Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Graceful Art of Fudging

I spent last weekend laying flooring in the upstairs hall and writing the synopsis for my next thriller proposal. If you’re thinking, “Didn’t she already do that last February?” you’re right. Someday, when I’m calmer, I’ll explain. But for now I’m going to talk about synopses.

It’s called “the dreaded synopsis” for a good reason. Most writers suffer all kinds of torturous spasms at the mere thought of having to produce one of the suckers. Everything from your book contract and your career to your mortgage and your kids’ college tuition can ride on your ability to create a brilliant synopsis, yet they are notoriously difficult to do well.

Synopses for romance novels can be troublesome, but because you’re dealing largely with emotions and interpersonal relationships, it’s comparatively easy to slide over huge chunks of your story and still have the synopsis make sense. All you romance writers out there sputtering indignantly please note that I said “comparatively.” Compared to what? Thrillers and mysteries.

The problem with synopses for thrillers and mysteries is that those genres are very tightly plotted. That makes them very, very difficult to simplify. And simplify you must. Editors are busy people who tend to read proposals—even proposals from writers they like—very quickly. If you try to follow every twist and turn of your story, you’ll both bore and confuse your editor. And bored, confused editors have a nasty tendency to decide they don’t like your proposal and turn it down. So what’s a writer to do?


Well, maybe not lie, exactly. Just sort of bend and twist things so that they fit into an exciting storyline that’s easy to follow despite the fact you’ve left out suspects, characters, huge chunks of motivation, clues, etc, etc. The fact is, writers actually have two stories to tell—the longer story that is our novel, and the shorter story that is our synopsis. Both need to be gripping, both need to flow, both need to make sense. Maybe some writers are such gifted synopses-crafters that they don’t need to fudge a few details. But the fact is, if you’re writing a proposal for a book that isn’t written yet, the finished product is probably going to differ in significant ways from your outline anyway. So you’re not exactly being dishonest just because you don’t slavishly follow an outline your editor is never going to see anyway.

I’m not talking about making major changes here. I’m talking about combining two minor characters into one, or shifting sequences, or simplifying explanations–no more than it takes to keep from tying yourself into knots and getting bogged down in details. And who knows? In the process of telling your story in synopsis form, you may actually find ways to improve your novel.


Steve Malley said...

I'm 'tackling' the same problem myself. Now that the bigger publishers (Random House, BLoomsbury, et al) are getting into graphic novels, everyone's trying to act like grown-ups about it.

On the one hand, that means advances are no longer out of the question. On the other, it means (*shudder*) the synopsis.

I use the word 'tackling' in quotes because what I usually do is think about my synopsis, then go back to my latest novel. When the novel sems hard, I pick up the synopsis again.

Suddenly, a few new scenes are no problem at all!

Chap O'Keefe said...

A good synopsis on synopses! I say don't dread them, use them. We had a similar debate here when you raised the question of the Plotter v. the Seat-of-Pantser.

Like yourself, I invariably depart from my synopsis in significant ways, combining minor characters and shifting sequences. For example, in Peace at Any Price (publishing in November), I decided the heroine's mother was best dead before the story started, and that her space was better occupied by a woman friend for the villain.

And because the book, a western, is largely set in a small town on the Gulf coast, a climax involving a fairly conventional gun duel was given a whole new look by staging it amidst a hurricane. At the time I prepared the synopsis, I hadn't even thought about Galveston 1900, so I can't say I deliberately left that out, but it does illustrate how, with the basics safely taken care of in the synopsis, you can concentrate on the improvements.

Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't really think of this when I was trying to write the synopsis of Cold in the Light, which has a lot of twists. I know that synopsis came out sounding confusing, and I understand now why. I should have thought to fudge a little.

Lisa said...

This is great! The idea of taking creative license with a synopsis recently passed through my head while I was doing something else, but I didn't give it a whole lot of thought (since I haven't finished a manuscript yet), but it occurred to me that some minor tweaking to make the synopsis more cohesive would be preferable to trying to bend a complex explanation into a form that won't accommodate it. Ha. Note to future self.

Anonymous said...

As a pantser, the idea of writing a synopsis before the book is even written gives me hives!