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Overcoming Fear of Synopsis syndrome

Writing a synopsis. Most writers hate writing them. But if you want a literary agent or publisher to seriously consider your manuscript, it’s usually not negotiable.

This week, I’ve been working on the synopsis for Wherever You Go. ‘How hard can it be?’ I wondered (probably out loud since I have a terrible habit of talking to myself when writing). I’ve worked as a journalist and an editor; I’ve been to university and written essays … surely this would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t. The blank page was my wordless companion for some time as I struggled with where to start.

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In the end, I did some research. I looked up various online articles on writing synopses and soon discovered this. There is no One Magic Synopsis Formula, no “right” way. And there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about word lengths and styles. It’s confusing! The advice that did stick out was this from Jane Friedman: “Write a one-page synopsis—about 500-600 words, single spaced—and use that as your default.”

It makes sense. You can then adjust your synopsis according to submission guidelines. Some publishers do want more … while others want very little (that’s where research is also important – know what the agents and publishers want).

As with any form of writing, the mechanics of synopsis writing are subjective – one writer might attack the synopsis one way, while another has a completely different tried-and-tested method. Find the way that works for you.

So, what did I do?

Sketch

When I worked as a journalist, I would sometimes type up my notes and quotes in dot point form, move them around into order, and then fashion the story into its full form. This backwards approach helped me on those more difficult stories many times.

With my synopsis, I did something similar. I outlined my story’s narrative arc, chapter by chapter and ended up with a four-page summary. Then, I deleted and tightened up until I had a two-page ploy summary. It still wasn’t a synopsis though.

Add colour

Jane Friedman’s article Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis is a fantastic tool here and I’d recommend it for further reading. She says the secret to a great synopsis is to include story advancement (incidents and decisions) and colour (feelings, reactions and emotions). Note that this is not about interpretations and backstory.

I played around with my summary for a while and then tried a different approach – the two-sentence synopsis, outlined here in more detail:

Using the hero – situation – goal – villain – disaster elements, I quickly came up with my two-sentence synopsis.

Moving to a small town was supposed to strengthen Amy and Matt Bennet’s marriage after a life-shattering tragedy. But will the move bring them closer together, or will their secret past tear them apart?

It’s a good teaser, but does it really tell you much about the story? Is it enough for an agent or publisher to say ‘yes please’? Probably not.

I then expanded the elements – teased out some more information to generate interest.

When Amy and Matt Bennet move to Blackwood, they hope to escape painful, buried secrets. But everyone wants to know everything in the small town and they find themselves facing questions they don’t want to answer. A new job, supportive friends and the Around the World Supper Club helps Amy belong, but Matt struggles to contain growing resentment of the tight lid he’s forced to keep on his emotions. Will their marriage survive the shocking revelations of their past, or will years of emotional bondage shatter the new life they’ve built? 

To me, this reads more like a blurb. It needs a little more. It’s probably enough for a reader, but is it going to get over the line for an agent or publisher?

Add texture

Using my summary and my blurb, I added texture and colour, highlighting themes while at the same time trying to keep the words clean and precise. There is no room for wordiness or out-to-impress language.

While crafting the final synopsis the most important thing was to consider what was at stake for my character/s, the conflicts, and how the conflict was resolved. That meant a lot of detail was deleted or summarised ruthlessly. It meant asking: “Will the ending make sense without this detail or character or incident being included?”

By the time I got to this point, I was in the zone. The words flowed and the synopsis transformed my blank page into a hopeful one.

I’m not sharing the finished version here, though. Why not? Because it reveals the ending. And that’s something you’ll have to wait for!

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If you’re at synopsis point, here’s a final piece of advice for you:

“… a writer might genuinely be able to write a good book but not be experienced in the art of summarising a work in an effective manner. A few might even consider the act of doing so demeaning. If this is the case, I would urge you to think not of yourself, but of the reader, and treat the project as a literary exercise which you should try to enjoy: a challenge and opportunity to show your work off in its essential form. “

A challenge it was … but one I am glad I embraced. After all, it’s just another step along my writing journey.

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3 Comments

  1. I certainly have faith that you’ve come up with exactly the right synopsis for your story, Monique. And I have faith that it will convince the right agent that this is a story well worth publishing. Best of luck from here on in. xxxx

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  2. A really useful post, Monique. Synopses are a pain to write, and I approached mine the same way you did—I made a chapter-by-chapter summary, and then a summary of that, and then a summary of the summary, etc. It seemed to be the smoothest way. I found my best synopses omitted all but the major plot developments and characters. In the end, I didn’t need one! Actually, I’ve just remembered the Hachette Manuscript Development Programme wanted one (not that I got into the programme!), and they had a great guide on how to write and format it—here’s the link in case you didn’t come across it in your googling: http://www.qwc.asn.au/resources/writers-guides/submit-publish/synopsis/.
    My fingers are crossed and wishing you all the best for submitting! 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Why do you need an agent? | MONIQUE MULLIGAN

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