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Sunday, 29 March 2009


I hate writing synopses. There are two types of synopsis, or reasons you might write one - let's call them Synopsis Situations - and I hate both. Equally. To be honest, I hate them so much that I've even postponed writing this blog post about them. But eventually, we authors have to get tough with ourselves.

Talking about getting tough, someone has told me I go on about chocolate too much. So I won't go on about it at all any more. I will continue to eat it, however, if that's OK with you. Not that you have any say in the matter.

Synopsis Situations
  1. when you've written the book and you're trying to sell it to agent / publisher
  2. when you haven't written the book and you are trying to plot it out, to give yourself something to follow
  3. yes, I know I said two, but this is a minor third, which I'm not going to treat as properly separate, but I want to stop you all piling in and saying, "What about ..., you ignorant woman?" It is: when you're already with a publisher and you're trying to explain your next idea to your friendly editor, hoping for a contract before writing the book.
If you're an unpublished author, or at least you don't have a friendly publisher lined up for your WIP (Work in Progress), you will need to become adept at No.1 so that's what we're going to talk about. No.2 is a very useful tool, one which I should make much greater use of, but there are no special skills involved and no rules to follow. It's just a matter of sitting down at your desk instead of vacuuming behind the fridge.

Trouble with synopses is that they reduce your beautiful words to something much plainer. They can seem stark and reveal all your flaws (which is actually one of the reasons why they are so useful.) They are your glorious self stripped bare and made to stand in front of the cameras in an Edwardian swimming-costume under bright lights with no make-up. You're shuddering, I know you are. It's like being in one of those programmes - you know, How To Look Good Naked (shut your eyes or get drunk?) or Ten Years Younger (and $40,000 of cosmetic and dental surgery later, as well as very clever make-up).

But to continue the anology about as far as it will go, if you were on one of those before and after programmes and had to stand there virtually naked and actually frightening the wood-lice, you would be doing certain things to make sure you looked as OKish as possible, wouldn't you? I mean you would not really be letting your abdominal muscles slide earthwards - you'd be holding them in; you'd put your shoulders back, chin up, lips gently smiling.

Actually, what you'd be doing would be trying to show that IF you had clothes and make-up and corsetry on, you'd look sensational. Your synopsis, despite being your story naked, needs to do this. It needs to stand with confidence, poise, structure and form. Use those muscles - they're in there somewhere. Or they were once.

In a minute I'm going to direct you to some articles and blogs which will give lots of advice. Thing is, some of it conflicts. So, I want to distill the essential points, so that you can then decide what to do with the conflicting stuff.

Essential Rules
  1. It must be short. Some publishers and agents specify either max 1 or max 2 pages. Don't cheat with this - a page, like a page of your actual MS, must be double-spaced, decent sized font, with normal margins. A shorter synopsis is preferable to a longer one, and if it's too long it will really mark you down. So, edit and pare, edit and pare, edit and pare.
  2. It is not a teaser - so, DO say what happens in the end. (But if you are writing a synopsis for your website - Synopsis Situation 4, I guess - do NOT give away the ending. SS4 is entirely different from SS1-3.)
  3. You give, in the order in which they appear in the book, all the main events. Leave out minor characters, and small incidents. Distill to the most important elements of the story.
  4. It should retain a flavour of the book's style and voice. Don't just say "this happened and then that happened and eventually the guy dies."
  5. It should contain no GPS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling) errors. It should be nicely laid out and easy to read.
  6. The present tense works well for synopses, but it's not a rule, despite being in a list entitled Essential Rules.
Here are some resources for you.
Sadly, the other day I came across a brilliant blog piece about an author's search for how to write the perfect synopsis, and I a) wrote a comment on it b) made a note of the blog address and c) lost the note. I knew I wasn't eating enough chocolate. (Sorry.) So, if that blogger happens to see this, could she please identify herself by commenting below and I'll add the URL? I have a feeling it was someone who follows this blog, but I'm not sure.


AbsoluteWrite has a very useful piece here by Lee Masterson The only thing I slightly disagree with is the bit about not asking open questions. I agree that they should be under-used rather than over-used, because you are supposed to be explaining your book rather than simply enticing (which a blurb would do), but I don't know of agents / editors who would mark you down for using the odd open question, if that's relevant to the story-line. Lee's point about then needing to answer the open question is a good one though.

A Literary Agent's tips (from the US)
Nathan Bransford seems to have had the same problem as me getting this blog piece done. But he's done it and it's very succinct.

Finally, I came across this one from Marg Gilks and it's excellent. She makes some important distinctions between types of synopsis and strikes the right balance between blurb and outline. (Small warning though - it was written in 2001 and although I hadn't realised that anything much would have changed synopsis-wise in that time, there are two things which I should clarify: first, DEFINITELY double spacing, please, and second, DON'T be tempted to do a ten-pager; two is really the most you should do, unless you've written Anna Karenina, in which case leave out the farming stuff and that should help a lot.)

Anyway, I have to say that Marg Gilks has converted me. I am now positively looking forward to writing a synopsis. In fact, I am am going to engineer a Synopsis Situation. Bring it on.

On another note entirely, since this post has been on the teachy side rather than the chatty side and since you have been working very hard, and since you need an explanation as to why I haven't posted for a few days, I thought you might like another funny story from the mad world of doing author events. So, do read my "My Brain Causes Airport Security Incident" story here.

Meanwhile, the deadline for my Worst Query letter competition is about to close and I am going to spend the afternoon re-reading the entries and trying to decide. You have produced some absolute classics - well done and thank you for some brilliant laughs! I hope to bring you the winning entries in the next few days.