Learning from your synopsis

December 6, 2011 § 6 Comments

A few nights ago I was in a social setting and asked the question I dread more than any other: “What’s your book about?”

I hear those words and my heart starts beating wildly in my chest, my mouth dries up, and I adopt an unfortunate stutter. I could talk about my story, characters, and world for hours, but minutes? That’s much more difficult. How can I boil down a year of work, untold hundreds of hours spent prewriting, plotting, and producing these tens of thousands of words into a few sentences that won’t bore my audience to death or make me look like one of the millions of people out there who say they want to write a book? Sometimes I start by explaining the setting, but I’ve found that the majority of people don’t know what “steampunk” is.  This is further complicated by the fact that my story differs from most steampunk in that it isn’t historical fiction, it’s fantasy in an industrializing society.

If I try to start explaining it by saying it’s about a teenage girl with a miserable family who is discovered by a Royal Magician for her prodigious magical potential, there is very little to differentiate it from just about every fantasy ever written, in which a poor, lonely, or orphaned (preferably all three) boy or girl discovers or is given amazing powers.  I especially balk at the idea of it being perceived that way because I’ve worked so hard to avoid tired fantasy tropes throughout it, but this was the most logical place for the story to start.

After I finished the first draft of my book, I took some time to hammer out a rough synopsis, both to help me flail a little less helplessly when the question comes up, and because I was excitedly looking forward to the day when I was ready to start querying agents, and writing a synopsis sounded like more fun in that moment than working on draft four. I proudly pounded out a two paragraph synopsis that, when finished, read more like furniture assembly instructions. It left me asking myself “so what?” I scrapped the furniture instructions completely and started again, with the focus of making the characters and conflicts interesting and engaging even in two paragraphs. This time I got about halfway through before realizing that I didn’t know the point of my story myself. I had some interesting characters, a sweet magic system, and a plot that I hadn’t read anywhere else, but I came to the disheartening realization that the reason my synopsis left me asking “why do I care?” was that my book left the reader asking the same thing.

I left the computer, grabbed a stack of blank paper and a pen, and moved to my thinking chair. I practically lived in that chair for the next couple days, and in the end realized I’d ended my story in the wrong place. I cut 8,000 words off the end of it (a painful, though cathartic experience) and rewrote a new and much longer ending.  My synopsis gave me focus on what my story was about on a deeper level than airships and magical societies: self-worth and finding “family” in unusual places.

Now I’ve by now means mastered the synopsis, and I’m not even thinking about querying agents until my manuscript is good and ready, but forever more I won’t start working on a new project without sitting down and hammering out a synopsis. I don’t intend to make it ironclad, but if at the beginning of a project I don’t have a good enough grasp on the story to write an engaging synopsis, I don’t have a good enough grasp to start chapter one. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go work on my steampunk-with-magic story (but not alternate history steampunk) about a girl with more magic than you can shake a stick at, who finds herself swept into an unfamiliar world of royalty, magician socieies, and royal inventors with a propensity for disaster.  There’s a nefarious plot in there too, but I can’t quite figure out how to fit that in to the synopsis. This is clearly a work in progress.

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§ 6 Responses to Learning from your synopsis

  • Stef says:

    I recently read a fiction book about a writing class and there was a lovely scene about ‘themes’ in one’s writing. There was a suggestion that in everything you write about, regardless of how you change characters and genre and everything else, there is an overriding theme that influences your writing, because it’s intrinsic to what you believe and feel about the world. I found the “lesson” fascinating, so reading this post in addition to having a wisp of a thought around “What’s my theme?” in my head is really hitting home at the moment. I think it’s important to have a synopsis for your novel, yes, but I think it’s also good to know what themes tend to appear in your writing – more than anything, it’s terribly enlightening!

    • R. H. Culp says:

      Absolutely. When I was thinking about my stories theme, I wasn’t stuffing my story full of meaning. I was clearing away the irrelevant details to better reveal the underlying theme that was already there. What book were you reading?

  • stoehrkr says:

    Yes! Can I just say you are awesome and with all this good thinking I’m pretty sure your book will be too?

  • very good advice! thank you! 🙂

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