Tuesday, April 6, 2010

how a book becomes a book--writing a synopsis

So next in our "how a book becomes a book" series is something a bit earlier in the process.

If you're anything like me, when you query agents you avoid, definitely, the ones who ask for a synopsis with the query letter. Like, I'm sure they're perfectly good agents, but synopses are horrible and no one should ever have to write them.

There are a few reasons they're so horrible. A lot of people have trouble with query letters, and, for them, synopses are understandably even more evil. You have to sum up the entirety of your book without taking away its voice and without making it boring as fuck, and you don't have the pleasure of using 1st person, if that's your thing, and there is very little room for error. If you love query letters, like I do, you can STILL hate synopses. And there's a very clear reason why I do.

In a synopsis, you can't lie.

Query letters are like commercials to me. You shouldn't lie, and underneath every lie you do tell, there has to be some truth. But...I've always been a little liberal with my query letters. I say what I need to say in order to get the book read.

Obviously you don't want to write a query for an entirely different plot. But if it's actually Stacey's great-aunt's dog that drags the magic locket out of the garbage and shows it to her? It's okay to say "Stacey finds a magic locket." Let Stacey take the credit. Make your query snappier. It's okay to fudge the truth a little if it makes the query look good and read well.

Not so with synopses.

Helllll no.

Synopses need to say exactly what happens in your book and no more. There is no lying. And that's what makes them so scary.

BUT do not think, for a minute, that I'm saying your synopses needs to have ALL of what happens in your book. No no no no. Knowing what to leave out is what keeps it from getting voiceless, confusing, and boring as all fuck.

So. Here are my guidelines to writing a synopsis.

1) HAVE AS FEW CHARACTERS AS POSSIBLE. Aim for five or less named characters in your synopsis. BREAK named Jonah, Jesse, Naomi, Charlotte, and Will, so I was pushing it a little. Don't give your reader more names to have to remember. Have you ever tried to read the summary of a Shakespeare play on Wikipedia? Too many fucking names.

The first time a name appears, CAPITALIZE it.

2) GIVE AWAY THE ENDING. The whole ending, the entire ending, every speck of the ending. And more than just what happens, try to set up the feeling of the ending. If it's happy, make it feel happy. If it's open, make it feel open (and shame on you.) Etc etc.

3) START IT AS A CHAPTER-BY-CHAPTER OUTLINE. This is the only way they get written for me. Start out summing each chapter up in a paragraph, then go through and cut EVERYTHING you can for the thing to still be cohesive. Sometimes you can cut entire chapters from your synopses, which is always really exciting. It doesn't mean you have to cut them from the manuscript. Maybe they're full of nuanced and beautiful character development. But, in the synopsis, Jesse didn't come visit Jonah at the psychiatric hospital, and Jonah didn't have a nice phone conversation with Charlotte's sister. I don't think the video store was even mentioned. Cut out as much as you can so the synopsis is still cohesive.

4) DON'T FOCUS ON SCENES. "Jonah and his family are sitting around the dinner table discussing..." Fuck that. The reason you can cut down from your one-para-per-chapter structure is that you don't need to write a synopses in scenes. This is not a book.

5) INJECT IT WITH VOICE SERUM. Voice. Voice voice voice is SO important. Your synopsis should read like your book, not a dried out raisin version of your book. Make it all the good parts smushed together. It should be EXPLODING WITH VOICE.

This does not mean that you can write it in 1st person or 2nd person or whatever person you like (unless that person is 3rd). You need to adhere to synopsis rules. And that's tricky. But YOU CAN DO IT.

I'll leave you with the first paragraph of BREAK's synopsis. It started as "one paragraph per chapter," then I cut cut cut cut. This first paragraph sums up the first four or so chapters of the book.

JONAH falls off his skateboard. He and his best friend, NAOMI, confirm he’s broken his right wrist, his jaw, and a few ribs. This is great news. Jonah’s on a quest to break every bone in his body. His theory: the more he breaks, the stronger he gets. He sees the power of overcoming challenges everyday through his younger brother, JESSE, whose horrible food allergies have forced him into a better person. And Jesse’s practically a candidate for sainthood. He’s also the only one in the family who knows about Jonah’s mission. He thinks it’s stupid and self-mutilating. Naomi calls it an act of artistic integrity. His parents and ‘not-girlfriend,’ CHARLOTTE, are too idealistic to suspect their Jonah’s a secret wackjob.

Questions? Throw 'em at me.


Kara said...

Hahaha I'm totally guilty of avoiding agents who require a synopsis with a query.

Your agent's submission guidelines say synopses are evil, which is all I need to know that she rocks.

Chantal Kirkland said...

I love this. Thanks for breaking it down so effortlessly. I think it's also killer-important to have someone read your synopsis--a crit partner, just like you need for your book. That way, you catch everything.

Chris Ing said...

I wouldn't have such trouble with synopses if it weren't for the length issue. I've read places that it should be 1 page per chapter, or five pages per 10 chapters, etc. etc., but in the end most of the people I'm querying right now want it short: 1-2 pages. Even with that in mind, I can only shave it down to 2 1/4 pages.

Do you think it's worth it to add length? I know you're supposed to ditch out a lot of character development (which I did) but a big focal point of the novel is the humor in it. Since it's also a mystery, I spent at least 3/4 of the synopses explaining the mechanics of the mystery (who did it, how, why, evidence, etc.) and I think a lot of that tone was lost. I tried to inject at least a line of humor into each paragraph, but I'm not sure that's enough.

So do I hope that the humor in the query is enough to show the tone, or do I add more in the synopsis and risk getting booted for overlength?

hannah said...

Stick to the length limits, as frustrating as it.

I forgot to mention the format--single spaces with a hard break between paragraphs. Exactly like what I'm writing now, or how you'd write a query letter (or any email, really.)

Keren David said...

This is brilliant - best how-to guide to writing a synopsis I've seen. I hate them..

Cheyanne Young said...

Wait wait wait wait wait.

So you're saying that even though you are already published, you STILL have to write a synopsis?? Is this for Invincible Summer or for a new book that hasn't been sold yet?

Also, after you're agented and what not, who are these synopsis' for?

hannah said...

I'm not writing a synopsis right now. Just helping out you guys.

BUT I did have to write a synopsis for INVINCIBLE SUMMER, because I was looking for a new agent at the time. And I'm glad I had one for BREAK, because my agent needed one to show around to the film people to try to make a BREAK: The Movie or something.

So they're still useful even after you have an agent. But generally I don't have to write them anymore, no.

Nadine said...

This was great advice and the best way I've ever seen it put - clear and to the point. Thanks for the help!!

Liz Czukas said...

This is actually one of the most concise and helpful guides I've ever seen for synopsis writing. Thank you!

- Liz

Amy Lukavics said...

I think I might have to write one of these soon and I'm already freaking out. *Bookmarks post for later reference.*

Misty said...

OMG, I didn't comment on this? I love this. Thank you thank you thank you Hannah!!

Rebecca said...

Great post. I have a question for you, Hannah. In your original query, the one that got you an agent, did you mention your age? I teen writer (well, your age - very young adult I guess), and I've heard some people say that the age can be a good thing, and others say to HIDE IT FO SHO. What did you do?

hannah said...

Rebecca--I mentioned it in about half of them. I prefer not to mention. My first agent found out my age at the time (16) from another client of hers who mentioned me after my agent offered. She didn't think it was a big deal. My second agent found out my age at the time (18) from my editor like a month after we started working together. He thought it was funny. Suzie already knew, I assume :)

I don't think there's any point in telling as long as you have parents willing to cosign a contract.

hannah said...

*as long as you have

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this! I'm attempting to write a synopsis right now and it is so so so so awful D: Worst thing ever.

Anyway, thanks again for giving me my new synopsis bible...hahah