by Mary Buckham
Mary Buckham is a national speaker and mass market published author of award-winning books. She teaches online classes as well as live classes across the country. Her next book out is the highly anticipated Break Into Fiction: Plot Your Novel by Adams Media, a June 2009 release. Mary is currently working on a high-concept thriller based in the Pacific Northwest. Her website is www.MaryBuckham.com or www.BreakIntoFiction.com
St. Gregory the Great articulated the original Seven Deadly Sins--pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth--transgressions that caused the death not of the body but of the soul. Committing the Seven Deadly Synopsis Sins won't exactly doom your soul, but they might smash your chances at getting your manuscript a decent read in the hands of overworked and harried editors and agents.
I have had the pleasure of working with thousands of writers of all genres. I work with them one-on-one to review, analyze and tweak their synopses to make them the strongest selling tools possible. As a result, I've been able to see, from an editor/agent's perspective, what comes across their desks daily and why some synopses work and others don't.
All things being equal, editors and agents need, require, synopses to do two things:
1) show them that you have a cohesive plot worthy of their time and attention and
2) allow them to sell your story to editors [if in the hands of an agent] senior editors, the Marketing department, the Overseas acquisition editors, etc., etc.
Strong synopses showcase your characters, your plot and your ability to structure a story. If a synopsis sucks it makes it oh so easy for an agent or editor to pass on reading your manuscript.
The following Synopsis Sins--if eliminated--will not guarantee a sale, or even a full read, but the absence of them will make your synopsis, and thus you and your story, stand out in a crowded marketplace.
SIN 1) Too Many Proper Names to Track. You've lived with your characters for months or years in the writing of your mansucript. But to a cold reader, which is what an editor or agent is, they are simply proper names and do not give any information. Try and keep your proper names to a limit of three. Example: If I say Jim, Bill and Bob went to the grocery store--you have no image. If I say my husband, son and dog went to the store--you have a stronger image.
SIN 2) Too much detail. A synopsis is meant to show the structure--the plot of your story. Save the details for your manuscript. Anytime you are writing your synopsis and move your characters around on the page, or include fascinating bits of research or scene-specific minitia, or quoted dialogue--you are showing scene detail.
SIN 3) Making passive or past tense instead of active and present. Passive phrasing and past tense phrasing in a synopsis both have a purpose when used correctly, but when overused can 1) flatline your synopsis until it sounds like that homework report
SIN 4) Not Finishing the Synopsis. Your synopsis doesn't really tell the end of your story because you want to keep the surprising twist or revalation a secret. Not a good idea.
SIN 5) Not using transitions to change POV or Time or Place. Because a synopsis is a snap shot of your whole book you lead an editor/agent through your story--or through different points of view over just a few pages. What can easily happen as you are shifting POV's, or shift in physical location or time passage--is you jar a reader out of your story. Every time you raise a question: But I thought the protagonist and villian were there instead of here, you risk losing your reader. Do this often enough and it's easy for them to put down your synopsis and your manuscript.
SIN 6) Not unfolding the synopsis as the story unfolds. Sin #6 falls closely on the heels of Sin #5--no transitions, because the lack of transitions is often covering up this all too common problem of jumping back and forth, from back story to currrent story, to the POV of a secondary character's back story, to what will happen at the end of the story, then back to the beginning. It's enough to make an editor/agent's head spin.
SIN 7) Raising questions in a synopsis in the wrong places. In our manuscripts we use questions to show internal thought. But in our synopses, because we are telling, NOT showing, we don't want to include external dialogue or internal dialogue. Both are scene detail and bog down a synopsis. Step away from the showing and summarize whatever it is you are indicating by your question. Instead of asking an editor what might happen-tell an editor what is happening.
Now what about you? Have you taken a quick look at your own synopses and found yourself guilty of any of the sins? Or if you aren't quite sure and want to get a cold read and feel comfortable posting a few sentences, feel free to do so. I'm here to answer questions, commiserate over what a pain synopsis writing is in general