8.15.2010

Writing a Synopsis: Just Walk Away


There is something about writing a synopsis that appeals to the linear, "just the facts, ma'am" portion of my brain. While it requires its own form of artistic tweaking, the heart of it is already there. It's the story you just wrote, stripped of all its pretty metaphors, symbolism, and witticisms until all we're left with is the bones of your plot and your characters, spackled together so that anyone in charge of buying or selling books knows how they go together and if what they do is compelling enough to attract readers.

It's a task that sounds easy until you actually try it on your own work. I have edited a number of synopses of books I didn't write and enjoyed it, but if there is one thing I have learned from trying to craft a synopsis from my most recent book, it's this. I should have written the thing before I wrote the novel. Then, once the novel was done, a little bit of judicious snipping and splicing would have netted me a completed synopsis with less effort than writing a blog about it.

But who really does that? Truth is, if you're spending so much time writing outlines and synopses, all the energy that could go into writing your book will more often than not be lost forever. So we end up doing it the hard way. Really, we procrastinate. That's just the way it is.  

So how do we reduce the pain? 

1. Give yourself a few days to do it. You're not going to spit out a 5 page or less, double-spaced, well-written and coherent summary of your 300+ page novel in 45 minutes. It's a multi-stage process. Imagine you're looking at your synopsis from a satellite up in orbit. Every stage after that, you will be zooming in closer and closer until you can see your hot neighbor taking a shower. Or whatever.

2. Go through each chapter of your book and write a paragraph or two summary of that chapter. Establish your setting. Write in the present tense, third-person. Even if your book is in the first person. Stick to important bullet points, the ones that highlight the main conflict and advance the plot. Don't worry right now about writing style. This is nothing more than a grocery list. Your satellite is still fully zoomed out here.

3. By the time you finish this, you could have a document that is anywhere from 10-30 pages. Your satellite is now focused on a continent and it's zeroing in on a country. Start shaving sentences. Read each one individually and ask yourself whether it needs to be there. Does it sell the main idea of your story? Is it necessary to establishing your characters and advancing your plot? If not, ditch it. There isn't going to be room for every scene from your novel in a synopsis, so you have to be very picky and prioritize. 

4. Rinse, lather, repeat. You may have to do this five or six times before you have all of your important elements there. You may also be on day two or three of this process. I recommend taking a break between every whittling session. Go through the entire synopsis once and then walk away for a few hours. Take a nap, cook dinner, go for a walk. Come back to it with fresh eyes. When you feel you've done all you can do, the document will still be 3 or 4 pages too long, but that's okay. By now, your satellite is hovering over Belize (for the sake of the metaphor, just go with it) and it's steadily zooming in on the capital city (that's Belize City, in case you weren't sure). This is when the fun part begins.

5. Fun? Of course I said it's fun. This is where you get to start using your strengths as a writer, getting down to the actual words and asking yourself whether you can replace five of them with two, or whether you can combine three clunky sentences into one main idea. Cut and splice, cut and splice. When you think you can't do anymore and you still have 5 1/2 pages, walk away. Put it out of your head. Read some other synopses of stories far more complicated than yours (Wikipedia is always a good place to look) and admire how they were able to sum up their plots in five or six paragraphs. Get pissed off or inspired. Come back to your synopsis and read each sentence with a magnifying glass if you have to. This is like a puzzle. By the time you reach your goal of 5 pages or less, your satellite will be centered right over your hot neighbor's house. 

But the picture of that shower is still a little fuzzy. Read the synopsis again. Ask yourself if it fits the style and spirit of your book. Pull out your writer's toolbox and color things up a little. If you wrote a fun, fast-paced rollicking adventure, the synopsis should reflect that. Each time you slice a bland verb and replace it with a crisp and concrete one, every time you cut needless adverbs or adjectives, the picture of that hot neighbor grows sharper. 

By the time you're finished, a few days will have passed or it'll feel like it. You might even wonder, after a long and in-depth glance at your story's brass tacks, if the book you wrote is any good. That may be one reason why so many writers dread doing this sort of thing in the first place. Taking such a close and cold look at something we hold so dear isn't always very flattering. Maybe that hot neighbor isn't as hot naked.

Well, don't let that slow you down. With practice, it will get easier. You may just decide with your next book that you'll do things a bit differently. You'll write your synopsis first. Heck, maybe you'll even write it in tandem with your novel, or do it right after you finish the book, while it's still fresh in your mind. You'll plan ahead so it doesn't hurt so bad. 

Yeah. Right.


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