Nicola Morgan: how to write a great synopsis

Nicola Morgan is the author of around ninety books for all ages, fiction and non-fiction. To writers she is known for the no-nonsense expert advice in her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! and her highly acclaimed book for writers, Write to be Published, as well as Tweet Right – The Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter. Nicolas's latest book, Write a Great Synopsis (WAGS), tackles one of many writers' most feared foes, the dreaded synopsis. I kicked off the questions as follows.

I found writing a novel terribly unpleasant at times. Then when I'd finished came the most unpleasant experience of the lot - writing the synopsis. I hated it and I know that I'm not alone. Why does the humble synopsis cause us writers so much distress?

No, you're not at all alone. I'm one of the few writers I've come across who never feared them. Anyway, to answer the question: I think there are three main reasons. First, there are a lot of apparently conflicting messages about how to do them or even what they are, so writers go into them never sure whether they are doing it right. And that's very stressful, like doing something blind. And second, most writers don't fully grasp WHY they have to write a synopsis. If they remember that the reason is to show the agent (or whoever) that the story works well and what sort of a story it is, that makes the whole task simpler. Third, we are too close to our book. We care too much. Sometimes I think a reader will find it easier to write a synopsis than a writer. (Until the writer reads WAGS!)

I think my fear was less of the synopsis itself, but of messing up my chances on something so… well… something that isn't the actual thing - the real writing. How much does a synopsis really matter?

Ah, I'm glad you asked me that! The very good news is that it is easily the least important part of the whole submission. It is very unlikely to lose you a deal if your synopsis isn't as brilliant as it could be. On the other hand (and this isn't bad news, not really), if you are a writer, ALL of your writing is important. You want it to be as good as you can make it, which is I think what you are meaning. But I think it's important to realise that it is only going to lose you a deal if it's really bad and if your actual sample chapters also aren't cracking. Is that more reassuring?

It is reassuring, but putting that into practice might be more difficult. I am Captain Pernickety and do like everything to be nice and, you know, perfect. But anyway. I know that you are right. Are these the kind of problems that made you want to write a book on synopses in the first place?

Captain Pernickety is good, up to a point. Captain Over-Analysing is not because he is married to General Procrastination and together they produce Major Paralysis. Anyway, yes, that's pretty much why I wrote the book. To be honest, I never had a problem with synopses myself (sorry) but it became more and more apparent that many writers do and when I see a problem I like to don a cape and swoosh in to fix it. So, I swooshed.

You say that part of the reason a synopsis can be daunting is because of conflicting information. Where does that conflict usually come from and is there such a thing as the right way to do it?

Conflicting only in the sense that it comes from different sources and is often not talking about the same things. As I say in WAGS, there are several different types of synopsis for different occasions, and what's right for one occasion is not for another. But the one that we are bothered about is the one that an agent or publisher wants before deciding whether to take the book. And then the right way to do it is the way that a) follows any specific requests of that agent, for example about length, and b) shows that your book works and what sort of book it is.

That's the one rule I've always told people when I've been asked: do as you're told. Would you say that's good advice? And if so, is it always good advice?

Not always, no! When it's part of submission guidelines - in other words, the agent or publisher has said "This is what we want you to do," - then yes, you must do it. They know what they want and there's every reason to give it to them. But if it's something like me or someone else saying "you shouldn't mention the subplot" or "you shouldn't use unanswered questions", no: IF you genuinely feel, after reading all the advice and UNDERSTANDING the reasons for it, that your book actually suits a slightly different way, do it your way. Rules can always be broken WHEN you know what they are and what they are there for; and when you are so confident about it that you know that your reason for breaking the rule is stronger than the rule's reason for existing, break it.

I did mean do what you're told if you're following submission guidelines, and I totally agree that it's all about understanding the rules and what they mean before making a decision. Finally, WAGS is the third book you've published via your own means - how's it all going and will there be more?

It's going well, thank you, especially the non-fiction titles, because the particular market is not hard to find. So, yes to more! Next in the pipeline are (not necessarily in this order) Dear Agent (the dreaded covering letter), How To Promote Your Book Without Bugging the Pants Off People, and something about writing a non-fiction proposal. Now I just need to write them! But I'm also supposed to be writing some fiction, hoping for "normal" publication, so I need to get going on that, too. And I want to. Fiction is where my heart is; non-fiction is where my head is.

Thanks so much for your questions, Iain. It's been fun batting them back and forth one by one! Good luck to all your readers and remember: Don't panic - it's just a synopsis!

Write a Great Synopsis by Nicola Morgan covers: the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, different requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, how to tackle non-linear plots, multiples themes, sub-plots and long novels, and it answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. Nicola also introduces readers to her useful Crappy Memory Tool, explains the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrates with real examples. Gold-dust for writers at all stages.