As I said recently, I don’t have any good advice to offer about writing, but I do occasionally have some thoughts about my own writing process. One of these concerns the process of writing a synopsis.
For me, writing a synopsis of my novel is kind of like taking a statistics course (and about as much fun). All through university, everyone I knew seemed to have to take the dreaded Stats class. People with all sorts of different majors were required to take this horrible course that everyone moaned and complained about. I was so smug about the fact that I never had to do a Stats class. Then, when I tried to get into graduate school to do my masters in education, guess what they told me was one of the requirements? An undergraduate statistics course!
We may be able to dodge the uncomfortable things in life for quite a while, but most of them will come back to roost eventually. As it was with stats, so it is with synopses.
Despite having had several books published, I have rarely ever had to write a synopsis of a book. I got my first book published by submitting the full manuscript to a contest when I was 18, and that led to an established relationship with the publisher that has released all my Christian books so far. Every time I’ve suggested a book idea to them, they’ve asked me to give a general idea what it’s about or maybe some sample chapters — sometimes it’s just a matter of sending the whole completed manuscript — but I’ve rarely, if ever, had to write a synopsis. When it comes to pitching books to other publishers, I’ve done it on the strength of sample chapters and, at one time, an agent I used to have. So while I know in theory that a synopsis is a brief summary of what happens in your book, I haven’t had a lot of practice actually writing one.
Within the last month, I’ve had to write two synopses for two different books: one book already written, and one I haven’t written yet. Both were difficult, for different reasons.
I have trouble writing synopses for books I haven’t yet written because I don’t always know where they’re going. Plot is not exactly my strong point. I write because I’m interested in character development, not in plot. To take, for example, one of the stories I’m just starting (and haven’t had to synopsize yet, fortunately!) my main character Triffie is a young girl when the story starts, and I know she’ll be an old woman when it ends, and I know what kind of person she’ll be by the end of her life. But as for what events are going to happen to make her that person … I have only the vaguest idea. While many writers write successfully from a detailed outline of events, I write to find out what the events are going to be.
So, it’s very hard for me to write a synopsis of a book I haven’t completed, because I’m not always sure where I’m going. The one exception is that when I’m writing a book about a historical figure, like The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson, or any of the novels I’ve written about Biblical characters, I’ve already got a lot of the plot outlined for me. (As I said to a friend about the new book I’m writing about James, “I’ve got it all worked out … his brother Jesus is going to die. On a cross. And then … get this … He comes back from the dead!!! Isn’t that awesome?”)
But writing a synopsis of a book I’ve already finished, which should be easier, is painful other reasons. I already know what’s happened, how the characters get from Point A to Point B, but … it just doesn’t seem all that interesting. When you take out all the dialogue and descriptions and fine nuances of how characters relate to one another … the bare listing of events that happens doesn’t sound grabby enough to make anyone want to pick it up and read it. Again, plot’s not really my strong point, and when my story is boiled down to plot, it make me wonder if even I want to re-read it.
Right now, for example, I’m trying to shop around that road trip novel that you’re all sick of hearing about for the past two years. And if I were to summarize the plot, I would say … “Hmmm … Megan, Jonathan, and Andrew go on a road trip from Newfoundland to California. They see some stuff, meet some people, the car breaks down a couple of times and there’s an accident, and along the way they learn some important things about each other and themselves. And … that’s about all, really.” Gripping stuff, eh?
I keep trying to remind myself that I’m not writing thrillers; I write character-driven stories for people who like to read character-driven stories, but still, the fact remains that at some point, stuff has to happen to keep people turning the pages. It’s hard enough to make those things happen, but to plan beforehand what they’ll be … or summarize them afterwards in a way that sounds interesting … well, those are challenges. And it’s those challenges that explain why writing synopses is the hardest part of the book-peddling process for me, which of course means it’s the part I have to work on.