For the last week or so, I’ve been going over prepping a synopsis for tucking inside a query envelope, adding to the partial an agent has requested that you send, plopping into a contest entry, or having at the ready in anticipation for such a request at a pitch meeting. As with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready before you anticipate needing it.
Especially if you are intending to query or pitch at a conference anytime soon. You will be SUBSTANTIALLY happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together. Then, too, giving some serious thought to the overarching themes of your book is an excellent first step in pulling together a pitch.
Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals less talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.
If you take nothing else away from the synopsis-writing part of the Book Marketing 101 series, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard; be sure to budget adequate time for it.
If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. The synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary.
Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.
Remember, too, that you should be shooting for 3 — 5 pages, unless you are SPECIFICALLY asked to produce something longer or shorter. If your draft persists in being less, and you are synopsizing a book-length work, chances are that you are not including the plot or argument in sufficient detail.
So go back and reread it: is what you have hear honestly a reader-friendly telling of your story or a convincing presentation of your argument, or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes? For most too-short synopses, it is the latter.
If you really get stuck about how to make it longer, print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.
Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines. Then ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?
I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. The fewer generalities you can use here, the better, especially for fiction.
I’ll let those of you into brevity in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than generalities. Think about it from an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 synopses per week: wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile? But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind?
And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?
Uh-huh. It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it.
Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to do that?
If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long, you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the [primary] plot or argument of the book.
Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book? If so, do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?
If your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Yes, you will need this information to appear prominently in a synopsis you would send with a cold query letter, but as I mentioned yesterday, once you have been asked to submit pages, your synopsis has different goals.
You might want to consider minimizing the premise-setting section regardless; the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.
Try trimming this down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot.
If this seems dangerous to you, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book. So why be repetitious?
Let me show you how it works (and yes, long-term readers, I have used this example before). Let’s say that you were Jane Austen, and you were pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (You should be so lucky!)
The agent is, naturally, charmed by the story — because you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story — and asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.
See? Advance research really does pay off.
Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:
ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) are in a pitiable position: due to the whimsical will of their great-uncle, the family estate passes at the death of their wealthy father into the hands of their greedy half-brother, JOHN DASHWOOD (early 30s). Their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40), soon offended at John’s wife’s (FANNY FERRARS DASHWOOD, late 20s) domineering ways and lack of true hospitality, wishes to move her daughters from Norland, the only home they have ever known, but comparative poverty and the fact that Elinor is rapidly falling in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s), render any decision on where to go beyond the reach of her highly romantic speculations.
Yet when John and his wife talk themselves out of providing any financial assistance to the female Dashwoods at all, Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer of her cousin, SIR JOHN MIDDLETON (middle aged) to move her family to Barton Park, hundreds of miles away. Once settled there, the Dashwoods find themselves rushed into an almost daily intimacy with Sir John and his wife, LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s) at the great house. There, they meet COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), Sir John’s melancholy friend, who seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?
Marianne’s heart is soon engaged elsewhere: she literally falls into love. Dashing and romantic WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair is inseparable, agreeing in every particular: in music, in poetry, in the proper response to life, which is to ignore propriety in favor of expressing unrestrained feeling. When Col. Brandon is abruptly obliged to cancel a party in order to rush off to London to attend to mysterious business, the lovers are perfectly agreed that stuffy old Brandon made up the urgency in order to spoil their pleasure.
All too quickly, however, it is Willoughby’s turn to be called away by mysterious duties, leaving a weeping Marianne courting every memory of their happy days together while Elinor wonders why the pair have not announced their evident engagement.
Edward comes to visit the Dashwoods, but he is sadly changed, morose and apparently afraid to be left alone with Elinor, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Edward is wearing an unexplained ring, human hair set in metal: he claims it is his sister Fanny’s but the Dashwoods are sure it is Elinor’s.
Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? So, being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:
At the death of their wealthy father, ELINOR (19) and MARIANNE DASHWOOD (17) and their affectionate but impractical mother (MRS. DASHWOOD, 40) are forced to leave their life-long home and move halfway across England, to live near relatives they have never seen, far away from Elinor’s beloved EDWARD FERRARS (mid-20s). At the home of their cousins SIR JOHN (late 30s) and LADY MIDDLETON (late 20s), melancholy COLONEL BRANDON (early 40s), seems struck by Marianne’s musical ability — and beauty. But does his sad face conceal a secret?
Dashing WILLOUGHBY (26) happens to be riding by when Marianne tumbles down a hillside, spraining her ankle. Just like the romantic hero of her dreams, he sweeps her up and carries her to safety. Soon, the pair is inseparable, much to Col. Brandon’s chagrin. He rushes off to London to attend to mysterious business. All too quickly, however, Willoughby’s is called away, too. Marianne spends her days courting every tender memory of him, while Elinor wonders why the pair has not announced their evident engagement.
Elinor’s love life is less successful: when Edward comes to visit, he seems afraid to be left alone with her, despite Marianne’s continual and well-meaning efforts to allow the lovebirds solitude in which to coo. Does his silence mean he no longer loves Elinor?
See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!
I feel another one of my pre-flight checklists welling up with me, but that will have to wait until tomorrow. Keep up the good work!