Wednesday, 1 September 2010

My Thoughts on The Best Approach to Writing a Synopsis For a Slush-pile Submission

Let's get the easy bit out of the way first – for those of you who don't know what a synopsis is, it's a summary of your novel.

Now on to the not so easy bit: There are many different approaches a writer can take to writing a synopsis, all sorts of theories on how long it should be and what style it should be written in, and, in the past, I've attended back-to-back talks by prominent literary agents on what makes a great synopsis and ended up listening to vastly different views held by obviously intelligent and successful people who, nevertheless, seem to believe their way is the only way to go about doing it right.

Even without worrying about formats, it's probably fair to say the majority of writers find writing a synopsis difficult. For me, I always found trying to explain an eighty thousand word novel in just a few pages as hard as trying to explain a joke: This was why I came to the conclusion it was best to keep them as short as possible and hide them away at the back of my slush-pile submissions.

This approach won't please everyone though – Lucie Whitehouse, for instance, who wrote the excellent The House At Midnight, and who has also worked as a literary agent (so, unlike me, has actually looked through slush-pile submissions in a professional capacity), believes, according to what one person told me at a writing conference recently, a synopsis should be at least four or five pages long, which is exactly three or four pages longer than I liked to make mine.

It's probably fair - and necessary - to say, though, that the most common expectation between editors and agents is for a synopsis to be one or two pages long and to explain the beginning, middle and end of the novel it relates to:  If you want to risk upsetting the least amount of people, this is the type of synopsis to aim for.  If you're struggling to explain your novel adequately in that format,  however, don't panic:  I've had several requests for full submissions when using a blurb approach with two different novels - just be aware the single page synopsis that covers the beginning/middle/end of your novel is the mainstream approach.   

One area where everyone does seem to agree is layout – unlike your sample chapters, your synopsis should be single-spaced and only ever printed simplex (on one side of the page).

Forgetting length for the moment, the most important thing to bear in mind, I think, is that the synopsis should give the impression you actually have a story to tell, that things are going to happen, and that there's going to be some sort of resolution to your story.

If you don't know how to get this across in your synopsis, perhaps do what I did with Broken (synopsis below) and write it as a blurb that sets the scene. I chose this approach because I wanted a very short synopsis, and also because there was no way I could plausibly explain certain plot-twists; not in such limited space, anyway.

I think the second most important thing is to limit the synopsis to your central story.

Who is your main character, what are the key things that happen to this person, why are these things important, what is the conclusion?

I would still suggest this approach even if you've written a novel that deals with several major characters. In the context of a complete novel, there's room to have interweaving stories, but in a one or two page synopsis, how are you meant to explain in-depth character journeys without it simply becoming a huge list of names that come across as totally baffling? I've seen a few synopses where writers have tried this, and none of them have struck me as good. Hone in and keep it simple is the approach I believe works best.

If your novel is more action driven, then keep it fixed to the occurrences that drive the plot forward, not every single thing that takes place.

Having said all of the above, never limit yourself; if you can see an unconventional or complex way of explaining your novel that you believe will really get it across in the best and most attention grabbing way, don't be afraid to at least try to write your synopsis that way just to see how it works – if it seems to work better than all the conventional approaches, go for it. If you get a load of rejections, just re-send a few months later with a more conservative synopsis – the only thing you'll have lost is some time and the cost of the postage.

Going back to the point about making sure you give the impression your novel has a proper conclusion, a lot of writers tend to worry about whether they should give away the end of their novel in the synopsis.

I think this depends on the approach you take.

If you go for the blurb/scene-setting approach, I don't think you have to detail the ending.

If you go for a more conventional plot-summary/sequence of events, I think it comes across as odd if you're vague about the ending.

Always remember that the whole point of every single aspect of your slush-pile submission is to get an agent/editor to ask for the rest of your novel; if you set out the events in your novel but don't round it off with a satisfactory conclusion, the chances are it's going to look as if you haven't got a satisfactory conclusion, so I would suggest you make sure the ending is adequately described.

If you've written a novel that's dependent on a brilliant plot-twist at the end that's meant to leave the reader thinking, "wow, I didn't see that coming" I think I would include it in the synopsis; if it's fresh and original and exciting, isn't an agent or editor more likely to want to see how you've pulled it off, and, therefore, more likely to ask for a full-submission? Chances are, by the time they've written to you and you've sent them the whole manuscript and they've found time to sit down and read it, they'll have forgotten the twist described in your synopsis anyway.

As for the old chestnut about agents and editors sitting around waiting to steal your ideas – I'm sorry, I don't believe that happens, so don't let the fear of that stop you from revealing the full extent of your plot and its proper conclusion in your synopsis.

When you've written your synopsis, take a step back from it and ask yourself if it will make sense to someone who doesn't know your novel as intimately as you do.

Also ask yourself if the writing flows and if it's easy to read.

Obviously check it for typos.

Finally, think about how it looks on the printed page: I've seen quite a few that just come across as one big lump of text with a heading across the top. When I sent my slush-pile submissions out I always gave the synopsis a separate header page with my name and address in the top right hand corner, the title of my novel and the word 'synopsis' somewhere near the centre of the page, then, on each page of the actual synopsis itself, something like 'Title of Novel – Synopsis' in the left hand footer, along with my name in the right hand footer.

In short, I tried to make it as neat and appealing to read as possible.

And, obviously, I made every effort to make it appear as professional as I could. If you're serious about catching the right person's attention, I think you need to do this too.