There’s no escaping it – however much we hate it, the ‘synopsis’ is a must have if you want to get published. This article addresses how to cope with the vexed question of how to present a synopsis and is contributed by and reprinted with kind permission of the South Australian Writers’ Centre.
Ask most writers, including many published authors, about writing a synopsis for a novel and you’ll most likely hear a high, keening wail.
If you’re not self-publishing but seeking fame and fortune through one of the traditional publishing gateways, whether large or small, independent or transnational, then you will at some point – often quite early on in the process – be asked to provide a synopsis.
On approaching an agent, you’ll be asked for one. Even if you’re going down the self-publishing road you’ll need a cover blurb, which is in itself a truncated and stylized synopsis.
‘Is there no escape?’ I hear you ask. The short answer is no, not really, not if you want your manuscript to see the light of day.
Your synopsis will probably be the first thing an agent or publisher looks at.
One of the first questions you’ll need to ask is, ‘Which geographical market am I writing for?’ (publishers call them territories) Australia publishers and literary agents have different expectations from those in America, where they will look at synopses of varying lengths. There are different opnions as to length here in Australia, where for most the standard seems to be between about a page, certainly no more than two pages. The phrase ‘between 500-600 words’ is often bandied around.
Don’t send an unsolicited cover letter, synopsis or the first three chapters to publishers who are cloed for submissions – it’s a waste of their time and yours.
Don’t send fantasy to those who clearly state they only take ‘quality narrative nonfiction and broad canvas, intelligent and ambitious fiction’.
If you’re setting your sights on the American market then be aware the vast majority of US publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts and you’ll need an agent to crack that particular nut. Of course, getting an agent can be equally difficult.
Check to see if they accept online submissions or if they require material to be sent in hard copy; the mix of publishers and agents who will or won’t take online material is one of the great unfathomables.
Do your homework – get it right. Many agents have submission guidelines, including the synopsis, on their website. Many publishers, too. Some publishing houses expect you to know this, because from where they’re sitting they’ll be assessing your submission as if it came from a professional writer.
Your synopsis will probably be the first thing an agent or publisher looks at. I say probably because there’s no guarantee that they won’t look at your cover letter or the first paragraph of your manuscript, which means they also need to be polished and error free. But it’s most probable they will start with the synopsis.
They want to see if you can tell a story so what you put down on paper needs to be as good as it can be. However, like all ‘art’ it can be overwrought, stale and mechanical, so try for freshness and make sure you find your own ‘voice’ – it’s no use trying to emulate one of the thousands of online examples there are on the web. But before you tie yourself in knots, relax: just as there’s no perfect novel – perfection or imperfection lying subjectively with the reader – there’s no perfect synopsis.
So what does a synopsis consist of? At it’s most basic, it’s the ‘who, what, where, when, why and how’ that is taught in most Creative Writing 101 courses. But this is also the cause of the headache that arrives the instant you consider sitting down and actually writing a synopsis: how do you fit all that into a one or two page document and retain any coherence, let alone a nod in the direction of flowing prose or all the subtleties of your magnum opus?
The purpose of the synopsis is to get across just enough information to tantalize and provoke whoever is assessing your submission, to get them to take the next step which is to pick up your manuscript. This means you’ve got to tell the story succinctly and still make that next step irresistable.
As with all aspects of writing, there’s plenty of advice out there, particularly on the web, together with numerous ploys to short circuit the instinct to run screaming from the room at the first mention of the ‘s’ word.Some writers recommend starting your synopsis from the word go, then regularly updating it throughout the novel writing process. Others would argue that this only increases the pain. It can’t hurt and it does mean that if you’re diligent you’ll have something approximating a synopsis when you reach your final draft and you won’t be sitting down cold to start the process.
Others suggest calling it a regular summary or plot outline. If you’re completely undone by the notion, can’t even countenance sitting and composing that first sentence, you could try calling it a summary: ‘I’m just going to write a summary of my novel.’ a psychological ploy to shift the emphasis away from the dread word. Whatever works, I say; anything you can do to get those 500-600 words on paper.
Another tack could be if you’ve a favourite novel by a published author, something you know back to front, then you can try your hand at writing a page long synopsis on an already existing book. It’s not easy but it does give a certain emotional distance that isn’t there with your own work, while lending licence to play, something the serious writer is often loathe to contemplate within the confines of their own prose. Try it – you’ve got nothing to lose and it can be binned and forgotten once finished.
Back to your synopsis. The blank document is up on the screen and it’s typing time. As with your novel you need a beginning, middle and an ending. We often hear, ‘But can’t I just leave it hanging … as a teaser.’ The answer is no. Agents or editors need to know how your tale ends, so make sure you include your grand finale. The trick then is to collapse your 70,000 plus hard won words and still retain all the major elements, including the opening, the body, and the denouement. Try giving these segments a couple of short paragraphs each. Your final paragraph can round off by stating the novel’s word length, genre and market position, plus which target audience it’s aimed at. Say you’ve penned a young adult novel – in one of the sub-genres – you might state something like, ‘This is YA paranormal fiction that will appeal to readers of Stephenie Meyer or Cassandra Clare.’
Write in the present tense, third person and use the active rather than the passive voice. Keep the language vibrant, lively and the sentences shorter rather than longer. Open with a great ‘hook’ sentence. Don’t get bogged down in description. Cut adjectives, adverbs and flowery prose. Don’t confine yourself just to the action – what’s happening – make sure that your reader understands the characters and their relationships. You can’t cover all of the action, every subplot or all of the characters, so stick to the main flow and keep paring it back. Be consistent. Make sure that you’re telling the same story all the way through, don’t start with a police procedural and end up with a romantic comedy.
Make sure that your plotting progresses in a logical manner. We’re told never to use clichés but in a synopsis it’s okay. Use them as shorthand to signal certain types of events or interactions, but use them judiciously. Editors don’t just want a good narrative they want to know that you can write, so use this opportunity to convey tone and energy, not only through your story but through your prose.
Once you’ve done a couple of drafts – and expect to do quite a few – look at every phrase, sentence and paragraph and interrogate them: Does this really need to be included, is this a minor or a major character, do they need to know the dog dies? Perhaps what you’ve got is too comprehensive? Cut, chuck and condense.
So you’ve missed a couple of chapters but you’ve got the gist of the narrative, the essence and tone of your story. It’s reader interest that gets someone to pick up your manuscript – not information overload. It’s all about showing you can tell a compelling story.
A word for those of you who write nonfiction: a publishers’ and agents’ requirements are rather different from those of fiction. Nonfiction covers an array of subject matter from academic writing through to self-help books and children’s interests – and let’s not forget biography. Many nonfiction books are commissioned directly; for those that aren’t the writer will need to research the publisher’s or agent’s guidelines, where their proposal fits in the market and what the current competition looks like.
Some may still want a synopsis but it will need to be different from a fiction submission. They will probably want to know what the book is about and its relevance in the contemporary market, your credentials for writing the book (usually in the third person), where the book would sit on the shelves, recently published works of the same ilk, a sample chapter but not the introduction, plus a chapter breakdown with each chapter outline roughly a page and written in prose (not dot points). They may ask for a table of contents. If you can’t find any guidelines on the websites you’ve targeted then keep looking for similar publishers who do set out their nonfiction requirements, then follow those and send off your work.
Whether you’ve got a great manuscript or one that still needs work won’t matter if nobody in publishing gets to read it. This means paying attention to detail. Everything that lands in an agent’s or publisher’s inbox should be the best it can be – spelling errors, grammar, presentation all count.
Published authors will tell you it’s mostly about persistence. This is true but you still need to pay attention to detail. Yes, you need to have a good product, whether it’s the next literary sensation or a genre novel; yes, you need to be professional and present your work in the required format; but if you give up after two rejection emails then nobody’s going to get the chance to publish your current project. Staying power is everything in the publishing world.
Traditional publishing is a competitive, commercial arena with its own agendas. Whatever genre you write in there are rules to be followed and tactics to be applied, your synopsis and any approach you make to publishers and agents needs to take this fact into account.