It turned out that yesterday’s nagging feeling that I was about to produce a checklist of common synopsis mistakes to avoid was 100% accurate. Kind of predictable, actually, as I am addicted to such lists and synopses vary so much that there honestly is no single reliable formula for producing the perfect one.
But you can steer clear of the problems agents and their screeners see every day, right?
Okay, let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. (Let us further assume that you have launched upon the synopsis-creating process long enough before you need one that you have time for an editing phase.) Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD.
Why out loud, and why in hard copy? And why does that question make my long-time readers chuckle?
I freely admit it: this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text, and it will make rhythm problems leap off the page at you.
Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well.
(And don’t think that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity — it’s the one with a word missing here or there.)
After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words and ungraceful phrases, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.
(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?
You want the answer to be the former, of course. Why? Well, if you’ve been following the entire Book Marketing 101 series, you should be hearing the reason in your sleep by now, but allow me to repeat it: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are.
Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you have writing talent. Not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because tens of thousands of people do that, but that you have writing talent and sharp, clearly-delineated insights. It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters.
And if your favorite line or image of the book does not make a guest appearance in the synopsis, why not?
(2) Does the story or argument make sense, as it is told in the synopsis? Is more specific information necessary to make it work?
This is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.
If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.
Insofar as a hole can leap, that is.
(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?
This is where most synopses stumble, frankly, because it is hard for a writer to notice about his own work: most synopses summarize plot or argument adequately, but in the rush to fit everything in, the telling becomes a bit dry. The goal here is not to provide a laundry list of major plot points, after all, but to give an overview of the dramatic arc of the book.
The easiest way to tell if the synopsis is holding together as a good yarn is to hand it to someone who has NOT been around you while you have been writing the book (trust me, you’ve been talking about your plot or argument, if only in your sleep). Ask her to read it over a couple of times.
Then chat with her about something else for half an hour. At the end of that time, ask her to tell you the plot of the book — WITHOUT looking at the synopsis again. Don’t comment while she does it; just write down the points that fell out of her account.
After you have thanked this kind soul profusely and sent her on her way, highlight the missed points on the synopsis pages. Read through the synopsis, omitting the highlighted bits: does the story hold together without them? If so, are those bits really necessary?
If the storyline suffers from the omissions, go back over the individual sentences that depict those plot points. Chances are, your reader found these points unmemorable because they were summarized, rather than enlivened with specific details.
If you’re too shy (or too rushed) to try this experiment, there are a couple of pretty good structural indicators that a synopsis has fallen into laundry-list mode. Once again, your trusty highlighting pen is your friend here. Go through the synopsis and mark every use of the word AND, as well as every instance of the passive voice.
Then revisit each marked sentence with an eye to revision. Both of these phenomena tend to be symptomatic of rushed storytelling.
Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that a writer trying to crush an 80,000 word story or argument into three pages might conceivably feel a mite rushed. But trust me on this one: that is not the primary impression you want to give an agency screener.
More checklist items follow tomorrow, of course. Keep up the good work!