Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis

One of my favorite movies is Big Trouble in Little China. Aside from one great line after another ("Oh. My. God. What is that? Don't tell me!!") and delectably perfect over-the-top acting (Kurt Russell is incredible), there are constant and valuable references to various Hells. The Hell Of Being Cut To Pieces or the Hell of Boiling Oil. The notion of hundreds of Hells of varying specificities makes perfect sense to me. It seems the most apt way of describing life so much of the time.

At the moment, I'm in the Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis.

My agent asked for a synopsis for Chasing Smoke last week. 500-1,000 words she said. She also said, "I know they're so easy to write (ow! Ouch! Lightning!)" Yeah. Ouch.

So here's my question. Does anyone like writing synopses? Raise your hand.


That's so, er, hard to believe. Ahem.

My synopsis is currently sitting at 2,000 words, and I've only covered about a third of the novel. At this rate, it'll be six times longer than she wants, assuming I actually finish the damned thing ("the damned thing" being what I call it when I'm in a good mood, i.e. when I'm not actually working on it or thinking about it or remembering that it's still not done).

I was bemoaning the damned thing conundrum to my daughter, and she observed, "the author is probably the worst person to write the synopsis. You're too invested in the details of your story."

Exactly. If I wanted to write a short version of the story, I'd have written a short version of the story. In a synopsis, by necessity you have to leave a lot out, skim the surface, focus on the highlights. Assign varying degrees of importance to different aspects of the story. But here's the thing. If I didn't think it was important, I wouldn't have written it, and if I didn't feel like the best way to tell the story was to dramatize the events, I'd have written an essay. The lesson that gets beaten into writers over and over again is show, don't tell. The synopsis is the very essence of telling, not showing. It's anathema! Get thee down, Synopsis!

Of course, I know I can do it. I did it with Lost Dog. I wrote an elevator pitch, two sentences. And I wrote a short summary, about three paragraphs. And I wrote a full synopsis, about two-and-a-half pages long. So, sure, it's doable.

But it's hell, lemme tell ya.

The Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis.


Mark Terry said...

On the other hand, The Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis beats all hell (ahem) out of The Hell of the Fully Written Unpublished Manuscript Gathering Dust In Your Closet.

Nina Wright said...

I'm with MT on that one. At least the Hell of the Unrelenting Synopsis is not infinite....

But, Bill, I feel your pain!

Here's how I tackle the synopsis challenge: As I write and revise the novel, I keep a separate Tracking file. Then, when I'm ready to write the synop, I reopen Tracking and cut it deeply. Again and again. Finally, I polish.

It's still some version of Writer's Hell, but a manageable one.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Amen, Terry!

And, yes, Bill, I also hate to write the synopsis. It's housework and I hate housework.

Deb Baker said...

Your post came at the right time for me, because I sent a 900 word synopsis for a new project to my agent this very morning and I'd love to bitch and whine. My problem is that I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer, never knowing what's ahead until I get there, so plotting before I've written the story is almost impossible.

Felicia Donovan said...

I'd like to hear from some editors how they are able to judge a 75,000-word novel based on 1,000 words. I know, I know - so many submissions and so little time, but wouldn't the first three chapters give a much better sense of the author's style, the quality of writing and the potential of the project? When they ask for both, I'm more comfortable but as Deb so aptly pointed out, for us "seat of the pants" writers whose characters evolve along the way and twist the plot in new directions, it's awfully confining.

Bill Cameron said...

Nina, I wish I was as smart as you! Gah! Still, you and Mark are both correct, of course! And Sue Ann, I think that's the perfect analogy: housework! But then, I kinda like housework -- so long as there isn't too much of it. Kinda meditative, ya know?


Okay, maybe not.

Felicia, that is an interesting question. My sense is that it's not so much intended to get the sense of the novel but to paint a broad-stroke picture of the story with an emphasis on what makes it unique. Not "here is the book in miniature" but "here is why you should read this book." As a tool, I think it's valuable. But that doesn't make it any easier to write!

As it is, I've taken a break while I'm off to ThrillerFest, so I will get back to work upon my return!

Bill Cameron said...

Years later (it feels like) it turns out I am in the Hell of the Fully Written Unpublished Manuscript Gathering Dust in My Closet.