Wicked Wednesday- Writing The Dreaded Synopsis

Jessie- Cheering herself with the notion that the shortest day of the year is already behind us in the Northern Hemisphere!

This month we’ve decided to all chime in on the process of writing proposals for book series. Mystery series are often sold this way, in fact all of us have sold series in this manner, some of us more than once. The format for doing this is fairly standardized in the publishing industry and each Wednesday this month we will dive into one aspect of the process. This week is the Dreaded Synopsis. For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the term, the synopsis is the part of the proposal where the writer distills the idea for an 80,000-word novel down to less than a page. So, Wickeds, how do you approach a task like that?

Edith: It ain’t easy, and I’m still learning how to write one. As a writer who mostly follows the “write into the headlights” approach – that is, I write by the seat of my pants – I have a hard time describing the main conflict, the main characters, and the resolution in advance of actually writing the book. A couple of guidelines I learned early on were: name as few characters as you can get away with. Use “the brother” or “the chef” so you don’t confuse the one-page story line with a bunch of names. Also, my editor at Kensington wants to know the beginning, middle, and end and doesn’t let me get away with turning in anything less than that for the synopsis. Luckily, if those bits change as I write the book, it’s usually fine with him, as long as I update the synopsis by the time I turn in the manuscript, or even sooner.

Liz: At first I thought writing a synopsis was a terrible punishment for something – I wasn’t quite sure what. When I wrote the first one for my editor (same as Edith’s) I did it because I had to. But as I was writing, I found it very helpful to have that roadmap, even if the pieces did change as I went along. Now, I find it helps more than it hurts, even when it feels like pulling teeth when I’m in the middle of it. As a self-proclaimed pantser, I’m teetering on the edge of liking things plotted out. It definitely helps when you’re juggling a lot of deadlines and other aspects of life.

Julie: I am a plotter, and writing with a bible, so the synopsis is a little less painful for me. For the sake of the synopsis, it is a question of boiling it down to its essence. Make it intriguing. Mention the characters. Hint at the subplots. For this purpose, you need to tell all. Don’t be coy–you are trying to convince someone that you can tell the whole story.

Sherry: Ask a published author if you can borrow their synopsis. I was very lucky to be able to read through Liz, Edith, and Barb’s synopsis before I wrote mine. The synopsis for my first book was four pages and poured out of me. The second book was much more difficult and Barb gave me some excellent advice in my blog about plotting. I return to this advice time and time again.

Jessie: I pretend I am once again in elementary or middle school and have been assigned to write a one page book report. The only catch is that the book hasn’t been written yet and I’m the author. It is sort of an out-of-body experience but I generally like that kind of thing. I also like to think of a tagline for the book or even the entire series before I work on the synopsis. Having to distill a story down to a single run-on sentence makes a whole page feel limitlessly voluptuous.

Barb: Sherry’s already given away my advice, and it’s the only advice I have. As a recap, it’s the first three steps that are important.

  • Pretend you are in a bar with an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile.
  • Start like this, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to my friend Julia (or Sarah, or Stan, or whatever your protagonist’s name is)…”
  • Then start the story.

The key to the bar story is, you keep the details to a minimum to avoid confusing the listener, you tell the story in a compelling way designed to entertain, you tell it in your voice, and you try your best to do justice to the story so your listener understands how absolutely amazing, sad, and life-changing these events were for the person they happened to.

Readers–any synopsis writing advice? Any questions for us?

32 Thoughts

  1. No questions, but thank you for reminding me that the shortest day of the year is behind us. I think this cold spell is getting to me already 🙂

    1. Our weather forecast here is calling for lows of -13 tonight and that doesn’t factor in the wind which has warranted a cautionary advisory of its own. I love Northern New England but sometimes living here requires a stout heart. And a collection of oversized wool sweaters.

  2. I’m one of those weird writers who actually likes writing a synopsis. I even liked writing query letters! I probably should have had a job writing back cover blurbs, lol.

    I keep my synopsis open on my desktop as I write to keep me on track. While things do change, I don’t want to veer off in a completely different direction. I also keep a list of characters and places with detailed descriptions open. I’d be in trouble, otherwise!

    1. It sounds like a synopsis because a bit of an outline for you, Joyce! I’ve referred back to mine when I get stuck but otherwise used it as more of a marketing tool.

  3. As I get ready to query, I’m facing the “dreaded synopsis.” I use Scrivener to write, and have blurbs about each scene, so I’m hoping that will help. But how do you make it “hooky” enough to catch someone’s attention?

    1. Think about Barb’s tips: you’re in a bar and you want your friend to love your story. You can also work on a tag line to start it off. (Not that I’m any better at writing those than at writing the synopsis itself!)

    2. Ahh, the hookiness factor! It’s like voice, isn’t it? Everyone knows it when they read it, but figuring out how to concoct it seems impossible. I think hook really is about clarity and a sense of “aha!” from the reader. If you can get the idea boiled down to what is uniquely interesting about your work you’ve created a hook. One resource I have found invaluable is agent Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog, http://queryshark.blogspot.com. She has such a gift for teaching and getting to see the before and after on query letters trying to provide a hook is incredibly educational. Good luck with the querying process!

  4. I’m not a big fan of the synopsis. If I’ve ever sold anything based on one, I’m pretty sure that the final product bore little resemblance to what I thought I was going to write (that old seat-of-the-pants thing, Edith!). All it proves is that you can write a synopsis, not a book. And maybe an idea in your head.

    So I usually write one after I’ve finished the book, which proves to be an interesting exercise by itself. You start with a page or two. Let it sit for a bit. Go back and cut out the unnecessary parts, and it’s down to a short page. Repeat as often as necessary until you arrive at a paragraph or two that captures the book. It’s really interesting to see in each round which bits have become less important; it’s much harder to see them all at once.

    1. The challenge of writing the synopsis before you write the book is one of knowing too little. The challenge of writing one after is one of knowing too much. Either way it’s a challenge!

      1. I’m working on my query package as I’ve come to call it. The letter, the pitch, the first 10 pages, the first 50… and the synopsis. I’m definitely feeling that I ‘knows too much’ and really struggling with what’s important from all the details that I love about the story.

  5. One of my current contracts calls for a “reasonably detailed outline” (whatever that is!) of the next book. When that’s been the requirement, these have been all over the map as far as how much detail there is to start with and how closely I stick to them once I start writing. To be honest, I’m happiest when I can just go ahead and write an entire book before my agent tries to sell it, and then sign a multi-book contract that just asks for the ms of the next one on a certain date. That doesn’t happen often these days, in part because publishers seem to want to split paying advances into as many segments as possible. At least now writers have the option of turning such a labor of love into an ebook original if it doesn’t find a home with a traditional publisher. And boy have I strayed off topic! Sorry about that.


  6. I teach a course on writing synopses, blurbs, and summaries. When it’s someone else’s, it’s so easy! What’s the fuss?

    When it’s my own, I want to slit my wrists.

    1. I agree. The analogy I use from my software days it that it’s like the Chief Technology Officer trying to write the marketing materials.

  7. Since we’re talking about proposal writing (I’m working on one now!), I think it’s really important to come up with an overall theme for the series before you even start thinking about the characters or the actual plots from which your synopses will come. Not just the premise, like it’s a series about a Florida gator-ranch owner who weaves baskets and also solves mysteries. But what the series as a whole means. Is it about your heroine/sleuth’s personal journey to fit in with the community she calls home? Is it about the community and how her presence there will change it over time? You’re not just trying to sell a single book. You’re trying to sell a series, hopefully one that will continue beyond the initial three books. So we need to go deeper into the world we’ve created, not just skim the surface with episodic tales of murder and sleuthing. And your synopses should reflect that depth and vision. Also, you don’t need to limit yourself to one-page synopses for each book. Both series I’ve sold were proposed with 3 to 4 page synopses for each story. One-pagers are hard!

    1. Excellent observation, Susanna, and one that many writers do not think about, nor do all editors ask. Even if you never need to state what that over-arching meaning is to anyone, you should have your own vision of it.

      1. Exactly. It doesn’t have to be overt or articulated to be there. I feel like the best cozies are the ones that stand alone, but form part of a bigger picture too. That’s what I like as a reader, and what I’m trying to do as a writer.

    2. Great points Susannah. In my proposal the synopsis for the first book was five pages but for the second and third books it was only a paragraph. At some point all of those things have to be considered. But my agent wanted my proposal quickly so much of my longer term planning occurred after I submitted and the series was purchased.

      1. I didn’t do this ahead of time for my first series, and I really didn’t understand it until I did my second proposal. I’m going to try going shorter on the synopses for the one I’m working on now!

  8. Thanks for putting together this series, Wickeds. Love Barb’s concept. So common sense. Looking forward to seeing subsequent entries.

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