Wednesday, 22 April 2009

SYNOPSES or Four Free Downloads and a Book

If we're serious about selling a novel to an editor or agent there comes a point when we have to buckle down and write the damn synopsis.

What is a synopsis?
Is it an outline?

"No." According to the UK Crime Writers' Association. "A synopsis gives a narrative overview of the story's progression from beginning to end..."


"An outline gives a breakdown of the story scene by scene, chapter by chapter, character interplay by character interplay from beginning to end. It is a blueprint constructed by the writer for their own use before they actually begin to write the book."

Not so, according to well-known New York literary agent Donald Maass, " publishing terms outline really means synopsis." So he says in his The Career Novelist - A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success (available as a FREE download - click here).

According to Maass, "...the best outlines are more than plot summaries. They are novels in miniature." Maass also suggests five pages is too short and fifty pages too long.

Back in the days before I had access to the web - and too much, often conflicting, information on synopses - I bought a copy of André Jute's Writing Proposals & Synopses That Sell.

It's an entertaining and useful read. Jute writes in chatty, knowledgeable, punchy style - covering synopses for novels, telivision [sic. p.177], film and radio, as well as non-fiction proposals. Jute supplies an extensive and varied range of working examples to amply illustrate his advice and strategies. Interestingly Jute advocates using snatches of dialogue from your work within the synopsis - other guides I've read are resolutely set against this idea.

Much of the front end of the book - Position and Power in Publishing - usefully discusses how and by whom our synopses will likely be received. Well worth a look at. You can buy the book via the Clueless, Ink UK Amazon store here.

In his How to Write a Great Query Letter - Insider Tips & Techniques for Success (available as a FREE download - click here then click on 'query' in the title bar) Noah Lukeman (SEE this post and this post) advises having ready two one-page synopses, one single-spaced the other double-spaced, an extended synopsis, between 2 and 5 pages in length, and, just in case, a chapter outline - essential for a non-fiction proposal.

So, who should we trust? Lukeman or Maas? A single page? 2-5 pages? Or somewhere between 5 and 50 pages?

Setting aside the predilections of New York agents two sources I have found to be very useful when it comes to the nuts'n'bolts of drafting a synopsis are:

  • The Synopsis - Don't Sweat It - put together for the U.K. Crime Writers' Association by Mike Jecks, Kay Mitchell and Edwin Thomas to help entrants to the C.W.A.'s Debut Dagger award. Go here and scroll down the page.
  • Writing the Tight Synopsis by Chicago crime writer Beth Anderson. (click here) Originally given as a talk at writers' conferences, pages 4-6 of this 6 page document constitute the most useful, practical step-by-step guide to the dreaded task of drafting a convincing synopsis I've yet come across.
Should you need to refer to the above at some point in the future I've put links to the downloads in a new sidebar category: Useful Downloads.

How do you set about the task of drafting a synopsis? Do you do it before you start drafting the work, or afterwards? Any tips? Any links to useful resources on this, the slipperiest of topics?

1 comment:

  1. I just hope and pray the agent doesn't ask for one. They're horrible to write; they suck the life right out of your novel.