The Value of a Synopsis

Many of my followers on Twitter will know that I have recently completed my manuscript and am now on the path of querying for agents and publishers. It’s a hard road, one that many turn away from.

Writing the manuscript was hard. Editing it into something worth reading was harder. Writing a query letter was harder still. And the synopsis was a nightmare. Let’s face it: compressing a full-length novel into one page is a frightening task. Not all agents want a synopsis, but most publishers do. So if you are fortunate enough to snag an agent without needing to write a synopsis, you will eventually need to write one.

During my preparation of my submission materials of my own manuscript, I struggled to bring my synopsis to under one page, like so many other writers, but I did it. Everything is now ready to go, it’s just a matter of working out where.

The day after I finished my final editorial read-through of my manuscript and preparing my generic submission packet, a message came across my social media feeds about Tor/Forge submissions (my dream publisher). So of course, I had to look. Tor/Forge require for their submissions the first three chapters, a cover letter (a query letter, but by another name), and a synopsis. However, the synopsis requirements were actually three to ten pages.

Here is one of the leading publishers in Fantasy and Science Fiction wanting a synopsis that is three to ten pages, yet agents are wanting synopses of only one page. It seems like a little discrepancy, and contradictory. But it started me thinking…

What is the purpose behind a synopsis?

Anyone who has bothered to write a synopsis will know that they contain everything about your story, all plot points that are important, following the main thread from start to finish. Everything is revealed, including the ending. To put it blunt, a synopsis is a spoiler alert.

Agents and publishers ask for synopses because they want to know that, as a writer, you have the ability to tell a full story, developing the characters and plot toward a conclusion. However, a synopsis is really for the benefit of the editor.

In the past, for every 40 pages of manuscript, it was expected that you write one page of synopsis. If your manuscript was 400 pages, then your synopsis would have been 10 pages long. (For those of you that work on word-counts, this was 10 pages for a 100,000-word manuscript.) While it was a lot of effort to write, the synopsis would include everything about your character development and your subplots. By reading that synopsis, the editor was able to determine exactly what aspects of the story you felt were important. They’re line-editing was performed with this in mind. But that was before this electronic era. That was also in the days when some publishers accepted manuscripts based on the query and synopsis alone.

Today, agents and publishers don’t have the time to read through 10 pages of synopsis with every query. They want the information about your manuscript in as short a space as possible, hence the desire to have synopses only one page in length.

In truth, I have three different lengths of my synopsis: the one page for the agent; the two page, single-spaced, for the publisher; and the three-page document that I wrote when I was trying to determine how my manuscript needed to finish. (Only the first two forms will likely ever been seen by anyone other than myself. The third one will probably find the sacrificial fires of the publishing gods.)

However, in this process of preparing my submission packet, and as a freelance editor, I asked myself another important question…

Should all writers write a synopsis, even those who are self-publishing?

Simple answer: yes.

While not all writers need to write a query or cover letter, there are elements of those letters that are necessary: the blurb (back cover blurb and promotional material for the book) and an author’s bio (but modified, depending on where it is to be posted).

The synopsis is never going to be seen by the public. So if you are self-publishing, why have a synopsis?

As I said above, the synopsis was originally for the benefit of the editor. That is still the case. It’s a reference sheet for what is meant to be happening in the story, and in what order, used during the editing phase. However, a synopsis can have an added benefit: it can help a writer shape their story while writing.

Yes, folks, the synopsis is a plotting tool. The level of detail in the synopsis will depend on the type of writer you are. If you are full-out plotter, then you will likely write that 10-page synopsis for that 100,000 words. If you’re a pantser/hybrid writer, then you will likely have two or three pages for your synopsis (maybe even one page).

Then comes the next question…

When should a writer write the synopsis?

If you’re a plotter, you will have that synopsis written before you start writing your manuscript. If you’re a pantser, you’ll start thinking about your synopsis during your editing phases. If you’re a hybrid plotter/pantser, you’ll have a very rough outline before you start writing, but you’ll flesh that synopsis when editing.

If you are self-publishing, that synopsis will never see the light of day beyond your editor. If you’re going down the traditional road, you’ll rework your synopsis several times during your editing process, perhaps even rewrite it a few times getting your submission packet ready.

Synopses are powerful editorial tools. Agents and publishers are not asking us to write these to be mean. They have a use. If you remember their purpose, it will help you to hone your synopsis writing skills.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016

Posted in General Advice, Manuscript Preparation, Writing and Editing and tagged , , , , .

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