Saturday 30 March 2013

Getting the synopsis right

A good synopsis can be a major selling point when you submit work to a publisher. True, we probably won’t even read it if the writing’s no good. There is a slight irony in that; it’s always easier to fix bad writing than it is to mend that a story that isn’t working. Editors tend, anyway, to know more about editing than story-telling even if they can recognise a good story when they see one. So it may seem that under-par writing could be improved. Yes, most likely, but we just haven’t got the time to do it. The writing must go somewhere else to get fixed. So, it’s not even worth looking at the synopsis just yet.
Sadly, much writing passes muster and then is rejected because it seems from the synopsis that the writer just has no story to tell. Even more sadly it’s highly likely that they do have a good story but have failed to crystalize it well in the synopsis.
We ask a lot, we know. We usually want no more than 500 words and frequently less. It takes quite a lot of skill for the writer to represent their novel effectively in that space. And it is reassuring to us that the writers we decide to publish do have that skill.
So what should writers do?
Here a few things to avoid:

Writing the synopsis like a blurb
We do need to know the whole story and it needs to be told in a business-like manner. One or two rhetorical questions might be all right – particularly if they’re actually from the point of view of the protagonist – but if you don’t feel confident with this, don’t do it.

Writing in a quirky way
You might be writing a book that is quirky in style and you may wish to represent that style in your synopsis. It is great if you can pull it off. Most people don’t manage to and then it just becomes extremely irritating.

Creating a list
Avoid:” this happens and then this happens, then this happens and then that”. The commissioning editor needs to get a feel for where all of the drama and the tension is in the plot. Don’t overwhelm her with details.   

Getting the balance wrong
Don’t have too much of any of the following though you probably need some of each of these:
·         Backstory
·         Character description
·         Setting description
·         Action
·         Exposition
·         Justification (Yu actually shouldn’t need any of this in a well-written synopsis.)  

Writing in the past tense
Normally a synopsis should be written in the present tense. After all, the book remains the same each time it is read.  

Avoid overwriting
Keep your sentences succinct and to the point. Allow that word count work for you. Make sure your style is a tight as can be. You are using a completely different writing muscle here from the one you need to write your novel. No “The reason he is here is because….”

So, what should you do? Try this:

Recipe for a synopsis
1.      Define the novel in two or three lines. What type of novel is it? Which sub-genre? What happens to the main character?
2.      Say a little about the main characters and the setting, weaving in any backstory only if it is really important.
3.      Identify the main actions – usually no more than three or four - until you reach that all important crisis point.
4.      Describe the crisis point, perhaps giving it a paragraph all of its own.
5.      Define what happens in the car-chase moment – that gap between the crisis point and the resolution.
6.      Describe the new point of stasis that your protagonist has reached. Here you may hint at a follow-up story if appropriate.

And a hot tip. Read Nicola Morgan’s excellent book about writing synopses.     

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