Conquering the Synopsis

Oh the dreaded synopsis. Just that eight-letter word strikes fear into the hearts of writers. My dirty little secret? I actually kinda enjoy writing them. Give me a choice between a synopsis and a query, and I’d pick a synopsis every single time.

Think of it this way: With a query you only get 300 measly words. Just think of what you can do with several pages!

Alright, so let’s touch on the basics first.

What is the point of this horrid document?

Good question. An agent (or editor) wants this document so they can get a quick snapshot of what your book is about from beginning to end. They want to make sure there aren’t any gaping plot holes or common tropes/cliches, and they want to ensure your plot makes sense, your characters develop, and you don’t break any genre rules (like killing off the love interest in the end of your romance). More than anything, they want a brief overview of your manuscript so they can see if your story is new and refreshing, and something they might be interested in representing/acquiring.

Synopsis Basics
  • Your synopsis must cover your entire plot from beginning to end.
  • The ending must be included. No exceptions!
  • Your synopsis should be singled space and approximately 1-3 pages in length. (Check specific submission guidelines for the agent or editor to confirm how long they want it to be.)
  • Regardless of how your manuscript is written, the synopsis must be written in third person, present tense.
  • Don’t include dialogue.
  • Skip the rhetorical questions.
  • Typically there should be no more than three named characters–protagonist, antagonist, love interest/other side character. For all other characters you should refer to them by their role–waitress, brother, ex-boyfriend.

Beyond the basics, there are probably a hundred different ways to tackle actually writing the synopsis. Like drafting, each writer has their own way of doing things with their own unique quirks. Below are the steps I typically take when working on my synopsis.

Step 1: Have A Completed Manuscript

For me, I can’t possibly write a synopsis without having finished the manuscript. I’m not much of a plotter, and although I know some people fiddle with their synopsis while plotting, I am not one of those people.

Step 2: Dissect Your Chapters

Read through your manuscript and for every chapter write a brief one to two sentence description of what’s happening. Focus on what the key elements of that chapter are. How does the character develop? How does the conflict deepen? What makes this chapter important? Do this for every chapter until you’ve got a tidy document of chapter descriptions.

Step 3: Glue It Together

Now that you’ve got a brief description for every chapter, read through what you have. Obviously you’re going to have some blanks in there so go ahead and fill them in. Add in some pretty transitions, and work on sentence structure so everything flows together. Focus on the plot right now, ensuring that you’re covering all your bases from beginning to end. Remember, this is just the main plot. With a synopsis, you won’t be able to fully flesh out all the sub-plots and minor characters. Stick to the basics.

Step 4: Inject Emotion

It’s important to remember that the synopsis isn’t just showing the plot development, it also needs to cover the character arc. Read through it a second time now and make sure you’re showing how your character changes from beginning to end. Did a significant character die in your manuscript? Tell us how the main character feels  about it, tell us how they’re evolving as they wade through the conflict.

Step 5: Tell Don’t Show

That’s right–tell don’t show. Contrary to probably every piece of writing advice you’ve ever received, this is one time where you need to come straight out and say it. You want your synopsis to be lean and powerful, so in this instance, you need to tell us about the character (e.g. Jane’s a hopeless romantic, Scott’s a football fanatic). While you’re at it, sift through and substitute any bland words you have with spicier ones–substitute sprinted for ran, boiling for hot. This is definitely an instance of quality over quantity. You want less words, but the words you choose have to pack a punch.

Step 6: Polish & Shine

This is where you need to let it sit for a little. Read it through again–trim it, edit it. Send it off to your critique partners so they can offer suggestions. Definitely try and send it to one or two people who haven’t read your book so they can tell you if it fits as well together as you think it does and that it makes sense.

Once you’ve done that…voila! Your synopsis is complete.

Some Final Tips
  • The description for your first chapter and the beginning of your synopsis may be longer than the others. That’s fineAnd actually, it’s necessary. In the first paragraph of your synopsis you want to make sure that you have a basic introduction to your main character, introduce the conflict, and ground the reader in the world. This is especially important if you’re writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy where setting can be incredibly important. This first paragraph is one section that you don’t want to skimp on. However
  • You do need to limit the main character’s back story. One to two sentences at most, and only if it’s really necessary for us to understand the plot. Did your main character’s parents get divorced and now, because of that, she has no desire to ever get married? Sure, that you need to include. But unless it’s essential to our understanding of the character, skip it.
  • Synopses are functional documents that should be well-written. But because of the nature of synopses, resist the urge to include purple prose or flowery statements. Let the strength of your writing show by your ability to distill an entire novel down into a few concise pages.
  • If you’re looking for additional material on synopsis-writing, let me direct you to the post that I pull up every single time I’m working on one. This is one of my go-to synopsis writing resources, and you can find it here.

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And that is how I write a synopsis. Any questions? How about you? How do you go about writing your synopsis? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

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Polishing Those Pages

Querying is scary business. You’ve worked and cried and bled over your manuscript, sometimes for so many months or years that you pretend you’re not counting. Now, you’re ready to send it out. Your query is bright and shiny as a new penny, but how about those first pages?

Here are some tips to help you make you sure your sample pages are top notch:

1. Quickly & Viciously Annihilate Your Adverbs

Alright, I should probably tell you that I’m not one of those authors who absolutely hates all adverbs. In fact, I think some are quite lovely in certain places. However, too many of them can be a sign that your word choice isn’t as strong as it could be. Instead of saying your character “ran quickly,” try substituting it with something like sprinted, dashed, careened. The stronger your verbs the better.

2. Stilted Dialogue

The biggest piece of advice I can give you on this is: contractions are your friend! Think about it. Listen in on a conversation without really paying attention to the topic, but more about the way people are saying things. I guarantee you, you’re unlikely to hear someone say, “I cannot believe that you would not go to the store with me. You are such a jerk.” What you’re more likely to hear is something like, “I can’t believe you wouldn’t go to the store with me. You’re such a jerk.” Worried that your dialogue is coming across as unrealistic? Try reading it out loud. Or better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Not only will they stumble over those stiff phrases, but you’ll be able to pinpoint what’s not working with ease.

 3. Identify Your Quirks & Weed Them Out

We all have them. In my first drafts you’ll probably find seven-thousand uses of the word “that.” Your character might smirk a lot, maybe they smile or sigh too much, or their heart is racing so frequently they’re likely to keel over in some form of heart failure. Most of the time, your CPs and Beta Readers will point this out to you. Even so, make sure you’re internalizing your habits and paying attention to them when you’re revising.

4. Repeating Things Can Be Redundant

You see what I did there, right? Much like the ticks that show up in your writing, a lot of the time, usually subconsciously, you’ll describe things using the same words. The more unique the word, the easier it will be for the reader to identify it. This goes for verbs, body parts, everything. If you talk about your character’s hand in one sentence, maybe in the next one talk about their fingers, fingertips, or wrist. As best you can, vary your word choice. Curious about what words you may be overusing? Try something like Wordle which will generate a word cloud for you and show you what words are popping up frequently in your manuscript.

5. Make Your Character Names Stand Out

And by that I’m not suggesting that you name one of your characters Sequoia and the other one Rain. What I mean is that if you name your characters (or places) similarly, we’re gonna have a hell of a time remembering who is who. If your cast of characters includes Roberta, Rufus, Rusty, Rachel, and Raul, nine times out of ten I won’t recall which one is the five-year-old kid and which is the sexy mechanic. Even if there are only two similar names (Cara and Carol), because they’re so visually similar, I may accidentally sub one for the other. Save yourself and your reader the confusion by varying your name/place choices.

6. Filter Out Your Filter Words

Filter words are literally that–a filter that distances the reader from the character. Some examples: she saw, she heard, he realized, he thought, etc. Instead of saying, “She saw a bird take flight from a snow-laden branch and felt the snowflakes fall across her face,” wipe out that filter and say, “A bird took flight from a snow-laden branch, showering her upturned cheeks in snowflakes.” Much better, right? Try using the Find feature in Microsoft Word to single out those filter phrases.

7. Dialogue Tags Can Weigh Down Your Writing

Sometimes your dialogue just needs to breathe. Not every snippet of conversation requires a tag, and if you’re adding an action after whatever the character says, then including “said” isn’t necessary. Take this example:

“I guess I get what you’re saying,” he said and shrugged.

vs.

“I guess I get what you’re saying.” He shrugged.

Another thing to take note of–are all of your characters’ actions after the dialogue? Are they always before? Try spreading the actions around to make your dialogue read better and vary the structure.

8. Show Us Emotion, Don’t Tell Us

Quick, go search your WIP for sad, nervous, excited, mad, etc. Now, not all of these need to go, but most of them should. I don’t want to read that your character is angry, I want to feel it. Don’t tell me, “Mary is very sad.” Let me see it by allowing the character to convey it through their actions. If your character is sad, tell me something like, “Mary’s shoulders drooped, and her worn out sneakers scuffed against the floor.” If you’re struggling with how to express internal emotion through physical actions, one of the best resources you can possibly found out there is The Emotion Thesaurus. Trust me, it’s a gold mine.

9. Spice Up Your Paragraph/Sentence Length

Similar sentence structure is bad. So is repetitive paragraph lengths. This sounds like robot talk. Do not do this.

Seriously though, the key to making your paragraphs read and flow better is making sure they’re not all the same length. Same goes for your paragraphs. Another thing to look for is how you’re starting your new paragraphs. Does every one start with “I”? Maybe they all begin with a verb? The more variety you can introduce in your writing, the better.

10. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

Okay, I’m reusing this one from my query-writing tips (in case you missed that one, you can find it here), but it’s incredibly important throughout the entire editing process. No, one misplaced comma or misspelled word won’t be the death of your query or pages. But a whole ton of them? Yeah, that probably will. The most difficult part of proofing your own work is that you’ve read it so many times your brain autocorrects words for you. The best way I’ve found to get past this is to look at it in a different format–send the file to your eReader, change the background to black and the font to white, read from the bottom up, read it out loud, and of course, utilize those CPs.

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There you have it. Ten simple tips to help you make your sample pages shine. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!

Make That Query Shine

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent quite a bit of time judging the entries for this year’s Query Kombat, which is hosted by the wonderful Michelle Hauck (@Michelle4laughs), Michael Anthony (@Ravenous Rushing), and SC (@SC_Author). In case you’re not familiar with the contest, 64 entries were chosen based on their query and first 250 words and then battled it out tournament style until one query was left standing. (Missed Query Kombat, but still interested in participating in a contest? Check out Michelle’s upcoming contest, New Agent. Details here.)

So, after reviewing a good chunk of those 64 entries, here are some of the common pitfalls I stumbled across.

1. The Rule of Three

In almost all instances, your query should never have more than three named characters. What you need to remember here is that the reader (agents) will just be familiarizing themselves with your story, so it’s incredibly difficult to keep track of too many names. Especially if your manuscript falls somewhere on the SFF spectrum where you’re utilizing new concepts, worlds, etc. Read through your query and see what names can be substituted with titles instead. For example, instead of saying Stacy, can you just call her your main character’s sister? Typically these three characters (if you’re including the maximum of three) will be your protagonist, your antagonist, and a love interest.

2. Word Count, Word Count, Word Count

Please, for the love of all that’s holy, know acceptable word count ranges for the genre you’re writing. Not sure what those are? Check out this super helpful blog post from agent extraordinaire, Jennifer Laughran. Agents are looking to love your story, so don’t give them a reason to start doubting you right off the bat. Yes, once you’re an uber successful author like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King you can pretty much to do whatever you’d like, but as a debut author looking for a home, you want to stay within these ranges.

3. Know Your Genre

Supernatural Historical Fairy Tale Retelling is not a genre. Neither is Literary Science Fiction Self-Help. Do some research and make sure the genre you’re pitching in your query letter is actually an acceptable genre.

4. Voice Is Everything

This one is hard, and one of those intangibles that you’re either able to instill in your query or not. We can always tell you when it’s missing, but can’t always tell you how to fix. Imbuing your query with voice will make it stand out from the pile and give agents a flavor of what they can expect in your manuscript. That being said, do not, DO NOT, ever write your query as your main character. It’s never a good idea. I promise.

5. Vagueness Is The Enemy

This is especially important when you get to the stakes of your query. Don’t leave us hanging! Don’t tell us: With danger looming closer, Emily must decide between saving a life and saving the world. What danger? Whose life? How is she going to save the world? Instead tell us: With the Devil hot on Emily’s heels, she must decide between rescuing the lost soul of her brother and unleashing Hell on Earth. See what I mean?

However, this doesn’t just apply to the stakes. Comb through your entire query, banish vagueness, and insert specificity. Curious whether you’ve done a good job? Send your query off to someone who’s never read your story before. They’ll be sure to pick out the spots that aren’t clear enough.

6. Proofread Until Your Eyes Burn

Not really, save your eyes. But double check, triple check, quadruple check. Have CPs, betas, and maybe the guy at the bus stop read it through for grammatical errors and typos. With so many queries landing in an agent’s inbox, make sure your query is bright and shiny. Adding to this, type up your query e-mail and send it to yourself for a dry run. You’ll be able to spot any weird formatting issues and get those fixed before sending out your first set of queries.

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That’s it, folks. Any important tips that I missed? Let me know in the comments! Happy writing!