How do I write a proper synopsis?
February 10, 2009 9:16 AM   Subscribe

How do you write a synopsis for submission to a British publishing house?

I'm attempting to sell a novel right now directly to a few British publishers (Canongate, etc.) though I'm focusing most of my efforts on getting an agent.

The problem: I'm a Yank, and we don't really do the whole synopsis thing over here, so I have no idea what I'm doing, beyond, say: keep it short. All previous attempts sound fairly asinine. Any hints or good templates?

Thanks very much.
posted by Football Bat to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm shopping a novel in the US, and I've had to send synopses to a number of agents once they requested my manuscript. Agent Query is a great resource (scroll down to synopsis formatting). The message boards at Absolute Write, especially Share Your Work, are very helpful. And here's a recent post on synopses from a popular agent's weblog. Good luck!
posted by changeling at 10:54 AM on February 10, 2009

Best answer: 1. Reduce the plot to a list of bullet points.

2. Trim the list. Is each bullet point the most concise it can be? Is every piece of information presented integral to the plot?

3. Trim it further. Trim it down to the bones. Trim it so it barely feels like your novel anymore.

4. Now read it back. Better yet, get somebody else to do it. Does it make sense? Is there a clear plot? Does enough happen? Is the progression of events logical, evident and satisfying? Is the pacing smooth? These are the questions the agent will be asking. If you can't honestly answer them all with a resounding yes, then start over.

5. While keeping your word count as low as possible, work your way through the list putting the information back into proper paragraphs.

6. Read it through, check the information is all still there and isn't obscured by needlessly descriptive language.

7. You're done.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:28 PM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Consistent naming. If you have a character called Football Bat, I don't care if you refer to him as Football, Mr Bat or The Flying Pigskin, so long as you pick one name and use it consistently throughout the synopsis.

Tense and POV do not have to match that of the book. Your synopsis should be in third person. No exceptions. Writing your synopsis in the present tense is strongly encouraged, unless you have a very good reason for using the past tense.

If you're doing something out of the ordinary in your novel, you should mention it, but do not employ said stylistic weirdness when writing your synopsis. (So the synopsis for The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time would say that the novel has a naive narrator, but it would be written in third person omniscient. The synopsis for The Time Traveller's Wife would mention that the book jumps around in time, but the synopsis itself would be linear.)

Basically, the golden rules are: show the plot, don't be cute, keep it brief.
posted by the latin mouse at 12:58 PM on February 10, 2009

You know the teaser they have on the back covers of books? The one that not only gives you the gist of the book but also makes you think "Hey, this seems really interesting, I might buy it"? You want to write that.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:27 PM on February 10, 2009

"we don't really do the synopsis thing over here?"

I'm sorry, what US agents are you submitting to WITHOUT a synopsis? If you aren't, you're either not submitting to real agents, or something is very very wrong. My god, I hate writing synopses more than I hate moving. I wish the publishing industry didn't require them. I have even tried to pay someone to write a synopsis for me (someone who did coverage for the movie industry - it seemed like it would work) only to realize the only one who can accurately write a synopsis that would sell is to do it myself.

If you just google "how to write a synopsis" you will get umpteen zillion links, although changeling has it. And turgid dahlia almost has it, although that's aimed at a much different audience and you need more meat than that for an agent or a publishing house.
posted by micawber at 5:34 PM on February 10, 2009

Response by poster: micawber: yeah, umpteen zillion links of conflicting information. I tend to respect mefites' opinions more than random lit-blogging. And my experience with US agents, from ICM to Ann Rittenberg has been you send in the query letter, then they ask to see the manuscript. Never encountered the need for a synopsis before. Guess I've been lucky so far.

Thanks everybody. The blasted thing's already looking better.
posted by Football Bat at 6:22 PM on February 10, 2009

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