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The dark thunder of the synopsis gods

The dark thunder of the synopsis gods

Last week’s Feedback Friday was all about synopses, so we’ll talk synopsis in a moment … except that first, obviously, we need to deal with a squirrel.

At the weekend just gone, my kids found a dead squirrel in the garage. We think maybe it was Haselnuss, a squirrel who used to eat out of my girls’ hands a year or two back. Now, I won’t swear to the animal’s identity, but clearly any dead squirrel in the hands of 8 to 10-year-olds needs proper ceremonial burial, so we dug a grave beneath her favourite tree and did the honours.

That sounds sweet and sombre, and it was, but there was also a bit of mucking about. Getting Haselnuss to ‘wave’ her paw at people to say good-bye. Pretending that she was coming back to life and wanting to bite people. Wondering whether she was moving in her grave as we scattered the earth.

The kids liked all that so, no sooner than our maybe-Haselnuss was laid to rest, they demanded a really scary story about a squirrel.

Since we had a car journey ahead of us anyway, I obliged. The ingredients: a dead squirrel with an unusual marking – an upside down cross – jolts of static and apparent movement in the corpse – a thunderstorm – strange sounds in the loft and night – a displaced tombstone in the churchyard – a village myth.

And so on.

The hardest thing with making up these stories on the hoof is exactly the same as the challenge with writing a synopsis. You have to figure out what your story is. What’s the arc? What’s the beginning, middle and end?

With a kiddy story made up to while away a car journey, it’s easy enough providing the bits of detail. The grey film over the dead eye, the sudden flash of being in a still corpse, the rain and thunder of the darkened churchyard. But to get the story to work, there has to be some kind of coherent shape. And that’s hard.

It’s the same challenge in a synopsis, and people almost always think about the synopsis backwards.

To get the synopsis right, you need to understand two (or maybe three) things. They are:

  1. Your synopsis is one of the many daughters of your elevator pitch. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Your owl, imp and box refresher is here.) Your synopsis has to deliver on the basic promise of that pitch: to show how it works in terms of story.
  2. An agent doesn’t give a dead squirrel’s tail about the minutiae of your story. They can’t. They might read 30 synopses in an evening, and that’s about as fun as eating a plateful of brickdust. All an agent wants to see is the basic shape of your story. Does that shape look right? Does it feel satisfying?
  3. The maybe-third thing to know is that agents don’t care too much about the synopsis. It’s probably the last thing in your submission package that gets read. It’s also the least important. Agents vary in how much importance they attach to the synopsis but, honestly, some of them barely care.

Now, a synopsis is, supposedly, a summary of the book. So most writers think, logically enough, that they need to get accurate with their synopsis. Chapters 25-31 deal with Astral’s difficult journey to the White Kingdom. You’ve calculated that you can spare 35 words with which to deal with those chapters. You tie yourself in knots trying to come up with the most compact summary and are deeply torn as to whether or not you need to name YANOK (114, a dwarf of poisonous temperament).

But stuff that. Who cares? Those kind of worries arise because you’re thinking about the synopsis backwards: from 100,000 word book to summary.

You need to think of it the other way round. From concept to summary – and ignore the 100,000 word manuscript completely. The point here is that:

Shape is everything.

So forget about the hassles en route. Just say, “Astral makes a difficult journey to the White Kingdom, where …”

Your synopsis needs to honour and reflect your elevator pitch.

It needs to show the shape of your story. The more detail you are able to omit, the better your synopsis gets.

That’s it.

Feedback Friday

Getting Published Week #3 / Opening Page

First week, query letter. Last week, synopsis. This week, the bit that matters: opening page. I want:



Your opening page. No more than 300 words or so

Attaboy. Attagirl.

And don’t forget: we’ll be selecting opening pages from Feedback Friday to discuss at our live critique event this coming week. To be considered for that, please post your material by Monday. And if you don’t want your work to be shredded live in front of a baying mob of (erm) very nicely behaved JW members, then please mark your submission as “NOT FOR LIVE REVIEW”.


That’s it from me. Post yours here. I’m off to reset a few tombstones in the churchyard.

Til soon.


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