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At the moment, there's a plot synopsis writing workshop going on in a group over at Ye Olde OWW and the person directing the group is an old critique partner of mine. She got in touch to see if I wouldn't mind answering some of the questions about writing plot synopses that the group had. I thought that perhaps some of you guys might be interested in the questions, and just perhaps, the answer, so I figured I'd post them here. So if you're interesting:



How did you sell your first book--agent, slush pile, alien intervention? The aliens did it. . . . No, no, no! Although I wouldn't be surprised. Actually, I was "found" through the slush pile at DAW. That's right, the slush pile. I'd submitted two previous novels to DAW before they bought that first book. The first book they saw caught their attention enough that they wanted to see whatever other books I had. So I sent in the only other novel I had written at the time (that wasn't a sequel), even though I knew they'd reject it. It wasn't a DAW book, more mainstream than fantasy. I warned them, but they wanted to see it anyway. By the time I heard back from them on that, I had The Skewed Throne finished and sent that in.

Was a synopsis involved, and if so what did it look like? (seriously: page length, spacing, font, straight up story or broken down by character/setting/plot, etc.) A synopsis was involved. Every submission I've ever made to an agent or a publisher has involved a synopsis. DAW requests that you send the full manuscript for the slush pile, so the package included a cover letter, a plot synopsis, and the entire manuscript (plus return postage of course). Other submissions had cover letters, synopses, and just the first three chapters of the book. For the synopsis, you should always follow the guidelines if they have them. In general though, my synopses were about 5 pages long, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, 12 point, and a straight up story. I could never do the character/setting/plot format. A good story interweaves all three and I just can't get myself to break them all apart. They rely on each other too much to form a cohesive story to destroy that cohesion by breaking them up.

When do you write a synopsis (before, during, after the novel)? OK, this is a loaded question, because I've done it both before and after. For my first novel, I wrote the synopsis after I completed and revised the novel. This is my preferred method, because when I'm writing the novel, I never really have a solid idea of exactly what the novel is about. I may have a mini-clue, but typically the characters take control and do what they want, and that affects what the novel is about. So I save the plot synopsis for afterwards if I can. Unfortunately, after that first novel is bought, the publisher wants to know what the next book is about immediately. You don't have time to write the whole thing, then write the synopsis. Not if you want to continue getting published. So after that first novel sale, I've been writing the synopses before the book has been written. This is MUCH more difficult for me, because I don't know what the characters are going to do. So what I think the book is and what it actually becomes are typically two different things. This is where having a good and understanding editor is helpful.

How do you go about doing it? If the book is already written, I try to figure out who's story it is. The synopsis should be focused on one main character and their story arc. I figure out who that is and what their emotional arc is, and then I figure out what you have to mention (who, what, where, etc) in order to make that story arc make sense, and then I write the synopsis based on that. This usually ends up being far too long, so I work and rewrite and revise, trimming it back from there. This isn't that hard for me, because the book is already written, so I know what happens. Typically, I'm trying to put too much in, hence all the trimming. If the book hasn't been written yet, then I have major problems. I usually write out a sketch of what I think the plot is and then try to figure out the main character's emotional arc based on that. What I don't know is everything that makes that emotional arc work. I usually feel like I'm faking it during this stage, because at this point the story isn't "real" to me. The characters aren't real yet. And in the end I AM faking it. Fortunately, my editor knows this. Typically when I send in the synopsis, I'll get a call and we'll begin talking things out. She asks questions and we sort through things she thought needed fleshing out, etc. But this only happens when you've gotten published and have formed a relationship with your editor.

Does this change depending on circumstances (genre, adult/YA, publisher, time of year, whether it's raining, etc.)? So far, I've written things in 3 genres and the only thing that changes because of the genre is the emphasis in the plot synopsis. If you're writing in romance, obviously your synopsis should emphasize the romantic elements and plot arc; if you're writing fantasy, you should emphasize the magic and the world and why it's different and unique; etc. The synopsis may change depending on publisher as well, since different editors prefer different styles and lengths for synopses. DAW likes LONG synopses, so I'm typically adding in more and more info after the discussions with my editor. But for most first submissions, they want something relatively short, like 5 pages. I don't think there's any difference in the process for adult vs. YA, but I have never written YA (although a few people did want to call The Skewed Throne YA).

Did your approach, or the final product (the synopsis), change as you got publishing experience? Does your agent or editor want something different from you now than when they were pulling you out of the slush? I answered these above actually. I now write the synopsis before I write the novel, which is infinitely harder for me. And the synopses have gotten much longer than the 5 pages you typically need for the slush pile. But this changes depending on the publisher and your editor.

We've been debating the eternal question of how much to include or leave out--when *you* write a synopsis, how closely does the synopsis match the book? Well, if the synopsis is written AFTER the book, then it follows the book fairly well. Again, the emphasis is on one main character and his/her emotional arc, and there may be many other characters involved in the actual book, so that's typically different. If I'm writing the synopsis BEFORE I write the book, then there's usually a huge difference between the synopsis and the final novel. Typically the emotional arc changes significantly, because the character comes to life and seizes control of the book, at which point the plot synopsis goes out the window and I just let the characters have fun. This is usually not a problem, because I've built up a trusting relationship with my editor, who realizes that things may change during the course of writing, and that usually those changes are for the better, creating a much better story. My advice for any synopsis: include only what is necessary for explaining that one character's main emotional arc--plot, setting, side characters, villains, etc. Put in only what makes that arc make sense. You'll be tempted to put in that really cool thing that happened in chapter 12 . . . but don't. Not unless it helps explain that character arc.

And how do you introduce/explain a SF/F setting in the short space of a synopsis? Again, focus on only the cool aspects that explain the character's emotional arc. You have to snag them with the story, with why they should care about reading the story, in the synopsis. They can get the rest of the cool setting once they've been snagged and start reading the chapters they've requested.

Is writing a synopsis a difficult process for you? Enjoyable/detestable? Any tips for making it easier? Writing the synopsis after I've written the novel isn't as bad as writing it before. In either case, it's difficult. In the first case, it's hard to take an entire novel and boil it down to 5 pages, because there are typically way too many cool things in the book to fit in that small of a space. In the second, I just don't know what the story is and the book doesn't feel real to me yet, which makes writing about the book difficult. Overall . . . I find writing the synopsis detestable and frustrating. Unfortunately, it's a big part of the publishing business. I'm not sure I have any advice for how to make it easier (aside from what I've already said anyway), but I should point out that you can write the perfectly formatted synopsis and it won't mean squat unless you have a good story to tell. Editors and agents will forgive going over on a plot synopsis by a page or two if there's a good story involved. Lots can be forgiven if you have a good story. So don't obsess on relatively minor things like font and length; focus on showing that you have a great story, one that the editor wants . . . no, NEEDS, to read.



Feel free to ask any other questions that pop to mind regarding plot synopses in the comments!

Date: 2008-03-06 09:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newguydave.livejournal.com
This is great information. When are you writing a book on this? Seriously, people like me have paid for info like this. Heck seven out of the last nine books I have read were on the craft of writing...
Anyways, great comments. I'm going to log into OWW and check out the workshop.

Date: 2008-03-06 10:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jpsorrow.livejournal.com
I'm not sure how they're handling the plot synopsis group. You may have to sign up for the yahoo group listserv in order to get the message between group members. Or not. If you can't seem to find out about the group, let me know and I'll send you the director's email.

Also, I haven't forgotten about critting your stuff at the workshop. I hope to get to that this weekend.

Date: 2008-03-07 12:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newguydave.livejournal.com
Thanks again in advance. I welcome any advice at this point. I have some ideas I want to write about but I am still working on finding my style and voice. Heck, I'm still learning to cut out bad habits that I've picked up since learning grammar in school. "Grammar Workbook for Dummies" and Grammar Girl Podcast are helping. lol.

Date: 2008-03-07 07:14 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] desperance.livejournal.com
It occurs to me, the whole synopsis question comes up so often, it might be an idea to organise a number of us to post actual synopses for actual published books, to let people see the things themselves (and hence understand more clearly the relationship - or lack of relationship - between the synopsis and the final text). Not saying it would help any, because the One Sure Thing as that they would all be utterly different each from each, but still, it might be interesting...

Date: 2008-03-08 06:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jpsorrow.livejournal.com
This is great idea. Perhaps I can get a group of writers together who are all willing to post an old plot synopsis (for an already published novel) on their blogs/webpages, with perhaps their own thoughts on writing plot synopses, all on the same day, with links to everyone else's posts. Would you be interested in participating?

Date: 2008-03-08 06:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] desperance.livejournal.com
That's what I was thinking. And yes: absolutely, I'm up for this.

Date: 2008-03-08 06:53 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jpsorrow.livejournal.com
I'm sending out emails to people to see who might be interested. I'll let you know when I get some responses back. Then I'll start planning a day and try to get the whole thing organized.

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