by Tamela Hancock Murray
When I posted my ideas on some Keys to a Great Book Proposal, a few writers said they were challenged to write a synopsis. I agree that writing an interesting synopsis is difficult. However, it’s not an element you want to omit from your proposal because a synopsis orients the editor to the book’s contents. Here are my answers to often-asked questions:
1.) Do I need a chapter-by-chapter synopsis?
For fiction, no. I think I get this question a lot because years ago, a popular and respected editor I worked with asked for this type of synopsis. This is because some authors the editor worked with sometimes took liberties with the plot once they sat down to write the complete book. The book the editor received was different from the one contracted! Hence, this requirement. I got in the habit of writing this type of synopsis and found it helpful when I wrote my books. I knew exactly where I was going and why, as well as what my chapter cliffhangers would be. Working this way is a discipline that gave me confidence. I recommend that writers try this method at least once to see how they like it. But I don’t ask for this in a proposal because few fiction editors want to see a synopsis presented in this manner.
However, nonfiction proposals do need a chapter by chapter breakdown to explain what each chapter will contain. This is because often in nonfiction, chapters are loosely connected by a topic but can be read as separate entities. Readers may skip around with nonfiction books, gleaning information they need and discarding the rest. So this type of synopsis is helpful for nonfiction proposals. However, I do recommend summarizing the purpose and theme of the book in an overall description of a couple of paragraphs as well, then moving on to the individual chapter descriptions.
2.) How long should the synopsis be?
Most editors prefer one to three pages (at the most), and so do I. If you really feel you want to write more, I suggest including a shorter synopsis, followed by a long synopsis. But consider — if you were an editor assigned the task of reviewing and deciding on hundreds of submissions every month, how much would you want to read? Would you be eager to read a ten-page synopsis for each proposal? I would not. Trust me, the shorter synopsis is your friend.
3.) What should I include in the synopsis?
Once an author has intrigued me, I tend to look at the writing, then refer back to the synopsis to see if the book is marketable. The synopsis tells me what plot elements the author plans to include. The most common synopsis mistake I see is the author unintentionally misleading the reviewer about what the book actually is — or perhaps more revealing – a synopsis for a plot the author meant to be for one type of book but the author has instead written another type of book and didn’t realize it. I plan to address this in a future post.
However, since the synopsis is so critical, this is a good reason to let an agent help you when she sees your spark of talent, or encourage you to try again with something else, rather than sending several misfires to busy editors. In fact, more than once I have helped authors identify their books properly and helped polish their proposals accordingly.
To avoid misidentifying your book, be sure:
a.) you are indeed writing the type of book you mean to write. Choose to write the type of book you read and love so you know what readers expect.
b.) your synopsis is an accurate reflection of the book. Don’t devote too much time to a minor character or element. Stay with the main elements to show the editor you know the focus of your work and won’t stray off into tangents.
4.) Do I reveal the ending in the synopsis?
I fall firmly on the side of revealing the ending. I want to know that the reader will be satisfied, and the ending is a major part of that. If I want to read a book with an ending I don’t know, I’ll do that in my leisure time.
What is the hardest thing about writing a synopsis?
Do you have trouble getting your synopsis to one or even three pages?