In defense of the synopsis

So as per GEITFUDO, I said I would, come the end of February, be looking to query. Its the 25th today and since there are apparently only 28 days in February (may re-count come the 28th..) I thought I should get on..

Like someone scared of heights about to bungee jump I’m trying not to think about jumping… I mean eventually I do have to take that leap but for now I’m focusing on the synopsis. The very necessary synopsis.

Before the commiserations come flooding in… Oh synopses.. I hate writing those… I’ll whisper.. I quite enjoy them


So whispering didn’t work…

I didn’t always. I wouldn’t go as far as to say hate, at least not initially, as I didn’t pay them that much attention. I didn’t think anyone else would either. And I have heard agents say this. Apparently no one writes a good synopsis and we shouldn’t get ourselves too wound up about them.

Before you feel too reassured, I’m going to say that while I have come to enjoy them I have also come to believe they are far more important than most will admit. This is part of your presentation, if its badly written, leaves gaping confusion in the reader and – the worst sin –  holds back the best of your work, then you’ve just significantly increased your chances of being rejected.

In a world where we are continually told how little time an agent has to devote to reading submissions, while being simultaneously inundated with an ever increasing number, the short synopsis is your best friend. This is a chance to sell your story. Think about the Sixth Sense – a film lauded and remembered for its end twist. But if they only saw the first few minutes before deciding they were willing to invest in it or not, would it be quite so compelling? The synopsis is your chance to put the best bits of your work, whether it is the hook at the end, the weird alternative world, or the kooky characters, in front of an agent and make sure they notice.

The problem I had when I first came to write them was simply this: I didn’t know what it was. I’d never seen one. Googling brought a myriad of answers none of which really clarified anything, 1-12 pages.. yeah no difference there! And the more I learnt of the submission process the more I realised that what the internet said and what agents actually wanted were two different things. Most if asked – and it would help considerably if they would put this on their submission guidelines – cite the shorter the better. Under 500 words seems to be increasingly the norm.

Googling will generally say that it is an outline of the main events of your story. And a bare recital of the plot is one of the primary mistakes most of us make.

Bob meets Mary. Mary’s husband is away on business. Bob and Mary start affair. Mary’s husband comes home early. He sees them kissing. He throws Mary out.

Is about the dullest thing you can imagine reading. If a synopsis ever was such a document, it aint anymore.  You need to explain that Mary is a bored housewife in search of excitement; Bob a retired assasin. Blending the why and the what, the emotional core that drives your story, is what a synopsis truly is. Doing it concisely is where the challenge lies.

You need to know exactly what details to put in, which to leave out, and you need to do it without leaving the reader, who hasn’t read your book, confused.

We Brits aren’t required to write a query in the same way that Americans do, however a good brief synopsis is actually very similar. The difference really is that a synopsis reveals the end while a query leaves you – hopefully- desperate to know the end. Apart from this they should be approached in much the same way. Officially you shouldn’t be looking to show off your writing skills, but unofficially you are displaying that you are able to be clear, concise and that your voice fits the genre you are writing in. A chatty conversational tone when selling a gritty coming of age tale of abuse and survival.. not good. Overworked metaphors are a no no, but so are overused clichés..

This isn’t about your literary skills as much as your marketability. Your ability to learn and adapt to the formula demanded means you persevered where others gave up, it means you are flexible and it means you did your homework. For the agent this means you are someone worth working with. For you, it means you got rid of all the reasons they might use to reject you and put your story in the spotlight.

Which makes the synopsis a tool that benefits you, the writer, as much as it does you, the wannabe published. Writing one before you finish your book is a really useful trick. It stops you starting writing something only to find 40,000 words in that its going nowhere. It teaches you the ability to separate out the main strands of your story, to check the internal logic of your world and consistency of your character development. I’ve never written a synopsis that has led to me abandoning or completely rewriting a story, but as a means of clarifying what I want to achieve  I find it invaluable. I’ve even found subplots lurking under the guise of plot holes.

I will look more in depth at how I write a synopsis, just in case its useful, but where I started and learnt most of my tricks was Querysharks blog. LIke I said, a query is just an unfinished synopsis. Beyond that I would simply say, keep going. Perseverance is what separates the serious writers from the hobbyists.


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