Sunday, March 11, 2007

How to write a fantasy trilogy synopsis...I think

Ok, I have spent four days on this darn synopsis, (actually for a quartet rather than a trilogy). Which is ridiculous. I can write 5,000 words on a good day, and it has taken me four days to write a summary of just over 2500 words? I am now trimming it down...aargh. This has got to be harder than writing 25,000 words.

Here's a few hints for any other poor sod who has to do this.

Firstly, if you are writing a synopsis, you have probably already got the interest of an agent/publisher. So you don't have to worry too much about a startling grab-me hook. You have to do two things instead: make the whole story sound interesting and show the publisher/agent that you know where you are going with it. (Your ability to write good English is a given, right?)

Secondly, do NOT think that you are going to hold back the ending because "I want the editor to be knocked endwise by the twist when s/he reads the book". A synopsis is just that: it tells the person reading it the story, in summary, and that includes the ending.

Thirdly, the problem peculiar to fantasy is that none of the fantastical bits are going to make too much sense in summary. "But the Redduner left his zigger cage on the pede..." may be a crucial incident in the tale, but it is going to mean absolutely nothing to anyone out of context. Worse, it all sounds a bit stupid. So how to get around this? In the actual book there's a slow unfolding of how the magic works and what it does; in a synopsis you have to explain very briefly, and NOT show.

So what I do is start the synopsis with a few paragraphs under a subtitle of "The World" or "The Land" or something similar, where I describe briefly what makes this world unique and how its magic works. I end this section with a bit on the trilogy's themes (nothing too heavy handed though. I'm a storyteller first.) And I hope to make this section really interesting because I suspect it will do more to sell the books than the truncated version of the story that follows - although that will now make sense, at least.

Fourthly, I deal with each book separately. I turf out all the minor characters and try to sketch in the bare outlines of the story, enough to be coherent, not enough to muddle. You can't do much to show your skill with characterization, but I feel it pays to put a bit in about a couple of the most important characters. Here's how I describe the villain of the piece: ...a cold-eyed pede rider named Shanim, known for his unquestioning loyalty to Devin and his indifference to suffering, either his own or anyone else’s.

Anyway, I can tell you one good thing that came out of this exercise. I know exactly how Book 4 is going to end now. I always knew what I wanted to achieve by the end - that is, I knew the state of the world and the position of the characters at the end of the quartet - but I couldn't quite get a handle on the climactic ending that was going to get me there, [what Russell Kirkpatrick calls "a typical Larke climax" of cataclysmic instability a la "Gilfeather", "The Tainted", "Havenstar" and "Song of the Shiver Barrens"].

Now I have it, and it's a beaut.

I hate writing synopsis, but they sure do help to get your thinking straight. I am on top of the world tonight - hey, this quartet is gonna be good.


Photo: Sebatik Island, Sabah.

13 comments:

Patty said...

Right... except I don't agree with point 1. A synopsis goes with your query and first three-or-whatever chapters and is darn important, and probably even harder to write if 1. you've no idea what a successful synopsis should look like and 2. you don't have anyone (read: your agent) looking over your shoulder

Glenda Larke said...

When I secured my own (UK) agent, all I sent her was a query letter plus the first 3 chapters...no synopsis. Admittedly, that was back in 1990.

I've actually decided that without that introductory section, it is well nigh impossible to write a synopsis of a big fat fantasy that makes any sense at all to someone who hasn't read it.

I agree, synopsis-writing is tough. But at least if you have written the book, you have it a little easier. Maybe.

hrugaar said...

The introductory section sounds a good idea - no doubt that's why thought of it, not I. :oD

I aim for 2,000 words a day, which I consider a good day, and that usually takes me about ten hours work! Only on a few exceptional occasions have I managed more than that. :o\

Anghara said...

Sweetie - you want to write my synopsis for me...? [wan grin]

And my apologies - your parcel has been sitting on my desk for a WEEK now, and I actually have to get to an honest-to-goodness post office for this because it's going to MALAYSIA and I have no clue what the postage is and it'll need customs forms and whatsit, and I simply haven't GOT there this week. And on Wednesday I'm leaving for a convention across the country, so I have to apologise abjectly and promise I'll make it a priority to send the book ASAP after I get back from New York...

Glenda Larke said...

Anghara's sending me her book! Anghara's sending me her book! I shall at last have something decent to read... I did the rounds of the bookshops here on Friday, It was pitiful. Lots of old stuff - LotR, Feist, Eddings, etc, or media tie-ins (not much good to someone who doesn't have a TV) but absolutely nothing that interested me.

Hrugaar - does that mean you are writing again? Please tell me it's so...

KarenEMiller said...

I'ts gonna be more than good, it's gonna be GREAT.

Yeehaw on getting the synopsis wrestled into submission. Huge sighs of relief all round!

Lisa said...

I agree with Patty regarding point #1. A synopsis is a vital part of any submission to agents or publishers these days.

Personally, I think pitching a novel is easier than writing a synopsis. I had to write pitches for two novels last year for the Conjure pitch session and managed to do well enough to get both of them into the running. Sitting in front of an editor and then verbalising those pitches was another ordeal entirely. I figure my pitches got two novels in front of the editor (or at least her readers) but my synopses (what is pural for synopsis?) turned the reader off... (or my writing style. Eeek!)

Cheers, Lisa.

Glenda Larke said...

*grins in Karen's direction*

Patty, I have been thinking about what advice to give. I think maybe I can sum up the synopsis for a very complex book this way: you don't try to detail the complexities. You don't even mention most of the characters or the details of events. If you do, you get thoroughly bogged down. Instead, you emphasize what makes the story special, what makes the main character(s) special or the setting special. You try to convey the tension.

Here is a single sentence from my synopsis that covers about 60,000 words of the story of "Drouthlord":

'Bewildered by city life, missing Terril yet unable to persuade anyone to help him free her, clashing with the powerful preachers of the Sun and Water faith over his religious beliefs, and confused by his contact with Rithal’s sensual but childish daughter Senya, Raki has problems adapting.'

With that one sentence, I hope to convey:
complexity of story
Raki's lack of city sophistication and street smarts
tragedy (he can't help his friend Terril)
religious tensions in the society as well as Raki's basic nonconformist nature
sexual tensions and adolescent confusion
story tension - he's out of his depth.

And yet I have not described a single incident. I feel that's the way to go. Hope this helps.

Glenda Larke said...

Lisa, you apparently posted while I was writing...

I am very glad I didn't have to write a synopsis to get an agent. My agent liked my query letter enough to read the first 3 chapters that accompanied it, and then asked for the full MS. And that was it. She was the first person to read that particular MS, too - none of this 100 query letters Miss Snark speaks of. Mind you I had other MSS turned down by others earlier.

Doing a pitch would probably turn me into a quivering idiot.

Patty said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I have actually written several synopses and am up to version 13 for the book I finished before I wrote the synopsis and I really, really want to sell (these days I write the synopsis before I finish the first draft). Because I really want to sell it, I guess I want it to be too perfect and I guess the magic synopsis pill doesn't exist. Whichever way I look at it, a synopsis is an abomination to me.

A synopsis is in essence a very dense piece of text that usually ends up rather dry as if each added 'complexity' exponentially increases its un-exciting-ness and dense-ness.

And agents and publishers are all asking for synopses...

Glenda Larke said...

If I was an agent/publisher, this is what I would be looking for in a synopsis:

a. that the writer could put coherent sentences together and fit them into a coherent paragraph and then fit the paragraphs together into a coherent storyline...
b. that I had an idea of what the book was about by the end of reading the synopsis. The themes perhaps, or even that it is a romantic urban fantasy that will make readers cry (or nonstop action spy thriller for macho male readers with an interest in guns), or whatever - but something more than just its pigeonhole. (If I ask you what your book is about, right now, can you tell me in a sentence or two? That info should come across somehow.)
3. that your characters sound memorable
4. that there is something memorable about the story, something that makes it a bit different, a wow factor. If you don't have that you should at least write brilliant literary description or great comedy!
5. That there is a feeling of some kind of progression - a beginning and an end, a change, a development, that something has altered by the end of the book.

What I wouldn't be looking for would be details of any incidents except really really major ones. I think you have to settle more for the flow of the story rather than the details.

KarenEMiller said...

Everything Glenda says is spot on.

Basically, what a synopsis shows an agent/editor is that you're capable of constructing a coherent narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. It's the blueprint for your novel(s), and as such contains no fancy stuff. Your sample chapter(s) show what kind of a writer you are, how you use words, what style/flavour you represent ... not to mention if you can spell and know your grammar.

Synopsis writing focuses on lean, tight sentence construction that paints, in literary shorthand, an outline of the story's events. It's not the place for demonstrating your deathless prose, it's the nuts and bolts selling tool of the What Happens. Which isn't to say you can't use powerful and evocative words -- just keep the flights of fancy and description to a minimum. Think muscular, not embroidered.

A good way of double checking yourself is to hand your synopsis to someone who doesn't know anything about your story. After they've read it, ask them if it made sense, if they could follow the story events ... and if it tempted them to read the real thing. If they say no, find out why.

Glenda Larke said...

Muscles. not embroidery' I like that...