The Great Plot Synopsis Project

A couple of weeks ago I got email from Joshua Palmatier inviting me to participate in the Great Plot Synopsis Project, wherein he was asking a bunch of published writers to post a book synopsis in order to help show aspiring writers how they’re done. (Joshua keeps having good ideas like this and then *following through on them*. I think he’s an alien.)

I have blatantly stolen the Synopsis Q&A Joshua posted in the entry that inspired this cross-posting of synopses by published novelists. I have stolen it ’cause it’s so much easier than *thinking*… :)

Please note that there are SPOILERS for URBAN SHAMAN behind this cut. The book synopsis is replicated in its entirety. As it happens, because of how this particular synopsis is written, it’s not *very* spoilery, but it is spoilery! So be warned, and now you can, if you wish,

How did you sell your first book–agent, slush pile, alien intervention? Slush pile–Luna was the third house I’d sent URBAN SHAMAN to. I dashed out and got myself an agent (the incomparable Jennifer Jackson) that weekend. Luna, at the time, was looking for traditional fantasy with a strong female protagonist and a strong romantic subplot. I sent them a contemporary fantasy with a strong female protagonist and almost no romantic subplot. They bought it. This is my way of saying “Let them tell you no.” I mean, don’t send a romance novel to Baen Books, let’s be reasonable, but also don’t assume that because your book doesn’t exactly fit what a publisher say they’re looking for that they’re going to reject you.

Was a synopsis involved, and if so what did it look like? (seriously: page length, spacing, font, straight up story or broken down by character/setting/plot, etc.) There was. It was a 2 page, 25pt spaced, .3″ tabbed, 12pt Courier New font, *extremely basic* synopsis that incorporated the entire story at once, without breaking things down into character/setting/plot. I can’t even imagine how you’d do that, in fact. Here’s the URBAN SHAMAN synopsis:

Joanne Walker is a Seattle cop with no use for the mystical. When she sees a woman running for her life, she has to get involved–even when the woman, Marie, claims to be hunted by Cernunnos, an ancient Celtic god who leads the Wild Hunt.

Jo’s solid, real world explodes when Cernunnos tramples through a local diner and calls her out. The fight ends with Jo’s near-death, and in a hazy experience between life and death, she’s greeted by the Native American trickster Coyote. He gives her a choice: death, or life as a shaman. Jo chooses the healer’s path, forced to acknowledged an aspect of the universe she’s never seen before.

Marie is murdered a few hours later. Jo, stunned, throws caution to the wind and seeks out guidance on a psychic plane. Half a dozen shamans, all of them dead in an apparently unconnected series of recent murders, respond. They charge her with finding the man who murdered them, unable to give her a greater clue than “he seeks the child.”

The next morning Jo wakes up to news that four children have been murdered at a local high school. She arrives at the school to discover a ritualized death scene. She speaks with the class teacher and, through a healing trance, learns the killer’s identity – Herne the Hunter, Cernunnos’ son.

Jo begins tracking Herne; Cernunnos, in turn, hunts Jo. Her newborn shamanic powers are the key to his ability to stay on Earth rather than be pulled back into shadow with the turn of the seasons. Their final confrontation takes place on an astral level, a very physical battle that leaves them both worn and battered, and binds Cernunnos to the cycle of time once more.

Another fight still remains, though: Jo tracks down Herne and with him, his daughter, whom Herne intends to sacrifice in a blood ritual that will permit him to take Cernunnos’ place as leader of the Hunt.

As she battles Herne, Jo comes to better understand the path she’s chosen, finally accepting her fate as a warrior and a healer in a world full of ignored mysticism. With her new understanding, she finds herself able to guide Herne to his own place in that mystical world, righting an error made centuries earlier.

When do you write a synopsis (before, during, after the novel)? Well, that synopsis I wrote after the book was written. I wrote the original synopses for THUNDERBIRD FALLS and HEART OF STONE while the books were in progress. These days I sell on proposal, so I write the synopses before I write the book.

Then I ignore it.

How do you go about doing it? With a great deal of pain and agony, usually.

Actually, I’ve found the best way to write a synopsis is to log onto a chat room, seize someone, and tell them what happens in the book. Then I take the log of the file and convert it into a synopsis. For some reason I get a huge mental block about having to Figure It Out in a formal fashion, but it’s a lot easier to just say, “Oh, yeah, and, crap, I forgot that back toward the beginning Jo did this which sets this up, ok?” and then keep going on.

The problem with doing this, of course, is it means whomever I’ve seized gets spoiled for the book I’m writing, at least in the general sense. I don’t write a lot of details into my synopses, so they remain a mystery until the book’s written (to me as well as to whomever I’ve blurted at).

I have still not learned to get enough emotional content into synopses, particularly in the form of motivation. I tend to focus on the plot, the whole plot, and nothing but the plot, which, to me, *is* the story, and leave out emotional ramifications and “er, why exactly did she do that?” (“Because I NEEDED HER TO.”) sorts of things. I’m more aware of it than I used to be, and I’m better than I was, but that’s still an area I fall down in.

Does this change depending on circumstances (genre, adult/YA, publisher, time of year, whether it’s raining, etc.)? Not really. Everything I’ve done a synopsis for has been the same amount of agony, except one synopsis that flowed in its creation and which I was proud of and liked a lot and which the publisher responded to with, “Well, ok, but what about these problems?” and made me have to reconsider the whole book. She was right, too, dammit. They usually are.

Did your approach, or the final product (the synopsis), change as you got publishing experience? Does your agent or editor want something different from you now than when they were pulling you out of the slush? My agent pretty much always says the same thing when I turn in a proposal: “Not bad, I think maybe you’ve put too much information in the first few chapters, a little too front-loaded maybe,” and I always have. One of my editors responds to the proposal with ideas for changing things around, for improving the story, etc; the other one does not, unless the synopsis I’ve turned in is absolute crap, in which case she says, in much nicer words, “This is crap. Do it again.” (That’s only happened once. And she was right. I knew it was crap when I turned it in, but I sort of hoped she wouldn’t notice. She did. :))

As for myself…I’m trying to learn to incorporate the things I’m not good at, and eventually they’ll become second nature. I hope. I’m better at them than I used to be; I’m better at considering long term ramifications and I’m better at seeing when I, for example, have forgotten to put a plot in. But it is still incredibly, incredibly helpful to have an editor respond, because even though it makes me sulk, the truth is that all writers have blind spots and having someone else illuminate those areas is critical.

We’ve been debating the eternal question of how much to include or leave out–when *you* write a synopsis, how closely does the synopsis match the book? Oh, God. Well, the URBAN SHAMAN synopsis is practically just High Concept, because it was written after the book and I really just took all the high ideas and wrote them down.

One of the things I find synopses useful for is–I usually do ignore them, after I’ve written them. This is because I think I’ve got the basic shape of the book in my head. It usually does come out more or less like what I wrote in the synopsis, too, although never exactly. But what I find them useful for is when I get slowed down or stuck and don’t know what I should be doing next. I go look at the synopsis and go, “Oh! What a cool idea that is! Now how can I get my characters to that point so I can do it?” which certainly unsticks me.

The problem with doing that is that in re-reading the synopsis I sometimes find that I forgot something REALLY COOL that would now require rewriting half the book to work in. So I’ve begun at least keeping a copy of the synopsis open along with the other doc files I’m working on, so I can take a peek now and then and see if I’ve forgotten any cool ideas.

Um. I guess ideally my synopses cover the action thread, the emotional thread, hit a few scene highlights that I know or expect to be seeing, and resolve the book. This is easier with the Walker Papers, say, which have one POV character, than with the Inheritors’ Cycle, which has…one main POV character, but six or something minor ones. (I cannot imagine writing a synopsis for the GRRM books.) On a high story level the books almost alway do what the synopses say they will. It’s just that my details frequently change, and that, I don’t worry very much about.

And how do you introduce/explain a SF/F setting in the short space of a synopsis? Succinctly, I said, less than helpfully. :)

Um, looking at a synopsis I wrote for an unfinished SF novel, I took about a page (as described above with formatting) to set up the world. It’s a four page synopsis (I think it had to be 4 pages for some contest or something I submitted it to), so that’s a lot of space dedicated to the setup, but it was also the bare minimum I thought I could get away with.

Is writing a synopsis a difficult process for you? Enjoyable/detestable? Any tips for making it easier? The only person I know who likes writing synopses is Judith Tarr (dancinghorse, who says something like, “But it’s so easy, that’s just how it all has to go in order to make the story work!” This is probably why she can write books that leave me staggering around in awe of her skill, and wide-eyed with moments of, oh, *that’s* how you do that….

For those of us who are merely mortal, writing synopses generally seems to be a teeth-grinding, hair-pulling kind of experience. As I said above, the best way *I’ve* found to do it is to sit down and tell someone in a chat room how the story goes. (It doesn’t work out loud, because I need the text to build the actual synopsis from.) I don’t know if that would work for anybody else, but it helps me a bit.

But here’s something I haven’t mentioned: having the damned things helps. It helps me, anyway. It *does* give me something to go back and say, “Uh, what next?” to, and it gives me ideas of, well, what next. I’ve been writing…a lot, these last few years. My first book came out in June 2005; my 8th is out this month, my 9th will be out in May, and my 10th in September, with 2 more coming out in the first half of next year. Out of those, one (URBAN SHAMAN) was fully written before 2005. (HEART OF STONE was as well, but underwent such massive revisions that it may as well have been from scratch.)

There is no way I could have written ten books in three years without synopses. They help guide me away from false starts, they help get me back on track, they give me a *structure*. It might not be exactly right, but it’s something to at least lean on. Writing them forces me to consider where the story is going and how it’s going to get to the end scene I usually have in mind. Doing what I’ve done the last three years, that’s critical. Much as I hate writing them, I seriously doubt I’ll ever write another book *without* writing a synopsis for it: they are, in the end, too much use.

Plot Synopsis Project participant links:

» Patricia Bray ():
» Chaz Brenchley ():
» Mike Brotherton:
» Tobias Buckell:
» S.C. Butler ():
» Barbara Campbell:
» David B. Coe ():
» Jennifer Dunne ():
» S.L. Farrell ():
» Diana Francis ():
» Gregory Frost ):
» Felix Gilman:
» Jim C. Hines ():
» Jackie Kessler ():
» Mindy Klasky ():
» Misty Massey ():
» C.E. Murphy ():
» Naomi Novik():
» Joshua Palmatier ():
» Maria V. Snyder:
» Jennifer Stevenson ():
» Michelle West ():
» Sean Williams ():

Kate Elliot posts about why she’s *not* participating at SF Novelists, and it’s as useful a blog entry as any of the others, I think.