Wednesday, February 1, 2012

How NOT to Write a Synopsis: Breakdown

Okay, so I didn't have time to write a fake bad synopsis, and I'm certainly not going to post my own first synopsis draft (it's really boring), so you'll just have to imagine for now. Maybe later I'll have time, but we had a death in the family yesterday and, well, grief and funeral travel really sucks the extras out of your day, you know?

So here's the quick and dirty on why each of my tips from Monday were a bunch of hooey. I preface this by pointing out that I am NOT 1) an agent, 2) particularly experienced in writing synopses, or 3) going on more than just my limited experience, here. If you disagree with what I'm saying (especially if you find an agent who disagrees), feel free to disregard.
  1. Don't start with a 1-page synopsis. Just don't. Maybe later, after you've written a longer one, you'll be ready to try for the 1-pager. Starting out to write a 1-page synopsis is like deciding to swim the English channel once you've conquered the breast stroke. You're not ready, and you're going to choke. (Well, okay, so you might be a lot better at this than I am, so if you are, assume I'm talking about me. I'll just wait here for when you need oxygen.)
  2. Don't sweat the spacing, etc, in your rough draft. Each agent has different guidelines and the ones who don't, don't care. Some say they want it 4-6 pages double-spaced. Give them what they ask for. Some want a "brief" synopsis, which is probably between 1-3 pages, single-spaced, but can also be 2-6 pages double-spaced ("brief" likely doesn't mean more than that, unless you're writing a law brief, which is a whole different blog). If you're at all nervous, scour the agency website for specifics and consider tweeting them or people who have queried them in the past. Chances are, if they don't have specifics, anything close is fine.
  3. Lots of online articles explain how to go about deciding what information to include. None of them advocate ignoring your manuscript while you do it. Putting too many details in is FINE while you're writing the rough draft. I actually think it will help you to keep some sort of tone and flavor. Edit later. Decide later what can stay and what doesn't justify its presence. Don't bleed out your synopsis. It doesn't work for your writing, and it doesn't work for your synopsis.
  4. Short sentences rock. I felt so dumb when I figured this one out. I had these huge sentences in my synopsis so I could hurry through the plot. They sounded exactly like huge long sentences normally sound: clunky, hard to read, and impossible to understand. Breaking them up helped with the flow and didn't actually increase my word count that much. D-Oh!
  5. Same paragraph rules apply in the synopsis as apply in regular writing. Crazy, huh? Everything in the paragraph should relate to everything else in the paragraph. If that means that your synopsis will have lots of different paragraphs, well, good. That's an excellent sign that lots of different things happen in your book. If you can find a way to show that two different events are connected, wonderful: let them share a paragraph. Just don't talk about how Bella almost got raped by a gang of thugs in the same paragraph that you talk about how lots of boys asked her to the prom.
  6. Halfway through, you are GOING to worry that your synopsis is running long. DON'T. Yes, it's running long, but if you're anything like me, your manuscript's rough draft ran long, too. That's why they invented editing. Just keep writing for now. Let the subplots crop up when they want to and trim them back later. When you look at everything together, you'll be better able to decide what is part of a subplot and what is related to the main action. I promise, it will be faster and easier to do it this way than to try to cut things before they're on the page. So long as you don't try to turn in your rough draft, you'll be fine.
  7. Brandon Sanderson says that, if you're going to solve problems with your magic, your reader has to understand how it works. (Who hasn't pointed across the room and said "Accio Book!") If, however, you aren't going to solve problems with it, you don't have to explain it. Same holds true for your synopsis - even if you're not writing a fantasy. If something is essential enough to be included in the synopsis, it's essential enough to explain. That explanation might be a tad bland, but it still has to be done. Spice it up if you can, but get it in there. Don't just say that "Harry uses magic to summon his broom" (HP GOF, #4), say that "he lifts his wand high and declares 'Accio broom!'" See? Not much longer and a heck of a lot more interesting. 
  8. More essential is explaining anything that impacts your character's motivations. Like emotions. Compare "Mr. Darcy proposes and Elizabeth refuses him" with "Mr. Darcy, in a long speech about how he loves her despite her odious relations, proposes marriage. Elizabeth, shocked and offended, vehemently refuses." You don't want agents wondering WHY your characters do what they do. You're not just trying to prove that you can plot: you're trying to prove that you can plot WELL. That means you must show that actions are followed by reactions and that your characters aren't just making choices willy-nilly.
  9. Synopses are boring, yo. If you can throw in an extra word or three here and there to help spice them up, DO IT!  Agents have to read these things. Don't go crazy, but you can say that the nurse used the nasty-tasting Skele-grow to painfully regrow all of Harry's arm-bones, even though the name of the potion isn't essential. Be careful with this one, though: too many colorful details will bog the synopsis down worse than having too few. Err on the side of bland, but edge close to the line when you can.
  10. In my first synopsis, I rushed past the climax and barely touched on the denouement. So dumb. That's where everything comes together. If the plot makes sense, it HAS to show in the climax. Don't skimp here. Explain every detail in your rough draft, then cut it back, looking for clarity and excitement rather than brevity. Mine is now about a third of my entire synopsis.
  11. I'm still struggling with this, but I do believe that it's essential to have someone who hasn't read your book read your synopsis. There's just no other way to figure out if everything will make sense to an agent - who hasn't read your book. Just bite the bullet and sacrifice one of your kind friends who won't get the full joy of reading the book as it was meant to be read. You can make it up to them later. Acknowledgments are nice. (No, I didn't get to help Brodi with any portion of her writing process, despite constantly begging.)
  12. Treat the synopsis the same way you treat your manuscript. Don't just dash it off and hit send. Write it. Let it sit. Edit it. Send it to a friend (see #11). Let it sit. Edit it again. Agents may not expect it to be perfect, but, seriously, they have your 300 word query letter, your 300-3000 word writing sample, and this synopsis to decide whether you're a good enough writer to take a chance on. Don't wonder later if things would have been different if you'd just taken some time.
  13. There are as many ways to write a good synopsis as there are different books and different authors. Research how others have done it and figure out what works for your book and your writing style.
  14. When all else fails, this is still very helpful: 

What pitfalls did you fall into while writing your synopsis? Do a gal a favor and tell me where they were, huh?


  1. Wow, that's quite the list Robin. I wrote my first synopsis just to get the whole thing down. Even though I cut tons from it, it was a worthwhile exercise because once I used that great link in our January challenge to choose key points, it helped that I'd already identified what what could be included.

  2. Wow, this info is super helpful:) I think my biggest problem when writing one is to show the plot in a shortened version & still have it make sense to the voices outside my head, lol. But that's when other writers come in handy, hopefully before sending it to agents!