Thursday, May 24, 2018

Escape from Synopsis Hell

Zestful Blog Post #265

Recently an aspiring novelist asked me for help in writing her synopsis. Then another one did, and I figure it’s time to say a few more things about doing synopses, beyond last year's Zestful Blog Post #206, "Magic Cure for Synopsis Paralysis." The Web abounds with good advice on how to write a synopsis for your book project, and you can google around. Here is my minimum advice for maximum success.

A synopsis is a short document that tells what happens in your book. Agents and editors want them so they have to do less work, like reading your manuscript. The format they expect is third person, present tense, so do that, no matter what you’ve used in your story. They also expect that when they see a character’s name for the first time, it will be in all caps and/or bold. That’s it. Don’t add pictures or curlicues.

Relax and decide you’re gonna have fun doing this, goddammit. Even though writing a synopsis feels like a matter of life and death, getting tense just becomes its own problem.

Forge your material with an iron will and a light heart. Photo by ES
 Here we go.
  • Accept the fact that there’s no such thing as a perfect synopsis. Just as you need to dump perfectionism while writing, you need to dump it here too. You might need to write a long synopsis (thousands of words) and a short one (hundreds), because agents and editors ask for different things. Start with the long one. Then just cut it down to make the short one. We’ll talk about back-cover blurbs some other time.
  • In your rough-out session, flip through the manuscript and write down the heart-clutching moments. You’ve just created your synopsis framework. In "Magic Cure," I advise talking it into a recording device instead of writing it. This works for some writers but not others, so you can do it whatever way suits you.
  • Flesh things out by writing how each heart-clutching moment is connected to the next. If you get stuck, just tell what happens next as simply as you can.
  • Prompt yourself with these two questions: What does your main character lose (or expend) during the story? What does he win (or gain) at the end? Because that’s basically your plot. Keep that character’s wins and losses in front of your reader.
  • Give yourself a short amount of time to do this. You can and will dick around with this forever, unless you decide something like, “I’ll get it roughed out between 2 and 3 this afternoon, and come what may, I’ll get it finished before meeting Joe and Rose Ellen for cocktails on Saturday.”
  • Break up your time on it. This might sound counter to what I just said, because won’t more work sessions add up to more time? Not necessarily. If you try to get the thing done in one long session, you’ll glaze over and stop being able to tell what sounds/reads good. But if you let it sit overnight and come back to it, maybe even three or four times, you’ll keep bringing a fresh perspective to it, and you’ll save time in the end. Spend no more than an hour at a stretch on it.
  • Cut anything that doesn’t sound peppy.
  • Declare victory and move on.

Before asking for comments, I want to congratulate my friend Alison Solomon on her new book:

Now, what do you think? Do you have any tips/tricks for writing synopses? To post, click below where it says, 'No Comments,' or '2 Comments,' or whatever.
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  1. Thanks for the great advice. I was able to write the synopsis for my latest manuscript using my outline. It was a lot easier. Because I had an outline, those heart-clutching moments were already highlighted. I can't imagine ever trying to write a story again without an outline.

    1. Somehow I missed seeing your comment until now, Bev. Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to more of your great fiction!


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