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[process] Novel synopses - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-08-15 19:33
Subject: [process] Novel synopses
Security: Public
Tags:books, mainspring, process, trial, writing
Ah, novel synopses. The second most mysterious aspect of becoming a professional novelist. (The most mysterious aspect is the "how do I get an agent?" dance.)

The best description I ever got of a synopsis was from a workshop mentor who said, "Imagine two teenage boys coming out of a movie, recounting the plot to one another." It's all present tense, it's short sentences and paragraphs, it's all the high points without much detail.

Length is highly variable. I sold, then wrote, Trial of Flowers off a five paragraph synopsis. I know people who routinely write 50-75 pages of synopsis before they consider themselves ready to write the novel. Some of that has to do with how much detail you want or need to capture.

Remember that a synopsis serves multiple purposes. It's a selling document, to promote your work to your agent and your editor, and once sold, to the marketing department. It's also your roadmap while writing the book. (Sometimes a synopsis written for that purpose is called an outline.)

Here's something to try. Write a long synopsis, 5-10 pages or more, with a lot of detail. Then write a short one, 1-2 pages. Then write a 1-3 paragraph description, as it might be explained in a review. Then write a 1-2 sentence description, as it might be explained in a publisher's catalog listing. If you can do all of those things, then you really understand your book. As a practical matter, you might not be able to do all of those things until after you've written the book, but you should probably be able to do some of them.

Don't be coy. This isn't the place to hide the Big Secret. An agent or editor reading it needs to know how the story comes out, who the secret heir is, where Uncle Wally hid the atom bomb. Put everything in there that needs to be there.

Don't be rigid. No battle plan survives contact with the enemy. No synopsis survives contact with the manuscript. On the one hand, use it as your guide. On the other hand, if you have a better idea while you're writing, follow the muse.

One thing I do is paste the synopsis at the bottom of my working draft. Then, as I go through the novel (since I write them front-to-back, generally), I delete portions of the synopsis which have been filled in. In essence, I use it as an outline in the term paper sense, or at least as a writing guide.

If you're curious, here's a link to the synopses of Mainspring Powell's | Amazon ] and Trial of Flowers Powell's | Amazon ].

http://www.jlake.com/syn/

This will be a lot more useful if you've read the books, I should think, but feel free to look at them in any case. Remember that Mainspring sold as a finished spec book, while Trial sold off the synopsis you see there.

Once again, feel free to make with the comments, corrections and alternatives.

ETA: pnh, who knows whereof he speaks in glittering spades, has added the following two corrections:

Trivially, our catalog descriptions are usually a bit longer than 1-2 sentences. Depending on the book, they run from three sentences to three or four paragraphs.

More importantly, catalog descriptions, front flap copy, and the like--all of which I call "story copy"--is fundamentally different from synopses and other working documents. The purpose of story copy is to provide the setup while withholding the resolution. It's the movie trailer, not the two kids explaining the movie to each other after they've seen it.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2007-08-16 08:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fascinating. Many thanks for the information.

Interesting to see how diifferent the final version of "Trial Of Flowers" was from the synopsis - a fine example of how "no synopsis survives contact with the manuscript" (can't comment on Mainspring, not having read it).
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-16 08:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Maybe this is a different post, but can I ask about trilogies? I've worked out that the book I'm writing will work better as a trilogy than as a single massive volume, but when putting the synopsis of the book, do you also need to do a synopsis of the trilogy? I understand the basic principles of pitching a single book, but don't know about pitching multiple book arcs.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-16 13:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't really have any expertise in that area. In fact, I'm flat ignorant. I suspect that should I ever be moved to Commit Trilogy, I'll treat the entire arc as one giant synopsis/selling process, and work with the editor on where and how to split. So far as I know, trilogies are split for production reasons more than for literary reasons — ie, it's impractical to publish a 2,400 page mass market paperback.

Perhaps others will shed light on this.

Now you're making me think carefully about the difference between series, sequels and trilogies.
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manmela
User: manmela
Date: 2007-08-16 14:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Easy (I think!)

Series are a group of loosely connected books about a central character or place. Whilst there might be a story arc flowing between them, you can pretty much jump in anywhere and in any order. Exceptions are becoming more commonplace, as 7 book arcs are the new fad, but I'd class a lot of those as septologies rather than a series.

Sequels are standalone adventures that follow on from a story arc with self-contained story arcs.

Trilogies, duologies or whatever-ogies are stories with a story arc running through them. Unlike series you can't really jump in at the middle, but should read each of the books in order.

Now, I'm sure people will find exceptions...
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User: joycemocha
Date: 2007-08-16 17:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting.

I guess, by this definition, that my NETWALKER trilogy is not a trilogy but a series.Now, can someone point me to a definitive definition of "arc"?

(I've heard so many).

May be a while before I'm back on line, though, so no real rush...I'm traveling and using the son's computer instead of mine because of the damn internet charges in this Vegas hotel...but tomorrow morning I'll be at McCarran, with free internet.
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seventorches
User: seventorches
Date: 2007-08-19 06:20 (UTC)
Subject: Arcs end--7 point plot
You know an arc when you see it end. That's why they call it an arc--it looks like the path of a thrown ball. Sometimes it's a tall, skinny arc, like when you thow a ball up and catch it in your other hand. Sometimes it's a nice parabola, like just playing catch. Sometimes it's a fast curve right over the plate. But you always know what you saw--beginning, middle, end.

But, I didn't know what I was seeing until I learned AJ Budry's 7-point plot. Pretty much any story arc will follow those points:

(1) Character in a situation with a problem
(2) tries to fix the problem, fails, things get worse
(3) ditto
(4) ditto
(5) tries to fix the problem, succeeds (or fails)(victory or death)
(6) validation.

(I don't know why it's only 6 points when I write it. This is complete. )

As a reader of stories you will know this structure the same way you know where to expect the break in a pop song. You'll know when it's right, when it's different and when it's broken. As a writer, you have to relearn it. Alas.
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2007-08-16 11:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The best description I ever got of a synopsis was from a workshop mentor who said, "Imagine two teenage boys coming out of a movie, recounting the plot to one another." It's all present tense, it's short sentences and paragraphs, it's all the high points without much detail.

That's excellent; I'm going to steal it for future workshop teaching gigs.

Remember that a synopsis serves multiple purposes. It's a selling document, to promote your work to your agent and your editor, and once sold, to the marketing department.

Mileage will vary, but I have personally never used a writer's submission outline/synopsis as a tool to sell a book to my sales and marketing people.

Here's something to try. Write a long synopsis, 5-10 pages or more, with a lot of detail. Then write a short one, 1-2 pages. Then write a 1-3 paragraph description, as it might be explained in a review. Then write a 1-2 sentence description, as it might be explained in a publisher's catalog listing. If you can do all of those things, then you really understand your book.

That's a good exercise, but I want to make two corrections, one trivial and one important.

Trivially, our catalog descriptions are usually a bit longer than 1-2 sentences. Depending on the book, they run from three sentences to three or four paragraphs.

More importantly, catalog descriptions, front flap copy, and the like--all of which I call "story copy"--is fundamentally different from synopses and other working documents. The purpose of story copy is to provide the setup while withholding the resolution. It's the movie trailer, not the two kids explaining the movie to each other after they've seen it.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-16 13:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. I've edited the post accordingly.
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lordofallfools
User: lordofallfools
Date: 2007-08-16 11:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for the comments, Jay. I always find your writing advice (even when I don't take it) to be intelligent and practical.
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kellymccullough
User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-08-16 13:58 (UTC)
Subject: One further note
I make a distinction between synopsis and outline, both in my own work and for my writing students and mentees. A synopsis for me is the sales tool and an outline is the working document.

Sometimes they're one and the same thing, but generally they're only related works. When I sell something off proposal, the outline is built directly on the bones of the synopsis but expands it and adds writing details (as opposed to story detail). Or, when I'm writing a synopsis post-novel, I usually start from the revised outline and work it down to the appropriate length and content.

For me at least the two are radically different in tone and what they include since one is written for me and the other for an audience.
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Cat Rambo: thumbs
User: catrambo
Date: 2007-08-16 15:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:thumbs
Thanks! That's very useful and timely for me.
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ericjamesstone
User: ericjamesstone
Date: 2007-08-17 12:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thanks for posting your actual synopses. It's very helpful.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-17 13:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome, sir.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-01-23 20:05 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome. Feel free to friend!
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