Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 3

In which we come to week three, where Practical Meerkat talks about  How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love my Synopsis

Start a group of writers talking about our jobs, and sooner or later someone will say “oh god, I hate writing a synopsis.”  This isn’t a newbie fear, either – people with a dozen or more books under their belt will still approach the synopsis phase like a five year old being forced into the bath: they know they have to do it (the Parent/Editor Says So) but they’d rather being doing the fun “getting messy” part of writing-the-book, instead.

The synopsis is often confused with the outline, but actually quite different.  Where the outline is your roadmap from Start to Finish, a synopsis is the condensed, comprehensive version of your story, a brief (relatively speaking) summation of everything you want to say, used to sell a publisher on a project.   And yeah, the thought of trying to get 100,000 (or more) words into a clearly-stated and yet enticing package of around 1,000 words is…challenging.*  Not to mention that, if you’re one of those people for whom once the story is told, it’s done, the thought of writing a synopsis can give you brain freeze.

Don’t panic.  Don’t stress.

Here is a truth, and I want you to repeat it out loud to yourself:  “My editor does not expect the book to adhere to the absolute detail of the synopsis or outline.”

Yes, your synopsis is an important selling tool, and it should be as complete and detailed as you can make it.  But the book you think of may not be the book you finally sell.  The book you begin writing may not be the (exactly) the book you finish and hand in.  Stories change and grow in the making.  This is normal, and your editor and publisher know this. Short of telling an entirely different story, odds are good that minor or even largeish deviations from the original proposal won’t be noticed**

So don’t feel that whatever you write at the beginning must be detail-perfect, or that any deviation will be punished (or even noticed).  Nor is it necessary that a synopsis follow a particular form or style [I once had a panicked writer tell me the story over the phone, while I typed the details up, to meet contract requirement for “detailed synopsis”].

So relax and, instead of worrying, have fun with it.  Put into it all the enthusiasm that you feel for the project, the same excitement you feel about the story, the characters, the setting.  Give a sense of what is exciting and engaging about this story, where it will take them and what emotions they will experience in the reading.

That is all your editor will remember, when the book is handed in.

*disclaimer: I am among the few who actually enjoy it.  This may be due to my years in marketing, or I may just be a mutant

**if they are writing copy from the proposal, however, you may encounter problems.  It is a kindness to everyone to keep your editor informed of major name, gender, or plot changes

Next week: Signings, Booksellers, and ego-bruising.

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in Spring 2011.  For more info check her website , her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 3 — 6 Comments

  1. I can do them for non-fiction, no problem, because I know what the boundaries are in advance. But for fiction… I often start with nothing more than an idea of a feel for a book — a ‘this one has this kind of atmosphere. And giant carnivorous pumpkins’ sort of thing. The synopsis means I have to nail down *why* it has that feel and what the pumpkins are up to. And come up with names, sometimes. It does help to do this, but the initial words can be very very hard.

  2. Non-fiction is another beast entirely – both easier (you know exactly what is being asked for) and harder (you really do have to stick to plan). In fiction I suggest it’s not so much in the synopsis that you have to know WHY the pumpkins are up to something, only that they are and it’s going to be tasty.

    You figure out the WHY in the working (and mutable) outline.

  3. Writing synopses became easier for me when I realized that (unlike an outline–hate writing outlines), a synopsis is a selling piece, the topographical map to the outline’s road-map. You need to know where you’re going (over the mountains to the sea) but you don’t need to disclose the exact route–just the highlights (we’re hitting on Disneyland, the Taj Mahal, and the Musée D’Orsay).

    I also find that when drafting a synopsis it helps me if I write “Once Upon a Time” at the beginning. That lets me sketch in the story afterward, and can be removed before sending it on.

  4. Yes, synopses and cover copy (I often write my own) are advertisements, the first to sell to a publisher, the second to the actual readers. Once I understood that, life became easier. Advertising one’s own work is actually kind of fun.

    Outlines, on the other hand, are utter wastes of time for writers who need to discover the book as they write it. Fortunately, many editors understand this. If I am asked for an outline — and I haven’t been in years — I simply tell the editor that I’ll be glad to do one, but it’s for some imaginary book I probably will never write. If they’re okay with that, fine.

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  6. Chalk it up to writing nonfiction and government decision papers (by no means the same thing), but I don’t mind synopses. They’ve actually become a part of my revision process. Telling the story in short form helps me find plot holes and other problems I don’t see when I’m nose to the grindstone. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a nuisance to be told, “Make it five pages!” when I’ve written ten. But hey, you get that with government work all the time–or the opposite. 🙂