The Synopsis Is Your Friend. Yeah, Really.

During my quest to become a published author, there were few hurdles so fearful as the completion of a synopsis (known to some as the plot outline). I so badly hated the idea of boiling down my gi-normous tome that I put it off until completing the manuscript. Then, sure enough, the boiling-down process was as painful and laborious as I'd imagined.

All that changed in the wake of my first sale, after which my agent told me I didn't have to complete my half-finished second historical romance (what I was writing at the time) to sell it. All I had to do was polish up the first three chapters and send them along with a synopsis. This idea (the book being sold *before* completion)was powerfully tantalizing, but the thought of writing the synopsis ahead of time scared the heck out of me. Since I always thought of myself as a seat-of-the-pants writer, how could I know ahead of time what I would be writing? And later, if it sold, what if I grew bored with the book since I already knew the outcome? Or what if I changed my mind about it or got a better idea as I was writing?

In spite of these fears, the lure of a second contract (and, let's face it, the advance check) cracked its little whip until I had a workable synopis. The proposal did indeed sell, and I agreed to a delivery date quite some distance in the future.

Then I continued working on the book. To my surprise, the work went waaaaayyyyyy more quickly because now I had a roadmap to help keep me on target. With the eending envisioned, there was no more writing down fifty or one hundred page blind alleys that would later have to be cut. And I was never bored because I'd only mapped out the main plot and main characters, which left me free to do whatever I wanted with the secondaries. In fact, I felt I could be more inventive in these areas because I didn't have to fret over whether or not the main plot would hold together. I do remember freaking out because things changed as I wrote, as better ideas did occur. But when I called my editor all in a tizzy, she said something to the effect, "Relax, that happens to everyone. As long as the main premise (especially the set up) doesn't change, it's no problem.

For the first and only time in my career, I turned in a manuscript *six months* before its due date. (Now that I know how to gauge my speed more closely, I usually streak across the finish line with little time to spare.)

Since that time, I've never looked back. Of the fourteen novels I've sold, all except the first have been on proposal. I've learned to look at my synopsis as a handy guide, not only a sales tool but something that helps keep me focused and on track, along with letting me know about how far I am into the story so I can keep the length reasonable. (Left to my own devices, my books would ramble on for seven or eight hundred pages, which would make them too costly to publish.) I think of my synopsis as a road map into alien territory -- but definitely not as holy scripture. In fact, I sometimes jokingly refer to it as "Colleen's Theoretical Idea of How This Story *Could* Go."

And for me, that is a very freeing thought.

So what are your feelings on synopses? Do you use them? Love them? Hate them? Or do they scare the devil out of you?


Suzan Harden said…
My problem with synopses stems from switching careers; mine invariably come out sounding like a legal brief. Just the facts, ma'am.

(I suppose that's a step up from a series of COBOL IF-THEN code lines.)
Tambra said…
I don't hate writing synopsis. Do I write good ones? I have no clue, but at least I don't fear them anymore.

I look at synopsis as just another tool I need to learn how to use for my benefit.
Joni Rodgers said…
You've converted me, Colleen. I used to outline for nonfiction, but did fiction as a free-range chicken. I've done skeletal outlines for my last two novels, however, having seen how prolific you are and how the structure of the synopsis actually frees you to think about language, character, place, and other "soft" elements instead of struggling every day to figure out what the hell this book is about.
Teri Thackston said…
I usually do some kind of narrative outline as I'm starting to write my first draft, adding to it as I go forward with the story. In the outline, I keep track of details like time of day, even the weather if it's important. If the developing story changes from the outline, I change the outline along with it. Then when the book is done, I use the outline to build my synopsis. I won't say it's easy to keep the book and outline in sync, but it sure makes life easier if I have a question about when something happened or if a particular character was in a specific scene.
I don't know anyone who thinks she writes a scintillating synopsis. I think "just the facts, ma'am" with a touch of the book's flavor is very workable, as long as you show the editor you're aware of the plot points of a satisfying novel in your chosen genre.

Teri, you're method sounds laborious, but obviously, it's working for you. I think writing's really a matter of learning what works best for you personally and then going with it. At least until you're forced to change by circumstance or you find someone else's technique worth a try.
Christie Craig said…
Hey Colleen,

Synopses seem to be the topic of the month. I published a short article on synopses in the Bay Area chapter. Below is short excerpt.

Synopsis: A condensed statement or outline. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Synopsis: A freaking, frakking, pain-in-the-butt summary of a story that a writer frets over, chews on, detests writing, and deletes more times than a pregnant woman goes pee. Christie Craig’s Bits of Wisdom. you know how I feel about them. I'm a seat of the pants writer and yes I write synopses to go with the proposals, and I'll even admit that they are helpful, however, they are still pain in the rears to write.

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