Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Infamous Synopsis

A lot of recent questions seem to be synopsis-related, so I figure I'll go over this once and for all so that it can settle the issue until a few months bury it in the archives and someone new comes along and answers the questions because they don't know how to use the "search" function on the blog.

Writers are irrationally scared of the synopsis. How long is it? Does it have to be really good, or is it just a summary? Should it have the character's name in bold? How is it different from an outline? I remember being terrified of the idea. I'd already gone through the manuscript, the editorial phase, then perfected my query letter - and now I had to write more? Holy shit! This just goes on and on and I could screw up at any time! And I went to write a synopsis for a novel that was rejected, though I assume it was because the novel didn't make much sense and not because of the synopsis. This happened again with a different novel a few years later, and when I did eventually get accepted and get an agent, I was thrilled to be done with the synopsis - or so I thought.

After my first book did well, my editor requested a synopsis of the next two books before she bought them. In a panic I asked my agent what to do, to which she said, "Summarize the books. It's not a big deal."

Which it isn't. Really, the synopsis is straightforward. The agent is asking you for a summary of the events that occur in your book, over about 1-2 pages. I say "1-2" because less than one is probably not descriptive enough in my experience and three is generally too long. Some agents do specifically ask for more, and you should give them a more detailed synopsis. If they ask for it chapter-by-chapter, write a paragraph for each chapter.

While the synopsis can be very important when we're trying to determine if the book is going in a solid direction and has a good arc without reading it all, it lacks a certain formality that squashes the query letter. We're also not as serious about formatting like we are in the manuscript itself, where we really, really want you to use the manuscript format described on every single writing website ever. Why? Because manuscript format is specifically designed to be easy on the eyes - spaces between the lines, large font, page numbering - and we need things to be easy on the eyes because we're going to be spending hours reading your manuscript. The synopsis? Not so much. Twenty or thirty seconds, maybe more. Presentation is not so important. Double-spacing, 1.5, single, whatever. Font? It should be readable. Should the characters have their names in bold? Uhm, if you want, sure.

The only important things are to (a) cover the important events in your manuscript, including the ending, and (b) not go on for too long. Seriously, no 80-page synopses. If we can't tell the difference between a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and actual chapters, your attempts have gone horribly awry. (And yes, this happened) So, 1-2 pages, maybe three if it's a long book with a lot of intricacies and you just can't fit it onto two pages. Only do more if it's requested.

As to an outline, it seems to mean a lot of different things to different people, but to me it means "a synopsis with a lot of structure to it." Really I'm not the person to ask about outlines as I never bother to distinguish them from a synopsis. Follow the agent's instructions and you should be OK.

Publishing will provide you with plenty of chances to stress out over real and imagined crises. The synopsis doesn't have to be one of them.


Beth said...

OUCH about that search function comment. Sorry I'm new to your blog and it didn't occur to me to search synopsis. Duh. You must have worked for Janet Reid. LOL She's hilariously scary.

I am more relaxed about the synopsis now and even drafted a darn good one today. Thanks.

The Rejecter said...

Not really a problem. It's more the "How do I get a job like yours?" question I get about every two weeks.

Katlin said...

That releaves a lot of stress. Thanks so much. Questions, though. What if you aren't completely finished with the other books in a series or just in general? If you write the synopsis but something changes, does it matter? Do they want you to keep strictly to the synopsis?

The Rejecter said...

You're supposed to submit books that stand-alone, or submit a completed set of books to be sold as a set. This is because the job of the agent is to sell the first book, and until the book is published and sells well, the publisher will be uninterested in buying up rights to your unpublished work. Sometimes books are sold in sets - this happens in fantasy - but rarely does it happen for a new writer.

Your synopsis should be current to to the manuscript you plan on submitting should it be requested. If you wildly rewrite the book, you should rewrite your synopsis. Otherwise, you will not be held to the synopsis as canon. It's just to give us a concrete idea of the story we're getting if we request the manuscript or have requested it but haven't read it yet.

Mame said...

The things that used to terrify me now amuse me. Honestly, the query is the only thing that rattles me. It's like writing an MBA resume with McDonald's experience. Synopsis, schmynopsis.

Mame said...

"Sometimes books are sold in sets - this happens in fantasy - but rarely does it happen for a new writer. "

A yes, the Achilles Heel I didn't know existed a few years ago when I started this rag-tag endeavor. My first undertaking is a fantasy series (because I'm a retarded idiot). Three books down and one to go in two years, and I keep it to myself for the most part. Why bother bugging people about it If I haven't proved I can finish a project? NOT GOOD.

I'm also the kind of idiot that wouldn't chuck it and write a stand alone.

I can live with it. All in a days dork.

Katlin said...

I'm talking about when you're an established author. I see examples when the editor wants a synopsis of the book before it's finished. Do they allow a little wiggle room since the manuscript isn't complete?

And I know...relieves not releaves! Dumb mistake! Sorry!

The Rejecter said...


The point is you wrote a bunch of books, which is a valuable learning experience that will probably lead to you writing a book that gets published. Most people don't finish one book.


If you're established, ask your agent this question. For good measure, or if you don't have an agent (which is fine), here's my answer: You should provide a detailed synopsis upon request. If you haven't written the book yet, and they know that, they will not be shocked if they get a slightly different book than the one they bought. They will be upset if they get a HORRIBLY different book, like if they bought high fantasy and got medical memoir.


So, yeah, the synopsis info is great and all, but my question is: How do I get a job like yours?


Seriously. Just kidding. Don't throw metaphorical lightning bolts at my head.


And by "metaphorical," I'm pretty sure I meant "figurative." Gah ... Work brain! Work!

Seriously--thanks for the post. Informative and a funny-sassy all at once, just like always :)

Anonymous said...

"...I figure I'll go over this once and for all so that it can settle the issue until a few months bury it in the archives and someone new comes along and answers the questions because they don't know how to use the "search" function on the blog..."

I think you need another vacation.

Or a big prize of some sort.

Or a really fun book to read.

Or a day to yourself to do nothing.

I'll shut up now.

Mame said...

"The point is you wrote a bunch of books, which is a valuable learning experience that will probably lead to you writing a book that gets published. Most people don't finish one book."

I really appreciate that comment. I have worked very hard and continue to learn. I'm not expecting a gee-whiz, free ride, Famous Contract. I'm filing that comment away for a rainy day when I want to give up and the gin and tonics aren't helping.

Unknown said...

I'm wondering if it's common for a synop to be full of adjectives and adverbs, which would help condense the soup, if you will. You know, instead of showing the character being emulous, you just come out and say he's emulous. So, the writing in a synop comes out much different than in the MS.

That's how my virgin attempts have come out, anyway.


Rebecca Knight said...

This is an awesome post, and very very helpful for my sanity ;).

My question was the same as Katlin, so thanks for the info! This blog provides a wonderful insight into what you folks are looking for, and relieves a lot of stress for us.


The Rejecter said...

Thanks, Rebecca. This is your first and only warning though not to post links to your blog. Further comments containing them will be rejected. Sorry, policy.

Mame said...

Remember that comment I said about keeping my novels to myself for the most part? Well, I took a basic query I whipped up for Q Shark and tweeked it, then sent it off to two agencies to feel it out.

BAM! Request for 30 pages today.

I should come here more often.

_*rachel*_ said...

Have we seen your query at EE's yet, Aimee?

Thanks, Rejector! I'm nowhere near ready for the synopsis yet, but this'll help for sure.

Why use the search function to start? The archives here are much less daunting than EE's or Miss Snark's. I got through them in less than a week or so--a week without a novel to read, anyway.

I hope there's some wiggle room for details in a synopsis. I'm assuming you can get away without explaining the science of something like Dr. Device from Ender's Game, but you'd better not leave out things like motivations.

Mame said...

I sent it to EE yesterday. I can't wait for the hijinx.

The Rejecter said...

Adverbs are good if they help explain the story. They are bad if they are telling us why we should like your characters or think your plotline is exciting. That your characters are interesting and the plotline is exciting should be inherent in the synopsis or you're doing it wrong.

In other words, do not describe your characters are "interesting" and your book as "humorous."

writtenwyrdd said...

Thanks for this. I confess to finding synopses daunting, but now I'll just keep reminding myself they aren't that bad.

Mike said...

I'm new to this blog and writing blogs in general, so I just noticed something that cracks me up. Every time someone makes a spelling or grammatical error in a written comment, she practically commits suicide apologizing and calling herself stupid. I've seen it elsewhere too, and it's funny. I'm as anal as anyone about that stuff, but still...
Oh, and thanks for taking the time to share information with all us clueless types.

Katlin said...

I'm not stupid! I know I'm not stupid. I just made a stupid mistake not reading through what I wrote. I am very anal about that though. I just don't know if I can edit my comment or not. I'm new, too!

Rie said...

I've never been scared of a synopsis, a query on the other hand. Very scary. The hook on the query the scariest yet.

Aimlesswriter said...

I'm about to write my synopsis so this post was just in time!
Someone once told me to write it as if I was telling a really exciting story to a friend. I think she meant make it a bit dramatic. Either way I'm getting requests now so it must be good advice.

mkcbunny said...

Such a timely post. I'm at this phase now and this takes some of the worry off. Thanks for that.

Lilit Hotham said...

Thanks for the tip! Wow if anything I'm probably a little TOO excited about writing a synopsis. 1-2 pages? Holy crow, I need my pinking shears!