Monday, June 20, 2022

Writing the dreaded synopsis ...

I thought it might be useful to talk about how to write a synopsis. Or how I think they should be written anyway. I've read quite a few in my time and they have demonstrated that many people don't really know how they are meant to work. 

Having a synopsis for your book is very handy. It is a tool you can use for a variety of purposes. A good synopsis written before you get started can help you complete the writing of your manuscript. And a synopsis is not set in stone. It is not the bible on which you have sworn the lives of your children. If your story changes you can adjust it accordingly. And once the manuscript is done you can use the synopsis to help pitch/talk about your story, find a publisher and promote your story. If nothing else it is a handy dandy summary of your story that demonstrates to yourself and others that you have an appropriate structure, that there is a coherent plot, underlying themes, that your key characters have realistic motivations and challenges, and that you have a satisfying ending. Writing a synopsis can show you where there might be gaps or problems with your plot so you can go back and fix them before you submit your manuscript to a publisher. 

A synopsis needs to summarise your story. Ideally it also conveys something of the voice and tone of your work. 

Follow the direction of the story in the order in which you have written it and summarise it as neatly as you can. Each chapter might become one to three sentences? A synopsis should also help the editor/publisher/judge answer a series of questions. What kind of story is it? (Horror, lit fic, crime, romance, magic realism, sci fi etc...) Who is/are your main character(s) and where is the story set? What is the problem to be solved, the goal to be achieved by the main character(s) or the great question at the heart of the story? And what is at stake if they don't solve or achieve or answer it? What steps do(es) the main character(s) take to solve or achieve their problem/goal and what stands in their way. What do they obtain and/or learn along the way and which key folk assist them? How is the problem solved or the goal achieved or the question answered? To what do our hero(es) return? Does your synopsis do this?

You should include the ending of your story. It might feel like a spoiler but an editor/publisher wants to see at first glance that your story is a cohesive whole with a satisfying denouement. You might want to save the 'ending' for when they read the manuscript but they may not read the manuscript if they think the novel is without a good ending. Reading a full manuscript is a big investment of time.  When I see a synopsis with the ending/conclusion/solution left off I wonder if the author is hedging their bets, or hasn't been sure which way to go or has been unable to end their story. If it's just that they don't know how to write a synopsis, a publisher won't know this. And they might assume the former is true.
You don't want background or why you wrote your story in your synopsis. The synopsis is a summary of your story, in the style in which you have written it. Nothing more and nothing less. You need enough detail so the summary makes sense, but not so much that it ends up looking more like your manuscript than a brief run down of events. Some publishing houses want your summary to be 300 words or less. Others are happy with two pages (or sometimes more). If they want a synopsis included with your submission they will tell you what form it needs to take. Summarise your story and include the flavour of your telling of it. That is all. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

A little something for you ...

I am busy with other things - working on some poetry for submission, preparing content for some talks and workshops I'm doing soon, and I'm on a selection panel reading over 84 submissions, so in the meantime here is something I prepared earlier for your reading enjoyment - a short story, Rich Pickings, from my collection Time Machine and Other Stories (Ahoy! [Cuba Press], 2019). And there are teaching notes on this story (page 11) here.

Rich Pickings 

You might think it strange, how no one noticed. Although a few centimetres a day isn’t that obvious, at least to begin with. I mean, bamboo grows heaps faster – over 30 centimetres a day in the right conditions. But this wasn’t bamboo.

It was Jess that first spotted what was happening.

“Has someone been watering the cactus in the hallway?” she asked as she wandered into the kitchen one Monday morning.

“Oh my goodness,” Mum said. “I forgot to water the plants. Again.” She turned to her husband. “You’re meant to remind me.”

“And who’s meant to remind me to remind you?” Dad replied with a smile.

“Well somebody must have done something, cos it’s grown a fair bit,” Jess said pulling the fridge door open. “Who ate the last yoghurt?” she grumbled.

Izzy said nothing, shrinking a little further down in the lounge chair just beyond where the kitchen opened out into the sitting room, carefully placing the teaspoon into the empty pottle in her lap. She sniffed as quietly as she could, before silently picking her nose.

“I’ll have to water everything tonight, when I get home,” Mum said. “Don’t let me forget.”

“Sure thing,” Dad said, before tipping his head back to drain the last of his coffee.

“Well the cactus doesn’t need it,” Jess said closing the fridge door with a thunk.

And then they forgot about it.


Mum remembered the watering on Wednesday, making her way round the aspidistra, the African violets, the mother-in-law’s tongues, and the peace lily, with a soda bottle filled with water. She finally reached the hallway after a quick refill in the bathroom.

“Is that normal?” she asked.

Dad emerged from behind his computer in the study, his eyebrows rising at the sight of the cactus. “When did you buy that?” he asked.

“I didn’t,” Mum said.

“It’s Izzy’s, isn’t it? Jess said wandering along from her bedroom to see what was going on. “The one she bought a year ago at the school fair?”

“But that was just a little nub. Thumb sized. Without arms,” Mum said. “I thought it was dead.”

It looked like a little person now. If that person was green and covered in little white prickles, and was the height of a ruler.

“Maybe cacti have growth spurts,” Dad said. “Maybe we have the perfect cacti raising environment.”  

“Well it doesn’t look like it needs any watering,” Mum said tipping some of the soda bottles contents into the pot plants on either side of the cactus, bookends of sweet but straggly little pansies.

“Maybe we should buy more, if they grow like that without water. That’s so low maintenance. And I wouldn’t have to remember to remind you to water the plants.” Dad grinned at his own cleverness and slid back behind his computer.

And then they forgot about it.

Later that evening Izzy ambled along the hall from her bedroom at the front of the house, to the kitchen at the back. She was thirsty, unlike the cactus. And as she passed the pot plants on the book shelf she dropped a little rolled up greenish ball held between her first finger and thumb onto the soil the cactus sat in.


On Sunday, Dad stood in the hallway scratching his head.

“Not as low maintenance as I thought,” he said to his wife who stood beside him also gazing at the cactus now two rulers tall and as fat as a doughnut, the glazed pot it sat in cracked from top to bottom, a scattering of soil like a reflection of the crack, on the top surface of the book case.

“Hmmm,” Mum said, a frown digging down her forehead. “Should we be worried?”

“It’s just a plant,” Dad said uncertainly. “A cactus. It can’t keep growing forever without water. Can it?”

“I’ll repot it,” Mum said.

“Use a bucket,” Jess suggested. “And best put it on the floor. Just to be safe.”

Izzy sniffed loudly.

“Get a tissue, why don’t you sweetheart,” Mum said.

“Bad for the environment,” Izzy said. “Anyway, don’t worry. I don’t really need one. And she looked at her fair-bought cactus with a sly smile.

But the others forgot about it.


On Monday evening Mum hung her jacket on the coat rack as she swung in the front door, and hummed her way down the hall.

“Hi my honeys, I’m home,” she called.

In the kitchen dad chopped onions, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. Jess grated cheese at the table and Izzy sat hunched over her homework on the other side.

“I love that new coat rack,” Mum said to Dad. “Did you get that today?”

“We don’t have a coat rack,” Dad said looking up from his chopping, tears streaming down his face.

“That’s the cactus,” said Jess. “It’s grown again.”

Mum’s face dropped, turning pale with a hint of green. Then the colour flooded back and she pressed her lips together firmly.

“Well,” she said. “As I don’t know who’s going to hit the roof first, me or the cactus, I think it’s time that plant moved out.”

“Lucky Jess suggested putting it in the bucket. It’ll take all of us to move it now though,” Dad said, glad for an excuse to move away from the chopped onions.  

And it did.

Strangely the cactus stopped growing outside.

“Maybe it’s too cold?” Dad wondered.

“Or too wet,” Jess offered.

Izzy just smiled to herself.


“Hey,” Jess said one Monday morning as she ventured into the kitchen, “Have you seen those pansies on the book case? It’s happening again. This time they’re climbing the walls.”


The End

Melinda Szymanik