Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I have described a 109,000-word novel in a 1000-word synopsis. How did that feel, you ask? Like extracting my skeleton from my body, standing it against a wall, and -- using my boneless rubbery hands -- sketching a picture of it with a sharp rock. In thirty seconds.

People complain about writing synopses all the time. It is, without doubt, a difficult thing to take months (if not years) of planning, suffering, writing and revising; the agonies and triumphs of characters; twining subplots and symbolism ... and compress it all into a hard little pellet.

But it's necessary. Let's be realistic: two single-spaced pages is a lot of text. And sure, you may have to remove the art and the joy and all the subtlety of which you're so proud, but so what? The synopsis isn't the book.

Defying the expectations of the publishing world and refusing to write a synopsis could be the start of a brave new defiance! Brave new voice! Look, he has thwarted the litero-industrial complex and toppled the fusty paradigms!

Of course, refusing to play by the rules is also the shortest path to rejection. Second shortest path? Writing crap.

So I take my synopsis and I take my knife and I trim. And I trim. And I trim.


Vivian Swift said...

Hi Seth-
The synopsis is not, strictly speaking, a precis of your work of art. The synopsis is a different creature all together: it's the hors d'ouvre (literally: outside the work) that you send an agent and editor that makes them WANT to read your 109,000 work of art. It's an appetiser, an amuse-bouche, a hook, a luscious tid-bit that draws them to the ms. It's a selling tool, not a book report.

You know how all non-fiction books have subtitles these days? Thse subtitles are the synopsis, usually about five words long; it's a vital selling point for the whole book. If the sub-title is hooky, people will read the book. It might help to think of your synopsis like that: it's the tag line that the marketing people will love, booksellers and librarians and book buyers will use to differentiate your bok from the 75,000 other books published that year.

You write really good one-liners (see: Betsy Lerner's blog). That's the skill you need to use when you write a good synopsis. Remember: you don't have to recapitualte the whole book: you just have to make someone want to read it in the first place. "Sell it", as they say on American Idol.

S R Wood said...

Hi Vivian. Thanks for writing!

I've managed to focus on the query itself as the hook, giving both the flavor of my writing and the intriguing concept of the book. Which sounds like what you describe as the synopsis. My challenge for the synopsis, on the other hand, was to provide a high-level outline of plot points. Or plod points, as I began to think of them.

In any case, definitions aside, the holy grail would be a synopsis that:

Summarizes the plot
Does not overwhelm with detail
Demonstrates writer's insanely artistic skills
Is agent catnip