The Art of the Synopsis

As many people have noted Miss Snark is providing commentary on more than a hundred synopses. If you’re at all interested in a career as a writer or the publishing industry you should definitely take a squiz.

As Scott and me’ll be giving a workshop on writing these buggers in March (in Bologna!) I’ve been following Miss Snark’s critques and the resulting discussions closely. I found Diana Peterfreund’s posts particularly useful, especially her reminder to everyone that even when you’re already a published writer you still have to write ’em:

Often, being published means that your synopsis is even more important, for instead of merely trying to get an editor to read the manuscript on the basis of your synopsis, you’re trying to get them to lay down money for a manuscript you haven’t even written because the synopsis makes it sound cool. In some contracts, there’s a whole chunk of money reserved until you turn in your synopsis or outline or what have you. At many houses, it’s the synopsis, and not the manuscript, that is given to the art and marketing departments. It’s the synopsis that tells the PR person what to put in the press release, the flap copy writer what to put in the blurb, etc. etc. It’s the synopsis that helps the marketing department decide how to present your book to the public. It’s kinda important.

I can vouch for that. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy on the basis of a proposal (including synopsis) and the first three chapters. In the contract I get paid when I turn in the synopsis for each book and then on publication. So, even though I’d already written the synopsis of the whole series I had to write a new one for books 2 and 3.

I nagged and nagged my editors until they let me out of writing a synopsis for the third book. I don’t hate writing them; I’m just lazy. Instead I had a meeting about the book with my editors and we all took lots of notes and gossiped. Much fun. I was feeling very cunning and pleased with myself for having substituted writing a synopsis with a fun gossip session, but then some publishers interested in foreign-language rights for the whole trilogy requested, you guessed it, a synopsis for book 3. Sucked in, Justine.

And because I was three-quarters of the way through writing Magic or Madness 3 when I had to turn around and write the synopsis, I found it very hard going. For me it’s much easier to write the synop first. If I’ve already written the book, or worse, haven’t quite finished it, then I’m all bogged down in the detail and writing a decent synop is agony.

From now on I’ll be writing a synop early on in the writing of each new novel—or, you know, I’ll intend to—because sooner or later someone’s going to want one out of me. And it doesn’t matter if it’s not an exact snapshot of the book—as Diana says quoting one of her teachers: “a synopsis is a sales tool”.

So there you have it: the synopsis is a mostly unavoidable part of selling novels. Live with it!


  1. nathaniel on #

    fanfab links, thanks justine!

  2. Justine on #

    Yeah, Miss Snark is a most excellent time suck. So would Diana be if she posted a bit more frequently. Not complaining. I understand she has books to write and a life to live.

  3. E. Lockhart on #

    this is interesting as I have never had to write one, ever! proposals, yes, but never a synopsis!

  4. Diana Peterfreund on #

    More frequently? more frequently?!?! Ahem! While some of us (no names) are spending weeks cavorting around summery Byron Bay with famous authors and HOllywood types, the rest of us are stuck in a cubicle in the mid-Atlantic tundra wasteland. The whole world is gray (or will be, once they take down the Xmas lights). Where is *our* time suckage, huh? We have naught to think of but our own synopses that are due in February. And that’s no fun, now is it?

    Thank you for the props, though. I am glad you liked it. I suppose you are forgiven for the aforementioned cavorting. However, not so much for not warning me not to read MOM until MOM2 was out.

  5. anghara on #

    horses for courses, I guess. I cannot – CANNOT – write synopses; getting one out of me is like squeezing blood from a stone and my editors wind up rewriting them anyway if they’re required for inhouse stuff. If I do write the synopsis in any kind of detail, my desire to write the actual book is killed stone dead right there and then – I’ve already WRITTEN the story.

    we hates synopses, my preciousss. we hates them a lot.

    Just take my word for it, dammit, and let me get on with writing the book…

  6. Justine on #

    E. Lockhart: and in the proposal there isn’t a synopsis? Lucky dog!

    Diana: I’m just saying it didn’t take me as long to get through your archives as it did to get through Miss Snark’s, that’s all.

    But you love writing synopses! So how can it be a problem? Plus Byron Bay’s overrated. Honest.

    C’mon, you knew MorM is book one of trilogy. How much more warning could you need? [Oh oh. She read my book. Gulps.]

    Anghara: I’d much rather just write books than ever have to write a proposal or synopsis again. But I keep having to. Sigh.

    I don’t think of them as having a whole lot to do with the book. When I write the book it becomes its own thing, develops its own logic, and things do not unfold exactly as described in the synopsis. This is mostly because once written I never look at the synopsis again. It’s a selling tool, it’s not the book.

    Good luck with your book!

  7. E. Lockhart on #

    Not really. I guess I fudge it. Like: Girl becomes fly on wall of locker room! Oh my goodness!

    I write the HOOK, but not a summary of the plot.

    In the proposal I write the plot but that takes like 12 pages. A marketing-type synopsis — no.

    Happy new year!

  8. Justine on #

    That’s still a synopsis though. And 12 pages of one! Eek. But it is different to the snappy-can-be-passed-along-to-marketing-and-publicity synop.

    How long do proposals normally take you? I get resentful of them cause they take so long and I always feel like I’d be better served if I just wrote the damn book.

    Happy new year to you, too, Ms. E!

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