I just turned in my synopsis to my editor for the next novel, and truthfully? By the end I felt like I did at Girl Scout camp, when they used to have us carve flowers and animals out of bars of soap. (I have no idea why the Boy Scouts across the way got to whittle sharp sticks, but we had to use soap.)
Just as that bar of soap would slip through my fingers until I finally got enough curves and edges dug into it, allowing me to hold it firmly between my sweaty little hands, the synopsis for a new book always seems likely to slip through my grasp. It’s unwieldy and shapeless and feels like it could dissolve at any moment.
And then, suddenly, there is a magical moment where the shape of the book appears, where the characters take life even in the relatively short span of a synopsis and let you know what the real story is. Then I can dig my fingers into it and keep refining the shape until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end—or, if I’m carving soap, a flower, a butterfly, or a polar bear.
Here are 4 tips to help you survive writing a synopsis, whether you’re pitching a new novel to different publishing houses or just trying to convince your editor that your next book will be your best yet:
1. Start out by writing single tag lines for your book. Stuck? Check the descriptions of similar books on Amazon, or Google famous quotes about whatever broad topic you’re tackling, whether it’s chance, hope, family, death, etc. Picture that tag line on your book cover, right under the title. This will tell your editor—and you—what your book’s main question or theme will be.
2. Once you have the tag line, write the copy for your book cover. This should be exciting copy that summarizes what the reader will get out of your book: “In this riveting debut thriller, lawyer Nancy Grace wakes up one morning to discover that she has just been nominated for a popular reality dance show on television. Little does she know that…”
3. The tag line and the book cover copy will probably keep morphing as you write the synopsis, but by now you should know what your book is “about.” Now you can cobble together the basic plot elements of the story. Start at the beginning and just tell the story the way you would describe the highlights of a movie to a friend over dinner: “At the start of the novel, Nancy is working at her desk when the phone rings. It’s a call she never expected…” Move on through the key events in the novel. And, yes, I mean go through the story right to the end—editors want to know what they’re buying, and most of them hope for a solid resolution that will make readers happy.
4. Finally, once you’ve written out the synopsis, offer a couple of sample sections of your book. These can just be brief but key scenes from each point of view to give the editor a taste of what the book will feel and sound like—is the tone comic or dark? Will there be lush descriptive passages, or will the writing be fast-paced and to the point? Again, the main thing here is to show your editor exactly what you have in mind.
That’s it! Despite how slippery, unwieldy, and impossible this bar of soap—oops, I mean this synopsis—feels, I promise that if you trust in the process, you’ll find an editor who will be a good match for your book. Even better, you’ll end up with a blueprint that will make writing the book easier.
My mother tells better stories than anyone. As a child, my favorite was about the time she babysat for a family in her rural Maine town. The parents told her the children were asleep, and that she could do homework in the kitchen and help herself to a snack. The only rule was that she was not to go down the hall and open the door to the last room on the left.
Naturally, being twelve years old and the beautiful, adored sister of two adventurous older brothers, Mom was a rule breaker. The minute she heard the car back out of the driveway, she was tiptoeing down the dimly lit hallway to press her ear to that mysterious door. To her shock, noises were coming from the other side.
After a moment’s hesitation, Mom slowly turned the knob and inched the door open a crack. A child came dashing out, nearly feral in his animal sounds and movements, blindly grasping at her clothing and body.
This scene may or may not have really happened exactly like this. Researchers have shown how our memories alter each time we take them off some shelf in our brains, examine them, and put them back. As my mother told us this story, she could have embellished the tale, too, adding details to keep my own brothers and me quiet on long car rides.
When people ask how I get ideas for my novels, I tell them that a writer’s mind is like that junk drawer in your kitchen. You throw all kinds of things into that drawer: paper clips, rubber bands, business cards, receipts, Legos, odd coins, bits of string. Likewise, writers go around collecting snippets of dialogue overheard at the grocery store, cool looking cars, people you meet at dinner parties, and family stories. The stories that haunt you—like this one—are the ones that typically form the genesis for a novel.
In my new book, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, the central story revolves around sisters whose father, as he is dying, says, “Find your brother and tell him the truth.” The only problem is that they don’t have a brother, so how can they tell him the truth?
Of course, it gradually emerges that they did have a brother, and the narrative is launched as they begin to search for him. The oldest sister has a dim memory of once opening the door to a bedroom and finding a blind, panicked boy behind it. In the novel, the search for the missing brother reads like a mystery, with the three sisters trying to uncover clues to discover what happened between their parents before they were born.
Novelists weave fiction entertain, to make people think and feel things about their lives, and to promote fresh perspectives on timeless human conflicts. Fiction pokes at the deeper questions we all wrestle with: How can I forgive someone in my family who has betrayed me? How can I learn to love again if I’ve been hurt before? What does it really mean to be a family? What is the point of parenthood, if your children only grow up to leave you?
I may never know the truth behind my mother’s childhood story. Who was that boy? Why was he locked in that back bedroom and kept a secret? As I was writing this novel and asking her questions, my mother told me, somewhat vaguely, that she thinks this child was probably born to the couple’s teenage daughter out of wedlock.
“Maybe they kept him in that bedroom out of shame, because they believed this blind child was God’s punishment for her sins,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” she said with a shrug.
For my mother, this story was a memory. She has moved on. For me, the story became a quest: I wrote BEACH PLUM ISLAND because I needed to create a world where something tragic like this could happen, find out why, and put things right again for a frightened little boy.