How To Write a Great Synopsis

I am obsessed with writing the perfect synopsis.

Well, let me rephrase that. I’m obsessed with finding out about methods, tips and/or voodoo that might, potentially, help me write the perfect synopsis. (I’m pretty sure I’ve never even written a good synopsis, let alone a great or even a perfect one.) I’ve bookmarked blog posts online, highlighted pages and pages of “How To” books, and pestered every writer I’ve ever met more than once for an insight into how they write theirs. I’ve used colored pens, Post-Its, rulers, large pieces of paper, small pieces of paper, notice-boards and even computer programs in an attempt to produce something that’s both snappy and comprehensive, all to no avail. I’ve tried condensing the book, ignoring the book, and using the pages of the book to wipe my frustrated, synopsis-induced tears, but still, all I ever get from it is a migraine and/or a hankering for a double espresso. Because:

  • “Synopsis” is a broad term that covers various awful things that are expected of you as a writer. An elevator pitch, a blurb, a one-page synopsis, a two-page synopsis, a five-to-six page detailed synopsis… Repeat until you keel over.
  • There are as many ways of writing synopses as there are types of synopses required, and the poor writer has no way of knowing if Method X is suitable for producing Synopsis Type Y.
  • If you’ve written your book, condensing 100,000+ words down to a page or two feels like The Worst Thing You’ve Ever Had To Do. Making up a page or two about a book that isn’t written yet is only slightly better.

So when I discovered that Nicola Morgan, Wonder (Publishing) Woman of Help! I Need a Publisher fame, was releasing a new e-book called Write a Great Synopsis, I jumped at the chance to take part in her blog tour if only so I could get my grubby mitts on an early copy. Because as luck—or misfortune—would have it, I’m going to need a sparkly synopsis myself pretty soon.

I knew as soon as I read the first line (“Too much sweat is secreted over synopses…”) that Write a Great Synopsis was going to be my new best friend.

Write a Great Synopsis is like the map you need to get through the dense Synopses Woods on a moonless night, and Nicola’s no-nonsense style is the handy reading light attached to it. After calming your worst fears about how writing a bad synopsis will lead to you never being a published writer ever ever, Nicola explains exactly what is required of it before unveiling her patented “crappy memory” tool, among other synopsis-writing methods. Best of all, she then takes the reader through some real-life examples of synopses, bravely submitted by her blog readers, pointing out what works and what doesn’t, and why it’s so.

The book has plenty of quotes from editors, agents and other publisher types that will help you understand exactly what is required of you. One that really struck a chord with me was from an unidentified agent that said, “[T]he synopsis tells me how interested the writer is in a plot … and the opening chapters tell me how interested the writer is in writing.”

(There was another one that said the first three chapters tell the agent if the writer can write the first three chapters, while the synopsis tells them whether or not the writer can write the book. Ouch!)

I genuinely think I’ve come away from reading Write a Great Synopsis with a very different idea of what my synopsis needs to be, and the confidence that I can produce it. I’m definitely much less petrified than I was of synopses before, especially since Nicola has convinced me that they are not the be-all and end-all of your novel submission. Dare I say, I’m practically looking forward to putting her method to the test.

In a nutshell, this small but mighty e-book would be a very worthwhile investment for any author.

Win a synopsis critique and advice from the Crabbit Old Bat herself!

To coincide with the release of Write a Great Synopsis and this blog tour, Nicola is offering you the chance to win copies of her dangerously useful books as well as an expert critique of your synopsis. (I’d be entering this competition myself if it wouldn’t look bad!) Here are the details from Nicola herself:

“Surrounding publication on January 20th of Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide, I will be visiting a number of blogs for a guest post, review or interview. If you’d like the chance of winning help with your synopsis, simply leave a relevant comment on any of the guest posts. (This could be a deep and meaningful comment or a plea to the gods of fortune to pick you!) One comment per post – but comment on each post if you wish. On February 15th, each blog host will send me the names of valid commenters and I will do a random selection, using a random number generator.


1st prize – a critique of your synopsis, at a mutually convenient time; plus a signed book of your choice, if available.
2nd prize – a critique of your synopsis.
3rd prize – a signed book of your choice, if available.

You can leave a comment on this post or any of the others involved in the tour. You can see the full list of blog tour stops on Help! I Need a Publisher.

About Write a Great Synopsis:

Most writers hate writing synopses. They need dread them no more. In Write a Great Synopsis – An Expert Guide, Nicola Morgan takes the stress out of the subject and applies calm, systematic guidance, with her renowned no-nonsense approach. Write a Great Synopsis covers: the function of a synopsis, differences between outlines and synopses, different requirements for different agents and publishers, finding the heart of your book, how to tackle non-linear plots, multiples themes, sub-plots and long novels, and it answers all the questions and confusions that writers have. Nicola also introduces readers to her useful Crappy Memory Tool, explains the art of crafting a 25-word pitch, and demonstrates with real examples. Gold-dust for writers at all stages.

About Nicola:

Nicola is the author of around ninety books for all ages, fiction and non-fiction. To writers she is known for the no-nonsense expert advice in her blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! and her highly acclaimed book for writers, Write to be Published, as well as Tweet Right – The Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter.

Click here to find Write a Great Synopsis on Amazon’s Kindle store.

The Devil’s in the Debut: Guest Post by Nicola Morgan

I am very excited this Wednesday morning and it’s not just because December, my favorite month of the year, starts tomorrow, or because I’ve ingested a not insignificant amount of caffeine this morning. It’s because the wonderful Nicola Morgan, the woman behind the most useful writing blog on the web, Help! I Need a Publisher, and two books that should be added to every writer’s library, Write to be Published and Tweet Right: The Sensible Person’s Guide to Twitter, is here as part of her blog tour for her YA novel, Mondays are Red. She’s here to tell us why debut novels have to have that extra special something for the author to succeed, to break out. Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, Nicola! 

Hello Catherine and thanks so much for letting me hang out on your esteemed blog today! I have brought coffee. 🙂

Since Mondays are Red was my debut, back in the dim and distant days of 2002 when I was young and unwrinkly, you’ve asked me to talk about debuts, and whether they have to be different from other novels.

Interesting question and one I wouldn’t have had a clue how to answer back then. I knew what I was doing, not what I was supposed to be doing! Since then, I’ve learnt a lot, not just about writing but about the industry and what agents and publishers need. And it boils down to selling. (And preferably, as far as most publishers are concerned, easy selling. Gah.)

So, a debut needs to stand out. It needs to mark the writer as “one to watch” because that writer has got to produce other books. It needs to showcase the writer’s skill and imagination – or whatever it is that this writer shines at. You have to wear a sparkly dress and really high heels.

Interesting Point 1: This is all new. Not so long ago, a writer was allowed to build a career – Ian Rankin and Jacqueline Wilson are examples of writers whose huge success came with later books. Writers now are not allowed that luxury: you have to leap onto the world with a big shout. If you haven’t made your mark with book two, that may be it. Marketing budgets suddenly vanish.

On the other hand, if you’re writing to fit into a clear genre with specific demands, the debut does not need to stand out, just to fit in. So, I guess what I’m saying is that your debut needs to be extreme: either extremely noticeable or extremely fitting in.

So, what elements in a novel give it debut quality? An unusual voice, an unusual anything, a shocking or otherwise remarkable theme, a high concept premise. That’s about it. Basically, a good debut has sit-up-and-take-notice factor.

Mondays are Red was my debut and it worked very well as one – though, as I say, I didn’t know that at the time. My second novel, Fleshmarket, would also have worked. Deathwatch wouldn’t. Wasted would. The one I’m writing now, Brutal Eyes, wouldn’t. The two novels I failed to get published before Mondays are Red were not debut material. I know that now. They were too safe. They weren’t original enough, though I thought they were. The plots were criticised as being traditional. But they also weren’t genre fiction so they would not fit there either.

Interesting Point 2: Not all first books are debuts. I’d had at least umpteen books published before Mondays are Red – home learning books, for example, and a Greek history book. I didn’t call them debuts because they weren’t. They were preparation.

Interesting Point 3: You might need to write another debut one day. I’m trying to write one now. When you move publishers or you want to take a new trajectory, be noticed again and perhaps for different reasons, you may have to write another book which will have the same sit-up-and-notice-me factor as a debut. You just don’t call it a debut. That would be weird; people would look at you and not in a good way.

So, remember: not all first books are debuts and not all debuts are first books. But a debut needs to pack a special punch.  It needs a special debutness about it. And an agent will know it when she sees it. That’s what they mean when they say (infuriatingly) that they “didn’t love it enough.” Gah. The devil’s in the debut.

Btw, I’m talking about Debut Ups and Downs on The View From My Garrett on 2nd Dec – and I’ll even mention the removal of clothes…

Thanks Nicola!

Mondays are Red was Nicola Morgan’s debut YA novel, published in 2002. Nicola is now delighted to be producing the ebook, with brand new extra material, including creative writing by school pupils inspired by the book. For details about how to buy (price c.£2.25 until the end of January), see here.

Mondays are Red is the story of Luke who, having awoken from a coma, discovers that his world is altered. Synaesthesia confuses his senses and a sinister creature called Dreeg inhabits his mind. Dreeg offers him limitless power – even the power to fly – and the temptations are huge, but the price is high. Who will pay? His mysteriously perfect girlfriend, with hair as long as the sound of honey? His detested sister, Laura, with the wasps in her hair? When Laura goes missing, Luke realizes the terrible truth about himself and his power. His decision is a matter of life and death, and he will have to run faster than fire.

Controversy Corner: Am I Wrong About The Gatekeepers?

Yes, I have used the dreaded g-word here on Catherine, Caffeinated. Do not adjust your screens. (And prepare yourself for what is quite possibly the longest post in the history of this blog. I do apologize.)

Now before we go any further, I demand you hop over to JA Konrath’s fantastic blog and read this guest post by UK author Stephen Leather immediately. Go on. I’ll wait.


Two things stopped me in my tracks in this post. The first was Leather’s observation that all self-publishers seem to talk about – or want to talk about – is how to sell more books, and not how to write those books better.

I get emails all the time from “Indie” writers asking me what the secret is to selling a lot of eBooks. I don’t get any asking how they can become better writers.”

The second was this line about UK (and, let’s say for sake of this argument, Irish) agents versus US agents:

Literary agents in the UK are actually quite nice people, but they are a totally different animal in the US … I’ve only met one decent human being working as a literary agent in the States – the rest have been horrible, self-centered, arrogant s—s … They seem to take pleasure in denying writers access to publishers.”

Tip: literary agents do not look like this.

Let’s talk about the first one first: why is it that on all self-publishing blogs, generally-speaking – my own included – all the talk, discussion and advice is about selling books, and not about writing better books or even writing well in the first place?

I think I’m a good writer and people whose job it is to know have told me that I at least demonstrate some talent in this regard. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that there may have been chocolate-based bribes involved.) But I believe that my ability to write came from two things: (i) reading constantly since I learned how and (ii) something innate, a natural talent written in my DNA. I don’t believe you can be taught how to write. You can learn to write better, certainly, and practice and experience helps. But there needs to be something there to work with, and not everyone has it. You can’t go from being a terrible writer to a Booker Prize-winning one, in the same way that if you have a decent singing voice you can be trained to use it better, but you can’t take someone whose attempts at tune-carrying sounds like a bag of strangled cats on helium and turn them into Charlotte Church. So that’s Reason #1 why I don’t give writing advice: because I think if you have the ability to write well, chances are you’re already doing it.

And who am I to offer advice? I publish my own books. Other than sales (which, personally, I don’t see as a sufficient qualification – and in the world-wide scheme of things, mine aren’t anything amazing anyway), if I got up on a soapbox and started telling you how to write, I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. You’d think, what does she know? Who is she to tell me how to do this? Who does she think she is? And if our roles were reversed, I’d be the first thinking that too. A published author can stand tall at writing workshops and confidently write articles about character and dialogue because someone we trust has said, This person writes well. They have said, This person is good enough. But as a self-published author, I have no such backing. And the only writing advice that is worthwhile is that which helps you channel your energies away from writing whatever might take your fancy (unless that’s all you want to do, of course) and into writing with an eye on getting published – like Nicola Morgan’s new book, Write to Be Published, for example. But I can’t tell you how to write to get published because I haven’t been. So that’s Reason #2 why I don’t give writing advice: because I don’t feel qualified to.

Why do I give advice on how to sell books? Is it because I’m obsessed with or only focused on selling them? No, although what good is a book if no one reads it and, as I’ve said before, I treat self-publishing like a business. I have to because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do it full-time. So unromantic as it may sound, I do need to make money. But that’s not why I blog about how to sell books. First of all, I enjoy sharing my trials and tribulations and I think you enjoy reading about them. It fascinates me; I find the whole subject endlessly interesting. Why does one book sell and another doesn’t? What did I do this month that made my sales dip? How did that guy manage to sell millions? How come this guy has an amazing book that isn’t selling at all? And because I only try to sell my books in ways that could apply to all books, both traditional and self-published (I don’t go on e-book forums or exchange tags with other e-book authors or any of that, for example) this information, theoretically, is useful to everyone, i.e. all writers. For me and my blog, that’s a win-win.

And so it’s not that I don’t value writing, or think that the only thing that matters is learning how to sell, sell, sell. I love books more than anything else in the world and I would rather suffer some horrible fate (a bad perm, for example) than put a book out into the world that adds to the ever-growing pile of stinky poo the vast majority of self-publishing authors are churning out every minute of every day. But I don’t think there’s any point in me talking about writing because I think you either know how to or you don’t, and because I don’t feel qualified to anyway.

Now onto the g-word. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that my least favorite word in the publishing/books/writing sphere is – ugh – gatekeepers, because it makes agents and editors, human beings like you and me, sound like evil, horned demons, and that I think that the easiest way to make sure you are not self-publishing poo is to try and get traditionally published first, and then only self-publish if you are getting full manuscript requests, at least. (And if you’re not a regular reader, you know that now.) But do I think this because I live in Ireland and thus have only dealt with Irish and UK agents and publishers, who seem to be really nice people who love good books and always respond?

I have met some bitter bunnies in my time as a self-publisher, let me tell you. I’ve even written about some of them in Self-Printed (PLUG ALERT: out today!) and on this blog. These are the unpublished writers who are so angry about the treatment they perceive themselves to have received at the hands of agents, editors and other publishing professionals that they are gleefully sticking pins into voodoo dolls which look not entirely unlike them in the dead of night, constantly saying, “But they didn’t even give my novel a chance!” with a crazed look in their eyes and exclusively reading self-published e-books as a one-man stand against Big, Bad Publishing.

I never understood these people because I believed that if your book was good, it would get published eventually. And if it didn’t get published, was that really reason enough to feverishly hate someone whose job it was to weed out the great from the sucky? Hardly. But maybe I just thought this because on this side of pond, people are nicer.

Let’s take my novel for example, which has been around, completed, since February 2010. It’s been shopped to both UK/IRL editors and US agents.

Let’s compare the experience, shall we?

US Experience

I write a query letter for the novel following all the “rules.” The novel is set in the US so I figure I should test the waters of the wonderful United States first. I draw up an initial list of favored US agents: three who accept e-mail queries and two who require the synopsis and first 50 pages to be sent by mail. The responses:

  1. Agent #1 at New York office of major US-UK agency responds by e-mail (to e-mail) within 24 hours, saying she appreciates my sense of humor and clever concept, but doesn’t think she’s the right fit for me or my work. (She’s absolutely lovely to me but her first name is Catherine so I wonder if that’s why!!!)
  2. Agent #2 at NY agency responds by e-mail (to e-mail) within 24 hours saying thanks but no thanks.
  3. No response to e-mail sent to Agent #3.
  4. No response to synopsis/chapters mailed to Agent #4.
  5. No response to synopsis/chapters mailed to Agent #5.

UK/IRL Experience

Same novel gets sent to:

  1. Irish office of major publishing house. Editor #1 reads entire novel, gives extensive feedback by phone and e-mail. Response time: a fortnight. Says lots of lovely things about me as a writer, but feels book isn’t suitable for market here. Wants to see something else. Arranges meeting where she and I talk about what this something else might be. Says she’d like to see this something else when it’s done. We keep in touch.
  2. Irish office of another major publishing house. Editor #2 reads entire novel, gives feedback by e-mail. Response time: less than 3 weeks. Loves my writing, voice, etc. but doesn’t love the book “enough.” Unsure about its subject matter but says she’d be happy to see something else from me that isn’t about same thing as she feels that is the only real problem.
  3. Irish office of another major publishing house. Editor #3 reads entire novel, give feedback by e-mail. Response time: less than a month. Loves my voice and humor, unsure whether novel is suitable for Irish/UK market but would like to see something “more mainstream.”
  4. As above for major UK publishing house and editor #4.
  5. Same for medium-large UK publishing house and editor #5.

And then there was my experience with trying to get Mousetrapped traditionally published, a year before that again and before I decided to do it myself. I started this when I had just a proposal and 2/3 sample chapters, which would be the norm for a non-fiction book.

  1. Send out queries to 9 UK/Irish agents. About 4-5, if I remember correctly (this was 2007!), respond with a “thanks but no thanks.” One says, “This sounds interesting. Send me what you have.”
  2. So begins a year of back and forth with this agent, who works at a well-respected London literary agency. When she finally reads the finished book a year later, she has to say no, but she sends me a lovely e-mail saying how much she liked the book and my writing, and says she’d like to see something else in the future, especially fiction if I’d ever consider writing it. (I’m still in contact with this agent, as a friend, through e-mail and Twitter today.)
  3. I decide to try Irish publishing houses instead. Editor #1 requests the full manuscript after reading the proposal & sample chapters and then e-mails me to say he liked the book and my writing, but that there is no market for a book like it. So: no.
  4. Same happens with Editor #2.
  5. Same happens with Editor #3, except she calls me on the phone and offers some additional feedback on how I could improve the book (which I listened to before I self-published it).
  6. Editor #4 says “this isn’t for us” based on proposal and sample chapters.
  7. Same with Editor #5.

(And they were all right about Mousetrapped. It took self-publishing it – publishing it without any financial risk and selling it to a global readership as opposed to just Irish/UK readers – to sell copies. And the fact that I have a novel, polished and ready-to-go, sitting on my computer for over a year now should tell you how slow I am to self-publish work, how I don’t take the decision to release it lightly.)

So for reasons that should now be clear, I have nothing but a case of the warm and fuzzies for every publishing professional I’ve encountered in my part of the world. Excluding the initial queries I sent to agents about Mousetrapped, every single agent or editor I’ve sent material to has responded to me. Every single Ireland or UK-based editor who has received a sample of my novel has taken the time to read the entire thing, and then more time to give me feedback about it. But the same can’t be said for my (very limited, admittedly) adventures in querying US agents, who I don’t think I’ll be sending Christmas cards to this year.

But in defense of US agents, can you imagine how many queries, manuscripts, etc. they get? A few months back I got a sneak peek inside the offices of an Irish publishing house, and it seemed to me that the piles of manuscripts were taking up more space than the furniture. The population of Irish is 4.5 million. The population of the United States is 309 million. No wonder they use the query system (as in, sending just a brief letter about your book instead of our standard practice of synopsis plus three chapters) – if they didn’t, they might be buried under there. So I can totally understand why they don’t have the time for the personalized rejections or even encouraging feedback we might get from our agents and editors over here. (But that still isn’t a good enough reason for voodoo dolls, people.)

And there are some wonderful US agents. One of them has written my favorite book on being a writer ever in the history of the world, Betsy Lerner (the book is The Forest for the Trees) and one of them writes one of my favorite writing blogs, Nathan Bransford. (Although in recent months he left the agenting world.) There’s the likes of US Agent No.1 above. And then there’s the US agent a writer friend of mine has, who would go to the ends of the earth for her, and has. So it’s not these individuals who are the problem – they are just operating within a system which seems to be the only feasible way to deal with the never-ending influx of unsolicited work. Aren’t they?

Konrath says that nowadays, readers are the gatekeepers. They vote for the good stuff by spending their dollars on it and weed out the bad by not. But while this is fine for Konrath – who writes great books – I don’t think it’s a creed all self-publishers should live by. When you put a book out there with a price-tag on it, you are selling a product, and that product has to deliver on its promise (i.e. be good) in exchange for the money customers hand over for it. Even if it’s just 99c, that’s still money. You can’t use readers as a test audience unless you are giving your book away for free, and you explain to them that that’s what you’re doing.

Anyways this blog post has gone on for way way WAY too long – I really should’ve broken it down in two parts but I’m off on holidays at the end of this week and so don’t have the time – so let me stop myself here and ask you what you think.

How would you feel about a self-published author telling you how to write? Do Irish and UK authors have an easier time with agents and editors? If so, what alternate method can US-based self-publishers use to gauge whether or not their book is good other than putting it out there and seeing if it sells? And where are people getting these voodoo dolls? Are they making them themselves, do you think? Feel free to weigh in below.

(And apologies again for the length of this post!)

My whopper of a book that was originally supposed to be a little pamphlet, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing, is out today. (Fancy that!) Its e-book costs about the same as a tall latte at Starbucks (i.e. it costs $2.99) and by buying a copy you help keep me in coffee which, trust me, is a selfless and necessary act indeed.

Find out more about it and where you can buy it from here.

Find out more about Mousetrapped here.