Friday, July 20, 2012

Five Tips to Make Your Synopsis Stronger

Credit: Free Digital Photos
I recently had to write a synopsis. It seems every time I turn around I need a 500 word synopsis for a contest. Then I need a 1-2 page synopsis for a submission. Or I need a FULL synopsis for a proposal. Why can't everyone just agree and use the same one? But I didn't make the rules (and no one has bothered to ask me...)

Can I just go on record and say I'd rather have my teeth yanked with unsterilized tweezers?

It's gruesome, gritty, dirty work. But let's face it: unless you get an agent pounding on your door in the middle of the night, dying to read your book you're going to have to write a synopsis. Suck in your gut. If you live in Harney County, slap on your chaps and stick your backside in the saddle. It's time to ride. If you don't live in Harney County, then well...use the cliche that best fits your part of the country and let's go...

Tip #1: Write tight, tight, tight, tight.

Whip out a rough draft. Write what needs to be written. Include the funny scene with the neighbor's cat keeping your heroine awake all night long which makes her crash her car into the hero's car and end up in the hospital with a handsome doctor distraction for half the book. Pound out all the words you can and get that synopsis written.

Now. Time to have fun. Yes. I'm being sarcastic.

You need to write tight. What you said in 10 words say in 5. Look for twisted phrases that you can iron out and say in 3 words instead of five (my issue all the time). NIX passive. Passive is the death of a synopsis. On the flip side of that coin, don't get too flowery.

That description at the beginning? Cut the part about the cat, and only keep where the car accident starts the story. What is your inciting incident? The car crash. Not the cat howling outside the window. It's backstory and backstory should stay far, far away from a synopsis.

 Tip #2: Keep your point clear.

Don't rabbit trail down hidden paths and pot-holed roads. Keep the story on the straight and narrow (and avoid mixing your metaphors as I'm so dangerously close to doing. ;-) Plot your story out in paragraphs, one for each character's turning point. If you're writing a shorter book, say a category romance, keep the character's growth and changes in the same paragraph, not separated for the separate characters. They will interact more strongly together in a shorter book, thus the need to write a shorter, tighter synopsis. Avoid subplots especially if you're attempting a short contest synopsis. You can afford to delve into a subplot with a proposal synopsis, but even then, you should be focusing strongly on the main point of your story.

Tip #3: Make it read like a story.

Credit: Free Digital Photos
This is probably the hardest one to follow and put into action. When you write the synopsis the first time, as I said, just write it out. Think through your story paragraph by paragraph. This keeps the story manageable and don't let your mind become overwhelmed with everything going on in your story.

When you go through the synopsis again, you're going to end up re-writing a lot. Don't let this discourage you, just dig deep and embrace it. Evaluate your synopsis and read through it--out loud and inside your head. Strongly weigh each word you're using, the importance of story concepts for the length of your synopsis and if you can possibly combine two points into one.

This last comment will become your best friend: consider your words worth their weight in gold and be careful with which ones you use. Saying less with more is the key to a strong synopsis.

Tip #4: Write in the voice of your story.

Write in present tense, your entire synopsis through. But if you write romantic comedy, keep your synopsis light and funny. Entertaining. If you write suspense, give it a darker edge. Women's fiction should be more serious. If you have an especially poignant scene that you've written-- perhaps it's a turning point in your story, but something funny or significant happens, then find a way to include that into the wording. For example...Ellie’s ambitions have taken the same trip as the pot of boiled-dry noodles—straight to the floor. This is a line in my synopsis which hints at a scene for my character, but also speaks for character journey and depth that I have taken the reader of my synopsis on up to this point. 

My character is a chef, she makes Italian food and she's struggling to get it all done. Thus the reference to the pot of noodles...straight to the floor. But your references to such things have to make sense. Don't add it for the sake of purple prose, make it matter for the sake of the synopsis.

Tip #5: Don't make it harder then what it needs to be.

Credit: Free Digital Photos
Yes, writing a synopsis is hard work. Yes, your family most likely will not want to be around you before, during and after the process. But don't stress. Don't worry. Just keep writing. If you stop and stare and try to make it perfect on the first try, you will only succeed in having a very bald head. Push through the brain blocks and finger freezes. It is possible to finish this thing, no matter how the mind warps it's way against you.

After the first draft, put it aside for a couple days. Then go back and make every single change you possibly can. Word to the wise: do not over think this process. Let it come in stages. Layering changes as you go. 

Send it to your critique partners for them to red and bleed on. Make their changes and if you can send it to a different pair eyes completely, then do so. What I did recently is had an author friend read it. Made her changes. Sent it to my crit partner. Made her changes and finished it up for a third round with the same author. Consistency is the key. 

Finally, take a deep breath...and call it good. The proof lies in your writing to speak for your true ability, but the synopsis is the first thing a judge or agent or editor sees. Make it a good impression!

Do you sweat the synopsis process?

(if you don't, then you're not human and we possibly can't be friends... ;-)


Casey Herringshaw is a homeschool graduate and has been writing since high school. She lives in rural Eastern Oregon in a town more densely populated with cows than people.


Unknown said...

If I had to pick my least favorite thing about pursuing this writing thing, yup, it'd probably be writing a synopsis. Makes me wanna cringe...or cry...or both. Sidenote: I wrote three synopsises (synopsi??) in the past week. A one-pager that didn't work. A three-pager to just get it out. And then another one-pager from the parsed down three-pager. Good times, my friend, good times.

Love your tips, Casey!!

Susan Francino said...

AAAAAHAHHHGH, the synopsis. You know it's bad because all the synopsis-writing help articles you find online are called things like "The Dreaded Synopsis" and "How to Write a Synopsis and Survive."

I've done it once, and I'm going to have to do it again soon... *whimper* Last time, it involved multiple spreadsheets and about 10 uninterrupted hours of work.

Angie Dicken said...

You know, as much as I dread the initial sit down, it's kind of a fun little challenge when I am in the mindset. I find that I just write the synopsis with what needs to be there for the main plot line to be told, and then I go back and see how I could re-word it to make my voice shine. It's a process, just like writing a novel! Rough draft, first edits, applied critiques, polished forth!
Now, I need to get crackin'!

Joanne Sher said...

THANK you for this post, Casey. I do NOT like synopses. No, not a bit. But this will help me not grow old(er) before my time the next time I need to write one.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I'm loving this post! One thing I've found helpful is to let someone who hasn't read the book read your synopsis. That way, they can only go off of what you give them. If it doesn't make sense or they're not following the story, you know you need to make your point better.

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Great tips, Casey. I'll be revising my synopsis after this. I think I've got too much back story and need to check for passive voice . . . again!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Casey,

Great tips! I recently judged a contest and most of the entries needed a lot of help with the synopsis!

My advice to them was: Strive for clarity. That's key in describing your plot. Simplicity helps keep it to the bare bones of the story - the turning points and the characters arcs. All the extras just confuse the reader - be it a judge or an editor!

Thanks, Casey.


Lindsay Harrel said...

I don't like it, but it's not the worst thing in the world. Then again, I really like writing tight and the challenge of getting it down. The problem comes when you have a complicated plot...and only one page to explain the most important elements...and deciding what those are...

THAT can be frustrating! Great tips, friend!

Jenna K. said...

Writing a synopsis is like one of my biggest fears right now :P Thanks for this post!! I will keep these things in mind when I do write my synopsis! :D

Nancy Kimball said...

Casey, thank you. I would rather put a cigarette out in my eye than write a synopsis. Even with all the great resources out there I still hate it and think I always will. I found your tip about fresh eyes most helpful and will incorporate that for sure.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

AGHAGH! Synopses and proposals--the banes of my existence! Isn't it weird that even when we're out on submission, the main thing the publishing houses see is our proposal (which includes that crazy synopsis?). Great tips here. I always find that the SHORTER, the better. Which always means eliminating all my subplot/secondary character actions. Stick to the MC and try to compress their journey...yeah, it's so hard for an 80,000 word book!

I did find that writing a logline helps--just a sentence or two that sums up the book (what you might see on the back cover). That forced me to narrow down the plot to the one driving concept.

Anonymous said...

Argh! I was just checking back and see that my previous comment never appeared. Sigh. I guess it's been disseminated somewhere in the blogosphere. ;)

Casey, great post. I don't mind writing synopses too much. I do like someone above mentioned (or was it you?), and I write everything down and then refine it. My biggest challenge is making it sound like a story rather than a summary. As I'm preparing a synopsis now, I plan to refer back to this post.

Thanks, Casey!

Jillian said...

Thank you for a great post, Casey! This is definitely one to print for the writing notebook. :)

elizabethfais said...

Great post! The biggest hurdle for me was relaxing enough to write the synopsis in the voice of my story. Once I got to that point, it was actually fun. Who knew?

Casey said...

Oh MELISSA, you have my sympathy. And a bit of a shared personalty too. Sounds like something I have done. Will do. Sigh. I still need to tackle my proposal synopsis, but I think it will be a tad easier, since I already have an expanded well-written synopsis down.

SUSAN, yep. I don't think there is a single writer who likes putting it together and is stated as being one of the hardest parts of this job to do. Barricade yourself in, turn off distraction and throw it out there. You can ALWAYS make it better.

Casey said...

ANG, I do have to agree with you a teeniest of bits. For me, it's just getting me to actually SIT DOWN and start writing. :)

JOANNE, LOL! Take the fear out of it. Look it straight in the eye and state "I WILL conquer you." ;-)

Casey said...

CINDY, I learned the value of that the past few weeks when people who were either in the process of reading my story or hadn't read it at all were reading my synopsis. Great point!

AVA, yes, stick to what happens in the story, not what happens BEFORE the story. It's a hard temptation! And keep it active. Active, active. It sells. :)

Casey said...

SUSAN, very true! It's my biggest struggle, especially after the first draft and it so often makes so much sense to me! ;-)

LINDSAY, the challenge to write my story in 500 words, I will admit, I do like too. It just takes me a draft or so to get there. It must be nice having that mindset. ;)

Casey said...

JENNA, don't let the worry of a synopsis weigh you down. It has to be written, so don't sweat it. It's a learning process like everything else!

NANCY, lol! Fresh eyes make a WORLD of difference. Cindy is one I love to use. She has a great eye for a synopsis. I have been so grateful for her time and again.

Casey said...

HEATHER, ooh, good tip about the logline! I'm going to remember that one. Thanks!

JEANE, I know what you mean, it's not easy to make it sound like a story. But one thing you can do is like that suggestion I gave to incorporate elements of your story into the synopsis. I think it makes it more potent and real to the story you've written.

Casey said...

JILLIAN, I'm glad it was helpful to you! I know the comments here have been great for me as well. There is always so much room for improvement!

ELIZABETH, GASP, you used the FUN word in conjunction with the synopsis?? ;-) I think writing in the voice of my story will be one of my biggest struggles as well.

Jan Cline said...

Oh, I'm so glad I found this post. I struggle with writing any synopsis! I will print this out to study for my next one! Casey, I've seen you on Writer's Alley but didn't realize you were from Oregon. I direct a writers conference in Spokane Washington in case you know any writers who want to go to a NW conference, yourself included :) Thanks again for the tips!
Jan Cline