I mentioned last week that I was at the Romantic Times convention in LA. While there, I led a workshop on how to write “a sensational synopsis.” Before the class, I panicked that I wouldn’t have enough to say to fill my two and a half hour time slot. You know what? I can TALK. I ended up barreling through those hours and actually ran out of time at the end. And that was in spite of nattering on right through a fire alarm. It turns out people in other places pay attention to alarms. Dean Koontz’s class got cleared right out. No one even stopped in to check on us. Apparently folks are totally content to let the agents burn. I see how it is…
What I loved about the workshop (other than the opportunity to hear myself talk for several hours) was that it gave me an insight not only into how much people freak out about trying to synopsize their books, but also the ways in which they trip themselves up. A synopsis seems to be the new query letter. Everyone hates them, panics about them, and then writes a bad one. With so much information out there about writing queries, the quality has gone up astronomically over the past ten years. Most synopses on the other hand still kind of suck.
It probably has to do with the conflicting advice: Tell us everything, but be concise. Write the details as plainly as possible, but make sure the writing is still great. Don’t be jokey, but I love to laugh. (That last one might just be me). After working through a few valiant volunteers’ samples, I realized that the single thing people have the hardest time with is choosing what to include. One of my most common questions when reading a synopsis is a simple, “Hrrh?” Because when you’re cramming 100K words into a page, things tend to get confusing and I often find that authors lose track of what they have shared in a synopsis and what they need to lay out more plainly.
The synopsis, happily, isn’t the most important part of any submission. It still can only hope to have a good one. To that end, if you’ve been asked to submit one, my advice is this:
Chart the action of your novel. Actually map it out and identify the key points. Identify cause and effect between those key points. Then narrate it so that you tell us A which leads directly to B, how B then leads to C, and so on. If you can map it out in a straight line in front of you, it will read cleanly. This isn’t where you get to dazzle us with your subplots, your thematic resonance, or your brilliant character descriptions. Usually, we’re only reading this to make sure you know how to tell an actual story. The synopsis is ONLY about the plot. People get bogged down trying to encompass everything about their novels in a handful of pages. If that was possible to do, you wouldn’t have written a novel. You’d have a short story with too many words.
And then read it back trying to pretend you know nothing about the story. Can you still follow the action without knowing what you know of the book’s content? It’s tricky to be able to remove your knowledge of your own book, but try to think critically. “Here I say that Dave shoots Donna. Has Dave been introduced? Has Donna?” And only introduce new knowledge when it is absolutely critical for the reader to know it. There’s no foreshadowing in a synopsis—it’s just too confusing.
One piece of advice I garnered just by running the class itself: have other people read your synopsis back to you. Once we got going, writers would stop me and say that though they had read their own pages over and over, there was something about hearing me read it out loud that made them realize how extraneous some information was. Or how awkward some phrasing was. So if you can force a friend or family member to read it back at you, that can only help. Go ahead—exploit them. That’s what they’re there for!
And the last piece of advice makes it counterintuitive that I spoke on the subject for two and a half hours: don’t worry too much about them. Don’t overthink them. They really aren’t THAT important.