Editing your novel is one of the absolute most important things you will do as a writer.
Nearly anyone can write a first draft. Very few possess the clarity, discipline, and intestinal fortitude to make the decisions necessary to turn a mediocre first stab into an incredible novel.
Here’s how to do it.
Edit as you go
As you’re writing a novel, there is always the temptation to just power through and get something, anything, on the page and race toward finishing that first draft. Still, I believe it’s beneficial to engage in some self-editing along the way.
There is one very simple and important reason why you should self-edit as you go: problems can snowball.
A weak spot that you brush over in the first few chapters can worm its way through the novel in such a way that it can become very, very difficult to fix later on. When something happens near the beginning of your novel that just doesn’t work, it can be extremely tricky to change it and still make the rest of the novel make sense. You’ve built a house on a shaky foundation, and changing this may require you to tear things down to the studs.
It’s crucial to stop every now and then, re-read what you’ve written so far, try to imagine yourself as a reader, and ask yourself very honestly: “Is this working?”
Chances are, even when you’re in the throes of that initial burst of confidence, you’ll know when something isn’t working. There will be a quiet, tiny, nagging voice that you won’t be able to shut off as long as you’re listening to it. This voice usually manifests itself as a sneaking suspicion that you have somehow gone astray, even if you can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it happened.
If you practice self-editing as you go, you will save yourself time when you’re finished. Still, this is only a partial time-saver, because everyone, and I mean everyone, has work to do when they’re done writing. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft.
How to edit when you finish your first draft
Here’s how to start revising your novel after you’ve finished your first draft: read your book.
It sounds simple. It is not. Because as you’re re-reading your book, you have to shake the tendency to read uncritically.
Provided you have let some time pass before you revisit your book (which, by the way, you should), once you return to it, you may be struck by your own ingenuity as you re-encounter parts you forgot you wrote. You will be lulled into speed-reading a narrative that you have memorized by heart. You may crack yourself up with your own hilariousness and wonder how it is that everyone in the world is so lucky as to live at this time in which you are the bard of your era.
All of this is great, but it’s not going to help you to be a good reviser.
In order to shake yourself out of auto-read mode, you have to slow down. You have to think. You have to take in your novel as if you have not actually read it a thousand times before and know exactly what is going to happen, because, you know, you really have read it a thousand times before and know exactly what is going to happen. You have to be very, very self-critical.
One helpful trick for shaking yourself out of auto-read mode is to put yourself in the shoes of someone else reading your novel. Pick someone you know extremely well, and whose response you can imagine in any given situation, such as your mom or your significant other or your kid sister, and try to read the novel through his or her eyes. What would they think of the part where the charming rogue fights the peacock? Would they be fooled when the villain reveals himself to be a malevolent mold spore?
This mental distancing will help you spot problems and see your novel as someone else would see it. The extra mental gymnastics necessary for reading this way will slow you down, and you’ll trick yourself into reading critically.
Once you’ve re-read your novel a few times (yes, read it through more than once) and you’ve taken note of everything that needs fixing, you’re ready to begin your novel’s surgery. But be very, very systematic about how you go about it.
Confronting a revision can be extremely daunting because of the Cascade Effect: when you change one plot point, it often necessitates two more changes to ensure that the plot still makes sense after the change, which prompts still more changes, and more, and more. Ten or more changes can cascade from a single change, even a minor one, particularly when the change is near the beginning and it requires you to eliminate a character or make events unfold in an entirely new way.
In order to avoid Cascade Effect Terror, I find that it’s helpful to work on only one plot change at a time, starting with the most massive changes and working down to the smallest.
Here’s why you should start with the big changes before you tackle the small ones: it’s a waste of time to make small changes that will only be swallowed up over the course of a much larger revision. It’s not helpful to fine tune the dialogue in a chapter you’re going to cut entirely because the whole plotline no longer makes sense.
If you approach changes by starting with the most important and far-reaching and moving to the smallest and least important, you’ll be as efficient in your revisions as possible. Don’t get distracted by the smaller things that bother you about the book as you’re making the big changes. Just make that big change, and then all the other changes that become necessary once you’ve eliminated a character or altered a major plot point.
Then, once everything makes sense, move on to the next most important change, then the one after that, etc.
When you’re done fixing the main plot points, you can move on to the chapters, refining how these unfold, and then move on to the line edits and minor tweaks.
Get as far as you possibly can on your own before you engage someone else to edit your work.
Do not, and I mean do not, query a literary agent before someone has given you good, objective feedback on your work.
There will come a point in the self-editing process where you’ve gone as far as you possibly can on your own. The chances are that by this point you’ll be cross-eyed and hate everything to do with your novel, including the air that surrounds it and the space in between the words on the page. Now it’s time to seek feedback from the outside world.
This could mean a significant other (be careful, though!), a critique partner, a friend, a mortal enemy . . . or you could pay a freelance editor for a professional edit (I can help you with that).
The advice that comes back to you should be positive, useful, strike you with the occasional “Why didn’t I see that?!” moment, and, perhaps most importantly, be consistent with your vision for the project. In other words, the critiquer shouldn’t simply be telling you how they would have written it.
Once you have received this advice . . . steel yourself and approach the edits with a calm and open mind.
Triage the changes you need to make and follow the same systematic approach from above. If, after tackling all the changes (both major and minor), you’ve revised your book as far as you can on your own, and you can’t think of anything else you need to change . . .
How to know when you’re finished writing your novel
It is possible to tinker with a book endlessly as a way to avoid facing the uncertainty and potential pain that inevitably stems from showing your work to strangers who might think you stink. You can fiddle with individual words, rewrite scenes until the horse has been beaten to death in various forms of the afterlife that humankind never knew existed, and you can come up with seventy-two alternate endings just to make sure the one you arrived at really is the best.
But at some point a novel has to be done.
There is only one way to know if a novel is done enough to move on to the next step, and that is by deciding that it’s done after some honest self-reflection.
When deciding whether I’m actually done or not, I take a mental step back from the book. I take a deep breath. I take a bit of a break. I re-read the novel for the millionth time and make sure that, as I do so, I’m only fixing typos and making minor changes here and there, if I’m changing anything at all.
Then I ask myself these two questions:
Am I satisfied with how everything fits together and does everything really and truly make sense?
Can I think of anything else I can possibly do to make the book better?
The answers should be “yes” and “no,” if you’re keeping score.
At some point, you’ll run out of ideas. At some point, you’ll re-read the novel and stop making changes. At some point, you’ll just know you’re done, and it won’t be the revision fatigue talking, you will just really, truly, and actually be done. Or you’ll realize the changes that you’re making are kind of pointless and aren’t going to make the difference between the success and failure of your book.
Yes yes, time for the 10th Annual Blog Bracket challenge!! And I know some of you have entered every single one. (Including me, though I still haven’t won it.)
Are you the best literary bracket picker of them all?
As always, the winner of the Blog Bracket challenge will win a query critique or other agreed-upon prize.
Here’s how to enter:
1. Go to the front page of the ESPN tournament challenge: http://games.espn.go.com/tcmen/frontpage
2. Make your picks.
3. If you have an ESPN username and password from last year you can log in when you submit your picks, and you can also just click to rejoin the Bransford Blog Challenge. Otherwise you may need to create a new user ID and password. But don’t worry, it’s not onerous and you can decline to receive updates in case you’re spam conscious.
4. Hover over the link that says “My Groups” and then click “Create or Join a Group”
5. Search for “Bransford Blog Challenge.” Enter the password, which is “rhetorical” and then click Join Group.
Then you’re all set! You can make changes to your bracket by clicking on it until it locks on Thursday (and yes, there are play-in games before then, but the bracket still doesn’t lock until Thursday).
Nathan here! Back in my agenting days I had the pleasure of working with Tracy Marchini, who has since gone on to become an agent with BookEnds Literary and a published picture book author. I invited her to talk about what makes picture books stand out. Take it away, Tracy!
Whether I’m writing my own picture books, editing them for a client, or going through my query box, there are a few things that are (nearly) universal when it comes to picture books.
But first I want to start with a definition of the picture book. Because a “children’s book” could mean any number of things – but most of the time when people are just starting to write for children and use the term, they really mean picture book.
Picture book definition
In today’s market, a picture book is a thirty two (or occasionally twenty-four or forty) page, (usually) fully illustrated work with an audience from birth up to potentially twelve – but usually closer to seven or eight. A younger picture book is designed to be read to the child, and an older picture book is designed to be read by the child.
Today’s picture books are generally between 300 – 500 words (though can range anywhere from 100 to 800 for fiction and up to 1,200 for non-fiction.)
In theory, a child might go from board book, to picture book, to early reader or chapter book, to middle grade novel. (But of course, they’re probably reading or being read a variety of formats at any given time as their reading journey progresses.)
Picture book plots
Unlike a children’s storybook, which is a collection of short stories for children, a picture book focuses on one inciting incident or problem and has a distinct narrative arc.
A picture book’s arc leaves one or two pages for set up, one or two pages for resolution, and in between we generally see rising action driven by our protagonist.
So in my picture book, Chicken Wants A Nap, our set up is right there in the title – which in this case is also the first line. “Chicken wants a nap.” For this particular story, that’s all that’s needed to get Chicken on her way.
In the subsequent pages, Chicken tries to find the perfect spot for her nap, and the barnyard consistently acts as her foil. With every attempt, she learns something and moves to the next. Turning the page both moves the action forward and facilitates the humor as Chicken thinks she’s solved her problem, only to be foiled again when the page is turned. (I feel like you could write a series of blog posts on page turns alone.)
The resolution though, is just as compact as the set up. Chicken has found her perfect situation. And the line is “And Chicken naps.”
But – because we always want to leave the reader with a twist at the end – there’s one last line for one last page turn. A beat for additional humor and surprise. (Which I’m not going to ruin for you, as I hope you’ll read the book yourself!)
But ultimately, Chicken had a problem, and she solved it on her own.
Protagonists in picture books
This is important because picture books are meant to show a child that they have their own power, or agency. The protagonist is a stand in for our child reader (be the protagonist an actual child or – say – a chicken) and that’s why it’s so important in your picture books to make sure that the protagonist solves their own problem instead of having another character do it for them.
And while not all picture books follow this pattern, a good structure to internalize while you’re writing your first picture books is the “try three times and fail” method. Your character is introduced with a problem, they try three times to get what they want using a logical progression, and on the fourth try they’ve put together all they’ve learned and solved the problem themselves.
Today’s picture books generally don’t just have an external/physical problem. They commonly have an internal/emotional problem too that works hand in hand with the physical problem. So the character feels a certain way, and that’s why they go off on this physical journey. For instance, if they’re lonely, they might decide to host a giant party in order to make friends. If they’re feeling overshadowed by a new sibling, they might do a series of things to try and get their parents’ attention. But in a picture book, they solve the underlying emotional problem through the physical action. (Or sometimes vice versa.)
Picture book illustrations
Finally, illustrations in picture books do the heavy lifting when it comes to description and setting. They can add humor when the text and the illustration juxtapose each other. They can add mood by the use of bright and warm or muted and cool colors. Illustrations add movement – as long as there’s enough movement in the text itself. They can be drawn to draw a reader’s eye to one part of the page – and even to make the reader pause before turning to the next.
As a querying picture book writer, you don’t need (or want) to attach an illustrator to your project. The publisher will do that when they buy the book. But you do want to leave room for that future illustrator to work. And that means thinking about all the things above – rising action, page turns, potential for movement in the illustrations – as you write!
Tracy Marchini is a Literary Agent at BookEnds Literary, where she represents both debut and award-winning authors and illustrators of fiction and non-fiction for children and teens. To get a sense of what she’s looking for, you can follow her Twitter #MSWL, see her announced client books, and read her submission guidelines.
As an author, her debut picture book, Chicken Wants a Nap, was called “A surprising gem” in a starred review from Kirkus. She’s been accepted for publication in Highlights Magazine and has won grants from the Highlights Foundation, the Puffin Foundation and La Muse Writer’s Retreat in Southern France. She holds an M.F.A in Writing for Children and a B.A. in English, concentration in Rhetoric.
Do one of those things? I’ll donate $2.00, up to a max of $2,000.
While you’re at it…
5) Make your own per-comment or tweet pledge and I’ll link to you/tweet you! (Be sure and use #NBHeifer so I can find you)
5) Click over to other participating blogs in the comments section leave comments there too
Heifer International is an organization that fights hunger by giving families around the world livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.
If you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you’ll consider making a donation. Over the past years we have raised nearly $15,000 together, which is really awesome. Here’s that link again to donate directly.
I’m incredibly, incredibly psyched to bring you this interview with Angie Thomas, the author of the (pick your adjective) incredible, game-changing, #1 massively bestselling, movie-in-the-works young adult novel The Hate U Give. If I tried to list all the accolades T.H.U.G. has received you might faint from the task of reading them all.
Nathan: First things first. The Hate U Give was the subject of a 13-house auction and all kinds of hype, but as the author, I’m guessing nothing felt like a sure thing prior to publication. What was it like waking up on publication day and what was the feeling when you saw it hit the bestseller lists for the first time?
Angie: Publication day was a huge blur for me. There were tons of Tweets – my notifications went haywire—full of love and support. It felt surreal though that people were talking about my book – it almost felt like they were talking about someone else. I had to pinch myself several times. When the book hit #1 on the NYT, I was absolutely floored. It was a dream come true, and I had a “Wow, is this happening?” moment. It once seemed impossible that I’d ever get published, and at that moment all of the rejections felt suddenly worth it.
Despite its reputation for being liberal, there’s long been some pernicious attitudes within the publishing industry, including an attitude in some circles that books featuring characters of color “don’t sell.” For many talented authors in the past, this ended up becoming a maddening self-fulfilling prophecy, as some great books got pigeonholed and didn’t receive a publisher’s marketing muscle, if they even made it to publication at all. Do you think this is finally starting to change with the success of T.H.U.G.? And what still needs to change?
I hope it’s starting to change. For a long time there was this myth in publishing that black kids don’t read, and THUG along with other great books has proven that to be a lie. Black kids will read if you give them something they connect with, and other kids will even read about them. We need to see more books featuring marginalized characters by marginalized authors.
We also need diversity amongst the gatekeepers. This will sound like an odd example, but I look at Formation by Beyoncé. That song is not meant for everyone but everyone can enjoy it. But imagine if Formation was a book and the gatekeepers weren’t the intended audience and kept this work from reaching its audience simply because they didn’t “get” it. It would be a tragedy, right?
That’s how we have to look at publishing. Not every book is written for everyone, but if we have diverse gatekeepers who can “get” those stories, it will ensure that they reach their intended audiences. We need diverse books, we need a diverse industry.
One thing that stood out to me in one of your interviews was that you first started writing your first story as a young person not long after you witnessed a gang shootout. This really resonated with me, as I first started writing in high school after one of my classmates was murdered. What is it about writing as a response to trauma that’s so powerful?
Writing in response to trauma is cathartic for one. It allows the writer to release those emotions. When those emotions are fueled into our writing, our readers have no choice but to share them to some extent as well. That, to me, is how empathy is born. Empathy is more powerful than sympathy, and if we put ourselves into those traumatic situations through books, maybe we’ll walk away changed and maybe we’ll walk away with an urge to change things.
How are you staying productive, given the news these days? (Or are you?)
I’m currently working on my second book while still traveling to promote/discuss THUG, so I’ve been very busy haha. I try not to let the news affect me. Of course, it’s overwhelming at times and there are moments where I have to step away from it all, but I let my anger and frustration pour into my writing. I understand that it doesn’t work like this for everyone, so I encourage writers to do whatever is best for their self care. If that’s writing, great. If it’s not, that’s great too. Do you.
I want to switch gears a bit and talk about craft. You sometimes hear advice out there that authors shouldn’t try to use modern slang or cultural references and instead should go for more of a “classic” sound. First off, I’m so glad you didn’t listen to them, but how did you go about making sure your slang and references sounded correct to a high school ear? How did you find Starr’s voice?
When I wrote THUG, I didn’t go into it thinking that I wanted to write a classic. Honestly, I’m not a fan of the classics, and that’s because when they were forced own my throat, I was a teen and I could not connect with them whatsoever. I wanted to write a book that connected with those kids who were like me. I wanted it to sound like them now so that they can connect with it now. In a lot of ways, I haven’t grown up (heh) so the slang, musical references, etc are all things that I use myself. But I also listened to the teens in my life a lot and observed how they interact with each other and the world. Trust me, teens can easily tell when you’re trying too hard, and I wanted THUG to feel natural for them.
You have some of the most expertly constructed chapters I’ve read — everything builds so carefully and seemingly effortlessly over the course of the chapter, whether it’s tension or conflict or joy or sorrow. Your scenes then end on an up or down note, which builds still greater tension and deepens over the course of the novel. How conscious were you of your scene construction? Was this all instinct or did you have a framework you used?
It must’ve been instinct because as I read your question, I’m like, “Wow, I did that?” Haha! I’m a huge movie buff and I study cinema a lot, so I look at my chapters as being scenes in a movie. No scene in a film is wasted. Each one takes us on an emotional journey or get us to a specific point in the plot, and that’s something I want to do with my books. I try to look at them as really long movies.
What advice would you give an author who is struggling or just starting out?
Don’t overwhelm yourself with “writer’s advice.” There are lots of tips out there, lots of so-called “guidelines” but at the end of the day, do what works for you.
Write for yourself. Don’t write for trends, awards, accolades, film adaptations, any of that. Write the book that you’d like to see on a bookstore shelf that you haven’t seen yet.
Anything else you’d like to say? The floor is yours!
Always remember – no matter how many rejections you get, it only takes ONE yes.
Thanks again to Angie for this interview and what are you waiting for, go buy The Hate U Give for yourself and everyone else you know!
Nathan here! Rebecca S. Ramsey is a former client of mine who is the author of several great memoirs, including French By Heart and her latest, The Holy Éclair. She has an incredible gift at turning real life into compelling and funny memoirs. Here’s a guest post on just that!
Within days after moving our young family to France, I knew that I had to write about it. During one of my early conversations with my new neighbor, Madame Mallet, the old lady looked at Baby Sam on my hip and said, “I prefer cats to children, though I do have a great nephew who isn’t too annoying.” When I smiled and nodded, (and wondered if I had translated her correctly) she added, “I call him Le Spermatazöide because he “was conceived by artificial insemination.” Just to be sure I understood, she added a series of strange charades.
Crazy stories were one thing, but a memoir was another. Could I tackle a project that big? Still, I kept writing, collecting stories that meant something to me. Four years later, as we packed our life into a shipping container and got back on the plane to South Carolina, I began to see the story arc underneath. After much wrestling and struggle, this larger story became French By Heart.
Now, years later, I’ve returned once again to the house on the corner of allée des Cerisiers to tell a story that I didn’t share in French by Heart, a more personal story whose characters have been whispering and shouting and stomping their feet inside my head for ten years. Even though this sounds like mental illness, I finally decided to give in and let them speak. In The Holy Éclair, Signs and Wonders from an Accidental Pilgrimage, I reveal how the town prostitute, a French chef, a homeless Brit, Vincent van Gogh himself, and a band of other ragtag saints turned my faith upside down during that first year in France, revealing the wildness of God’s love and teaching me the true meaning of grace.
So here I am writing memoir again. Does memoir appeal to you? Does your life hold a story that nags you for attention? Are there voices inside your head too, begging you to tell the stories you have in common?
If so, I have a few thoughts that might be helpful.
Determine the story arc and stick to it.
Write your stories, all the ones that mean so much to you, and then give them a serious look. What is your journey, the big change you experienced that you want to share with the world? What were the little struggles and big struggles that got you from the beginning to the end?
I didn’t realize it then, but I’m pretty sure now that I started The Holy Éclair on my speaking tour for French By Heart. When I shared with readers that living in France had changed my life, that I came home a happier person, more at peace with myself and more open to others, they wanted to know how it happened. I found myself telling stories that I hadn’t shared in French by Heart, stories that I had thought were too personal to share, ones that had to do with the way in which the strangers I’d met made me question how I thought about myself and about God. The writing itself revealed to me my own transformation. I’m so grateful for it!
So, back to thoughts on memoir…
Once I figured out my story arc (which I should say took years, all in the back of my head) and started editing, I made myself do the hard job of throwing out the stories that didn’t advance the arc. This sounds reasonable, but it’s tough when you love them. Do it! The voices will thank you later.
Be brave enough to be brutally honest and vulnerable.
I’m trying to not be bothered by how much people seem to love the scene in the first chapter of The Holy Éclair when I say to the pharmacist that her teething pills for my baby look too big to swallow and how do you get a baby to take pills anyway, and she proceeds to explain SLOWLY in toddler-style French in front of a long line of French people what suppositories are and how you insert them.
Get over yourself and tell the embarrassing truth. It will help your readers to buy into the story and cheer you on as you tell it.
If you’re concerned that you might come across as a jerk- or a church lady, Dana Carvey style- tell the truth anyway. Readers need to see Jerk You so that they can watch you change.
Respect the privacy of others. But work hard to tell your story.
I always change names of everyone except my family members. With my kids, writing about them sure was simpler when they were little. When they got older and had opinions about what I wrote, I’d hand them passages to read and ask for their permission to let me share. Not too long ago, when I was blogging about taking Baby Sam off to Chicago for college, I had to sweat through some serious negotiations. In the end, we compromised. The story was still achingly true, and he and I felt good about it.
Time helps too. What kids object to now may change in a few months. Try asking again later, further down the road. (And maybe try bribery, if the story is really good?) But respect your child. One day she might write a book.
Give your story the time it needs
Speaking of time, I’m always ready to get the writing done and wrap things up so that I can move on to the next project. But giving your story the time it needs can be so important in getting it right. (Says the woman who took ten years to finally finish The Holy Éclair!) If you’re struggling, put it away and come back to it. See it with fresh eyes. Sometimes time can help you transform the story into something really meaningful. And sometimes writing that story can make a meaningful transformation in you!
Writers tend to be a worrying sort. We spend a lot of time in our heads, we have active imaginations, and that combo can lead to some pretty incredible worries.
One of the most important keys to succeeding as a writer is worrying about the right things. Sweat the things that actually matter and you’ll save yourself from spinning in an unproductive way.
Here are some things you should worry about and things you shouldn’t worry about:
Don’t: Worry about your idea being “stolen”
Ideas are a dime a dozen. Even your most brilliant, game-changing ideas have probably already been dreamed up by someone before you. The idea that someone is going to swoop in and beat you to the punch isn’t something that’s worth worrying about.
There are plenty of cases of books and movies with very similar ideas coming out around the same time. There are tons of great ideas in the ether. Your book is not going to live or die based on one idea.
Do: Worry about how you execute that idea
As I point out in my guide to writing a novel, there were wizard schools before Harry Potter, there were mystical lands before The Lord of the Rings, and there were helicopters with dorky names before Fifty Shades of Grey.
What set those novels apart was the execution of those ideas. Don’t worry about coming up with a completely original idea. Do worry about how you set your novel apart.
Don’t: Worry so much about that element of your writing you’re already worried about
Every writer has at least one or two fears that influence how they write.
For instance: I’m always worried I’m boring the reader. I don’t want any stretches that are going to put someone to sleep and make them put down the book.
Unfortunately, because I’m so worried about boring the reader, I end up over-correcting the other way and I don’t add in enough description and emotional reactions. I actually have to guard against my fear and force myself to write things that feel like tedium to me, but feel totally normal to a reader.
Almost by definition, because you’re so worried about something in your writing you’re not going to do that thing.
I’ve seen so many different ways this phenomenon manifests itself when I’m working with authors on their books. Some people worry they aren’t providing enough context and end up over-explaining, some people don’t like novels that jump around so they end up being overly linear, some people are worried their book is going to read like everyone else’s so they write overly purple prose.
Once you know how this manifests itself for you, you’re probably going to have to go back and pull yourself the other way to end up in the sweet spot.
Do: Worry about your writing blind spots
The biggest problems in your writing are inevitably things that are difficult for you to spot. And it makes sense: if you could have spotted them yourself you would have corrected them already.
These are your blind spots, and it’s why you should have your work edited before you self-publish or try to find a literary agent. You need other people to help you see things you would have had trouble spotting yourself.
Don’t: Worry about what happens with any one agent
Sometimes writers follow agents on social media or find out who represents their favorite books and start getting their heart set on that one agent as the be all end all of agents.
Don’t do this. The right agent is the one who gets you and gets your book and wants to be your advocate. And you’ll never be able to predict who this person is going to be when you start the process.
Cast a wide net and keep an open mind. Even if you colossally mess up a submission with one agent, it’s not the end of the world.
Do: Worry about whether an agent is good and reputable
A bad agent is worse than no agent.
The tricky thing is that it’s hard to spot bad agents from the outside. They may well look by all accounts to be well-intentioned and reputable, and even worse, they may not even know they’re a bad agent.
Of all the things you will write throughout the publishing process… a synopsis may be what you dread the most.
It’s not fun to have to shoehorn an entire novel into a relatively brief summary. But if you follow just a few relatively simple steps and keep a few key things in mind, it may still be a pain, but it won’t be endlessly hard.
Writing a synopsis… Not as terrible as you might think!
What is a novel synopsis?
A synopsis is slightly different from a query letter, which includes biographical information, and it’s also different than jacket copy, which is more oriented to selling a book and avoids spoilers.
A synopsis is essentially a summary of what actually happens in a novel. That’s it. It’s a summary of the plot that typically includes the ending.
Yep. Don’t worry about spoilers.
Unlike the way manuscripts are formatted, synopses are typically single-spaced and are typically two-four pages long. Why? I have no idea. That’s just how it’s usually done.
Agents and editors will use synopses to get a sense of the overall plot of the novel (and also as a handy refresher when memories start to fade through time on certain character names and plot points). You may, for instance, have to write synopses of future installments of a multi-book deal to give an editor a sense of where you want to take a series.
Not every agent or editor will ask you for a synopsis, but chances are you’re going to have to write one at some point.
Why you have to write a synopsis
Let’s get this one out of the way. Authors sometimes feel like they shouldn’t have to be bothered summarizing their work.
“It’s a different skill!” they yelp to me. “I’m a good writer but I’m a bad summarizer!”
Just said aside the whole “writing a synopsis” thing for a second and think about how many times you’re going to have to summarize your work over the course of the book publishing process.
When you friends ask you about your book, you have to summarize your book.
When you talk with people in the book business, you have to summarize your book.
When you stand up at a reading, you have to summarize your book.
When you become massively famous and are on a talk show and there are television cameras on you, you have to summarize your book.
Get used to summarizing your book. Better yet: get good at it. Take ownership over this part of the process. Make other people want to read your book.
How to write a good synopsis
How do you do that?
Start by writing your query letter. I have a query letter template that is a good place to start, and those same key ingredients (setting, complicating incident, villain, protagonist’s quest) should be present in the synopsis.
Think of a synopsis as a longer query letter that always includes how the book ends. You have more room to include more detail and you go more in depth into some of the specifics of the plot and key subplots, but the synopsis should still cover the arc of the book in a relatively succinct way.
As in a query letter, ditch all discussion of themes and what the novel means and focus on what happens.
Here are some key elements that set snappy synopses apart from dreary ones:
Summarize through specificity
Just as in a query, the more detail you can infuse into the synopsis, the more it will come to life. “Nathan was over-caffeinated” and “Nathan was so amped he scraped the silver off the Red Bull” may describe the same moment, but one has a lot more life to it than the other. (And uh. No. That didn’t happen why do you ask.)
Some summarizing will be necessary, but those little moments where you show what makes your character and world unique will make the synopsis sparkle.
Also focus on using clear descriptions to make sure the stakes are clear. What happens if the protagonist succeeds? What if they fail? Infuse the synopsis with that knowledge so the reader knows why they should care.
Use a cohesive voice
If you have a novel that, for instance, alternates between several different characters or has a unique structure, it may be difficult to figure out how to describe the plot in a clear way. You don’t want to write a synopsis that constantly alternates between different plot-lines and characters or else you’re going to bewilder the reader.
Instead, don’t be beholden to the precise sequence in which events unfold in your novel or to an alternating-character structure, and try as much as possible to “get above it” and focus on describing the essential events in a way that’s clear to the reader.
That could mean sticking to one character per paragraph, it could mean describing the plot from a gods-eye perspective, and it almost always means describing your novel in the third person even if your novel is written in first person.
Whatever you do, optimize for clarity and cohesion in describing the plot over being a stickler for how things unfold in the novel.
Don’t worry about spoilers
Agents and editors know they’re going to read your book so many times over the course of the publication process that no one is very worried about spoilers.
In fact, agents and editors read so many books and are so well-acquainted with the sausage-making of writing that..
They probably aren’t going to be surprised by even the surprise-iest of endings. Surprises are for mortal readers.
They are experienced enough to do the mental jujitsu of judging whether an ending will be surprising to someone who has never read the book *even though the agent/editor knows exactly how it ends.* They can put themselves in another reader’s shoes and judge it that way.
So yeah. Spoil away.
Don’t overthink it
At the end of the day, it is highly, highly unlikely that your book is going to be made or broken by how well you write a synopsis. It’s not something that will likely see the light of day beyond your agent and editor, and compared to a query letter or, ya know, the actual manuscript, it’s not likely to factor highly into whether you book sinks or swims.
So don’t spend months on it.
Still: have fun with your synopsis and use it as valuable practice for summarizing your book in a most-awesome way.