EVENTS Stand up and stand out

Barbara Henderson and Caroline Deacon shared their masterful skills on writing those dreaded synopses and covering letters at SCBWI Scotland's workshop on 16 May 2023. Anna Levin reports.

Hands up who’s far more daunted by writing a synopsis than writing a story? Yup, me too, and covering letters are even worse, so I was all ears for this online skill-sharing event with writers Barbara Henderson and Caroline Deacon.

First we paired up and pitched a WIP to each other, reflecting back aspects that resonated. This was both uplifting and revealing – I hadn’t yet got to the synopsis-stage with mine and realised even a short picture book is surprisingly tricky to distil coherently.

Barbara Henderson 

We looked at some general guidelines – using Star Wars was really helpful in showing how a story could be broken down into key elements (opening image, introducing protagonist, first turning point, etc). This showed a structure to use as a scaffold or skeleton to shape a synopsis around.

The examples that followed (synopsis and covering letters) didn’t necessarily follow the guidelines. This was encouraging rather than confusing, showing how there are no set rules, just guidance, and there’s scope to make this process your own.

Caroline Deacon

For example, some find that writing a synopsis first helps keep the story on track, others write the synopsis once they’ve finished the story. Barbara explained how for her the synopsis is an integral part of the writing process. She first gets an idea and just starts writing… until she reaches a ‘sticky stage’ in each book, about one third in. Writing a synopsis at this stage – often using a timer for a bit of pressure to stop over-thinking – helps her to see the path ahead more clearly.

I found it really helpful advice to create three versions of a pitch: one 15-words or just a sentence, the classic elevator pitch. One slightly longer: a short succinct paragraph. And another more detailed. Your publisher will thank you for ready blurb and copy for events, and you’ll be able to use it to describe and promote your book hopefully for years to come.

Online participants

We then got to read some real covering letters – from the successful pitches that resulted in first acceptance for publication. (One had the ‘elevator pitch’ in a box at the beginning). A top tip here from Barbara was to include activities that ensure you ‘sound like a writer’ even if you’re at the beginning of your publishing journey. For example, including any engagement you have had with books or children in other contexts, such as being a school library volunteer.

I realised I’ve visited island schools giving talks about whales and dolphins in the Hebrides, and never thought to include that in a covering letter! Many thanks to Barbara and Caroline for helping me think afresh about what I can bring, as well as making this stage in the process a bit less daunting.

*All images courtesy of Caroline Deacon 


Stephanie Cotela is the Network News & Events Editor at Words & Pictures magazine.

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