Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Synopsis: A Perfect Fit by Janet Lane

A version of this article originally appeared in Rocky Mountain Writer in August 2011.

Synopsis: a perfect fit
by Janet Lane

I should never have touched the dress, but the tailoring was exquisite, the design flattering. Heart skipping with anticipation, I entered the changing room. I searched for a zipper but found none. Odd, I thought, given the small-waisted style. Doubts cooled my hopes. I have wide shoulders and a woman’s hips, and it wasn’t looking good.

I lifted my arms and slipped the dress over my head. It stuck on my shoulders, so I squirmed and wiggled until the dress was half on.

Breathing heavier, images of mutating hornworms came to mind, but I remembered the lovely draping effect of the skirt and found renewed resolve. I pulled the hemline down and a seam ripped. What kind of pretzel did the fashion manufacturer think I was? I pulled harder.

Another rip.

I conceded to the dress. It would ruin whatever hair style I had, any way. I reversed my efforts but the fabric, wedged so tightly on my body, wouldn’t budge.

I was stuck, trapped in a prison of tight, unyielding black fabric. The lining was as strong as any straight jacket. I couldn’t see. Sweat broke out in my armpits, not perspiration, ladies.

A knock at the door. The dressing room attendant. I swallowed and found my voice. “Yes?”

“Having problems in there? Can I help?”

Like most women, I’d rather submit to blood withdrawal before admitting I needed help in a dressing room. “No, thanks. Just ... checking different angles, that’s all.” Oh, sweet worry, I thought, if only to have access to some scissors. $189 (before the sale) or not, it would have made an interesting scarf. Recalling my Lamaze classes, I took some hoo-hee breaths and continued extricating myself.

Yes. I escaped. And bought it. I’d ripped my way into a purchase, after all. I sew, so I added a zipper, something the designer should have done if he weren’t an evil woman-hater. It has since become one of my favorite dresses.

What, you may say, does any of this have to do with writing?

I’m reminded of this experience when I try to write a synopsis. I enter them with the highest of hopes and optimism, believing that this time the words will flow, that I will be more able this time to condense a 400-page story into two pages. I’m afraid, but lured by the prospect of owning a strong marketing tool for the novel I have labored so hard to write. It never fits without pain, suffering, and a dose or two of terror, along with embarrassment when the critiques arrive. It always costs more, in terms of time and brain damage, than I ever anticipate, and in the end it doesn’t fit exactly right. It always takes another adjustment and more hard thinking.

And if I stay with it, it becomes, like the dress, an asset worth the effort.

Just think. Isn’t it wonderful that the synopsis generally runs one to eight pages, and the novel runs three to four hundred? Such a better ratio than the other way around!

It’s spring, time for an attitude adjustment. A synopsis is a wonderful thing. Here are two reasons why:

1. A clearly written synopsis is an excellent selling tool.

We can write the most memorable story in the world, but if we can’t communicate what the book is about, we can’t sell it. Unless we’re prepared to visit New York and physically visit all the editors and agents and deliver our spiels orally, the synopsis is our representative. We want that representative to be knowledgeable and dressed to impress.

2. A clearly written synopsis is an excellent writing tool.

A synopsis is so hated because it points out, with a glaring spotlight, those areas of our book that are unclear, undeveloped, missing, inconsistent and/or just plain wrong.
A dear friend compared writing a synopsis to sticking your freshly washed face into one of those well-lit magnified makeup mirrors that reveal all the pores, wrinkles and zits.
Using this analogy, this is a unique chance to re-make ourselves, to erase the imperfections before going out into the publishing world.

Synopsis. It’s confining, seemingly impossible, terrifying, challenging, embarrassing and time-consuming. But I challenge you: complete one on your current project and you’ll see for yourself the magic it can work for your novel.

Multi-published author Janet Lane writes women’s fiction and historical romance set in 15th century England during the so-called “Gypsy Honeymoon” period. She launched her “Romancing the Tome” column in RMFW’s Rocky Mountain Writer twelve years ago and has been contributing to it ever since. Janet also blogs on craft and the writing life at www.janetlane.wordpress.com


Margot Kinberg said...

Janet - A synopsis really is the opportunity to see one's novel from a unique angle. It allows us to look at the way all the pieces fit together. It's useful to keep it in mind, too, as one writes. Thanks for sharing your insights. I'm glad you were able to salvage that dress :-).

Hart Johnson said...

HA! Excellent analogy! I wonder if it's a problem that I'm sort of a sloppy seamstress... I like the idea of it as a lens, though. Using it to improve the book... and then you already HAVE it when you NEED it.

Jan Morrison said...

I hoped you'd save my sorry butt, alas alack, you haven't. I love the analogy but I'm afraid I'm at the 'too far in to the dress to wriggle out - to much not fitting to not rip it' mode. Guess I'll just get back to it.
Do you have a wand or something I could borrow. I'll bring it back.

Margaret Yang said...

Synopses are evil little gremlins, but we *can* learn to write them. And it's glorious when we do!

Jan Morrison, maybe this is the how-to article you're looking for?


Terry Wright said...

You should rewind to the beginning, when you measured your waist, bust, and butt, and THEN tried on a dress that did fit. Same thing in writing, go back to the beginning when you got the story idea, when you could have written the synopsis, laid out the elements of story and character arcs, and then wrote the story to fit. Those of us who write by the seat of our pants sorely discover the synopsis has revealed problems we didn't know we had. Ah, yes, a synopsis written after the story can be as ugly and revealing as that mirror you mentioned. Thanks for sharing this with us, Janet.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I tried writing a synopsis first but couldn't make me (or my characters) stick to the plan.

Now I do a chapter by chapter synopsis after the book is written, fix problems in the novel revealed by the synopsis, revise the chapter synopsis, cut it down to the length needed and rewrite about a million times. It's so much fun...

Karen Duvall said...

Great post, Janet! I remember reading this in the newsletter. :)

I write a synopsis before I write the book. I don't stick to it 100%, but it helps lay the groundwork for the story. Sort of a "minimap." But like all maps, detours exist, and I take them.

When you're published, you'll sell future books on synopsis without having to write the whole book first, so it behooves writers to hone their synopsis-writing skills.

Susan Spann said...

I write a "mental synopsis" before I start - and then a hard-copy outline. Like Pat, I have characters who sometimes (often?) head off the reservation, so I always have to go back and write my synopsis again (for the first time in print) when the manuscript is complete.

When writing it, I read each chapter and summarize that chapter in a single sentence. Once I have the entire manuscript distilled that way, I revise the synopsis to remove excess length, improve readability, and fix any issues with flow.

I hated the process at first, but I actually enjoy it now.

Chris Devlin said...

Ah, synopses, my nemeses. For years, entering contests, I'd lose major points off the synopses. My achilles heel. Part of what was happening was I tried to fudge the complicated details just to get the *^&$%% things done.

Finally, I realized I could learn something from these trials: why was my book so complex that I needed to fudge? So the synopsis actually became the impetus to do a major overhaul (ANOTHER major overhaul, sigh). And now the book is better for it and I no longer dread the dreaded synopsis.

Thanks for your story. It's good to know everyone struggles with these things.

Daven Anderson said...

One synopsis issue that puzzled me was when some Colorado Gold judge critiques asked me why characters were doing the particular things I described in the synopsis.

My instant gut-level Captain Obvious reaction was, "If you want to know why they're doing those things, you have to read the book."

The purpose of the synopsis is to describe, in concise fashion, what the characters do in the book, not necessarily why they're doing it (unless their motivations are essential drivers of the basic plot).

In five hundred pages, you have the space to detail every minutiae of the characters' decision-making processes. You simply don't have that luxury in a two-to-eight page synopsis.