Over the last few years I’ve run a number of writing workshops at Edge-Lit in Derby. Last year I tackled writing snyopses / pitches. Given the number of people that have been in touch about the submissions window for Black Library, in particular how to formulate their summary, I thought I’d write up my notes.
I’ll be running another workshop at Edge-Lit later in the year, subject yet to be decided.
A ‘synopsis’ is a summary of your story or novel, while a ‘pitch’ is a very condensed version, to sell the story not to explain it. Either or both will be used for different reasons and at different times. As a plan-heavy sort of writer my synopses can be quite detailed, sometimes on a chapter-by-chapter or even scene-by-scene level. Not only does this act as a template for the story when I’m writing, it also acts as something to look back to when editing to see if I stayed ‘on plan’ when I needed to.
If you’re one of the seat-of-the-pantsers that writes first and thinks later, coming up with a synopsis is a good way of analysing what you’ve written, viewing through a different lens than you might use when reviewing the actual prose or structure.
For an editor or agent the purpose of the pitch or synopsis is to convey what you are trying to do rather than relying on them extracting it from the sample or finished manuscript. This separates the idea from the execution and allows them to be assessed accordingly – it might be a great idea poorly written, or a terrible idea beautifully presented! A pitch will often be taken by an editor to acquisitions meetings where they discuss potential titles with other editors and departments.
For meerkatters (sorry, I mean marketeers) a synopsis allows them to start thinking about potential markets, advertising and audience. Sometimes it’s even used as the basis for the sales ‘blurb’ that will be put on the back of the book and website.
Exercise 1: Write a three line synopsis of your favourite or a popular book.
Summarising can be hard. At a basic level a pitch or synopsis needs: character, theme and setting.
Not Plot! Not Biography!
Example: Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is a comedic science fiction novel in which Arthur Dent, hapless survivor of the Earth’s destruction, is given an impromptu introduction to a wider and often surreal galaxy. Through his unplanned exploits we see humanity’s strengths and irrelevances, from the petty to the grandiose.
Exercise 2: Bearing in mind the elements of character, theme and setting, repeat exercise 1.
Your synopsis needs to answer these questions, at least briefly:
Who is the main character or characters? Why them? If a group, what links them? Talk about them through story and personality, not purely biography – include how they feel about the story not just what has brought them to it. It’s the difference between ‘Harry is a happy-go-lucky truck driver who has just been laid off’, and ‘Harry is an embittered truck driver who has just been laid off’…
What is the story about and how is that explored? Explain plot through the lens of theme. Use character motivations and agenda, not abstract plot points. ‘Harry must overcome his cynicism to reconnect with his daughter and discover the true rewards of family,’ rather than ‘Harry must stop the authorities taking away his daughter.’
What stands out about the setting – in narrative terms not physical. ‘In the worst winter Missouri has seen in twenty years…’.
Exercise 3: come up with two keywords each for character(s), setting, and theme of your story. No more, no less.
Interweave the elements of character, setting and theme together using the keywords that encapsulate these components of the story. Take each element and expand outwards depending upon space. One sentence on each for a pitch, one paragraph each for a synopsis, etc. Often the use of first person inclusive, present active tense conveys a feeling of excitement and immediacy.
For example: ‘In Heartland we follow the story of Harry, an embittered truck driver who has just been laid off from work. As a cruel winter besets his small hometown in Missouri, the worst seen for twenty years, Harry battles the local authorities to keep custody of his daughter, though it is his own cynicism he must overcome if he is to learn the true value of family.’
Pitch, blurb and synopsis
Pitch – You are speaking directly to the agent or editor. You can refer to insider knowledge. Make it obvious – ‘The Hunt for Red October with an Emperor-class titan’, ‘a fantasy version of HBO’s Rome’, etc and trust the editor will know that the final story will contain more nuance. The only pitch I have had rejected by Black Library, when I was first starting out, was because I didn’t explain the story succinctly. When I talked it through with editor Marc Gascoigne he simply asked ‘Why didn’t you put that in the pitch?’* If using, inverting or subverting an archetype or trope, say so. In as little space as possible a pitch needs to inform as well as evoke. Even so, remain focussed on character, theme and setting.
Blurb – This is for the reader and uses only ‘outsider’ knowledge. Evoke and intrigue, don’t show the gears whirring beneath but stick to character, theme and setting.
Synopsis – This is for the editor usually, with more detail. This is definitely the place to make references to insider knowledge. Don’t just list events, explain them – use terminology, structural references etc if needed. For example, ‘This is her moment of glory’, ‘additional conflict enters the story in the form of a long lost brother’, etc.
*Looking back, I should have started the pitch with ‘This is the story of Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now set in the underhive of Necromunda’. With the return of Necromunda to the GW shelves, I might get a chance to pitch it again after a twenty-year gap!
There is no exercise 4 – you are ready to have a go at writing the synopsis for your story!
You can see all my blog posts about writing pitches and synopses by clicking this link. Good luck to all those who are submitting to Black Library – let me know how you get on.**To make sure you don’t miss out on any blog posts, you can keep up-to-date with everything Gav by signing up to my monthly newsletter. As a bonus, every other month I randomly pick a newsletter subscriber to receive a free signed copy of one of my books.**
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