Synopsis and the beauty of brevity

Should a synopsis give a flavor for the writer's style, or do you view this simply as a means to an end--a tool to make sure the story has plot and doesn't veer off in any wierd directions?

I've heard some agents/editors say, lose the fancy stuff and just tell them the plot, then I've heard others say it should be a tool that sells your story AND your writing style. I guess it could be both but I know from my painful struggles that an effort to write both a pithy and artful synopsis often leads to insanity.

I can't tell you how many times I've had to rein in my voice in a synopsis because in trying to write it in the same voice I would the story, it ran too long. Now, my synopses have a little flavor for my voice, or I think they do, but recently a contest judge said my two-page (double spaced) synopsis didn't show off my voice. I'm not sure I believe her, but it did bring this question to mind. (Perhaps I'll send it through the crapometer and see what you think of it.)

Another related question is, in a short synopsis (500-1000 words), how much information do you really need? For both of my historical novels, the inciting situations involve complex backstory.

It would be impossible to give all the relevant setup info in the synopsis and still get through the entire plot, plus show emotional growth, motivation, goals, yada yada yada, yet inevitably, contest judges and sometimes crit partners want information that couldn't
possibly fit into such a short space, or even into a four or five pager.

If you read a synopsis for example, feel reasonably comfortable with the setup (sounds realistic, interesting, etc), but perhaps don't know all the gory details of how it came about, is this ok and are you
satisfied enough to find out in the pages?

A synopses is a blueprint of a novel. You show where the rooms are but now how they're furnished or what color the walls will be. A synopsis is a very bad tool for showing voice; you show voice in your sample pages. I can't imagine ever sending a synopsis without sending a sample of the writing along with it.

As you know by reading the blog, Miss Snark isn't much for backstory. In a historical novel you can assume some, if not most, of the backstory is known. You don't have to explain that in 1066 the Normans invaded England and go on for five paragraphs about why. 1066 conveys it all to an educated person. Same with "November 22, 1963".

Feel free to send it through the Crapometer, I hear it's chewing it's way back to NYC as we speak, currently in a feeding frenzy in Crawford, Texas.


Anonymous said...

You don't have to explain that in 1066 the Normans invaded England and go on for five paragraphs about why. 1066 conveys it all to an educated person. Same with "November 22, 1963".

Very true, Miss S and a major reason I could barely finish the gimmicky Evan Hunter/Ed McBain "collaboration" Candyland.

Throughout the book, Hunter refers to the Kennedy assassination as taking place on November 21.

Where were the editor and proofreaders?

Anonymous said...

"You don't have to explain that in 1066 the Normans invaded England and go on for five paragraphs about why. 1066 conveys it all to an educated person. Same with "November 22, 1963".

Ah so you are saying it was the Normans behind Oswald and everyone else thought it was the Mob or CIA.

Miss Snark said...

Just call me Oliver "Stormin' Norman" Snark.

Rick said...

Miss Snark isn't much for backstory.

Is this related to why Miss Snark doesn't handle SF/F? When the whole historical background is made up, the educated reader doesn't know the backstory context. It has to be at least briefly sketched out. Admittedly, this can be very briefly, since an SF/F agent or editor knows how the game is played. "The Dark Lord, vanquished at the end of the Second Age, has secretly restored his power ..." "The Galactic Empire has fallen ..."

Still, it strikes me that SF/F is just the opposite of other genres, in terms of how much can be shorthanded. In a romance, you know that two people will be attracted, hit obstacles, but finally get together. In a mystery, you know that someone will turn up dead, and someone will figure out why. In SF/F, all you know at the get-go is what you don't know - the background will not be something you can take for granted, such as the familiar here-and-now or the known historical past.

So the synopsis has to cover a bit more ground than a non SF/F synopsis would.

Anonymous said...

Forget Kennedy. Me thinks perhaps this is truly Miss Snark's birthday...Could it be so? A Sagittarius? And to think, I had you pegged for a Scorpio.

kim reid said...

One way to get the first draft of a synopsis on paper is to write a brief sentence describing the main action of each chapter. Connect these sentences into a coherent and readable form. Cut and tighten as necessary.

This one sentence outline also helps during revisions: keep track of what happens where, tie up loose ends, remove extraneous plot lines, detect plodding middles, etc.

Unknown said...

Since you can not imagine sending in a synopsis without a sample of one's writing... I assume the Crapometer must have equally refined tastes.

A. C. Crispin said...

If anyone is interested in seeing an example of a synopsis that sold a book, there's one on the Writer Beware blog. I posted most of the synopsis I did for my Han Solo novel, The Paradise Snare.

I HAD to include some "history" and "backstory" so that Lucasfilm would know precisely where in their chronology the novel would be set, so the example includes the way I handled this problem.

You can reach the Writer Beware blog by clicking on "Ann and Victoria" under "Very Cool People" to the right of Her Greatness's blog entries.

-Ann C. Crispin
Writer Beware

Shadow said...

"...the Crapometer...currently in a feeding frenzy in Crawford, Texas."

Oh, no!! By the time it gets through gorging itself on the unbelievable quantity of utter crap and mangled language that emerges from the mouth of our Chief Executive Nitwit (the one with the vacation home in Crawford, Texas) it will be so sated it will let out an enormous burp and settle in for a nap somewhere over Alabama. No way it'll ever get as far as NYC.

Blumertha said...

Dear Miss Snark

I'm hesitant about submitting my new novel for publication because I do not want to see it remaindered. There are so many great works of literature in my local bookstore, all at knock down prices (my God, you can even get The Bible for a couple of bucks) and I don't want the same to happen to my magnum opus. I have a large opus. My question is, how can I be assured that my genius will run and run ?

Regards, BM

Mac said...

>1066 conveys it all to an educated person. Same with "November 22, 1963".
I'm an educated person, but that date meant nothing to me. I had to google it to discover it was the dark day in history that both C.S Lewis & Aldous Huxley died. (Oh - and some American politician too.)

I know this may be heretical to many, but you can be educated without knowing the exact dates of every assassination across the world in the last 80 years. (Or perhaps the idea is that educated people would know exact dates in American history but be ignorant of the rest of the world?)

C'mon - admit it. How many of the following dates would instantly 'convey all' to you:

* May 10, 1838
* August 21, 1983
* June 1, 2001
* May 21, 2002

All of those were political assasinations which 'rocked the world' (at least as much as Kennedy's), but I suspect that without googling, most would be unrecognisable. Why should these dates be any less recognisable to an educated person than 22nd November 1963 ?

Besides, if only educated people can enjoy the book, aren't you limiting sales a bit !?


Linda Maye Adams said...

Thank for you the continuing information on synopses. There's so much confusing information out there that it makes it difficult to even write something that's hard to write from the start.

As a side note--from personal experience unfortunately--if the synopsis is impossible to put together, the problem may not be with the synopsis but with the setup of the story in the book.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Mac, I thought it was the Kennedy assassination, but I wasn't sure. I suppose the date is ingrained in American memories like Nov. 9, 1938 is in German memories.

There are some historical dates/incidents that are so well know that you don't have to explain anything, but what about less well known ones? I think you'll have to sneak some info into a synopsis in such cases.

Something like that:

121 AD, shortly before the Hadrian's Wall is built, the Romans hold but a tenacious grip on the northern tribes. Talorcan mac Ferac, tribal leader of the Selgovae, incites his people to fight a guerilla war against the Romans to force them to abandon the strongholds on his land, and to avenge the death of his parents.

The Romans send reinforcements to the fort at Vindolanda south of the Selgovian border, led by the cavalry prefect Caius Horatius Ravilla, a patrician from a disgraced family, eager to restore his name.

(Just a spontaneous scribble, not an actual synopsis.)

Sal said...

I realize that this comment thread is now three days old and this comment may well get lost in the shuffle. (Do I go back to "old" comment threads to see if something new's been said? Depends on how hard I'm procrastinating.)

Mark Terry at This Writing Life has an interesting blog entry on synopses today with samples.

A writer sent an e-query to Terry's agent to Terry's e-address hoping, apparently, that Terry would forward it on. (How weird is that?)

He didn't. He e-mailed it back and posted the e-mail and a critique of the synopsis on his blog.

I don't know which Ms Kraas at Kraas Literary Agency is Mark Terry's agent, but neither accepts e-queries and a note at the Kraas Literary Agency Web site clearly states, "The agency will not be accepting submissions from Thanksgiving 2005 until January 2, 2006."

I'm not quite sure what the unnamed writer was hoping to accomplish, but I'm sure s/he wasn't expecting a public critique.