Woe is me—Synopses!

Hi. Barb, here.

I cannot figure out how this happened, but somehow I’ve ended up writing five synopses in a four week period.

Actually, I know how it happened.  I’m finishing up my first cozy mystery and trying to get ready to pitch it at the New England Crime Bake—and writing a synopsis.  I’m gearing up to do NaNoWriMo to try to push out the first draft of my next Ruth book (which is crazy in and of itself) and I’m taking a “Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo” class through Pennwriters that has a lot of really useful exercises, but focuses on—you guessed it— writing a synopsis.  And then I got approached to write a spec proposal for another series that involves writing three synopses.

The dreaded synopsis.  For those non-writers among us, it is a summary of your book that includes all the key plot points but is written in a marketing tone that somehow simultaneously captures the author’s voice.  There’s no particular agreement about length—a synopsis can be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 or 30 pages.  The only thing that is certain is that whatever length you have written, the agent or editor you are pitching right now wants something else.

A lot of authors think writing the synopsis is infinitely worse than writing the book.  I have a friend who says it’s like expecting the Chief Technology Officer to write the marketing materials.  If you’re writing it after you finish the book, you know too much.  And if you’re writing it before you start the book, you know too little.  I’ve sometimes thought there should be some sort of author exchange where we agree to read someone else’s manuscript and write their synopsis if they’ll write ours.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my marathon month of synopsis writing.

1) It’s really hard.
2) It’s really, really hard.

Here’s the best approach I’ve found to writing a synopsis. (Your mileage may vary.)

Pretend you’re having dinner with an old college friend.  Someone you haven’t seen in years.  There may be some wine involved.  And later in the evening, over dessert, you end up telling your friend a story about something that happened to another friend of yours—someone the college friend doesn’t know.  What are the minimum things you have to tell your college friend about the what and the who of the story in order to make it coherent and in what sequence do you need to tell them?  How will you tell the story in order to make your friend laugh and be entertained?  And then what do you need to include so he gets it how absolutely amazing, sad, and life-changing these events were for your other friend?

There are probably a thousand books out there about how to write a synopsis.  But I have found, it you go through the exercise above, you come out the other end of it with the bare bones of your synopsis.

Now simply polish and pray.


About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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13 Responses to Woe is me—Synopses!

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Wow, such a timely post, Barb. I have three synopses to write (hopefully before the Crime Bake) for three totally different types of books and I’d rather have a limb amputated. I did take a course once, but the advice has not lingered. Each time, I get in touch with the most rebellious side of myself. So I appreciate any and all advice.

    Also, thanks for the link to Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo. I did it two years ago and had the most incredible adventure. It was not possible to quite reach my goal–it was Crime Bake month, after all, but I did write about 40,000 words and I loved the obsessive nature of it. I also broke the rules and used it to finish (almost) a book that had been hanging around for years. But so what? I discovered how interesting it can be to just write without worrying. Sometimes–gravel. Sometimes the most amazing things come out of my characters’ mouths. And the energy that kind of writing generates is wildly exciting. Good luck!

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes–I’ve looked at NaNo for years and always thought–November–don’t they know there’s a huge honking holiday in that month? But I’m encouraged, Kate that you found it to be freeing and exciting. Just exactly what this middle-aged WASP needs.

  2. My sympathies, Barb. Doing five synopses in a four week period sounds like one of the punishments Dante would devise for the Sixth Circle of Hell.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks, Julia. Now I have an answer to the question, “How’s it goin?”

    “Sixth Circle of Hell, baby. Sixth Circle of Hell.”

  4. Lea Wait says:

    Are we all on the same wave length? I’ve spent the last ten days under water writing a “long synopsis,” as the editor described it. (I could have written 75 pages in the time THAT took.) Plus I’m working on several short synopsis(s) (I will NOT attempt the plural of that word, thank you) for an agent … and working on a manscript. I’ve never tried that Book-in-a-Month … but for the first several years I was writing full time I did join a web group called Book-in-a-Week. A very supportive group, and they had a heavy push for one week every week. It really did help me push the pages out.
    Maybe I need to think abut November …. By the way, if you’re interested : Lisa Gardner used to teach a TEN WEEK course in writing a synopsis. She’s posted her lecture notes on her website for anyone to see.

  5. Ramona Long says:

    I wrote the four synopses for the Pennwriters course. Then I waited for the sounds of trumpets, because that’s what it felt like: an accomplishment of mythic proportions.

    I might have cried after, too.

    Great post, Barb.

  6. I am doing same this week (well, just the spec proposal). It’s making me Very Nervous. Who knew the third week in October was Synopsis Week? Thanks for sharing, Barb.


  7. Sarah Graves says:

    Just the very word “synopsis” — oh, misery. I’d rather have root canal on my eyeball.

  8. Brenda Buchanan says:

    I’m working on a synopsis this week, too. Weird.

    A few years back when my youngest niece was about four, she tried to explain the plot of the movie “Shrek” to me one afternoon. Because of her tender age, she didn’t yet grasp the concept of narrative, meaning it was a hysterically incoherent summary, providing not even the germ of the story.

    I feel like I’m channeling her when I’m writing a synopsis.

  9. Sarah Graves says:

    Synopsis (n): A hysterically incoherent summary, providing not even the germ of the story.

    Sounds right to me.

  10. Great post, Barb! good luck with it all!

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