I’m so pleased to introduce you to Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Hyphen Editing and Coaching. I first met Jennifer through Pitch Wars when she was a participating agent, and as a reader, I’m a huge fan of some of the books she’s represented over the years. Jennifer travels the world, reading, editing, and coaching, and if you are in need of a coach of any kind – for editing, for querying, for understanding how to make your work stronger and better and get it ready either for publication or querying agents – your money would be well-spent hiring Jennifer, who understands the in’s and out’s of this industry better than most. Here is a link to her website.
Today she’s going to walk readers through the dreaded synopsis…one of the hardest (and most necessary skills) a writer needs to master.
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— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) January 13, 2018
7 Tips for Writing the (Neglected, Dreaded, Necessary) Synopsis
Writers spend endless hours agonizing over their query letters—as well they should; the query letter is the first impression. But for agents who request them, synopses are also hugely important. They tell the agent what the story is about, demonstrating that it’s well plotted with interesting characters. A good synopsis can convince agents they have to read your manuscript immediately; a bad synopsis can shuffle your manuscript to the bottom of their piles…or off their desks altogether.
I started requesting synopses after I’d been agenting for about a year, when my time was starting to become more limited. After reading dozens of manuscripts, I realized I needed to know sooner rather than later if there was an irredeemable plot twist 2/3 of the way in. And I quickly saw how problematic synopses are for writers.
Now that I’m a freelance editor offering synopsis critiques, I’m even more aware of the difficulties synopses pose. The seven tips below should help you avoid the pitfalls I’ve seen other writers fall into.
- You need to write a synopsis.
This might seem obvious, but as an agent, I once got an email from a potential client telling me politely that she’d decided not to write a synopsis in order to spend her time elsewhere. This signaled to me that the author wasn’t ready to do the work traditional publishing requires, and I passed on her book. More innocuously, authors sometimes took longer than expected to send me their manuscripts because they hadn’t yet written a synopsis. Don’t make an agent wait; write your synopsis before you query.
- Keep your synopsis length to 1-2 pages.
Your book has many delightful nuances, but a synopsis is meant to convey the major plot points in broad strokes. Limit your synopsis to two double-spaced pages. (That being said, if an agent you’d love to work with asks for a detailed ten-page synopsis, write it up! They have their reasons, and specific guidelines always trump general advice.)
- Reveal everything in the synopsis—yes, even the twist and the ending.
I’ve read numerous synopses, particularly for mysteries and thrillers, that say things like, “I don’t want to spoil the ending” or “After a shocking twist….” Agents want you to spoil the ending for them; they asked for the synopsis to find out what happens. Reveal the ending and all the twists along the way in the same direct tone as you relay the beginning events.
- Think of a synopsis as descriptive, rather than promotional, writing.
And speaking of tone, a synopsis is an entirely different form of writing than a query letter. The latter is promotional writing; you’re trying to sell the book. A synopsis is descriptive writing; you’re simply conveying what happens. As such, you don’t need to tantalize the reader with the type of sales language you might see on the back cover or jacket flap of a book.
- But your synopsis should still showcase good writing.
That being said, your synopsis should still be well written. Get other people to read your synopsis, just as you do your query letter; ask them to tell you if it makes sense and reads smoothly. Since you’re condensing a lot of information into a short space, it’s easy for a synopsis to be jerky, jumping from one event to the next. Use transition words, and keep revising until it’s polished.
- If you’re struggling, take it chapter by chapter.
If you don’t know how to get started on your synopsis, break it down into more manageable segments. Look at your book chapter by chapter, and write a 2-3 sentence synopsis for each one. Then put all those sentences together and smooth it out until you have a clean, readable synopsis of the entire work.
- Use ALL CAPS to introduce characters’ names.
This is less essential than the other tips, but the little details signal to an agent you’re a professional who’s done your research. When you introduce a major character, put their name in all caps. Subsequent mentions of the character can be capitalized normally.
Synopses may not be as sexy as query letters, but they’re a necessary item in your query toolbox. So get to writing! You’ll be happy it’s done when an agent asks to see the synopsis along with your manuscript.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock founded her freelance editing and writing coaching company, Hyphen, in 2017. Prior to that, she was a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates. You can follow her on Twitter at @JJohnsonBlalock and find Hyphen at www.hyphencraft.com and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. If your synopsis needs extra help, mention this article for $5 off a critique.