07 February 2012

In which I give Nicola Morgan a grilling.

Call it serendipity but just as Nicola Morgan, The Queen of Crabbit is engaging in her exhaustive and exhausting blog tour for Write a GreatSynopsis, I am wresting with the synopsis for my second crack at publication. Compared with the reams and reams of conflicting, dubious and downright baffling advice that pop up whenever I Google synopsis, it’s a breath of fresh air.  It’s crisp, witty and to the point and makes it sound so do-able. 

So when I had the chance to get Nicola all to myself, I locked away the champagne and chocolates I'd been ordered to present to her and instead sneakily subjected her to a grilling. (I've heard Crabbit on Toast is a rare delicacy.) But guess who came out of it singed about the ears? (Clue: it wasn't Nicola.) 

Q I was a little sceptical at first but when I read your versions of other people’s synopses and the one you wrote for  your YA novel, Wasted (which I read and loved, by the way) I was pretty much converted. So why am I still daunted by the task ahead? Any thoughts on that?

A Because writing a synopsis is not easy, just not as hard as most writers think. Also, you’ll only not be scared when you’ve actually done it and truly believed that it’s not as hard as you thought. It’s all very well being told and even trusting the teller – you have to believe it fully and that usually only comes once you’ve done it. Also, anything worth doing is tough! Also, also, some people will find it harder and that’s not a function of how good a writer you are: I suspect you are over-thinking and over-anxious, because you want it to be fabulously wonderful. It won’t be: your book will always be better.

Q You quote a passage from your hugely informative guide: Write to be Published. In it you write: Too much sweat is secreted over synopses. Yes, they are important and useful but there are different ways to get them right and the synopsis is unlikely to lose you a deal if the letter and sample are wonderful. (Unless the synopsis is terrible, of course.) You also quote several agents who say they don’t always look at synopses. I found all this a bit confusing, I must admit. Can you clarify it for me?

A Not confusing at all. You’ve forgotten an obvious truth: when you read that “several” agents do one thing you are forgetting the obvious truth – that you don’t KNOW which ones do and which don’t. So you have to assume that they might want a synopsis and you have to give them what most of them want. You obviously have to try to cover all bases and assume they want as good a synopsis as you can produce, without giving yourself a hernia. The fact that the one you send it to might not look at it is entirely irrelevant.

Q An editor who works for a well-known publishing house has critiqued my ‘submission package.’ She told me that my synopsis didn’t match the lively tone of my first three chapters. In a word: dull. She told me to scrap it and start again from scratch. But I’m a bit at a loss. Any liveliness in my fiction comes is mainly in the dialogue which doesn’t feature in synopses. Any tips how to convey brightness without making the whole novel sound like a comedy which—as it covers some dark themes—it most definitely isn’t?

A I bet the liveliness in your fiction doesn’t only come from the dialogue. If she says your fiction is lively then it is. Your synopsis is probably dull because you are feeling negative about it (I know you are!) and hating it. You think it’s a dull exercise and you are approaching it with evil worms of dullness whispering in your ear. (Those worms can whisper evilly, I promise.) You are writing your synopsis with a sulky curled mouth, aren’t you? Go on, admit it! (More a cringe of terror actually, Nicola but I get what you mean!) I don’t think I can tell you exactly how to convey voice in your synopsis because I haven’t read your novel, but if you look at Louise M Kelly’s synopsis in WAGS, you’ll see she uses the odd phrase that lightens it and gives a lovely echo of her book. It’s a light touch and every book has a voice which can lightly be shown by the skilled writer I know you are. If you feel your book while writing the synopsis, it will inevitably come. Really.

Q I thought your advice to forget about the details of the novel before writing the synopsis (Your Crappy Memory Tool) fascinating. Then again, having spent the past few months polishing and correcting my manuscript so I can’t easily forget the details. Is this method a total non-starter for me or should I put it on one side for six months?

If you don’t have that particular tool of a crappy memory, you will have to manage without. It was only a trick for avoiding the need to decide what to omit. So, instead, you have to think of the recipient and think, “Does the person NEED to know that?” Not, “Do I want to tell them?”

Q You don’t recommend writing a very long synopsis and then cutting and cutting it to a manageable size. In fact, you recommend the total opposite. But the former is the only method that seems to work for me. My attempts at a short and snappy pitch always end up clichéd and simplistic so attempting to expand on that never works for me. Maybe I should try harder to adopt your methods even though every attempt so far has ended in abject failure and a headache?

A No. I never ever ever tell anyone to do anything that doesn’t work for them! My first rule is always, Do what works for you. That’s why I suggest some other methods, too. It would be awful of me to tell you to do something which doesn’t work, and I never would, you bad woman, you. However… I know what you mean about 25-word pitches sounding clichéd etc – but if you can ignore that and then expand it, allowing yourself more words, you’ll find it won’t be clichéd etc. Maybe? But if that doesn’t work, don’t do it!

I found your analyses and rewrites of the synopses writers were brave enough to submit to you fascinating. As I said above, you clearly have a talent for it and you make it look easy. Any final tips for those of us who yet to acquire your skill?

A Relax. There’s a lot of emotion that goes into all writing and I sense you are letting all your negative emotions in. If you did that during your actual novel-writing, you’d be in a fine pickle. Well, same for this: it’s just a task, and the task is to do a good job for the book you love, not to write something as beautiful as the book, but to let an agent or publisher see that you’ve reached the end of the book and the story looks as though it probably works and includes the right elements. Your synopsis will never be read on its own – it will be attached to your beautiful three chapters. Relax. And smile J

And thank you for letting me invade your lovely blog! And write well and be happy J

Thank you so much, Nicola, for your time and sensible answers to my stupid questions. And finally, before I go back to my wonderful, positive and stunning synopsis here's a reminder of Nicola's fabulous competition that accompanies this tour.


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 Nicola 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.

The list of blogs Nicola is visiting will appear one by one on the panel on right of her Help I need a Publisher! blog. Do go and read them – all the bloggers are great supporters of writers.

And finally, finally, if you haven't already done so, please download your copy here. And, if you need any more persuasion, here are the thumbscrews, sorry, fab trailer. http://youtu.be/ipYer57Cr7c 


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great Q and A session Sally. Best bit of advice for me from Nicola is not to be scared to use my 'voice' in my synopsis and strip it of any personality.

  3. Excellent interview!

    Sally, your questions were not at all stupid. In fact, they were brilliant and very practical.

    If I may suggest, you could try writing your synopsis as if you were composing a letter to your best friend telling her about your book. That eases your stress.

    Self-confidence is an important element in good writing and you have all the right to be yourself. You're a wonderful writer!

  4. Really enjoyed this post. Well done Sally. :-)

  5. Katalin, I find it very difficult to imagine writing a letter to my best friend in which I write a synopsis of my book!

    Thanks so much, Sally, for your piercing questions and good luck to you and all your readers - may they be many and vocal!

  6. I purchased Nicola's book, which was published just as I started seriously thinking about submitting my novel! It has been incredibly useful and I now have three different synopses written - one paragraph, one page and two page. Now all I have to do is complete the dreaded query letter - aaagh! Thanks for a great interview (and a great book).

  7. Gabby - hold off on the query letter a while longer and I'm sure Nicola will write you a lovely little book to explain just how to do it!

    Great interview, thanks to Nicola and Sally.

  8. That is indeed the plan but I have not had time to write even one word of it :((

  9. Great information, as always.

    I'm just off to buy the book now, but I'm wondering if a synopsis can be used as a planning tool before the novel is finished? I'm having serious doubts about my overall plot. Is it useful to have a synopsis critiqued *before* you write the novel, to get feedback on the ideas and structure of the novel? Or am I barking up the wrong tree with this notion?

  10. Sophie - that's a perfectly sensible thing to do. In fact, I talk a bit about that use of a synopsis in the book, though I state that I'm focusing mainly on the synopsis you have to send to a publisher/agent. I don't think I'd pay to have it critiqued at that stage but if you win the competition you might usefully use your prize for that!

  11. Great! Thanks for the feedback, Nicola.

  12. Sally - hope those evil worms of dullness have wriggled away in fear at the sight of Nicola's book.
    Sophie - glad you asked that question as I was wondering about that too. Good luck with your 'pre-writing' synopsis. I'm going use mine to flesh out the missing middle of my book.

  13. The debunking of the myth of the synopsis is very welcome as it does loom up as something menacing just when you have got the hard work of finishing the book out of the way. I have bought the book and am rewriting it - the advice about not taking too long was really helpful.

    I have tried the pre synopsis, but found that the book evolved, so while it was really good to help frame things, it was very different at the end. I really want to get my first novel published as it will take the pressure off having to look for a new job.

  14. Dear Sally, a big public thank you from me to you for hosting me on my blog tour! I hope it has helped someone somewhere. Good luck to you and all your readers and may your words choke the evil worms of dullness :) xx

  15. Re:5th comment. Let me explain this idea.

    If you write a letter to someone you trust, someone who understands you, someone who likes you, you will write in your natural voice. When you are finished, just cut off the salutation and the closing, and see what you have. I bet it won't be dull, and it will be to the point. You'll have the kernel of your synopsis.

  16. I like the sound of that, Katalin. Thank you. I'll give it a go.