Monday, 4 November 2013

Great Tips for Writing Your Synopsis (in Which I Also Get Query Letter Envy)

Thanks to

The reason I dreaded writing the synopsis for my novel is that it is much too much like work, and not enough like writing. I love finding time to write, sitting down and letting the creating juices flow, or if I’m at the revising the revision stage as I have been lately, letting my nit-picking instincts ... well, pick nits. In my day job as a book editor, I love editing books but huff, puff and procrastinate when I need to write marketing copy. This reluctance stems from a similar root to my synopsis writing anxiety – the worry is that, if the book you are editing or the novel you are writing doesn’t come out sounding lip-smackingly irresistible, it may be because there is something lacking in the product itself – and you really don’t want to be discovering this at the copy-writing stage, when you have already invested a lot of hard work. This is why many novelists write a synopsis at an early stage, and revise it as they go along; and it’s why as book publishers, we write marketing copy when a new book is being proposed, then refine the vision for the book at an acquisitions meeting, and finally create a book to fit the glowing write-up with which we started.

When I sent an earlier draft of my novel, Unspeakable Things, to a consultant, one of the first things she asked for was a synopsis, and her strong recommendation was to access the free downloadable workshop on synopsis writing from Mslexia Magazine. I could not agree more; there are several great workshops here, and when I could put off synopsis writing no longer, I turned to this one:

The workshop explains exactly what the synopsis is for, who will be reading it and when. There is great advice on layout, structure and contents. What’s really good, though, is that the workshop takes you through an unthreatening series of exercises, and when you have completed them all, declares – there you go, put that together with that, add these bits where needed, and you’ve got a workable draft for your synopsis.

I launched in and soon found myself writing a 25 word ‘elevator pitch’ or summary paragraph for Sleeping Beauty, Pride and Prejudice, and a film of my choice. Here’s what I wrote – you have to guess what film is is (it’s my favourite – answer at the end of this post).

Thanks to:

 Here’s what I wrote:

  •      ‘A princess is cursed by a bad fairy to sleep for 100 years until a lover awakes her with a kiss.’
  •      ‘A lively, intelligent woman is annoyed by a fascinating man, but his pride and her family’s shame keep them apart, until a crisis unites them.’
  •       ‘A kind psychiatrist has failed a suicidal man and must redeem himself by helping a sensitive boy who is constantly terrified by visions of ghosts.’

I then had to write a 25 word summary for my own novel, including, if possible, the main character, his or her main quest of challenge, his or her main obstacle and the main setting. This was probably the biggest challenge, but the warm-up exercise had got me thinking hard about what the key elements of a story are, and made me assess my novel in a useful, summarising way. My summary paragraph went through at least six drafts as I worked out what was the really central dilemma driving my main character and plot. I settled on:
  •          ‘Pregnant editor Sarah is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Is the family secret darker still?’

When I had completed the draft of the synopsis, I had a few words to spare, so went back and refined it further to:

  •        ‘Pregnant editor, SARAH, is told her dead mother suffered hereditary madness after childbirth, but is her uncle’s story true? Sarah must discover the family’s dark secret before her baby is born.’

Having dreaded writing the synopsis, I found myself enjoying it, fascinated by the process of cutting through to the very essence of the story and laying it bare. I hope the synopsis will be needed because I’m hoping that the judges of the Mslexia Novel Competition will want to see it, along with the whole novel. If not – gulp –  I’ll at least have a strong synopsis to send out to agents. And I’ll be looking up Mslexia’s advice on writing the opening pages, and the query letter...

With all this going on, I also agreed to read and assess a friend’s combined query letter/synopsis for her first novel – yes, can you imagine, she has been advised that US agents want the query letter and synopsis squashed into one page! Have they no attention span?! It was when reading my friend’s writing credits that I became distracted by what I can only call query letter envy. My friend has writing credits. She has had short stories and essays published in a Hong Kong-based anthology, and in a book about expat women in Asia. Having written for most of my life, novels and screenplays and poetry (as a teenager), for the most part my writing hours –  weeks, well let’s be honest, years – have been spent crafting long, much rewritten works that have not seen the publishing light of day.

 I realise that I have to put this right. I was asked to write an article for a counselling organisation’s magazine, but never quite got round to it – well, I have written it now, and hope they still want it. I have written an article on coping with OCD in the family – I’ll be looking for a support website to send that to. A screenplay I wrote would make a good short story. I will pitch an article to Mslexia Magazine, and write a poem for their latest theme, Troubled Minds. My mind is buzzing with ideas – that workshop helped me get my synopsis out there, now my query letter needs to sparkle like my friend’s!

With thanks to
The answer to the film synopsis quiz was of course, The Sixth Sense.

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