The heart of a reader

On of the best and worst things about creative writing is its subjectivity. Beauty is truly in the eyes, and heart, of the reader.

No amount of formal education automatically endows a person with the gift of storytelling or, a flair for wordsmithing. A key learning point during my quest for a literary agent, was the realisation that my educational background and work experience, which though relevant in the commercial environment, meant very little in the literary world, despite the fact I wrote two hundred page reports in my day job. Creative writing it turns out, is very different to producing corporate reports or marketing materials.

Unlike a curriculum vitae, in a manuscript submission for a novel, it is the quality of the writing alone that counts most. The writer’s past literary experience is helpful, however the story has to stand in its own right and speak for itself. After all, that’s what matters to readers.

How to write a synopsis

Following on from When to submit to literary agents? and How to write a cover letter, here’s my experience of writing a successful synopsis.

At the start, I’d assumed a synopsis is essentially the flashy blurb on the backs of book covers. It is not. The blurb, though exciting, provides a mere gist about the novel, whereas a synopsis, equally enticing, outlines the whole story including the ending. That is not to say every twist and turn has to be declared. The key characters and major plot points are sufficient to give the agent/commissioning editor an idea of what to expect, and compel them to read the manuscript.

The length and level of detail required varies by agency. Between one to three pages is common. There in lies the challenge, condensing a ninety thousand word book into a single page. By the way, these are at least 1.5 line spaced pages with size 12 point text, which further limits the amount of information one can squeeze in.

On learning this, my initial reaction was horror, thinking I would never be able to shrink all the twists and turns of the story into three pages, let alone one. However, forced to do so, I deployed a simple technique. I pulled out the most salient points from each chapter and summarised them into a maximum to two sentences. Those formed the basis of my detailed synopsis.

The next step involved reducing the document down to a single pager, which turned out to be fairly painless as I picked the main sentences which best conveyed the storyline.

The reduction exercise yielded additional, unforeseen benefits:

1. As I re-read the chapters, editing requirements which hadn’t been addressed came to light.

2. Listing the main points of the book in the order they occur, highlighted the structure and flow of the story and where they could be improved.