Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Scourge of the Synopsis

I write this from the depths of hell.  I have been banging against the sides of this particular pit for days.  I am battered and bruised but determined I will climb out, a glorious light shining on the finished parchment clutched tightly in my grasp.  Dear Lord, is that an adverb I used?  Let me strike that before the hounds of writers’ville wrest it from my psyche! 

Only a fellow sentence parser, one striving to make their writing the best they can based on the myriad of wise advice, will find that last sentence remotely amusing.  That line actually belongs in a musing on purgatory—the revision stage—where you look at the same words over and over, hoping that some day you get it right and will be released.  That’s the stage directly before you slide into hell. 
Synopsis.  Simple right?  It is your story.  You know it inside out.  Just sum it up.  But there are hidden traps.  How much is enough?  How much is too much?  What is the perfect balance between plot and characterization?  And, oy, the compendium of advice!  Who to follow?

I checked out some of my favourites. 

Janet Reid, gives thorough concrete advice on a regular basis.  She states:  A synopsis is like a recitation of facts in a lawsuit. It doesn't have much verve or style. The purpose of a synopsis is NOT to entice someone to read on (which IS the purpose of a query). 

Okay.  She’s a successful agent.  I need to take her seriously despite the fact that I know she is an anomaly, an agent who dislikes a synopsis.  At least I can deal with this approach.  Dry but doable.

Diana Gabaldon—if you did not pick it up from my previous post is one of my heroes in the writing world—suggests:  If approaching an unknown agent who doesn't know you from a hole in the ground, then you probably want to keep it fairly short and punchy--because the point isn't to explicate the whole plot or demonstrate your skill at world-building; it's to demonstrate a) that you can write, b) that you have a decent premise and characters, and c) that you probably know what a story looks like, at least ("knowing what a story looks like" implies that you understand the use of conflict (change/growth/whatever) and theme, btw).  So you'd go for the 1-2-3 pages type, because really, it's just bait to make them ask for more.

Okay, I can marry these two.  Similar except that Diana says to pump it up a notch.  Got it.  Then I read Diana’s synopsis for A Breath of Snow on Ashes.  The earth that was slowly solidifying beneath my feet crumbled.  I can’t write like that!  Back into the pit for me.

 Jo Bourne, who weaves a great tale and generously shares her pearls of wisdoms on a regular basis, shone a flashlight over the edge.  A synopsis is you sitting down and telling the story to a friend.  She breaks down components and gives a simple list of do’s and don’t’s.  It’s not a how-to manual but an amicable guide. 

I’m still in the pit, groping at the sides.  But the light shines from above and I am moving toward it.  I will emerge one day, synopsis bloodied by torn fingernails in one hand and Jo’s advice clutched tightly in the other.  And, yes, I think I’ll keep that adverb there this time.


  1. Ha! A hell I'm well familiar with and am avoiding studiously. I SHOULD be working on query and synopsis. Instead I'm letting life take over. Sigh. Time to face reality. I can't get to the other side without going through this pit. Downward ho.

    Thanks for the links, BTW.

  2. You've reason to allow a little room in your life right now! Though it's good to know I'll have company down here. :0)