Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, April 4, 2008

Writing Tips - Tips on Writing a Novel Synopsis


As a fiction editor, I read lots and lots of novel synopses. Frankly, most of them aren't very good. But that's okay. When I, or any other editor, finds that one that really shines, all the subpar ones we've read suddenly become "worth it." Below are some of the things any professional editor is looking for in a good novel synopsis. I hope, if you're a writer, these suggestions will make your job a little easier.

First, what exactly is a novel synopsis? Some authors make the mistake of likening it to an outline, a mistake that could cost them the sale of their manuscript.

Before beginning to write your novel’s synopsis, think about what constitutes the essence of fiction – conflict. Anyone who reads your synopsis is going to want to know how its characters and events are propelled forward by conflict. A good synopsis will include both the beginning and end of your novel (never play coy with your reader), and all your major set pieces. In addition, it will be written in the same style as your book and will grab the reader’s attention on the very first page. In fact, if it doesn’t grab the reader’s attention on the very first page, he or she might not get to page two.

Far too many new writers underestimate the importance of their synopsis and leave out important events, characters, or plot twists. Make sure you highlight the conflict, the dramatic interaction among your characters, and show your readers why each character acts the way he does.

There’s really no nuts-and-bolts, this-is-how-you-do-it formula for writing a good novel synopsis. A lot of the way you write will be determined by the particular novel you’re written. The guideline below, however, should help you refine and condense your synopsis and also help you make sure you’ve left nothing out.

1. The heading is usually typed in the upper left hand corner of the first page and should include the title of your novel, its genre, the manuscript’s estimated total word count, and of course, your name.

2. Write in the present tense and employ the third person point-of-view. This rule holds even if your novel is written in the first person.

3. Never play coy with your reader. A synopsis reader needs to know every plot twist, including the ending. He or she needs to know who lives, who dies, and who did what to whom. Playing coy could get you nothing by rejected. And fast.

4. Begin with a hook, just as you (hopefully) did when writing your novel. This hook should revolve around your main character and the main conflict of the novel. Introduce your reader to the book’s protagonist by giving us his or her name, age, marital status, etc. Make sure to tell us what, precisely, draws your main character into the book’s conflict.

5. The first time you mention a character (but only the first time), highlight him or her by capitalizing his or her name. Don’t, however, interrupt your narrative flow by giving us a detailed character sketch. Instead, try to weave your character introductions into the flow of your story.

6. Condense, condense, condense. A lot of people will tell you to condense every twenty-five pages of your novel down to one page of synopsis. This, however, is too much for most agents and other readers. Many of them prefer a two or three page synopsis no matter how long your novel is. Find out what your readers preferences are then stick to them.

7. Stick to the essentials. Your goal, when writing a novel synopsis, besides selling your manuscript, of course, is to give your reader a good overview of your novel. Synopsis writing is an art unto itself. It’s hard for many writers to distill a three hundred or four hundred page book down to two or three pages, but it can be done and you’re going to have to learn to do it. One good trick is to “cut the fat,” i.e., get rid of those adjectives and adverbs. Most writers don’t use dialogue in a synopsis, but a special line here or there can enhance a well-written synopsis rather than detract from it.

8. Reproduce the mood and style of your novel. If your novel is dark and moody, your synopsis should be dark and moody. If you’ve written a comic novel, that lighthearted comedy should shine through in your novel as well. A synopsis reader wants to get a good sense of your style of writing as well as the overall story you’ve told.

9. Take care not to interrupt your narrative flow. Don’t include any commentary, rhetorical questions, or phrases commonly found in non-fiction book proposals. Avoid the temptation to “review” your book in your synopsis. Doing so will only alienate your reader. Let your work speak for itself.

After you’ve written and rewritten and polished your synopsis like the diamond it must be, proofread it carefully. Make sure there are no grammar, spelling, or punctuation errors. When you’re ready to print, use white bond paper only with black type (no dot matrix, if dot matrix can even still be found). Print only on one side, justify the left margin only, and use one-inch margins all around. Some editors and agents will want a double-spaced synopsis, while a few will prefer single spacing. Make sure you know what your reader prefers then adhere to those guidelines.

Resist the urge to use copyright symbols. You don’t need them anyway. Your work is protected as soon as you print it out. Most readers are honorable people who would never dream of stealing your story even if they wanted to. Copyright symbols are often considered an insult to the reader and the mark of an amateur.

Make sure you include a Number 10 business sized envelope (a SASE) for your reader’s reply. If you don’t, chances are your synopsis won’t even be read. Some people resend the same synopsis to different editors. I don't. I recommend sending a fresh synopsis to each reader. It can only enhance you and your writing in the eyes of your reader, and besides, it's the courteous thing to do.

1 comment:

Neets said...

This is really useful, thank you for writing this.