The Synopsis for Editing and Writing

Those who are heading down the road toward traditional publication will be familiar with a beast known as a synopsis. Many agents and publishers require that you submit a 1/2-page synopsis with your submission materials. The chore of writing a synopsis that length is a frightening task. Many writers have been known to run away from it, screaming. So, when I mention that writers should write synopses as an editing tool, it’s not surprising that many look at me like I’m crazy.

In a querying synopsis, you include only the main plot thread, ignoring ALL subplots. The only characters named are your protagonist, antagonist, and often a love interest; everyone else is irrelevant. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s completely disheartening to see this complex masterpiece whittled down to a few short paragraphs, but for the querying synopsis, that’s what you need to do.

However, for editing purposes, that short, main-plot-only synopsis is useless. You need to create an entirely different beast.

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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

The Pantser is a Secret Plotter. Don’t you know that?

So many times I hear the argument that you should always plot out your books. My own editor growls at me incessantly when I start talking about some new project and can’t tell her all the details, and I do mean all. Well, tough. The details sometimes elude me for months on end.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

Traditionally, the plotter will work out all the details for their stories long before they sit down at the keyboard and write: the plot outline, character profiles, the landscape of their worlds, all of it. For some, this works extremely well. It does have the advantage of keeping characters on track, heading toward that ultimate goal, however if a plotter over-plans the story, then the writing might feel forced. The story might become boring to the writer and they lose motivation. Being the plotter requires discipline, determination and mind that is ordered to start with. Brandon Sanderson is known to plot his novels before writing. Dan Brown is too.

Stephen King

Stephen King

However, plotting is not for everyone. Some writers will have a vague idea when they sit down at the keyboard and let the mood of their writing just take over — riding by the seat of their pants. The characters take over and tell their own story. This method is extremely organic as the stories take more twists and turns, often down roads that one would never expect. However, pantsers, as they’re called, can be prone to writer’s block, or become frustrated when a character suddenly goes left when the writer wants to go right. It can lead to unfinished stories, or even worse, stories that are so confusing to read. But those people that insist that to be successful as a writer that you need to be a plotter, I have news for you. Stephen King is a pantser.

Brad Thor

Brad Thor

However, there is another type of writer that is becoming more and more prominent. The hybid writer will have an overall arc in mind for their stories, but it’s not until they sit down to write the story that the details become clear; they pants their way through the details. Writers such as Brad Thor confess that they are part of this hybrid category.

It’s the hybrid method that seems to attract the writer in me the most. When I first started writing, way back when, it was pantsing all the way. It was a release from the real world pressures and my imagination just took me along for the ride. Some of my best work has been written with this pantsing methodology in mind. However, when working with such a large world, whether it be in my high fantasy or military science-fiction, I have found that a rough structure of how a character gets from A to B is required, just to keep the story moving forward. But even that can be easily derailed if the characters head down the left fork when I was expecting them to take the right.

My editor tells me off whenever I say this to her. “Your characters are not real people. Your problem is that you didn’t plot enough. Go back and plot!” Well… Raspberries, and lots of them. I’m not a plotter and to take my writing down any other road would be like telling a football player that they must be a ballerina. They may take ballet as part of their training, but they were meant to play football.

I have found myself plotting more and more, but only with the overall arc so I know where a story is heading. If a character somehow manages to survive the massacre I had planned and decides to lead the rebellion instead, then so be it. The story becomes more interesting, and I still get to my final goal: bringing down the big, bad demons so that those who fight for freedom can live to see a new day. The only difference is that now I have a bad-ass army to play with.

Whether you are the plotter, pure-blood pantser or a hybrid, never let anyone try to convince you that there is only one way to become that successful writer. I may write the genre of Brandon Sanderson or Stephen King, but I would love to have the following that Brad Thor has any day. If I can become just half as successful as any of the three, all my dreams would come true.


P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter or Facebook.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016