The S Word

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(You know — Synopsis!)

Two weeks ago, I got a phone call from my agent, who is currently shopping around a new manuscript for me.  He said “[Editor Redacted] is very interested in Shiny New Project, but he needs a synopsis to continue pitching it in-house.  Can you get one to me by the end of the day?”  I, of course, put a smile into my voice and said, “Of course.”

And the thing was, I wasn’t really lying.  I could get him the synopsis.  I hadn’t written it yet.  But I had just finished putting together my speaker’s notes for a presentation to a local writing group — all about writing synopses. 

I still haven’t heard back from [Editor Redacted] yet.  But I figured there was no time like the present for sharing my thoughts on synopses.  So, without further ado…

There’s a lot of confusion in our field about what a synopsis is.  It isn’t (just) a plot summary.  And it isn’t a collection of the wittiest dialog, chosen to entertain your reader.  Rather, a synopsis is a document, presented in paragraph form, in the present tense, in third-person POV.  It relates the complete story of your novel, including all character arcs and the final revelations of your plot twists and turns.

Lots of people might be interested in your synopsis.  For example, you might use one to get an agent (after your amazing query letter has peaked her interest.)  Or you might use one to get an editor (see, case in point above).  Your editor might use a synopsis to sell your project to internal sales committees (see, above, again), or to present the work to internal market committees.  Similarly, your synopsis might provide vital background for the art department.  At Harlequin, authors submit synopses prior to writing the book to fulfill one major contract obligations — once the synopsis is accepted by the editor, the author is paid one third of her advance.

Your synopsis, like any business document, should provide essential background information.  It should have a heading that clearly states your name and your contact information, along with your agent’s name and contact information (if you have one).  Your heading should include your manuscript name, the genre, and the word count of the complete work.  The body of your synopsis should be double spaced, with one-inch margins.

There’s an open question about the proper length of a synopsis.  Most people use the term to mean a 2-3 page document.  Some folks, though, mean a much longer document — 10-15 pages, for example.  If you have any doubts about what someone means when they say, “Send me a synopsis”, don’t hesitate to ask.  You can even phrase your question in terms such as “Some people mean different things when they ask for a synopsis — how long of a document do you want?”  It’s not a crime to give someone the type of document they want!

In my next post, I’ll talk about the specifics for writing a synopsis, telling you paragraph-by-paragraph how to close the deal.  For now, though, what questions do you have?  Have you written synopses before?  Do you enjoy the process?  Do you dread it?

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19 comments to The S Word

  • HarryMarkov

    I would very much like to see the process done and then learn to do them as well. I hope to use the synopsis as an upgrade to my outline and once and for all solve the problem I always face in my writing – wandering in the middle and changing the novel’s direction, because I can’t commit. I have heard synopses have been used this way. What are your thoughts?

  • ARRGGHH! The dreaded synopsis! It burrnnssess, Bagginssess! It burrnnssess! It wouldn’t be so bad if I could leave it the size I write it at, but some people, as you say, want 2-3 pages, some want one. It’s those short ones that always get me. And do they want it double-spaced? It rarely says in the guidelines. A double-spaced 2 page synopsis, is that one page before double-spacing or is it two pages before double-spacing? AAGGHHH!!! *runs in circles tearing out hair* *falls on floor convulsing*

  • I’ve never written a synopsis for a novel I wrote, but I’m eager to learn how. Also, like HarryMarkov, I’m interested in how this might help keep my WIP from wandering off track. Or, more accurately, I’m wondering if this can help pull my WIP back on track.

  • I don’t like writing them. I find them difficult. One thing I find helps is to forget most of what I’ve written. It’s hard because I know the *whole* story. All of it. And it’s hard not to want to put all the cool little details on the page. But synopses, like queries, are meant to be shorter. The big moments, the plot movements (and the whole plot. No cliffhangers in synopses). Stuart Jaffe did a really great how-to post on synopses a while ago, and I’ve been using his method. I think it works really well. It has to do with the BIG moments–the beginning, the end, the big middle action, and then filling in the details. But yeah, the length difference is tough. a 2-3 page thing is WAY different than 10-15 pages. It isn’t a matter of cutting here or there, or expanding here or there. The document is just a bit different. Or maybe that’s just me.

  • *chuckles* Awesome timing, Mindy. 🙂 My Critique Partner and I both took a webinar through Writer’s Digest yesterday, taught by Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency. We both have requests from agents that we pitched to at the last SIWC and some asked for synopses. I have a synopsis written, but I still gleaned some really useful tidbits from the process. She said 3-5 double-spaced pages was generally good for if you’re still querying, but she also mentioned that while that’s a good general rule, each agent might be different. It also helped to know that even if this is the first book in a series, we don’t need to mention plans for the later books. That was one thing I wasn’t sure of.

  • Mindy,
    I can’t wait to see how you do a synopsis. This will be fun!

    I hate them simply because, for every editor I have worked for, synopsis means something different when they ask for it. You’d think they would formalize the blasted things, but noooOOOooo.

    Back when I wrote for Mira (an imprint of Harlequin) my editor wanted two things: A 5-ish pages, single spaced, present tense, plus a 1-page blurb-type synopsis.

    My Pocket Books editor liked my 35 page synopses, each delivered in the character’s first person POV voice, single spaced, present tense.

    My current editor wants 5 – 25 pages, single spaced, present tense, from the author’s overview voice. Meaning that though I write the manuscript in first person POV, the synopsis is written in story-telling mode, not novel-writing mode — a sort of amalgam of both third person and universal.

    My way around all of these different editorial desires, when I am trying to sell to a new editor, has been three different synopses, turned in to my agent with the full manuscript or the partial.
    1. Single page blurb style (for marketing)
    2. 5 page, single spaced (for passing around to the other in-house editors)
    3. extended synopsis, single spaced, that covers story arcs, over-all plot arc, and any character revelations. This last is the “OMG she’s really a zombie!” type of story arc inclusion.

    I hate them all. But a good synopsis can sell a book when other things don’t.

  • Okay, so I want to know the difference between a synopses, a blurb and the query letter. A blurb I believe is the portion that goes on the back of the book but isn’t it the same as the elevator pitch?

  • Nathan Elberg

    Question: you have a dramatic, exciting, long novel with well developed, complex characters and a twisting plot. You’ve got to compress it into a synopsis a few pages long. How do you transfer the tension, the drama, the character depth into the synopsis? If you don’t, the synopsis is like a hollow shell.
    (note: I am using “you” as a generic term, not referring specifically to Mindy or anyone else).

  • Mikaela

    Writing a synopsis is actually a part of my revision process. I read through, scribbles down notes and then write a synopsis, since it allows my subconscious to work it’s magic and discover all those pesky plot holes, and parts that are simply missing from the first draft. And, since it is for my eyes only, it is a bit rambling. But as long it works!

  • Harry – My technique for outline will help you to figure out the through-line of your story. I don’t know if that will help you with wandering (there are lots of reasons that people wander), but let’s see what happens in the next week or two!

    Daniel – Ah, a man who loves synopses as much as I do 🙂 Yep – 500 words to sell your story. No problem!

    SiSi – I don’t promise any magic (despite the name of the blog!), but let’s see how it pans out…

    pea_faerie – I look forward to your compare and contrast on my method vis-a-vis Stuart’s! (And yeah – the length difference is the key reason to be up front with the requester, to make sure that you’re both on the same page.)

    Laura – Yay! I’m glad that my timing is fortuitous! Ask questions, of course, as you get to work on yours!

    Faith – Wow! Some of those things (35 pages?!?) I would call a treatment, or something else entirely — a synopsis seems much shorter than 10% of a novel! But, bottom line, we owe people what they want, lucky, lucky us 🙂

    WaitforHim – More of this will come up in future posts on this topic, but here’s my “back-pocket” version of definitions:

    Synopsis: A summary of a novel, including the entire plot and the character arcs.
    Blurb: A short advertising piece, primarily intended for the back of the book (or electronic equivalent), designed to “tease” the reading public, without giving away major plot elements and completion of character arcs
    Query Letter: A one page “letter of introduction”, including an author’s relevant personal history, a short (one paragraph) summary of the plot, and a request to submit further material.
    Elevator pitch: A query letter, minus the author’s relevant personal history

    (Others, I’m sure will have different perspectives on these terms!)

    Nathan – I’m going to hold off on answering your very pertinent question till my next post (because the answer is the substance of my next post). Okay?

    Mikaela – Do you also work from an outline? How does your outline differ from your synopsis? (And is your synopsis sort of a “correction” of your outline, saying “this is what I wrote, after I intended to write that”?

  • Vyton

    Mindy, I really like this post. After writing 65,000 or 95,000 words, it isreally frustrated trying to put it into a synopsis. I have written two synopses for one story when I submitted 15 pages for evaluation. These were for two different conferences. Double spaced, two to three pages. I did not get direct feedback from either reviewer on the synopsis, but the first reviewer clearly had read it. Nothing from the second reviewer about the synopsis. One of the comments I have heard about a synopsis accompanying pages is that the reviewer may read the synopsis and never get to the pages. I am planning to layout my next story as a series of arcs and write a synopsis from that before I start writing. It’s awfully close to outlining.

  • Great timing Mindy! I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about synopses lately. It became easier for me to write a synopsis when I approached it from the agent or editor’s POV — why does someone want to read a synopsis? Usually, it’s because they’re interested in the promise/premise/pitch of your story and they want a brief overview of how the whole thing is going to go. There’s the proverbial “I want to make sure aliens don’t land in Chapter 7” aspect as well as the “can you pull this story off?”

    Ultimately my goal was to show the editor “here’s my vision for the book” and I think that vision can be in broad sweeps. When I was writing my latest synopsis, I found myself getting too far into the nitty gritty details. For example, I found myself writing things like, “as a kid she’d crawled under the desk when she’d go to her mother’s office after school in the afternoon. So when she returns home after her parents murder, she crawls under the desk seeking comfort and notices something different — there’s something taped up in the back corner where only she’d look. She pulls it down and discovers a USB key with a familiar logo.”

    When in reality I needed to get more altitude — step farther back and say, “After her parents murder she returns home and finds a USB key that points to the identity of the killers.” Sure it’s not as sexy, but unless that was a MAJOR plot point worthy of the detail, I needed to just show the plot point: she finds a clue. Otherwise, it gets too overwhelming for the reader (I’ve read a lot of synopses that have too much detail which muddles the story).

    I also have a friend who recommended that you approach your synopsis like a short story — try to make it entertaining and engaging. Not always easy, but when you think about it, a synopsis is a kind of story!

  • I didn’t check in on Friday because I was busy — I kid you not — writing the synopsis for the third Thieftaker book, City of Shades, which I have just submitted. Tor demands a synopsis along with the manuscript, and will not pay out D&A (delivery and acceptance) advances without it. And I hate writing synopses. I mean I HATE it with a bright burning passion. It is my very least favorite thing that I have to do as a writer; there is really nothing that I hate more. Because I suck at it. I could have used this post a day earlier, Mindy. I mean really — that would have been very helpful. Just sayin’ . . . .

  • Vyton – I *do* think there’s a very real chance, when you’re asked to submit a synopsis, that the reader never gets to your actual pages. That’s why we need to make the synopsis so sharp, and so inviting, that the reader can’t *stand* to forgo the pages. (Unless, of course, the reader is serving a function — like artistic director — where they don’t need to read the original material…) As I’ll define in my next post, I use synopses in a very different way than I do outlines, but we’ll see if others agree!

    Carrie – I *definitely* agree that we figure out this form best when we put ourselves in the readers’ shoes — figuring out what the editor or agent is looking for is absolutely the key. Thanks for stating it so explicitly. (And yes, yes, yes, on the “visions broad sweeps”).

    David — Why don’t you send me your schedule for the next couple of months and I’ll try to do a better job making my posts on a timely basis 🙂 I’m glad you survived the hated synopsis writing — *this* time around!

  • quillet

    Very late here, but I can’t wait to read your next post on this topic. I need it!! (We needs it, precious, yesssss!) This one was already so helpful, especially this little piece of advice: don’t hesitate to ask what someone means by “synopsis.” Because yeah, that word, that s-word, is scary. Daniel’s not the only one who convulses at the thought! GAH!

  • Quillet – ::grin:: I’m glad the conversation is helpful — we’ll expand in future weeks! (And don’t be Ssssssssscared! 🙂 )

  • Vhaudikas

    It has always been the S-word for me that has given me the biggest anxiety. What do I put in it? Is it long enough? Too much information? Not enough? I’ve gone to all this effort, blood, sweat, tears to write the novel and then *KABOOM* my brain comes to a screeching halt at the S-word, synopsis.

    Thank you Mindy for this post and those forthcoming. I can’t wait.

  • Vhaudikas – Sssssssscreeching halt… Yep – that’s what we’re aiming to avoid! Gee, there are so many words that start with “s” 🙂

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