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About writing synopses

The great synopsis posting event (see my entry) was created by jpsorrow in response to questions he was receiving regarding how and why an author should write a synopsis. Here are his original questions, along with my answers.

How did you sell your first book--agent, slush pile, alien intervention?
My first book sold to a small press through the slush pile. I'd had an agent, but negotiating pbray's first contract broke her. I seriously don't remember most of the details about how the first book sold (it was ten years ago, after all), other than being horribly disappointed that I got my acceptance in an email, and was thus deprived of getting "the call", that landmark event which is supposed to instantly transform you into one of the elite who can call themselves published authors.

Was a synopsis involved, and if so what did it look like? (seriously: page length, spacing, font, straight up story or broken down by character/setting/plot, etc.)
I posted the complete synopsis in an earlier post. It was printed in standard manuscript format, meaning Courier/Dark Courier with 1" margins and 25 lines per page, and a running page header in the upper right corner of the format Jennifer Dunne/Raven's Heart/Synopsis - #.

When do you write a synopsis (before, during, after the novel)?
Before. Definitely before. Before the story is written, I have only the vaguest of notions of where it's going, and how it might possibly get there. That allows me to write the synopsis in broad strokes, then show it to my critique partner and ask, "Does the central premise work?" If I try to write a synopsis after the book is written, there's too much really cool stuff I want to include, and it's just a chaotic mess.

How do you go about doing it?
I like the seven-point synopsis. Who is the hero and what does he want? Who is the heroine and what does she want? What is the inciting incident? How does the hero react and spin away from that? How does the heroine react and spin away from that? What is the turning point that brings them back together? What is the dark moment / crisis of the soul and final resolution?
One of the most important things I learned about synopses -- at least to make them useful for my style of writing -- is that they need to focus on the emotional growth and development of the characters, not the details of the characters' actions. So I might say something very vague, for example about someone learning to trust their instincts, and it's not until I get to actually writing that bit that I discover how that occurs. That seems the best mix of being able to fix glaring problems in the underlying story before it requires too much effort, and leaving enough mystery so that I'm still interested in writing the story and discovering the details.

Does this change depending on circumstances (genre, adult/YA, publisher, time of year, whether it's raining, etc.)?
Obviously, the seven-point synopsis is designed for romance. I modify it for fantasy novels, in that all the major viewpoint characters get introduced at the beginning, and there is often a paragraph describing the world. But I still get twitchy if it's running more than two single-spaced pages.
Also, for novellas I tend to write a single paragraph. One sentence for hero/heroine, one sentence for inciting incident, and one for resolution, often phrased as a question. It's much more similar to a back cover blurb than a full synopsis.

Did your approach, or the final product (the synopsis), change as you got publishing experience? Does your agent or editor want something different from you now than when they were pulling you out of the slush?
When I started, I did the synopsis at the end of the process, after writing the book. I learned my lesson with Dark Salvation, which was rewritten as many as 18 times in some places... with major changes (it's not his beloved childhood friend, it's his half-brother who hates him!) needing to be percolated all the way through the story, sparking even more rewrites. At that point, I swore never to write another book where I hadn't settled all those questions before sitting down to write. Later synopses described what happened, in a blow-by-blow fashion, and I'd run into problems where character motivations would change, resulting in scenes that no longer worked when I got to writing them. When I finally settled on describing the emotional growth arc, I got a format that worked for me. Pitching novellas, as I mentioned above, requires only a short paragraph, not a full synopsis. But, since my writing is all over the place with regard to genre, I still need a full synopsis to show editors that I can handle a given style.

We've been debating the eternal question of how much to include or leave out--when *you* write a synopsis, how closely does the synopsis match the book?
It usually matches the book fairly closely, because I leave myself enough wiggle room when writing. I have on occassion totally reimagined the central conflict or characters midway through the story. But in that case, I end up rewriting the synopsis before going on, so the new story still matches the new synopsis fairly closely.

And how do you introduce/explain a SF/F setting in the short space of a synopsis?
A few lines or a short paragraph at the beginning. It doesn't have to describe the entire world in detail. Just what is the setting -- fantasy medieval, fantasy renaissance, science fiction future Earth, science fiction other world, urban fantasy, etc. -- and any immediately necessary status, such as an ongoing war, disputed succession, repressive martial law, etc. If there's a specific element necessary for the story to work, I put it there, too. For example, this is the lead-in paragraph for Raven's Heart:
RAVEN'S HEART takes place on a future Earth, transformed by an alien asteroid that melted the polar ice caps and saturated the air with microscopic crystals which react to life forces.

Is writing a synopsis a difficult process for you? Enjoyable/detestable? Any tips for making it easier?
Not at all. I can toss one off in a single evening/weekend. Is it any good? Well, I usually show it to pbray, who tells me where all the plot holes and motivation gaps are. She's also really good at telling me what I meant to say, instead of what I did say. :-) After the meeting with her, I'm normally filled with fire and enthusiasm, to fix the synopsis and start actually writing. So, I guess my tip for making the synopsis writing easier would be to do a very high-level synopsis before you've written the book, so you're not confused and bogged down by details. Also, get a really good critique partner who can review it.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 27th, 2009 03:15 pm (UTC)
It was inspired by one of the editors I spoke to at a conference. She was all, "Don't tell me the details of your plot. I'll forget it by the time I'm back at the office. Tell me about your characters, and how they grow."
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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