Tuesday, January 29, 2008

More Synopsis Pondering

Maven Carrie RyanDarcy's post yesterday really got me thinking some more about synopsises (synopses? what is the plural of that word?!) I'll admit it: I've only written two synopses in my life. The first was for my first romance and I actually found the process quite easy at the time. The book was a very action centric plot -- lots of kidnapping and miscommunication and storming out and (gasp!) maybe even a secret baby? So I just followed the trail of the narrative. I'm quite doubtful that I ever delved into the emotions of the characters, of their arc and growth. It was just the facts, ma'am and then moving on.

It wasn't until after I'd finished writing my second novel and sat down to write the synopsis that I realized I'd made a critical plot mistake. Darcy's post yesterday made me think about that experience -- sitting down to boil down the story only to realize that the story was, irrevocably, broken. She's totally right -- the synopsis can really clarify those sorts of things for you! I didn't even bother writing the whole synopsis -- the first paragraph was all I needed to make me realize it was time to move on.

So that leaves The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Per usual, I left the synopsis to the very end. This time I included character arcs, started with a blurb of text from the book that I thought set up the world nicely, and tried to make sure I didn't dump in a whole bunch of backstory. I remember stressing over it, trying to winnow it down to a reasonable length.

But here's the thing I've been thinking about after Darcy's post -- so often we stress and dread the synopsis, but really, in the grand scheme of things, how important is it? I know I'll probably engender some lively debate by saying this (and I'm sure some will point out my propensity to stress over the most minute detail of anything, ahem), but in the end, the synopsis is nothing more than a sales tool. And here's what I've been thinking: if the gist of the synopsis is a story that fits together, and the sample pages are well written, who cares how well written or poorly written the synopsis is?

Of course, there are some caveats -- you still have to have some sort of flow to the thing. But in the end, the synopsis is your way of convincing the agent or editor that the brilliant beginning they have in front of them in the form of sample pages has a logical arc and comes to a solid end. It's your way of saying that you have a plot that holds water and can carry a book. Editors and agents just want to make sure you don't have aliens landing in chapter five, or that your sweet paranormal doesn't turn into a rampaging orgy. They want to make sure they like where your story is going.

I recall a contest I judged a while back that included synopses in the submission. It was amazing to see these from the other side -- not as a critique partner already involved in the story, but as a complete stranger. There was one entry in particular that had a really neat premise but the synopsis got so incredibly bogged down in the details that my mind was spinning in the end. It was too much! It was all plot and no character, no emotion, no arcs.

Now, when I think about writing synopsis it's not about just retelling the novel in a few pages, it's getting that gist across. It's about telling the agent or editor that yes you have a plot and yes it works and yes the characters grow. Think about it from the other side, think about what you would need to know to ask for more, to invest in reading the entire manuscript. That's what we should all be focused on. And if you have the chance to read/critique/judge synopses I highly recommend taking it -- you'll always learn something new!!

Also: Don't forget the 2008 Maven Valentine CYOA starts Feb 1. Vote for the story time period on the left, and get ready to choose your own adventure!

As always, the Manuscript Mavens would like to thank CYOA for graciously letting us borrow the "Choose Your Own Adventure" name. Choose Your Own Adventure is a trademark of Chooseco LLC, Waitsfield, VT. Check them out at cyoa.com. The trademark has been used by permission herein. Thanks, CYOA!


B.E. Sanderson said...

OMG, Carrie, that was a great post. I'm getting to the point where I have to write a synopsis for my WIP and I always dread it. I always put them off as long as possible. I slave over them and worry over them until I drive myself batty. Finally I get to the point where I'm satisfied, but the stress of getting there makes the process so un-fun. From now on, I'll try not to stress so much and take your advice to look at it from another perspective. Thanks for your help. =oD

Bill Clark said...

synopses? what is the plural of that word?!

You got it right. One synopsis, two synopses. From the Greek, meaning with a single eye. Cf. the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which all tell basically the same story (based on the missing source "Q"). John's Gospel, written considerably later than the others, is in a category by itself.

Homework: Do a synopsis of the Synoptic Gospels. For extra credit, do a synopsis of "Q", pulling together all the stories and parables that appear in all 3 Gospels. Then append the results to your application for Divinity School. :-)

lacey kaye said...

For the record, I thought Darcy's was great. It does all the things you said without being massively confusing.

When I was a judge, Carrie, I noticed the same thing. A bad synopsis can really, really kill a good entry - but in the scheme of things, it's the writing that makes or breaks you.

Carrie said...

Thanks b.e. -- so glad you found it helpful!! And thanks Bill for setting me straigh on the plural of synopsis -- I knew someone would come to my rescue.

Lacey -- you're exactly right, it's all about the writing. And a synopsis should try not to get in the way of the writing :)

Jackie Barbosa said...

I'm with you in thinking of the synopsis as just another sales tool. As I've been judging GH entries, I've seen first-hand how much a synopsis can tell you about the author's skill set. A good synopsis--one that's written snappily and clearly explains the plot with clear character arcs and conflict--can get me to overlook some mechanical flaws in the actual chapters that would otherwise make me beat my head against a wall.

So, a synopsis is an important sales too. It's probably not THE most important one (a full manuscript that actually DOES what the synopsis promises is even moreso), but it can certainly improve (or alternatively, torpedo) your chances.

Darcy Burke said...

Thanks Lacey! As the former writer of really bad synopses (I know for a fact it killed at least one potential contest final), I feel so good to have shaken that monkey off my back.

Carrie, your post made me think of another good part of writing a synopsis - along the lines of it being a sales tool. Writing it is sort of like selling the idea to yourself. Like you said, you wrote one paragraph of one for a story and went, "uh, no." The synopsis is great story radar!

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