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Plot Synopsis Project

I almost opted out of jpsorrow's synopsis discussion project. I've sold six books to DAW, but it wasn't until #5 that I sold one based on a synopsis. And that book won't be out until late 2009/early 2010, so I can't even share it.

A lot of this has to do with the speed (or lack thereof) at which the publishing industry moves. My first book, Goblin Quest, was originally a small press release. I wrote a sequel, and my agent sold both books to DAW. Of course, while he was shopping those around, I was hard at work on book number three. By the time the deal was signed, I was mostly finished with the next manuscript.

I went ahead and finished up book three, and off it went. At this point, I could have done a synopsis of the next book. I probably should have, really. Instead, I just started writing it. To be completely honest, I think I was scared. I had a fair amount of practice writing books, but no experience writing synopsis, so my brain decided it was easier to write a full manuscript than to do the synopsis. Not the most logical decision in the world, but since when did I ever claim to be a clear-thinking logician?

It was nine months before we got an offer on book three, at which point they went ahead and bought number four unread as well (which was pretty damn cool!)

By the time DAW bought those two, I was seeing my writer friends selling books left and right based on synopses, and I started to get jealous. So I took a deep breath, then talked to my agent about selling my fifth book on synopsis. My agent, evil genius that he is, said no. He wanted me to write two of the things, so he could sell books five and six together. And who am I to argue with that?

I'm happy to say the synopses weren't quite as scary as I thought it would be. I suspect it would have been harder if I hadn't had experience writing short fiction; structurally, a synopsis is a lot closer to a short story than it is to a novel. You still need to grab the reader's interest, create tension, and build to a satisfying resolution of the conflict. (Check the links below to see some examples of synopses that worked.)

An unexpected benefit is that it's a lot quicker for my editor to read a synopsis than a full manuscript. Remember when I said it took nine months to get an offer on the last full manuscript I submitted? With the synopses, we had an offer on both books within weeks.

It's still scary. I'm now committed to turn in two books I haven't written yet. I have deadlines and everything, which has definitely left me feeling more stressed about my writing. On the other hand, I very much appreciate my publisher's faith in me, and there's a lot to be said for job security.

Plot Synopsis Project participant links:



( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2008 12:03 pm (UTC)
I think the scary thing for me is - what if the book changes significantly as you're writing it, and what you end up with no longer bears any resemblance to the synopsis you gave them? THAT is what would make me lose sleep nights more than anything else.
Mar. 18th, 2008 12:11 pm (UTC)
I suspect it depends a lot on how different the final result is. If you turn in a synopsis for a humorous fairy tale retelling and end up writing a hard SF space opera, there could be a problem.

I think that's one reason for not trying to list every subplot and secondary character in the synopsis.

Realistically though, the story's going to change from synopsis to final manuscript. The editor knows that. If you start to veer too far from the synopsis, I'd think about e-mailing the editor to talk about where things are going and see what they think. But you're definitely allowed some wiggle room.
Mar. 18th, 2008 09:37 pm (UTC)
Thanks. That's always been one of my worries too. (Not that anyone's offered to buy anything of mine based on a synopsis. Yet. ;))
Mar. 18th, 2008 01:27 pm (UTC)
So far in my vast writing career, I've sold one completed novella, and one book on synopsis.

I feel instinctively that I should write the book first, because the plot and characters get squirmy on me, and so much changes. But this is true for many writers, and they keep selling, so you know, I guess we'll do whatever sells books.

I suppose the salient point is that we have something lined up to work on, or we work on something pretty much solidly.

Mar. 18th, 2008 01:51 pm (UTC)
I really like the idea of knowing I've sold whatever I'm working on, as opposed to hoping someone buys it once I'm finished. But at the same time, there's a lot more pressure when you've already signed the contract.

I've definitely talked to a number of folks who say the finished product changes a fair amount from the synopsis, and I've yet to find anyone who lost a deal because of it. (Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough, though...)
Mar. 18th, 2008 01:52 pm (UTC)
What a great post! I'm bookmarking this one. :D
Mar. 18th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
I would be so screwed to sell on synopsis (ok, so far I'm in the stage where a publisher would want to see an entire manuscript or two, but there's always hope). I've tried everything from line per scene outlines, detailed outlines, index cards and whatever. But the only way I can work is with some historical background, some characters, and a vague idea about how the characters' personal conflicts tie in with the history. Then I start writing scenes all over the place and totally out of order. They eventually get connected into larger units, a bit like quilting as far as I know (I don't quilt myself), and in the end I'll have to sew up the whole thing, smothen out the seams and wrinkles and voila.

How shall I write a synposis of a book I don't ever know where it's going until I'm halfway into?
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:58 pm (UTC)
Well, the easy answer of course is that everyone's process is different, and you find what works for you. But I do know of folks who have sold books based on as little as a paragraph.

It's also possible that your process will change and evolve. My novel-planning today is very different than it was five years ago. (Unfortunately, my process became *more* messy instead of less. Sigh...)
Mar. 19th, 2008 07:27 pm (UTC)
Lol, I don't think my process can get any messier. :)

Well, selling on a paragraph would work for me. I do write something like a blurb at a very early stage.
Mar. 18th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
Wow. Thanks for the links.

At the start you said you almost opted out--but this has been really insightful to me. I know Holly Lisle sells her books based on synopsises, but she'd already sold a lot of books by that stage and it thought it was very rare. Apparently not!
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:56 pm (UTC)
You're welcome! Glad it was helpful. Joshua told me it would be good to get the perspective of folks like me who were a little slow on the synopsis thing :-)

I don't know of anyone who sold a first novel on synopsis, but once you're established it's pretty common. I think my peers were starting to give me funny looks when I was still writing my fourth novel for DAW rather than just pitching them the idea...
Mar. 20th, 2008 11:13 pm (UTC)
I worry about how my stories evolve. They could come out very different to how the synopsis suggested. Or, worse, I worry I would feel commited to the synopsis and fail to explore some much more awesome possibilities.

What's your take on this?
Mar. 20th, 2008 11:21 pm (UTC)
I've heard from a lot of authors that their final manuscript is a bit different from the synopsis they used to sell it. Some authors figure everything out in the outline, and produce a book that follows their outline exactly. Then you've got the rest of us...

You don't want to go too extreme (pitch a humorous fantasy and turn in steampunk horror), but I think you've got some flexibility between synopsis and finished book.

Also, the synopsis is going to exclude a lot by its nature. In my case, I wrote up the central plotline, but nothing about the secondary characters and subplots.

I do feel a bit worried about book three ... but if my ideas change drastically by the time I start writing it, I figure I can always shoot an e-mail to my editor and see if she's cool with the new direction I want to explore.
Mar. 21st, 2008 04:10 am (UTC)
I suspect my synopsis would go something like:

"It'll be AWESOME, I promise..."

It would be so frustrating to have an awesome new idea after selling a synopsis, try and pitch it and be knocked back.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


Jim C. Hines


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