Writing a Synopsis at the Last Minute

A few weeks ago, I wrote about beginning to query agents for my novel. All very exciting stuff, and it’s getting more exciting. When I left you, I said all I had to do was polish my query letter and finish up my synopsis and I’d be set to go. Well, the synopsis wasn’t going so well, but I didn’t want to lose all the momentum I had going, so I said, I’ll pick five agents who don’t require a synopsis for my first round of submissions, and once I query them, I’ll really get down to editing the synopsis. So that’s what I did.

 

Except for the synopsis part.

 

Before I submitted my queries, I had written a five page double-spaced synopsis that took a reader through the entire book, blow by blow. I had then edited it down to three pages. Most agents want a one-two page synopsis, and this was where I was struggling. If you’ve never tried it, describing a 330-page manuscript from start to finish in one page is really hard. Really, really hard. Throw in the fact that this 330-page manuscript has two storylines—one from the protagonist’s point of view in the present and one from her parents’ points of view in the past—and it gets even harder. So yeah, I was pretty stuck, and I was pretty much ignoring it. I figured I had until I was rejected by all five agents before I needed a synopsis for the next batch, and that was plenty of time.

 

Until one of the agents didn’t reject me and instead requested sample chapters and, you guessed it, a one-page synopsis. It was a moment of great excitement—my query works!—but also sheer terror. Now I needed a working synopsis—a working, one-page synopsis—and I needed it now. Actually, I really needed it yesterday so I could be submitting it now. And, oh yeah, I still didn’t know how to do that.

 

The good news was I wasn’t starting from scratch. The bad news was I felt completely overwhelmed. I had a three-page synopsis that was split into the past and present storylines, similar to how the book is set up, but it was awkward and clunky and way too long, and even I—with my expert cutting skills—was having trouble making it shorter. I started to panic. I wanted to get these sample chapters and synopsis off to the agent as soon as possible, but I wasn’t ready, and I didn’t know how to make myself ready to do that. And did I mention I should have had this done yesterday?

 

Once upon a time, I was crazy organized and on top of things. I had homework done a week in advance—that sort of crazy. Then I went to college, discovered television and a social life, and learned to procrastinate. And as I remembered after the fact, this is not the first time I’ve been caught off guard and had to produce something at light speed. And it worked out really well then, too (I got into Alpha). But this wasn’t a short story. This was a whole book boiled down to a page.

 

I panicked for about half an hour all over my skype writing group and some people from Alpha who’d helped me with my query. Finally, they managed to get me calmed down enough to think straight. They reminded me that the synopsis isn’t really that important. It’s not something to blow off, certainly, but many agents view it as a formality, a way to tell that your story has a beginning, middle, and end, and nothing whacky flying out of left field in the last sentence. My sample chapters were good, they reminded me. I just had to calm down, finish the synopsis, and get it out the door.

 

And that was all well and good, but I still didn’t know how to fix the synopsis. A couple people suggested that, since the parents’ storyline really is a subplot, it didn’t need to take up nearly as much room in the synopsis. I could just include a quick paragraph about it when the protagonist finds out the relevant information. I went back and forth on this. The parents’ storyline is really important to me. In earlier drafts of this novel, I had people insist that I cut it all together, but I really felt like it added a whole other layer of complexity to the novel and to my protagonist’s motivations, so I stuck with it. So I didn’t want to just eliminate the parents from the synopsis, because I reasoned, if they aren’t important enough to include in the synopsis, why are they so important to the novel? And I couldn’t say something along the lines of “The novel is told in three points of view,” because according to all my research on how to write a synopsis, you aren’t supposed to get that meta—no themes or motifs or even discussions of writing or point of view—just the plot and characters and some stuff about the setting. But this idea of boiling down the parents’ storyline into a short paragraph and then inserting it at a critical point in the synopsis clicked with me. Best of all, it allowed me to focus my wildly scattered panic into motivation and energy and get to work.

 

I cut out all the stuff about the parents, getting the synopsis down to just over a page. Then I wrote my short paragraph about the parents and stuck it in where I thought it should go. Now, instead of a three-page synopsis, I had a page and a half. Much more manageable. I went through sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, restructuring and trimming until, at last, it fit on one page. I was victorious! And best of all, when all was said and done, I was actually pretty proud of my work. It didn’t feel like something I’d thrown together in a few adrenaline-fueled hours, it felt strong and polished, like it might stand a chance at convincing an agent that I know how to tell a story.

 

There’s a lesson here. If I had finished the synopsis earlier like I’d meant to, I could have avoided losing my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson. But here’s the thing, all that time that I was “procrastinating” on the synopsis, it was still stewing in the back of my mind. That’s why the new take on how to handle the parents’ chapters clicked with me so quickly—my subconscious was probably already halfway there. So when someone lit a fire under me, I had everything I needed to get it done and get it done well. And now, if anyone else asks for a synopsis, I have it.

 

And now that it’s done and I’ve caught my breath, I can take the time to really savor how exciting all this is. It may turn out that this particular agent isn’t the right fit, but maybe she is, and anyway it’s great to know that my query has grabbed someone’s attention and that I’m on to the next step. So keep your fingers crossed for me.

 

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