For those uninitiated, the synopsis is a short summary of your book – detailing the basic plot and attempting to give a flavour of the thing in just a few hundred words. They are what you send off to agents and publishers along with the first couple of chapters of your book in order to titillate them with your wares.
Why are they tough to write?
Well one reason I think is because they are so cold-blooded – you have written your book, pouring in the best of yourself and your art, honing and refining it until it is the least bad it can be. Now you are expected to capture it and explain it in a tiny space. It’s probably 80,000 words long your book, there’s a lot in there and you feel you can’t possibly do it justice.
Another reason they are a pain to do is because a lot seems to ride on getting them right. Whoever you are querying won’t have your full book to read, they’ll just have a short sample of it, and this synopsis – so you feel it has to work very hard. The more pressure there is to get something right the tougher it becomes, that’s why footballers sky penalties over the bar in the World Cup.
Top ten tips
Here’s a few things I’ve kept in mind when writing a synopsis for each of the three novels I’ve completed to date. Two of them have found a publisher so far, so I suppose one could argue I must be getting something right. (Look, here’s me signing a contract, the only document in publishing guaranteed to be harder to wade through than the synopsis).
You have to write something, so take the pressure off yourself and get some words on the page. It’s important to get the thing done, not let it become a big issue or an albatross for you. Get something down, you can always tweak it later on.
Start with a basic plot outline
See how many words that takes you, what’s left is the space you have to say something about your method or intentions or style or whatever else you feel you need to include.
Rewrite it shorter
Go back to it and trim out any unnecessary detail. You have probably included more about the plot than you need to for example. Top line stuff is what is required here, not every last twist and turn.
Be firm with your characters
You can’t fully draw your characters in your synopsis – there’s no room. They might be all kinds of complicated in your book but there’s no space to put that in here – you have to be disciplined and sum them up succinctly.
Don’t expect to say everything about your book
You can’t mirror your whole work in just a few words – you need to say clearly what it’s about and what happens in it, that’s probably the best you can do. Just try to focus on what’s most important about it in your view. It’s like the famous elevator pitch – the art of explaining your work to someone in the length of time it would take to share an elevator ride with them. (Though they’d probably rather you shut up and left them to stare at the numbers in silence because nobody likes talking in elevators.)
Do include the ending
No coy teasers needed here – don’t finish it with ‘and hilarious consequences ensue’ or similar. This is aimed at someone who will be representing or publishing the book, so they need to know clearly what’s in it and how it turns out.
Don’t put things in there which can go in your covering letter
The letter is your sales pitch – the synopsis is a summary of the book, not a review saying how wonderful it is.
Keep the style neutral
You are including your sample chapters to let the reader know what an amazing prose stylist you are. The synopsis is more of a functional document – it needs to be simple and clear I would say, rather than full of jokes for example.
Pretend you are summarising someone else’s book
This helps I think if you are too close to the text. How can you possibly reduce your masterpiece to just a handful of words? It’s sacrilege! Pretend your mate Dave has asked you to summarise his book for him – you will find it becomes a lot easier to do.
Avoid fancy fonts
Or other tomfoolery. One side of plain white paper, Arial 11 point (or 10 point if you are looking to cram in a few cheeky extra words.)
So there we have it – I still don’t like them though. But they are a necessary evil I’m sure if you are a publisher faced with a pile of manuscripts reaching up to the ceiling, so we had best just get on with it and stop grumbling!
What are your tips for writing a synopsis? Let me know in the comments!
If you get a moment to take a look at the (ahem) award-winning Song of the Sea God.