I’m posting about synopses as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.
The query project.
The synopsis project.
Being the somewhat lazy soul that I am, I’m going to borrow from my own previous writing on the topic and only update the bits that I feel I got wrong. So, stealing from myself:
First, and, IMHO most important, is the question of what a synopsis should do. If you don’t get that right, the details hardly matter.
Now, the marvelous agent/blogger Miss Snark* claimed at one point that all a synopsis had to do was be short, not painful to read, and show that the author hasn’t screwed up somewhere in plotting the book. Now, those seem like good minimum conditions, but I want more from my work than to demonstrate I haven’t screwed up in the minimum number of words.
I want to leave the reader with questions that interest them enough to want to read the whole manuscript. This does not mean questions about what happened–those are by way of screwing up, because the reader of a synopsis needs to end their perusal knowing what happens. What I’m talking about are questions of method. I want my reader to say something like That’s cool, I want to see that or, Really? Why didn’t I see that coming, I have to read this, or just, oooh, nice.
A well written synopsis gives conflict, plot, setting, character sketches, and some genuine flavor of the book, at least in my opinion, and if that takes slightly longer, I think it’s okay. I keep coming back to the idea of talking about what excites you about this story as a writer as I did in the elevator pitch post, because that’s what’s going to convey the most important parts of the book’s flavor. Since I already covered that in detail I’m going to go ahead and give you a bunch of bite sized thoughts on the matter followed by examples in the shape of the proposals that sold WebMage, The Fallen Blade Series, and School for Sidekicks.
Practical advice on writing synopses.
1. Learn how to do it. If your career ever takes off, it’s likely to be an important and painful part of your life.
2. This is easiest if you can A, write several of them in quick order, and B, get your hands on someone else’s synopsis to read and really thoroughly critique. Knowing what worked or didn’t work for you in someone else’s synopsis is a great learning tool. Doing this with several is better, and synopses that have sold books are probably best, especially if you can read the book at the same time. You needen’t ever give the critique to the author, that’s not why you’re doing it.
3. The normal structural stuff: one inch margins, double spacing, etc.
4. The abnormal structural stuff: Present tense. Five pages is standard for most synopsis requests. For pitch sheets one page, (single spaced!?!-what’s up with that?) is what I’ve been told is standard and how I do mine. different editors and agents often have different rules for these, so YMMV, and be sure to check before sending it along.
5. Dig through your favorite books. Read the dust jacket or back of book blurbs. Really study the ones that successfully represent the book in question. Try to write several of those for your book. Do the the same with the ones that strike you as bad. Pick the best of your sample and expand from there. Don’t try to trim it down from the book.
6. Again, what’s cool to you should drive the synopsis. But don’t forget plot, character, setting, and theme.
7. Try to write it in the same style as the book, not the same voice necessarily, but a funny book should have a funny synopsis.
8. Pace and swear. No really, this helps. So does a long walk away from the computer where you mutter to yourself about what your story is really about.
9. Call your writing buddies. If they’ve read the book, ask them what they thinks its about. This will be enlightening and possibly terrifying. If they haven’t read it, tell them about it. Remember what you’re telling them and use it.
10. Treat yourself when you’re done. The job sucks and you deserve a pat on the back.
11. It goes to eleven!
12. Write the one sentence version. Expand from there.
13. If you outline, grab the outline and trim it to the right size. Then edit for tone and format.
14. The rules can sometimes be bent. My WebMage outline was ten pages double spaced. Both agent(s) and editors were cool with this. Don’t try this at home, i.e. without the approval of your agent if you’ve got one.
The examples are going behind the cut, because they’re enormous.