CHAPTER ONE: GENERAL POINTS ABOUT SYNOPSES
1.1 The function of a synopsis…
…is not to make people cry or laugh or be as terrified as a terrified thing. It is to show the decision-makers that you do actually have a book that hangs together and doesn’t just get off on a stunning start and an amazing concept; and to show what sort of book it is. A good synopsis shows that your book works, from beginning to end. Here are the main things that the agent or editor needs to learn from it:
1. The plot suits the genre – or if it’s ground-breaking then it’s at least ground-breaking in a way that works and is likely to have a market.
2. The right stuff happens to the right people at the right time and for reasons that make sense.
3. The central conflict seems to be properly built up in a way that suggests suspense, and seems to be resolved with an appropriate ending.
4. The driving emotions and personalities of the main characters are very clear. The protagonist and antagonist(s) affect each other’s actions.
5. What sort of story this is – mood, voice and setting should be apparent.
6. The writer is sober (or was while writing it) and has successfully hidden any serious instability. The synopsis is not the place to demonstrate your delightful weirdness unless your book is supposed to be delightfully weird.
1.2 The perfect synopsis does not exist
And the rules are only guidelines. (Although when an agent or publisher says she wants a two-page synopsis, you would be an idiot to write a three-page one. See my earlier point about rule-following.) You should write your synopsis in the way that best serves the purpose of a synopsis: to show that your story works and what sort of story it is.
1.3 Your book will not be rejected on the basis of your synopsis
It will be rejected on the basis of the idea/hook/pitch in the covering letter (because that’s what has to sell the book to publisher, bookseller and reader) and/or on the actual writing. It could also be rejected because you came over as a complete pillock in your covering letter, but that is probably the subject of another book. (Note to self.)
1.4 The synopsis is rarely the first thing the agent or editor will read
Nor is it the most important. It is (most would agree) the least important part of your submission package. However, you are a writer and you will be writing your synopsis; therefore it should not be a pile of crap or it will make your book look like a pile of crap.
1.5 Your synopsis is not set in stone – except when it is
Once your book achieves a publishing deal, you will forget about your synopsis. You shouldn’t. Lurking somewhere in the offices of your publisher is a frighteningly young person who will actually read that synopsis, and nothing else, and she (for it will be a she) will one day write a glorious description for Amazon based on it. This is fine, unless you have made changes during the editing process, and unless your editor forgets to tell the frighteningly young person that you have made some changes, in which case the Amazon description, which in theory can be changed easily but in practice will by then have streamed onto eleventy-million other sites, will be wrong. And then little old ladies in Frimpton-on-Sea will complain that you said there was passionate activity on a moonlit beach when in fact it was only in the church hall, which may have disappointed them.
1.6 You will probably need several lengths of synopses (sorry)
This is because, when you are submitting to agents or publishers, their requirements may differ, so you will sometimes need a one-page synopsis, and sometimes a two-page one; sometimes you might even be allowed a longer one. The generosity of agents can occasionally be surprising.
1.7 Dealing with different definitions
The words synopsis does not contain within it a definition of either length or content. It comes from two Greek words meaning together+seeing. In other words, a synopsis is something that allows you to see the whole thing at the same time. That’s vague in itself, so it’s perfectly acceptable for some people, in some contexts, to say “synopsis” when they mean a paragraph-length thing, like the pitch paragraph in your covering letter, and for others to have in their minds an exhaustive outline. They are not wrong: they just aren’t talking about what we’re talking about.
This is all about context, and in the context of an agent asking for a synopsis, if they don’t specify length you should take them to mean something up to two sides of A4, single-line-spaced in “normal” font style and size.
Let me mention the agent, Carole Blake, of Blake Friedmann. (You saw her thoughts on synopses in the introduction to this book.) Her book, From Pitch to Publication, is rightly a classic set of guidelines for aspiring writers. But several people comment on her unusual preferences for a submission, and particularly what she requires of a synopsis. For example, she says in the book that the synopsis should be “say four to ten pages,” whereas the submission guidelines on her agency website specify, “one to no more than 3 pages.” I could simply have told you to follow the website guidelines, as being more up-to-date and therefore likely to be right, but I also asked her about this on your behalf. She agreed about following agency guidelines first and added that, since publication of the book in 1999, her agency has grown hugely. The world has changed and, as she says, “The moment my book came out our submissions numbers skyrocketed and our time for reading diminished.” So, although in a different world Carole would like a synopsis as described in From Pitch to Publication, in this world – the only one that matters – she wants you to follow the agency guidelines, which are there to smooth the process for you and the agency. (Note: a new edition of From Pitch to Publication is planned, but fitting in the writing around the schedule of a busy agent means that Carole has already renegotiated the deadline several times!)
Believe me, not following agency submission guidelines will get you into far more trouble than not obeying Carole’s book. My conversation with Carole underlines that this whole synopsis-writing lark is an art and not a science, and is riddled with personal preferences. For that reason, balance these instructions:
1. Follow guidelines.
2. Do what is best for your book.
3. Apply common sense.
4. Remember: these people are human.
Try not to be put off by differences in individual preferences. Agents may wish for different things but they are not going to tar and feather you just because you played a shot straight down the wicket when they happen to favour a devious spin.
1.8 Different types of synopsis
Even apart from the different things that people mean by the word, there are also some different sorts of synopsis you might one day need to write. You might want a short synopsis on your website before the book comes out – in which case, this will indeed be short and include no ending or spoilers. Sometimes, your existing publisher might want one, just so she knows you don’t have something totally bizarre planned, or to show the sales team so they can start to write promotional materials. You might even want to write one for yourself while you’re working on the book, just to keep track of things.
But we’re not bothered about any of those. The only one that really matters is the one you have to include with your submission to an agent or publisher, along with a covering letter and sample chapters. That is the one that Write a Great Synopsis is about.
1.9 Outline or synopsis?
Writers always ask about the difference between outline and synopsis. I said something about it in Write to be Published, in the extract at the start of this book. Let me clarify further.
1. An outline is a straight telling of the story in the order in which it is revealed in the book, chapter by chapter.
2. A synopsis, on the other hand, omits a great proportion of episodes, strands and characters and need not tell the story chronologically. A synopsis is the best and most elegant way to show how your story works, in whatever order that is best done, which may or may not be as it happens in the book.
3. Not only does an outline include more detail of action and character, it also gives more detail about changing point of view. A synopsis might merely mention that the story is told from an alternating point of view and omit any detail as to when the switches happen.
4. Also, although even an outline won’t contain really minor details, it will contain more references to tertiary characters and subplots, and it will show more clearly how subplots entwine with the main story.
5. An outline is easier to write, but reads less attractively.
6. However, in a particularly simple book, there could end up being little difference between the two things.
7. You are highly unlikely to need to show an outline to anyone in order to sell your book.
8. But you are likely to need a synopsis in order to sell your book, along with the covering letter and sample chapters. Even published authors may need to write synopses for their editors before their editors can wave a contract under their faces.
9. An outline is a very helpful way for you to clarify the time-line for yourself, for example to ensure you haven’t got three Saturdays in one week. Especially in my case, as I can’t possibly remember what happens in my own books or how many Saturdays we’ve had since Monday.
10. A synopsis needs to be stylishly written, mirroring in some way the voice of the book. An outline doesn’t.
1.10 What about synopses for non-fiction?
The guideline “do it in whatever way is best for your book” is even truer for non-fiction, especially if it’s non-narrative, such as this book. Sometimes a chapter-by-chapter outline is the best thing to do. Sometimes (perhaps most often), the best thing would be to provide two items: a chapter outline or contents list, and a half-page synopsis, which would provide an overview of the selling points of the book.
As an example, let me show you what I might have written if asked for a half- to one-page synopsis of Write to be Published, bearing in mind that a fuller list of contents and more details of my platform and qualifications would appear elsewhere in the submission, because non-fiction requires more supporting material than fiction:
“WRITE TO BE PUBLISHED is an expert, comprehensive guide to writing and publishing, written by an award-winning author of around ninety books in various genres. It is based on the brutally honest advice in the renowned blog, Help! I Need a Publisher!, and uses the same voice – that of the Crabbit Old Bat, as Nicola is known on social networks and amongst the many writers who follow her. [Saying something about the author is essential in non-fiction but plays no part in the synopsis of a novel.]
“Write to be Published covers in turn each aspect of the Crabbit Old Bat’s exhortation to “write the right book in the right way and send it to the right publisher in the right way at the right time.” It unpicks each piece of that message, showing firmly but humorously how to understand and put it into action. The first section, Before the Writing, talks about such things as rule-following, attitude, perfect author behaviour, whether publishers are ever wrong, and why “crap” is sometimes published. And, naturally, the important subject of how to deal with taxi-drivers. The second section, The Right Book, tackles aspects such as hooks, high-concepts, length, band-wagons and trends, how publishers make their decisions, different rules of genre and why we must read in genre – “knowing our fellow pigeons”. The next section, Written in the Right Way, looks at planning, structure and shape, conflict, suspense, pace, character, voice and point of view, and covers the most common faults that crop up in aspiring writers’ work, as well as tackling editing and feedback. The final section includes every aspect of the submission procedure – including how to avoid the eye-bleeding mistakes that agents have to endure – as well as covering “platforms” and dealing with rejection. The main part of the text finishes with the emotional and inspirational story of Nicola’s own breakthrough after years of struggling to be published. A generous list of resources, broken down into genre or category, completes the book.”
To be honest, I bashed that out fairly quickly and I’m sure you could improve it. But it gives you the idea that the non-fiction synopsis just needs to show what’s in the book and how the message or information is presented. (Bear in mind that a non-fiction book does not need to be complete when you submit, but a novel must be.) In my synopsis, I don’t need to say more about my credentials, because I’d be including a separate CV or at least a list of credits and relevant biographical or career points. Again, this is something you would do for a non-fiction book.
A few more points about non-fiction synopses:
1. Because the book might not be complete when you write the synopsis, it’s legitimate to write your synopsis in the future tense if you wish. For example, “The book will cover…” This depends what stage you’re at in the writing of it and how certain you are of structure.
2. Make sure that the synopsis conveys in some way the voice and level of information.
3. Just think of it as being a purely functional exercise, providing information, but note that part of this function is to demonstrate that you can write. Therefore, elegance is expected even when delivering factual information.
There are so many different ways of presenting the relevant information for a non-fiction book: just find the best way for your book, the way that conveys all the information in the most accessible and clear form.
Later in this book you will find some examples of synopses for fiction.
The extract is reproduced here by kind permission of Nicola Morgan. All rights reserved by the author. This extract was taken from an uncorrected proof copy.