Everything I Know About Querying: Writing the Synopsis
There's a good chance that if you're reading this, it's because you are terrified of writing your synopsis. I get it. It's a big, scary prospect that everyone in the writing world seems to think is tantamount to active torture.
I used to be one of those people. I'm not saying I love writing a synopsis, but it doesn't make me want to cry anymore, and, in fact, I do, on occasion, enjoy it. It is possible, even for a girl who consistently overwrites everything she touches.
If this is the first of these Querying series posts you're seeing, welcome. I'm Kate, and I write historical mysteries and fantasy books. I'm sharing all the things I learned about querying after querying three books in three years.
Let's review what we've already covered:
My number one biggest tip for writing a synopsis as painlessly as possible is this (and don't hate me): Write the synopsis before the book.
I know, I know. That is useless advice for someone preparing to query and trying to write their synopsis after writing and editing their book half a dozen times. It's also useless for committed pantsers, so if that's you, skip ahead.
I have to talk about it, however, because this strategy was transformative for me.
When I made the switch from querying author to nearly-under-contract author, I was asked to provide a synopsis for not only the first book in the Saffron Everleigh series, but the second. I had a very rough draft of that second book (A Botanist's Guide to Flowers and Fatality, which comes out in just a few months!) but I hadn't prepared any materials for it since it was not the book I was trying to sell. But I knew what it would be about, and told the editor I was in talks with about it. She asked for a synopsis to show the editorial board. I wrote it, including all the ways the story would change (more than half the story, actually). I ended up selling both books for my first contract.
When it came time to work on that book, I had a pretty good outline to go off of in that synopsis. I was shocked at how useful that was. Too often, I get bogged down writing an outline because I want to figure out all the details as I'm writing it. But a synopsis is purposefully lacking in details, so it was a lot easier to write. I can say something like "Saffron discovers that the toxin was cyanide," without having to say where she learned that information and risk spending four hours researching early 20th-century methods of isolating cyanide in blood. I don't want to spend four hours on every clue (which is, unfortunately, pretty average for my mysteries) when I'm just trying to get an idea about a book. I don't need to have every last detail worked out before I sell the story to my publisher, either.
It's a good practice to be aware of because once you get to a certain point in your writing career, you won't have time to write an entire book before you sell it. You'll sell books on as little as a single paragraph synopsis. Writing a synopsis before writing the book is actually de rigueur for established authors.
Part of the problem with writing a synopsis is that you generally do it after you've spent months, years maybe, deep in your manuscript. All the details of the settings, all the characters' arcs and their thoughts and feelings, and all the ways your plot is intricately put together is RIGHT THERE in your mind. It's very, very hard to zoom out on all of that, switch gears, and see the big-picture things that make up your synopsis.
If you're like me, you lay EVERYTHING out in too much detail and end up with a four-page synopsis that you then have to pull your hair out in order to edit down to the one page that agents are looking for. I say this having literally just done this for my Sleeping Beauty retelling and wishing I'd written it before the book with every single word.
But imagine: you sat down to write your synopsis and you already have something written. You can just jump into editing what you've already written and update it for the latest version of your manuscript.
The editing thing I think is really key. I think all the time about the famous quote from Jodi Picoult: "You can't edit a blank page." By already having a good deal of it written, you not only have planned out your novel in general detail, but you also have created a rough draft of your synopsis! It's a win for everyone.
But you're probably here because you didn't write a synopsis beforehand and now you have to do it and it's filling you with dread. Been there, friend, been there.
First, stop making it into a big scary thing. I should stop doing that, too. It's really not that bad. Like I said, you're the expert on your story. You're the best and only person to write the synopsis!
Second, carve out some time to write it. Give yourself an hour or so to start. Settle in with your favorite coffee or tea. Go out to a bookstore or cafe. Make it into something special. It's a reward to get here, after writing your WHOLE FREAKING BOOK. Actually, before anything else, just take a minute to bask in that accomplishment. Whether it's your first or fiftieth, writing a whole damn book is amazing.
After you've hyped yourself up, just start. Open your manuscript (extra point if you've printed it and can reference that instead of switching screens!) and start at the beginning.
There's a lot of ways to actually go about writing a synopsis. Here is a list of strategies you can use:
Use the Save the Cat beats and write a paragraph or sentence for each beat.
Use my elementary school strategy for summaries: Somebody Wanted But So Then Finally and write a paragraph for each part.
If you have a chapter outline, write a sentence for each chapter, focusing on what happened in the chapter to move the plot.
Remember that your synopsis needs to include both the outer plot and the inner plot: the beats of the plot AND what the character learns about themselves, how they grew or changed, etc.
I think some people run into trouble with that last one because they want their synopsis to read as elegantly and subtly as their manuscript. A synopsis is not meant to be elegant or subtle. It's supposed to lay out every main point of your story, chronologically, including ALL the twists and turns. Don't be coy! If Character A doesn't realize they're in love with Character B until 75% through the story, I would still annotate the moments at 25% and 50% that A starts to realize B is hot stuff.
That being said, a synopsis should still be well-written. Use all your best editing tips, but don't worry about that until after you've written the whole thing. Just bang it out, as they say.
In terms of formatting, a synopsis should be:
Single-spaced, 12-point Times
1 inch margins
One page or less
Each main character should be bolded the first time their name is mentioned (I would say you need no more than 7 seven characters bolded for the entire thing!)
Check the requirements on each agency's submission page
A final piece of advice that I have used on every last one of my synopses: ask a friend to edit it. Ideally, your critique partner or beta reader who has read the most recent version of your book. Have them strike out or add things and smooth out your explanations. They probably don't remember all the details cluttering up your mind, and they'll probably remember the salient features and be able to identify them.
In short, writing a synopsis doesn't have to be dread-inducing. You can make your life easier by prewriting your synopsis. You can make it into a bit of a special occasion to hype yourself up. You can use different strategies to figure out, paragraph by paragraph, what is essential to include, especially the inner plot. You should check the requirements on all the agents' websites to format it correctly, and you should get a friend to edit it.
The next post in this series will be a brief one about sample pages. Until then, good luck in the trenches!