Wednesday, September 24, 2008

ACFW Report: Writing The Dreaded Synopsis

At the recent ACFW meeting, I ran into Jeff Gerke. I first met Jeff when he was editor at NavPress. He reviewed one of my first novels in an appointment at Mount Hermon, and we both recalled how he tore it apart. But his critique was fair, and I learned from it. Now Jeff has started his own publishing house, Marcher Lord Press. If you write “speculative fiction,” check out his web site.

At ACFW, I sat in Jeff’s class as he addressed the part of writing that many authors absolutely hate: writing a synopsis. I’m not sure I came out of the class with a magic bullet that makes synopsis writing a breeze, but Jeff did make a number of points that I believe bear emphasis. (For those who want more detail, Jeff's web site has a full explanation of the material he covered in the class).

First, pay attention to format. We’re all told to do our manuscripts double-spaced, with one inch margins, in 12 point Times New Roman font. But the synopsis is an exception. It’s single-spaced. I’m not sure why, since it seems to me it would be easier to read in double-spacing, but I don’t set the conventions or make the rules. Further, Jeff feels the synopsis should be one page in length—maybe run over a paragraph into the second page, but no more. That’s tough!

The synopsis should quickly reveal the setting and the genre of the story. It helps editors and agents keep the characters straight if their names are in all caps the first time they are introduced into the story—but just the first time. And yes, names are helpful. Not just “the protagonist” or the “female lead.” In the CBA, it’s also important to show the Christian content of the novel in the synopsis.

Synopses are written in the present tense. They are meant to reveal only the high points of the story, and these should center on the journey of the hero: the starting point, the chief goal and obstacle, the moment of truth, and the resolution. And don’t forget to reveal the ending! This isn’t back-cover copy, meant to hook a reader. The synopsis is a tool that helps the editor sell the concept to a pub board, so don’t hold back.

Since I’ve mentioned the hero’s journey, it gives me a chance to tell you once more about one of the books I believe every fiction writer should study: The Writer’s Journey, in which Christopher Vogler shows how most fiction works correspond to the structure of mythical tales. It’s not light, bedtime reading, but it’s worth studying.

That’s enough for now. Come back again for more from the ACFW meeting. Thanks for dropping by.


Timothy Fish said...

I ran across a Sample Synopsis and it appears that Harlequin wants their stuff double-spaced rather than single-spaced. It might be good to check with whoever we are sending it to so we can follow their unique formatting instructions.

Richard Mabry said...

Good point. What Jeff taught at ACFW may not apply to all publishers.

Rachelle said...

Good overview, Richard.

About the spacing... you may have noticed that we typically single-space a proposal but double space a manuscript. The synopsis is part of the proposal (technically) so we usually single space it.

Jeff's suggestion for a ONE PAGE synopsis is a great one! I always try to get people to keep it to one page but I know it's hard.