Saturday, September 19, 2009


Whether you fear them, despise them, think they're not so bad, or love them, synopses are a reality in a writer's life. The sooner we become skilled at writing them, the better.

As we all know, synopses come in many forms: the blurb in the query letter, the one page summary, the two page summary, or even a longer summary that gives the blow-by-blow of the plot. The synopsis I'll be focusing on is the one pager since that's what agents who rep YA authors request the most. Also, it's what I have the most experience with, and it's what's on my mind today. :)

In his book
THE FIRST FIVE PAGES: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO STAYING OUT OF THE REJECTION PILE (which I recommend reading), literary agent Noah Lukeman stresses that the prose in the manuscript itself is usually considered before the synopsis. He says the synopsis is often ignored by agents unless the writer manages to hook them with his or her writing in the manuscript. Then the synopsis is considered. That makes sense, and it tells us how fabulous our manuscript pages have to be--an incredible idea alone won't do it. But whether an agent reads the manuscript or the synopsis first doesn't change the fact that our manuscripts and our synopses have to shine. Something I've heard is "good enough isn't"; agents are currently receiving more submissions than ever, so our submissions have to be great.

I used to dread synopses. Now I have a better perspective on them, though I don't know that I'll ever rejoice when it's time to write the first draft of one. It can feel intimidating until we manage to pound out a draft that we really like, a synopsis that matches the tone of the book, tells what happens, and doesn't exceed the word count.

With my WIP, I wrote the first draft of the synopsis well before I wrapped up the first draft of my novel. As I've been revising my book, I've been periodically pulling out the synopsis for revisions too. This evolution has been helpful even though the main plot points have stayed the same. Fresh eyes and time give us so much insight. I asked my critique group to look at the first draft of my synopsis months ago and the current draft just this week since I wanted other trusted fresh eyes to peek at it, too, before I query.

What I like about working on a synopsis is I find boiling my book down helps me see if things are big enough. And although it sounds weird, there
is something liberating about having only one page. My least favorite thing is that I can barely touch subplots--getting the plot down to one page is tricky enough!

Maybe we can share tips/things we've learned so we can perfect our synopsis writing skills. Here are some of mine:

*During my first attempts, I put too much emphasis on the beginning of my story in the synopsis just as many novice writers take too long on the story's setup in their actual manuscripts. If you have 250 words, 125 shouldn't be covering the first chapter.

*Imagine yourself sitting with people around a campfire. Now tell them what your story is about. It sounds soooo basic, but this really helps me write a synopsis. It makes it sound like a story instead of just passed information.

*Only include enough characters to tell the story.

Can you offer any tips from your experiences?


Angie said...

I need a lot more synopsis practice, but I have found some great synopses in the second or later book in a series. A little sum up of what happened in the first book. I read one that totally inspired me when I was working on the synopsis of my first novel. Does that make sense? I'm having a hard time explaining myself.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Angie, it does make sense. Looking at how a later book in a series summed up an earlier book inspired you with your own synopsis. That's interesting. It reminds me of how looking at book blurbs on published books (that seem like they were effortless to write) is helpful for me.

Stephanie Faris said...

I'm so glad they look at the prose in the ms. first. I wrote category for years, where a 3-page, double-spaced synopsis was pretty much the norm. I didn't alter that when I started writing mainstream, women's romance, and young adult...I didn't even THINK there might be a difference...

FictionGroupie said...

Great advice and timely. I've been working on a query letter tonight and plan on tackling the synopsis next. I loathe both. :)

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Stephanie, I agree--I'm glad they usually look at the prose first too. Regarding length, I've been told the one page synopsis is the norm for YA these days, but I'd always look at an agent's guidelines. I don't want to steer you wrong.

Roni, good luck on the query letter and the synopsis! :)

Natalie said...

My synopsis was terrible. I whittled it down to two pages and even at that it didn't have any voice. I was extremely lucky that my eventual agent didn't require a synopsis--actually most of the agents I queried didn't ask for one. (I think this was deliberate on my part, if an agent asked for a synopsis in their submission guidelines, I usually didn't query them). I think it's a better idea to write a great synopsis and query everyone, but this worked for me.

storyqueen said...

NOT looking forward to this! It's kind of like my brain says, "Dude, if I could have told the whole story in just one page, don't you think I would have?"



Dawn VanderMeer said...

Natalie, that worked out beautifully for you! Hooray! :) I think you're absolutely right--a good number aren't requesting synopses. I met an A-lister a few months back who said he doesn't like synopses so he doesn't request them (though he does feel nailing the blurb in the query letter is important). Some of the other agents I really like (other A-listers) do request them, so I need to have one. I'm happy things worked out so well for you!

Storyqueen, good point about the one page story. Hee! You crack me up. Synopses can be dreadful little creatures, but I'm betting you'll work your Storyqueen magic and write a great one. :)

Lazy Writer said...

I am not good at writing the synopsis, but I did get a great tip from an agent. This agent rejected my ms, but did offer advice about my synopsis. She said that I did a great job developing the plot, but she didn't get a good feel for the characters. She said I needed to develop them more in my synopsis. There's my tip--develop the characters as much as the plot.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Ooh, a new tip! Thanks, Susan! :)

Jennifer Shirk said...

I just finished my synopsis.

They do seem to get easier the more you do them--but I still HATE them. :)

(And I think that Noah Lukeman (TFFP) book is his best)

Patti said...

I've re-written my synopsis more times than I care to mention. I'm still working on showcasing the characters and not just the plot.

Travener said...

I'm happy with my novel, happy with my query letter, but I hate my synopsis. For one thing, I can't bring myself to whittle it down to under 3 pages. I'm leaving out too much of the backstory! I'm leaving out too much of the cool twists at the end! Yadda, yadda.

I may take another crack at it, but I won't like it. At all.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Jennifer, congrats on finishing! Huge sigh of relief on your behalf. :)

Patti and Travener, good luck to you both!