From the Editor’s Desk: Writing a Synopsis

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Here at Carina, we’re always looking for new authors to sign, publish and build. But we recognize that putting your manuscript out on submission can be an intimidating process. How do you make your manuscript stand out, from the query letter to the last page? We’re here to demystify the submissions process by giving you some insight into what a Carina Press editor looks for when she opens up a submission for review.

Today’s post comes from Libby Murphy, who is a freelance editor for Carina Press, and gets to read synopses on a daily basis. She’s seen it all, and is going to help you learn what works and what doesn’t.

Happy New Year! I hope everybody rang in 2016 with some fresh ideas for works in progress and new story and series ideas.

Today I’m going to talk about synopses. I should probably duck and roll to safety at this point, because I know so many of you hate writing them—I know I used to, too! But give me a few minutes to show you why it’s so important, how to break it down, and how you can make yours seriously rock.

Every Carina submission requires a two- or three-page synopsis with your full manuscript. Each of us editors use the synopsis for different purposes. For example, I don’t want a book to be spoiled before I dig in, so I usually read it after I read the first few chapters of a book, especially if I’m not sure about reading the full at that point. Sometimes story issues I’m worried about in the first few chapters can be further analyzed in the synopsis, and I can decide if it’s something that I can fix in edits after the book is acquired, or with a revise and resubmit. If it’s more than I think we can work on in either of these, I will likely make the decision to reject the book, but sometimes I’ll write up a note to the author to let her know that while I loved some things, there were others that were problematic enough that I couldn’t take it further. Sometimes the synopsis will give me enough information to include helpful feedback.

You might be surprised to know how important it is to the acquisition process, too. Several of our acquisitions team members weigh in when a book is brought to acquisitions, and although most of them read the entire book, not all of them need to. They do need your synopsis, however, to help decide if a book is a good fit for the market, for example. And once a book is acquired, we do use it for several purposes. It is the gift that keeps giving.

Which leads to my next topic: what do you need to include in your synopsis? It’s easy to get carried away with telling the reader everything, but it’s important to stay focused. So I’d suggest focusing on conflict/theme, and romantic tropes.

Conflict is what drives a story, and without it, there’s not much to keep the story going. Theme is the heart of the story, or what your characters discover about themselves. Your synopsis (and of course your book!) needs both to work together. Show the hero and heroine’s internal and external conflicts and how they drive the story. For example, what’s keeping them from a HEA? What’s the adhesive that makes them stay together throughout? Show main turning points in their growth arcs, and how they’ve affected your character and the romantic relationship. One thing I see a lot is skimping on the climax, the black moment, and the HEA, and they’re the culmination of what the character has done to grow. Don’t leave those out!

Okay, now for romantic tropes. Tropes are what readers look for when they consider buying a romance, and they go hand in hand with conflict. And if you take a look at our most recent What the Editors Want post, you’ll see that it’s full to the brim with romantic tropes. These are things like marriage of convenience, best friend’s older brother, enemies to lovers, fake engagement, and so on. The tropes are a large part of what’s going to make your book marketable, and they’ll also go on your back cover copy, so you’re going to want to make sure they’re apparent in your synopsis, too! If you notice when you write your synopsis that one or two of your tropes is resolved too early, you’ll be able to fix that in your book before you send your submission.

A great resource to help nail these things is the book Save the Cat. Go to chapter four and check out the beats—those beats are pretty much what I’m looking for, and I think this book makes them wonderfully easy to identify in your own book. If you want to explore them in more depth, the entire book is definitely worth the read.

So now for the stuff I really don’t care to see. Let’s look at how to refine your synopsis a bit more by listing some of the things that don’t work.

  • Physical characteristics. Unless it has something big to do with the plot, it’s probably not necessary. However, if a soldier who has lost a leg is trying to overcome his or her physical limitations before he or she can fall in love, that’s important. Or if it’s a rags to riches type of story where the heroine starts out wearing ratty jeans and a torn hoodie, but morphs into a Chanel-wearing hottie. But telling me a character is a fiery redhead or a buxom brunette? Meh. Not necessary.
  • Let’s go back to the mantra “show don’t tell” for this item. If you’ve shown me the conflict, tropes, and plot well enough I will totally put together that your hero is crestfallen when he discovers the heroine was using him to get revenge on her ex. Show actions and reactions instead.
  • Characters stopping to think about things. And if I see this in your synopsis, I’m going to be certain you have lots of navel-gazing in your book, too. If you catch yourself writing this in your synopsis, go to those scenes in your book and double check that they’re tight enough—don’t just make revisions to your synopsis and move along.
  • Too many secondary characters. I don’t need to know about every rando character in your book. If they don’t influence major plot points, leave them out. Keep it to the hero and heroine, the antagonist, and maybe one or two secondary characters who are crucial to the plot.
  • Too much setting and description. Big picture stuff like cities, main locations, and seasons are great, but let’s not list every room the characters wander into, what kind of car they drive, and that kind of thing.
  • Not revealing the ending. Show how your story ends—the synopsis, unlike your query letter, isn’t a hook like your query. It’s more like the Cliff Notes. Believe it or not, how your book is resolved is important for us all to consider in an acquisition meeting, because we might ask you to change it if trends aren’t in favor of the type of ending you have. Or we’ll know we need to schedule it a certain way if you have a cliffhanger.
  • Your synopsis doesn’t match the book. It’s frustrating when I read the book, then go back to the synopsis and see that it’s not like the book. When I write up an acquisition, it’s another step for me because I have to rewrite the whole thing. On the other side of that, if an editor who reads the synopsis first likes the synopsis enough to read the book, they’re going to be frustrated when the book doesn’t match. It’s like false advertising.
  • Typos and grammatical errors. If you’ve had your book critiqued within an inch of its life, you’re doing it a disservice by skimping on your synopsis. For one, it’s harder to read when there are errors. Recruit some friends to take a look at it for you before you send it in. Every bit counts.

I hope that’s enough of a starting point for you, and helps you organize the elements of your synopsis. I’ll keep an eye on the comments below for a few days and answer any questions you have, so please feel free to ask away.

Happy writing in 2016!

Thank you for reading—we hope these tips have you excited to submit your manuscript to Carina Press! Here are some quick references to help you through the submissions process:

  • We’re always open to submissions!
  • We respond to all submissions within 12 weeks.
  • Have a question and can’t find the answer on our guidelines page? Email us at Submissions@CarinaPress.com and we’re happy to help.
  • Looking to target your submission to a specific editor? Find out more about editor submission calls here.

Ready to submit? Click here to start your publishing journey with Carina Press!Looking for more information on our submissions process? We’ll have more posts coming in this series, and in the meantime, you can read about our acquisitions process here, and find out more about what an editor does here.

4 thoughts on “From the Editor’s Desk: Writing a Synopsis”

  1. Mary Campbell says:

    Thank you for writing this. I think the synopsis is the hardest thing to write! I have one question. Do we need to mention the humorous moments and heartwarming or hot moments, depending on the line targeted, or just showcase the book?

    1. Stephanie Doig says:

      Hi, Mary,

      I think Libby’s advice about too much description may apply here; there’s no need for a play by play of sex scenes, for example, but it is useful to know that they’re there. If your hero/heroine end up in bed together, or share a humorous moment, that’s part of the relationship development and should be mentioned.

  2. Shantelle Bisson says:

    Thanks for this helpful article…I’m currently rewriting my synopsis…how many words would you say is ideal for a synopsis to be?

    1. Stephanie Doig says:

      Hi, Shantelle,

      While we don’t have a specific word count we’re asking for, we normally ask for a 2-3 page synopsis.


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