Thursday, October 23, 2008

How to write a synopsis...

So I've been thinking about the problem of getting published.

I don't think it's an impossible proposition any more. As I've spent more time writing for a living, I've realised that the secret of getting published is quite simple. I just haven't managed to achieve it 'novel scale' yet.

Here's what I've learned you need to do:

  1. Come up with a killer concept for a novel - one you can describe in a single sentence, yet hook people into wanting to learn more.
  2. Write an engaging, fast-paced book that constantly challenges the main characters so the reader is compelled to turn the pages to find out what happens to them.
  3. Get your book accepted by an agent, then a publisher.

Out of these three steps, the third is the most difficult.

Publishers and agents, you see, are simply deluged with manuscripts and submissions. If you've ever read some of the extracts on NaNoWriMo, you'll realise that most of these submissions are utterly, utterly crap. And contain vampires and werewolves (yawn.)

So to stand a chance, you need to come up with a submission package that hooks an agent's attention and inspires them to read further... and further... and keep that pressure going until they need to request your entire manuscript merely to satisfy their curiosity about 'what happens next.'

To do this, you need three things:
  1. A kick-ass cover letter, that makes an agent think: "This person seems to have their head screwed on. Let me risk five minutes of my hectic schedule to examine their synopsis."
  2. A fast-paced, compelling synopsis that tells your entire story, chapter-by-chapter, in ten pages or less.
  3. Your first three chapters - and, baby, they'd better be good.
Now the first and the third part of this puzzle I think I'd had down reasonably well. I've got some ideas about writing that cover letter which I'll go into elsewhere.

The synopsis, on the other hand, always gave me problems.

The fact is, it's not easy to distill the essence of a book - maintaining the characters, twists and surprises - into less than ten sides of A4.

I have tried doing so, but it's tough. Not just because it sucks all the life and character out of a book, but because listing all fifty-of-so chapters (even in 140 word paragraphs) ends up covering twenty sheets of paper and adding up to 7,000 words.

So today I patented a new process.

I went chapter-by-chapter through the Bootleg Boys and I took one five-line chunk out of each chapter - the most exciting bit.

So, for example, I cut the following from Chapter Ten:

Miss Rogers smiled fractionally. The stern looking girl was very pretty when the corners of her mouth lifted up.

“Don’t worry. I wasn’t really going to shoot you.” She gave the crossbow a rattle playfully. “I don’t even think this thing’s real.”


A quivering arrow whizzed past Eddy’s ear, burying itself three inches into the wall.

From that, I 'continued the thought' and managed to write down the business of Chapter Ten in just three lines (well, it's three lines in Word.)
Eddy manages to convince the mysterious brunette, Lucy Rogers, that he is who he says he is. She claims to be Eddy’s brother’s ‘Office Manager’ who lives in the downstairs apartment. Reluctantly, she agrees to let Eddy move in.

I then deleted the original 'quote' and left just the three line snippet. Astonishingly, it managed to sum up the chapter much more concisely than I could have imagined.

By doing this with every chapter, I ended up with a chapter-by-chapter synopsis that fit onto seven pages and came it an a snippet above 2,000 words - making it match the criteria of a synopsis suitable for an agent.

In addition to that, though, my new synopsis strategy helped me:
  1. Eliminate or consolidate boring chapters. If nothing worth quoting happened in that chapter, it was time for it to go. I shed ten chapters when I realised they were inconsequential.
  2. Eliminate plot discrepancies or lose holes I'd missed by only looking at the story chapter-at-a-time instead of as a whole manuscript.
For what it's worth, I think I've got a decent synopsis now. Perhaps I'm on my way to being ready to submit it all to an agent!

If you've finished a novel and want to send it off to a publisher, try my method of creating a synopsis. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how helpful it is.


Viv Arend said...

I decided to drop by and see where you were from. Nice digs...

I like your idea for the synopsis, Roland. I'm working through one for a submission right now and got some great feedback from another author. One of the things she mentioned is walking the fine line between the synopsis being a play by play of the story verses showing a bit of your writers voice.

Since you and I could write a story based on the same synopsis and have the ms end up sounding totally different I thought that was a good point.

Oh, and having a rock solid cover letter? You should see the one I wrote for the story I sold. I sound like I was on crack. I wrote the story so fast that by the time the deadline rolled around I was out of brainpower and simply rambled for a couple of pages. I think at one point I offered to slip something into her coffee to help her be able to get the humour in the ms.

I guess it worked...

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