Friday, September 2, 2016

Using Your Synopsis as an Outline

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Good morning, friends! I have to tell you, I was thoroughly inspired by Stephanie's recent blog posts on synopses. If you haven't read them, you should absolutely do that. They're very straightforward and readable, and I promise you, not all blog posts on such topics can claim to be both of those things.



Stephanie's articles got me thinking about my own experience and how my relationship to the dreaded synopsis has changed over the past few years.

Like Steph, when I started out, I dreaded writing a synopsis (a summary of your novel). There were all these stipulations and formatting rules established by publishing professionals and, oftentimes, the advice seemed very conflicting. And, let's be real, I still stammer when someone asks me to explain what my books are about. The idea of trying to summarize 100k words into just a few pages can be daunting.

Over the years, my perspective has changed considerably. Initially, I considered prospective agents and editors the primary audience for my synopses. But, several books in now, I've found that I read my synopsis more than anyone. It has become a vital tool in both drafting and editing my novel.

In essence, my synopsis serves as my outline.

The process usually looks like this:

I get an idea.

I stew on the idea--sometimes for minutes, sometimes for weeks.

I sit down in front of the computer and I write. Not my synopsis. A chapter, maybe two. I do everything I can to simply BE the narrator of the story for a bit. This can last a couple writing sessions or it can last weeks. I write long enough to have some sort of an idea about the world, the main character, and where her journey might lead. In short, I let myself write by the seat of my pants for a little bit.

THEN! Once I feel like I'm in the story, I open a shiny new blank page on my computer and I TELL myself the story. (Steph's advice on telling in a synopsis is stellar. Go read it.) The writing of my synopsis can take several days. I come and go, making huge sweeping decisions for characters I've barely met and letting myself skim over motivations and lesser details.

And then . . .

I conclude the synopsis with what I see will be the end of the story. I do. I will not make myself stick to this ending, but I do write it. I write my initial conclusion and when I save this document on my computer I name it Working Synopsis.

Here's where it gets fun.

This Working Synopsis now acts as my outline, but it is also so much more. This short document is full of writing prompts and guideposts that help me when I get lost. At any given time, I can pick up my imperfect synopsis, select a paragraph, and use it to get me writing. I can read about the actions of my characters, things I've told myself will happen, and I can spend my writing session digging into those moments and looking for motivations while playing with cause and effect.

Here's a random paragraph from my current Working Synopsis.

The only way to free Lenore is to ensure Mars’ haul makes it to the same rebel camp. But Sylvi’s rig—the Silver Dragon—is too heavy to make the trek across the ice. She’ll have to stick to the Shiv Road and despite her protestations, she won’t be traveling alone. 
It's a prompt just begging to be written, right? Who's Lenore? Who the heck is Mars? What are they hauling and why is it so heavy? The Silver Dragon?! What's wrong with traveling the Shiv Road and who will be traveling with her?

There is just so much here to dig into. And for my purposes, that's exactly what I want the first draft of a synopsis to be.

It's especially helpful to have a Working Synopsis in place when you've had to step away from your manuscript for chunks of time. The synopsis (read: outline) brings clarity and focus and reminds you where you were when you left off.

Another thing: I'm not big on printing out my novels to read them and mark them up anymore--I work better on the screen--but I do print out my Working Synopsis and I scribble notes in the margins whenever I deviate from it or need to remind myself of new doors the drafting process has opened up for me. Every now and then, I take these notes and update the synopsis on the computer and print it out again. I keep my most recently updated version at my elbow the entire time I write.

How and when you choose to write your synopsis is entirely up to you and, like the rest of us, you'll carve out a system through trial and error. But if you haven't written a synopsis toward the beginning of your process, give it a go. It just might be the outline you never thought you could scratch out. It might give you the direction and motivation to keep writing when things get tough. And I guarantee it will give you hints about where your characters should go next when you've forgotten just which road they're supposed to be on.

Of course, if and when you decide to let other people read your synopsis, you're definitely going to want to lean on Stephanie's post, How to Edit Your Synopsis. A scribbled up document is fabulous for a writer, but not so much for those fancy industry professionals you're trying to impress.

So, tell me! Have you written a synopsis before? I'm dying to know how that went for you? When did you write it and did it change a lot before it was done?

18 comments:

  1. Interesting idea! I like to have some sort of plan when I write, but it usually takes the form of an outline or a simple list of plot points. I just may have to try the synopsis method... :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've tried writing synopses before finishing the first draft, but it usually didn't come together until I reached the end. However, since I enter the first draft with so many crazy ideas, I usually have to do a very extensive rewrite anyway, which is where the synopsis really comes in handy. Good perspective, Mrs. Dittemore! I'll have to put some of your ideas into use. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It doesn't always work for everyone and, honestly, some novels stay more elusive than others as you're drafting. But if you find a way to give it a go, I'd love to know how it works for you.

      Delete
  3. Shan, this is so interesting. I'm similar where I have to hang out in the story before I can do much with outlining. I thought that was weird, but I'm meeting more and more writers who are similar.

    I love the idea of printing out the synopsis and making notes there. I'll have to give that a try!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I always have to know if I'm going to love a story before I fully commit. Time in the main character's head helps me with that, I think.

      Delete
  4. Awesome! I was thinking about doing something like this for my NaNo novel, and now I'm going to try it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow. I really like this method. I think I've done it before without really knowing what I was doing. I shall have to try it. Thank you so much for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm always doing things instinctively and then realizing later just how beneficial it is! Glad I'm not the only one.

      Delete
  6. This sounds like a great thing to do if you have more than one idea at a time. That way you can get the important details for them down, then work on one at a time without forgetting the others.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! Absolutely! I often have more than one Working Synopsis.

      Delete
  7. This was an awesome post, Shannon! I LOVE the idea of having a Working Synopsis - and that snippet of yours highly intrigued me XD.

    (also, when does 100 for 100 end? Stephanie said September 8, but the log you guys made has one extra week written on it (Home stretch is what is says on that extra week)?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! And I'm sorry I missed this comment in time to be helpful about the contest!

      Delete
  8. Mrs. Dittemore, how long is your Working Synopsis (usually) when you finish a book?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great question! The book I'm working on now is entering act three and my Working Synopsis is six pages long. The book prior to this one is entirely complete and out on submission. That synopsis is four pages.

      Delete
  9. I'm a definite plotter. I have to have some sort of outline before I start a story. My new plotting trick is to use a calendar. The summer months in my school planner have been extremely helpful with plotting my current WiP, and it's been pretty easy adjusting my notes into a synopsis. Except how do you make a synopsis TWO pages long? Mine is almost one and a half pages and I'm not even halfway through the story!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Okay, here's the thing. For the most part, your synopsis will be for you. When I was writing this blog post, I emailed my fancy shmancy agent and she confirmed. She doesn't send synopses when she subs a novel to a publisher. Just the manuscript and a cover letter she writes herself. So, really, unless you're dealing with an agent who has specifically requested a 2-page synopsis, do not hold yourself to that requirement. It's insane. Especially if you're going to use your synopsis like I do and substitute it for an outline.

      Delete

Home