Or How I Learned to Love What I Once Feared
As Elizabeth Sinclair notes in her how-to guide—the title of which, The Dreaded Synopsis, I have shamelessly adapted for this post—“Given a choice between writing one book and a synopsis and writing two books, most authors would choose to write two books. Even the word ‘synopsis’ inspires cold chills and neuroses in novelists” (5).
Too, too true. I can attest from experience that Sinclair has hit the proverbial nail smartly on its head here. Throughout my first three books, I loathed synopses. For the next three, I didn’t bother to write them. The great advantage of forming a writers’ cooperative, I told myself, was that I would never, ever have to write a synopsis again. And almost every writer I know would raise a mammoth cheer at that thought.
Why is that? What makes people who can spend years in a room chronicling the adventures of characters who live only in their heads and write multiple drafts of 100,000-word novels cringe at the thought of summarizing their stories in a single page—or even five pages? The terrors of a back-cover blurb (although I’ve learned to love those too) are easier to understand: a blurb is a marketing tool, so it has to reflect the book in ways both interesting and appealing, giving away just enough to catch a potential reader’s attention and make him or her pick up the book, but not so much that the urge to find out more fades away.
Of course, synopses act as marketing tools, too. Literary agents want them, as do publishing house editors. So much better to read a page than fifty pages, or even ten, especially when one faces hundreds—even thousands—of queries. And although a poorly written synopsis may not do justice to the novel it portrays, a well-written one almost always indicates an author who has mastered her craft. With only so many hours in the day, agents and editors can be forgiven for taking the risk of overlooking a few good authors to the benefit of others who have mastered this essential technique.
None of that, however, explains why I decided to write a synopsis for The Vermilion Bird. My reason may help you, too, over your dread of synopses (and I assume that if you have read this far, you like them no more than I once did). Quite simply, I realized I could use it to focus my thoughts and sketch out the central events of both the plot and—most essential—the character development of the novel. The plot relies in part on a particular political crisis that afflicted Russia in 1537 and followed a compressed but vital timeline. The crisis serves as background, of course; Vermilion Bird is historical fiction, not history. Still, the events drive the story, and I needed a clear sense of when characters needed to arrive and leave specific places and what openings existed between events when fictional development could take place.
For that, a timeline would suffice, and I have been constructing one in Aeon Timeline 2, a wonderfully useful little program that lets me track where various characters (including actual historical figures) are at given moments in time. But precisely because the fiction element ultimately dominates, the synopsis proved its worth. There the focus falls (at least, it should fall—a realization that opens the whole process up and makes it less overwhelming) on the characters: who the main players are and what they want; what brings them together and pushes them apart; which problems they need to solve before they can achieve their conscious and unconscious goals; and who has to interact with whom when for the whole unwieldy structure to cohere instead of fall apart.
As that information goes onto the page, flaws and strengths become clear. So do plot holes and weak motivations. The imagination kicks in, and the effect on the author is the same as writing every day: the characters come alive and start talking. In a page or two, a writer has room only for the things that matter. Finding those things before getting a long way into the book saves an enormous amount of time that must otherwise go into revision. The synopsis also requires an endpoint, which then provides a beacon in the midpoint of the book when, as generally happens in my case, the characters have pushed the story in directions I never anticipated and I need to rein them in and get them back on track. Redoing the synopsis after completing the first draft clarifies what needs cutting and where to expand. For all these reasons, it makes sense to learn how to write a synopsis, even if you never plan to show it to an agent or an editor.
If you have not read Sinclair’s book, I highly recommend it. It’s available in print and for Kindle, and it lays out the mechanics in clear, vivid prose, with great examples to get you over that hump. For me, it turned synopsis writing from a chore to a guilty pleasure, and what could be better than that?
To close, I offer not the full one-page synopsis for Vermilion Bird (too much information so early in the process!) but the back-cover blurb, an even more condensed version of my story-in-the-making. No doubt that will change, too, but the basic idea will remain. After all, I know now where the story is heading....
The Vermilion Bird (Legends of the Five Directions 4: South)
Maria Koshkina has spent most of the last three years wishing herself out of her in-laws’ household. So she should feel relieved now that her father has found a new match for her. Alas, he has picked the most annoying man in creation—not even a Russian, but a Tatar sultan who takes it for granted that she will ride at his side, read what he gives her, and advise him on the ins and outs of the Moscow court. And where her first husband had minimal interest in women—or at least in Maria—the new one has a healthy respect for the joys of marriage and no qualms whatsoever about seeking them outside it.
Her husband can’t decide quite what to make of this beautiful redhead who seems both untouched and touchy. Doesn’t she understand that a princess needs more than embroidery to survive? In the assassination-filled politics of the sixteenth-century Russian court, this unlikely pair struggles to find a way to get along before the undercurrents of rebellion sweep them away.