Friday, October 23, 2015

Properly Building Your Synopsis

What do you mean, I have to SELL it now??
One of the most challenging parts of writing has nothing to do with the actual story.  You can finish your novel up and get it just right, but then the real work begins.  Increasingly, the burden of sales and publicity is on the shoulders of the author, even when working through an established, traditional publishing company.

And one of the most difficult tasks is coming up with that perfect summary, that synopsis, that blurb that will compel readers, draw attention, generate sales, attract that agent, win that publishing contract.  If you get it right, you can send your synopsis to a reviewer and intrigue them.  Get it wrong, and you lose sales.

The problem is, writing a synopsis is very different from writing a book.  You can be a master at writing your novel, an accomplished, skilled author, and be terrible at writing a blurb.  Its two different sets of skills.  Writing fiction is storytelling and a host of specific targeted skills such as grammar, plotting, pacing, and so on.  Writing a synopsis is sales with its own specific targeted skills.

There is some crossover, of course.  Command of the language and the ability to use words in a compelling an interesting manner works in all writing.  But where you have hundreds of pages to tell a story, you have a matter of a few letters to get that synopsis right.

There are some distinctions here.  A synopsis is different from a pitch, both of which are distinct from a blurb.  Each is very similar in purpose in tone, though.
  • Synopsis is the longest of the three, and is a short summary of the entire work.
  • Blurb is the back of a book, a short piece meant to attract interest and sales.
  • Pitch is the shortest of the three, a quick idea or simple concept meant to grab attention.
Yet all three are essentially the same beast in one sense: they're all sales tools.  The Pitch is what you use when someone asks "what's your book about" or trying to grab an agent, publisher, producer, or customer's attention immediately.  The Synopsis is the long form you lay out the work in for a reviewer or agent. Yet ultimately its about landing that sale, getting your book in their hands in a positive manner.

So writing a great synopsis, blurb, or pitch is a matter of learning skills entirely different than your literature classes or experience writing have ever taught you.   Thankfully there are some great online resources you can use to help craft your synopsis, blurb, or pitch.

If I wanted to tell my story in one page,
I wouldn't have written the other 300!

The Synopsis is the longest and easiest of these three to craft for the average author.  You have more text, usually a full page, to finish the job.  You have more flexibility because the intent is to tell the whole story.  You'll have 500-600 words rather than 150-200 or even fewer for the other formats.

Your synopsis should always be written in third person, no matter what the rest of the novel is.  Tell it as a news story, not a narrative.

A Synopsis is like a news story; it has who, what, where, when, why, and how.  A quick tool to help envision this is offered by Graeme Shimmin:
In a (SETTING) a (PROTAGONIST) has a (PROBLEM) (caused by an ANTAGONIST) and (faces CONFLICT) as they try to (achieve a GOAL).
Look this over and consider how it works for your story.  The principle is very universal for  all genre types of fiction.  If you can fill that out, you have the basic skeleton of your synopsis already done.  In the synopsis, avoid the lurid, over the top prose the other two types will need.  You want it clean and simple with as few adverbs and adjectives as possible.  Its not a lush, green, vibrant jungle, its just a jungle.

Tell all of the story, all of the main, specific parts.  No description, just a news story of your book.  The synopsis is meant not to sell to a customer, but to a publisher or agent, a director or producer.  They are not consumers of your book, but of the property to sell it for you.  They need to know it all, so tell the whole plot, without specific detail.  But leave out the subplots.  Just the facts, ma'am, the bare bones.

Leave out characters you don't absolutely need to tell the story.  The name of the guy that sold your hero a horse is irrelevant.  The name of your hero's horse might be important. 

A blurb is much shorter, with only about 150 words to work with.  The blurb is your sales copy, its the bit on the back of your paperback that people pick up and you have to reach win before they get to the bottom of the book.  Blurbs are fast and furious and exciting!

At Savvy Book Marketer, Joanne Penn shares some of her tips for writing a blurb.  I recommend reading the whole article, but she in essence has several tips:
  1. Hint at the plot, but don't give too much away: "Secret experiment. Tiny island. Big mistake."
  2. Use words that evoke images and resonate with readers of the genre: "ancient monastery"; "A buried Egyptian temple. A secret kept for 6000 years."
  3. Name and characterize main characters:  "TV news reporter Gracie Logan. Matt Sherwood, reformed car thief"
  4. Idea of setting: “from the Roman Coliseum to the icy peaks of Norway, from the ruins of medieval abbeys to the lost tombs of Celtic kings”
  5. A hint of mystery: "Is the sign real?  Is God talking to us?"
  6. Hyperbole: oversell, exaggerate, be exciting
Your blurb is not the whole story, but some high points to make the reader want more, just enough to get them excited like a good movie trailer, but not so much they know it all, like a bad movie trailer.  For me, I find it useful to think of the entire blurb being read by a movie trailer voiceover, to hear that tone and that style in the writing.

Drill your listener right between the eyes
A pitch is even tighter and quicker.  A pitch is often described in terms of being something you can finish between the time elevator doors close and the car reaches the destination floor.  Your pitch should sell in that much time, while you have a captive audience.  Any longer and attention starts to wander.  think of a pitch as a Tweet: 150 characters, straight to the point.

The purpose of the pitch is to hook someone, to grab interest, not tell them about the entire book.  You're just trying to grab the target fast and hard.  Cliff Daigle suggests a few versions of the pitch:
  • Hollywood style - Twilight meets Harry Potter; The sorcerer's apprentice from hell, etc.
  • The "Save the Cat" style - a combination of genre, compelling mental image, ironic twist, and great title.  Examples he gives are: "A cop visits his estranged wife when her office building is taken over by terrorists" - Die Hard; and "A business hires a hooker for a weekend date and falls in love" - Pretty Woman.
  • Conflict - focus on who the character is, what their goal is, and what's stopping them from getting it.
Ultimately the pitch is about speed and interest.  Something very tight, fast, and interesting.  Once you have them intrigued, you can move into the blurb or synopsis and finish the sale.  But the pitch is to get them exciting and interested right away.

Of course, to do any of these, you need a finished work.  This is the stage you start once you have a finished product, a complete and edited book.  Its okay to start tossing around the ideas right away, but only once its finished can you actually start to build the perfect blurb.

With these tools, you can begin to craft a sales pitch, a perfect synopsis that will sell your book.  Because that's what all of them are about, getting that person to part with their dollars and gain a book.  But what do they look like?

Again, Grame Shimmin offers a few synopses of famous and familiar stories such as Casino Royale.  They are quite long and I won't copy it all here, but go take a look at how he does the job.

Here's a blurb for Casino Royale (most recent film version):
British Spy James Bond goes on his first ever mission armed with a license to kill. His target: Le Chiffre, a banker to the world's terrorists. Le Chiffre is participating in a poker game at Montenegro, where he must win back terrorist funds he poorly invested.

Bond, along with fellow spy Vesper Lynd, enters the tournament to prevent Le Chiffre from winning so he must turn to MI6 for help.  This Texas Hold'Em game is played for the highest of stakes, but even if Bond defeats Le Chiffre, will he and Vesper Lynd survive?
And here is the Pitch: 
Secret Agent James Bond joins a high stakes card game where death is the final chip to bankrupt his enemy, but who can he trust?
Each one is tighter and more concise, telling less and selling more.  And that's the key.  Armed with these tools, you can build your Synopsis, Blurb, and Pitch to hook your audience, pull them in, and sell your book.