Thursday, April 6, 2017

Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis

Zestful Blog Post #206

Everybody hates to write synopses. Your novel is finished, and now you want to shop it around, and you need a synopsis. Or you’ve written your seventh, but your editor requires a detailed synopsis every time, before they sign the contract. Or they require a synopsis before you even write the thing! You need a synopsis.

And synopses suck to write, they just do. I’ve critiqued synopses for clients, I’ve written my own, and the whole business of distilling your story to something that sounds fabulous is onerous and upsetting. You have to leave out so much, and whatever you put in is incomplete, so how do you decide, rrrrgh, rrrrgh, sucking, sucking. I’m not talking about a paragraph-long piece of cover copy, though those suck to write as well; I’m talking about the extended, multi-page synopsis you need to satisfy agents and especially editors. Gosh—this just occurred to me: A fabulous side benefit of self-publishing is that you don’t have to write synopses. But if you’re after a trad-pub deal, you gotta do ’em.

OK, I promised a magic cure, and here it is.

Don’t write your synopsis. Talk it.

That’s it, basically. Walk away from pen and paper, walk away from the keyboard. Get cozy with a voice recorder and start telling your story to it. Ideally, use a voice-to-text application and be in a private setting where you can’t feel inhibited about being overheard. Speak as if you’re telling a friend the story from the start. Don’t worry if you feel awkward/stupid, and have to start and stop. Keep at it, and things will go smoother. If you were talking to a (patient, interested) friend, you’d tell what happens, and you’d also talk about the story’s themes— “OK, and there’s this rebirth imagery that keeps cropping up, like when…” You might talk a little about the germ of the story, the seed that made you think, hey, I could write a novel about this! And you’d talk about the characters, both generally and specifically. You’d talk a bit about the settings, perhaps. You might repeat yourself, you might think of something out of order— “Oh! And yeah, the guy’s brother used to be on the bomb squad, so he’s got like this inside dope on how those robots work…” Natter on. If you do this, and do it naturally and in a relaxed way, you will not be gripping your head in frustration.

Then when you feel like you’ve pretty much got it covered, stop and transcribe it or print it out. NOW you’ve got something to work with! Let it sit for a day or two, then get it out and start editing. You’ll immediately see what sounds good and what doesn’t, which parts are more important, which ones less. You’ll cut redundancies, you’ll cut extraneous words, you’ll tighten things up with conjunctions that flow instead of stumble. Your text will already be in an informal, vocal cadence, and that’s good for a synopsis, which ought to sound fun, chatty, and quick. You’ll notice good turns of phrase, and poor ones. You’ll tighten things up more. You’ll have a synopsis.

This technique isn’t really magic (I confess), but it can help magic happen! I’ve tested it on my own material. If you try it, let me know how it goes.

[photo and photo manipulation by ES]

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Rose Knapman said...

This is a wonderful concept for people who can converse. I'm not one of those people. I actually say things better on paper than in a conversation. However I do know about the pain and difficulty of trying to write a synopsis. For me it was just like trying to have a conversation.

Elizabeth Sims said...

Gosh, Rose, I'm laughing, but the synopsis has you going and coming! Total sympathies.

Tricialafille said...

Interestingly, I just read a synopsis as part of a submission for a literary competition that was so poor I dreaded reading the portion of the manuscript. Surprise! The book was so good I wanted to finish the entire thing on the spot. If I were an agent or publisher, I probably wouldn't have gone that far. Proof of how important synopses are, and your "talk it out" advice is priceless.

Elizabeth Sims said...

Thanks for sharing your experience, Tricia. A few years back, my agent told me she and most of her peers, when queried by a hopeful author, don't read the synopsis first; they read the sample pages, then if they're any good they'll read the synopsis.

Betty Phillips said...

Luckily, I've only had to write one synopsis so far, and it was just horrifying. The thought that a publisher was going to use that to decide whether she wanted to even look at my book was enough to make my hands shake. Fortunately, she did want to read it, but the process was just awful.
How about one of your magic bullets for writing blurbs? Those are now the bane of my writing career. I'd almost rather write another book than write the blurb, but we do it. Is there some magic formula for a good one?

Pam Buchmeyer said...

Natter on indeed, cool fresh idea, thank Ez.

Elizabeth Sims said...

Betty, are you talking about like flap copy or back cover copy? (As opposed to giving a promo blurb for someone else's book?)

And Pam, thanks for stopping in. The comment box worked this time!

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what a wonderful experience you share,..
keep share