Synopsis writing: usually something I put off for as long as possible, preferring to start writing to see where an idea takes me. Once the germ of a story begins to take shape in my mind, I tend to formalize it there by sketching out a brief chapter plan like this.
At the start of a new story, I find that this type of planning helps my writing. It enables me to work out potential plot or character issues in advance, allows me to consider wider themes that might enhance my story and helps me work out how I might weave them into the narrative. It also serves to highlight topics that I need to research. However, with a number of novel writing competition deadlines looming and the promise of a week of meetings with publishers, editors and agents in August, I knew that I need to get down to the painful business of synopsis writing sooner rather than later.
If I was grading my previous attempts at a proper synopsis, I would give them a ‘D / E’ – they were too long, not focused enough and didn’t do an adequate job of ‘selling’ my story. I knew this. I knew it while writing them that they weren’t going to do the job they needed to do, but I didn’t know what I needed to change to make them better. Scouring the internet in search of answers, I found a host of sites that offered advice and examples, but, even these seemed a bit vague and focused moreon the correct setting and layout of a synopsis rather than providing suggestions for how to approach capturing the essence and structure of a story in a way that allows characters, plot and themes to be outlined in an accessbile, readable way. Unsatisfied, I asked some of my course peers on the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University for some direction. A couple emailed me their own attempts, others sent me links to the same sites that I had already looked at and discounted for not being explicit enough. What it all confirmed to me was that there seemed to be no definitive way to write a synopsis and that the quality of the examples I viewed, and the advice dispenced on the subject, varied enormously. I was not suprised at this. I may have limited experience of fiction writing and writers, but I have a fair bit of experience of business owners who struggle to encapsulate the values and strengths of the business, products and services. Why should writers be any different? It doesn’t matter how articulate you are, or how passionate you are about your creation, it’s hard to be objective about something that you have created yourself, be it a business or a book, a service or a story. Yet while businesses can pay marketing consultants to develop a propostion for them, writers have to struggle with this essential part of the publishing process alone. The ability to sell your idea to an agent, a publisher or the public is a necessary skill and I don’t want to fall at the first hurdle.
Resuming my search of the internet, I stumbled upon a page on the Mslexia website devoted to writing a synopsis, which formed part of a series of workshops that they had produced for a roadshow called Laptop to Bookshop. It was by far the most helpful advice I have found on the subject and very soon I was on my way to completing a synopsis for my new novel that I am actually quite proud of. As well as layout and style advice, their pracitcal step by step advice covered:
- Writing an introductory summary paragraph – a 25 word summary of your storythat works as an elevator pitch. This is a great technique and very useful whenever anyone asks you the dreaded questions ‘ what’s your novel about?’. Do this exercise and you’ll never ramble again.
- Developing succinct character profiles that can be used within the synopsis.
- Creating a ten point plot of your novel which takes your story from beginning to end by focusing on the key events that serve to make up your plot.
- Writing to the tipping point – a short paragraph of fifty words which should act as the first plot point. If it doesn’t you’ve started your story too early in the action.
For anyone struggling with writing a synopsis, I wholeheartedly recommend the Mxlesia guide which you can find here. The Laptop to Bookshop Roadshow pages also have workshops on Choosing a Title; Composing a Pitch Letter, The First Paragraph and also some great advice about submitting your novel.
I’ll be submitting my shiney new synopsis, along with some chapters of both The Part Time Wife and the new thing I’ve been working on, to various competitions over the next couple of months. Here’s hoping it contributes to some placings and and the published pieces I’m looking for. Even if it doesn’t, I feel better to have done the job properly.