Monday, May 3, 2010

A Note on Synopses

When reading partial manuscripts, the first thing that I always read, before even taking a peak at the partial itself, is the synopsis. As of late, I have found this to be a particularly troubling element for many writers who have submitted their work to us.

Some writers submit synopses with not enough information. I like brevity and conciseness, but when I see a synopsis that is only a few paragraphs long, I am always concerned. Usually these synopses give a hint of what the story is about, but they don’t outline the full plot, leaving me to guess what kind of climax and resolution the story might have. They almost always end with something like, “Will John Doe learn to let down his defenses and go after the woman he loves?” These teasers drive me crazy! How am I supposed to know whether or not your novel has a decent climax and resolution and is something that we can market if you don’t tell me how the story plays out?

And then there are the writers who submit incredibly long synopses (usually four pages or more), outlining every single detail of their story. When I see these, I feel like I’m back in high school, reading Cliff Notes or Spark Notes, in which every minute detail in every single chapter is spelled out. I don’t want to feel like I’m cramming for a test on a book that I didn’t read. I just want to know what the story is about, generally speaking. Who are the main characters, and what is the plot arc, including conflict, climax, and resolution? That’s all I need to know. I don’t need to know every single detail—that’s why I’m reading the manuscript.

A synopsis can make or break your chances. After your query has been accepted, it is your first chance to make a good (or bad) first impression. You have to find a good balance between saying enough and not saying too much. Generally speaking, if it is only a few paragraphs, you haven’t written enough, and if it’s more than three five pages (with 1.5 or double spacing), you’ve written too much. Think of the synopsis as a sales pitch in which you have only a few minutes—or pages, rather—to convince us that your story is worth publishing. Don’t tease us, don’t ramble on forever. Just tell us what we need to know.

~ Jenn

10 comments:

TootingWurzel said...

Really really useful thank you - I'm doing my synposis for my MA proposal now!

frank1569 said...

A writer writes a great novel. But, because said writer doesn't also write great query letters or the perfect synopsis, his great novel may never be read, because too many agents only read novels by writers who also write fabulous queries and synopses.

Just because I can build a great car doesn't mean I'm good at selling that car - that's what salesmen and agents are for. Do agents only see movies if the poster is cool and tagline is titillating?

Kate said...

It seems to me that some of the people submitting a "cliffhanger" don't actually understand what a synopsis IS - they're writing cover copy, or a query teaser, not a synopsis.

I really wish we could just give every author a handy-dandy cheat sheet telling them the difference between these elements! I'd include this discussion of what's too long and what's not enough on something like that!

Steph said...

I agree with these sentiments, but I must say that there are even worse proposals around than there are synopses. I do not understand how so-called 'writers' can let these two documents slip so readily. They are deal-breakers and they are often treated as after-thoughts which is more than a little silly.

scarlettprose said...

If more than three pages on a double spaced synopsis irritates you, then perhaps you should change your submission guidelines. It says you prefer 3-5 pages, but if you really don't want more than three, you are setting us up to fail even if we're simply complying with your guidelines.

Naomi said...

Scarlettprose: To clarify Jenn's post, our preference here IS for a 3-5 pp. synopsis, not for a 3-page-maximum synopsis. Sorry for the confusion.

Emily Casey said...

My current synopsis outlines the first half of the main plot, then shows how some of the subplots tie in, then details the ending (with all lose ends tied up). Will this work, or would you prefer if we went in sequential order?

Naomi said...

Emily--It sounds like something like that could work, but you want to make sure that, in separating the main plotline from the sub-plotlines, you don't give the reader the impression that all of the plotlines aren't woven together successfully in your manuscript.

Mark Anthony said...

Thank you for the clarification. frank1569, while I agree that our focus should remain on books, queries and synopses are the only way we can realistically compete with each other for a voice.

Amanda Sablan said...

Great advice. Thank you. I'm in the process of writing my synopsis right now and I can't get enough good advice!