Sunday, 29 March 2009


[See note at end!]

I hate writing synopses. There are two types of synopsis, or reasons you might write one - let's call them Synopsis Situations - and I hate both. Equally. To be honest, I hate them so much that I've even postponed writing this blog post about them. But eventually, we authors have to get tough with ourselves.

Talking about getting tough, someone has told me I go on about chocolate too much. So I won't go on about it at all any more. I will continue to eat it, however, if that's OK with you. Not that you have any say in the matter.

Synopsis Situations
  1. when you've written the book and you're trying to sell it to agent / publisher
  2. when you haven't written the book and you are trying to plot it out, to give yourself something to follow
  3. yes, I know I said two, but this is a minor third, which I'm not going to treat as properly separate, but I want to stop you all piling in and saying, "What about ..., you ignorant woman?" It is: when you're already with a publisher and you're trying to explain your next idea to your friendly editor, hoping for a contract before writing the book.
If you're an unpublished author, or at least you don't have a friendly publisher lined up for your WIP (Work in Progress), you will need to become adept at No.1 so that's what we're going to talk about. No.2 is a very useful tool, one which I should make much greater use of, but there are no special skills involved and no rules to follow. It's just a matter of sitting down at your desk instead of vacuuming behind the fridge.

Trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something much plainer. They can seem stark and reveal all your flaws (which is actually one of the reasons why they are so useful.) They are your glorious self stripped bare and made to stand in front of the cameras in an Edwardian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. You're shuddering, I know you are. It's like being in one of those programmes - you know, How To Look Good Naked (shut your eyes or get drunk?) or Ten Years Younger (and $40,000 of cosmetic and dental surgery later, as well as very clever make-up).

But to continue the anology about as far as it will go, if you were on one of those before and after programmes and had to stand there virtually naked and actually frightening the wood-lice, you would be doing certain things to make sure you looked as OKish as possible, wouldn't you? I mean you would not really be letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards - you'd be holding them in; you'd put your shoulders back, chin up, lips gently smiling.

Actually, what you'd be doing would be trying to show that IF you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on, you'd look sensational. Your synopsis, despite being your story naked, needs to do this. It needs to stand with confidence, poise, structure and form. Use those muscles - they're in there somewhere. Or they were once.

In a minute I'm going to direct you to some articles and blogs which will give lots of advice. Thing is, some of it conflicts. So, I want to distill the essential points, so that you can then decide what to do with the conflicting stuff.

Essential Rules
  1. It must be short. Some publishers and agents specify either max 1 or max 2 pages. Don't cheat with this - a page, like a page of your actual MS, must be double-spaced, decent sized font, with normal margins. A shorter synopsis is preferable to a longer one, and if it's too long it will really mark you down. So, edit and pare, edit and pare, edit and pare.
  2. It is not a teaser - so, DO say what happens in the end. (But if you are writing a synopsis for your website - Synopsis Situation 4, I guess - do NOT give away the ending. SS4 is entirely different from SS1-3.)
  3. You give, in the order in which they appear in the book, all the main events. Leave out minor characters, and small incidents. Distill to the most important elements of the story.
  4. It should retain a flavour of the book's style and voice. Don't just say "this happened and then that happened and eventually the guy dies."
  5. It should contain no GPS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling) errors. It should be nicely laid out and easy to read.
  6. The present tense works well for synopses, but it's not a rule, despite being in a list entitled Essential Rules.
Here are some resources for you.
Sadly, the other day I came across a brilliant blog piece about an author's search for how to write the perfect synopsis, and I a) wrote a comment on it b) made a note of the blog address and c) lost the note. I knew I wasn't eating enough chocolate. (Sorry.) So, if that blogger happens to see this, could she please identify herself by commenting below and I'll add the URL? I have a feeling it was someone who follows this blog, but I'm not sure.


AbsoluteWrite has a very useful piece here by Lee Masterson The only thing I slightly disagree with is the bit about not asking open questions. I agree that they should be under-used rather than over-used, because you are supposed to be explaining your book rather than simply enticing (which a blurb would do), but I don't know of agents / editors who would mark you down for using the odd open question, if that's relevant to the story-line. Lee's point about then needing to answer the open question is a good one though.

A Literary Agent's tips (from the US)
Nathan Bransford seems to have had the same problem as me getting this blog piece done. But he's done it and it's very succinct.

Finally, I came across this one from Marg Gilks and it's excellent. She makes some important distinctions between types of synopsis and strikes the right balance between blurb and outline. (Small warning though - it was written in 2001 and although I hadn't realised that anything much would have changed synopsis-wise in that time, there are two things which I should clarify: first, DEFINITELY double spacing, please, and second, DON'T be tempted to do a ten-pager; two is really the most you should do, unless you've written Anna Karenina, in which case leave out the farming stuff and that should help a lot.)

Anyway, I have to say that Marg Gilks has converted me. I am now positively looking forward to writing a synopsis. In fact, I am am going to engineer a Synopsis Situation. Bring it on.

On another note entirely, since this post has been on the teachy side rather than the chatty side and since you have been working very hard, and since you need an explanation as to why I haven't posted for a few days, I thought you might like another funny story from the mad world of doing author events. So, do read my "My Brain Causes Airport Security Incident" story here.

Meanwhile, the deadline for my Worst Query letter competition is about to close and I am going to spend the afternoon re-reading the entries and trying to decide. You have produced some absolute classics - well done and thank you for some brilliant laughs! I hope to bring you the winning entries in the next few days.

[Edited to add, almost exactly five years later: I now LOVE writing synopses and in fact have written an ebook about it! See here.]


Isaac Epsriu said...

I'm with you, Nicola. Synopses are horrible.

Some good advice here. My brain's entering sleep mode right now, but I'll definitely be back in the morrow to take a further look.

Bob said...

Simple, sensible and obvious. No wonder we wrestle with synopses so much; we so often forget what they're designed to do.
And I don't think you're an "infamously crabbit old bat" either!!

Nicola Morgan said...

Oh thank you, Bob! But if you google "crabbit old bat" I am the first entry, which is infamy enough for me!

Stephanie said...

Thanks for the advice!!! I am going to rework my synopsis!!!

Samantha Tonge said...

I'm writing one at the moment, Nicola. A nightmare. I had managed to do one at under a page, but it was simply relaying fact after fact. A writing group has helped me inject a bit of my style and it now stands at 900 words but much better reflects the flavour of the book.

I just hope i don't want to submit to someone who demands a one page synopsis.

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, sensible, strong advice as usual.

I like Beth Anderson's advice about synopsis-writing (and think I might even have blogged about it at one point).

Meanwhile, thank you for participating in my bloggers' pitch party today--it's much appreciated. I think there's a gang of us going round and clogging up everyone's comments now. Look what I've started.

Ms Shea said...

I just discovered your blog via Jane Smith's pitch party. You offer great advice and I look forward to reading more. Thanks!

morphine-moniza said...

Thanks for the advice! And I personally think you should talk about chocolate MORE. You invariably sound so happy when you do.

behlerblog said...

Great post, as usual, Nicola. However, I'm amazed at your airport adventure. Lord knows I could use a good brain swabbing. And a change of knickers...still laughing

Book Maven said...

A thought on synopsis type 1-3.
It has two functions:

To give a flavour of your style and voice (I think you said this)

To make the publisher want to read the whole/commission the book.

Once it has fulfilled this function, IT WILL NEVER BE LOOKED AT AGAIN! So don't stress about writing something you will find it hard to stick to.

pinkgecko said...

This is so, so useful. Thank you.

Marion Gropen said...

I love your posts. So trenchant, and so very right! I found you through Jane Smith's Pitch Party, but I'm bookmarking you now!

Fia said...

You meet such nice people at pitch parties.

I've just looked at your other site and must get the Highwayman's Curse. So hard to find books for teenage boys and I know I would love it too.

Thank you for dropping by my blog. Your comments were most welcome and I promise to provide chocolate next time.

HelenMHunt said...

I love the brain story - and I positively need you to talk about chocolate.

Nicola Morgan said...

Well, lots of you seem to appreciate the chocolate-camaraderie - so if you INSIST, I will continue.

Thanks, all, for your comments. And to Jane for her most useful Pitch Party.

Meanwhile, more chocolate ...

DOT said...

If I could afford the fare, I would board a train and come up to Edinburgh, wonderful city that it is, to give you a big kiss for this post. You may not welcome a big kiss from me, I have it on good authority few people welcome a big kiss from me; however, it is the only gift on offer, money for flowers, jewels, chocolates and lavish holidays being non-existent.

I have been worrying about how to write the synopsis for my book for some time and you have provided all the answers. So many thanks.

litlove said...

This is fantastic advice, thank you. I'm in a sort of weird no 3 situation, having an agent and trying to find the right book to sell - and to write as I do non-fiction which only requires you to produce a few sample chapters. I've written several book proposals for academic books and had them published before, but moving from that explanatory, all loose ends tied sort of synopsis to one that teases and suggests is incredibly difficult, I find. Any advice, or any suggestions where I can find online advice for non-fiction proposals in particular would be warmly welcomed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nicola. I am about to launch my book to an agent today. I had been cheating. I kept saying my synopsis was 1 page but it was not double spaced. The novel is 500 pages so hard to put into one page. Thank goodness I read your blog before I posted it to cyberspace.

Anonymous said...

I have just had an agent request a three page full synopsis...! I've done it, it was hell. Now, for another agent I must confine myself to one page only. For my next novel I will be writing three of varying lengths. Frankly I would rather write another 100K novel than do this.
Where is the chocolate kept in the house? Patricia