Writing a good synopsis

Once I finally had a query letter I was happy with, it was time to write a synopsis. In the past, I had thought it would be easier to do it the other way around — write a 4- to 6-page synopsis of my novel, then write the 1- to 3- paragraph query blurb; work down in size. But it didn’t work for me. While I was struggling with my query blurb, I tried writing the synopsis and it came out drab and boring. But once I got over my trepidation of the query blurb and found my voice again, I re-wrote the synopsis in the same style and it came out much better (gaining approval from my critique group).

One of the things that helped me was Erica Orloff’s synopsis boot camp. I found this after the boot camp was finished (it’s five days, so check out all the subsequent posts), so I wasn’t able to participate, but I wish I had seen it earlier. (Erica, if you read this, your synopsis boot camp was awesome. Any chance of a repeat? Monthly? Too much. Quarterly?)

Why pay attention to what Erica Orloff has to say about writing synopsis? Well, as she points out, she has sold more than 25 novels on the proposal alone! (Presumably she sold a finished manuscript first, before she made a name for herself, but either way, that’s impressive.)

Erica offers up the opening of two of her synopsis. She also says a synopsis should be around 5-6 pages. I went for 4 pages as I’m writing middle grade and that’s a little less complex than most adult books (what Erica writes). Other research I did for my genre suggested 4 pages would be good, and once I had a winning version, I cut it down again for one agent who specifically asked for a 2-page synopsis in the submission requirements.

But I still had to get to that workable synopsis first, and Erica’s boot camp really helped. Reading Erica’s beginning and how she edited the beginnings and other parts of the boot camp participants, you can see a pattern emerging. Here’s some of the tips I picked up:

  • Voice is king
  • Don’t tell the story just in chronological order; show themes, emotions, choices
  • Reveal characters
  • And make it exciting (as exciting as your book)

Another great thing was that you could use the query blurb as the beginning of the synopsis, even if you’re sending them both to the same agent/editor. I would have tried to avoid that, but frankly, after seeing that it’s ok according to synopsis guru Erica Orloff, it makes sense. They’re two parts of the same package, marketing the same book. They should have similarities. If you think of your submission as a press kit (hey, my day job is in journalism), there’s nothing wrong with the cover letter, press release and any other supporting materials have the same words, sentences, etc. As long as they are the right words, sentences, etc., it reinforces the idea of what you’re trying to sell, i.e. my novel.

And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do with our query letter and synopsis: sell our work.

So, I’ve got a query I like and a synopsis I like. I’ve got a few last corrections for the manuscript, then I’ll send out. This won’t be for a few weeks, probably, as I’ve got some things coming up. But soon. I’ll let you know how I get along.

How are you doing?

Write On!


Getting to the point

Writer’s Digest’s Maria Schneider put up an informative post the other day about things she heard at when she accompanied the magazine’s contest winners on their New York agent meets (lucky them). I won’t plagarize her information here, but one caught my eye for further review: The elevator pitch, be able to sum up your story in two minutes.


In screenwriting, they call this a log line, and it would really be even less than two minutes. It should be at the most two sentences — two short sentences.


I always found this hard, and I wasn’t the only one. Hollywood seminars have entire sections designed to help aspiring screenwriters write their best log line.


I think one of the difficulties for us authors — be it of a novel or screenplay — is that we don’t see our stories as just the main arc that runs from beginning to end. We see our stories as the main arc, plus all the emotions and choices our characters make, plus all the difficulties they get into, plus … etc., etc. Ask us to describe all that in a couple sentences, and our brain goes, huh?


But Maria Schneider is right. When we’re at conferences, retreats, etc., we need to be able to succinctly and confidently say, “My novel is about …” and not take up so long that the agent/editor standing in front of us starts looking at her/his watch.


And we should know it by heart. I was in this situation once, and my brain went blank, completely blank. I couldn’t remember my main character’s name much less what the story was about. I got there in the end, but I looked pretty embarassing. Believe me, you don’t want to be there.


The thing is, we can trim down our story to a few sentences, because every story has a main story, and that’s what you want to focus on. Our protagonist has a need, an event that has flamed that need, and a barrier he/she must get through to achieve that need. I’m simplifying of course, but that’s the point.  (Note, a synopsis is longer.)


Writing your elevator pitch is an interesting and useful exercise for every author to do to make sure your writing is not trying to be too much, not trying to tell too many stories in one.


Another reason it’s a good exercise is that it forces you to choose just the right words to say what you want to say, to describe your work, using the least amount of words as possible. And that’s something that’s good for our writing in general. In your novel, screenplay, article, whatever, every word should add something to the story. It should say something about plot or character. Every Word! (Sure, “and” and “the” might not, but the words around them should.) If you’re writing a picture book, this is even more important.


So, get out a notebook, your computer, whatever you use to write, and formulate the log line for your novel or screenplay, or whatever you’re working on. It’s more difficult than it seems — because you also want it to intrigue, impress, tease, make the reader want to know more — but it’ll be worth it. You don’t have to get the perfect log line in one sitting; most don’t. But while you’re writing your bigger piece, working on your log line will help you stay on track as well as editing to be efficient with words. And when you’re ready to sell your work, you’ll be well on your way.


Let me know how you do.


Write On!