Writing a synopsis of your immortal work

This was the post I intended to make before I got diverted by the sparklies. By the way, if ever you feel the need to divert me, let me assure you you’ll have *no* problem if you dangle a diamond or two before me.

But in the absence of diamonds, it’s back to writerly things and writing a synopsis of your novel.

I spent the weekend helping a good friend, M, do synopses (synopsi? synopsopodes?) of all six of the series of novels she’s taking with her to Vegas at the end of the month to the Western Writers of America meet. M has an agent interested, who wants not only the first book to read at the meet but the synopses of the following books. I didn’t begrudge the time doing it because I need to do exactly the same thing with the Shield series, for the LGBT Writers Meeting at Manchester next month. I hope to corner a… I mean, have 1-to-1s with publishers there and I need to go into those meetings focused on what Shield is about, and sell it. Helping M with hers ended up being a dry run for mine.

Have you ever tried to write a synopsis before pitching to a publisher? And did you, like me, discover it’s harder than it looks?

Sure, writing a synopsis is easy, until you read it over afterwards and realise it’s all and then, and then, and then this happened, and then that went on…

And then (ha!) you conclude, gloomily, that the synopsis is so boring your dentist could use is as an alternative to anaesthetic while he extracts half your teeth. There is no way in hell that a publisher would look at it and get past the first paragraph. Not unless he or she’s an insomniac, and even then they’d have to have been sleepless for a week.

So I did a little bit of hunting around via trusty old Google (who wouldn’t *dream* of letting the US government know what I’ve been researching, no sirree). And I found a how-to writing site by Glen Strathy, whose approach is so unusual that M and I blinked, stared, and gave it a go.

Strathy suggests that the problem with synopses of the type most people write (that is, the boring and-then-and-then species) is that writers get so bound up in the events of their novel, they forget to include the crucially important bit: its emotional heart. “The secret of how to write a synopsis,” says Strathy, “is to incorporate the emotional twists and turns of your characters – especially your main character – at the same time as you describe your sequence of plot events.”

So, saith the sage, go and get hold of a set of index cards, answer sets of questions, shuffle the resultant cards into four piles and there you have it: the outline of a compelling synopsis that includes the emotion, the growth your character makes, the impact on him or her of the other characters, the sacrifices he makes and the rewards she reaps… a true synopsis of your book that will set it apart from the rest and make the publisher long to read the whole thing.

Hang on.

Index cards. Index cards? You mean… paper? Paper and a pen and, you know, handwriting?

Whoa, but he did. M and I were dubious, but game to try something new. So in lieu of index cards, we cut 5″x8″ photographic printing sheets in half and used those. Expensive, but all we had. Besides, M said she never printed out her photos anyway.

And we started. First set of cards was the boring events stuff. Four cards – (1) the event that kicks everything off, (2) events that illustrate opposition to the story goal (yup, go back and write the story goal, people – you’ll need it later), (3) the climactic scene where that goal is met or not, and (4) the aftermath. There you go, the first card in each of the four piles.

Then grab your main character by the scruff of the neck and shake him until you can answer four questions about him (or her) too. (1) what he’s like at the beginning, (2) how he or she is pushed into a situation where they have to change? (3) how he changes– if he does and (4) is he better off at the end. Obviously, the range of what constitutes ‘change’ is enormous, but you get the idea. If you believe that your character has to grow as the novel progresses, this quickly charts out how.

Now lay all your (1) cards together, and your (2) cards etc etc. Admire your neat handwriting and start in on the other characters. Then the relationship(s) at the heart of the novel. Then add in cards for the themes and put them in the right pile. Then the eight plot points that Strathy talks about on another page. By now, you’ll be whistling tunelessly and happily as you sort the cards in each pile into a pleasing order, and whoa again! Look at that, folks. You have the outline of a really interesting synopsis there.

I was cynical. Five synopses later, I was sold on this as a way of producing something that won’t put the publisher into an instant coma. You might be interested in having a go for yourself. If so, here’s the link : http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/how-to-write-a-synopsis.html#

And in the next day or two, I’ll share the synopsis of Gyrfalcon here for you to comment on and tear apart, if need be. I hope it’ll be more than just a little more ‘and then and then and then…’ If it isn’t, can I have diamond tiara to console me?


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