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Don't Sweat Your Synopsis. Just Write It! 8 Easy Tips

06/05/2015 12:42 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Whether you're an aspiring writer pitching a book idea to agents, or a seasoned author whose editor expects a synopsis for each new novel, creating a synopsis can feel like the worst writing you've ever done.

That's because it IS the worst writing you've ever done. Imagine summarizing one of your favorite classics in a synopsis. Whether we're talking Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses, that synopsis would be a snoozer, since it's just a pitch giving the highlights of the plot. No pretty language. No tension. Just an outline in prose form.

But that's exactly what you have to do in many instances as a fiction writer: Pitch your work in abbreviated form. And, now that I've had to do this beastly synopsis exercise a dozen times for editors, I've realized that it's highly useful.

For one thing, giving your agent or editor a synopsis can save time and heartbreak. When my editor rejected my last synopsis, for instance, she was essentially rejecting only 20 pages, not a 498-page novel that took me a year to write. Yeah, that rejection stung a bit, but I knew it was the concept of the book she didn't like, so I wrote a different synopsis. She bought it.

Even if you're self-publishing, crafting a synopsis is a useful tool, because it will help you conceptualize the book. Later, it will help you market it. Of course the novel will morph as you write and the characters take over, but you will always have that blueprint for the book's foundation -- and a pitch you can tweak over and over, whether you're using it as book jacket copy or for something like a Goodreads giveaway.

All right. Down to basics: What is a synopsis? It is a summary of your novel's narrative arc and describes the main characters and conflicts.

Here are eight easy tips for writing one:

1. Keep your language precise and active, and focus on telling the story.

2. Start the book in-scene with one of the main characters: "From the moment she woke on that chilly February morning, Savannah Smith knew without a doubt that she would divorce her husband."

3. Each time you introduce a character, give a quick character sketch: "Burly Jones is a 36-year-old workaholic whose biggest joys in life are horseshoes, women and his motorcycle, not necessarily in that order."

4. Don't get bogged down in details. Stick to a few main characters and make their core conflicts clear.

5. As your plot unfolds, reveal it in steps the way you would relate a movie plot to friends over dinner, skipping the dull parts and hitting only the highlights.

6. Include a bit of dialogue to liven the tone: "I want you to know the truth before you see him." Those were the last words her mother spoke, but Trish didn't know what she meant.

7. Be sure the main conflicts are clear, and that there is a resolution to each conflict.

8. Keep your synopsis short, typically between 5 and 20 pages.

Now get busy. Stop sweating that synopsis and just write it!