Editing for Indie Writers: How to Write a Synopsis (for Editing)

Appropriately, I have a synopsis to write today.  I know all this stuff.  And yet I’m still like @#$%^&* synopsis…I hate those @#$%^& synopses…bastards…maybe I’ll make this post just a little longer… Update: done with the synopsis!  Fist punch!  Yessss!!!

Chapter 2, part 2

One more thing before we get down into actually writing the synopsis.  If you look up how to edit things on the net, you’ll see a lot of people advocating tricks to get your brain to “see” problems, like reading the manuscript out loud, putting it into a different font, or reading from the end to the beginning.  I recognize the usefulness of these techniques, but I don’t support them, and I try not to use them.  If you’re using tricks, you’re not really training your brain to see what’s in front of you; you’re just distracting the part of the brain that doesn’t want to see (and your brain will become increasingly good at getting around these distractions).  I’d rather train my brain to see issues rather than train it to function less well.  That being said, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to get the editing done, and that’s all right.

Right now, we’re doing content editing–editing at the story level.  What trick could you possibly use to see holes in your story?  Can reading from the end to the beginning make them more apparent?  Will reading something aloud tell you how implausible your worldbuilding is?

To really get down into the meat of your story, you have to see it in a way more thorough than a regular reader does.  You have to be able to tell:

  • Is the beginning in the right place?  Does it introduce the problem of the story?
  • Is the middle entertaining, or does it drag?  Does it include cycles where the main character tries and fails to solve the main problem?
  • Is the ending effective?  Does it solve the main problem of the story?
  • Is the climax the most painful and glorious point in the story?
  • Do the characters fit the story, or the story the characters?
  • Is the overall plot believable?
  • Are you there, in the story?  Or are your characters silhouettes behind a screen (or puppets with outfits pasted on)?  Is it all just a bunch of blah blah blah?
  • Are the surprises surprising, or just out of the blue?
  • What is the overall emotion of the story?  What’s the overall tone?
  • Is the pacing okay?
  • Can your audience really empathize with your POV characters?
  • What themes come up?  Are you really saying what you want to say?  Are you implying something you don’t want to say? (Like “Women are bloody useless.”)
  • Are your subplots all resolved?
  • Is your antagonist effective?  If a non-personified antagonist, is it realized clearly enough?  Does the conflict make you tense?
  • Plot holes…what plot holes?
  • Are your characters interesting…or are they cardboard cutouts?  Do they have feelings, hopes, dreams?
  • Are you writing too much backstory?
  • What does all this even mean?

There are a thousand and one things you can look for, and the things you need to look for change with every story.   What trick can help you decide what you need to look for?  None, really, and any checklist (like this one) that you try to use faithfully will lead you to mess up your story as you try to strengthen something that needs to be weak for that particular story–for example, you might try to tighten up the pacing on a story by cutting out a long rambling passage where one of the character is just walking around and thinking–and it might be the heart of your story.  Ack!

Learning how to use a synopsis, even though it doesn’t directly answer the questions in the checklist above, will tend to bring out the answers to those questions.  If you want to discover things that you didn’t expect to find (and the brain is great about not seeing what it doesn’t expect to see), then you need to look in a way that is open-ended yet thorough.

How to write the synopsis

Okay, you’re sold.  You want to write a synopsis…but how?

Here’s what the end result should look like: up to ten pages of text, formatted in standard manuscript format (or even bigger font), that tells the complete story.  The synopsis should have the same voice as the story: the same kind of word choice, the same kind of attitude problems, and the same mood and tone as the story.

But how do you do that?

Ironically, for all that I’m telling you to develop yourself as an editor, you can only write an effective synopsis from your writer brain.  Most of the resistance to writing synopses, I think, comes from trying to write them from a cold, logical place that isn’t quite an editor brain but is closer than it is to a writer brain.  That cold, logical place isn’t where the stories happen; trying to force yourself to make stories happen from that place is painful and useless, which is why your brain doesn’t like to do synopses that way, so don’t.

Whatever it is that you, in particular, do to get yourself to the place where the stories are fun, do that.  If you’re a plotter, write a prepatory outline (or whatever you do).  If you’re  a pantser who needs a particular atmosphere, pen and notebook combination, or whatever, do that.  If you brainstorm, then brainstorm.  I wouldn’t attempt to change your method in the least, no matter how illogical or time-wasting it is.  Get yourself to the point where a) your story’s POV is your POV, and b) you’re just not rational about it, damn it.

Then write.  As soon as you find yourself niggling, do the things that you normally do to subdue the niggling voice when you’re writing.

The real pitfall, when you’re writing a synopsis, is to try to get everything in, to completely retell the train of thought that led you to write each incident in a story–you know, to tell a story the way people who are poor verbal storytellers do.  The people who go on and on and on and don’t notice while you check your watch, write out your grocery list, and bang your head against the wall while shrieking, “Get to the point!”  If you find yourself bored when writing a synopsis, this is probably what you’re doing.

Actually sitting down and writing a synopsis should be full of highs, lows, doubts, hate, love, even outright tears.  It should be just as exciting as writing fiction on your best writing day.  Maybe even full of despair, because you think what you’re writing is stupid, but tense…wound up…full of emotion.  If you find yourself saying, “Oh, but I forgot to add this one important part; I have to go back and add it, or it won’t make sense,” don’t.  Your writer brain more than likely left it out because it’s not important for this particular telling of the story (which is supposed to be shorter…thus missing a few things).  If you go back later and read it and it doesn’t make sense, write another synopsis; it’ll be easier and probably make more sense.

I’m not saying writing synopses is easy; writing isn’t easy.  But it shouldn’t be boring.

What do you do when you find issues with your book via your synopsis?  Write past them; complete the synopsis.  Write the synopsis that you need to write, at that moment.  When you are done, identify the differences between your synopsis and your book, and treat them as though they were comments from a beta reader or a critique group:  are these the changes I want to make?  You may want to use the checklist above to help identify the differences; I’ll talk more about comments later.

You may need to write several drafts of your synopsis for one reason or another.  Do not edit your synopsis, unless you’re polishing it for an editor, and then limit yourself to a spelling/grammar/format check.  (If it’s too long/short, write another one that’s the right length.  Really.)  The synopsis is meant to be pure story, and like it or not, it’ll reflect your basic storytelling skills, no matter how much you edit it.  If you find the synopsis isn’t working for you, write another one from scratch, without so much as looking at the first draft.  Again, the synopsis is a test of and a test for your storytelling skills–your writer brain, not your editor brain.  Do not tempt the editor brain by letting yourself act in an editorial manner.

I think the great hope of many writers is that an editor will be able to tell them how to improve the story itself, that the editor won’t just fix your grammar and make sure you’re consistent in your details but will actually improve the basic story that you’ve handed them.  A good editor, editing for content, should be able to do this.  However, the writer’s job is to be able to tell a good story that nobody else could tell.  You shouldn’t rely on an editor to make up your deficiencies for you; you can’t always rely on having a good editor, and it isn’t the editor’s job to be good at telling the story.  It’s yours.

Next Time: Preparing for Initial (Beta) Readers (a.k.a. Cleaning Up Your Manuscript)



Interview: Deb Logan, author of Thunderbird


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  1. Liz

    Coincidentally, I’m knee-deep in preparing a second draft. I think I could really use a synopsis right now. I made basic changes on the hard copy of my first draft, then made a few more while retyping it. I cut out a lot of stuff, which is a huge feat for me; usually I’m a word hoarder. I’m running against a deadline right now, so it’s probably too late to change anything the synopsis might bring to light, but I’m gonna try it anyway. I’m reckless like that.

    • De

      It’s like driving without brakes! Cats and dogs living together! Mass hysteria! You’ll be great 🙂

  2. MK Meredith

    I hate writing a synopsis, but I love having it to refer to when I need a refresher as to where my story is going while I’m writing it. Most of the time my characters will tell me, but once in a while they are very tight lipped. 🙂
    Great blog. The list will be very useful!

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