I’m an editor. I’m also a writer, pretty active in writerly spaces on social media. Recently, I’ve seen lots of talk in these spaces about synopses–what they are, how to write them, and why they are hated. But what I want to talk about is why I think they’re necessary, and why I like to request them when I ask for partials and fulls. There’s confusion over what a synopsis does or doesn’t need, and understanding its purpose can help clarify that.
As an acquisitions editor with Anaiah, part of my job is to evaluate a submitted manuscript with the following questions in mind:
1. Do I love it?
2. Can I fix it?
2a. Can I fix it without compromising the author’s original vision? (I’m not trying to turn it into a Cimone manuscript. I’m trying to make it the best it can be while still respecting the author’s vision.)
Here’s what I do when I get a submission. I read the query. The query is intriguing and leaves me in suspense, and that’s what a query is for. I think “Hey! I’ve got to know what happens next.” So I request a full manuscript and synopsis. Let’s say I get 30 pages in or so. I love the prose and characters, but I’m not sure where the plot is going. Maybe it’s moving too slowly. Maybe it has a structural issue. Maybe I’m just concerned that it will contain something that isn’t for me personally, even if it isn’t bad. For some reason, I have some doubts. Or maybe, it’s off to a shaky start, but I’m wondering if it gets better. Then, I look at the synopsis. This helps answer the above questions, and I’m left with one of the following situations.
A. I don’t love it. If I don’t love it, it doesn’t matter so much if I can fix it, because I shouldn’t be accepting it.
B. I love it, and I understand the author’s intent; but I can’t fix it while leaving that intent in tact. This could be because the issues are really big, on a fundamental plot level. For example, I see in the synopsis that the antagonist is not consistent in their actions, in a way that muddles the clarity of the author’s intent. Or, your protagonist is working toward good, but their actions take a turn at the end that doesn’t support that. I may know what the author is trying to do from those early pages, but I see a plot that doesn’t support that, and it’s not in a way that I can fix in the time necessary or with the effort necessary as an editor. Some manuscripts need more work than I’m able to do at that time. So, I’ll reject it, maybe with some suggestions.
C. I’m not clear on the author’s intent. One author recently tweeted that a good plot should support themes. If the themes aren’t shining through clearly, you can’t fix the plot until you know what the themes are. In my mind, this relates to character motivation. If I’ve read these 30 pages and I don’t know your character’s goals, and the synopsis shows that the plot isn’t really moving in a clear direction, I can’t fix it. I don’t know what I’m fixing: A story about someone who wants to find a home, or someone who wants to forget their home? And what is gained at the end? I just don’t know. There are some cases in which the characters are so charming and everything else is so great that I can help the author clarify themes and fix that plot, but in most cases, if I don’t know what’s intended, I can’t accept the manuscript.
D. I do love it, I do understand the author’s intent, and any issues present are within my ability to help. Yay! Now I can say yes, and we can work on it together (assuming I can acquire the manuscript, there are no specific things about it that don’t go with my imprint, etc.) Seeing the synopsis may even help me start to think of ideas for improvement.
So why do I want the synopsis? It’s not to hook me. The query already did that, and the manuscript itself should be keeping me hooked and making me want to keep reading. I need the synopsis because in order to understand the author’s intent, I need to know the plot. So I can read a 300-page manuscript and discover that, and I often will! But if the plot-level issues are so big that they’ll show me that B or C (or even A) is the case, the synopsis might tell me that. I’m using it for purely informative purposes. I’m using it to get a bird’s eye view of the plot. But I’m not looking for good prose in the synopsis. I’m looking to fall in love with the manuscript itself, and the synopsis is just info.
If you’re selling me a car, and you tell me the air conditioner isn’t working, that’s what I expect when I buy it. It doesn’t mean I won’t test drive the car. I just want to know what I’m getting into. I might say, “A broken air conditioner is a deal breaker for me,” I might say it depends on how it feels to test drive the car, or I might know exactly how to fix the air conditioner! That’s what a synopsis is for. Just true, clear, accurate info so that I know what to expect. Beginning, middle, and end, with specificity. If I’ve read the synopsis and don’t see huge issues, and I don’t have a certain answer to the above questions, I’m going to keep reading.
Lastly, I just don’t want anyone to read this and get scared that the synopsis is going to hurt them if it isn’t written exactly right. If I’m going to love your manuscript, I’m going to love it! Your synopsis won’t ruin that, especially due to your synopsis not being hook-y enough. Your manuscript is what it is. We just need to know what it is.
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