Synopses Are Actually Awesome

I honestly never thought I’d say those words.

It’s true, my attitude toward synopses has evolved over the years. At first, I utterly loathed them. Then, after my crit partner’s synopsis revealed a major plot issue I’d failed to spot while reading the actual manuscript, I acknowledged that though they sucked to write, synopses could be a useful analysis tool.

And now, after reading Pitch Wars submissions? Synopses are beautiful and valuable and should be written with care.

We requested synopses along with the full manuscript from every contender, and they’ve been so enlightening, illuminating issues with the manuscript that are difficult to see at ground level. Here are some of the most common problems we’re seeing with manuscripts via synopses:

  • No self-contained plot arc. This is the big one. Even if your book is planned as part of a series, the first book must be able to stand alone. Readers hate it when the core plotline of a book doesn’t resolve at the end. More importantly, though, you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to sell the whole series. You might only sell the first book. The publisher might want it as a duology rather than a trilogy or quartet. Wrap things up in the first book and leave some intriguing threads loose to pick up. If your book is bought as a series, your editor will help you revise to reflect that.
  • Mushy middle. You get off to a great start, and you knew where you wanted to go, but you didn’t know how to get there and there were no tentpoles in the middle propping the story up. Critical things need to happen throughout the book.
  • Too convoluted. There seems to be a real push to make things too complex: Too many characters, too many new ideas or concepts crammed in, too many subplots, etc. Sometimes these are due to poor synopsis writing, which hey, it’s hard, I forgive you. But sometimes, those same issues are reflected in the manuscript, and the synopsis just makes it easier to see. It’s no fun getting to the end of a synopsis and thinking “…I have no idea what just happened”.
  • More love for worldbuilding than characters or plot. Jamie and I LOVE cool worldbuilding. We really, really do, and it can make a book shine. But your world is the stage for your characters and their actions. Make sure your worldbuilding always serves the characters and the plot.

All of these are fixable, and a dedicated writer CAN fix them in the two months allotted for Pitch Wars, but you have to be open to the kind of large-scale rewrite that these problems require. Are you willing to gut entire chapters, chop off your whole ending, and eliminate dead-weight characters? It’s fine—take a few days, cry, feel grumpy, curse our names, and do whatever else you need to do to mourn and digest the feedback.

Then sit down at your keyboard, crack those knuckles, and make your book the best, shiniest book it can be.

Sometime in the near future, I’ll write a post on non-painful ways to write a synopsis. In the meantime, check out THE classic post on synopsis writing over on pubcrawl.

How do you feel about synopses? Do you have lots of angry feelings about them, or have you kind of come to terms? Vent your feelings in the comments.

3 Comments

  1. Dianne Gardner
    August 11, 2016 at 8:10 pm — Reply

    Thanks for this! David Farland gave me a great way to write a synopsis by summarizing each chapter and then condensing. Made the whole process very simple and gave me a good bird’s eye view of the entire ms.

  2. Emily Strong
    August 11, 2016 at 8:43 pm — Reply

    I love the synopsis for my manuscript! When I am slogging through the text hunting for crutch words and was/were/had, the synopsis is a reminder that I do have a plot, I do have a (hopefully) coherent arc for the book. Editing down the synopsis to under 1000 words was also a great exercise in figuring out what was plot, what was subplot, and what was backstory. I had to think about each sentence or clause to decide if the synopsis made sense without it.

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