When I meet other writers, the question of how to approach describing a book project to prospective publishers and agents inevitably comes up. It helped me to take a few days’ break from trenches and weeds of drafting and revising my manuscript in order to focus on the proverbial forest big picture. I read most of the resources below, then drafted a logline for a pitch and a partial synopsis in one sitting. Having a completed logline was key to shaping the outline of my synopsis and ensuring it stayed succinct. I shared the pitch with some members of my writing group for feedback. Then I stepped away for a few weeks. When I returned, I was able to see what worked and what was missing in my synopsis. To my surprise, three hours later, I had a solid draft synopsis that I could circulate for more feedback. Of course, your results could vary.
Here are the resources that helped me turn my book concept into a pitch + synopsis, culled from several classes and workshops.
Crafting a Logline & Pitch
The key to arriving at a pitch for me was figuring out what the primary conflict was in the story I was telling. Then I had to distill that into just a few words. To do that, I had to get far enough into my manuscript (roughly two-thirds through a full draft) that I could say for sure which of the many tensions in the story ultimately bubbled up to the surface, playing the role of central conflict throughout the whole project. I came up with multiple phrasings of the conflict and then picked the one that I felt summarized my manuscript best.
The first two links from Graeme Shimmin’s blog give context for pitches and pitch conversations. Graeme covers his Killogator(TM) formula for creating a logline (i.e. a single sentence hook for the project) in the third link. It is simple and works well if you only have five minutes to get started:
Rachel Gardner’s guide asks “Have you been pitching themes and emotional journeys instead of stories?” She makes the case that a pitch should answer (1) who is the protagonist, (2) what choice does s/he face, (3) what are the consequences of the choice:
Have you been pitching themes and emotional journeys instead of stories?
Fill in the blanks in the following sentence: X wants Y but Z gets in the way so X decides to do A which leads to B
Imagine you are coming up with the voice-over for cheesy movie that goes (fill in the blanks): “In a world where K, L, and M, a [girl/man/person/cow/character] must do N.”
Alison Williams’ Brevity piece expands on this “In a world where …” exercise: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/in-a-world/
Writing a Synopsis
My favorite synopsis resources are below. To summarize them, a synopsis is supposed to provide a dry summary of the main characters, conflict, and resolution for a publisher. They aren’t supposed to show off writing style, be page turners or filled with suspense and shouldn’t provide commentary on grand themes, except in discussing what ties the individual pieces together in the case of a short story collection. For a short story or essay collection, you shouldn’t give a summary of every story/essay but rather identify key themes, highlighting the primary conflict and plot points.
In talking to agents, however, I learned there are varied and conflicting views on synopses. A couple said they prefer a short 1-2 paragraph description that could be jacket copy (i.e. go on the back of a book) included as part of a query instead of a full blown synopsis. A couple said they prefer not to learn how the conflict is resolved in as much detail as they know synopses are traditionally supposed to provide. Others said synopses are outdated. A couple said synopses are great to include in a proposal. It also depends on the genre you are synopsizing. When in doubt, check an agent or publisher’s website for their specific preferences.
- I found a lot of Jane Friedman’s take for a novel also applies to memoir/narrative non-fiction: https://www.janefriedman.com/how-to-write-a-novel-synopsis/
Good luck! And, if there are other pitch exercises or synopsis guides you find particularly helpful, feel free to share or link them in the comments below.