Friday, May 28, 2010

Writing a Synopsis - By editor Cindy Davis - Part One

We have a real treat for you all today. Editor Cindy Davis is here today and tomorrow to explain how to create a synopsis. Cindy is an editor at The Wild Rose Press, and senior ed at Champagne Books. She also edits for L&L Dreamspell, and also works freelance. She does non-fiction also, but really enjoys fiction. She has just edited two totally different memoirs, one for a retired mafia don and one for a dominatrix.
You can find out more about Cindy at her website:

Take it away, Cindy.

Now What is a synopsis?
1) It's a narrative summary of your book--with feeling.
2) It's written in present tense.
3) It's written in third person.
4) It's written in the same writing style as your book. If your book is "chatty," then your synopsis is, too. If your book is serious, literary, filled with dialect, or any other style, so must your synopsis be.
5) The synopsis introduces your main characters and their main conflicts, all woven together in the narrative.

The synopsis is the most important part of your submission package. It has to be developed and sweated over and polished with the same attention you devoted to the novel itself. Along with the cover letter, the synopsis is what sells the editor on the manuscript. If they don't see anything they like in the synopsis, they won't even glance at your chapter samples.

The synopsis is your sales pitch. Think of it as the jacket blurb for your novel (the synopsis is often used in writing this, and by the publisher's art and advertising departments, if the novel is purchased), and write it as though you're trying to entice a casual bookstore browser to buy the novel and read it. Which isn't too far from actuality.


Rather than being daunted by the enormity of such a task, break it down into steps.

The first step: Sit down to that final reading with a pen and paper beside you. As you finish reading each chapter, write down a one- or two-paragraph summary of what happened where, and to which character, in that chapter.

Do you notice any themes running through your chapters as you're reading? Basically it’s a topic, certain language, thread of action, or color scheme that keeps popping up from beginning to end. Take note of them. You may just discover your one-line story summary that agents and editors like so much, if you didn't know what it was before. Or even if you thought you knew what it was, before (surprise, says the Muse, you were wrong).

What you will have when you are done examining your chapters is a chapter-by-chapter novel outline. This is pretty dry reading, and since chapter-by-chapter outlines seem to have fallen out of favor with editors and agents, this will likely remain one of your most valuable writing tools, and that's about it. Don't throw this away when you've done your synopsis, either. You may know the story intimately now, but you do forget details over time. You may revise the novel in the future, and this outline will help. Reading an outline is easier than leafing through or rereading an entire novel.

What you are doing with your chapter-by-chapter outline is distilling the story down into smaller and more manageable packages, step by step.

Next step, from the chapter-by-chapter outline, pinpoint the most important plot points. These will be the highlights of your synopsis in that outline. Notice I said the most important points. We're talking about only those events and motivations that moved the story forward in a major way. We're talking about only the most important characters, the ones your reader will ultimately care about, not the bit players. Right now, we are striving for bare bones.

Let's See Some Enthusiasm!

Now, envision one or two things while you rework that synopsis: imagine you're writing a jacket blurb for the novel, one that will pique the casual browser's curiosity and make him or her want to buy the book to see what happens. Read a few jacket blurbs, to get a feel for them.

You've just seen a terrific movie. You're describing it to your friend. You're not saying, "The good guy chased the bad guy and shot him and that was the end." That doesn't sound very enthusiastic. No, say things like, "The good guy is wounded, but he knows if he doesn't stop the evil Dr. Death, the whole world is in danger, so he staggers after Dr. Death, falls, somehow gets to his feet again, and at last zaps him with the Good Guy Death-ray to save the world."

That's how your synopsis will sound, when you're done: enthusiastic, enticing. A description that makes the reader want to pick up the manuscript and find out how this happens!

How can you make your synopsis unique, exciting? Start with the main character and his or her crisis. Include snippets of dialogue or quote briefly from the novel itself. Don't neglect to reveal the character's emotions and motivations, those points that explain why a character does something, but keep it brief. If the setting is exotic, inject a taste of it into the synopsis with a brief paragraph. This includes any background information that is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the story. Build excitement as you near the conclusion of the story summary by using shorter sentences and paragraphs. The synopsis is a sample of your writing; it is a taste of what reading the actual novel will be like, so give it your all.

Don't forget that one- or two-sentence story line, or the theme of the story that you discovered. It should go in your synopsis, or in your cover letter. Editors and agents like having this distillation; not only will it pique their interest, but it's something they can use when presenting the novel to the buying board. It's also something you can use, the next time someone politely asks you, "What's your novel about?"

Tune in tomorrow for the second half of Cindy's blog post!

Helpful links:


Kerrin said...

great post Sally! and Cindy, thanks!!

Lacey Devlin said...

Looking forward to tomorrow! Thanks Cindy and Sally.

Sally Clements said...

This is a really useful post, Cindy. Thanks so much!

Tara Pammi said...

Great post Cindy.

Thanks for such useful info. Can't wait for the second part.


Jackie Ashenden said...

Yay, this is going to be so useful! Thanks heaps Sally and Cindy!

Suzanne Brandyn Author said...

Great post, Sally and Cindy.

Hi Cindy. :)
I didn't realise you were with Champagne as well. Gee, where do you find the time.

Cindy was the very patient and helpful editor I had for Passion in Paradise. Great experience.
I'll be back to check out part 2.

Suzanne :)

Suzanne Brandyn Author said...

To add to my comment. lol..
I saw the name Cindy Davis on Champagne Books, but I didn't think it was the same person. Hmm.. :)

Suzanne Ross Jones said...

Brilliant advice Cindy - thank you so much.

Maya Blake said...

Thanks for much for the great advice, Cindy. It'll certainly come in handy in the next few weeks. Can't wait for Part 2.