Monday, July 28, 2014

If the Shoe Fits...

In Cinderella, the glass slipper only fit Cinderella’s foot. As the story goes, of all the girls in all the castles in all the kingdom, the shoe fit her foot and hers alone. No matter how hard they tried, the other girls couldn’t wear the glass slipper.

Oliver Herford, Public Domain

Your synopsis is the shoe, your story is the foot. Stick with me now…

So, you’re working on your first (or next) Great American Novel. You’ve written the first few chapters, and you’re dipping your toes into contests and even getting brave and submitting to agents and editors. Or, you might even be selling on proposal, a short synopsis and a chapter or two.

If you’re at this stage of the writing game, then you’ve written the dreaded synopsis. There are great articles here in Seekerville and all over the ‘net to help you determine what goes into a synopsis and what doesn’t, so I’m not going to rehash that today.

But what I am going to address is whether your synopsis reflects the story you’re writing. Sometimes we writers—intentionally or maybe unintentionally— sensationalize our synopsis to the point that it doesn't even resemble the actual chapters, similar to the practice of padding a resume.

How many times have I dumped every conceivable plot device into my synopsis because a critique partner or contest judge suggested it, and I thought it would be cool? I wonder how many times I gave the "snake oil" sales pitch in the synopsis, but the story didn't live up to the synopsis and that's why contest judges and editors said no?

Some examples to make my point…

If I write a synopsis that sounds like a very dark 90K romance that deals with drunk driving, a family feud, long-lost love, and two main characters dealing with all this traumatic back story, but if my opening chapters feel and sound like a 20K novella, there’s a disconnect somewhere.

Or, how about this…

If my synopsis describes the lives of Bonnie and Clyde, but my chapters are the light-hearted, knee-slapping antics of Lucy and Desi, I’ve got a problem.

The best example I can give of my own writing would be my debut novel, Stealing Jake. Stealing Jake started out as a light, sweet novella and went through several rewrites that kept upping the tension.

If I had sent the lighter novella version of the story in with a synopsis detailing shipping street kids across the country in crates, sweat shops, a coal mine explosion, the traumatic incidents from both the hero and the heroine’s pasts, it just wouldn't have really worked together. And I’m afraid it would have tanked in contests, as well as been rejected by industry professionals.

It’s important to make sure a contest judge, critique partner, agent or editor gets the same jolt from the chapters as they do from the synopsis. Either the tension in the chapters need to be ratcheted up, or the tension in the synopsis ratcheted down. And, you, as the author, are the only one who knows which direction you need to turn the ratchet.

So, how do you do that?

Is your manuscript in the early stages or is it completed? If it’s completed, then you’re ahead of the game. Write your synopsis to fit the story and you're good. If you’ve just started this story, determine the genre and the tone. Do you write light-hearted contemporary romance, or dark historicals, or women’s fiction with snarky leads?

Read books that are similar to what you write, then describe them in your own words, just like giving a book report. See if you can hit the tone of these books. And, as an additional exercise, maybe look at some good professional reviews of those books. Do some of them describe whether the book was light, or dark? Do you agree with the assessment?

If you have a critique partner, let them read both. If they’ve worked with you a long time, they might be able to tell you if the two pieces are simpatico.

And, lastly, trust yourself. If you got it wrong, it’s not the end of the world. Just keep tinkering with it. Eventually, you’ll get it. This year I had the opportunity to submit proposals for historical romance novellas to Barbour Publishing. The proposals were extremely short, but I’ve been writing historical romance for a long time, and I’ve written a lot of proposals for novellas, and read my fair share. 

I knew enough about the process to keep the synopsis sharp, clean, and free of secondary plots. I sold FOUR proposals to Barbour because I nailed the synopsis. These novellas have a lighter tone than my full-length novels, and the one I’m currently writing (Shanghaied by the Bride) even has a slightly humorous tone, something that was clearly spelled out in the synopsis and is (hopefully) clear in the title.

Bottom line, know the story you want to tell well enough to make the synopsis fit.

Otherwise, it’s really gonna pinch.

Yep, that's us. Size 6 1/2 and 13 D

Pam Hillman was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mississippi and spent her teenage years perched on the seat of a tractor raking hay. In those days, her daddy couldn’t afford two cab tractors with air conditioning and a radio, so Pam drove the Allis Chalmers 110. Even when her daddy asked her if she wanted to bale hay, she told him she didn’t mind raking. Raking hay doesn’t take much thought so Pam spent her time working on her tan and making up stories in her head.


Marianne Barkman said...

Such a cool post, Pam. Guess as a reviewer I need to make sure I tell the readers if the book is light or dark. And those shoes ... Which do you wear?

Lyndee H said...

Fun way to put it, Pam! Good points. I hope my synopsis fits better than my shoes. Seems like my feet always hurt! Ha!

Welcome home Seekers and Villagers.

Pam Hillman said...

Ha! I wear the pink ones. But, truth be told...they hurt! lol

Lyndee, isn't that the truth? If we think about how our feet hurt, we're in a lot of trouble. lol

Coffee's on..., but I know it won't be as good as Helen's. I probably need to make a Starbucks run.

Olivia said...

Thanks Pam for sharing such important blog. Gotta love those shoes!

Cindy W. said...

Great post Pam!One for my keeper book. Writing the synopsis always seems overwhelming to me.

Smiles & Blessings,
Cindy W.

Jenny Blake said...

I learnt something the other day seems in its original language that when translated the Glass slipper was originally fur.
My little bit of trivia for the day.

Jackie said...

Writing a synopsis for a contest is so hard. When I'm limited on a page count I always struggle what to leave out, and then I worry I left out the wrong events. Great post today and lots to think about.

Love the pink shoes!

kaybee said...

Pam, this is interesting and something I've never thought of. Good fodder for my next round of submissions/contests.
I am on vac. this week so will be checking in with the Seekers more often and staying longer, yay.
Kathy Bailey

Jessica Nelson said...

Great advice!

Audra Harders said...

It's always a fine line, isn't it? What to put into a synopsis, what to leave out, and how to shake it all together to make it sound like your book.

Good points to consider and apply, Pam. My books constantly evolve as I have aha moments that make tweaking an artform, LOL!

Thanks for the reminder, Pam. Our synopsises must reflect our finished books!

Audra Harders said...

BTW, I love the Cinderella analogy. And, I love the graphics!

Mary Hicks said...

Thanks, Pam for a very helpful post!
I'm nearing the end of my current WIP and the old synopsis will be next!

I would have more of a problem writing the synopsis BEFORE the WIP is finished—I think? :-)

Janet Dean said...

Pam, what a fun way to remind us that the synopsis must fit the story. Love the picture that the boots and slippers give of you and your spouse!

Huge congratulations on selling four novellas to Barbour! You rock in those pink shoes!


Pam Hillman said...

Good morning all! Olivia, thank you! I should have taken pics of my nieces shoes. That girl has a gazillion, and she runs around barefoot most of the time! :)

Cindy, synopsis can be difficult, can't they? Just don't be afraid to tweak it as needed.

Jenny, that's so interesting about the glass slipper. The variations of the Cinderella story go back for ages. And new twists are being created all the time. A classic tale, for sure.

Janet Dean said...

Fabulous fun to see everyone at RWA, but it's great to be home! Missed Seekerville. For some reason I can never post a comment from my phone. User error I know.


Janet Dean said...

Jenny, what a fun tidbit. Fur just isn't as exciting as glass, is it?


Pam Hillman said...

Okay, throwing on an apron, and whipping up breakfast.

Omelettes it is!

Fresh eggs or egg whites, grated cheese, onions, peppers, ham, bacon, mushrooms, etc. Step right up and let me know how you like it!

Coffee, tea, orange juice on the sideboard, along with bagels and toast.

PS...for those going to the ACFW conference in St. Louis in September, the hotel there has a yummy breakfast buffet for meals when you're on your own. Just sayin' lol

Pam Hillman said...

Jackie, I just looked at some of the posts on synopsis here in Seekerville and there are some excellent ones. Next time you start one...or revamp one...check them out for a refresher.

Debra Clopton's and Linette Mullins are great. Debra talks about tone just as I'm doing today, and Linette gives a step-by-step using bullet points.

Pam Hillman said...

Kathy, enjoy your vacation. I want one of those! :)

Jessica, so good to see you here.

Audra, I wanted to use a Disney shot of Cinderella, but of course, Mr. Disney didn't answer my call, so Plan B. :)

Pam Hillman said...

Mary Hicks, you're correct, writing a synopsis before the ms is finished can be tricky if you're a panster.

As a dreamer/plotter, I usually have enough details about my story to write a synopsis by the time the first three chapters are done. That's not to say it's a good synopsis, or that the book will end up as I've tentatively mapped it out though.

Hmmm, I entered hundreds of contests as an unpublished author, so had to write a lot of synopses, and I've sent in lots of proposals for auditions and call-outs over the years.

Writing a synopsis for an unfinished ms to enter a contest is one thing...yes, you want to get it right, and yes, you want to wow the judges, but writing one for the chance to sell on proposal is taking it to a whole new level. If you wow them with that synopsis, and they contract you, you've got to be able to deliver.

As an author hones her skills as a writer, and becomes more confident in her ability to write a story that fits the synopsis she's mapped out, she's upping her game in the industry.

She knows she can deliver, AND more importantly, her editor knows it, too.

Wilani Wahl said...

Thank you, Pam for this great insight.

I hope everyone has a great day.

Pam Hillman said...

A thought about synopses and Indie publishing...

I didn't address anything about Indie Publishing in today's post.

When we indie publish a book, the synopsis (or lack thereof) is for our benefit alone. We're not trying to explain our story to the editor, the art department, marketing, sales, etc.

I'm not even sure if a seasoned author would prepare a synopsis for their CPs or the freelance editor they hire to edit a ms if they're going to indie pub.

That's a question for some of the Seekers who've already done that: Ruthy, Sandra, Tina, Mary, etc.

Tina Radcliffe said...

Myth: Once you are published you will never have to write a synopsis again.


You will continue to write the synopsis until you are Nora Roberts.

Terri said...

Pam - thanks for the great post. I've got to remember to keep the tone right for the story. My synopsis skills just aren't what they should be.

Pam Hillman said...

Wilani, thanks for dropping in. Have a great day yourself. It's such a beautiful Monday morning! :)

Terri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Lessman said...

LOL ... GREAT analogy, Pammy, and SOOO true!!

Right now I'm writing a book without a synopsis because I wanted to do one without a contract, which means without a proposal. My last proposal was LENGTHY to say the least (29 pages on The Heart of San Fran series), so I had three LONG synopses that my editor said read like novels for the very reason you describe -- the synopsis shoe has to fit, giving the publisher a taste of what's to come in tone, timing, and theme. I personally prefer doing this BEFORE I write the book because I have found it REALLLLY helps to solidify the plot and characters in my mind. I didn't do this on Isle of Hope, so I've had more of a struggle.

You said, "know the story you want to tell well enough to make the synopsis fit."

I have found by writing the synopsis LIKE a novel with snippets of dialogue here there actually helps me to know and feel the story enough to make a comfortable fit, both for me in writing the novel and in making sure the synopsis fits.


Terri said...

Since I'll never be Nora, can I just cry now?

Sandra Leesmith said...

Thanks Pam for the great synopsis writing tips.

Like Tina reminds us--you always need to write those babies. yikes. Not my favorite thing to write, but necessary.

And No Pam, you don't need to write a synopsis but it helps when writing a cover blurb. Also, a synopsis helps the editor you hire to determine if you have accomplished your goal.

Pam Hillman said...

Tina: So true!

I used to jokingly ask at what point in an author's career she no longer had to send in an SASE....

Well, I submit that I'd STILL be sending in SASEs if it wasn't for the fact that the majority of submissions are electronic these days.

I love, love, LOVE electronic subs! :)

Pam Hillman said...

Terri, I'll cry with you. I'll never be a Nora. But I'm good with that. I'm enjoying my little niche in the world of pubbing.

Is Nora the only author we automatically recognize by first name alone?

She's the Elvis of the literary world! lol

Pam Hillman said...

Sandra, that's what I figured with Indie Pubbing: the synopsis is not necessary, but helpful for your freelance editor and to give your cover designer a flavor for the story.

Kav said...

Not my favourite topic. Seriously. Not at all. I'm sure you offered wonderful insights, Pam, but I couldn't read them with my eyes closed. Just kidding...I read it while cringing.

The thing that bothers me the most is the advice to make sure your voice carries through the synopsis. By the time I've hacked away and tortured myself for hours my voice has laryngitis and reads like the ingredient list on a cereal box.

Missy Tippens said...

LOL, Pam! I love that shoe/boot photo!!! :) :)

Great post. I can tell you from judging contest entries that sometimes writers do exactly what your'e talking about.

My main problem with the synopsis is that I tend to include too much plot. But I think that's because I'm plotting as I write it! :)

Becke said...

I can relate to raking hay. My husband and I would flip to see who got to bush hog. No AC on our tractors. We pulled the deck with a David Brown that came off the line in 1952, at least that's what we were told.

Nothing more relaxing than to mow weeds and brush over the 365 acres. And yep, the thoughts ran in sync to the blades on the bush hog.

Jamie Adams said...

Great post, the boots and shoe picture says it all :)

Jeanne T said...

What a great post,Pam! I like the exercises you suggest also. I feel like my synopses fit my stories, but I need to be better at making them spark. :) I like the idea of giving a "book report" to figure out the tones of books and use that to help me define my own tone. Great suggestion!

Sandy Smith said...

This will be helpful to remember when I need to write a synopsis.

Sandy Smith said...

This will be helpful to remember when I need to write a synopsis.

Pam Hillman said...

Kav, I know all about that laryngitis...I've had it more times than I can count.

And, speaking of including your voice in your synopsis....I'm trying to think how to say this.... Yes, you want a hint of your voice, and a hint of your tone, but the synopsis is a bit more technical (I think one of the synopsis blogs here in Seekerville mentions this), so you don't have to try to write "in character" or exactly like you'd write your story.

I write historical romance, but I don't overload my synopsis (too much) with words or phrases that I'll actually use in the ms. Just a hint will do.

Here's the opening paragraph of the synopsis for The Evergreen Bride (12 Brides of Christmas, Barbour Publishing, October 2014).

The piney woods along Sipsey Creek, Mississippi, December 1887

Pastor’s daughter and interim schoolteacher, ANNABELLE DENSON, has always dreamed of a white Christmas like her Illinois cousin describes in her letters, but given the fact that Annabelle lives in Mississippi where snow is as scarce as hen’s teeth, she never expected her wish to come true. All she’s ever known are the tall, loblolly pines that stay green all winter long.

But her dream is on the verge of becoming reality.

As far as I know, I don't use "scarce as hen's teeth" in the ms. (Hmmm... does anybody know if cliches are encouraged or discouraged in synopses???) Anyway, I set the stage of who, what, where, and when with a hint of tone.

There's a problem (she wants a white Christmas), but I don't make it so melodramatic that it sounds like it's the end of the world, and I use a bit of phrasing that shows it's going to be a light read.

And...actually, the tone of the sequel--The Lumberjack's Bride (12 Brides of Summer) IS a bit more melodramatic than book one....

When her cousin’s logging business takes off, Chicago city-girl LUCY DENSON’s bookkeeper father decides to move the family back to Mississippi so that he can manage the books for his nephew. [I cut some of the synopsis for brevity's sake...] Lucy reluctantly leaves the city behind and finds herself in the backwoods of Mississippi helping her cousin Annabelle feed the logging crew.

So, Lucy's initial goal/problem is a bit more life-changing than Annabelle's was, so the tone of the synopsis and the tone of the book will be slightly different.

However, since these characters and books go together, I still want to keep the tone of both close.

The difference will be very subtle, and probably not even noticeable except to ME. :)

Pam Hillman said...

Missy, I first noticed this in reading contest entries, then started to wonder how often I'd done it. Ack!

Pam Hillman said...

Ooooh, Becke, your description of bush hogging brings flashbacks.

When I was about 17, I was clipping weeds one day on a tractor without a cab. A chunk of a tree limb flew out from under the bushhog and slapped my ankle. I thought I would pass out from the paind, and thought it was broken. I disengaged the PTO and drove home. When I got there, Mama and Daddy were gone, so I drove right up to the carport and hobbled into the house, put ice on my foot and waited for them to get there.

X-rays showed my ankle wasn't broken, but Mama always suspected there was a hairline fracture. I had to hobble around on crutches while registering for college. Anybody who's gone to college knows how much standing in line there is...or at least there was back then.

Needless to say, I'm a bit gun-shy when it comes to bush hogging. As a matter of fact, I have a healthy fear of the lawn mower, too! HA!

Pam Hillman said...

Jamie, don't you think those boots and the pink shoes are quite sexy?

I really expected Julie Lessman to swoon!

Pam Hillman said...

Jeanne, I think you're on the right track. Not only that, but jotting down the major turning points of a book you really enjoy will help pinpoint those areas that resonated with you. Everything is a learning experience. :)

Meghan Carver said...

For me, the shorter the synopsis, the more difficult it is to get the tone to match up. Thanks, Pam, for the encouragement to keep trying. :-)

Pam Hillman said...

Sandy, wonderful to hear!

Stephanie Queen Ludwig said...

Hi Pam! Thanks for the great advice. I am finishing the third draft of my first novel, and looking ahead to synopses and the like. Eek! I'll keep this post close.

P.S. Love the title- Shanghaied by the Bride.

P.P.S. Your shoe sizes are just like me and my husband's! Although, his would be DC skateboard sneakers, and mine would be flip flops right now!

Mary Connealy said...'s gonna pinch

I think that's a fair summation even if you DO know your story, but if you don't then it's hard shoving that foot inside the mysteriously sized shoe. :D

Debby Giusti said...

Pam, great blog!

I'm working on a NEW computer with a NEW keyboard. Please overlook any typos. Plus this is Windows 8.1, which I don't know, but hopefully will be able to learn. Any advice? LOL!

Tina mentioned that authors submit synopses as well. Just as for an unpubbed writer, the established author's synopsis must be clear and fully developed, otherwise the editor will ask questions and request more least my editor does. So I need to ensure all turning points, hooks, conflicts are in that synopsis to help my editor "see" the story I'm hoping to write.

What's my point? The synopsis is a part of the writing process whether we enjoy writing them or not. :)

Jan Drexler said...

After writing my last synopsis, I decided it would be much easier - although more time consuming - to write the book first, and then the synopsis.

Which defeats the purpose of selling on proposal, doesn't it?


I keep telling myself no one said this writing life would be easy. :)

I registered for St. Louis this weekend! Looking forward to seeing people there!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I remember reading synopses that seemed to have little to do with the opening chapters I got in contests.... and then chapters that were a crazy disappointment because the synopsis sounded so stinkin' good!!!!

I think my synopses got better when I stepped back and learned to look at them as technical writing and left the poetic verse in the dumpster.


That straightforward way of encapsulating a story line was a huge help.

Hey, I have pastries from Financier in Manhattan.... and I wanna share!!!!!

Oh my stars, delicious!

Pam Hillman said...

Meghan, I love short synopses...less to hang myself with, my dear! lol

If setting the tone is hard for you, then choose a few words or key phrases that will set the tone before you start and use those. Or just plain out SAY it.

In Shanghaied, I set the stage that it would be a bit humorous with 3 instances, the title, and two references to key plot points.

You can do it! :)

Pam Hillman said...

Stephanie, we got us some big guys, didn't we?

Mary, I've definitely been there NOT knowing the story before writing the synopsis. Now, with novellas, I've pretty much mapped out what's going to happen (goes back to that short synopsis that just hits the MAJOR high lights), so it's been fairly doable (I didn't say easy) to stick to the synopsis. :)

Pam Hillman said...

Debby, My Cowboy just got a new desktop that has Windows 8.1.

[Let us all pause for a moment of silence for the towers, keyboards, and monitors that are decomposing in my den as we speak...]

Anyway, Cowboy's new desktop was a breeze to set up. A hard drive/monitor ALL-IN-ONE unit, a keyboard and a mouse. Amazing! I plugged in his old external speakers and he was in business.

He had no problem navigating Windows 8.1. But all he does is surf the 'net, so that might be why. We installed Google Chrome immediately and then I typed in (bc he has to hunt and peck) and bookmarked about 10 of his favorite websites and he was off and running.

And out of my hair... ahem!

Pam Hillman said...

Exactly, Ruthy.

Julie Lessman said...

PAMMY SAID:"Jamie, don't you think those boots and the pink shoes are quite sexy?
I really expected Julie Lessman to swoon!"

LOL ... cannot believe you said that because I swear on a stack of Bibles that I WAS thinking that when I saw that pic of the boots and pink shoes. Am I realllly that easy to read??? ;)


Pam Hillman said...

ROFLOL, Julie. You're not the only one who liked the combo! :)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Did Julie really just ask if she was that easy to read????????


Anna Weaver Hurtt said...

Great post, Pam! Thank you for the tips!

Pam Hillman said...

Thanks Anna.

Hey, everybody, guess what I just watched... The African Queen! Too fun! :)

Natalie Monk said...

Awesome post, Cuz!

This makes me think twice about my synopsis, which probably seems very dark. My chapters are dark at times but definitely have a snarky lightheartedness interjected once in a while. Hmm. Thanks for a fun reminder!

And I love the shoe pic. ;) Is that pink alligator skin and tanned ostrich skin? Ha! CUTE! Looks like a story idea to me!

Natalie Monk said...

AND super-duper congrats on your four-book contract!!!! Woot! Woot!

jubileewriter said...

Pam, I found this post so helpful. After rewriting my novel several times and going through edits with editors I see my synopsis needs to be rewritten to better reflect the changes. I love the point you stressed of matching the two. Who enjoys reading the backcover of a book and finding the content not delivering. Or the movie description on Netflexs or a DVD not even being close to the content.
Great post.
Cindy Huff

Pam Hillman said...

Natalie, yes, The Cowboy's boots are definitely the real thing. Me? I stand (literally) on the 3Cs when purchasing shoes: Cute, Comfy, and Cheap!

Cindy provides us with a great analogy in mentioning the description of movies. When I read the bit about a movie, I want to know the overall storyline and a few descriptors that tell me the tone (action adventure, thriller, romantic comedy). Or even action adventure with a bit of romantic comedy. It's frustrating to start watching and it's not what you were in the mood for at all!