Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

Synopsisopolis

I used to have the worst time with writing synopses of novels. Part of it was that I had a career as a novelist before I ever really needed to write one. I sold my first book with a complete manuscript in hand, and the same with my second, and while I had to write a few paragraphs for the later books in that series, they weren’t what you’d call well-fleshed-out synopses.

But eventually the day came when, in order to sell a book based on a proposal, I had to first write an actual synopsis, describing an as-yet-unwritten novel in some detail, and my poor brain just vapor-locked. That’s not how I work! I complained to those poor unfortunates who are obliged to call themselves my friends. I just leap into the book and see where the current takes me! I can’t plan ahead! The book would become like unto a dead thing on the page! (Yeah, I really say stuff like “like unto a dead thing,” it’s troubling.)

Fortunately some of my friends who are more established writers than I am said, “It’s not like you have to follow the synopsis. Just give them the general idea, and as long as you don’t deviate so wildly that the book enters a different genre or becomes totally different in tone, nobody is likely to care.”

I found that comforting — it took some of the pressure off — but I still had a hell of a time writing the things. I’d sit down and start writing, and when I looked up I’d have five pages of backstory and character motivations and interrelationships and nothing about plot. So I’d try again, and end up with a well-described plot that sounded frankly dumb and improbable, because it left out the character stuff that gave it any weight. So I’d try to combine them both and end up with a synopsis in the neighborhood of 8,000 words long, for an editor who wanted “a couple of pages.”

Eventually I had one of my few genuine epiphanies. The point of a synopsis, I decided, was to convey some of the excitement I felt about the book I was planning to my editor, in a document they could use to convey that excitement to higher-ups at the publishing company, and marketing people, and so on.

I thought, “Why don’t I try to describe the book the way I would describe it to someone at a party?” This is something I’ve been known to do, at convention parties especially, when someone is unwise enough to say, “So what are you working on now?” Depending on how much alcohol I’ve had, the responses can be quite long and involved and necessitate a certain amount of waving my arms and possibly shouting. (I briefly considered and discarded the notion of a video synopsis where I would simply record myself ranting about the book I had planned. Novelty can be good but there are limits.)

Still, I used that as my guiding principle: write the synopsis in a conversational tone, as if telling a sympathetic friend about the really cool thing I’m going to write. I wouldn’t tell them every turn of the plot or every reversal, but I’d hit the highlights, and get across the tone and the nature of the characters and convey the essential awesomeness of what I had in mind.

I tried writing the dread synopsis that way, and it came out pretty well, so I sent it in, and sold the book. I’ve used that technique in every synopsis I’ve written since then, and it’s worked more often than not. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution for all writers everywhere… but it was the only way to defuse my own anxiety about the process, and it seems to get the essential spirit of the book across, which matters.

Writing synopses went from being something that terrified me utterly to something I do without anxiety — indeed, with some pleasure. They even serve a useful function for me, by crystallizing what’s most important to me about the book, what I’m most passionate about, and what sets my mind racing most rapidly. There’s still enough mystery in the details that I keep myself interested while writing, and give myself problems I have to ingeniously solve, but I don’t lose sight of the basic shape of the book or feel lost in the fog of possibilities.

I wrote a synopsis for a proposal last week, and my process was this: take a long walk and think about the book. Sit down at my favorite bar and get a beer and scribble in a notebook. And, barring some clean-up, I was done. (Of course I don’t know if it’ll sell, but I think it’s a pretty good synopsis.)

So if I’m ever at a party and I’ve had a few to drink and I begin to slowly back you toward a wall while animatedly talk-shouting about my next book, unreeling what seems to be a stream-of-consciousness list of eyeball kicks and set pieces and things I insist will be really cool even if they don’t sound remotely cool, take comfort in the thought that you’re helping me refine the pitch for some future project.

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