The Dreaded Synopsis

No matter how many times I sit down to write synopses, I always end up screaming: “If I could distill the story into clever sound bytes, I’d be an advertising mogul, not a novelist!”

At least the project on my hardrive is for a novel yet to be written. 

I find it slightly easier to imagine the main plot lines and emotional key points, than to try to figure out the highlights of something I’ve already written.  Plus (and I know my editor is already on to me), but I can do a lot more handwaving, ala writing something akin to “and here a miracle occurs and our hero escapes the baddies” without actually having to describe the nitty-gritty of our hero’s cleverness in the face of danger.

I don’t know a single author who truly enjoys writing the dreaded synopsis, and yet I can hardly think of anything (besides the manuscript itself) that’s more important.  First and foremost, the synopsis is a tool for selling the novel to editors, agents, etc.   But, then, if it sells, it often gets used again  when it goes to the cover artist to give him or her an idea of what the book is about.  Plus, I have also found if its well written, bits of it will get recycled and reworked as back cover copy.

So as much as I’d like to just write a list of “and then, and then”s, I guess I need to do the work of making the stupid thing zippy and exciting.  I will say that I have found at least one good resource that I go back to every time I’m faced with having to write one of these things — a book called Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract:  The Complete Guide to Writing Query Letters, Synopses, and Proposals for Agents and Editorsby Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook.  Even though the book is out-dated in many ways, I love the fact that it contains various versions of actual synopses for you to read and consider, as you ponder how to write your own.  It also reminds the author of various formatting issues, ie. the fact that a synopsis is always written in third person and in present tense (regardless of how the novel’s style). 

In fact, I think I should go re-read that chapter now…. anyone else have good advice on writing synopses they’d like to share?

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Advice? Not so much. Commiseration? Yes. I just did a synopsis sort of thing (I can’t even call it a synopsis) for my next Crosspointe books (theoretically speaking–there won’t be any more if this doesn’t sell them), and getting some detail in there and making it snappy and interesting was . . . oh, let’s just say difficult and forget all analogies to torture, shall we? But anyhow, I look at it and think, it’s all like slapping a pretty coat of paint on a crumbling wall and hoping no one notices the crumbling wall. No one look at the man behind the curtain . . . .

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    “If I could distill the story into clever sound bytes, I’d be an advertising mogul, not a novelist!”

    Exactly.

    Then again, as you point out, most of my latest synopsis looks like it’s going to end up on the dust jacket. So you’re right: much as we might like to, we can’t just blow the damn thing off.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    For those who are interested, I did a series of posts on this over at the Wyrdsmiths blog where Tate also posts:

    One

    Two

    Three

    Four

  4. 4. Karen Wester Newton

    I always compare writing a synopsis to giving birth to a bowling ball&mdash it’s bound to be painful, and it’s never what you were hoping for.

  5. 5. Simon Haynes

    Has anyone thought of dictating their synopsis into the computer, talking about the major points & characters and repeating them until it’s close to what they need? Then they could just play back the best ones and type them up.

    Sometimes changing the media is all you need to find the right message.

  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    Or should we all just write each other’s synopses…? (perhaps we’re all too close to our own work…)

  7. 7. Adam Heine

    I like Alma’s idea. It’s a lot easier for me to see the big picture in somebody else’s story than my own.

    I like what Tate always ends up screaming. For me it was always, “If I could have written the story shorter, I WOULD HAVE!”

  8. 8. Chris Dolley

    And if you’re submitting to agents there’s the added fun of having to write several synopses to meet each agent’s preferences concerning length. So you have the one paragraph pitch, the one page snappy synopsis, the however-many-pages-you-need-to-explain-the-really-clever-magic-system-that-makes-your-book-so-special synopsis…

    And don’t even mention the chapter synopsis:)

  9. 9. Jerry Gordon

    I would recommend checking out the Plot Synopsis Project. Twenty-five authors offered up online examples of at least one successful synopsis with commentary on the process of writing it.

    http://jpsorrow.livejournal.com/143076.html#cutid5

  10. 10. Jay

    *sigh* this Firefox/Greasemonkey workaround to kick off a backtrack ping from my Blogger account doesn’t seem to be working.

    I quoted some lines from this entry in my collateraltales blog:
    http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/2008/08/synopses-and-excerpts.html

    Cheers,
    ^_^J.

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Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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