How to Write the Dreaded Synopsis (Author Business Plans, Part 2)*

Today we continue our ongoing series on author business plans (for independent and traditional authors) with a look at Section 2 of the Business Plan: Writing The Business Description.

We’re skipping over the Executive Summary for now because it’s easiest to write that part when the other information is complete and in its place. We’ll come back to it in a few weeks, when we’ve taken a look at the other parts of the author’s business plan.

Which brings us to Part 2: The Business Summary. In a one-book author business plan, the Business Summary is usually a synopsis of the book itself.

Some authors (and most who write non-fiction) write the synopsis before the manuscript. Others prefer to wait and write the synopsis once the manuscript is complete. (The latter is more common in fiction, though not a universal rule.) Even authors who write the synopsis first should revise it once the manuscript is completed to ensure conformity.

Since writing the synopsis “after the fact” works in every case, and writing it in advance works only for authors whose organizational skills can work that way, we’ll focus today on writing a synopsis after the manuscript is complete.

(There are many online resources for synopsis writing, so if this method doesn’t work for you, there are many other good ones available at a click of the keys.)

This is my method for writing a novel synopsis. It will work for non-fiction also, but it admittedly works best when the manuscript is complete (for reasons which will become obvious rather quickly if you read on.)

Step 1: Open a copy of the manuscript and a fresh word processing document (let’s hear it for windows). Your synopsis will officially begin with a back-jacket-style blurb about the book as a whole, but I leave that step for last. It will be easier once you have the rest put together.

Step 2: Read the first chapter of the manuscript. When you finish, summarize that chapter in one sentence. ONE. One only. Do not pass go, do not collect multiple semicolons. Continue through the entire manuscript, summarizing each chapter in a single sentence.

Remember, as you go, that although your manuscript may be written in one of many tenses, synopses are always written in third person present tense. “Hiro sees a body. Hiro finds the killer.” This generally isn’t negotiable.

It’s OK if your first draft is sloppy. Here’s the first draft Chapter 1 summary sentence from my upcoming novel, Claws of the Cat:

“Just before dawn, a messenger summons Hiro and Father Mateo to the Sakura Teahouse, claiming that SAYURI, an entertainer and recent Christian convert, has been accused of murdering AKECHI HIDEYOSHI, a samurai.”

We’ll see how that sentence changed in the final draft a little later.

Remember: this won’t be the first sentence of your synopsis. That will be the blurb. This is the first sentence of the summary, which is different.

Don’t worry about getting the prose perfect in the first draft. Focus on summarizing what happens in that chapter. You will notice, also, that many of the bells and whistles, supporting details and super-awesome-spy-toys will not appear in the synopsis. That’s okay. Take a deep breath and keep chugging through.

Step 3: Once your first-pass summary is complete, and every chapter of your manuscript has become a sentence in the synopsis, put the manuscript away – it’s time to edit the synopsis. Edit and polish the prose as if the synopsis was a manuscript in its own right.

Let’s revisit Claws of the Cat. Here’s the final version of that same Chapter 1 sentence:

At dawn on May 16, 1565, a messenger summons Hiro and Father Mateo to Kyoto’s Sakura teahouse, where an entertainer named SAYURI stands accused of murdering a retired general, AKECHI HIDEYOSHI.

(Note: I don’t particularly like the use of the date here. I think it’s clunky and would probably do it a little differently next time. That said, it does convey the historical nature of the novel – and remember, it’s still not the blurb.)

You’ve finished editing when your synopsis is no more than two pages long and reads smoothly aloud. Many authors (myself included) like to produce both a one-page and a two-page version of the synopsis.

Step 4 is writing the book-jacket blurb that starts the synopsis. By now, you’ve just finished going through the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, summarizing each chapter and hopefully getting a good feel for the novel as a whole.

The blurb can be one sentence, similar to a logline, or a 2-3 sentence paragraph. The blurb should summarize “what the book is about” and entice a reader to read on. Here’s the one from my synopsis of Claws of the Cat:

When a samurai is murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja HIRO HATTORI has two days to find the killer in order to save the life of FATHER MATEO AVILA DE SANTOS, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect.

Short, clear, and to the point. If you read no more than this, you understand the novel’s genre (mystery), location (Kyoto), protagonist and antagonist (a master ninja and a killer), and the stakes (the death of the man the protagonist is sworn to protect).

Step 5 is putting the blurb in place at the start of the synopsis, leaving it for 2-5 days, and then coming back for one more editing pass. The “time element” is important because it gives you necessary distance from the writing.

When editing your synopsis, watch out for:

– Passive voice, passive verbs, and the wicked “to be” – replace these with active verbs and active voice. Eliminate “to be” whenever possible.

– Overuse of adjectives. To misquote the old parenting proverb: “first time is funny, second time is silly, third time deserves a spanking.” This applies equally to use of the same adjective(s) in different places and also to use of multiple adjectives in a string to describe a single object. If you need more than one, you need to think about cutting them.

– Pronouns. “He” and “she” often create ambiguity. Pay special attention to sentence structure and use pronouns only when their meanings are absolutely clear.

These tips may not make writing synopses easy, but hopefully I’ve given a road map any author can follow to a successful synopsis and summary. Please join me next week as we continue our tour of the author business plan, and as always please speak up with any questions or comments! I love to hear from you!

* Incidentally – there’s absolutely no difference between the synopsis you write for an author business plan and the one you’d write to submit to an agent or publisher, so feel free to use this method for those applications too!