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2 January 2006

I wrote a synopsis today, and this is a process that I never will understand. They are an inherent part of the proposal for any new book; like "three acres and a cow!", the common cry of every agent and publisher is "three chapters and a synopsis!" The chapters are to show the style, the voice, the characters, the mood, all the skills of word and rhythm; the synopsis is to show the plot and plotting, the themes, all the skills of structure. Taken together, we call this storytelling.

There are writers and writers, and all of us are different. Some love to plan, to research, to prepare; I have a friend who writes a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown of her entire book and then discusses it with agent and publisher before she types a word of the novel. That would drive me frantic; I am of the extreme opposite school, and would rather never plan at all. My ideal is to think of a title and a good first line, start writing and just see what happens. Sadly, I'm seldom allowed to do that (tho' I was once commissioned on the basis of a phone-call where I offered a book about amnesia, she asked for something supernatural so I added a fallen angel and the deal was done; and so I had to write a book about amnesia and a fallen angel. It's called Dispossession, and I still think it works). Even so, approaching any demand for chapters-plus-synopsis, I always write the chapters first, and not just because that's the fun part. It gives me a grip on the book; by the time I've made a good beginning, I generally know what end Iím aiming at. What I donít know - and what I would rather not know, to be honest - is the stuff in between, the journey towards the destination. I like to discover it as we go along, hand-in-hand with the reader. Plot is just what characters do, and I'd always choose to sit back and watch them do it, rather than planning a route for them and forcing them to take it. That's the package-holiday version of fiction, and I would vote for the independent traveller every time. A man - not me, alas - once said that being asked to write a synopsis for a book he hadn't written yet was like being asked to draw a map of a country he hadn't visited, and he was right.

However, we are compelled to do it; so I always leave it till last, and then do it as quick-and-dirty as I can; and I still have no idea how this process works, because logically speaking it ought not to work at all. This morning, genuinely, I had no idea how my characters would get from A (where I had placed them, situation and relationship and threat) to Z (the end of the book, many questions answered, others yet unresolved); by six oíclock this evening it was done. And it all makes sense, at least to me; and some new characters have popped up to complicate matters, and established characters have demonstrated why theyíre in the book, and youíd think Iíd been taking dictation. I have another friend who asserts that books have some kind of independent existence, wafting around in a different dimension until they insinuate themselves whole into the head of their chosen writer; this is obviously bollocks, but there are times when it can feel like that, and synopsis-time is one of them. It always happens to me this way, where mysteries just explain themselves. My Outremer series started as a series of titles, where I had no idea what any of them meant; I wrote a couple of chapters, which only complicated matters further; then I spent three days writing a synopsis, bang bang bang, and it all fell into place like magic.

I donít believe in magic. The practical man I secretly am wants to assert that itís just three decades of practice at putting stories together, and no more mysterious than a carpenter using his skills to make a chair; the psychologist that Iím not murmurs about connection to the subconscious, until I throw a bucket over his head. Most likely, in truth it is magic, and Ďmagicí consists in both of those attributes, plus perhaps some other ingredient I havenít identified yet. But I canít go looking for it, as I donít believe in magic.

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© Chaz Brenchley 2006
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.