Monday, January 18, 2010

Ask LiLa (Um, actually ask Joanna...): The Dreaded Synopsis

It's time for our second installment of Ask LiLa. This week we received a great question from Lexcade:

Hey ladies!

Just wondering if you have any advice on writing a killer synopsis. I've gone a number of different routes and just can't get the hang of it. Any insight would be awesome right now.


P.S. You should totally come down to Cinci for a weekend... just sayin'...[Editorial note: We are SO in. Cinci is driving distance from Cleveland and Laura and I have grand plans for some kind of road trip involving Frosties, audiobooks and (of course) Twizzlers.]

Sadly, Laura and I weren't even sure what the plural of synopsis is (synopsi? synopseses?), so we decided to consult an expert, and who better than ├╝ber agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe at Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation.

Here's what Joanna had to say:

Okay, here are synopses guidelines:

Unless an agent/editor states otherwise in their submission guidelines, synopses should be no more than 2 pages (1 page is always preferred).

Synopsis Basics:

2 pages
Size 12 font
1" margins
Title, Author, Word Count (at top)
Double-space between paragraphs

Think of a synopsis like a book report--it can be boring! In fact, they usually are, and that's OK. A synopsis is just a fact-filled run down of your story.
  • Only mention characters and plot points that are relevant to the larger story arch. You don't need to tell us every subplot. You don't need to tell us every character. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that if you can only think to mention a character once in your synopsis, then they shouldn't be there at all. Only characters that are integral to the beginning, middle, AND the end of the story.
  • Always, always give away the end. None of this "She stepped to the ledge of the cliff'll have to read the story to find out!" bull crap. We're professionals, and to make an educated decision, we need ALL of the pertinent facts.
  • Agents view synopses as a tool. We don't consider them a representation of your ability to create an exciting story or beautiful prose. That's what your manuscript is for.

Now you can see why we have a HUGE girl crush on Joanna. And lucky for you, you can now stalk her on Twitter and, of course, query her by following the submission guidelines outlined on Publisher's Marketplace.

And don't forget if you have a question for LiLa e-mail us. Um, please? Because if we don't get questions we're going to have to start making them up and randomly attributing them to blog followers.

And yes, that is a threat.


Kimberly Franklin said...

LOL! Thanks for sharing! And is 7:00am too early to be eating Twizzlers??? (Not that I'm eating them right now or anything like that...)

Have a great day!

Rebecca L Sutton said...

Fabulous post! I love how you went to one of the experts here. Joanna is awesome for sharing her wisdom. ; ) Especially when it comes to one of the most difficult parts of writing a novel. Which seems so lame when you consider you wrote 60k words or more and have trouble with a page or two. I battled my synopsis for weeks! Ugh, I'm so glad I don't have to do it againt until I finish my next book.

Hilary Wagner said...

The tricky part of a synopsis, besides the obvious, is writing it in the same voice as your book. A lot of writers tend to think a synopsis should be dry sounding, but that is not the case at all. It needs to be as exciting as your manuscript!

Tough but doable!

Good luck to all who have to tackle one!

xoxo -- Hilary

Unknown said...

Thank you. I still hate them and avoid them like homework. But this helps!

Kimberly Derting said...

I <3 this post! I can't tell you how much I *hate* writing synopses...what an awesome guideline!!!

Anonymous said...

Ooh! Ooh! *hopping around in chair with hand in air*

Hey, I have a great link to a synopsis-writing resource. Totally very cool. Every time I think about synopses, I think of Carolyn
Clarke's web site. Her Writing Advice section is gold, folks, with tons of easily-parsed examples.

Seriously, look at this for a fantastic article about how to write a killer synopsis. I mean, after you finish commenting here on Lila's blog. And expressing your appreciation for Joanna. 'Cause, y'know, I'm not trying to steal her thunder or anything. No, really.

(I should shut up now, in case I ever query NCL&MR. Wouldn't want them to remember me as that nutter who rambles on in comment sections.)

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Oooh that's good advice! Yay! And perfect timing too!!!

Jonathon Arntson said...

Holy KAPOW! Super great post! It's like you read my mind. Nice job ladies.

I really liked Hilary's comment, too.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

its never too early for twizzlers!

Christina Lee said...

Great advice--and just in time for my newest WIP-- but I need help with the query (again) too--might have to hit you gals up again! :D

Alissa Grosso said...

The bit about a synopsis being like a book report, is very true. I loved reading books, but hated writing books reports, and much as I love writing, I hate to write a synopsis.

Kerri Cuev said...

Good Question, Great answer!
Thanks LiLa and Joanna!
Hmmm...curious to know if writing the synopsis is easier to write than the query.

Patti said...

That's the best advice I've ever read about writing a synopsis. Great start to a Monday.

Tana said...

This is perfect advice. I also like to write the synopsis as I write the novel. That way all I have to do is edit.

Carolyn V. said...

Ohhh! Awesome, awesome info! Thanks! =)Joanna is amazing.

Donna Gambale said...

Joanna's a wonderful agent crush to have! She's so helpful. I bookmarked this post. Thanks!!!

Loretta Nyhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loretta Nyhan said...

Whoops, sorry. Here's my comment:

Great advice from a great lady!

Writing a synopsis was difficult for me because I wanted to cram everything into those two pages. Once I got over my need to include every character and plot point, it was much easier.Not easy, but easier, and still much harder than writing a query!

Dara said...

If you make a trip to Cinci, you definitely need to make a side trip to Dayton. It's on the way :)

Anyway, I have to admit I dread writing the synopsis. Not something I'm looking forward to doing, but that's life, right? :P

Katie Anderson said...

Well, I must say, THANK YOU JO!!!!!!!!!! Because I suck at synopses' (?)

(and I suck at apostrophes and plurals, obviously)

But this is such fab advice and right to the point!

Lila, I'm loving the Ask Lila days. So fun :-)

Marsha Sigman said...

Great advice...was I the only one completely distracted by the sudden need for a Frostie?

Sooo good.

Danyelle L. said...

Great post!

I like the comparison of a synopsis to a book report. And yay for permission to be dull! I think the hardest thing is cramming it all into two pages. Writing the other 400 pages was a cinch compared to that. >.<


Dear Dreaded Synopsis,

Uber Agent has just shared your secrets, and now you don't seem so scary anymore.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Ugh. Writing a synopsis is the worst! I cleared that hurdle while waiting for betas to read Hatshepsut. I've never assigned a book report to my students and now I know I never will.

Super blecch!

Conda Douglas said...

Perfect timing on this post for me, as I'm sending out my new finished manuscript! Thank you!

Jeannie Lin said...

I am SO happy about bullet point 3. The part about keeping it short and simple is also good to hear.

Many thanks to Joanna for the pointers!

Shannon Messenger said...

Ooo-this post came JUST at the right time. I have to write mine before the conference in two weeks. UGH! I will be rereading this a BUNCH. Thanks so much. :)

The Blonde Duck said...

Fellow writer popping in to say hi! Oh synopsises...bleah!!! I spent the weekend working on query letters!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Oh, I like the comment to consider the synopsis as a tool. That might make the chore less formidable. Thanks!

Mariah Irvin said...

I probably sound like a nerd for saying this, but I love writing book reports! Choosing what's important to go into a synopsis for something I'm trying to sell is harder, though. Thanks for the great advice!

Jonathon Arntson said...

You do sound like a nerd, a real live writer nerd, the best kind!

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Oh, perfect timing, my dears. So glad you addressed this topic.

I will be sure to come up with a question for you so you don't have to make them up. That would be tragic for the awesome that you are.

On a side note...twizzlers, omg, heaven. I vote for the red ones because, omg, if you fall asleep with a black one in your mouth--big mistake. That stain will never come out of your clothes. And, oh, black twizzlers are just downright nasty.

Elana Johnson said...

I love this column, er, blog post. Joanna always gives straight advice, and this is priceless. Thanks ladies!

Amy Lukavics said...

"She stepped on the cliff'll have to read the story to find out the rest!" Hahahahhahahaha omg Joanna is made of awesome.

Great post!

Daisy Whitney said...

Great advice. I'm actually writing a synopsis for a novel I'm under contract for so I can submit to my editor and this is a good reminder that it doesn't have to be the same prose your story is in. Synopsis = just the facts!

Sarah Wylie said...

Awesome post! I'm not a fan of synopses either, but this is great advice! :)

Thanks, Joanna, and LiLa!

storyqueen said...

The plural of synopsis=crapola.

How could you gals not know this???

Wait, I was wrong, the plural of synopsis = pain in the butt.

There, that's better.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice! Thanks :)

Corey Schwartz said...

I am so lucky. I have never had to write one!

One page single-spaced would be longer than most of my manuscripts! Ha! Not kidding.

Tabitha Bird said...

I think I have a girl crush too :)

Great advise. Except I thought I heard somewhere that agents do look at the writing style in the synopsis... not true?

erica m. chapman said...

Great post, as always, Oh and great question! Super helpful advice - thanks LiLa and of course, Joanna!! Following her now on twitter.

When I'm ready to write a synopsis I will definitely be referring back to this post! Thank you :o)

Lori W. said...

Agent crush on Joanna is understood. How did she just manage to make writing a synopsis sound like something do-able?! Great advice. Thanks to both of you. Plus, I gotta throw in that I met Joanna at a Backspace seminar: very helpful, nice, and, obviously, knowledgeable.

*imo* said...

Great resources for the querying writer! Thanks guys, artists unite!


Hardygirl said...

I cannot believe I missed my favorite agent's guest post yesterday!!!



Jackee said...

Lovely advice from a lovely agent. I especially love, "We don't consider them a representation of your ability to create an exciting story or beautiful prose. That's what your manuscript is for."

That makes me feel so much better.

lexcade said...

many thanks, my wonderful ladies! please tell Joanna thanks for me for sharing her wonderful wisdom. it's nice to have something concrete to go by.

i work at a hotel in covington, ky (right across the river from cinci), so i might be able to get you guys a cheaper rate... :-D and i'll have Twizzlers waiting for ya!

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