"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: K.I.S.S.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Writers have a tendency to complicate things.

We think that's what is required of us.

Character depth, we tell ourselves, is what counts.

Plot complexity, we think, is what impresses.

Layers of story threads woven into a sophisticated tapestry will mark us out as a literary master, we want to believe.

But actually in the modern marketplace I don't think this is true.

At least not when it comes to selling our work to agents and publishers, producers, indeed the general public.

Just look at the way books, TV and films are pitched to us - in the media especially.

You might think that it's journalists and editors that create these little snippets and brief synopses designed to encapsulate our work.


It's us - we have to do it.

Novelists write their own back-blurbs.

TV listings are derived from the screenwriter's original log lines...

Even after we've written something as word-weighty as a novel, we have to learn how to distill down the essence of our ideas into bite-sized pieces that are succinct and easily digestible.

This is a skill all its own.

Most every writer will tell you that the synopsis is to be dreaded.

Creating a shortened version of our work seems to go against the grain.

To somehow cheapen and disfigure the face of the manuscript.

But the publishing industry doesn't see it that way.

The film industry is worse.

In today's world, unless you can encapsulate your work in 15 words or less, you're often not even going to get a look in.

In most cases - in movie production offices - you are judged solely on your 'short pitch'.

It seems grossly unfair that you can have your manuscripts rejected (unread) because the person on the other side of the desk doesn't like the sound of your pitch.

This has happened to me so many times, I know it must be the way of the world now.

Of course it works in reverse too.

I've had agents, publishers and producers react to the most facile of short pitches - and commission me - based on 'the idea' rather than any question of whether I might be up to its execution.

I guess this is because it's only writers that care about the words.

The rest of the industry - or the vultures, as I like to call them - have this notion that it's (and I've heard them confirm this) the "ideas they can get excited about" that make the deals with publishers, agents, distributors and financiers who seem to revel in the buying and selling of writer's creative ideas.

They don't seem to realize that writers are more than just 'idea generators' who should be discarded if they don't come up with at least six new ones a day - and commercial ones at that.

I had a lovely email conversation with a cherished subscriber this week.

He was having trouble fleshing out one of his characters.

He was trying to understand what he needed to do to make his character come alive.

He asked me about inner conflict and how that could be represented on the page.

After years of studying these issues, I gave my response:

"A character's inner conflict is not something you need to think of first. It's the character's agenda - his goals - that define his modus operandi. And it's the story's antagonists (the people who will stand in the way of the character's agenda, or the so called 'obstacles') that dictate the story. This leads to an outer conflict - the story's events - which imply the 'inner conflict' - that is, the personal, sometimes unspoken, changes the character must undergo to become 'the hero.'

"Indeed, a character's inner conflict often happens in the reader's mind - and is not always on the page.

"This is all basic stuff you need to learn to make stories work - and being able to fashion writing using these principles are techniques that professional writers are supposed to know how to encapsulate instinctively."

But it sounds complicated, right?

It's not - but that's the dilemma.

How do you distill ideas into their most basic form?


Study and practice.

You need to work on getting those 'short form' pitches into shape. And work just as hard on them as you would your longer works.

In a sound-bite world, we need to write better sound-bites than spin doctors, politicians and news readers.

You need to know your stories so well that you can squash them to any length.

From a six word sentence to the one paragraph 'elevator pitch' to the one page synopsis - and you need to memorize them, just in case you ever need to use them.

I know.

I know this is not what you signed up for when you became a writer.

But I have learned the hard way that this is pretty much a requirement in today's world.

Your writing career can live or die on a verbal pitch to the right person at the right time.

You might be at a convention, or meet a publisher at a party, or be interviewed by a potential fan in the street - you never know when a succinct version of your book will come in handy.

Best thing is - if you're good at making your ideas sound good - then your skill as a writer is often taken for granted.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much doing nothing." Gertrude Stein

No comments:

The Writing Academy

Welcome to the official blog of Rob Parnell's Writing Academy, updated weekly - sometimes more often!