Why Should I Write a Good Synopsis?

“I’ve written a great book, why should I write a good synopsis? Can’t the editor tell the brilliance of my book from my book? After all, isn’t that what an editor is paid to do: read books?”

Every Monday night after I have finished my reading for “Acquisition Tuesday” I get the feeling that writers must ask themselves the above  question at least subconsciously.

On Tuesday we have our acquisition meeting for Carina Press (and I usually have 2 books to have read and report on). I also attend a Harlequin acquisition meeting, where I have to admit I do a little more skimming. With the Carina acquisitions I’ve been assigned I always read at least the first three chapters and more often at least twenty percent of the manuscript (my Kindle tells me where I am) before reaching for the synopsis. Last night, one of the books was sort of okay, but not brilliant, so I eagerly read the synopsis to see how it turned out. The synopsis was dead; a lifeless piece of prose that outlined the plot but showed nothing of the characters, revealed nothing about how/why the hero and heroine fall in love, did not showcase the author’s voice and even left several  plot holes dangling. The second book I read was great, and I it read all the way to the end, until 2 a.m., because I loved it so much. I didn’t need the synopsis but I read it and it fulfilled all the things the first synopsis did not. It had voice, character development, explained the romance and the mystery and showcased the author’s writing strengths.

I often sigh in our acquisition meetings about the poor quality of the synopsis. That because the author did not answer my questions I was voting to reject rather than accept (the manuscripts that come forward at acquisition have already made it past an editor who wants to acquire the book). And sometimes an author does not even include a synopsis.

This makes me wonder if writers understand how many different ways a synopsis is used in a publishing house, so I’m going to list them. I am sure I will miss some but  the most important thing for writers to realize, especially after they are contracted, is that your synopsis is the only part of your writing some people who will work on your book will read.

If your synopsis doesn’t sing; if it doesn’t sparkle, zig and zag, highlight your voice and strengths, then the flat, dull prose is what people who are working on your book will think about your book (those creative types who write the cover copy, make the cover, etc.)

When and how is a synopsis used in a publishing house:

  1. By readers on the acquisition team. Sometimes we read the entire book. Sometimes we read the first few chapters, skim the middle and then read the end.  Sometimes, after the opening chapters we are ambivalent and turn to the synopsis to answer our questions about the plot, characters and writing. Your synopsis can sell your book.
  2. By the person who writes the cover copy. It’s rare when the copywriter receives more than the synopsis. This is why you need to deliver the flavor of your book in the synopsis. If your book is funny your synopsis should be funny. Same for scary, suspenseful, emotional, etc.
  3. By the person who creates your cover image. People judge a book by its cover. The book artist judges your book by your synopsis.
  4. By the subrights team. Our team attends the Frankfurt and London book fairs, has contacts with movie agents, audio houses, large print houses. The list a good subrights person can sell your books rights to goes on and on.
  5. At Harlequin, our reader service book club reads the synopses to see if there are any books published by Carina Press that could fit into their book club. If the answer is yes the book is printed and goes into the homes of thousands of avid readers.
  6. Harlequin is a global company. Our overseas partners and licensees read synopses to fill  local markets needs. Italy likes historical romances. France is keen on the paranormal. Did your synopis sell your book to an overseas editor. Remember this highly educated person is reading English as a second language (or third or fourth language, those Europeans!) so flow and entertainment are important!
  7. A reporter has called about an article and wants some information. What do you think we send?
  8. I’m sure I’ve missed several other ways we use synopses….

A last story. Years ago when I managed Harlequin Love & Laughter we had a deal with a production company that was filming a series of Harlequin TV movies based on novels by some of the biggest names in the business at that time: Linda Howard, Debbie Macomber, Jayne Ann Krentz. They were one book short for the twelve movies they were going to shoot and an email was sent out to forward any synopsis for novels that included a suspense element. I had a brand new author whose romantic comedy had a mystery subplot and I also remembered the author has written a delightful query letter. I called her and told her she had to get me a one page synopsis written in her entertaining, comic voice by 5 p.m. so that I could forward it to the movie company. She did. Two weeks later she was signing the movie contract.

A good synopsis can help sell your book.

The book:

The movie, renamed Recipe for Revenge:

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13 Comments

  1. a writer who thinks just writing a book is all they have to do, is probably not going to support the title even if it is selected to be published. In today’s highly competitive market (not just with competing titles, but books compete with every form of electronic diversion)
    an author has to realize their product not only must support them, but a cadre of editors, salespeople, managers, publicist and even drivers. To refuse to summarize their own product is not only limiting, it shows how little they care about the publishing BUSINESS and its workers.

  2. Thank you for that article, it was interesting and enlightening. I think that sometimes beginner writers don’t always know how to deconstruct their writing and so because they do not understand how the synopsis can help them; it can seem like a useless hassle. I am sure that after reading your article they will realise what a useful tool it is instead.

  3. Malle Vallik

    You’re welcome! Perhaps a good way to think about writing the synopsis is how would you tell your story to a friend — capture the voice and information you would share with a friend who wants to know what your book is about.

  4. I like that idea, it is too easy to sound starchy when writing something which should be persuasive. Thanks.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I have to confess, I am terrible at writing synopses–part of that is that I never really learned how, so it’s a pretty agonizing process, and I suffer from this synopsis inferiority complex like you wouldn’t believe. But now I understand a little bit better how it’s used, I can better see how to write it properly. After reading what felt like a million articles and blogs and books and such on how to write a synopsis, I felt stunned and stunted. Your post here, which doesn’t describe the craft of synopsis writing so much, actually tells me so much more about how to write the darn thing than anything else I’ve read. Thank you again, it really means a lot to those of us still struggling with the process to gain these insights. Perhaps my next synopsis will sparkle. Perhaps I’ll go dismember my past synopses and start over. I know they will all be better because I read this.

  6. Thanks sooooo much for this illuminating blog. I’m sure I’ll now approach my query letter and synopsis writing with an enpowered mindset. Seems to me the synopsis is not a dreaded job to be avoided, but really a friend to be embraced.

  7. Elizabeth C

    How true this is! I write marketing copy for books, including Harlequin, and an informative synopsis is essential. Just as you say, the synopsis should tell the whole story, give the creative types the meat they need to sell the book. Cover copy that merely summarizes Chapter 1 generally doesn’t contain a strong hook, and can even look lazy and misleading.

  8. Malle Vallik

    Thanks for the comments. Another Carina Press editor, who is both a writer and an editor, said: it’s supposed to be enjoyable, a final plug for their novel. Some authors don’t even run a spell check (ouch).

    Another way to practice writing synopses to write synopses of movies. It’s not your story so you are not as invested, but how would you tell it? Did you capture the tone, the conflict, the characters and the resolution? If you read it cold from your words on the page would you be thrilled by your written account of Die Hard, charmed by Amelie, and swept away by Braveheart?

  9. Thank you so much for this article. I’d heard that synopses could be used in various ways within publishing houses, but knowing the details throws that fact into a new light.

  10. As a writer, I’ve struggled with synopses. While I knew a lot of this, I’m surprised by a couple of the examples of their use in publishing houses. I pay a lot of attention to them, but I still feel like it turns out dry and not very entertaining.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

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