Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing a Synopsis from 0-3 Hours Flat

This weekend I've taken a major step toward submission.  I've drafted a synopsis for my manuscript entitled Near Mrs. (Special thanks to my crit partner, Mary, for the fantastic title!)

I've been putting this off since February, well, actually since January if I'm being honest, because the whole idea of writing one had me scared out of my boots.

For me, ignorance = procrastination.

If I'm not familiar with something, and this goes for all areas of my life, I'm hesitant to start (read: willing to put off forever).  I find lots of other "important" priorities to focus on in lieu of actually sitting down and tackling the task.

So now that you know my emotional reactions to such things, let's talk about what happened when I finally set my mind to it.

I did a brief web search and found a great series of articles at with a list of things to include in a general fiction synopsis.  I like formulas.  Just give me a list of steps, and I can follow along right through to the end.

I eagerly sat down with Mrs. Carmichael's guidelines and started plugging in the requisite information.  At first I had only the bare-bones essentials written, each section a paragraph under the headings.  I re-read the sections, deleted the headings, and started filling in the words that would make it come to life.  With that accomplished, I began to tinker.  Add a word here, delete a sentence there, move stuff around.  I even came up with a one-sentence hook to plant right above the opening paragraph.  This was something that was rattling around in my head since the Writer's Digest Conference back in January.

Time to complete first draft: 3 hours, research included.

Not bad for a first try, if I do say so myself.

It's true what they say about a synopsis requiring a different skill-set from what's needed to write a novel.    My academic writing experience served me well.  (Speaking of which, my article about the medical mission I took to China in 2009 is complete and ready for publication. Yay!)  I filled in all of the synopsis sections with "data" from my manuscript: major plot points, important stages of Hannah's character arc, inciting incidents and their resolution.

Then I happily sent the file to my fantastic peer group from the WD conference.  When I heard back from Jennifer, she faithfully pointed out all of the places where the synopsis fell flat, including my wonderful hook.  Time to revise.

The second draft surprised me.  Jennifer and I have a very similar writing style, so I was able to take some of her suggestions verbatim.  Others were more "concepts" that she was trying to get across.  But they pointed me in the right direction.  And that's when the surprise happened.

Instead of finding more flat phrases, my voice found its way into the words.  What started out as almost a summary of the story is now a miniature version of Near Mrs.  Its got personality and style.

But what totally caught me off guard was the benefit of looking at my story from the 100,000 foot level.  When I'm revising a sentence, I'm at ground zero.  When I'm re-working a paragraph, I'm at 10,000 feet.  But to see my story from start to finish in two pages of dense, single-spaced text was a big eye opener.

That was the magic in the exercise.

Toward the end of Near Mrs., Hannah makes a decision that sends a message contrary to her core values as a person.  So I changed the story to have her sister push her toward the decision.  It makes more sense with both of their personalities for this to happen.  So, now I have to revise the manuscript to match the synopsis, and my story will be better for it.  I never would have seen that one coming.

During my web search, many authors mentioned that they write the synopsis first.  There was no way I could do this.  I didn't know my characters well enough for me to write the details of a synopsis.  But I suspect that's the difference between an amateur and a professional.  With experience comes foresight and the knowledge of what information one needs to know before setting out to write.

I stumbled through a two-year process of getting the words written, and I wonder if having a better idea of where I was going would have helped me work through some rough spots.  I had chapter summaries, but the major difference between a summary and a synopsis is that the synopsis brings out the why of what happens.  It's more than just plot points.  A summary is a pencil sketch, but a synopsis has solid lines and color.

Satisfied for the moment, I saved the file and sent it back to Jennifer.  Time to let it marinate - let the flavors mingle and blend.  And tomorrow night I may get lucky and have another critique to review so I can really polish this gem.

For a link to Kathy Carmichael's synopsis articles, click here:

1 comment:

  1. I'm so flattered. And I adore you, and your writing. We make a good team. xo