Writing a synopsis! It’s awful. Especially for those of us on Team Pants (not to be confused with Team Bella), and eschew all manner of plotting, character summaries, chapter outlines, and scene lists. Because really, who wants to do those?
I mean, except you, constant reader. That is, if you do.
As it turns out, lots of agents want you to submit a synopsis with the initial query letter. This is terrifying, headdesky, and amazing. And here’s why.
1. Writing a synopsis is a great writing exercise. You’ve written your book, right? You’ve written your three-sentence teaser and your one-sentence elevator pitch. Now it’s time to condense your 80,000-100,000 words into 300-400. This is much harder than it sounds. Your elevator pitch sounds something like, Ancient mummy raises himself from the dead only to find out that his girlfriend couldn’t come with him; now it’s up to him to find the last scion of the presiding Peruvian priest, who’s the only one who can decipher the code that will bring her back to life and let them live happily ever after. That’s the easy part. But the synopsis requires that you figure out your inciting incidents, climaxes, plot points – you know, all the stuff you’d already know if you’d outlined your novel back at the beginning. But why? I live on the edge! /facepalm
2. Writing a synopsis makes you look critically at your novel. It sounded great while you were writing it, and it sounded great when you revised and edited it, and your mother has patted your head and told you it’s wonderful, dear. But now you’ve got to pick it apart, diagram it, in a way that you haven’t had to do before. Your elevator pitch tells the exciting parts – the parts that are the most ear-catching to strangers. Your teaser gives a little more insight and asks the questions that your novel poses. Your synopsis makes you look at it in a neat little linear model, where Plot Point A leads to Inciting Incident B which leads to Plot Point C, et cetera, et cetera. If it doesn’t make sense on that page, it probably doesn’t make any more sense in its narrative format. So fix it.
3. Writing a synopsis finds plot holes. What’s that you say? You’ve had seventy-five beta readers, some of whom weren’t even family, and they all say it’s wonderful? That’s great. Congratulations. Write a fucking synopsis. Because you’ll find things like that your bartender doesn’t have a last name. (Or maybe he doesn’t have a first name. What? That wasn’t me. Hey, look, more advice!) You’ll find a shaky motivation that needs to be explained. You’ll find a Dickensian character that never came back. Finding these things are all wonderful, and not just because your average bookstore reader doesn’t want it, but because the agent(s) you’re querying – and the editors, eventually – are paid to look for these things. Don’t give them an excuse to put down your letter.
4. Your synopsis needs beta readers, too. Your synopsis isn’t a homework assignment to blow through so that your queried agent can know what’s going on. It’s often the best insight into you, your writing style, and your storytelling abilities that the agent’s going to get. It’s the thing that makes them decide they want to read your manuscript. Make sure your grammar is perfect, your sentence structure is readable, and your voice is strong. (Faith Hunter, author of the Rogue Mage and Jane Yellowrock series, has suggested that you write your synopsis in your character’s voice. I’m on the fence about this. Make your own call.) And if you can, try to find people who have and haven’t read your full manuscript to give you feedback on this. Folks who have read it can tell you if it’s an accurate representation of the manuscript they read, and folks who haven’t can tell you if it makes any damn sense. (Author’s note: love your beta readers. They are awesomely awesome friends that need to be rewarded with booze and sexual favors.)
Now, if you’re anything like me (Team Pants 4 life!!), you probably are having some trouble figuring out where to start. I tried a couple of different methods, all of which turned into infuriatingly masturbatory practices in which nothing was really accomplished. All of the ideas looked good on paper – summarize each scene in one sentence and summarize each chapter in one sentence. That’s fine, except there’s pretty much no way to cram all those one-sentence blurbs together (which probably included lots of dashes and semi-colons so you could twink the rules and still get all the information into one sentence) and have a coherent, much less cohesive, synopsis.
That being said, I highly recommend Kalayna Price’s Write by Number Synopsis Recipe blog over on Magical Words. It may be too constricting for you, but I thought it was awesome. My synopsizing went from two days of headdesking to two hours of flying fingers and giddy smiles. (Okay, maybe not the giddy smiles, but I did finish the thing in two hours.)
Now I’m off to work on query letter drafts. I’ll just be nauseated over here in the corner.
Edit, March 28, 3:55 a.m.: I was told my synopsis was too long and convoluted. This was correct (it was three pages long). I wrote a second draft – which was three-quarters of a page. It took 20 minutes. I imagine that somewhere in between is the correct synopsis. This is why beta readers are important! Love them!