The dreaded synopsis

In order to submit to the Debut Dagger, I had to write a 1,000 word synopsis. It’s very hard to find one to use as a precedent for a pretty obvious reason. The synopsis sets out the plot of a book, and if it’s a book that’s still in circulation, not too many authors want to post a spoiler.

Advice is mixed as to whether to take a technical approach (‘Just the facts, ma’am’) or use the same voice that you used in the book. But what the agents and editors — or in my case, judges — want to know is what happens. It should include anything important, including the twists. No cliffhangers here – the synopsis should say who died and who did it.

I really struggled with mine. I ran it by my friend, Thelma, several times and finally got something I considered passable. Somehow, I managed to get the storyline of a 93,000 word novel condensed into just under two pages, double-spaced. Not much at all to explain a 350 page story.

Now remember, the Debut Dagger judges (highly regarded submissions editors, for the most part) only see the first 3,000 words of the manuscript, or about fifteen pages. In that competition, the synopsis was really  important: it filled in the blanks.

Mine, I think, missed the mark.

In the evaluation of my entry, which I received by mail recently, the panel wrote: “There was too much happening in the beginning of the book which made it hard to follow what was going on and made it necessary to read the synopsis in order to clarify things … the judges loved the setting and thought your writing showed great promise but felt the plot needed a bit of untangling in order to produce a commercially viable novel.”

Very little happens in the first fifteen pages of the book, so I found that criticism a bit surprising. But the reference to a ‘tangled plot’ is definitely a comment on the synopsis.

By contrast, my agent, who has read the entire manuscript (and never saw the synopsis) said: “From my point of view, one of the great things is that … you have a fantastic plot with great twists.” He didn’t see anything that needed untangling at all.

So my advice is to forget the subplots when you’re writing your own synopsis: stick to the main thread. Three to five pages max, double-spaced: when you get that far, cut it in half. For some submissions, you may need to cut it in half again.

Here’s an example of a Canadian author whose synopsis totally grabs me in terms of that ‘voice’ I mentioned. Sure wish I’d seen it before I sent in my submission, and here’s hoping I someday figure out how to do a synopsis as well as she does. Jill Edmondson’s books,  I’m happy to say, live up to her description of them.


 Check out Penguin Canada’s book trailer for The Beggar’s Opera  here! It’s pretty cool!

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