Writing the Synopsis of a Novel

writers-block Man resting his head on his laptopWhen I write my next novel, I’m going to write the synopsis first. For one thing, my research tells me writing the thing first helps you frame up your novel and I’m certainly all over that. For another thing, I have recently discovered the writing the synopsis after the fact is a giant, festering pain in the wazoo.

This coming May, I’ll be attending the Atlanta Writer’s Conference, where I will submitting not one, but two types of synopses in hopes of receiving useful pointers from the learned minds of real live editors and agents. The first is the short one in my query letter, the initial pitch one sends to an agent or editor. The second is the long one that stands on its own, the one you send when said agent or editor invites you to do so.

To start off with, I read a book about writing query letters and synopses, The Sell Your Novel Toolkit by Elizabeth Lyons. It’s especially strong on the long synopses, in my opinion, and isn’t bad with queries. My best advice on query letters came from agentquery.com, specifically, the page titled “How to Write a Query Letter.” It has solid, succinct advice and a link to many queries that have actually won their authors agent representation or requests from publishers.

I can be pretty slow, sometimes (some would say all the time), so even after reading these resources, I had a hard time producing the materials. I took a precious vacation day, spent nine hours working just on the query letter, wrote three versions, and they all stunk. Before this, I had spent many hours working on the long synopsis and produced a five-page document that was only slightly more exciting than the phone book. (Non-old people, see the definition of “phone book” here.)

It was slow. It was painful. I was discouraged.

But then something wonderful happened.

The Saturday after that awful vacation day, I sat down and wrote another short, query-letter synopsis. It just poured out, natural as you please, and the result wasn’t bad at all. The Sunday after that, I wrote a long synopsis that came almost as easily, was two pages shorter than the previous five-page monster, and read like I had written it, instead of some robot.

There’s plenty of polishing left to do, but the bones are there, and a lot of the meat, too. (And that, Virginia, is what we call a mixed metaphor.)

One interesting thing (about time, right?): When I complained to my wife about wasting that vacation day, she demurred, pointing out that the frustrating work of that Friday had been necessary to get my brain to the point of producing Saturday and Sunday’s good results.

So, one thing I’ve learned: If you are writing them after your novel is done, throw the synopses onto the page as best you can, then walk away for a while and let them marinate in your subconscious. When you come back for another try, you may find that they roll right out.

I’ll probably have more to say about synopses in my next post, but for now, I am sick of writing anything and I’m going to stop. See you next time.

Qualities of a Great Book

A display of booksI was at a birthday party the other night and got reacquainted with an old friend of my wife’s, a really excellent writer I’m going to call A.J. for purposes of this post. A.J. was very happy about having sold a nonfiction book to one of the big publishers. Given how difficult that gauntlet can be to run, I was pretty impressed. I thought later about how he had done it and some lessons revealed themselves.

He coped with his situation. A.J. was a newspaper writer for a long time. That business being what it is these days, he was laid off. Rather than lying down and bemoaning his situation, he started freelancing and eventually found his way to this book. Lesson: Cope with the situation that’s in the way of your writing. Maybe it’s time, or money, or relationships, or something else. Figure out a workaround.

He remembered a contact. A.J. sold his book with the help of an agent he had met twenty years before. Lesson: Keep up with people who can help your writing career, be they editors, bloggers, or just interested friends. You never know who might lend a hand.

He used an agent. A.J. told me he wouldn’t have had a prayer without his agent. Lesson: If you’re going the traditional publishing route, get an agent first.

He wrote a killer book synopsis. The synopsis A.J. wrote was about 20,000 words long, which was, like a ‘60’s miniskirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Lesson: An great synopsis will help sell your book, so put in the effort.

He had a fantastic idea. A.J.’s book idea was derived from an experience he’d had while working at the newspaper. I’ll enumerate its virtues in a list, but first, the lesson. Lesson: Have a wonderful book idea with all the concepts below.

  • Have plenty of conflict. In A.J.’s book, individuals and communities square off against each other in a conflict of deeply held values. You can feel it crackle just when he talks about it.
  • Have a satisfying resolution. The ending of A.J.’s book is moving and it ties up all the loose ends, so it satisfies the emotions and the intellect.
  • Populate your story with interesting people. This story is awash with character possibilities. Some are on one side of the value questions, some on the other and some stand around the middle. There are differences in economic and educational backgrounds, and stark differences in the way children are raised. The characters move this baby along.
  • Feature characters that change. The resolution of this story requires that some of the characters change dramatically. Observing that metamorphosis makes for great reading.
  • Use an engaging setting. The setting is rural America, but some of the features of it are unlike any most of us have ever experienced. Those aspects of the setting you are more likely to have experienced are viewed from a rarely seen angle.

The ideas listed here aren’t the complete list of everything needed for a great book, of course, but it’s a good idea to put them into practice if you can. I’m certainly going to try, and I’m going to keep up with A.J.’s progress and that of his book.

If you’ve got any more ideas for improving the writing process or the product, please leave a comment. Thanks.