Friday, August 17, 2012

The Craft of Writing Synopses by Robert Begiebing

The Craft of Writing Synopses is the final piece of a three-part series of posts by Robert Begiebing.  I had the privilege of working with Robert Begiebing on my first novel, including query and synopsis.  A recipient of the Langum Prize for historical fiction, Robert J. Begiebing is the author of seven books, a play, and over thirty articles and stories.  He is the founding director of the Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, and Professor of English Emeritus, at Southern NH University. He's also just a wonderful guy.  

Please visit Tim Greaton's blog for Part One of the series, Selling Your Novel: Creating a Compelling First Impression  and Derek Flynn's blog for Part Two, The Craft of Writing Queries

The Craft of Writing Synopses by Robert Begiebing

We’ve discussed approaching agents and editors through sample chapters (the real key to gathering interest in your novel) and queries, but what about those synopses I’ve referred to?  These one-page, single-spaced synopsis documents typically accompany your query letter, both of which are intended to get the addressee to ask you to send along the sample pages/ chapters.

Your synopsis is just that—a one-page, single spaced, high-energy, no gimmicks/no B.S.  presentation of what your novel is about (main characters, setting, plot line, theme) that should make any reader, but especially an agent and editor, want to read it.  The biggest mistake writers make is turning the novel synopsis into a mere plot synopsis.  If there is some contemporary event or issue the novel addresses, emphasize it.  If you show your synopsis to colleagues, friends, and lovers and they are in any way unclear on what the book is about, you are not there yet.  If they would not be immediately interested in reading it, you are not there yet.  Some agents and editors will read a 1-5 page synopsis, but I recommend unless otherwise specified that you send along a one-pager for efficiency and to show you respect the reader’s time, to demonstrate you are a powerful, concise writer. This document is essentially an extension of your supporting paragraph in the query.  In most instances the letter and the synopsis, along with SASE for hard copies, make up your fiction query package.

The synopsis is a single spaced business document with double spacing between paragraphs.  The title of the novel along with the word “synopsis” should appear in the upper left margin, in bold font if you like; and note that either under the title of the novel or in the right upper margin you place the novel’s word count (as in a simple “70,000 words”).

Expect to hear “no” more often than you hear “yes”—that’s part of the publishing game and the ancient and honorable authorial struggle.  If your query package succeeds, you will be asked to send the first three chapters or 30-50 pages, sometimes the complete ms.
Editor and agent websites are usually very specific about what they want in a query.  Always check first.  Smaller presses might ask for more than the two basic documents at the start.   If so, you’ve got a nice package ready to go with your opening chapters already polished and intact.  If a small press asks on its website for your entire novel, send it along with SASE and a letter of transmittal—merely telling what you are sending (“as indicated on your website”), why you think this novel is a good fit for their list, and a brief author’s bio highlighting any professional credentials you might have for writing and researching this book.  As a writer as well as marketer of your own work, keep in mind that persistence (or good ol’ grit) is more than half of talent and success.

 The 20th anniversary edition of The Strange Deathof Mistress Coffin, a novel set in 17th-century New England, is now available in paperback and e-book. Originally published the early 1990s, Mistress Coffin was a Main Selection in The Literary Guild, The Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Clubs, and is currently optioned for a film.
Visit his website at

Don't forget to Twitter follow and say hello to Tim Greaton and Derek Flynn after you check out their websites!


Suzanne Shumaker said...

Thank you for the advice ... I would love to see a sample synopsis from this author for one of his books...

Christopher Chik said...

As awesome and helpful as the other two in the series. Like Suzi, I'd be interested in seeing an example synopsis from one of his books.

Robert Begiebing said...

One thing we might be able to do, Suzanne and Christopher, is persuade Kelly to show us a copy of her synopsis I advised her on during the writing of her novel and preparing to get the ms. marketing ready. I recall it as a fine synopsis. Kelly is an unstoppable machine when it comes to getting the work done, a real dynamo, and she does the work well. I can't imagine she won't get this novel published because of her talent, persistence, and incredible work ethic. By my estimate, I put Kelly in the top 1% in America for work ethic. She's certainly at the top for students I've worked with over the past 34 years.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

Wow, remind me to put you on my list of references!

Beth said...

Good advice from the master and a wonderful endorsement of the blog owner. He's definitely right about Ms. Gamble's abilities and drive.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Synopses are hard. Any advice a writer can find is valuable. I read synopsis blogs and attended workshops until I think my head was crammed full, until finally I attended one and it all went *click* Not all advice a writer reads/hears will help, but it's all valuable, I think, because each writer has to find that advice/technique that makes sense to them.

I totally agree a synopsis should be more than just a plot summary, but I didn't understand how to make it more until the workshop that just suddenly all brought ittogether for me. For whatever reason, that particular technique made senseto MY brain - although 'm sure it wouldn't work for everyone.

However, in my experience, submission guidelines often specify how many pages a synopsis should be, and I've not yet seen one that said 'one'. The last one I did had to be three. That may be the genre I'm in, though.

Kelly Stone Gamble said...

It might be genre, Ciara. I've only had one submission that requested more than a one pager.

Robert Begiebing said...

Yes, always go with the website submission guidelines. If no page limit is given, best to try for that knockout one-pager.