THE BLOG
07/25/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

How to Write a Synopsis? Pretend You're Carving Soap

I recently finished the synopsis for my new novel, and truthfully? By the end I felt like I did at Girl Scout camp, when they used to have us carve flowers and animals out of bars of soap. (I have no idea why the Boy Scouts across the way got to whittle sharp sticks and we were stuck with plain white soap. Maybe they thought that, being girls, we'd just get to cleaning when we were done.)

Just as that bar of soap would slip through my fingers until I finally got enough curves and edges dug into it, allowing me to hold it firmly between my sweaty little hands, the synopsis for a new book always seems likely to slip through my grasp. It's unwieldy and shapeless and feels like it could dissolve at any moment.

And then, suddenly, there is a magical moment where the shape of the book appears, where the characters take life even in the relatively short span of a synopsis and let you know what the real story is. Then I can dig my fingers into it and keep refining the shape until I have a beginning, a middle, and an end--or, if I'm carving soap, a flower, a butterfly, or a polar bear.

Here are 4 tips to help you survive writing a synopsis, whether you're pitching a new novel to different publishing houses or just trying to convince your editor that your next book will be your best yet:

1. Start out by writing single tag lines for your book. Stuck? Check the descriptions of similar books on Amazon, or Google famous quotes about whatever broad topic you're tackling, whether it's chance, hope, family, death, etc. Picture that tag line on your book cover, right under the title. This will tell your editor--and you--what your book's main question or theme will be.

2. Once you have the tag line, write the copy for your book cover. This should be exciting copy that summarizes what the reader will get out of your book: "In this riveting debut thriller, lawyer Nancy Grace wakes up one morning to discover that she has just been nominated for a popular reality dance show on television. Little does she know that..."

3. The tag line and the book cover copy will probably keep morphing as you write the synopsis, but by now you should know what your book is "about." Now you can cobble together the basic plot elements of the story. Start at the beginning and just tell the story the way you would describe the highlights of a movie to a friend over dinner: "At the start of the novel, Nancy is working at her desk when the phone rings. It's a call she never expected..." Move on through the key events in the novel. And, yes, I mean go through the story right to the end--editors want to know what they're buying, and most of them hope for a solid resolution that will make readers happy.

4. Finally, once you've written out the synopsis, offer a couple of sample sections of your book. These can just be brief but key scenes from each point of view to give the editor a taste of what the book will feel and sound like--is the tone comic or dark? Will there be lush descriptive passages, or will the writing be fast-paced and to the point? Again, the main thing here is to show your editor exactly what you have in mind.

That's it! Despite how slippery, unwieldy, and impossible this bar of soap--oops, I mean this synopsis--feels, I promise that if you trust in the process, you'll find an editor who will be a good match for your book. Even better, you'll end up with a blueprint that will make writing the book easier.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.