>In an email from a writer friend of mine recently, she lamented the fact it had taken her 4 hours to write the 209 words that will comprise the jacket copy on her forthcoming novel. That’s pretty brutal. It got me thinking of the dreaded synopsis, an exercise every writer must face with each novel they write, as if low income and meager health insurance weren’t already providing enough suffering. Personally, I hate the damn things.
On the surface, it seems like it should be easy. In one of the writing workshops I took we talked about writing them before one even starts the novel as kind of a first pass “blueprint” for what is supposed to happen. That’s one thing, because at that point you really don’t have a whole lot of energy vested in the story; it’s more like an initial outline. But after you’ve labored for hours and hours and days and weeks and months to create a manuscript that most likely exceeds at least 65,000 or so words — maybe even double that — how are you supposed to boil all that blood and tears into a short, to-the-point summation of what the story is about?
I’m not talking about a long synopsis — I’ve seen references to a page for every 25 pages of manuscript being used as a rule of thumb — that a writer may be asked for if the initial query passes muster. I’m talking the handful of paragraphs you have at your disposal as part of that initial query that has to grab an agent or editor’s attention right out of the gate. That is the hard part.
As an example, I have this little bit for a 23,000ish word Pulp Western novella I wrote that I am thinking of expanding to a full novel. I don’t even know if it’s particularly good as a representation of what I’m talking about, but I’ll say I have sent it out once already to an outlet which, as of yet, doesn’t seem to be falling all over themselves to publish:
Score Settled with Sixguns
In the city of Butte, Montana, in 1953, Eliza Thompson is a young newspaper reporter just getting her start. She is sent to Our Lady of Mercy General Hospital to interview a patient, an eccentric old businessman new to the valley who has specifically requested her to be the chronicler of his story. He reveals to her that in his younger days he was wanted by the law as “the outlaw ‘Badger’ Tom Cassaday, one of the deadliest, most cold-blooded of killers this nation has ever known.”
Cassaday’s story begins in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876. It culminates with a brutal killing in 1889 that ends a long trail of vengeance, closes the door on a bitter love triangle, and ties him to the young reporter in a way she could never have foreseen. Cassaday, an aged invalid, relates his life story knowing full well that revealing the truth he has carried for decades will likely lead to a pistol in his hand one final time, facing a man who wants nothing more than to see him dead.
Score Settled with Sixguns is a bloody tale of pistols, greed, and double-crosses over women set in the American West of the late 1800s. It is for readers who like their heroes gritty, their women beautiful, and their villains riddled with bullets.
That’s just a couple hundred words, and while I don’t think it took me four hours to come up with, it was still a royal pain in the ass. Then again, at a finished tally of 23,000 words, the entire story is maybe only a third or less of what any full-length book would have to deal with. I’ve been over it and over it, tweaking it, and even then I don’t know how effective it is at really getting to the heart of what the book is about. That, combined with just the first few pages (or, if I’m real lucky, the first two or three chapters), would need to make an agent or editor excited about reading the whole thing. That’s quite a lot to pull off in just a few words.
I looked at the synopsis of another project I’ve been working on. This is the story I wrote as part of NaNoWriMo last November, though the 50,000 I wrote over that month will ultimately expand to 70K – 80K when it’s complete. Along the way I’ve decided to make quite a few changes to what I’ve already written too, so there is more work left to be done to wrap that up. Still, it’s shaping up nicely.
But the synopsis? Awful. Worse than awful. The book is my attempt at writing a pulp superhero novel that is about a man recruited to be the US government’s “official” superhero. It’s kind of an alternate history thing that takes place in modern times that I’ve tried to pack with some elements of noirish crime fiction. Hey, it’s an experiment that I realize probably ain’t all that publishable but I still want to finish the damn thing. So while I’m fairly happy with a lot of the actual novel, and I think much of it is fun and action-packed and works, the synopsis I wrote makes it seem so utterly cliche and predictable that I second guess myself about whether it’s even worth working on. I read my synopsis tonight and asked myself, “Is this piece of shit really the book I’ve been working on?”
Ultimately, I don’t know that there is any easy way to write an attention grabbing synopsis. I’ve read many how-tos and overviews, and none have made it seem any easier. I think as a writer you just have to roll up your sleeves and do it. Then edit it, and edit some more, and grab strangers on the street or in the airport and force them to read it and see if it seems interesting to them, over and over until you just can’t deal with it any more. And then send it out with your query, and maybe, maybe, if the gods of writing are smiling, you might get asked to submit the novel. Or, worse, a more detailed synopsis.