As a fantasy writer, I recently joined the Mythic Scribes forum boards to solicit advice regarding this purgatory state of being in-between having completed a novel and awaiting publication that I currently find myself in. This dead zone, if you will, could cause authors to get confused about what they should be focusing on during this time. For example, while I am waiting to hear word back from literary agencies, I focused a lot of my time toward developing my synopsis – which would be a necessary item for querying more agents/publishers in the future. The advice I received from the community of fantasy writers on the forum board really set me on a path forward that I think will help any authors that are also walking down the long road toward traditional publishing.
Like many others, I usually want closure from all the places that I’ve submitted, so I’ve really exercised my patience when waiting for a response. However, in this industry, literary agents are so overwhelmed that sometimes a non-response is your answer. Unfortunately, that has become a reality in this industry. For this one reason, it is important to not stay stagnate as an author. Just keep writing because you don’t want to misuse the time that you have.
In addition, if an agent/publisher does contact you after a long while, often times they are curious as to what other finished work or work in progress (WIP) you can show them. And if it has been a while since you submitted to them, hopefully you at least have a WIP that you can discuss. But if your answer is, “I’ve rewritten my synopsis three times,” that’s not going to cut it. So the lesson here is: Don’t get caught with your pants down. Having more work prepared is never a bad thing. It proves that you are serious as a writer and that you are ahead of the game.
I still need to rewrite my synopsis, but the community’s words of wisdom have really got me motivated toward writing my sequel. Hopefully, it will do the same for you too.
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.
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).
I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.
With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.
So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.
I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”
What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.
What does an outline need?
Places and Scenes
How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:
Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.