Posted in Writing, Writing: Help

The Soul-Sucking Synopsis (I Exaggerate, but Barely)

Ask virtually any writer, published or unpublished, who’s gotten as far as the querying stage at least, and they’re bound to agree: when it comes to writing the one- or two-page book synopsis or writing the entire tens-of-thousands-of-words manuscript, the latter is probably easier. I’m not kidding.

Luckily for me, my agent was one of the types who never asked for the synopsis (and he agreed with me on how awful they are)—not even after I signed with him! (It may be needed in the future, of course, so I can’t hold a digital fire and delete the wretched things off my hard drive…) But I wrote several versions before I started querying anyway because a fair number of agents do ask for one, either upfront or after they request further materials from you.

My first attempt was a joke. I tried writing about two sentences per chapter, but I couldn’t stick to it. In the end, I had about five single-spaced pages, which wasn’t going to fly. (I hear tell that sometimes agents will request 5-10-page+ synopses from you, but probably not until they sign you, and perhaps not even then, so don’t worry about writing a long one while still querying.)

When an agent requests a “one-page synopsis,” from what I understand, you can write it “Internet style,” which is single-spaced, chunk-like paragraphs and two spaces between paragraphs (see this blog entry as an example). The “two-page synopsis” is double-spaced and manuscript style, with indented paragraphs and no extra spaces between paragraphs. I found that the two are actually almost the same, when you take into account the spacing. The two-page one did allow for a few more sentences, though. (And every sentence you can wring out of the space counts. Really!) Expect both versions to be between 500-1000 words, and the closer to 500 words, the better. Yes, you have to distill your entire book into fewer than 1000 words. (I wound up with about 600 for the one-page and 760 for the two-page.)

I’m probably not the best source of advice on the subject, as I’m still not that proud of my synopses. Still, I’d be glad to share the tips that helped me rip the final results from my brain over a long period of three weeks and several drafts:

  • Aim for the limited space from the start. Originally, I thought I’d write up a summary of the book as I pleased and cut out any extra words later. Yeah… That wasn’t going to cut it when during my first try, I came up with a 3500-word version I needed to cut down to as close to 500 words as possible. I started over from scratch without even looking at the first version.
  • Follow the greater plot and cut out the subplots. If you ever write a longer version, you can put the subplots in there, but when every word is crucial, you’ll have to skip entire storylines. I actually skipped almost all of my beginning in which I set up the world, except for a couple of sentences that explained the world clearly. (When I changed the beginning of the manuscript drastically, I didn’t even have to change the synopsis since I never was able to fit in information about the start!) It helps that you have to…
  • Name only three (or four?) characters. The main character is a given, but most of the characters s/he interacts with will have to be known by their roles such as “Tanya’s sister” or “the old neighbor.” Other characters you might choose to name are any love interest(s) or antagonist(s). Everything I read said to name no more than three characters, but I could not do mine without four. Maybe some agents/editors are flexible… Oh, and by the way, put the names in all-caps the first time you write them in the synopsis: Sixteen-year-old TANYA RICHARDS ….
  • Try to add your voice. I had a lot of trouble with this one. You don’t want your synopsis to be boring—you’re probably using it as one part of your package to sell your book to an agent or editor—so it’s got to have some of that query-like, back-of-the-book-type flair. Try to project the same tone you use to narrate your book. (By which I don’t mean write in first person if your manuscript is in first person. Write in third person always with synopses.) I don’t think I quite did that (it was hard enough for me to get the story out in such limited space), but I know my fellow writer and beta reader did with her sassy book synopsis.
  • Delete unnecessary words. After the horrible first attempt at a synopsis, I wrote one that was about 1100 words. That’s the one I was able to get down to two pages and then one page. To do so, I deleted as many adverbs and adjectives as I could and made sure every sentence added something important to the summary. If not, it had to go, no matter how much it hurt to cut it.

Have you written a synopsis? What tips worked for you?

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Author:

YA author of THE NEVER VEIL SERIES (NOBODY'S GODDESS, NOBODY'S LADY, NOBODY'S PAWN), FALL FAR FROM THE TREE, BALLAD OF THE BEANSTALK, JOSIE'S COAT, and DROWNED SILENCE.

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