Nanowrimo Now What?: The Synopsis

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

A hot air balloon over Lancaster, PA.

In the second part of my “Nanowrimo Now What?” posts, I’m going to talk about writing a synopsis. This might seem like jumping the gun; after all, you’re not going to be querying agents for this monstrosity you’ve written just yet. But a synopsis can be used for more than just getting an agent interested in your story. It’s a key editing tool for figuring out what the heck your story is even trying to say.

When the rough draft of your novel has been spewed out onto the page, it might not look like what you first planned, if you planned at all. For people who write organically, you probably didn’t know where the story was going to end up until you got there, and that’s fine! For people who outline, you probably discovered along the way that the story needed to take a different direction at a certain point, or some key plot elements that seemed obvious in the pre-writing stages turned out to be unfeasible when you actually got to them in the story. When that happens, you need a synopsis.

If you really want to learn about writing a synopsis, go to Miss Snark’s blog and check out her critiques of various synopses. Actually, read everything she has to say about everything, because she’s got a lot of good advice.

A few things I learned from her:

The synopsis does not need to talk about every plot point in the story. It’s not really possible to fit your whole novel plot into the two to three pages (or less!) that a lot of agents ask for. So instead, look for the main character arc, and summarize that. Where did the main character start? What did she work to accomplish? How was she changed along the way? How does that fit with the theme of the story? What is the point to the whole thing? Forget all the side characters and details. This isn’t your story bible. This is just a broad summary of the main theme of the book.

On the other hand, you don’t want a character study. We need to see the specific events that changed your character, not just how they changed. You don’t need to follow the chronology of the book. Write the events as they logically lead into each other.

Make sure you put the stakes front and center. What does the main character stand to lose? What is her motivation? What does she want, specifically, at the beginning of the novel, and how does she get it?

Forcing yourself to whittle down your novel into a svelte synopsis makes you focus purely on the bones of the novel. If you can’t answer the questions I asked above, then there are some big things missing from your novel. This is why you want to do the synopsis now, when you’re beginning editing, and not wait until after you’ve polished the fifth draft to a high shine and are ready to send it out. If you have any major plot holes, you’ll find that out now. If your main character doesn’t really have any strong desires and just lets herself be wafted about on the winds of fate, that’ll show up too.

Once you finish your synopsis and find all the incoherent plot points and unmotivated characters, put that synopsis aside and write a new one. This time, make sure it makes sense. Keep it broad. You don’t need to go into the details now. What you want is to make sure your story has strong bones before you start putting the meat on it. And yes, I know you’ve already written this thing, but the first draft is really just a method of piling up a heap of words so you can pick through it later to find the good stuff. You’re going to need to do another draft or two (or three or four) before this story is really done. So take this time to fix the mistakes you found in your first draft.

There. You’ve finished the synopsis. Now you have your blueprint for how the second draft is going to go. Time to get to work.

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Hugo noms, synopses, and other things

A list of things in no particular order:

In my writing group last week, someone mentioned Miss Snark’s blog, which I hadn’t visited in a while. I checked out her posts on synopses and I think for the first time I actually understand how to write a synopsis. I’d always fallen into the trap of condensing each chapter into a paragraph, so my synopsis was just an extremely condensed version of the book. For one thing, that made it very hard to keep within the page count (most agents want your synopsis to be between 1-3 pages, and that’s reeeeaally difficult if you’re doing it this way.) For another, it was just a list of plot points without much character involved. Reading Miss Snark’s critiques showed me that you need to forget the chronology. Talk about the plot as it specifically relates to the character arc. Cut out the subplots and the minor characters. Focus on the key emotional turning points of the story. I wrote my synopsis on this advice and realized that the key emotional turning points of my novel really need some work. That’s a problem for draft 2.

Rob loaned me The Walking Dead omnibus 1 and 2. I’m just about done with 1. I don’t enjoy it as much of the show, and I’m curious what sort of world the author lives in that only men know how to shoot guns and only women know how to do laundry. Half of the women I know in real life are proficient with guns (and half the men I know aren’t). Everyone can do their own laundry because they’re not infantilized man children who go from mother to wife without having to fend for themselves a day in their lives. I’m glad that the women in the book eventually are taught how to use guns, though the fact that the women still all vote for the men to lead them because they want to be ‘protected’ is more than a little annoying. I’m not asking for anything extreme here, just a little dose of reality in this post-apocalyptic world.

In bigger news, Hugo Award finalists were announced on Saturday. You can look at the full list here. Ancillary Justice by Rachel Swirsky is my pick for Best Novel, even though I haven’t even read it yet. Given everything I’ve heard about it, I’d be really surprised if it doesn’t win. I do hope to read all the Best Novel nominees soon (except perhaps the Wheel of Time series… which totals 4.4 million words).

You might also notice that noted bigot Vox Day, who I’ve written about here, is on the list for his novelette “Opera Vita Aeterna”. Some people believe that that nomination was politically motivated. Vox Day and Larry Correia also recommended 12 other works, 7 of which made it onto the list of finalists. Were these nominations made to annoy people? Very possibly. But, as Scalzi points out, they have as much right to be on the list as any other book, and they should be judged on their own merits. Voting against them for political reasons will only prove the point they’re trying to make.

Further reading/viewing:
Quick 2014 Hugo Nomination Thoughts and No, The Hugo Nominations Were Not Rigged by John Scalzi
My open tabs by Mur Lafferty
SFF180 Special | 2014 Hugo Finalists: That Awkward Moment… (YouTube) by SFReviews.net