Monday, August 8, 2016

How to Edit A Synopsis for your Novel

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Last week, I posted about how to write a synopsis for your novel. This week we'll focus on how to make your rough draft into something that beckons agents and editors to ask for more.

If the first draft of your synopsis is anything like mine, there are any number of problems. It wanders senselessly in places. An antagonist seems to arrive out of nowhere in the last quarter of the book. The romance subplot is never mentioned, nor are the red herrings so every clue that points to the villain looks like a flashing light.

The good news is, this is all completely fixable.

All you're trying to accomplish in that first draft is getting most of the story summarized in, hopefully, 2-4 pages. Now we can start working out these other issues. Not everything on this list will apply to your story, and I might even miss some things, but hopefully this will tackle a lot of the big issues:

Are you providing context for your story's...

Setting: You have placed your characters in a unique world, and that needs to be conveyed. For me with The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I knew I needed to work in as soon as possible that this is 1924 in Chicago. Here's how my synopsis starts:
As the summer of 1924 approaches, seventeen-year-old PIPER SAIL dreams of one last carefree season before the reality of adulthood sets in. She imagines lots of time on the shores of Lake Michigan—maybe even with the very cute JEREMIAH CRANE—and passing many hours with her best friend LYDIA LEVINE.
Remember, with a synopsis one of our rules is to tell, not show. So in the story itself, I'm going to do everything I can to show my reader that it's 1924 in Chicago, but in the synopsis, I'm just going to blurt it out.

If you write something other-worldly, you have a bit more explaining to do. And yet, you also don't want the agent or editor getting so lost in the details of your world that they can't tell what's happening there.

Something you might try is sharing storyworld details in the context of how they impact your character and their journey. As an example, you could start your synopsis with: "In a time when families have been abolished, and when affection for fellow human beings has been made obsolete by science, MY CHARACTER knows that there's something broken about her when she mourns the loss of her best friend." A sentence like this shows both details about your storyworld, and also how they impact the characters.

Emotions: One of my favorite things about writing novels (and reading them) is getting to immerse myself in a character. But how do we convey our characters motivations and emotional state in a synopsis?

Again, we just tell it. Which can be hard if you've been training yourself to show and not tell! I do this over and over again in the example I shared last Monday. "Piper has become concerned about her best friend." "Piper wishes she could talk to her mother." "Piper is relieved."

Sometimes a synopsis can read like a list of  events, and it's difficult for others to understand why the character did something. You can show the agent or editor that you provide proper motivation in the novel by expressing it in the synopsis. It could look something like this, "Because Piper helplessly watched her mother die, she cannot simply sit back and relax while the police search for her best friend." This one sentence communicates, I've done my job and made sure that my character's actions make sense.

Are you showing who the point of view characters are?

If your story is told from multiple points of view, you'll want that to be reflected in the synopsis. Especially if you're writing in a genre like epic fantasy or romance where it's practically a genre requirement that there are multiple POV characters. 

What can work well is to establish your main character for a couple paragraphs, then switch to another POV character, and then go back to your main character or, depending on the situation, switch to yet another POV character. Here's an example from a contemporary romance novel that my agent and I worked up to pitch to Harlequin:

Twenty-seven-year old PAIGE ELLISON feels she’s on the cusp of personal success. Not only has she fallen in love with working for the meeting-planning company her father will someday pass on to her, but her boyfriend, SPENCER, has been hinting at a proposal. However, Paige is in for a shock one ordinary Thursday morning when Spencer—who has always had a flair for the dramatic—calls into a local radio show  “Do Me a Favor” and breaks the news to Paige—on air—that he is technically still married. Paige is mortified that somehow, once again, she’s found herself on the surprise end of a far-too-public breakup with a man she thought she would marry. At least this time she’s not already wearing her wedding dress.
After listening to the produced radio segment in her car the next morning, Paige assumes the airing of her breakup will be the low point of her day, but another surprise awaits her when she walks into the office. Her father and his flaky business partner of ten years, DANNY, have had a falling out. When Danny tells Paige that her employment has been terminated, she initially laughs. Her dad and the office manager are the ones who keep Blackstone running. How’s it possible that a split in the partnership means Danny—who loves the perks of being a partner but barely shows up for work—gets Blackstone and she and her father get to carry out their personal belongings under the watchful eye of a rent-a-cop?
Twenty-nine year old GRAHAM HOLBROOK has always had a soft spot for his best friend’s younger sister, Paige. They’ve known each other since high school, but in the last year his feelings toward her have shifted from brotherly to…well, not-so-brotherly. But even with Spencer out of the way, pursuing Paige won’t be easy. Ever since Graham’s dreams of playing pro baseball crashed and burned in college, he’s fumbled to find a career path that holds his interest. If he wants to win a girl like Paige, he knows he needs to start earning more than ten dollars an hour.
When Paige learns about the nature of her father and Danny’s argument, she’s sure that once Danny has cooled off, the two men will sort things out and life will go back to normal...

See how we're switching back to Paige at the end? Often it makes sense to focus on one character for a bit before switching back to the other, even if that's not exactly how it plays chronologically. 

I find myself using the word. "meanwhile" pretty often as a sentence starter in my synopses.

Does the tone of your synopsis match the tone of your book?

A very important aspect of your synopsis is setting the right tone. If your book is funny, you want your synopsis to have elements of humor as well. 

The Lost Girl of Astor Street is a mystery, so there are lots of questions being asked during the entire synopsis.The synopsis I used a moment ago as an example, however, is a light-hearted contemporary romance. The difference in tone can be noted in phrases like, "in the last year his feelings toward her have shifted from brotherly to…well, not-so-brotherly." That's not the way I would describe Graham's feelings if he were a character in my darker YA mystery.

Did you include all the details about your ending, including the mood?

As stated in the last post, your synopsis is a tell-all. Every bit of your ending needs to be in there. I also think you should strive to end the synopsis in some kind of meaningful way. 

I dug through my archives to find the synopsis I wrote for The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet. This is the last paragraph, and even though the final product turned out a bit different than the events described here, I think this will give you an idea of what I mean by closing your synopsis with the same mood as you do your book.
Chase is the real hero, Ellie realizes as he overcomes his anger with her and celebrates when she receives the call that her book is being published. He’s the only one at school who knows about her upcoming release. Ellie is determined to keep it a secret since she borrowed quite a few character traits from her former friends. Her plan is to brainstorm a pen name and avoid that group for the remainder of high school.
Though if she does find herself back on their radar, that might work out okay too. She has a sequel to write.
If I were to merely list out the events of how The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet ends, then all I would need is that Ellie plans to avoid her former friends for the rest of the year. That's a pretty blah way to end a story description, though. (And a story too, as it turns out. That's not really how the book ends!)

So instead I thought about Ellie and what her mindset would be after everything she had gone through, and that's when I came up with: "Though if she does find herself back on their radar, that might work out okay too. She has a sequel to write." This reflects the mood of the book at the end of thes tory.

It's great if you can start in a compelling, hook-y kind of way too. The synopsis for The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet starts with, "High school junior Ellie Sweet feels like she’s living a double life."

Other tips:

Have a friend read it: This is the best way to know how you did. If your synopsis is too long, they'll be the best at telling you what can be cut. They will also be able to spot what needs more explanation or places where you introduced too many characters.

Formatting: I talked some  about formatting in last week's post, but I didn't do a great job. Synopses have 1-inch margins, are single spaced, and use a 12-point "regular" font (Times New Roman has been the industry standard for a while). In the header, put your last name and title (Morrill/The Lost Girl of Astor Street) and then on the first line, centered, put the title followed by "synopsis." So mine would be The Lost Girl of Astor Street synopsis.

Any other questions I can answer?


  1. Great post, Stephanie! I'm working on my synopsis right now, so this is super helpful.
    And I did have one question: If you have a prologue, would that be in the synopsis? And if so, would you title it "prologue"?

    1. Only if you're writing a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. Otherwise you just include the story stuff that's in the prologue same as you would any other chapter.

  2. Writing a synopsis has actually been fun for me, likely because I'm a plotter not a pantser and have my book (mostly) plotted out. I am having trouble figuring out when to switch between POVs and there's only two. How do epic fantasy writers write their synopses and keep everybody straight?
    I haven't actually finished my synopsis yet, so I should probably go and do that.

    1. I have five POVs, so I feel your pain. Personally, letting myself get looser with my word count on the first draft and taking time to address problems as they came forward (as long as you have the proper context in-synopsis to address them in time) will help. It might help in the edits to list all the plot points you NEED to mention in a list and then try to put them together in a way that makes sense for the synopsis.
      (Sorry for any typing errors, my laptop glitches a lot).

    2. The balance of POVs is a tricky one because there isn't really a rule, it's more of a feel thing. Like James said, giving yourself permission to not worry about it too much in the first draft is about the best way to get all the material you need on the page. The POV stuff can be tweaked in edits :)

  3. Thanks so much for this post it's very helpful because I'm working on this right now. I do have a question. For formatting, do you add paragraphs? When would you do that? Also, for switching POV's, do I use a different voice? Since it is in 3rd person does it matter as long as I make sure that the agent/editor knows that it does switch? Hehehe and one more thing. I have several character's who go by their titles (ie The Queen of Hearts). When they're first mentioned, would I do the all caps thing (THE QUEEN OF HEARTS)? Or would I only do that if I mention their real names? Thanks so much :)

    1. In my general experience with a synopsis, matching the overall tone of the book will be more important than using a different voice with different characters per se.

    2. Yea that's what I did, but since this is one of the first times I've done it, and I'm about to send it in to a company, I want to make sure that it's all correctly done. What about the name/title problem? What would you do about that?

    3. Paragraphs: You indent your paragraphs .5 inch, same as you do in a novel. Similar to other writing, you want to start a new paragraph when the subject or focus changes.

      Unlike a novel, you don't need to make sure your characters have different voices. Just use your author voice for this.

      And however you refer to the character throughout the synopsis is what I would all caps first. So if you refer to her as The Queen of Hearts primarily, then yes, I would do it in all caps the first time.

  4. This was a wonderful post Stephanie, thank you so much! I finished the first draft of my synopsis (it ended at a full four pages ... hehe ... looks like I have some cutting to do! Any tips on that?), and I'm getting ready to edit it so this was super helpful. Are parentheses frowned upon in a synopsis or are they okay? And when should we writers start turning in our first chapter and synopsis?

    1. Things you can do for cutting word count in a synopsis:
      Macro-wise condensing things as you write them can help if it doesn't ruin your process or flow. Making a short list of things which happen in the synopsis to see if you have anything you don't really need can also help (if you have trouble with this the writer friend is always handy).
      Micro-wise it helps to do a word search to see if you can cut stuff like ly words and extraneous words. It also helps to go through and see if you can condense any of the sentences or reword to use less words.

    2. Savannah, we'll open up for entries in a few weeks!

      Parentheses are fine. You just probably want to be careful to not use them TOO much.

      For cutting, if you have a writing friend who can look at it, they could probably be really helpful at identifying what could be cut. You also might try to scale way back and do a 5 paragraph system. One for the intro of your book, three for the middle, and the last for the conclusion. Then you could expand from there.

  5. AGH! Another great synopsis post *SHOWERS PEOPLE IN GLITTER*. The first post in this series made me WANT to write a synopsis, and everything magically clicked for me. The first time I tried one I was really scared because I have five POVs, and the first draft was over 175K. Lot of ground to cover. However, after I read the first post something clicked, and I suddenly had ideas of cool things I could do for my synopsis. It was really mind blowing to see how good it is to write a synopsis when you have ideas. When you get your synopsis voice down (if that is even a thing).

    1. That's great, James! Reducing a 175k novel to a few pages is daunting, indeed. And I definitely think there's a synopsis voice. It's a skill!

  6. I don't believe a synopsis will be too hard for me considering I have the entire novel planned out (I've only written up to Chapter 6, but still) and I have given myself a system of rewrites (I edit based on Beginning (first 25k words), Middle (50k words), End (Remaining words) so everything will be accurate to the story. However, what throws me off is tone. I have no idea what the tone of my novel is. There are occasionally moments of humor (my main character and her brother are sarcastic and her love interest cracks jokes.) But that's not the main point of the story as other than that its not a very funny book, its an urban fantasy though so is there a tone usually associated with that genre?

    1. Hmm. That's a good question, Christian. It wouldn't hurt to show a little of the sarcasm in the synopsis. I bet when you start writing the synopsis, you'll land on the right tone. Same as when you're writing your book, you probably don't think about the tone, but it has one all the same.

    2. Tone can be quite the evasive character, and I would suggest finding blog posts about it to help you grasp the concept in full. Tone could be loosely stated as the way an author's voice uses or portrays the story. If your synopsis comes easily to you and it's fun, you might already have tone down, but if you don't, just consider how your genre conventions and your own voice help shape your story and how to bring that out in the synopsis.

    3. If you have the tone right, your synopsis should have a similar feel to your book in some respect despite the differences of POV/tense.