When I began looking for an agent to represent my first mystery novel, I made a personal discovery: I hated synopses. I had wrestled with the manuscript, polishing it until like a limousine it glowed.
I cut away everything I felt was inessential until it was a lean, mean, killing machine…err, novel. I had just under 99,000 carefully chosen and sweated-over words. And for a synopsis I had to distill it into 500 words and reveal the ending? I don’t even reveal the endings of movies or of books I’ve simply read, let alone written.
The synopsis has become an essential marketing tool for an author. Long gone are the days of the unsolicited manuscript, when an author would create their masterpiece and submit it as a whole to a publishing house where an editor would at once recognize its brilliance and make sure it got published. That sentence might seem snarky, except that it has on occasion actually happened – on very, very rare occasions. (It’s the literary version of the classic Hollywood story of Lana Turner being discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store – which is incorrect; she’d cut class from Hollywood High School and went across the street to the Top Hat Café to get a Coke, and that was where she was discovered.)
Like the movie studio star system, publishing houses have changed. Agents are now doing many of the tasks that editors once did, including the gatekeeper duties. They don’t have time to read through a manuscript. Instead, they usually request sample pages so they can see your writing style. It could be as short as 5 pages or as long as 50, though many ask for the first three chapters. Then, to fill in the rest of the plot, they want a synopsis of the story.
I’d struggled with writing a synopsis. It either came out too short, like a dust jacket blurb (without revealing the ending) or it was pages long and went through every subplot and twist.
Recently, though, the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America offered an on-line class on how to write a synopsis. If you aren’t acquainted with the form, there is a format that should be followed:
- Always write in the third person/present tense.
- Give the word count and the genre of the piece.
- Match the tone of the book to the synopsis. If it’s a funny book, you want a funny synopsis.
- Focus primarily on the protagonist and what happens to them. Don’t wander off into subplots unless they become essential to the overall story.
- Give the location (and the time period, if the story isn’t set in contemporary times).
- And as mentioned, keep it to 500 words (1 page if single spaced; 2 pages if double-spaced) and reveal the ending.
The teacher of the class suggested an exercise to prepare for writing the synopsis: go through the book and summarize each chapter in one or two sentences. For me, this was the breakthrough. It made me focus on the central plot of my novel, so that I could look just at the structure.
Working from that summary, I came up with a basic synopsis that, with suggestions from the teacher and the other students, I was able to refine. As I write this, it’s still a bit long, but I’ll be recasting sentences and doing whatever I can to slim it down. I’ll be polishing it until glows – only this time I’m polishing a Mini Cooper rather than a limousine.