How to un-dread it and write one that’s not dreadful

From Rick:

A few years ago—back in the Stone Age of Publishing—when we didn’t have the publishing freedom we now enjoy, when we had to convince an agent or editor that our work was worth publishing, one hot topic for authors was “The query letter.”

A query letter is still necessary when contacting prospective agents and publishers, and the central piece of information within that query is the pitch or short synopsis for your book.

There used to be forums and workshops dedicated to perfecting the query letter (and the synopsis therein) because—so said the conventional wisdom of the time—without a killer query you had a near-zero chance of landing an offer. It goes without saying that the book itself had to be worthy, but query letters had this mystique about them that almost transcended the book itself. The query letter was the book’s résumé, and it had to dazzle the reader (or at least that’s what we were all taught) because some agents received overwhelming numbers of queries daily. They barely had time to read those queries, let alone any part of the actual book, so the query was your one and only chance to impress them in the hope of getting to the next level (asking for a partial or complete manuscript).

Query letters haven’t gone away. You still need some sort of pitch if you want to land a publishing deal (unless of course you’ve self-published, done extremely well, and a publisher comes crawling to you begging for a chunk of your profits). However, while query letters are not requisite for self-publishing, the core pitch/synopsis IS necessary as part of your advertising and promotion on whichever sites you have your book available. You also should have one on the back cover of your print book (for potential readers to peruse) if you plan to sell it other than online.

I titled this post “the dreaded synopsis” for a reason. As most of us quickly learned when we had to write one, writing the synopsis was not something for the faint of heart. It was a source of frustration for many, and some of us would rather have tackled another novel than have to write a synopsis for one.

Why, you may be asking, is it so hard? Can’t you just cob together a few sentences telling what the book is about and be done with it?

Yes, and no. Yes—if you don’t care whether your book sells. No—if you want something that will draw in potential buyers.

In a query pitch, you have at most 3-5 short paragraphs in which not only to summarize the story, but to make it compelling. It needs to be tight, grammatically perfect, and irresistible. Further, unlike a cover synopsis, you had to tell how the story ended or was resolved.

Fortunately, we don’t have to (or want to) do that with a cover synopsis. And we don’t have to please a picky agent. But we DO have to write something that will pique our readers’ interest. A sloppy, poorly written synopsis will suggest to the reader that the book itself is poorly written. After all, if you can’t be bothered with getting that part right, why should the reader think you did a better job of the book itself? (And in a number of cases I’ve seen, the book was just as bad).

Scott and I have driven this point home more times than we care to count: If you expect your book to sell, you have to make it look as professional as possible, and that means even your promotional copy must be good.

Before I get to the nitty gritty of writing a good synopsis, I want to note that sometimes what I’ve seen on Amazon as “promotional copy” is anything but. This is not the place to extol the book’s virtues (5 Stars! A brilliant debut!), no matter who said those words. Readers are not interested in hype (except from word of mouth from people they trust). They do not care much if another author (even a well-known one) says he/she loved the book. They’ll be certain that person was a friend or paid to endorse it. Your potential customers want to know what the book is about, not who liked it. Just because someone else likes it, doesn’t mean they will. They need to know what it’s about first.

Here’s a synopsis I found on Amazon that exemplifies exactly what NOT to do: PLEASE TAKE INTEREST IN MY FIRST NOVEL AS ITS MY FIRST PROJECT WITH A CRAZY IDEA. WITH MORE COMING IN THE NEAR FUTURE.

This contains grammar issues, it looks unprofessional with all caps, and it tells nothing about the story or even the genre.

Granted, if you’re looking at the book on Amazon, you can certainly look at the title and cover and look inside it (where there is a short blurb about this particular book), but it also belongs outside the book. The book might be good—or perhaps the story is good—but few readers are going to look beyond the cover and the missing synopsis. It’s nice that the author wants us to read the book and that I congratulate anyone for having the courage to put the work out there, but those facts will not pull in readers.

Therefore, in the next 2-3 posts, we’re going to explore the fine art of writing a compelling synopsis. And with those words, I provide a strong caveat: I do not claim that I can always craft a great synopsis or do so easily, not even after several tries. Writing one can be HARD. I will eventually come up with a good one, but only after a lot of work and probably with help from others (like my wife).

A few authors have the knack of doing stunning synopses with seemingly little effort, but some of those authors will also admit to laboring other them. You may manage to write a good synopsis for one novel, but the next one may totally elude you or give you an anxiety attack. I can’t offer you step-by-step instructions on how to craft a perfect synopsis—no one can (not that I’ve ever found, anyway)—but I can give you strong guidance on how to develop one.

The main reason that there is not a tried-and-true set of rules is that every story is different. Some readily lend themselves to a compelling one-or-two-line synopsis (think Jurassic Park), while others seem impossibly elusive.

Sometimes, though, the failure to craft a good synopsis may point to a failure or weakness in the story itself. Long novels in particular can be difficult when they have many characters and subplots running through them. These make it difficult, especially for the author, to focus on the central story when he/she is too close to it. It can be very difficult to compress and entire novel that you’ve worked long and hard on into a few, meaningful sentences.

With that, let’s begin with an exercise to help develop and sharpen your skills. Go to the FABULA ARGENTEA website and read several of the current stories posted there. As of this post, that’s issue #13.

After you’ve finishing reading one, write a short synopsis (a few sentences at most) that might serve to interest someone in reading the story. Do not reveal the ending or go into any detail. This is a teaser. Merely write a short blurb of the sort you might use to tell a friend about the story to interest him or her in reading it.

Now, here’s the hard part. Even if you do not like a particular story enough to recommend it, do the exercise on it anyway. Pretend that you’re a marketing person for a publisher and that it’s your job to sell the story to readers.

In the next part in this series, I will post what I came up with. There are no 100% correct answers. Before I end this post, I’ll offer a few suggestions on how to do this exercise.

—Look for the heart or central idea of the story. Try to state it in one or two sentences. Because these are short stories, this will be considerably easier than if these were novels, where you could use a couple more sentences. Brief is the key idea here.

–Try to capture the flavor of the story, not merely tell what it’s about. Use this information to build your synopsis idea from above. The key to a great synopsis is to appeal to the reader’s emotions (or sense of humor, since several of these are humorous pieces).

If you want to expand this exercise, delve into the previous issue of the magazine and look at the stories “The Black Hole” and “The Next Stop.” Both are serious pieces and will provide good challenges because they’re harder to summarize. I will include those two in my own synopses for the stories next time as well.

If you want further exercises, look at a couple of the novels you’ve read recently and craft your own synopsis for them. Then compare yours to what the author or publisher wrote. See if you agree with them. Remember, there is no single right answer when it comes to writing good synopses.

Next time, I’ll explore the art of crafting a good synopsis, and I’ll offer ways of seeing past the details in your own work so you can cut to the core of the story, which is often where a compelling synopsis resides.

–Rick