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Four tips for writing a synopsis that sells

Before I wrote my first synopsis, I thought it would be a breeze—after all, I’d done the hard part, right? I had finished and edited an entire book! What could be harder than that? Plenty, I was to learn.

Recently, I helped chair a major literary contest where I read over 100 book synopses. I was impressed with a handful of the synopses, but, for the most part, they were vague or poorly written or trying to be “mysterious” when they needed to be clear and to the point. I realized that I was probably not alone in my dread of the synopsis. Writing a GOOD synopsis is one of the hardest tasks undertaken by a writer.

The main purpose of a synopsis is to provide a summary of an entire novel. It must provide an overview of the plot (including the ending), characters, and theme.

Put yourself in the shoes of a literary agent who is deciding from your synopsis whether or not to read the first pages of your book. Your synopsis has to be even more perfect than your stellar novel. No pressure, right?

No worries. Below are a few tips to help you make your synopsis sing:

  1. Walk the line. In other words, don’t be vague but don’t provide too much information. An agent (and publisher) will want to see your major plot points. Some of the synopses I read were vague and left me with the feeling that the book wasn’t really finished yet. Make sure you present your entire plot. Conversely, agents don’t want to read about every little thing that happened. Some synopses were so overstuffed with every little detail that they made my brain glaze over. Maybe the author was excited about their ideas, but it came across as too much clutter. Be specific but only with major plots points.
  1. Make your synopsis sing. Make sure your synopsis is as well written or better than your novel. Bring your synopsis to your writing group for a critique. Rewrite it. Bring it back again. Read it out loud. Better yet, read it into a tape recorder and listen back to it while you’re out for a walk. You’ll hear any awkwardness. Fix it. Polish it. Make it shine. I was utterly astounded by the number of poorly written synopses. Bad grammar. Bad English. Long, gangly, confusing sentences. If I were an agent, those submissions would go instantly into the burn pile.
  1. Mysterious is not sexy. At least not in your synopsis! Nothing more annoying than reading a synopsis that tries to be mysterious. Agents want to know how your story ends. They HAVE to know how it ends. Don’t be coy or leave them hanging. It’s UNPROFESSIONAL and telegraphs to the agent that you are a BEGINNER. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a version of this at the end of a synopsis: “And then Marisa solves the mysteries that surround her.” No. No. No. Tell us exactly what mysteries she solves.
  1. Use correct formatting. The first time you mention characters in your synopsis, their names should be in all caps. Subsequent mentions are lowercase. Example: “JANET HARRISON is a typical suburban, van-driving, soccer mom. Or so everyone in her neighborhood believes. What her neighbors don’t know about Janet is….”  For more on formatting your manuscript and synopsis, I like the book, Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript by Chuck Sambuchino.

The point of a synopsis is to get the agent or editor to want to read the whole book. Since their time is limited, the synopsis lets them see that the product is complete and sound enough for them to want to read at least the first few chapters or more.

Want more good information on writing a synopsis?  Check out Marissa Meyer’s post, 6 Steps for Writing a Book Synopsis.




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