I started using this in 2004, and it works for me as part of the revision process. Using this, I actually find I don’t loathe writing synopses, either. Working from the shorter ones up seems to help. So does simply doing more of them.
Step 1 — Write what the book is about in 25 words or less.
Yes, “less” is a joke. Avoid conjunctions, particles, etc., as you can, but it must read like a sentence, not a computer randomization of disconnected words and fragments. This focuses you from now on.
What you describe here would be the most important part of the story, the aspect that made you write it, the reason you’re here. Try writing only about the protagonist if you can’t get under 25. You may include mood words, genre words, stuff like that. Forget background. Think of this as the micro-description in the publisher’s catalog when you’ve been mid-listed. This takes me about 15 minutes to a half hour. I rewrite it about once a minute for the whole time.
Step 2 — Describe the plot, the story arc, in a single, if slightly long-winded, sentence, 50 words or less.
Think of this as part of your cover letter. (See, we’re already into marketing work!) But it’s not just a hook. Say where the protag ends up as well as where she starts or what she goes through. Don’t bother with genre or background or mood. Again, a 15 to 30-minute job.
Step 3 — Write a 500-word synopsis.
This is worth ten pounds of weight loss, it’s so hard to do for a 100k-word novel, and may take several days. It teaches you to focus on what the pivot points of the plot are, what the changes of the characters are, and reminds you that the Battle of Waterloo is only set dressing to the plot, not the focus of the story. They are good for queries and hand-outs to agents and editors at conventions.
Often, to get to the 500-word synopsis, I write a 2000-2500-word one, then chop, chop, chop. This big synopsis is more like 4-5 single-space pages, and will suit most publishers when sent with the first 3 chapters.
But none of these descriptions of the book are more important than the actual novel. When I’m through making a satisfactory revision, I’ll make the synopses fit the story, rather than the story fit the synopses, if that’s still staying on track. Sometimes great plot twists occur in revision. “This scene is dull. Let’s turn it inside out!”
Still, after these three levels (okay, a sneaky fourth), I have a much sharper idea of where the book needs to go to completion.
I also have half my sales material: part of the cover letter and the big synopsis. All I need then is three good opening chapters and the hook of the cover letter, and I can get it sitting in a 6-month or 2-year slush pile while I finish polishing it up to match the synopsis.
WARNING: Do NOT do that for your first novel, especially if you haven’t pulled together the plot, filled the scene holes, and so on.
Always see if you can complete the manuscript before letting a first novel out of the house in any form. I did this first on the fifth novel I finished when it was just begun, figuring it would be a fast reject at the particular house, but maybe tell me some things. It was just a screwball impulse.
Was I glad I could blitz draft when I got a request for full manuscript a month earlier than I thought possible, the book unfinished, and in fact headed a completely different direction than that earlier synopsis! It was more hectic than you want to face, and many writers could not have done it, especially not freshman or sophomore writers.
Now, of course, I would never do anything that crazy/stupid again. Until maybe next year.
Some people white-water kayak. I consider this my form of extreme adventuring: bruises, exhaustion, big smile. I also sent them to a publisher that I knew had at least eight months of waiting time, and put those novels up to be finished first in my work queues – and unlike most people, I can do three novels in eight months, once I have my revision synopses.
I considered it a step toward selling on proposal, on advance contract, where I do most of the work after I get a contract and check, rather than doing it “on spec.” On speculation, you finish the book before selling, and for new writers and oddball stuff by established writers, that’s the norm.
For those who can’t guarantee they’ll be able to blitz and revise fast to deadline, on spec is the only sane choice. With a revised draft, if no one bit on the S&3, I could put the roughs away for later. I consider unsold but publishable stories as future paid vacations.
Lesson #2: if your story fits the publisher’s criteria well enough to bother sending it at all, don’t be humble and assume they won’t like it. Why shouldn’t you be the one they publish? You’ve been working hard enough to get there.
How helpful any of these are depends on who you are, what you’re writing, and where your head is right now. So check all and worship none.