Monday, 16 January 2012

In Short: Write a Great Synopsis with Nicola Morgan

I've been hanging out at Nicola Morgan's excellent Help! I Need a Publisher blog like a dissolute Barfly at for two years now. Whilst I most definitely don't want a publisher (whether I need one or not may be another matter altogether, of course, but I am very happy without one), I do find it a fabulous place to meet people, share gossip, and learn from the ever-excellent Crabbit Old Bat, whose advice is always to the point and eminently wise. It is, therefore, an absolute delight to be part of the blog tour for her new and incredibly useful book Write a Great Synopsis - An Expert Guide. And an extra special announcement is that Nicola will be in Oxford tomorrow for a workshop in Blackwell's (details here).

Before I go any further I should explain that there is a fabulous competition going on alongside this. In Nicola's words:

"Win a synopsis critique and advice from the Crabbit Old Bat herself! Surrounding publication on January 20th of Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide, I will be visiting a number of blogs for a guest post, review or interview. If you’d like the chance of winning help with your synopsis, simply leave a relevant comment on any of the guest posts. (This could be a deep and meaningful comment or a plea to the gods of fortune to pick you!) One comment per post – but comment on each post if you wish. On February 15th, each blog host will send me the names of valid commenters and I will do a random selection, using a random number generator.
Prizes: 1st prize – a critique of your synopsis, at a mutually convenient time; plus a signed book of your choice, if available. 2nd prize – a critique of your synopsis. 3rd prize – a signed book of your choice, if available."

So, without further ado, I'll let the interview commence, and say a humungous thank you to Nicola for letting herself be subjected to questioning. I do hope my readers will go and visit the rest of the blogs on this fabulous tour. You'll find them appearing as they happen on the right hand side here. People who are new here, you probably want to avoid looking round carefully or you will be subjected to poetry, videos of poetry and highly iffy opinions about literature and publishing.

For details of how to buy this super book, click here or the cover below. Oh, and there's even a trailer vid at the end put together by Nicola's highly talented daughter. And finally, Nicola will be at Blackwell's tomorrow night!! Don't miss the chance to come along and give her chocolate!

Thank you very much Dan, for letting me come and talk about synopses, one of my favourite topics and not at all the nasty thing that most writers think!

1. So, the fantasy shoe...
I am brand averse. So, I’d never go shoe brand-hunting or choose/reject a shoe based on the name. My fantasy shoes are elegant, pointy toed, stiletto but not high, and a million times more comfortable than they look, because I’m no fool. They also stay firmly on my feet, because there’s nothing worse than them slipping off when I’m on the red carpet. (Well, you did say fantasy.)

2. Seriously, though. If Converse produced a Nicola Morgan special edition, what design would they have?
*checks internet to see what Converse shoes look like* Erm, I’d rather they didn’t. I remember you asking me once whether I was a Converse or something else (eh?) fan and I had to go and look them both up. Didn’t like either! Converse looks to me like an expensive way of dressing up a plimsoll.


3. I often joke that the main reason I decided to self-publish is so I don't have to write a synopsis, but I actually find them rather fun. Maybe it's because I went to a school where English lessons were frequently comprehension and precis. Why do you think the synopsis has such a mythology of dread around it, and what basic skills should writers be working on before they ever get to their own synopses to help them when they do?
I’m with you on the précis. I loved loved loved doing them. Why the dread? Because people mean several different things when they say “synopsis” and writers stress about which* one is being talked about and surmise that it’s all a flux-ridden mystery. It’s not. WAGS unpicks all that and more and removes all reason for fear. It even gives you a method and examples and answers to all the synopsis-related questions I’ve ever been asked. And it explains my patent Crappy Memory Tool. Skills? Verbal agility and a wide vocabulary but if you’re a good enough writer to write a good enough book, you’ve got those.

* And let me emphasise that in the book, as here, I make clear that the one I’m talking about is the one an agent or publisher wants before signing you.

4. My personal intuition is that most people who struggle with a synopsis do so because they don't know what their book is about...
I think they know too much about what their book is about and can’t see the clearing for the forest. They need to find the core and slash and burn the rest.

5. Honestly and, ahem, off the record, what percentage of agents read the synopsis before the manuscript and will go no further if it's awful?
I’m not doing percentages because I’d be making them up but from my enquiries and my intuition, the vast majority read the letter, then the sample chapters and only then the synopsis, and they only read that if the first two items were good enough. But if they did read it before the sample chapters and if it revealed that this was completely not the sort of book the agent would handle, they would probably not read on. But this would be because the book was wrong, not the synopsis. If the synopsis also revealed awful writing ability, they wouldn’t go on but I believe they’d have known that from the covering letter and would never get to the synopsis or the sample. The synopsis is the least important part of the submission, but it does have a function and it’s that function you need to consider..

6. Suppose the first three chapters are great. How likely is a poor synopsis to stop the agent asking for the rest of it, or have they already fired the e-mail off before they get there?
Unlikely. Only if (as above) the synopsis reveals that this is completely the wrong book for this agent. But they would most likely know that from the covering letter or sample. So, unlikely. And again, that’s unlikely to be the poor synopsis but the wrong book. Also, depends how “great” and how “poor”!

7.One of my pet peeves is the "How I sold a million by breaking all the rules" anecdote that every big name author seems to be able to drag out. Can you explain, without using the CAPS lock, why it is more important for writers to read a book like yours, digest it, then do what it says rather than trying to emulate this week's maverick du jour in being "original"?

Easy. I don’t need CAPS lock. I have three thoughts for you. First, it’s possible for someone to cross a motorway blindfolded and not be killed; that does not mean that crossing the motorway blindfolded is an advisable way to live a long life. Second, actually, you are perfectly welcome to ignore everything I say. Just read it first so that you know what you’re ignoring and why. Third, your idea of original could be off the agent’s nutter-scale.

8. If someone asked you how long it took to write a really good synopsis, would the chosen unit in which you responded be: 1. hours, 2. measures of whisky, 3. percentage increase in grey hair coverage, or 4. dairy milk bars?
Minutes. About twenty. Why would you need or want to spend more? You only need more if you’re messing around on Twitter.

9. Finally, and with huge thanks for being such a star, could you say, in summary points as it were, what the difference is between a synopsis and a plot outline?

I’d say read the book, tbh :) But, ok, in very brief: an outline a) is chronological b) is more comprehensive and therefore longer and c) includes such things as POV switches. A synopsis needn’t be chronological; it is shorter and more elegant. But it is still functional and let me leave you with that over-riding thought: a synopsis is not poetry but function. The function of the synopsis is to show its reader that you completed your story successfully and satisfyingly, in a way that suits the genre. It’s not a necessarily beautiful thing. But it can be.

Dan, thanks so much for hosting me! Happy synopsis-writing to all your readers.

Thank you, Nicola!
And here's the video!


  1. If I had any doubts about getting hold of this book this post would certainly dispel them.
    eagerly awaiting Friday.

  2. A great interview, thank you both. I'm one of the many who need this book!

  3. I especially like that Nicola's method is so laziness-friendly. And anyone can invest 20 mins - need more time to cram in some comforting chocolate, though, so I'm going to set aside 23 mins.

  4. Thank you, Francis, Jo - do get your hands on a copy! I'm hugely enjoying Write to Be Published at the moment and hugely looking forward to tomorrow's workshop - Nicola has a wonderful way of explaining things firmly but in a way that makes othing seem as terrifing as you thought. I guess you could call her the ideal person to have with you in a darkened room when you wake from a nightmare

  5. Stroppy - very clever, that technique, isn't it? If we set the bar unrealistically we won't ever start. It's the old psychology of making us learn without realising we're learning or resenting it at all - which makes us enjoy it and subsequently do even more

  6. I need your book. Writing my synopsis has become the creature under the bed that terrifies and mesmerises me.

    Interesting article with great insight (because I agree). Now back to Twitter

  7. "Because people mean several different things when they say “synopsis” and writers stress about which* one is being talked about and surmise that it’s all a flux-ridden mystery. It’s not. WAGS unpicks all that and more and removes all reason for fear."

    Another reason why I desperately need this book.

    I have such a soft spot for Converse, though slip-on Vans are my overpriced footwear weakness of choice. Also, black Toms shoes make me feel like an eco-friendly ninja.

  8. Mm, I have a prized pair of Mondrian Vans that are *so* comfortable, but my absolute shoe of choice is the good old DM (purple or patent red), though way out of my price range.

  9. Great interview Dan- looking forward to Nicola's latest words of wisdom (and agree with N about Converse- they remind me of clown shoes!) Also just wanted to say that I really connected with your New Year poem, 'Alibi'- great stuff! Oh and thanks for following my blog!

  10. Thank you, Helen! I will admit I like Converse, though they make my feet hurt so it's my wife whos's the Converse wearer of the house. They have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years - I think it started with David Tenant choosing them as his Dr Who footwear!

  11. Very interesting inteview that only serves to convince me that I must have this book. I particularly loved the analogy of crossing the motorway blindfold because I am another one who throws things at the TV when "I did it MY way" authors are talking.

    If there is sound advice from someone who knows what they are talking about - why ignore it? So back to Twitter where I am picking up so much information from professionals. Wish I'd joined earlier.

    I'm not a shoe-lady, I'm a boot-freak.

  12. Oh, I'm so glad there are more people who feel like that. Much as I adore him and everything he writes, Mark Billingham with his "I banged out 100 pages and sent them to an agent" story winds me up. There's not a problem with anecdotes - they're fascinating. But they're not helpful and shouldn't be confused with advice.

  13. Cameron Writes - and it's been good meeting you on twitter! Also, I'm far more a boot-freak than a shoe-lady. Partly because they stay on my feet better, partly because I can wear comfy socks and partly because i live in Scotland and my feet get cold.

  14. Sounds like a must-have item for all writers. Very enjoyable post.

  15. I have two books on how to write synopses and I´ve read several how-to articles on the Internet about it, but I still can´t nail the beast. The books are probably fine, as are the articles, so the problem must be all mine. Thanks for the distinction between outline and synopsis, and the words on function and elegance. Time to get a third book, perhaps, but will I rise to the task of nailing my synopsis?

  16. Anne, it certainly is

    Merc, very very best with it!

  17. I'm reading through WAGS and finding it full of really useful advice. A critique would be even more useful, so please add me into the draw!

  18. Just had a lovely dance along to the trailer video. Fun - love the picture of the kid 'writer tantrum'.
    After reading WAGS I feel much happier about writing a synopsis but please don't ask me to write a synopsis of an academic essay, in fact don't ask me to stick to a word count there either.
    Thanks for the helpful book.

  19. Great interview!

    Why the dread around synopsis? I think in addition to the confusion that Nicola mentioned there is another reason: writing a good synopsis of your own novel is hard. The writer easily gets lost in detail and can't see the wood for the trees.

    Doing precis seems to be an excellent exercise before writing a synopsis. To be able to see the pig picture one needs distance from their book, objective eyes, logical thinking, good summarizing abilities and a capability to grasp the essence of the story.

    I have an original hypothesis: writers who were good at maths in school are better at synopsis writing than those who weren't.

    What do others think?

  20. Hi this news is exactly what I search. I share to your website to my facebook. Thank you update daily this blog will go to peak thanks bye…

  21. Dan, a million thanks again for hosting me on my blog tour. I thought I'd come along and thank each blogger in person, now that the show's over. And thanks to all your readers who commented, too. But especially you for going to the trouble of putting the post up and all the fiddly stuff.

    I'm putting all the names (a lot!) together and will let you know asap whether one of your readers is among the winners.

    Meanwhile, happy writing to all of you and don't worry about synopses any more! (Katalin - I don't agree with your hypothesis, though!)

    Thanks again, Dan. All the best, nx

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