On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary

The art of the query letter and synopsis is not summarizing your entire book. This is what took me forever to learn. It’s about IGNORING VAST SECTIONS OF YOUR BOOK. Boiling things down to the fewest characters possible, the fewest events possible.

My most successful query letter so far has almost no plot information at all, just a very quick reference to the the story to get a feel for it, and then my credentials. Just enough to hook, no more.

My synopsis, similarly, has very few character, very few plot developments. I rebelled against this at first, I felt like I was almost writing a different story, but then I realize that summary more about CHOOSING WHAT YOU LEAVE OUT than choosing what you leave in. This is because you have to leave out almost all of the book. A short summary CANNOT hold you entire novel and still make sense, unless almost nothing happens in your book.

My synopsis ended up being very high-level, much more high-level than I thought it would have been when I first started trying to write a synopsis. Eventually I realized that I needed to emphasize style and voice and a few main characters — because really, anyone reading the synopsis is just trying to get a feel for the book. So you’ve got to put the “feel” in, but you don’t need anything else. (But don’t forget to put the ending in! There are no secrets in a synopsis!)

So, dear reader, I am saying you need to cherry pick your novel. Make it make sense, but show surprisingly little of the plot (especially in the query letter). But I have this warning too: be careful how you summarize. Summary is a completely different type of writing than what most of us are used to in fiction, and it’s very easy to emphasize the WRONG parts, and make the story seem like something it isn’t.

Here are two examples:

1) (via David Brin on facebook)
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first woman she meets and then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”
— Marin County newspaper’s TV listing for “The Wizard of Oz”

2) The infamous “Shining” trailer on YouTube

I think these talk for themselves, but let me say it one more time to let it sink in: Summary is about DECIDING WHAT TO LEAVE OUT. Think about it. What did the summarizers leave out of the above examples?

Ok. ‘Nuff said.

2 Replies to “On Writing #14: Synopsis and Query – The Art of Summary”

    1. Heh. Yeah, I thought so too. I saw one today on Melanie Fletcher’s FB:

      “Wealthy recluse with an extensive underground lair, taste in expensive body armour and exotic weapons. Adopts a young ward after his family is tragically killed and encourages him to pursue a life of adventure!

      OMG! Bilbo Baggins is BATMAN!”

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