Why You Need to Learn the Art of the Synopsis

I was kvetching recently on Twitter about authors who don’t send a requested synopsis with their material. I’ll admit, I don’t always read the synopsis, but I do like to have it on hand to see where the book is going and, in many cases, if it’s worth continuing. I never read the synopsis if I’m so engrossed in the manuscript that I can’t stop reading until I finish. For the record, that has happened twice in the past six months.

So when I asked why authors don’t send the synopsis I was told because they’re hard. Picture me now beating my desk with uncontrollable laughter. Honey, if you think the synopsis is hard you don’t have the fortitude to take on publishing. Compared to building a publishing career, the synopsis is easier than a cakewalk.

A synopsis is not something agents ask you to do because we like to torture authors. It’s also not something you will do only to find an agent. A synopsis is about to become an integral part of your career and the smart author will use it as such.

Your synopsis will be needed to get an agent, to submit to publishers, for your editor to evaluate whether the next book on your contract makes sense (Pantsers better get used to writing a synopsis before the book), and the smart author will use the synopsis to evaluate whether or not the book is working. I’ve seen it time and time again, but if you’re unable to break down your story into a few pages (and eventually a few paragraphs) then the problem isn’t your ability to write a synopsis, but the problem is that your book probably needs to be edited. Now granted, it doesn’t mean the synopsis will be easy, but if you find in writing it that it finishes at 25 pages and there’s no real heart to the story then I can guarantee your story has the same problems.

My words of wisdom today is stop hating the poor synopsis and start finding a way to use it as a tool for your career.

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6 comments

  1. Best thing I ever did was start writing a synopsis before I start writing the manuscript. It keeps my on track and at the end of the story I might need to tweak for changes, but writing “the end” really is the end!

  2. I feel writers on the synopsis though. I used to hate writing a then until one day I got a Dr. Strangelove epiphany of “how I learned to stop worrying and love the synopsis.” After writing more than one, I found they pointed out plot holes, gaps in a subplot, and other issues in my novels. Plus, agents ask writers to include one with fiction proposals, or at least mine did: A partial, the dreaded synopsis, and brief paragraph synopses (almost as hard to write as a longer one) of the first three books in a series, so there’s that as well.

  3. Thank you, Jessica, for your words of wisdom. I’m just starting the query process and find the submission requirements vary quite a bit from agency to agency and agent to agent. I sent out 7 queries using specific guidelines and got 3 rejections and 1 request for full manuscript. Hooray! The agent who asked for my manuscript asked for synopsis first, followed by query letter, and pages–supporting your premise on how important the synopsis is. However, I do note that your submission guidelines do not request a synopsis, only a query letter and the first 3 pages (one of my rejections was yours). So should authors send materials not requested, or follow submission guidelines strictly? In your opinion, would agents welcome the synopsis after the pages if not requested? Any advice would be very helpful as this is my first effort at querying a novel. Thank you!

    1. I think most agents ask for what they want so when you ask if agents would welcome the synopsis my answer is that those who ask for it would. I don’t think it’s a huge problem to send materials not asked for, but agents typically ask for exactly what they want when they want it.

    2. This made me smile, Lisa, that you specifically mentioned Jessica’s rejection. I have recently finished my seventh book and am re-researching the querying process to try to nail it this time. I have been rejected by Bookends three times so far but have every intention of querying them again. There’s something about Jessica’s approach that I’m drawn to and her advice is spot on. Come on Lucky Number Seven. You’ll see me soon, Jessica!

  4. To me, the synopsis is less scary than writing the query, and it also helps shape my query. But, if my synopsis doesn’t flow or make sense, then there’s something wrong with the novel. I realize, after racking my brain on the synopsis, that if I’m stuck or lost, it’s because there’s something wrong with the novel. The synopsis helps me see the forest through the trees. If you can follow your synopsis and it makes sense, you can eventually find your way and finalize your story.

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