Thursday, September 24, 2020

Don't hate me too much: I'm going to ask for synopses with queries

I know, I know, we all hate synopses.
More than a little. More than a lot.
Maybe even alot:

But I recently changed my opinion on the value of synopsis at the query stage.
Way too many people send query pages that start the story at the wrong spot.

I end up passing on things that might actually be a good fit for my list if I could see where the story really begins.

I know, I know.
Insert sounds of wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of writerly garments (not pants of course)

BUT I'm going to make it an option I think, not a requirement.

So, let me know your thoughts on this.
Any ideas about length, specificity of directions will be much appreciated.


nightsmusic said...

I love Alot!

Are you going to ask for the query, first pages and the synopsis? As much as I hate writing a synopsis, if you specify two pages, that's probably okay for you, but hell for hell for the author. However, it will also tell you how well the author can pare their darlings down to the facts without anything extraneous. The synopsis isn't supposed to be the book after all. But I think, after reading Query Shark for such a long time, that you're right in that most queries don't start where the story starts.

Steve Forti said...

A) Seeing alot reminded me that her new book just came out on Tuesday

B) If you're intent on the torture, then optional is the way to go. Synopses are brutal. And not requiring one is a big plus in moving up the 'to be queried' list.

KMK said...

I freely admit that I'm in the minority on this, but I actually use a synopsis as a writing tool. I get the beginning and the end first, and then I work up a synopsis to map out how to get there. For me, it's not a major hardship to polish that into pitch form. (I've actually had to do that recently while working on a new project with my agent -- there are, sadly, synopses in the Promised Land.)

MA Hudson said...

It would be great if you specified the length of the synopsis that you'd like.

I used to dread synopses but now I make it part of my writing process. I create a short summary of each chapter after I've written the first draft of the book, and then I assemble all the summaries into a tolerably clear storyline. If there's any problems with the plot, I sort it out in the synopsis before revising the book.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

If we are going to query more than a dozen agents, we have to write a synopsis. They do make me want to pass out and cry. I think 3-5 pages is the sweet spot for me because I notice the 2-3 page synopsis to be especially difficult for me although that seems the common length.

Anyhow, as much as I hate writing the synopsis, I do think it is a good tool. It actually helps me see holes in my story so I decided to write them early in my writing process so when I get to the query stage, I am simply revising them to match what I actually ended up writing. So yeah, ask for them - allow 5 pages if you can stomach it. Thank you.

S.P. Bowers said...

For me, a synopsis is a lot easier than those agents that ask for a one sentence pitch.

AJ Blythe said...

Hate 'em, but I write one before I start writing the fun bit everytime. Mind you, they need to be rewritten again after the book is finished, but the general idea is still there.

To answer your question... 2 pages (or 1,000 words). Specify single-spaced. Advise where you want it in the submission because at the query stage you cut and paste into an email (so before or after the manuscript pages). How do you "divide" the pages and the synopsis (eg title it synopsis, put a hashtag etc)?

If you make it optional, I wonder how many won't submit one at the query stage thinking after you fall in love with their writing then it will be okay to share the dreaded synopsis?

Now wishing I'd queried before this became a thing *sigh*

C.J. Thomas said...

Actually, I'm disappointed when an agent's submission guidelines don't require a synopsis. Though much can be gleaned from the query letter and a partial, I'd much prefer to let an agent or editor get a quick overview of the project's story arc and structure. The partial's a tease and hopefully verifies that a writer can actually write...the synopsis says "Hey, there's really a novel here".

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I agree wholeheartedly with S.P. Bowers.

I'd rather write a 5 page synopsis than a one sentence pitch.

Also, a synopsis allows you the opportunity to show, in better detail, your storytelling chops to the agent (plot points, twists, dark night of the soul, etc.), not just your writing skill which is what the query and first pages are for. I think :)

This sounds a bit Machiavellian but if a synopsis requirement would make others stand down from querying your favorite agents, wouldn't that increase your odds just from a numbers perspective?

Android Astronomer said...

Writing a synopsis is more difficult than writing a novel. I HATE-HATE-HATE it. Endless root canals would be preferable to being required to write a synopsis.


Querying broadly absolutely requires a synopsis, so we writers need to just hunker down and get it done.


When you get to the submission stage, a synopsis is an absolute requirement. And who queries without the hope of getting to the submission stage?


What KMK said. A synopsis is a great writing tool, especially if you know the ending when you begin you're writing process.

So despite my absolute disdain for synopsis-writing, I think you should consider making it a requirement.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

One page, single-spaced, three characters identified by name (protag, antag, sidekick). Just the basic cupcake, chocolate or vanilla.

The query is the enticement (flavored with ginger and dotted with mini-gumdrops!)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Log line - check
Query - check
Sample pages - check
First born child - check (Bossy, sent back)
Second born child - check (Political, if you don't agree with her you'll send her back)
Dog - check (he barks a lot, sent back)
Husband - check (he loves to cook)
Left Arm - check
Cookies, whiskey, Benjamin Moore gift card - check
Synopsis - Really, you're kidding right.

Side note, if you use your synopsis as a backbone for your story wouldn't it be called an outline instead of a synopsis?

Outline - check

Julie Weathers said...

I doubt people will ever hate you. If they are querying, they have a synopsis anyway because because so many agent require one. I may query Rain Crow, but I rather doubt it.

Colin Smith said...

*GASP* No! Say it ain't so!

Next you'll be telling us you're going NORMAN!!! 😱

Seriously, as much as it pains me to admit it, what some have already said is true: if you're querying widely, you're already having to write a synopsis for other agents, so you should have one prepared already.

The best plan for a synopsis is not to wait until you're ready to query before you write it. Again, as others have suggested, if you're a plotter, you can write a synopsis before you start and tweak it as you go. Or, if you're a pantser/plantser, you can summarize each chapter after you write it. Then you don't have to write the entire thing when you're done.

Length? I suppose it depends what you, Janet, want out of the synopsis. Do you care to know every plot thread and how it concludes, or are you looking for a general overview of the main plot? If the former, then I'd say a max of 5 pages. If the latter, a page or two could suffice, though I find shorter synopses harder to write.

Last question: Did your infamous client, B.L.Z. Bubb, put you up to this?? 😉

Aphra Pell said...

I quite like synposes - writing them is really useful in picking up where there were still minor plot issues.

The agents on my list also require differing lengths so I've got versions for The Novel from 4 pages through to a couple of paragraphs - the latter was a definite experience, but it was educational in identifying the key points without which the story doesn't make sense. And interestingly, they aren't what I thought they'd be.

Aphra Pell said...

But a couple of paragraphs IS NOT a good length unless you want our hamster wheels to catch fire! I'm not a fan of really long either, as it ends up too descriptive of all the minor bits. Around 750-1000 words is a sweet spot here.

Btw, apologies for language errors etc today - I'm on day 5 of a migraine and everything is a bit off, including the wordy things.

Unknown said...

The shorter the synopsis, the better.

Think about Tommy Orange's There There. I could write a six line synopsis that would describe the action of the novel, but a two-page synopsis would be hopelessly convoluted, given that a dozen focal characters each carry 5%-15% of the novel's workload... but all are necessary to making the book work.

What about this: Explain in about a page who the main characters are, what they need, what's stopping them from getting it, and how they overcome (or fail to overcome) the forces against them. Show half a dozen to no more than a dozen of the main beats. Include a sense of setting.

The monomyth, Save the Cat, The Story Map: There are numerous examples of "beat sheets." If you suggest we consider a synopsis more of a beat sheet than this-happens-then-that-happens, you might get a clearer sense of tension and movement. You don't have to use one of those forms - I for one am so tired of Save the Cat movies - but understanding the novel's form helps clarify what beside sheer writing brilliance will force readers to turn the page.

And yet.... How would you synopsize Jenny Offill's Weather in a way that makes sense of a brilliant novel? Emily Niemans' Cactus League? Or even Tana French's The Witch Elm, which is a murder mystery when seen from afar and a psychological horror thriller at the page level but which becomes a weird coalescing of coincidence when reduced to 300 words?

So I love the idea of a synopsis being optional, one more tool for long-form writers to convey in short the essence of their tale, one more lens through which you can view said tale to make a quick judgment as to whether you can sell it to editors to sell through to readers.

Claire Bobrow said...

I've only written one synopsis and I used the guidelines on the SCBWI website; however, they weren't crystal clear (to me). I'd love to learn more about accepted standards for length and formatting, if there's more to it than simply one page, single-spaced.

Kregger said...

Mine's done.

Steve Forti said...

Is tomorrow's blog post a "how to write your synopsis" lesson? *ducks thrown bottles*
Seems everyone has a different opinion on what they should look like.

Craig F said...

I knew I would need a synopsis, so I started laying out all of the plot twists. I ended up with 26 pages of decidedly non-purple, not even prose stuff.

Dropping that down to 2-3 pages has been less appetizing than Mickey D's burger and taken a damn long time. I've been giving it a few hours a day for over a year.

So, are bullet points and short descriptive blurbs acceptable?

I think of the book as a be careful what you wish for book. Starts with a business making a breakthrough. Ends with them heading for a new planet. Too much in between to elucidate here.

Kaphri said...

This decision makes so much sense. Many a storyteller stumbles on the query. Synopses are tough to write, but a good one might reveal a writer's skill, and the possibility of a gem refined with an edit.

On size? Maybe 2 pages for 80,000 words and 3 for higher page counts, though that might be asking for the page police.

Brenda said...

Just don’t ask for a business plan. That’s the worst.

I outline in reverse. After I write a chapter I jot down a couple of sentences summarizing the action. The synopsis comes pretty easy when you have that at the end.

Another valuable tool is to sit down with someone who knows nothing about your book and record yourself relating the plot to them, as if it’s a movie they’ll never see. You’ll put in exactly what’s needed to get them through it.

Honestly, I like mine so much I was a little disappointed when you didn’t ask. I know, I know. Weirdo here.


RonC said...

Yup, hate it, hate it, but a lot of agents require it. Seems especially common among agents that use the QueryManager form. Agree with others above that have said two pages, single spaced or about 750-1000 words. Also as noted by others, for email queries, helps to specify the order you want to see things pasted in an email query---if I had a preference it would be query, pages then synopsis.

Barbara Etlin said...

I did a one-page, single-spaced synopsis for my first novel because it was required for a conference pitch. I hated writing it. It seemed to suck all the life out my book. But the two editors and one agent who looked at it liked it anyway. It seemed to clarify my pitch. All three requested my manuscript.

None of the other agents I queried asked for one, including the agent who eventually represents me.

John Davis Frain said...


ADGraves said...

I love the idea of a short snappy synapsis.

I think a good outline of the most important plot points in a manuscript would be good.
I think a synapsis is important for an agent, I also think reveling the ending is sad to do. I wouldn’t hate revealing the ending in a mysterious kind of way that would hint to the correct ending, but not give it away.

KAClaytor said...

Loathed writing it, but now that I have a synopsis, damn skippy I want you to see it.

Honestly, I'd rather more agents asked for them. It's kind of you, Janet, to make it optional (I've always said you were nice).

I submitted to an agent last week that ONLY asked for the synopsis and a one paragraph pitch - no query, no pages. Odd, but I'm game.

Katja said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vinny said...

I think with email submissions it's a good move. I have no problem including one.

NLiu said...

As long as you don't start asking for a one sentence log line (shudders, clutches garlic) or, worse, a business plan (screams, wields pointy stake), I'm happy. Everybody else and their cats wants a synopsis anyway.

April Mack said...

I am pro synopsis. Yes, they're hard to write, but they're super helpful as a writing tool to make sure all the plot holes get darned before submitting.

My question is: If an agent doesn't ask for a synopsis (say, they only ask for a query and pages), is it poor form to include one anyway?

KDJames said...

Well, the reason we hate them is that if we have a problem with story structure, and so many of us do, it's a sure-fire way to find out. No reason to hate YOU.

My current process is to sketch something out when I'm about halfway into the first draft, just to give myself something to shoot for (an ending) and some rough steps to get there. Of course, that all changes. But it really is a great tool, at whatever stage it's used.

I'd say 2-3 pages, single-spaced, at the end of the query package. If you get a bunch of confused feedback, consider linking one or two sites that explain/show how to write a synopsis-- oh hell, I just suggested more work for you. NONONO. Just tell people to google it. There are a ton of examples out there. Oh, and I'd require it. Once you realize how helpful it is, you're going to do that anyway.

Fearless Reider said...

I'll be happy to cough up a synopsis if Janet will launch Synopsis Kraken to show us how to write one that doesn't suck. It's not dangerous to suggest that the QOTKU should do more work, is it?

I'll see myself out.

John Davis Frain said...

I'm amending my earlier answer. (Still have 99 words left.)

1. You can't make it optional. If it's optional, it's mandatory for me. And if I'm tormented, damn, everybody else better have to go through the same hell.

2. I had a #2, but #1 took it all outta me.

I should've just stuck with my first answer. Ugh.

Next up: Flipping the Julie Weathers Sand Timer. One thousand words are about to go down (on paper). None of them will be part of a synopsis.

Steve Forti said...

I second the Synopsis Kraken!

Unknown said...

Do us poor woodland creatures one favor: If you're going to ask for a synopsis, state your requirements. We need to know word count, formatting, etc. There are so many definitions out there, you're just torturing us otherwise.

LynnRodz said...

A synopsis is a lot easier to write than the dreaded query letter. My 2¢.

Cassandra Briggs said...

What about twisty thrillers or mysteries, where whether or not an agent might want to represent the book could depend on how well the author executes the elements supporting the twists? Knowing the twists in advance means they aren't simply no-longer-surprising, they might actually seem boring or predictable, not necessarily because the author didn't do a good job, but because the carefully hidden breadcrumbs will really jump out when you already know what they signal. Could the author simply write [TWIST] and [PERPETRATOR], etc., in the synopsis, to mitigate some of this effect?

Unknown said...

Re what Cassandra said: Mysteries and thrillers tend to have convoluted plots, with lots of this-happens-then-that-happens. And if they're character-based, the distillation becomes even harder. Writing the synopsis itself isn't hard, but making it sound as interesting as the book it describes... Well, I guess that's why we writers get the little bucks.

The Noise In Space said...

I just wish that agents would agree on the length. The last time I was in the query trenches, I think I ended up having to make three or four separate synopses to meet various agents' requirements. I understand that agents are all different, but they need to understand that authors have to query widely. The lack of any semblance of standardization across the industry makes that incredibly difficult.

dave wolf said...

Like all writers, I hate having to write a synopsis, even though, like most writers, I agree that doing so does wonders for the book itself, forcing me to see those glaring goofs such as stupid crucial coincidences, etc. In fact, I recently boiled down the chapter summaries of a convoluted crime novel into a compelling single page (single-spaced) 761-word synopsis, and was so pleased with the result that I'm starting to look for agents who require one. So fair warning: if *you* decide to include that option, I will re-submit that novel to you because, clearly, you utterly failed to perceive its brilliance (LOL) from my earlier submission, which only required a query and pages.