Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Synopses, Sales Sheets and Outlines

I didn’t get to Bouchercon this year, after all and I still feel disappointed. Due to a family emergency, my roommate, Kate Carlisle had to cancel. I thought long and hard (or rather my bank account did) and decided, since I wasn’t on a panel and would be just a nameless, faceless author, I could really use a “free” weekend. I also couldn’t put off the chore of writing a synopsis for a new series I’m working on that I’ll be submitting in—good grief—ten days.

Apart from the fact I loathe writing these things, I only have a vague idea of where this particular story is heading after the mid-point. This is where the Outliner vs. the Seat-of-Pants is King. I outline until my characters take over – about a third of the way through. And that’s it.

A synopsis is different from an outline in that the goal is to sell your proposal—or novel. Among my many “careers” I wrote sales sheets—or one-page teasers—for Hollywood production studios to sell distribution rights to international territories at various festivals—Cannes, AFM, Mifed et al. In these sales sheets, the final paragraph is a cliffhanger, not a giveaway way e.g. “… and moments before the Tsunami hits the tiny island, Jenny makes a decision that will change the course of history. Will she save the world or die a martyr?” (I just made that up). I like being tantalized. It leaves me wanting more. But apparently, a synopsis must reveal the ending. And I don't have one.

A synopsis should also be written in single spacing, in the present tense and in the third person. A synopsis should jump straight in with the inciting incident. It must contain only the key events and plot twists. It is not a summary. A synopsis must also focus on exposing conflict between the primary characters and make them utterly fascinating creatures. Dialogue must be used sparingly if at all. Length is up for debate—I’ve heard of synopses running at 5 – 8 pages, mine usually come in around 3.

Re-reading this I have a sudden urge to have a nap. Writing an entire novel seems easier—at least for me. Any tips are gratefully received. If this goes well – drinks are on me!


Janice said...

The thing I hate most about synopses is that the person reading the synopsis needs to be someone who understands your shorthand, someone who knows you and your writing, someone who trusts you and sees the potential in your synopsis for drama/character/atmosphere. It's so hard to convey everything that you will bring to the story to bring it to life.

I mean, imagine the synopsis for Casablanca...
Rick owns a bar in Casablanca and one day his old flame Ilsa turns up with her husband trying to get some travel documents on the black market. Ilsa's pretty desperate and it's obvious she'll do anything for Rick if he will get them. After some ambiguity about where everyone's loyalties actually lie, Rick gets the couple the papers and decides to run off to Brazzaville with the local police Captain...

peter_may said...

I think publishers who demand synopses from their writers demonstrate their complete lack of understanding of the writing process. Your story, characters, and the development of both, can't be predicted. The writing process is one of discovery. You can't simply lay it all out in advance, coldly and unemotionally - no matter how much that is what the marketing people want. I do a synopsis, sure, but that's for myself, a part of my writing process. No one else ever gets to see it. I have never done synopses for publishers. I simply refuse. If they want to give me a contract they are going ton have to trust me. If not, then my synopsis is the finished manuscript.

Hannah Dennison said...

Janice - I KNOW --- so hard to capture the essence of one's writing in 2 pages ...!

Peter - your feelings are really clear and helpful to me! I'm not going to agonize over this any longer. Synopsis or not, I'm still going to complete the m/s regardless.

Big thank you!