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Jay Lake
Date: 2007-09-10 17:39
Subject: [process] The black art of synopses, wisdom from foreign parts
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Tags:links, process, writing
Writing process notes from people who are smarter than me...

ladnews with the 10.5 Commandments of writing.

He also made the following comments on email (quoted here with permission), much of which he credits to Tim Powers and Australian fantasy goddess Kim Wilkins:

  • The outline is not the outline you work from while writing the book. This one reads like jacket copy, is all in present tense, has no 'style,' and shouldn't be more than five pages — ten at the most. (Like all "rules" in writing, this can be broken if circumstance or an editor demands it.)

  • When submitting an outline, remember that this and the cover letter are the first examples of your ability to write effectively that a publisher will see. Make sure you spend a lot of time and care on it. Note 'write effectively'. That is,effective for the purpose at hand, which is synopsizing, not showing off your ability to produce staggering metaphors. The sentences should be elegant and clean and should not be overloaded with obvious or clunky figurative language. Your style should be simple and clear.

  • Don't think of your synopsis as a description of your story. Think of it as a selling tool for your story. They have quite different functions.

  • You can't put the whole story in. You can only put in key points. Use words like 'increasingly,' 'starts to,' and 'continues' to summarise story-building scenes. Resist the temptation to summarise all your favourite scenes.

  • Include the end. You're not trying to surprise or move the editor, as you would a reader. You're simply trying to show that you know how to end a story.

  • There is no place in a synopsis for extensive character background. Don't use up a paragraph detailing how a character has developed a certain moral or philosophical view of life. If it's important, add it in a clause: 'Wynona, who had always felt that sex meant nothing without love, rejects his advances.' There's no need to convince the reader; she'll take you at your word.

  • Edit ruthlessly. Weigh up every clause and ask 'does this have to be here?' If it doesn't, get rid of it.

  • I find it easier to start with a pretend blurb — to strip the book right back to the hook, the thing that will really grab the reader — then expand out from there.

Kelly McCullough with a tri-partite disquisition on pitches and synopses:

Synopses Suck (Pitching Part 2)
Synopses Still Suck (Pitching Part 3)
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2007-09-11 04:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I don't understand this "no style" commandment. "Sentences should be elegant and clean and should not be overloaded with obvious or clunky figurative language." This is different from sensible advice about the actual novel in exactly what way?

Some of the best synopses-and-outlines I've ever read have had quite a bit of stylistic flair and definitely some figurative language. I can't help but think that this advice, as stated, is simply going to further terrify and confuse writers who are already making the dreaded task into a much bigger deal than it needs to be.

The job of the selling synopsis is to get across (1) what kind of book it's going to be and (2) what it's going to feel like to read the book. Everything else is secondary.
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seanwilliams: wave
User: seanwilliams
Date: 2007-09-11 05:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm most often asked about synopses by first-time writers in the context of submitting the novel to a publisher. I don't think I'm far out of line by assuming that there would be sample chapters accompanying such a synopsis. Therefore it seems to me much safer to let those sample chapters do the job of capturing what reading the book will be like.

I absolutely agree that keeping prose elegant and clean is good for novels as well as synopses. I absolutely disagree that "obvious or clunky figurative language" is the same thing as "stylistic flair and...some figurative language". The key word here is "clunky", of course.

Really, I think we're on the same page, just reading it a little differently. Giving new writers advice that might help them break down what seems an arcane and difficult task the first time out can hardly do them harm. Only someone really wanting to be confused would ever be terrified by advice like this.
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User: kellymccullough
Date: 2007-09-11 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: Thanks
for the linkage. Hopefully they'll help someone along a bit.
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