobbing writer, in fact, like Charles.

An Audience with Gerald Dickens

Monica Dickens was delightful company, so when a friend spotted Gerald Dickens, Charles’s great great grandson, on the programme of Crosby Civic Hall, Merseyside, part of the Sefton Celebrates Writing Festival, I decided to ‘give it a go’ and a group of us went along together. This was a one-man show with the minimum of scenery and costume changes, yet Gerald kept our interest from the beginning.



The first half of the show was dedicated to connecting Dickens’s stories to his real early life, skilfully intertwining letters, diaries, biography and characterisation very entertainingly. After a rendering of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes - the same that Charles used to enact to audiences in such melodramatic detail that many fainted - the break was welcome.

Then the second half ran to nearly an hour of Nicholas Nickleby, with all the characters from bullying headmaster Squeers to poor cowering Smike portrayed by Gerald, a complicated process that provoked some hilarity when the props would not stay where they were put!

Christmas Classic - A Christmas Carol

Gerald has been working to illustrate his great great grandfather’s life and works by combining his acting and writing skills for literary festivals since 1993. He ends 2011 with an American tour with Dickensian Christmas Tales, especially A Christmas Carol, for which rendition he is particularly famous, ending in historic Williamsburg on Christmas Eve. Gerald Dickens's biography.

2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ birth.

Charles Dickens-A Christmas Carol-Title page-First edition

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January 15 2012 1 15 /01 /January /2012 15:17


Jack Vance, one of the great science fiction writers, imbues his novel Emphyrio with incident, marvel, mystery, and complex narrative structure to make a satisfying read. I have to say, though, that this book is a challenging read, and lends itself to different interpretations. 

Ghyl is apprenticed to his father, a craftsman wood carver in a country where government controls permeate every aspect of life. All manufacture by reproduction or copying is strictly forbidden, so when Ghyl discovers his father photographing and printing off copies of old manuscripts, his view of life, love and the universe is drastically transformed.

From there, Ghyl vows to be more like the legendary Emphyrio, righter of wrongs and revealer of truth. By the end, though, what is not revealed is the mystery of the opening scene.

“The unconscious prisoner was clamped into an intricately articulated frame. The top of his skull had been removed; upon the naked brain rested a striated yellow gel,” could be imagined as intertextual reference to Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, but more likely to the effects of authoritarian governments contemporary with that. The rest of the book is the memories of the prisoner, but it’s an excellent, and unpredictable, story.

Puppets in a Play Within a Play

Chapter two reveals the child Ghyl as he accompanies his father to a puppet show. The play itself depends upon a palimpsest of pretexts, a character playing another character, puppets played by docile furry creatures imported from another planet, puppets playing other puppets in a play set in a puppet theatre. The play within a play that the puppets are performing is the "traditional drama Emphyrio", a hero crusader who is executed for trying to speak the truth. This foregrounds the theme and the complexity of the novel that is yet to come.

Puppets and automatons and possibly robots figure to varying degree. The freedom of the individual stifled by increasing State control is the theme, but the exploits of Ghyl, the hero, begin as good clean teenage fun. There are so many layers to this interplanetary mystery that the reader never quite knows where it is taking them. The narrative progresses comfortably for a while, then there’s a major shift that plunges the reader back into the mystery again. What is also enjoyable is the combination of historical ‘feel’ with futuristic scenario.

Award Winning Science Fiction Author

Vance was awarded his first Hugo Award in 1963. He earned several more and a Nebula Award for other works. He received both the World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement award in 1984 and the Grand Master Nebula for Lifetime Achievement in 1996.

While Vance wrote mostly science fiction, he also wrote detective novels, and he uses the detective mode in Emphyrio to reveal his character's rigorous quest for knowledge and truth.

Jack Vance (1969, repr. 1999) Emphyrio SF Masterworks series Orion / Victor Gollancz / Millennium (ISBN 1 85798 885 x. 



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November 18 2011 6 18 /11 /November /2011 12:47

belins hill

Catherine Fisher’s work is set in Wales and the Welsh Border territories, and often features children whose lives are in crisis. Her genre is fantasy, however, and telling an exciting and intriguing story is her first objective. She uses a post-modern approach to writing, mainly manifested by the use of traditional tales as a base text from which to create something new.

Belin’s Hill is partly based on her experience as a ‘digger’ on an archaeological project in the ancient town of Caerleon, famous for its Roman remains. Belin’s Hill is also based on a book by Arthur Machen set in Caerleon.

I was fortunate enough to see the dramatisation of parts of Fisher’s novel when it was broadcast on television. Channel Four’s The English Programme (not recently broadcast in England) captures the turmoil of the central character, Huw.

The novel opens with a near-miss car accident where Huw falls down, and some of the more parapsychological events of the novel could well be mental aberrations resulting from a blow to his head.

Underlying the events of the novel, and emerging with more clarity as the drama progresses, is Huw’s gradual recognition of the pain and guilt he feels in the recalling of the train crash that killed his parents. His actual experience during the aftermath of the crash, trapped alongside his parents’ bodies, gradually emerges and is come to terms with.

In October 2011 Catherine Fisher was named the first Young People's Laureate for Wales which carries with it a duty to actively promote literacy which, of course, Catherine has always done.

Channel Four archive  The English Programme: Writers from Wales 

Catherine Fisher has a website. She welcomes, and reads, all feedback through the site guestbook.

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November 16 2011 4 16 /11 /November /2011 18:50

I have written quite a few book reviews over the years, and some of them do appear online. Here's a sample:

Bryan Talbot's award-winning graphic novel, The Tale of One Bad Rat, a therapeutic story about Beatrix Potter's influence on a child abuse survivor. It relates to this next article about versions of Alice in Wonderland, because Talbot is one of the authors who have made post-modern parodies of Lewis Carroll's original.

J.K. Rowling's fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is about a very troubled teenager, if you recall, the angry Harry. I read all the HP books, and even went to a midnight launch once!



Science Fiction is a particular love of mine:

The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem

Emphyrio by Jack Vance

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