Friday, 12 March 2010

OUTLINE and SYNOPSIS

A request to blog about outlines and another to blog about synopses makes it sensible to do both at the same time. Authors are often frightened about both. Bite the bullet, folks, and do it, OK?

(Erm, I have just read this post of mine from a year ago, in which I professed to be terrified of synopses. Silly me. Maybe I've learnt a lot the last year. Maybe practice makes almost perfect, or at least better, or at least less scary?)

What's the difference between an outline and a synopsis?
An outline is a detailed ...er...outline of everything that happens in your book, including sub-plots and minor characters. The purpose of the outline is to ensure that the plot all hangs together.

A synopsis is much shorter (and harder to write); it shows perfectly what the book is like and what it's about, without the need for chronological outlining. A synopsis omits sub-plots and minor characters. It tells us who the MC(s) is/are and their motivations, sets up the conflict, setting, theme, voice and denouement. The purpose of the synopsis is to sell the book and the idea, and give the agent or editor a very clear idea as to what this book is like. It must be brilliantly crafted and the more time you spend on it, the better.

When might you need them?
You are highly unlikely to need to show an outline to anyone in order to sell your book. The person who most needs an outline is ...you. Well, in my case at least, as my memory is shocking and I can't possibly remember what happens in my own books. It helps clarify the time-line, too.

You are highly likely to need a synopsis in order to sell your book. It will usually go with the covering letter and sample chapters. Even published authors are likely to need to write synopses for their editors before their editors can wave a contract under their faces.

Why do authors hate writing them?
Writing an outline is boring because you have to put so much in. Writing a synopsis is painful because you have to leave so much out. Both usually fail to convey what you really want to tell the world about your book.

So, the answer to the question, "How do I do an outline?" is: you just say what happens, in what order, giving the POV. Just lay it out as clearly as possible and be as brief as you can while fitting everything in.

And the answer to the question, "How do I do a synopsis?" is only a bit more complicated.

Top tips for synopses
  • Keep it brief. How brief? Different people will give you different rules, for one good reason: there is no single rule. If you want a rule: keep within two sides of A4, though you'll get agents / editors who don't mind if it's a bit longer. One side is likely to be preferable to two - ie, generally, the shorter the better. I have heard it said that single-spacing is fine - fine, whatever. I care not whether it is single-spaced or triple, as long as it's clear. If I was an agent I'd probably prefer double. But then, "Mine's a double" kind of rolls off my tongue. Honestly, spacing in synopses doesn't require a firm rule.
  • Make sure you say what genre it is, and what length. Mention the setting. We need to know.
  • Always make it 3rd person (but say if it's written in 1st).
  • Present usually works best for a synopsis.
  • Say what happens in the end.
  • Omit minor characters and sub-plots.
  • Don't include unanswered questions, such as, "Will Jeff save the world?"
  • Don't tell the reader how exciting / brilliant the story is.
  • Make the writing tight - you are a writer and everything you write should be up to standard.
Other than that, you can make your own decisions about the form of your synopsis. For example, one that I've just written begins with what could be the "blurb" on the back cover, then has a paragraph on each of the two main characters and what they are about - because it is their actions which form the narrative and so their provenance and motivations are crucial. Then I briefly outline the main parts of the story, making it sound like a rounded whole. (I hope!)

Not easy to write, and therefore something that we shy away from, but writing a synopsis at any stage (before or after writing the book) can be a very useful and focusing act.

Edited to add two tips from blog readers - 
Emma Darwin says: "The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively."

And Gemma Noon: "Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculuously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't."

No excuses now: just do it!

45 comments:

KarenG said...

What a fortuitous post. I just came over from my wip, completely NOT in the mood to write tonight and besidesI can't remember a thing that's in it nor why I wrote it, even though I just worked on it last night. I've got the main story worked out up to 52,000 words. I'm thinking it's time for the synopsis AND outline. Either that or put it away for a few weeks then come back to it.

Emma Darwin said...

Great piece, as ever.

I had to write an outline for a half-finished book a few months back, for the first time ever. I'd never done one - why would I, when you can plan so much more clearly in charts and diagrams? But thank god I did: having to put things into continuous prose revealed that what I'd planned for the second half didn't actually link up into chains of cause and effect, which was why the writing had ground to a halt. I sorted it out and writing the second half was an absolute breeze because I had. So an outline's now been added to my list of essential processes.

The best tip I've ever had for writing synopses is to write it in a single sentence: your hook, if you like. Then expand that to a paragraph. Then finally expand that to a full page. That way, instead of agonising over what to leave out and feeling the book looks limp and lifeless as a result, you're starting with the core conflict, and only adding what fleshes it out most effectively.

HelenMHunt said...

That's brilliant, and has made me want to take another look at my synopsis while there's still time.

Gemma Noon said...

see you post this the day AFTER I submit mine. Really, that just isn't fair.

The situation can be a little different when you're submitting for a book that hasn't been written. Yes yes, I know that in 90% of cases this doesn't apply to fiction, but I'm currently in the 10%. You have to put twice as much in, though, because you can't rely on your writing style to help convince the editor that you rock.

Extra bit of advice, though: get someone to read through your synopsis who hasn't got a blind clue what your book is about - you've never discussed it, they've never beta read it, never seen a draft if possible. It is ridiculuously easy to leave out crucial info in a synopsis because you know the info backwards; an editor / agent doesn't.

Not that, you know, I did that the first time round, or anything.

Talli Roland said...

Thanks for the tips, Nicola! Outlines I can deal with, but writing a synopsis makes me run straight to the kitchen to scrub the floor. And I detest scrubbing the floor!

I do need to just bite the bullet and write it.

Ivan said...

Thanks for that. My (potential, long term discussion) agent asked for an outline. I guessed he meant a synopsis so that's what I wrote, sort of, as you set out. Sent it over. Haven't heard back yet.

Jo Franklin said...

Synopsis is my total bugbear, although by some sort of miracle I have managed to come up with something half decent for one of my books. It's the next book I'm struggling with.

I understand about leaving subplots and minor characters out. Also red herrings if it's a mystery.
But what if they are important for the denouement?

Also I have a fantastic reveal which takes 4 words in the book. It will take a few sentences to describe it. It breaks my heart to have it so wordy in the synopsis.

Kate said...

Excellent post - anything that can help with the tricky art of synopsis writing is always more thanw elcome!

gentlewomanthief said...

It's blooming hard getting a 120,000+ word fantasy story into an A4 page, so a bit of guidance is always welcome, even better when it's great guidance like this! Thank you - this has really helped me start thinking about what to change in my synopsis when I go back to edit it.

behlerblog said...

Nicola, here in the US, make the query and synopsis single spaced. This also gives authors a lot more playing room.

And do NOT forget chocolate and margaritas when writing. This is part of a writer's tackle box. Always.

Anonymous said...

I have the impression a synopsis here in the U.S. may be somewhat different. The description in Donald Maass's _Writing the Breakthrough Novel Workbook_ makes the synopsis seem like a long, involved business.

Whirlochre said...

Sy - Nop - sis!

Arghhh!

A Bermuda Triangle of syllables!

A very timely offering — even though it hurts.

Arghhh, I say again. Arghhh!

Spider Griffin said...

Useful post Nicola, thank you.

I've never written an outline for any of my writing simply because of the way I write: "seat-of-the-pants" style to quote an American phrase, i.e I make it up as I go along, with only the vaguest of "hints" along the way. But of course, everyone's different, some people finding outlines useful and necessary, others finding them too restricting. Each to their own, I guess!

One huge advantage of writing an outline I would think, especially if the writer pretty much sticks to it, is that it helps in the writing of the synopsis in quite a few ways, I'm sure you'd agree.

But because I don't write an outline, I always find writing the synopsis a real drag (like a lot of other people, I'm certain), without an ounce of enjoyment there. But so necessary, of course.

I didn't realise that double spaced or single spaced synopses are both aceptable, although this muddies the waters a bit when an agency asks for a specific amount of pages for the synopsis, but without saying wether that is double or single spaced.

> "Always make it 3rd person (but say if it's written in 1st).

Well, I didn't know that! i mean, I knew it should always be 3rd person, but didn't know that if it's written in 1st, then to mention it!

Is it useful to add, on this point, that synopses should always be written in the present tense as well?

:-)

Nicola, I've changed my first name to my pseudonym, but you can still call me David, of course, if you like!

Penny Dolan said...

Dear Nicola, and you too Emma.
Outline? Erm yes. Maybe more than yes. Buckling down to it straightaway! Have just spent quite a while sorting a plot strand out in WIP so far, so feel the need of an outline, if only out of fear of finding something worse.

Useful post as ever, Nicola. Keep kicking me now and again with those
pointy boots and I might even get Tome Two finished.

Nicola Morgan said...

emma and Gemma - excellent tips. I'm going to add them into the post, for the benefit of readers coming later.

Jo - I can see why that would be painful! Ironic, too.

Lynn / behlerblog - ah, you Americans, you always like to be one step ahead (or behind, or more or less pernickety than us!). Thanks for pointing that out.

Spider / David - I thought I did say that present tense works best - I'll go and check, If I didn't, thank you for pointing that out.

Everyone else - thank you and I'm glad my pointy boots are pushing you in the right direction! Butts on seats!

Book Maven said...

I should like to clarify that Lynn (Behler Blog) does NOT mean you should send chocolate or margaritas WITH the synopsis!

Thanks Nicola, as always a great post.

Nicola Morgan said...

Gosh, Mary - I'm so glad you clarified that!

Glynis said...

I have started practicing mine and this post is very useful. I would not have put what happens at the end, so I learned something here. Thanks Nicola!

Janet O'Kane said...

Thanks, Nicola, for answering my query so helpfully. I slaved long and hard to perfect my 1000-word synopsis to enter the CWA Debut Dagger, and thought it would stand me in good stead until I found another competition to go for which asked for an outline too.
Then I attended a 'how to get published' day at Faber & Faber on Saturday and the tutor (current job editor, has worked as agent) rubbished the idea of ever providing a synopsis. Her advice was that the first 60 pages are enough to gain an agent's interest!

Nicola Morgan said...

Janet - hello! God, I get so frustrated when an editor or anyone gives maverick advice! As you know, different agents do ask for slightly different things, but it's crazy to go against what most want and decide to come up with a "60 pages" figure out of the blue. Thing is YES, 60 pages would be enough to show your brilliance - hell, if you're good enough, 10 pages would. But MOST agents DO need a synopsis before they'll know whether to move on. And editors very much so. My agent has asked for a synopis to take to new publishers and I've had 90 books published and she's a great agent - if anyone could sell a book without a synopsis, she could! It's standard practice and although in 5 years it may not be, it is now, and all a poor author cn do is try to tick as many boxes as poss and steer a sensible road.

The bottom two lines are: do what you think that agent wants and do whatever it takes to present your book in the best light. If you happen to know that THIS agent doesn't need a synopsis, fine, but if you don't know that, you need to second-guess them, which means going with the majority / most likely.

Thank you for telling me about this. I have to give advice that's going to work for most people. That editor has her own view but it's not mainstream.

With my consultancy, pen2publication, i now realise that the synopsis is what really tells me whether the writer is on top of the story. It's a sign of professionalism.

Good luck steering your way through all this advice!

Theresa Milstein said...

This is great advice. I've struggled, but have been pretty happy with my synopses, and always try to limit them to a page, single-spaced. I'd be happy to make it two-pages, double-spaced.

I was surprised that we should put genre and little details like that because I always figured the synopsis was sent with a query, so it's right there.

One piece of advice I found valuable was to capitalize whenever I mentioned a character for the first time.

SF said...

Hi Nicola, came over looking for the post on punctuation tantalisingly displayed in my blogger reader, but now it doesn't exist..

Hope you will post it later on?

mindmap1 said...

Dear Nicola.

Timely post and thank you to all the others who have shared their experiences.

In a recent competition I read the winning chapter and synopsis with interest. The winner had included two key sentences of dialogue between her main characters. (It was a romantic novel.) And included at least four 'hooks' in bold, almost like a blurb. The editor, UK based, explained she chose the winner because the synopsis told her exactly what to expect in a unique and punchy manner.

An outline is, I think, a roadmap of how to reach your destination. It's not set in stone and there's nothing to prevent you changing direction - even driving off the edge of a cliff!

Nicola Morgan said...

mindmap - that's interesting. You highlight an important point that i want to blog about later: about standing out from the crowd. I think it's worth remembering that that instance was a competition, so the editor was looking to distinguish between quality of synopsis, NOT consider which book she would ACTUALLY commission. Standing out from the crowd should only be done by being extra good - the synopsis writer sounds as though he/she did a really good job and managed to stand out without being wacky or breaking rules. I agree, highlighting critical bits in bold and including a line of dialogue would work well, IF that happened to be appropriate.

I think this underlines the crucial importance of doing what serves your book best, over and above following rules as though they are set in stone. And the improtance of knowing the rules before you can break them?

Theresa - re putting genre in, good point that normally / often this wouldn't be strictly necessary because you've already said it. You are quite right that IF you've already told the person what genre it is, you don't also absolutely HAVE to put it in the synopsis.

HOWEVER, it's important to realise that once sent to the agent / publisher, he/she might use the synopsis without your covering letter to sell it to the next people along the line. SO, I still would advise including it.

Also, I was thinking of the reasons why I generally have to write synopses - for the benefit of people trying to sell my book after publication, or for my website etc.

Nicola Morgan said...

SF - ah, sorry! Yes, it was scheduled for 17th April, and something went wrong while I was typing in the time. BUT, especially for you, I have brought it forward to Sunday morning, and postponed Sunday's one till next week!

SF said...

Oh, no worries, and my apologies for pressuring you into posting early! I just love discussing punctuation.

Re Outlines and Synopsis, to stick to the current topic. I think you have posted before on another reason writing a synopsis is such a great idea - so that when someone asks you at a party 'So, what's your book about?', you can reply in a few pithy lines that make said party-goer want to buy your book as soon as it comes out.

Nicola Morgan said...

SF - yes, the post you refer to was called Pitch your Hook - on Feb 1st this year - http://helpineedapublisher.blogspot.com/2010/02/pitch-your-hook.html - but that was more about the "hook" or "pitch", ie something shorter than a synopsis. All these overlapping terms are used slightly differently by different people / countries, which makes it all unnecessarily confusing!

Verity said...

I'm a teenage writer, finished a story and could do with some advice on query letters.

First, should there be differences in format if they are emailed instead of snail-mailed? I Googled and the standard advice is just "make it shorter than a snail-mail letter".

Any advice appreciated.

behlerblog said...

Book Maven makes a huge mistake:
I should like to clarify that Lynn (Behler Blog) does NOT mean you should send chocolate or margaritas WITH the synopsis!


Yes! Yes, that's EXACTLY what she means!

Nicola Morgan said...

Verity - that's a huge question! If you look through the labels, you'll find quite a lot of advice on queries / covering letetrs etc and adapting it to fit an email would be pretty much a matter of common sense and what is right for your book and THAT agent / publisher. You need to look at the submission guidelines for that particular agent / editor.

btw, when you say "teenage" and "story" - I presume you mean "novel"?? Do say novel, rather than story when describing the book. The novel does contain a story but should be referred to as a novel.

Email submissions should follow the same purpose as hard copy ones: to show the recipient that you have written a great story. Whether email or snail, the same info is essentially required and there is little difference other than the commons sense ones - eg in an email you'd put your address at the bottom rather than top right. And details like that.

Nicola Morgan said...

Lynn from behlerblog - DO be quiet and stop confusing everyone!! For the benefit of those who are not old hands at this game, you do NOT send chocolate or margharitas with a submission of any sort! Obviously, I would love to receive them, but agents and editors are not me and they are much more professional. They get very annoyed by silly ways of attracting their attention. On the other hand, if you happen to meet Lynn out with the beagle on the beaches of California, I'm sure she wouldn't say no to being taken for a drink or otherwise pampered.

DO send chocolates or anything else AFTER you've been taken on by an agent or publisher, however - that would be a lovely touch, i'm sure they'd agree. And it rarely happens, I think.

Verity said...

Nicola,
Thanks for the reply and your help!!

I stand ashamed at my "story" gaffe.

I meant to say that I am a teen, not that I am writing teen novels for teens (although I am).

xx

Nicola Morgan said...

Verity - ah, I did wonder when you said "teenage" but I didn't want to leap to conclusions! It's weird (isn't it?) that we sometimes talk about "teenage authors" meaning people who write for teenagers, and sometimes (but less often) teenagers who write, and "teenage writers" meaning usually teenagers who write, and yet an author for children is not called a "child author" or "child writer" unless they are a child... It's very confusing. Anyway, you are equally welcome here whatever your age.

And, I did NOT mean to suggest that it was a "gaffe" and you definitely shouldn't be embarrassed, whatever age you are! On the other hand, since your book will be judged in most cases absolutely equally with writing by adults, you will have to follow largely the same rules.

Please, please, please, do hang around this blog and pick up everything you can, and do join in (as you did!) without worrying about gaffes. There are people four times your age who will get the same things right and wrong.

One thing: I need to know whether you are in the UK or US or somewhere else, because "querying" is different in both areas. I talk from a UK point of view, though I try to cover US usage too, especially by relying on US readers to chip in with how it's different.

Verity said...

Nicola

Thanks very much for your kindness and no worries btw - sorry if I made you think I was offended.

I am in the UK.

I've found this post-writing stage is the most intimidating part of being a writer, it's like I'm doing business now and am out of my depth.

um..another thing which is holding me back significantly is my family's/friends' lack of interest or input. I know I should have realistic expectations but it kind of stinks since I've spent 4-5 years writing this novel, finally done it, and am now having my determination and aim rather knocked.

Thanks for making such a great blog x

Nicola Morgan said...

Verity - re your friends' / family's lack of interest: I'm sorry that's making you sad / annoyed. There are several different things that could be going on. They may simply not understand or respect how hard writing is and how important it is to us all. To be perfectly honest, if that's their view it will be very hard to change it and you risk beating yourself up in trying to do so. Another thing is that they may be worried about you failing or perhaps not being able to support yourself while writing. I don't know your exact age (ie if you've left school) but they just may not be taking it seriously for several reasons. Whatever the reason, it's a shame for you but it will not hold you back.

You don't actually need them! Yes, family support would be nice, but only if it's the right support and, to be honest, when families/friends don't understand they usually can't give the right support even if they try. (I keep most of my writing stuff / problems away from family and friends except writer friends - my family don't understand half of it!) Also, there is a huge community of writers out there who will welcome and support you. It's other writers who are the best people to help you, because the have learnt things which are relevant. So, my advice is to do things like following blogs (like this one!); get yourself onto twitter (if you follow me I will put you in touch with loads of other writers, unpublished and published - I am @nicolamorgan on Twitter and you'll find loads of this blog's readers are there too). And maybe write your own blog. Once it's going, tell me and I'll bring people to read it. (Make sure you're confident about it first.) When you start blogging, you'll meet (not face-to-face) loads of other bloggers who are writing or trying to be published.

I'll be organising a meet-up in Edinburgh during the festival - follow me on Twitter and you will hear about it. In the book festival there are loads of events for writers trying to be published - I am doing some talks, as usual.

But I strongly advise you not to try to get your friends and family interested yet. You'll need a "proper" job anyway, so let them see you're doing that, keep your writing away from them or they'll drag you down by not giving you the support you need, and then tell them later when you start to have some success. When you can say, "Look, I got this published and I'm so proud because I worked really hard", then see what reaction you get.

(btw, "story" IS the right word for a short story - I was only talking about novels. And trying to get some short stories published in magazines or on-line would be a good way to keep going while you're also working on a novel). Good way to get feedback from other writers, too.

Finally, if your friends and family know nothing about writing, their opinion of your work would be pointless anyway - so don'y worry. Just wow them one day when you've made it!

Verity said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to write that.

(I'm not 16 yet btw)

I'll make a Twitter so I can follow you. Now I'll lurk until I have something else to say

xxx

Verity said...

Nnggaarrgh, just sent my first ever query. I'll now chew my nails and wait for a month.

Spider Griffin said...

Hi Verity

I'm sure Nicola won't mind me answering for her here.

> "I'll now chew my nails and wait for a month."

Or three, or four, or more...sorry to tell you!

:-)

Liz Harris said...

Fantastic advice. Thank you very much for such a superb blog. I should put that in the plural - I've just scrolled back to read all the articles that preceded the latest.

May I ask if you'd tackle writing blurbs? That's always a thorny problem, and if you could clarify what a 'blurb' means in the way that you have done with everything else...

Verity said...

Spider Griffin

Kinda worse because they said they'll only reply to queries they're interested in, so I could actually be waiting for nothing :-S

Nicola Morgan said...

Liz - thank you for your kind comments. As far as blurbs are concerned: do you mean the bit on the back cover of a book? Happy to blog about this if so - or if you mean something else, just say and I'll blog about that too!

Verity - welcome to the beginning of a long journey! For any individual submission / query, the odds are stacked against a writer, but as we go along we learn more and more and more, and one day we are usually really glad the first attempt was unsuccessful because we realise we can write something even better. It's a matter of practising making almost perfect. Good luck and I hope you get lucky at the start, but please stick around anyway because we're all learning all the time.

I strongly suggest that any writer at the beginning of the querying journey should go back to earlier posts about mistakes that writers make... I may re-post some soon.

Nicola Morgan said...

Verity - are you @VerityAnnLewis on twitter? Let me know - it's not clear if that's you but if it is then I'll follow you and ask people to follow you. But first you need to write a tiny biog for your twitter account, otherwise people will be reluctant to follow you. Say something about being a new or aspiring writer but don't say your actual age (for security reasons). twitter is strange at first but you'll get used to it. Just have fun but be careful not to say anything you wouldn't want the world to hear! Messages get passed around and you have no idea where they'll end up!

Verity said...

Hi Nicola
Yep that's me, and I'll go do it now.

I'm currently debating whether or not to send my other queries now or wait for results/feedback for the first one, since the agency I've written to says on their website that it could take up to 2 months for them to reply.

:-) xx

Nicola Morgan said...

verity - I strongly suggest you should read the posts with the label "covering letters" - to make sure you're not making a glaring mistake. If you find that you have, DON'T worry - everyone does it!

I've sent you a few names to follow on Twitter - but now I have to go and do some work so I won't be able to do more till later. be patient with twitter - it takes time to get the hang of it and build a following / people to follow. If you go onto my twitter profile, you'll find lots of writers - just follow any of them. The people I follow are generally good fun (generally...)!

Elizabeth West said...

Nicola,
I totally agree with you on the first query business. The first one I sent out was promptly rejected. I've since cut word count considerably, and my letters are better AND I have four synopses - a one-, two-, five- and eight-pager. So I'm ready to go!

I just sent out a query letter that I thought was pretty good. It's way better than the first one. So even if this agent doesn't bite (although I hope she does; I read a great interview with her and she was already on my list), I know my letters are getting better, anyway. :)