How to Write a Synopsis For Your Novel

Synopsis of Hamlet. This mind map gives a visual display of why it is so difficult to capture everything from a novel within the short length of a synopsis.

In my journey toward seeking representation, I have queried over 50 literary agents, all of which did not require a synopsis as part of the submission. I kept a reserve of ~20 other literary agents that I would submit to if my first round of submissions didn’t go so well. These 20 all require synopsis’s.  Unfortunately for authors, literary agents do not have standardized requests. Some ask for 1 page synopsis’s and others want 2 pages (a rare few even ask for a 3-5 page synopsis), which of course must be submitted along with your Query Letter and/or a sample of your work. While I do have one very promising agency reviewing my manuscript (fingers crossed!), I am preparing for round 2 (just in case) and just completed my synopsis.

SYNOPSIS TIPS & FORMAT:

At the top of the page (left or center) provide this info: Synopsis of “Title”. Genre: ____ Word Count: _____ By: “Your Name” (however, you can put your pen name if you wish).

Since most agents/publishers ask for either a 1 page or a “brief” synopsis, I think it’s best that you craft it to be within 1 page, single spaced. A synopsis is a narrative of your story, written with the same style and sense of excitement and wonder of your novel. Do not simply say, “Here is the main character, and this is what happens to him/her,” you must make the synopsis drool-worthy.

Synopses are always, ALWAYS, written in 3rd person and in the present tense. No exceptions! The synopsis must introduce your main characters. When you do so, you must make their full name in ALL CAPS, but only for the first time you mention their name. This makes it easy for a reader to locate the introduction of a character.

You do not have to detail all your sub-plots or all your characters, but the main story line must come across in your narrative. So it is best to ensure that you have captured all the major scenes and major plot elements and conflicts, and most importantly: The ending. Yes, you must give away your ending. How you conclude your story is especially important to agents and publishers.

PRO TIP #1:

Have a reader that is unfamiliar with your story read your synopsis and give you feedback. It can be difficult for you to be objective about your synopsis since you understand the meaning behind every sentence.

PRO TIP #2:

Think outside the box. You don’t have to write your synopsis in the same order of events as your novel. You can explain things out of order, which can help when you are trying to condense things down to one page.

PRO TIP #3:

Before writing your synopsis, bulletize the main points that you want to write about. This will help keep your novel at a high level and will help prevent you from diving into the details.

PRO TIP #4:

Don’t go down a rabbit hole. Beware of explaining one event/scene that forces you to explain another. Rabbit holes add additional details to your synopsis that only raise more questions than answers.

PRO TIP #5:

Less is more.

PERSONAL OPINION:

Why did I delay writing a synopsis, you ask? Because, summarizing your entire novel into one page is quite possibly the Achilles Heel of every author. Reducing my 100,000 word novel into an ~900 word page is difficult, to say the least. For most novels, there are so many complex sub-plots that hold a lot of weight to the overall story (as shown in the picture above), and not being able to fit them into your synopsis can be torturous.

When I joined NaNoWriMo this year, in order to fill out my profile, it made me write a synopsis of my novel before I even began writing it. I must say that writing the synopsis beforehand helped me identify character motivations that I hadn’t even considered in my outline. It was profound, and it helped me expand on my planning. However, if you were to write a synopsis before hand (which is similar to the Snowflake method of outlining, which I discuss here), you can bet, with a certainty, that you will need to revise it after you finish your novel.

STEPHEN KING’S APPROACH:

In his novel, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King doesn’t touch on writing a synopsis, but what he does talk about is plot – which is what a synopsis is supposed to capture. Steven King’s novels are not born from the conception of a plot, but are based on a single situation instead (I wrote more about it here in my discussion of the 7 basic plots). He is able to reduce his entire novels down to one sentence. It struck me that when writing a novel using this approach, it would probably be a lot more friendly when it’s time to summarize your novel into a synopsis. And even more helpful for the purposes of writing a Query Letter (explained here with additional detail here).

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Selling your Short Story to a Magazine

I strongly advocate that all new fiction authors begin their career with writing and selling a short story. I’m not saying that a short story is a good warm up before you start a novel – as I believe that a short story is an entirely different animal from a novel, but what I am saying is that it is imperative to your author-resume (and subsequently your potential success as an author) that you have publication credits. This is an industry that everyone is dying to break into, and you need something in the bio section of your query letter in order to distinguish you from the crowd. In addition, selling your work to a magazine may also qualify you to join one of the mega Writing Associations such as SFWA, RWA, or whichever one applies to your genre. Being a member of one of the Writing Associations is also a resume booster.

I’m not trying to work the system just to obtain resume boosters; joining SFWA is a legitimate goal of mine, and their conditions for membership are a great road-map for launching a career. Once you are a member, even more networking, resources, and opportunities become available to you, so it is a worthwhile milestone to achieve. And one of the ways to get a publication credit for membership is to sell an original short story to a qualified magazine (as shown here for SFWA: http://bit.ly/Q4jmBQ).

How much money can I sell my short story for? It all depends on what the magazine offers and the length of your story. The minimum seems to be 5 cents a word (offered by places such as Apex magazine and Lightspeed Magazine), and they also seem to prefer stories around 5,000 words in length. So that amounts to $250! That’s more than enough to cover a Writer’s Association membership fee! (No money out of pocket!) Other magazines such as Tor.com offer 25 cents a word… that’s $1,250 for a 5,000 word story! (However, Tor.com just happens to be WAY behind on reviewing their submissions as they are still reading ones from last year). Be sure to check the submission guidelines of each particular magazine to see word length requirements as some do accept stories above the 5,000 word threshold.

So what happens when you sell the publication rights to a magazine? Often times they are purchasing First World publication rights, which means that if it has been published before, it is an automatic rejection. They also want an Exclusivity period, so that no one else can publish that same story during that time. I’ve seen the exclusivity period last anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. Following the Exclusivity period is the non-exclusivity period, meaning that you can publish your short story in other places like your website, anthology, another magazine, etc. (Remember, after it has been published for the first time, your ability to sell it again to a different magazine will dwindle close to nothingness as they usually want First World and exclusive rights, which is no longer available after the first publication). So if you tried to sell it elsewhere after the first publication, you would be trying to sell your reprint rights. Reprints offer a very small amount of compensation ($25 flat fee at Apex, and 1 cent per word at Lightspeed). In addition, they limit the amount of reprints that they publish in each issue because the magazines favor publishing new original content, which is also made evident in the fact that they don’t seem to accept unsolicited reprint submissions. Lastly in the contract, the magazines want the option to publish your story in an anthology, and there are additional royalties that will be paid to you in that case. Here are two sample contracts so you can see for yourself: http://bit.ly/NtUpNd (Lightspeed) and http://bit.ly/NvuuSs (Apex).

After I had reviewed the contracts, I still had questions… but I did get answers. Here is my email correspondence with John Adams, the Publisher/Editor from Lightspeed Magazine:

1) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to post it on my website 6 months after the publication date?

Yes. After the 6 month exclusivity expires, you can do whatever you like with it: publish it on your website, sell it to another magazine [as a reprint], reprint it in an anthology, etc.

2) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to enter it in writing contests during the time that it was published?


Sure, so long as the writing contest doesn’t insist on the stories being unpublished, and so long as they don’t insist on publishing the story during the exclusivity period as part of the contest.

Query Letter Revisions

Hind sight is always 20/20 and I am very analytical, which seems to be the only way to determine if adjustments to your query letter are needed. Unless you have a friend in the business, there is no way to get additional review over the good and the bad of your first draft. The only guidance available without a paid consult are the instructional blogs written by agents themselves. Which is great (don’t get me wrong), but they only suggest how to craft it; there’s never a place to get feedback about your first draft. (Yes there is queryshark, but she is busy, and doesn’t critique everything). Plus every agent is different, and different agents also request query letters in different ways. For example, in an online form submission… Should the ‘summary of work’ section be written like a letter?

Additionally, I am now convinced that an author could read a bunch of Dos and Don’ts guidance, and still end up writing a query that lacks in certain areas, or says too much in others, etc. A solid query will require feedback to ensure a quality letter is written, but in the absence of feedback, one must analyze.

After not winning the Pitch A Palooza, I read the Book Doctor’s description of what constitutes a good query (here) followed by reading the winning query and realized what mine was missing: Character attachment. I needed to describe my protagonist (which went against some instruction I had received earlier) and make the agent connect with my character. Adding in my character to my query forced me to explain other detailed story elements, creating a much more focused and story-centric query.

I must also raise two important notes about my query: 1) my old version had too many superlative sales-pitch descriptions rather than focusing on content, so I removed those. 2) As a fantasy novel, my query is at a slight disadvantage when it comes to word count. Usually someone can just say “Johnny did this” and everyone already knows he is a human. No explanation required. In my case, I need to explain what an elkin is, and who the Soul Smith is.

EDIT: I used to have my query letter here, but I’ve found that it evolves so fast that posting them here seems pointless. The next query letter I post will be the one that lands me an agent! So in it’s place, here is a link to a successful query letter and the agent’s explanation of why she liked it so much: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries-agent-jenny-bent-and-oh-my-gods

My 200 Word Pitch-A-Palooza Entry

Now that the World Literary Cafe’s Pitch-A-Palooza contest officially closed last night, I can safely reveal the query letter that I submitted. 200 words was very limiting, but it forced me to be succinct, which was a good thing. Let’s see what happens on May 22 when they announce the winner! My entry is below:

Dear Mrs. Eckstut & Mr. Sterry,

When the world of Thornwall was left abandoned by the true gods, eight human Black Smiths succeeded their rule, altering the elements, the land, and its inhabitants with their godly forging hammers. Such is the setting for THE SOUL SMITH, my 100,000 word completed epic fantasy novel.

Stylistically similar to ERAGON and targeted toward young adults, THE SOUL SMITH redefines the genre, permeating every reverie of your mind with superlative fantasy that challenges the imagination. Filled with high impact action and fantastical unique races of creatures, it’s a page-turning tale of survival, honor, companionship, and sacrifice. As a handful of adolescent elkin, a savage race of men endowed with antlers, attempt to seek vengeance for the massacre of their elders, the traitor plots to make an old war anew, and overthrow the Soul Smith himself. 

While THE SOUL SMITH stands alone as a novel, I have outlines designed for a potential octalogy, with each installment aptly named after each Black Smith. I’d be happy to provide a partial or complete manuscript for further review.

As a member of International Association of Aspiring Authors, thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Adrian Diglio

http://www.adriandiglio.com

Submitting Query Letters to Literary Agents

My experience with sending query letters has not been too exciting. In fact, I’ve just received my first rejection letter. Though,I’m certain that the process that I’ve implemented would be useful to others. I created a free account on www.querytracker.net which is an incredibly useful tool for authors. It even has easy video tutorials to learn how to navigate and use their features. What I’ve used this website for is to purely track when I’ve sent a query letter, and to whom, and then set reminders for myself to do some sort of follow up if I haven’t heard from them in the expected response time.

However, I do not recommend using Query Tracker for the purpose of acquiring contact information of Agents. Their database is good, but not reliable. I have seen agents post on Twitter that querytracker does not always have the most up-to-date contact information, and that authors should always check the Agency’s website for submission instructions. Matter of fact, I was at one agency website with a page outlining their general submission guidelines, and when I was browsing the agent bio’s, I noticed that the agent I wanted to submit to had drastically different submission instructions listed in her bio… so keep an eye out.

So I’ve submitted to 3 agents thus far. Why did I stop there you ask? Despite all of my research into drafting a query letter (as seen in my previous blog post), I stopped at 3 because I am uncertain at the quality of my query. This is only because I have not recieved any professional feedback on it yet (I sure hope Query Shark posts my submission to her).

So I do understand that query’s should be tailored to the agent you are sending it to, and in fact, you should only submit to agents that you’ve done research on and believe that they are the right fit for you. However, on the other hand, what if the agent doesn’t feel the magical connection through your poorly crafted query letter that hasn’t undergone any feedback?

I’ve noticed that agents claim up-front that they will not provide you feedback on why they declined your query, if they turn you down. But a simple answer of “No” from an agent is enough to know that something in your query letter needs to be changed. That is why I stopped at 3… to allow myself to adjust and adapt to their responses (or lack thereof) before I continue my quest to find representation.

For example, now that I’ve received my first “No”, I am going to rewrite the bio in my query.

Thoughts on a Query Letter

The thing that I have come to love about this industry is how helpful everyone is (and look, now I’m doing it too!). There are numerous free resources out there, and you should gobble them up. Not everyone’s thoughts and opinions are in sync on the matter, but the wisdom and insight gained from the perspective of how literary agents view query letters is immensely valuable itself.

The main resources I used to guide me when drafting my query letter were Query Shark’s blog and Noah Lukeman’s free ebook on Kindle: “How to Write a Great Query Letter”. I highly recommend reading through both, as writing a query letter is a skill, and unfortunately, this letter is what authors get judged on. Not your novel. No, no. You get judged on a single piece of paper, and if they like that 1 page, then (and only then) may you be judged on your work, if they request it of you. So here is my summation of everything that I’ve gleaned from the two:

Bottom line up front, your query letter should be no more than three paragraphs. Make it succinct, word economy is key. Also, follow the rules. Some people might want to make their query stand out by using different font, special colored paper, or even provide quotes from their novel, but those are just red flags in an agent’s eyes.

  1. First paragraph, you must grab the agents attention. You could appeal to the agent personally by naming an author they represent and how you believe that your novel is similar, which is why you chose them, etc (which requires lots of research). Be sure to mention that your novel is completed, mention the word count, its TITLE, and the genre.
  2. Second paragraph, try to sum up your entire novel into 2 or 3 sentences. This can be incredibly difficult to do, so focus on the main plot and drop all the sub plots. Agents don’t need to hear about the sub plots at this point yet.
  3. Third paragraph, your bio, written in first person. Only provide major publication credits (if you have them). If you don’t, (or are a new author like me), join a writing organization or a writers critique group. Beware, most of these cost money, and sometimes require that you have been published before you can join, so options may be limited. However, do not ever include any NON-relevant information. Anything that is not DIRECTLY related to being a writer should not be included. The only exception to that is if your personal life experiences are what helped you write your novel (e.g. You lived through Desert Storm and now you’re writing a book about it).

As a last word of advice, there are places out there where you can view successful query letters, such as: http://bit.ly/ISki7u. I highly recommend reading over those as well since this is more of an art than a science.