Monday, May 2, 2011

Writing a Synopsis? The Information You Need Before You Begin

I'm now editing for Breathless Press and Silver Publishing and I couldn't be more thrilled. I've been following both presses for awhile now, researching possible submissions, and I'm excited to be a part of two very awesome companies. I'll be evaluating manuscripts as well, so I wanted to talk about what editors look for. What makes a perfect submission? It begins with a pretty damned good manuscript, but a kick ass query and a thorough but engaging synopsis doesn't hurt.

Nathan Bransford's How to Write a Synopsis is required reading, the thrust of which is Everyone has a different idea of what a synopsis should entail, how long it should be, whether it should be single- or double-spaced, whether it should include all of the plot or just the really important stuff... I mean, how I can even begin to summarize this and offer any advice is frankly beyond me.

Writing a synopsis is so hard precisely because nobody knows what the blasted things are supposed to look like. Everybody knows a bad synopsis right away, but there's no such thing as a "good" synopsis. Not really. A bad synopsis is one that doesn't work. The opposite of a bad synop is one that works.

Don't simply relate your plot points in an "And then...and then....and then...." fashion. That boring, and it doesn't really tell me the information I want. I'm not reading the synopsis to find out that things happen in your novel. I accept there are unexpected twists, surprise turns, long lost evil twins, and star-crossed lovers before I begin. I want your synopsis to tell me why these events matter. Who does it affect and how?

Most people don't read novels for the specific plot points and twists. If that were the case, genre fiction would have a very short shelf life. I know Ms. Plucky Protagonist will fall in love with Mr. Heartthrob by the end of the romance novel. As I read your synopsis, I should learn why their relationship is significant and pleasurable to read about.

Start with a short synopsis of about 300-500 words. Basically, you want to write cover copy. This is also the short synopsis you would use in your query letter. Don't trim your short synop out of your longer effort, begin short and make it long. I'll demonstrate with a portion from my cover copy for my sci-fi romance Outcast Mine

There is nothing Aleron Pitre can't steal, nobody he can't con and no situation he can't slip out of—until he's sent to the prison planet Tantoret, where every sentence is death. If the prisoners don't kill each other, they'll die slowly from mining the poisonous drug chojal. Yet Aleron still hopes that he can escape.

Only thirty Athaki guards keep the chaos of Tantoret in check, a race of aliens stronger and faster than their human charges. Most intimidating of all is the head guard, Jasak, who has his own reasons for being sent to Tantoret.

Amidst the darkness and desperation, Aleron and Jasak share an unexpected attraction. An attraction neither can resist when Jasak claims Aleron as his mate to protect him. Then they discover that both guards and inmates are planning a coup, while a traitor from an enemy nation threatens the whole planet. Suddenly escape from Tantoret isn't just Aleron's dream—it's a matter of survival for them both.

First I mentioned Protag A, and then I described Protag B, and finally explained the tension driving them together/keeping them apart. I'd structure my longer synopsis the same way. First, I would describe Aleron, why he is in prison, and how he first meets Jasak and finds trouble. Then I would describe Jasak, how he landed in prison, why he is the head guard, and why he cares enough to save Aleron's life. A synopsis should generally be two pages in length, and this first part should be about 3/4 of the first page.

From there, expand on the third paragraph. How does the conflict driving them together/keeping them apart lead to the climax? What is the climax? How does the conflict/tension resolve itself? Again, this isn't a simple retelling of the plot points. I would first talk about their attraction, explain what mating is and why it's significant, and then describe the double-crossing, betrayal, and coup, who the different factions are and why they're in conflict. Then I would finally detail the climax and the ultimate resolution.

None of this would happen in a linear way. There's no "First A and then B" construction. The novel is the place for your narrative. A synopsis is a summary of the most important elements. Marg Gilk's list of "Shalls and Shall Nots" is incredibly helpful. Follow it to the letter once you've got a completed draft.

You may need to craft your synopsis for each publisher or editor you target. Read and follow the guidelines and always include requested information.

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