How to write a synopsis of your book or novel


28 September 2011
Writing a clear, concise synopsis or book proposal tells an agent, editor or publisher that you are a capable writer, and can help you stand out from the slushpile and secure a book contract. So how do you do it? We asked the experts for their advice.

Your covering letter has made such a good impression that your publisher, agent or editor of choice has decided to take a closer look at your novel, but the first thing they'll look at is your synopsis or, for a non-fiction book, your book proposal. You already have some of their attention, but now you need to hold it so they want to find out more. Maintain that excellent first impression by delivering a synopsis the publisher just cannot resist.

So how do you start? Let’s take a look at what you should include. ‘The synopsis is the primary tool for fiction writers to inspire agents and publishers to read their manuscript,’ says professional publishing consultant Julia McCutchen. ‘Always write the synopsis in the present tense, and tell the whole story – including the ending.’

Fiction synopsis checklist

Julia advises you to answer the following key questions in your synopsis
• What is the story about?
• Who is/are the main character(s) and brief summary of the issue(s) they are facing
• What are they feeling?
• What’s driving them?
• Why are they acting in a certain way?
• What’s standing in their way?
• What is the setting, if appropriate, and include a taste of it

‘Include some dialogue to bring your synopsis alive but only if it feels appropriate,’ adds Julia. ‘Build excitement as you near the end by using shorter sentences and paragraphs.’

Your synopsis should be written in the third person. ‘I start in the same place as the story (not giving background to the main character or other characters) and summarise the main plot points and characters,’ says author Tamsyn Murray. ‘The synopsis should try to capture something of the writer’s voice – mine try to be fairly witty.’

Stewart Ferris, author and co-founder of Summersdale Publishers, says one paragraph per chapter is usually adequate, but obviously this depends on the length of your chapters. ‘As long as the synopsis fills one or two pages and no more then it’s the right length,’ he advises. ‘It’s not easy to distil your masterpiece down to a few hundred words unless you’re clear in your mind as to what the important themes and concepts are. Leave out all unnecessary detail and tantalise the editor with questions and hints that make them want to read the whole book to find out more.’

If you find it difficult to compile your synopsis, remember that even seasoned authors find it hard. ‘I’d find it easier to write a whole 100,000 word novel than do a synopsis,’ says Carole Matthews, an internationally bestselling author of numerous romantic comedy novels. However she has the following advice to make the process easier: ‘Make your synopsis as concise as possible. Outline the main story – all of it – including main conflict points. And don’t get side-tracked by sub-plots.’

Non-fiction book proposal checklist

For those who are submitting non-fiction manuscripts, the synopsis is replaced with a book proposal, as it includes many different sections of information.

Julia McCutchen advises that your non-fiction book proposal should include:
• title page (just title, subtitle and contact details)
• summary of content
• chapter outlines
• author details
• sales, marketing and promotional information
• length, specifications and delivery date (ie how long the finished manuscript will be, if there are any illustrations and when it will be delivered)
Submit your book proposal with your covering letter and sample chapters.  

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