Sunday, March 29, 2015

Publishing Advice: Writing the Dreaded 1-2 Page Synopsis

Last week, I received a message from a friend and author with the question: "How do you write those damn 1-2 page synopses?" A one to two page synopsis is what a writer submits to an agent or publisher. It's usually unavoidable. If you want someone to read your work for publication, you have to create one of these. I am with two publishers, and I still have to submit these just like any other newbie. It's one of those evil parts of the business side of writing that feels like it sucks all the fun and creativity out of the game. Some authors have a natural flair for this, and I say, "Screw them!" If you're one of those guys, then I don't know why you would read any further. However, if like me, you've struggled to muster the courage to face that blank page after pumping out a 60-000-100,000-word manuscript, then this might just help you out.

When I first started writing synopses for books, I was fifteen and had written my first book. I naively wanted to publish it, so I devoured every article and book I could on how to get an agent/publisher. I drafted several synopses. This took a lot of time and energy, and I nearly gave up on writing probably five or six times during the process. It's just not as much fun to craft a synopsis as it is a novel. There's a reason I wrote a whole book--because that's how long that story needed to be told! Still, as with any industry, if you want to work in it, you need to play by its rules, especially in the beginning. Since I crafted that first synopsis, I've written fourteen novels (several unpublished, some in the submissions process or publishing process right now), and I've had to write synopses for all of them. However, my synopsis writing experience doesn't stop there. In my early twenties, I worked at a production company in Los Angeles. I began as a reader, where I had to craft synopses for all the screenplays that came into our office. From my synopses, my employer promoted me to writer because she saw something in my synopses that indicated I actually knew what the hell I was doing. I also nabbed my first agent and manager with synopses that ultimately led to them reading my work. That said, I've had a lot of practice over the years, and I'm glad I have, because it's proved instrumental to getting my books published. Like with anything though, over the years, I've encountered a lot of terrible advice I didn't find helpful at all, as well as discovered a few things that have been incredibly helpful.

Terrible Advice that Never Helped Me:

1) It doesn't need to be well written. I've heard some author gurus suggest that publishers know synopses are all crap, so you shouldn't be worried about it sounding good. To me, this is like telling authors people don't judge a book by its cover, so it's okay to have a crappy cover. That's just a lie. In the same way people use covers to determine if they're interested in reading something, publishers and agents use synopses to assess an author's writing ability and determine if they're interested in a project. Anything the agent/publisher reads that sounds half-assed or incompetent will get you tossed into the slush pile, where your submission will never be heard from again.

2) It needs to be the best thing you've ever written. This may sound like a contradiction to the last point, but it's really not. Perfection is the author's enemy. You don't have to go for the best thing you've ever written, but you want to show that you can hook the reader and tell a story simply in a somewhat compelling way.

3) Lists of things to be included in the synopsis. There are tons of lists out there of all the elements that should be included in a synopsis. All these lists ever do for me is make the process seem intimidating. Sure, there are a bunch of things that need to be included to make it coherent, and maybe you should use such a list as a checklist when you go back and look at your finished synopsis, but don't go in with all that weight on your shoulders. It's not worth it.

Advice that Will Get the Job Done:

1) Just write it. Sit down at your computer and write the damn thing. I know this sounds too simple, but don't try to get it right that first time. Get the job done! I would actually use that #1 in "Terrible Advice that Never Helped Me" here. Hey, maybe it did help after all! This isn't your masterpiece. You don't have to get this right the first time. Think of this like that essay for the class you hated. You didn't want to do it. It wasn't the most brilliant thing you ever wrote, but you got it done. The key here is to keep reminding yourself that you'll fix it later. So seriously, it's okay if it reads like:
Jack likes Bobby. Bobby is mean. Bobby thinks Jack is an ass. Bobby thinks Jack is an ass. Damn. Wrote that already...
Do your best to write the events that lead up to the conclusion. This can turn out two ways: 1) You could wind up with a quarter of a page to work with. 2) You could wind up with five pages to work with. Either way, you're fine. This is not your finished product! It's just a draft, so you don't have to panic over it.

2) Make sure you've included critical elements. Reread your synopsis and make sure you've included important plot and character elements. Does your synopsis explain the main character's goal and how it changes throughout the story? Did you explain the most important twists and developments in the story? If not, this is when you need to go back and shove them in. Yes, I said just shove them in! This is not the time to make it sound pretty. Just mash it in wherever you can put it so that you'll remember that you want to include it. The most important thing here is to make sure the synopsis includes the necessary elements that will make the story coherent to whomever may read it.

3) Trim the fat. Like in life, sometimes we put on more than we need, and we have to go back and make up for that. Go back through the synopsis and make sure to only include the essentials that get your story across. Remember to kick out those subplots and a few of those supporting characters. At the very least, not every character needs to be introduced by name. You can just say things like, "A friend of Jack's tells him..." rather than "Tandy, Jack's orthorexic friend who wants to win the senior spelling bee, tells him..."

4) Improve the writing. If you listened to my advice and just wrote it, it came out sloppy, messy, and somewhat inarticulate. Although, maybe not for you. Maybe you're just that brilliant. If so, congratulations and I hate you. Now that you have all the important elements in the story in this pile of crap of a synopsis, go back and massage the writing. This is where you can make it sound pretty. You have the structure. Now is where you use that creative, inspired part of you and let it finesse this heaping mess. Approach it as you would approach fixing up a synopsis for a friend. Some may have a hard time working from this piece of garbage. If that's the case, just use what you've written in this one as a blueprint and start from scratch. The one you just wrote is only important in that it tells you what needs to be included.

5) Grammar and mechanics. Ugh. That's right. I'm an ass. You have to go through that synopsis at least two more times. I suggest reading it out loud, because that's what I do. Reread until it appears error-free. Then hand it off to that friend/editor who you show everything before throwing it out into the world. There are some who say, "Don't show it to your mother, because she won't be willing to tear it apart for you." I've never agreed with this advice, since my mother was the type who once said, "This is really the worst book you've ever written." Thanks, Mom. Thanks a lot. That aside, my word of caution is: "Hand it over to your mother if you know it will come back with all sorts of red marks and suggestions."

5) Put together the rest of your package for submissions. You've got a lot of work to do, and writing a synopsis is just the first part. You need that query letter and a well-edited manuscript to go along with it. And this doesn't even include the amount of time you'll have spent researching which agents and publishers you want to submit to. Get to work!

A few more things to think about:

1) Don't introduce more than five characters. The synopsis reader doesn't need to know about every character that appears in the book. If you think they do, have fun with your six page synopsis!

2) Some plots are more important than others. If a subplot can be abandoned without affecting the synopsis reader's understanding of the story, get rid of it.

3) If it doesn't make sense unless you offer a long, boring description, throw it out or rephrase it! There's a reason you wrote a 100,000-word book. That's how long it took to tell the story. However, in a synopsis, you don't have time to explain everything. And some bits of information can read as strange or implausible if you write them without the necessary explanation that is in the book. So if you find yourself saying something like, "He's an owl shifter, but only on Tuesdays...except for this one part later where it's not on a Tuesday because of a spell that isn't really all that important to this greater plot about his love for the cougar shifter," then this would be a good time to use this advice. Think of the synopsis as a self-contained story. If something in it will throw the reader off, then write it so that it won't make the reader go, "What the...?" In the shifter example, just avoid the Tuesday-shifting nonsense, and you'll be fine.