Friday, 17 July 2009

Coffee Break: Confusion and the Synopsis

Good morning, Novel Racers. I don’t know who’s on more of a ‘go slow’ this morning, my brain, or my computer, so apologies before I start. I have a selection of buttery croissants for you to enjoy with your teas and coffees, so please help yourself.

Something that I work on intermittently is my synopsis, and as several of you have recently finished your books, I thought I would ask how you go about writing one. I know there are many tips online and in the ‘How To’ books as to how these should be written, what they should contain, and how long they should be, but the problem for me is that most give you varying advice.

Some advice tells you to write approximately four pages, others say to keep the length to only one page. Some say that it should tell the entire story whilst others say they do not want to read the ending, although admittedly they are in the minority. How do you manage to fit 90,000 – 100,000 words into one, or even four pages? How can you describe the book, with its most important turning points, in so few words whilst still giving the reader an idea of your writing style?

All these points worry me as I rework my synopsis, and so my question to you today is, how do you plan and write something so important and representative of your book?


Leatherdykeuk said...

Oh, Dogs! Ican't answer this. The nearest approach I get to it is a kind of 'cliff notes' summery of each chapter, then whittled down until you just get to the required word count.

liz fenwick said...

First off - The blog has been blocked as SPAM???? I have sent the request for them to check it and hopefully it will be sorted soon!

Great question. I hated them. Someone advised me to write my first draft as if I was telling a friend all the highlights so this is what I do. They I just keep cutting until I have only one page. Then I check make sure what is left has all key characters and turning points until the end of the story.

I also always start out with the hook.

p.s.Will update in comments any updates on the blocking

skywind said...

Thinks and saw to writes. In brief, each day is new day.

Flowerpot said...

It's SO difficult - I hate synopses! But essentially as Liz said, get down all the main points of the novel, all the developments of plot and character, hooks etc. And say what happens - don't leave the ending out. Most people like 1 or 2 pages - it's best to ask the agent which they prefer.

Fia said...

I am sort of looking at now as one synopsis for me and one for agents because there seems such a difference in what they want.

For my WIP, I wrote a rough outline and am now writing a few paragraphs on each scene with room for lots of scribbles as it's bound to change as I go along.

There is a book entirely about writing a synopsis but I haven't read it and I've forgotten what it's called. Anyone?

KeVin K. said...

Media tie-in writing is backwards, but it may offer a useful thought. (Also I'm using this material in a column at Novel Spaces tomorrow so it's fresh in my head.)
To sell a novel we must first pitch the idea to the editor -- the pitch is a sentence or two that captures the high concept. If the editor likes the pitch, she asks for a proposal, which can be as long or as short as the editor wants (at Pocket it was 1500 words, but three times that at Roc). The proposal is not so much a summary as a sales pitch, because if the editor likes it, she takes it to the licensor of the IP. If the owner of the intellectual property approves, the writer gets the go-ahead (and contract) to write the novel.

My advice is: Don't try to summarize events in your novel. Write a proposal.
Capture the heart of the novel, the foundation and driving idea, with just enough specifics to let the editor know how you handle those elements. Something that shows why your story is unique and why you're the writer who can tell it best.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

There seem to be at least two different things potentially meant by synopsis. Some people want basic description of what happens in book, whereas others effectively want a kind of marketing blurb. But less is always more, so I always aim for one page only, two pages max if we're talking description rather than blurb.

I also have realised that whichever version you're aiming for, it shouoldn't be only an afterthought at the end of the process. Unless you already have a publishing deal, it's a VERY important document. You have to do several drafts, and get as much feedback as possible.

One thing to avoid at all costs is "first this happens, then this, then that." It's dull and hard to read. You need to do overall summaries of plot, character and tone. You need to be able to compare yourself to other writers. You need to find some understandable description of genre, even if its genreless or a mixture of several things. You need to make it sound interesting. You need it to be engaging in and of itself. Humour is good, where appropriate. It needs to be well written. And it can be very helpful indeed if you can get someone else to do a basic version for you to work with. Someone who has read the book, is good at summarising, has an objective view, can see the strong points and won't get bogged down in unnecessary detail (AVOID UNNECESSARY DETAIL). I'm really lucky cos my other half is a journalist, an arts journalist in fact, so is very good at summarising books with minimal words.

Hope that's helpful...

Graeme K Talboys said...

I share the general loathing of this process, although having written successful proposals for non-fiction, I suppose I ought to be able to hndle it. I think my problem is that you put all that subtlty into your writng and then have to reduce it to a couple of pages.

It depends how much you plan your work in advance, but if you do, it is worth doing the pitch at an early stage. One sentence hook; paragraph of blurb (the sort of thing you find on the cover); and two page outline written as a story. Of course, that only really works if you have a fairly conventional text. Writing a synopsis for anything slightly out of the ordinary can be a nightmare.

Even if you don't do at the beginning, I would say try not to leave until the end. When you have spent the better part of a year or two working on something, it can be soul destroying to realise you then have to condense it. Start early and keep working on it.

Rowan Coleman said...

I have to write a synopsis/proposal for each new book idea and it tends to be 3-4 pages long, hook, plot outline character outline and key plot points. For my first novel I wrote the synopsis in the first person from the POV of the main character - this seemed to work when it came to getting publishers interested. I've also written detailed proposals that a twenty pages long. There's no right way I think but if I was submitting to an agent or editor for the first time I'd try and think of a key pitch and an interesting way of presenting the material.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Having read the comments, I'm back for more...

"I'd try and think of a key pitch and an interesting way of presenting the material."

What Rowan said. Unless an agent specifically asks for a detailed breakdown of plot, do NOT think of that as your key objective. You are not trying to describe the book to someone who hasn't read it, you are trying to SELL it, which is a very different proposition. Think blurb. Try and make it exciting, intriguing, interesting. And I don't agree that you should tell the ending. If the ending is any kind of a surprise, and if that surprise is a key part of enjoying the reading experience, then don't spoil it for the agent. I've heard agents complain about this. And what's said can't be unsaid. If you make it clear there is a twist or surprise at the end, then if the agent wants to know what it is, they can ask. As far as possible let them know what kind of surprise it is, but that should be enough.

For what it's worth, here's what I wrote for my second book. It does do very brief description of plot, but it also attempts to sell it. Note I don't reveal the ending. I think it must have been a pretty good effort cos I sent it to 30 agents and most of them asked to see more, sometimes on the basis of this alone, sometimes on the basis of this plus first three chaps:

"It's completely mental.

Or so Leo thinks, and he should know - because Leo is a mentalist.

Henrietta thinks people should stay the hell out of each other’s heads, keep their hands to themselves, and dance with people they know. Not with strangers. Not in public. And especially not psychically. That’s just ridiculous.

Psychic Dancing is a New Age sensation, but is it a trick of the mind? A harmless self-help technique? Or a breakthrough in human consciousness, which will end all pain and disease?

Leo makes money from reading minds, so he knows full well it’s a con. But Leo’s gigs are poorly attended, and Psychic Dancing’s a hit. So when his dead grandad sends an insult from the grave, Leo does something drastic.

Henrietta’s past won’t leave her alone, her son wants a father, her new neighbour's a Psychic Dancing fanatic and Henrietta’s fallen in love with Belle, who loves Leo, who loves Denzel, who will only love him back if Leo admits he’s gay.

The climax comes in the Albert Hall in the presence of thousands, when something magical happens. Something which surprises everyone.

Told with humour, a twisted eye and some magical know-how, this book is an energetic and intriguing tale of love, lust and illusion. With a cast of tricksters, worshipers, lovers and bent spoons, it will have you guessing - and believing - to the end.

After all...

We easily believe what we ardently desire to be true."

Anonymous said...

Great question, I'm thinking about a synopsis at the moment too, but doing very little about it. I am very interested to read the comments here, some varied answers.

CJ xx

SueG said...

It seems like so many of us hate writing the synopsis. It's like doing the agent's/publisher's work for them. I keep them short, punchy and to the point.I tend to think that if I write it like a marketing piece, ie short and catchy, then the reader will be interested enough to at least look at the book's first 3 chapters. And that's all I could imagine asking a synopsis to do.

Karen said...

With great difficulty! (I'll have a croissant by the way, if there are any left :o))

I must admit I've kept mine short and succinct - more blurby than synopsisy, only 500 words or so which I think is okay as long as you encapsulate all the important bits of your novel.

It ain't easy though - I'd happily pay someone to do it for me :o)

Debs said...

Thanks for all your brilliant comments. I'm taking note, as I need all the help I can get when it comes to these pesky things.

Liane Spicer said...

This is the part of the process I dread the most. My reading seems to indicate that three pages of single-paced 12-point is the norm. Some places tell you that a synopsis is not an outline, and others say it is. Some even specify that they want a chapter-by-chapter outline.

There is absolutely no way you can get all your subtleties, your minor turns and characters in there. They do ask that the synopsis be written in the same tone of your novel, though, so if the story is humorous or dark or whatever the writing in the synopsis should echo that.

My synopsis is more of an outline, because my publishers require that. I usually start out with six or seven pages and after a lot of cursing and pulling out of hair, squeeze it down to three. I've even stooped to reducing margins to get it to fit!

Several (US) agents whose blogs I follow have said that the purpose of the synopsis is not to sell the book, but to give them an idea of how it develops. The hook gets the agent/editor interested, but the sample pages sell the book. And all that I've seen say that the ending should never be left out.

Like everything else in this industry there's no hard and fast rule, so the thing to do is research the requirements of the agents/editors/publishers you're submitting to and adapt your material to their rules.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

Maybe different genres have different rules? Certainly I ended up writing several synopses, each one tailored to whatever agent I was pitching it at, but not many of the ones I approached wanted detailed outlines. Intriguing stuff.

HelenMHunt said...

I haven't even started thinking properly about this issue yet. Having finished my first draft, I know that the moment is nigh when I will have to tackle it. And when I do, I'll definitely be referring back to this blog post.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it's far too late for there to be any croissants left and the beverages have no doubt gone cold. However, here are my thoughts on synopses.

Possibly the worst mistake is to confuse synopsis with blurb. A blurb is there to sell your book to readers, often not written by the author but by someone in the publisher's marketing department. A synopsis, on the other hand, is to help "sell" your book to an agent or a publisher (as Beleaguered Squirrel said). They are therefore quite different beasties. Blurbs are very short adverts for the story in the book, usually without spoilers. A synopsis will be a complete, though condensed, summary of the story, including the ending.

For myself and, I'm sure, many others; a synopsis is also a planning tool. Since it's a summary of the story and plot, it can serve as a guideline while you're still writing the story. For this reason, it's a good idea to write the book and the synopsis in parallel, rather than leaving the synopsis until the end. A word of warning though: you must keep them synchronised. If the synopsis is out-of-date then it's potentially worse than not having one.

Note that writing and maintaining a synopsis is not the only way to plan and plot. I tend to use storyboards, which have the advantage of more detail than a synopsis, but can serve as a good basis for a synopsis later by further summarising and condensing. Of course, it's essential that the storyboards are kept in-sync as well.

As far as "rules" go, I think they are likely to be country/market-specific, perhaps even agent/publisher-specific. Having said that, here are a few tips that came from Elizabeth Hawksley at last year's Writers' Holiday at Caerleon:


* Single-spaced.
* Try to keep to two pages in length.
* Write in present tense.
* Only mention names that are main characters, or significantly important characters.
* Consider ages when thinking about target readership.
* Plug any unique selling points.
* Up the ante and tensions.

Covering Letter

* Keep to one page.
* Make sure you state the title, genre and length early on.
* Use proper stamps on any SAE - not pre-franked stuff.
* Include successes in any writing competitions.
* Other non-fiction writing capabilities.
* E-Mail address.

I'm working on a synopsis for Insight by completing the storyboards (not currently in-sync - sigh), then deriving the synopsis from that. So far it's already seven pages long. There's a lot of work to do.

Great topic, Debs.