Monday, April 27, 2009

SYNOPSIS: The Good, The Bad, and The Optional Unjudged

I'm thrilled to welcome Gina Welborn to Seekerville! Take it away, Gina....

Shiver me timbers! What’s it about synopsis that makes writers break out in hives? I cringed just typing the word.

For the budding—or experienced—contest entrant, the dreaded synopsis isn’t something that can be avoided. More and more RWA chapter contests are requiring a synopsis in addition to the manuscript pages, although they’re oft unjudged.

The ACFW’s Genesis contest states…

The entrant must submit the first 15 pages of their manuscript, double-spaced, and an OPTIONAL one-page single-spaced synopsis.

What in Elvis’s blue suede shoes is “optional” all about?

Is it like the dentist saying, “Gee, Gina, we’d like to do a root canal on that molar that’s been bothering you, but we hate to be anal about things so we’re gonna say the root canal is optional. Care for a mint?”

Dude, fix my tooth. I don’t like pain.

Neither do I like writing synopsis. But some pain can’t—and shouldn’t—be avoided. What doesn’t kill ya makes ya stronger. (Even the 3 Little Pigs whose houses kept getting blown down know what I’m talking about.) Why should you send in an optional synopsis, especially when it's unjudged?

Since April 1st of this year, I’ve judged 21 contest entries with 8 more to go. Trust me when I say, as a judge, I’d much rather see a contest allow for an optional (or not) unjudged synopsis then require and judge it. Or not require one at all. One-page synopses are nice appetizers. Two-three pagers are a healthy meal. More than four pages…well, I'll freely admit I skim 4+ page synopses. One of my Golden Heart entries this year had a 15-page synopsis. zzzzzzzzzz

As a writer, I know synopses are a pain to write so I tend to be lenient when I’m judging them. On a sorta side note, Missy Tippens did a post recently in which she talked about GMC. If you answer the questions she listed, then the structural foundation of your short synopsis pretty much writes itself. How cool is that?

Anyhoo, last year when I was judging the Genesis, all but one of my seven entries came with a synopsis. None of the synopses were well written, but they did provide information to assist me in scoring some questions.

In one particular entry, I realized what happened in the entry pages didn't seem relevant to the rest of the story. Typical opening of heroine in her ordinary world. Other than the hero’s job being the same in the entry pages and in the synopsis, the synopsis could have come from a different story.

I made a point to tell the entrant that I didn't think she began her story in the right place based on the fact nothing significant occurred during the entry pages that seemed relevant to the story plot as outlined in the synopsis. Her story really started the moment the heroine began her vacation because the entry showed something important happening on the first day she arrived in the vacation-town.

When judging this month for the VRW’s Fool for Love, I often struggled to answer the question “Is the plot strong enough to sustain word count?”

With my Genesis entries, I could answer a question like that because all the entries included a total manuscript word count in the header. Not the FFL. In a contest that asks a specific question like that, if the entrant doesn’t include word count, the judge is left with using a synopsis to answer the question. Would you believe barely half of my FFL entries included a synopsis? How the sweet tartar sauce was I suppose to score that question without anything but the first 20 pages of the manuscript?

(imagine a loud sigh here)

Back to last year’s Genesis entries…

Would you believe that of all those entries, the one I really really really wanted to read the synopsis on (because the manuscript pages were fan-freakin-tastic) was the very one that didn’t include one. Talk about torture! I was desperate to know what (in a 1-page nutshell) happened to the characters. Ended up I said something like, "You horrible author. How dare you not send a synopsis! Now I'm gonna suffer not knowing what happened until your book is published. Uggh! :-) I don't think I like you at this moment. Great job, though, on hooking me with your story alone. I'm sure you can tell by my scores and my comments that I loved your story. Best wishes!!!"

While not sending in a synopsis won’t hurt you significantly, I do think that a ho-hum one is better than one not at all. Most of the time. If the scoresheet asks about GMC being strong enough to sustain plot for entire book, then you probably ought to include a synopsis. No argument.

On a side note, I didn’t include the optional synopsis with my Duel on the Delta 2009 contest entry. Not only did my story final, but none of my judges commented on wishing I’d have included the synopsis. I’m guessing they didn’t feel they needed it to answer any questions.

Anyhoo, I still advise including an optional synopsis even if it’s poorly written. Why? Well, you may get a judge who knows a little about writing synopsis and who will give you tips on improving yours. I tend to give links to online articles or recommend Mary Buckham's workshop: SYNOPSIS: For Those Who Hate To Write Them!

Now that “horrible Genesis author” who didn’t send in a synopsis with her entry was Jenness Walker. She ended up winning first place in the Genesis romantic suspense category. I’m thrilled to say the novel is now an October 2009 Love Inspired Suspense release.

I can safely say the entries I’ve judged this month that didn’t included their optional synopsis all lost at least two points on their score because the scoresheets had questions pertaining to GMC being strong enough to sustain plot. Had they included that optional synopsis, they may not have.

Think two points aren’t that big of deal?

Last year when I coordinated the Golden Pen historical and the Touched by Love long contemporary categories, the difference between being one of the three finalists and being #4 was one point.

One. One. Do you hear me? O.N.E.

Despite me not sending in the optional synopsis with my Duel of the Delta entry and my judges not commenting on it, I still believe that you should err on the side of including the optional synopsis.

Now where’s our sexy pirate barista. I could use some coffee and hot cross buns. Or a nice cheese danish. Or….


A 2007 RWA GOLDEN HEART®inspirational finalist, Gina enjoys helping with contests both as a category coordinator and judge. No, she is not insane to any degree. Or at least the tests say she isn't. While she doesn't enter many contests, she has choice words for judges who deduct 2 points on formatting because the entry used underlining instead of italics. Today's choice words are...well, she'd prefer not to say in case her kids are reading.


  1. Good morning, Gina! How nice to have you on the posting end of Seekerville! You made some succinct points for why to include a synopsis. And made this dry topic fun. I'm also impressed with all the judging you do.

    I've answered your call for cheese danish. Love them myself. I've brought coffee.


  2. Great post, Gina. And I understand what you mean about needing that synopsis - even if it's not judged - to sometimes help score things more accurately.

    I can also relate to what you said about the 'bad author' Genesis entry last year. Jenness used to be one of my CPs and I never read anything she wrote (chick lit, romantic suspense, out-there semi-psycho) that didn't reel me right in. She definitely has the gift of storytelling.

    Congrats on your Delta final and good luck with the next round!

  3. Welcome to Seekerville as a guest blogger, Gina! We always enjoy your "visitor" thoughts and humor in our comments section! As one who always hated writing synopses and knew judge's down-graded my contest entries because of them, I still sent one into the contests that suggested entrants do so. My earlier stories were first person POV romantic mysteries -- so it helped judges get a glimpse of my hero's GMC since my heroine wasn't a mind reader. And sometimes an opening conflict is only the tip of the iceberg, so a synopsis is helpful to show a judge what the "sustaining" conflict will be throughout the story.

  4. I shoveled snow to get here. And thank you Janet for the food.

    Okay, you win. You have presented a compelling argument for including my synopsis.

  5. Hi Gina, Like Glynna, I always enjoy your blog comments. You have great insights and well, gee, you're fun too.

    I always thought the reason they want you to include the synopsis even though it isn't judged is for the sake of the final judging which is usually done by editors and agents. Just in case they are interested, they will want to see the whole thing. ????

    Thanks Janet for bringing the cheese danish. yummm

  6. Ohhh, thanks for the food, Janet. Pass me one of those cheese danish and a cup of coffee. Add a healthy dollop of vanilla flavored cream.

    Howdy Gina! Yep, we need to include the synopsis, even if we're not sure where the story is going.

    Recently, I entered a contest with a new wip. I just wanted to see if I'm on the right track. While I've mapped out what I think might happen, even the main points will probably change a lot before I'm done.

    So, the perfectionist in me didn't really want to send that optional synopsis, but I did. I hunkered down and put the bare bones down on paper. I think my scoresheets will be better off for it.

    It's just a contest, not an editor. So what if I change that synopsis a million times before I'm done?

    No problem!

  7. Thank you! Very informative and helpful.

  8. GINA!!!!!!!! Chuckled all through this post, girlfriend -- what a fun, Monday-morning treat (ESPECIALLY along with a cheese danish -- my favorite!)

    And I'm with you -- if I judge a contest and LOVE the entry, but there is no synopsis, I get a bit ticked, and hell hath no fury like a judge ticked. I should know -- I ticked off my fair share, apparently!


  9. Oh, Gina, you're so much fun!

    I have a confession to make. I judged the Romance Through the Ages Contest a few weeks ago. The entries included about 25 pages of story and a 5-page synopsis. The synopsis was not judged. Here's my confession. I didn't even look at the synopsis of any of the entries. I wasn't judging the synopsis, I was judging the entry and I didn't feel the need to find out what happened. Of course, none of my entries were very good this year--sorry, it's true--and I didn't want to torture myself. Hey, if you think a synopsis is frustrating to write, they're just as frustrating to read!

    I guess the lesson here is, spice up your synopsis. Make it sound funny, if your book is a little lighthearted, or make it scary, if your book is a suspense. Make it fun to read if at all possible.

    Now you want to strangle me for putting more pressure on you to write your synopsis well.

  10. Thanks, Gina,
    Informative as usual. Although I'm wondering if I really liked it


    Not because of the content but,

    Just when I thought optional meant one less thing I had to do for an entry, you go and give me sound reasoning why a synopsis should probably be sent

    TWO POINTS Deduction.

    ONE POINT difference.


    Oh well, I suppose I can deal with that.

    I'll just make sure Melanie, who'd prefer not to read a synopsis, gets my entries.


    Honestly, thanks for the wealth of information once again.

  11. 21 contests since April 1st? Gina, I'm questioning your sanity at this point in the process. :)

    But thanks for the tips. I fretted over whether to send an "optional" synopsis with my Genesis entry. I did. Don't know whether it was well-written or not, but I figured it couldn't hurt, and it might help.

  12. Here's a short form description of a synopsis.

    Your book needs four explosions.

    Beginning, 1/3 point, 2/3 point, conclusion-which begins with the black moment.

    The explosions can be emotional but I prefer if something is really blowing up.

    Your synopsis needs to tell about those explosions and give a character sketch.

    That's it.
    If you CAN'T find the explosions, that is if they don't exist, you probably need to rewrite the book--not the synopsis.

  13. Good morning. Great post.

    Ahhh, the synopsis...My fav.


    Thanks for this post. It's most helpful.

  14. Whoa, serious motivation to do synopses now.

    Actually, after looking at some stories through the filter of the synopsis, I started to see where I could make changes and hopefully make it stronger.

    Probably someone who's a punster could make a connection between synopsis and synapses.

  15. Melanie makes a good point. If the chapters don't grab you and make you ask questions, then the optional synopsis might not be necessary.

    But...what if?

    I'll opt for the what if.

  16. Gina, you have a voice of your own, for sure. I can certainly understand how having a synopsis can help with judging. I'm working on getting better at writing them!

  17. Good morning, Gina. Good arguments in support of the short synopsis.

    One page.

    Why do I cringe when I think I have to pare down a novel into one page?? Make my words count? Thoughts succinct??

    Sends shivers down my spine.

    But I do it.

    And rework it in my head the entire time it's out with the entry, LOL!! Drives me crazy!!

    Thanks for your thoughts, Gina!

  18. Good points, Mary. I'm stocking up on gun powder as we speak : )

  19. Sorry I'm so late arriving to the party. My oldest daughter is home from school today with an upset tummy. Beign the nice girl she is, she shared it with me. We really ought to have some HTML codes that'll color our words. I'm good for green today.

    Janet, that's for the danish, but my tummy advises me to put it in a take-home box.

  20. I understand what you mean about needing that synopsis - even if it's not judged - to sometimes help score things more accurately. Leigh, you summarized my post in one sentence. I will add a disclaimer: IT DEPENDS ON THE SCORESHEET.

    With the FFL, because of the question on conflict being long enough to sustain word count, a synopsis is needed. In this contest, optional means you'd better send it in.

    With the DotD, none of the scoresheet questions were ones that including a syno would have helped. So in this contest, optional is truly optional.

  21. Oh, Glynna, you reminded me of something I noticed in several of the entries I'v judged this month.

    And sometimes an opening conflict is only the tip of the iceberg, so a synopsis is helpful to show a judge what the "sustaining" conflict will be throughout the story.I like conflict.

    I don't like contrived conflict for the sake of making an exciting opening. Classic example is a horrid event that turns out only to be a bad dream. Paranormals often try to get away with this by making it a premonition.

    Russo, I always win. Except for when I don't.

  22. I always thought the reason they want you to include the synopsis even though it isn't judged is for the sake of the final judging which is usually done by editors and agents. Just in case they are interested, they will want to see the whole thing. ????Hi, Sandra! I feel like a dork because I really can't answer your comment. I haven't entered or finaled in enough contests to know if the optional unjudged syno was significant to the final round judge or not.

    See, now you've got me thinking maybe I ought to include that optional one for when it's sent to the Duel on the Delta's final round judge.

    Howdy Gina! Yep, we need to include the synopsis, even if we're not sure where the story is going.Pam, you're so right. Yet why is it entrants (including me) balk at writing a synopsis?

  23. hell hath no fury like a judge ticked. I should know -- I ticked off my fair share, apparently!*snort*

    Julie, I think we've all probably experienced being ticked off by a judge, as well as being ticked off by an entrant.

    A year from now I'll rant about one of the entries I judged this month. Grrr.

  24. Thank, Barbara, for enjoying the post!

    I guess the lesson here is, spice up your synopsis. Make it sound funny, if your book is a little lighthearted, or make it scary, if your book is a suspense. Make it fun to read if at all possible.Good advice, Melanie! I think this works especially well for a shorter syno--1-2 pages.

    Lemme just rant about about the Genesis. Then again, I'm torn between ranting and vomiting. Maybe daughter and I both have food poisoning.

    I know the page limitation of the Gensis to only 15 pages and the syno to 1 page can be frustrating. But the more I judge and the more I enter contests, I've come to decide that it's possible to evaluate a manuscript off the first 15 pages. Shoot, I can understand editors rejecting off one page alone.

    Call me crazy, but finaling in the Romancing the Tome (a first five page contest) or some other first 15-pages or less contest is as impressive as a Golden Heart final.

    When Camy told me how many entries the category I was judging had...well, the entries that final aren't going to be the best of the worst. I can't imagine any entry finaling that wasn't well written.

  25. Tina P, in the entries I judged for FFL, those that didn't include a synopsis got at least a 2 point deduction from me. A couple got more. Only I can't explain without going into specific details about the entry and my scores on other questions.

    Another judge might not have had a problem with the lack of syno.

    Still, generally speaking, I recommend sending in an optional synopsis.

  26. Okay, I'm flooded with comments so I'm going to do a summary.

    Thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting. Enjoy Janet's danishes and coffee for me. I'm saving mine for tomorrow.

    Mary, excellent four-point explosion summation of a summary! You should expand upon you comments in a blog post sometime. Maybe use one of your synos as an example so we can "see" what you mean. I hate writng synos so if you'll blog, I know I'll be the ready with my handy notepad.

  27. To snop or not to snop...
    That is the question.
    Whether 'tis nobler to please one who can truly read said piece
    With neither word nor censure
    Or 'tis it best to leave them questing,
    Wisting for more measure?.

    And what of that intrepid soul
    Who taketh points they shouldn't
    Whence poor author was self-promised
    The synopsis matters didn't?

    To have been the object of such scorn
    This writer doth confesseth
    She now seeketh games with snop unrequired
    For she think it be the bestest.

    Love the Danish. Thanks, Sandra.

    (Snarky part deleted because I should have gotten over being nailed off points on UNJUDGED synopses long ago, right? I mean ten years is a LONG time to hold a grudge...)

    Okay, not TEN, but it feels like ten.

    I look for contests where no synops are required unless you final. An editor has the expertise to be able to assess a story, the weight, the word count, the author's style and pace, and figure out if it's worth going further.

    Judges shouldn't be expected to have that skill level and I hate to see an entrant crash and burn because a synopsis takes on too much meaning to a judge.

    But that's probably because I don't write a great synopsis, so I'm covering myself by picking contests that don't require them!!!

    And Gina will no doubt smack me offline but she's FAR AWAY and can't really do much, ya' know? As long as I know which contests she's running, LOL!!!!

    I brought an afternoon fruit plate. All fresh. Probably not organic, but have you SEEN organic fruit???


    Clementines. Apples. Pears. Grapes. Melon. And the bounty of them all, California strawberries. Sooooooooo good.


  28. Patricia...oh, Patricia.

    I didn't plan on my April being contest-judging month. Really I didn't.

    Since I entered the Genesis, I felt like I ought to judge. Then again, even if I didn't enter, I would have judged because I'm an ACFW member and I believe if you're a member of a chapter and aren't a beginning writer, you should help judge the chapter's contest.

    Camy's been such a blessing to me in my writing adventure that I offered to judge another batch of entries if she needed. Plus, the entries were only 15 pages. I doubt I would have offered if the entries were 30-55 pages.

    The Fool for Love is sponsored by Virginia Romance Writers. It's my local RWA chapter, but I'm not a member. Yet. Thinking about so I thought judging would give me a chance to meet a couple members. The coordinator Judith is a sweet lady. I only have 2 FFLs left to judge. And none of my entries are inspy. I like branching out and judging genres I don't write in. Well, I don't judge erotica.

    Finally, I have a handful of Touched by Love entries to judge. Kelly, our head coordinator, takes some of my LC or SC entries while I return the favor and judge some of her historical ones. If we had enough Faith Hope & Love members volunteer to judge, us coordinators wouldn't have to pick up the leftovers.

    This happened a ton last year in the Golden Pen. You'd think past Golden Heart finalists would understand how...umm, desperate unpublished entrants are for helpful comments from their judges. You can want to move up to the next level of writing, but usually you need a stepstool or a hand up.

    I'm a firm believer that you should do good unto others as good has been done unto you. Don't be surprised that when you stop giving, you'll stop being given to.

    The Seeker ladies have blessed me so much to me that I enjoy returning the blessing to other unpublished writers. Even if it's as simple as posting a link to one of their blog posts on an entry I'm judging.

    And Patrica, just between us, I made a point to find each one of my TBL entries at least judge who writes in that entry's genre or subject matter. In the process, I've met several pubbed authors I didn't know or who's novels I hadn't read. Sweet, sweet ladies.

  29. Ruthy, how can you talk smack to a pucky sick woman? ;-)

    Great poem, though.

    I don't like deducting points for a question that I have to use the unjudged synopsis to answer. I don't. Which is why I'm going to nicely explain to the FFL coordinator that they shouldn't have a question on their scoresheet that the judge SPECIFICALLY has to use the UNJUDGED OPTIONAL synopsis to answer.

    "Is the plot strong enough to sustain word count?"

    That's the exact wording of the stupid question. No judge can really effectively answer this question off the first 15-20 pages. The judge can subjecture.

    Heroine hasn't received a letter from her brother in a month. Hero hasn't talked to heroine's brother in a month and now believes the brother is MIA. He's going to a party to meet someone who might know something about the missing brother. Heroine shows up at the party and forces the hero to pretend she's with him. To keep their cover, they have to pretend to be lovers.

    Based on that information alone, can you give a fair answer to "Is the plot strong enough to sustain a 90k story?"

    Well, if the novel is an erotica, then I think the complexity of the plot is fine. But the entrant didn't provide genre. Is this a single-title romance? Is it a category romance? It it an erotica?

    Who knows?

    The 5-page max synopsis could have answered the question for me, but she didn't include one.

    Then again, should I be using an unjudged synopsis to answer a question on the scoresheet? Technically, I'm not judging the scoresheet. I'm merely using the information in the poorly-or-excellently written scoresheet to answer.

    That's why contests shouldn't ask questions like "Is the plot strong enough to sustain word count?" and not require a synopsis.

    My word verification looks like obsesed. No joke.

  30. Oh, I thought of a another scoresheet question that I struggle with. This one's from the Genesis.

    "Do inspirational elements grow organically out of character or plot?"

    Sometimes this is easy to answer.

    Other times...

    In one of my Genesis entries, the ONLY inspirational element was a one-line prayer by the heroine. The story could have been a mainstream romance.

    I don't expect a sermon or lots of "church speak" in the entry pages, but there has to be something that clues the reader that this story is an inspirational. Even if it's only a hint at spiritual conflict.

    I tended to give automatic 5s on this, unless the entry had not even a hint of anything inspirational. But I had to rely on the UNJUDGED OPTIONAL synos to garner information to answer this question.

  31. Hi Gina,
    Every time I read one of your blogs about judging contest entries I break out into a sweat! I wish I could blame the 80 degree spring days! But in reality, your honesty about the judging has a way of making me wish I could go back and change a whole bunch of things about my Genesis and TBL entries!

    I do want to say a big thank you for all of your hard work judging. (And everyone else!) Since this is my first year entering, I had no idea how much time and work the judges sacrifice of their own time. So thank you!

    I'm sure I'm like all of the other newbies in wondering when we will start to get feedback. It's getting close, I'm sure! Is the first week of May generally about when contestants begin to get their results? (You can't tell I'm anxious, can you?!)


    21 contests since April 1st? Gina, I'm questioning your sanity at this point in the process. :)

    Uh, Patricia ... you're just NOW doing that???

    Sorry, Gina, couldn't resist ... :)

  33. Jody, after Russo blogged about pimping your contest entry, I wanted to kick myself for the things I wished I could have changed in my Duel on the Delta entry. Seems like I'd entered another contest too around that time.

    Her post, while great, should have come a month earlie.

    Sometimes I wish I could take a contest entry and a scoresheet and post it. Then ask a handful of contest judges to "judge" it. Only post their scoresheets anonymously.

    Then we could discuss what was said and why.

  34. LOL, Julie. I'm kinda questioning my sanity too.

    I didn't plan on spending the month judging entries.

    If I had to redo, I wouldn't have volunteered to judge FFL. And with the TBL, we just didn't get enough Faith HOpe and LOve members to volunteer to judge. But we also added a 3rd judge to the mix so we could drop the lowest score.

    I've asked some writers/authors I know to judge one or two entries. And that helped. I only have 3 contemporaries still needing a judge, and then there's the 5 historicals that I told Kelly I'd help her with.

    Of course, this also seems to be a time for deadlines so I understand pubbed authors not being able to sacrifice the time.

    When you're published, giving up an hour to judge is like giving up an hour of pay.

    One of my CPs said her contests has two $25 giftcard drawings: one for pubbed judges and one for unpubbed judges. Kinda nice.

  35. Gina, WELCOME!! And congrats on the Duel final!! If you win, will you get those little dueling pistols? :)

    Mary, I'm sitting here dying laughing at your comment! And now I can't wait to scroll down and see what Gina said about it. :)

  36. Oh my gosh, Ruthy!! Such a clever little Hamlet. :)

    LOL! I loved it!!

  37. Homage to a truly great contest judge from someone who's had the privilege of being on the receiving end. :-) Gina, some of the changes I made to my entry because of your recommendations stayed through the editing process, whereas a LOT of the other stuff went bye-bye. :-) I'm indebted to you for all the time you spent on it. However, I'm still glad I didn't sub my synopsis! I wouldn't have been much help, because at the time I didn't have a clue what the ending (or the middle for that matter) would be. :-)
    Good post!
    Oh, and out-there semi-psycho story?? lol!! I've been wondering what I should label that particular wip. I guess you might have nailed it. :-)

  38. Gina, you crack me up! I love to read what your mind spits out! LOVE IT!
    Not having ever WRITTEN a synopsis, I don't have much to say, other than...YIKES! Someday....