Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Question for Pantsers

I have a question for any writers out there who write by the seat of their pants.

Once writers become published, standard publishing practice calls for them to submit a proposal to their editor for each subsequent book. This proposal typically consists of 35-50 pages and a synopsis. On the basis of this partial, editors offer the writer a contract (or knock back the proposal and say, “We don’t like it. Submit something else.”) Obviously it is much safer for a writer to have their novel idea approved—or rejected—at the proposal stage, and it helps financially when a big chunk of the advance comes before the book is actually written.

So my question is, If you don't plot your story out ahead, how do you come up with a synopsis for your proposal?


Marie Force said...

I am not yet published, but I am represented and waiting to hear on a submission. I am working on my tenth seat of the pants endeavor and while I never outline my stories or write anything down, I always have a fairly good idea of what I am going to do. That said, I don't think I'd have any problem writing a 30- to 50-word proposal on a book that wasn't outlined or plotted. As I fly by the seat of my pants, I set up things I want to do later and somehow it all comes together in the end. I admire people who develop detailed outlines, but that wouldn't work for me. By not letting myself get too ahead of, well, myself, I stay "in the moment" emotionally. I hope that answers your question!

Steve Malley said...

By the time I'm fifty pages in I (usually) have a good idea of the characters and forces in conflict and the stakes involved.

Easy enough to hook an editor's interest with a short document discussing these, especially since I gravitate to the sorts of conflict that have all the inevititability high speed train headed for a dynamited bridge.

Certain supporting roles may change, etc. but by chapter three the reader had damn well better know who's in the final showdown. By page fifty, if I've done my job the reader cares deeply about the stakes.

Some writers simply go without advances. Right after SHELLA came out, Andrew Vachss was bemoaning the fact that he was a NYT bestseller who couldn't get an advance.

Closest he came was the BATMAN novel he did for DC: he wrote half, they paid for the book, and he turned around and used the second half of the novel to skewer Thailand's child sex tourism industry.

No second book was offered.

cs harris said...

Marie, I see how you can write a 50 page partial, but how do you write a synopsis to go with it? Or do you just talk in general terms about what you expect to happen?

And Steve, does this mean you limit your synopsis to characters, stakes and conflict, and just avoid talking about plot points and climax?

Anonymous said...

From Marie: I tried to answer your question but for some reason it wouldn't take. I'd love to chat with you about this. Email me at

Charles Gramlich said...

considering that my stuff is published by the small press this hasn't been a problem for me.

Steve Malley said...

That's exactly it. A (very brief) synopsis-bit for High Noon:
Lawman Will Kane is about to start a new life. He's retiring as Marshall of his small town to open a shop back East with his new bride Amy.

Frank Miller is a murdering psychopath Kane saw sentenced to hang. When his old gang is spotted lingering at the train station, word soon gets out that Miller has been pardoned. He'll be on the noon train, looking for revenge.

For all their talk, the townsfolk are too afraid to stick their own necks out. Kane's conscience won't allow him to leave them to their fate.

Amy is a Pacifist Quaker. To her, violence is never the answer, and though her husband is a good man, she hates and fears the violence inside him. In the end, she'll have to choose between her religion and her marriage.

Abandoned by everyone he thought he could trust, forsaken by the citizens he's sworn to protect, Kane will stand for what is right. Even if it means facing down four cold-blooded killers.

That's an uncorrected first draft. There'd be lots of work with word choice, etc. of course, especially considering I haven't seen the movie in a while.

In a proper synopsis, there'd be room to drag in the cowardly deputy, Kane's crisis of conscience and the love triangle with Kane's former lover, the town whore. (and what kind of marriage are Kane and Amy likely to have with *that* in his past, and the two woman on speaking terms??)

By the time I've written fifty pages, I could go on and on about the cast and their conflicts.

Notice I didn't mention Amy's last-minute decision to get off the train and save Kane's life. Or Amy getting on the train with Helen(?) in the first place. That'd be the sort of stuff that'd grow out of throwing the characters at each other and seeing what breaks.

And I think the climax is pretty well implied in the setup.

Of course, as I'm not Stephen King in the drug years, the odds are pretty slim we'd end with Frank Miller burning down the town and eating pieces off of Kane's mutliated corpse!


Lisa said...

Since I'm unpublished I initially had no intention of commenting, but was very interested in keeping an eye on this post. I've been assuming that the synopsis that you are talking about is an expanded synopsis that really does lay out the story with basic plot, description of characters, etc. so it occurred to me when you posted this that a task like this would be extremely difficult for a "pantser". I was flipping through my writing books and the only reference I found to a more expanded synopsis came from The Weekend Novelist. He talks about plotting from a working synopsis, where the writer might sketch out what s/he intends to have happen in Acts I, II and III. This is a different (but probably useful) purpose for the synopsis. The only other references I found about expanded synopses of the type you've referenced talked about eliminating detail on subplots and secondary characters to keep the synopsis brief, but in order to lay the whole thing out, one would have to outline (or the equivalent) and pretty much know what the crisis points, climax and ending will be. That's a great question and I'm going to continue checking back...

Steve Malley said...

As I see it, a synopsis is really a tool of reassurance and seduction. A little reassurance and a lot of seduction.

An editor/agent/etc. want the reassurance of knowing there's a story there, and what kind. If all you have is a teen girl wandering out doing very little until she gets on a bus (GHOST WORLD, which I loved btw), your editors need to know that. That's not the kind of surprise you spring on them.

If an editor/agent wants act-by-act breakdowns, with inciting incidents and so on, they want a lot of reassurance about those bones. Some people want a lot of reassurance.

Mainly, the synopsis is for seduction. And that's just what it'd better do. You want that small document to get your editor excited. You want her saying, 'wow, when can I read it?'

Get her excited enough, and she'll use that synopsis to defend you at the acquisition meetings. Every editor in that room will have a fistful of projects, and only so many open slots for the division. Copies of your synopsis will be passed around. That little document needs to get you a chair when the music stops.

And come time to *actually sell* your book, the seduction continues. A small army (and growing smaller) of sales and marketing folk go out to the buyers for B&N, Borders, etc. They reach out to libraries & indie bookstores and anyone else who comes to mind, looking to sell as many of their titles as possible.

What will the buyers see? A tiny square of a cover (prepared from a one-sheet of your synopsis) and a little bit of copy (guess where that comes from). If you're lucky, the S&M team may have tear sheets for your book, with a bigger picture of the cover and considerably more info.

I say 'lucky', but you can improve your odds with a few hundred words of pure seduction...

Steve Malley said...

Sorry for hijacking your blog, CS. Man of certain opinions, I am.

Sphinx Ink said...

I'm a pantser, but can't answer your question because I'm unpublished. However, I found an interesting article by Timothy Hallinan, a multipublished novelist who likes to discover his story as he writes. Since he describes a process many pantsers share, I've made a blog entry today about it. See my post at for a link to his article....He doesn't answer your question, however, because he doesn't talk about synopses, just outlining (or not outlining).