Don’t Shrink from Synopses!

Susan Spann is back, with another amazing post that will help you create an Author Business Plan. If you missed her first two posts in the series, they are: Overview of an Author Business Plan, and 7 Steps to Writing Your Business Plan.

Here’s Susan:

Welcome back to my WITS series on writing an author business plan. This month we’re taking a closer look at Section 2 of the business plan: Writing the Book Synopsis.

A Synopsis (Part 2 of the author’s business plan) is a 1-2 page summary of the novel or other work. The synopsis is not the same as a query (which doesn’t give away the ending) or a book proposal (which is a tool an author uses to sell a work “on spec”.) Book synopses follow a standard form and structure – for fiction, the synopsis is always written in third person present tense, regardless of the narrative form of the work.

Some authors write the synopsis before the manuscript. Others prefer to wait until the manuscript is complete. (The latter is more common in fiction, though by no means universal.)  I write my synopses “after the fact,” so my method requires a finished manuscript, but there are many good resources (online and off) for other methods – find the one that works for you!

Here’s how I write a synopsis for my novels:

The final synopsis begins with a one-paragraph blurb that describes the book as a whole, but I leave that for last. It’s easier once you’ve put the rest together.

Step 1: Open a copy of the manuscript and also create a new word processing document (this will become the synopsis.)

Step 2:  Read the first chapter of the manuscript. When you finish, summarize the chapter in one sentence. ONE SENTENCE. (Do not pass go, do not collect semicolons.) Continue this process through the entire manuscript, summarizing each chapter in one sentence. The sentences don’t have to connect or make sense as a whole at this point – this step is about distilling each chapter down to essential components. Many of your bells and whistles – supporting details and super-awesome-decorative-bits won’t make it into the synopsis. That’s okay. Take a deep breath and keep going.

Step 3: Close the original manuscript, and edit the summary you’ve created as if the synopsis was a manuscript in itself. This is the point where all those one-sentence summaries have to learn to play nicely together. Turn the summaries into a unified story. The sentences don’t have to remain in first-draft condition, and the number of sentences can (and will) change. Delete, reorganize, and edit until you have a coherent whole.

Step 4: Write the introductory paragraph. Remember that book-jacket style logline/summary paragraph that opens the synopsis? Write it now. Since you’ve just spent many hours reading and summarizing your manuscript, writing a killer introduction – one that entices a reader – is easier at this stage.

Step 5: Edit for length. After the synopsis reads smoothly (aloud as well as in your head,) it’s time to revise again – this time for length – until the synopsis is no more than two pages long. I typically write a “final” two-page version and then take it through a second round of editing until I have a one-page version as well.

Remember: the synopsis tells the entire story – including the ending. This isn’t a query, and it’s not a document you’ll ever post in public places. The synopsis is used by you – and also by agents, publishers, and even contest judges – to evaluate the work as a whole.

Your business plan homework between now and next month is to try your hand at writing a synopsis. If your work isn’t finished, try distilling a chapter or two from your work in progress into one-sentence summaries. Then tune in next month, when we move to Section 3: Effective Techniques for Author Marketing.

What method do you use to write a synopsis? Do you write it first or after the work is finished? And do you consider it a pleasure or a pain?

I’d love to hear how the process works for you!

Susan Spann is a publishing attorney and author from Sacramento, California. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, July 2013), is the first in the Shinobi Mystery series featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori. Susan blogs about writing, publishing law and seahorses at http://www.SusanSpann.com. Find her on Twitter @SusanSpann or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SusanSpannAuthor

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About LauraDrake

Author of romance and women's fiction. Grand Central and Harlequin author, debut book, The Sweet Spot, due out May 28.
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45 Responses to Don’t Shrink from Synopses!

  1. Thanks, Susan … you just hit another vital nerve in my brain. I think I hate query and synopsis writing. I said “I think” because I am so bad at them both, I want to hate them instead of learning to love them. Since I am inches away from the final edit of a book … and a couple of feet from submitting my query for critiquing … I accept your challenge and will produce a new synop for the book by next month.

    Oh, how do I do it? How about the old cliche … a wing and a prayer? However, my left wing is bent and I don’t think my highwer power has the time to worry about my writing :) Okay … I will use your blueprint and get back to you.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Synopses and queries aren’t nearly as much fun as writing, for sure! The good news is that – at least for me – this method is close to as much fun as editing (and I love editing) so hopefully you end up enjoying it too!

  2. amyskennedy says:

    I have a tendency to write the synopsis after brainstorming my book–glutton for punishment I am. But it helps me keep on track until I veer wildly off course. But I had never thought to go through each chapter honing it down to one sentence! Seems so incredibly easy, and I’m betting you’d also catch chapters where nothing actually happens (so a good editing tool) yikes.

    I’m kind of new to WITS so I back-tracked to read your first two posts for this series. I know me, so I know if I don’t put this plan where I can see it every day I won’t do it. I’ll be so ambitious for about a week and then it will *pouf* out of my brain.
    Can’t let that happen.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Welcome to WITS Amy! We’re glad to have you here!
      Writing the synopsis this way does actually help find “hidden issues” of all kinds – things we didn’t see when looking at the forest become much more apparent when we have to count off the trees, for sure. Pulling a plan together does take focus but the results are really worth the remembering! I’m exactly like you in that, by the way – if I don’t keep things in front of me I forget them for sure.

  3. Edith says:

    Excellent post once again with a number of practical proposals. Although only a beginner already I have discovered that I like to write a rough draft synopsis at the beginning, and fill it in as I go along. At the end I revise and edit it (or at least I did just this for my serialized short story recently!) And I agree that the best time to write a blurb is after re-reading the mss.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Edith! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m hoping to be able to give the kind of practical help that unravels all the stress and knots and gets us all moving forward with successful writing!

      My friends who write their synopses first all do it exactly the way you do – I’m so impressed with people who can plot that way in advance!

  4. Sharla Rae says:

    I love the idea of writing one sentence to summarize each chapter and then putting then together. It definitely would not be easy but I can see the end benefit. If you start with less, you end with less to edit out. And that sounds like less work.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Hi Sharla. The one-sentence summaries do take a little more effort up front, but in the end it seems to take a lot of the work out of writing the synopsis. It also helps me focus my thoughts – before I did it this way I spent a lot of time trying to remember exactly what went on, and this way it’s much simpler and more methodical.

  5. Carrie says:

    Great tips! Just what I need since I have to send three chapters and a synopsis to an agent soon :)

  6. Jaye Garland says:

    I can’t believe I’m not already doing this. Duh! They way the process is described here, it’s an automatic “do” for me. I’m currently revising a synopsis for my Time Travel and will see how this compares to the one I’ve written. I’m betting I’ll come up with a more cohesive synopsis as a result. Thanks, and I’ve just Liked and Followed. :)

    • Susan Spann says:

      Thanks Jaye, I’m really glad it sounds like it will work for you. I had a really hard time writing cohesive synopses until I worked this out – it’s actually a hybrid of several other synopsis writing methods I discovered long ago. Basically, I wanted to reduce the process to “paint by numbers” so I’d remember how to do it each time I came back to it instead of trying to reinvent wheels once a year when I finished a manuscript. And thanks for the follow too!

  7. Jae says:

    This is a great way to break down the story into a synopsis. You never think you’ll hate writing something more than the query letter. Oh hello synopsis, is that you? ;)

    • Susan Spann says:

      I hated synopsis writing before I started using this method. Now, though not as much fun as writing, it’s at least no longer something I dread. Definitely helps to have a method.

  8. Kris Mehigan says:

    Quick question. When you say “two pages” are you assuming double spaced?
    Thanks!

    • Susan Spann says:

      Actually, Kris, most agents and editors I know want the synopsis single-spaced, so actually those are two single-spaced pages. Good question, and thank you for bringing it up!

  9. texasdruids says:

    Susan, you’re a genius! I hate writing a synopsis, but your method makes so much sense. I will definitely give it a try. Thanks so much for your great advice.

  10. Joan Leacott says:

    So very elegant! I will definitely give this a try. Thanks!

  11. Thanks, Susan. Wonderful post. I’m going to use this method on my next synopsis.

  12. marsharwest says:

    Interesting process, Susan. I think this means I’d have to go back to the 3-4 line sentances I wrote when I began. LOL Can’t imagine getting the jist of a chapter into one sentance 1- 1 /1/2 lines long. Are your chapters short like 10 pages or so. Mine are usually 15-20. Having said all that, I’m intrigued with the idea of trying to summarize a chapter in one sentance and will definitely give this a try. Thanks, Susan and WTS.

    • Susan Spann says:

      Hi Marsha,

      Although my mystery chapters run 5-6 pages, I developed this method back when I was writing historical mystery, where my chapters ran 10-14 pages. You will fall into 3-4 line sentences to begin with. That’s okay. The key is cutting them down in editing. You can allow semicolons in the first draft too. It’s great practice for writing the shorter “jacket copy” too – where you have to do it all in 250 words.

      • Kris Mehigan says:

        Quick question regarding Step# 4- Introductory Paragraph, is this similar to the book description used in the query?

  13. Vicky Green says:

    Your lesson presents a less daunting method of handling that dreaded synopsis. As an organic writer, I write the synopsis after the fact. Now, I look forward to the challenge of whittling down my chapters to one sentence each. Thanks for this excellent post!

    • Susan Spann says:

      I’m a hybrid of organic and plotter, so I’m a “synopsis after” kind of person too. It’s funny how having a goal (like whittling the chapter to one sentence) can turn drudgery into a fun challenge, isn’t it?

  14. Wonderful, solid advice that I already follow to an extent but you put some great finishing touches to the process of creating a good synopsis. Thanks for the advice!

  15. Susan Spann says:

    Thanks Ken! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the post!

  16. Great, new approach on synopsis writing. Since they are the banes of my existence, I look forward to trying this!

  17. sarahneeve says:

    Hi Susan.
    Although you write a fantastic breakdown of how to write a synopsis, I’m still not convinced. To even think about the idea of breaking a chapter down to a single sentence, leaves me cold and clammy. I can feel the tremors already and I’m only writing this response!
    You see, my brain can’t get past the ‘you can’t do it stage’, no matter how hard I try to convince myself differently. So that is why I’m choosing to self-publish, all because I don’t have to write the dreaded synopsis. Cowards route? Definitely!
    Sarah.

    • Hi Susan, Sarah and all,
      Have no fear!
      I used to be one of you and now I just do it, like washing dishes. I had to keep submitting proposals to my editor in London and she’d sift through three at a time and pick one for me to write. Now I can bang off a single page synop (for a 50k romance) in a few hours (ms unwritten). Still needs polishing, but the worst is over.
      In the past, I’ve taken a similar approach to Susan’s for plot driven books and I think that’s extremely helpful to get the bones of the story on the page. For markets where the romance is the plot, I focus on the emotional journey and don’t worry about whether I’ve captured this chapter in two lines or that one not at all. I hit the turning points in the romance, eg. When Lauren sees Paolo’s close relationship with his niece she knows he will make a wonderful father and can no longer refuse to marry him.
      My kids hate when I tell them all you have to do is practice, but it’s true. My advice? Make yourself write ten of them, fast and dirty, one page.
      You’ll develop a “Yes, I can!” confidence, I promise ;o)

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  20. A. M. Sligar says:

    Hi, Susan. I attempted a synopsis for the book I’m writing. I boiled it down to 3 pages, and even did a one page version. My reader though it was dull, dull, dull, no action, no inducement to read the book. I think your method sounds eminantly workable, but my story is complicated and has multiple characters. I’m not sure how much come–hitherness can be infused into such a brief description while covering the salient points without leaving out too much of the story. How dynamic does a synopsis have to be?

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