Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Dreaded Synopsis

I’m in the process of finalizing the proposal for Steven Graham’s second thriller, currently entitled THE BERMUDA EFFECT. A proposal usually consists of the first 35-50 pages of a book and a synopsis. Most writers start hyperventilating at the suggestion they reduce their 400-page book to a titillating 5 or 10 or 20 page summary that will both excite an editor and accurately convey the contents of the manuscript. Hence, the Dreaded Synopsis.

At least I know I have an editor who likes my books and is eagerly awaiting this proposal. Even more nerve-wracking is the process of writing a synopsis for a book that is already written—or half written—but still in search of an editor. When I sent out my first historical mystery, WHAT ANGELS FEAR, I really sweated the synopsis. I was trying to sell on a “partial”—200 pages plus a synopsis. And while I had an established track record as a novelist, ANGELS was my first straight mystery and I wanted the synopsis to reassure the editors that I had the twists and turns and denouement of the mystery all figured out.

I wrote a twenty page, detailed synopsis for ANGELS, and as a result almost killed the book. Editors said it sounded confusing. Of course it did—twists and turns that make sense when revealed and explained over the course of 400 pages can make your head spin when reduced to just 20 pages. They said the book sounded long. Of course it did: the synopsis was long. I learned a valuable lesson about synopses: Keep them short, and don’t go into too much detail because too much detail only confuses editors.

I have a friend who’s on her thirteenth historical mystery and still turns in twenty page synopses. Not me. I now write four or five pages. The first paragraph is intended to be a grabber—like the blurb at the back of the book. I sketch in my characters with a few quick sentences, then tell the story in broad strokes, with the emphasis on emotion, motivation, and action. I wrote the synopsis for my second mystery, WHEN GODS DIE, while I was at a state swimming championship, the air around me heavy with the smell of chlorine and the echoes of cheering kids bouncing off the tiled walls around me. Needless to say, I didn’t have the manuscript outline with me and so was composing from memory. It worked so well that I now take the same approach to all my synopses. It keeps those strokes broad and forces me to focus on exciting my editor rather than accurately conveying the details of the story. And that is important, because a synopsis is not an outline of a book; it’s a selling tool.

I still sweat when I sit down to write a synopsis. So much rests on getting it right. After all, I’ve spent the last six weeks outlining THE BERMUDA EFFECT, doing the research, writing those first chapters. I will be terribly disappointed if my editor comes back and says she doesn’t like the idea. (I’ll also be screwed—I need to get back to work on my fourth Regency mystery!) There’s a reason we dread the synopses. So much rides on them, and they’re so easy to get wrong. Oh, for the power to simply say, “I want to write a book about this plane that was reported lost in the Bermuda Triangle…” and have my editor go, “Yes, yes; whatever you want.”


Chap O'Keefe said...

Heaps of sound comment, as always. It's a fact of writing life, I guess, that the synopsis has become a selling pitch to the editor/publisher. Hence the "dreaded" bit. Or so I believe.

I tend to use my synopsis as a working outline and prop that will enable me to complete a first and single draft of the novel, except for minor revisions/corrections. Therefore, plot and characters, or rather their motivations, dominate in the synopsis, making it possibly dense and confusing to an outsider. Since action is a prime ingredient of the kind of books I write (broadly, traditional westerns), the impression given is probably misleading, because I miss out entirely the detail of action sequences, reducing whole intended scenes which I think of as "set-piece" to a sentence or two of cause and result.

With a synopis like this I can tackle the book over a period of weeks if not months, full of life's interruptions and distractions, and not forget or miss anything vital. I can also better assess the book's shape and pacing as I go. But this harks back to the excellent Plotters v. Seat-of-Pantsers debate you had here.

After 18 books written and 18 accepted, I think my editor/publisher finally understands what he needs to comment on/not comment on when I send in a synopsis. Thus:
"I have read the synopsis and as you say it is pretty complex. Nevertheless I am sure it will work out very well as it always has done in the past. I note that the ending is satisfactory rather than happy."

To which I replied: "I will try to find space along the way to work in suggestion of a romance between the deputy who is crippled, Clint Freeman, and young Sarah. Consolation for both at the end . . . 'Some months later, Sam was best man at the wedding of Sarah and Clint Freeman. It was good to see Sarah was over the bad times. Sarah kissed him after the ceremony, and said they would ask him to be the godfather of their first-born. Sam got to thinking again about retirement. . . .' Something along those lines to inject the bit of happiness."

And he then said simply: "Many thanks for your e-mail and your very acceptable proposal of a happy ending. Splendid."

After which I got on with writing the book with some peace of mind.

cs harris said...

It's always so much easier when a writer has an established relationship with their editor, isn't it? I had that with my former historical romance editor. I'm still fumbling toward it with my mystery editor, and my thriller editor is a complete unknown to me. And it's nice to be able to use the synopsis as the outline--saves a step, doesn't it? I think my friend Laura uses hers that way, too.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm sure my inability to write a good synopsis helped shift "Cold in the Light" to smaller publisher and may be why I've struggled finding an agent. Maybe I should approach it as if I'm writing "short story." Hum.

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