Good Tuesday to you! You will NOT believe who I found wandering around today. Mary Buckham passed our door several times, so I grabbed her and dragged her inside. Please welcome her and ask tons of questions. She loves them.

Mary Buckham is an award-winning fiction writer, co-author with Dianna Love of BREAK INTO FICTION: ™: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells from Adams Media, co-founder of www.WriterUniv.com and a highly sought after instructor both on-line and at live workshops around the country. To find out more about Mary, her Manuscript, Synopsis and Query help, her Lecture Packets, Workshops and Writing projects visit www.MaryBuckham.com. Mary will also be teaching her last SYNOPSIS online workshop for 2011 next week through www.Writersclassesonline.com – she hopes she’ll see some of you there!

Seven Deadly Sins of Synopsis Writing

By Mary Buckham


St. Gregory the Great articulated the original Seven Deadly Sins - – pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth –transgressions that caused the death not of the body but of the soul. Committing the Seven Deadly Synopsis Sins won’t exactly doom your soul, but they might smash your chances at getting your manuscript a decent read in the hands of overworked, and harried editors and agents.


I have had the pleasure of working with thousands of writers of all genres. I work with them one-on-one to review, analyze and tweak their synopses to make them the strongest selling tools possible. As a result I’ve been able to see, from an editor/agent’s perspective, what comes across their desks daily and why some synopses work and others don’t.


All things being equal editors and agents need, require synopses to do two things. 1) show them that you have a cohesive plot worthy of their time and attention and 2) allow them to sell your story to editors [if in the hands of an agent] senior editors, the Marketing department, the Overseas acquisition editors, etc., etc.


Strong synopses showcase your characters, your plot and your ability to structure a story. If a synopsis sucks it makes it oh so easy for an agent or editor to pass on reading your manuscript.


The following Synopsis Sins – if eliminated – will not guarantee a sale, or even a full read, but the absence of them will make your synopsis, and thus you and your story, stand out in a crowded marketplace.


Sin 1) Too Many Proper Names to Track. You’ve lived with your characters for months or years in the writing of your manuscript. But to a cold reader, which is what an editor or agent is, they are simply proper names and do not give any information. Try and keep your proper names to a limit of three. Example: If I say Jim, Bill and Bob went to the grocery story – you have no image. If I say my husband, son and dog went to the store – you have a stronger image.


SIN 2) Too much detail. A synopsis is meant to show the structure—the plot of your story. Save the details for your manuscript. Anytime you are writing your synopsis and move your characters around on the page, or include fascinating bits of research or scene specific minutia, or quoted dialogue – you are showing scene detail.


SIN 3) Making passive or past tense instead of active and present. Passive phrasing and past tense phrasing in a synopsis both have a purpose when used correctly, but when over used can 1) flatline your synopsis until it sounds like that homework report and 2) make an editor/agent wonder if whatever is being described on the page is back story or current story.


SIN 4) Not Finishing the Synopsis. Your synopsis doesn’t really tell the end of your story because you want to keep the surprising twist or revelation a secret. Not a good idea.


SIN 5) Not Using Transitions to change POV or Time or Place. Because a synopsis is a snap shot of your whole book you lead an editor/agent through your story--or through different points of view -- over just a few pages. What can easily happen as you are shifting POV’s, or shift in physical location or time passage—is you jar a reader out of your story. Every time you raise a question: But I thought the protagonist and villain were there instead of here, you risk losing your reader. Do this often enough and it’s easy for them to put down your synopsis and your manuscript.


SIN 6) Not unfolding the synopsis as the story unfolds.


Sin #6 falls closely on the heels of Sin #5 - no transitions, because the lack of transitions is often covering up this all too common problem of jumping back and forth, from back story to current story, to the POV of a secondary character’s back story, to what will happen at the end of the story, then back to the beginning. It’s enough to make an editor/agent’s head spin.


SIN 7) Raising Questions in a synopsis in the wrong places. In our manuscripts we use questions to show internal thought. But in our synopses, because we are telling, NOT showing, we don’t want to include external dialogue or internal dialogue. Both are scene detail and bog down a synopsis. Step away from the showing and summarize whatever it is you are indicating by your question. Instead of asking an editor what might happen – tell an editor what’s happening.


Now what about you? Have you taken a quick look at your own synopses and found yourself guilty of any of the sins? Or if you aren’t quite sure and want to get a cold read and feel comfortable posting up to a few sentences feel free to do so. I’m here to answer questions, commiserate over what a pain synopsis writing is in general and perhaps offer some suggestions or tweaks that can take your own synopsis from the slush pile to a stand out.

Feel free to comment and out of those who do comment one name will be drawn for a copy of BREAK INTO FICTION™: 11 Steps to Building a Story That Sells or one-on-one help with a query letter – your choice.



Thank You, Mary!


52 comments

  1. Tamara LeBlanc // March 8, 2011 at 7:51 AM  

    I was thrilled to log on to PFSW this morning and find Mary Buckham's picture. I knew I'd be in for something good, and I wasn't dissapointed!
    I, like most writers i know, am terrified of synopsis. They scare the tattoos off of me:)
    I recently typed out what I thought was a solid synopsis. It had taken me ages to get it right...and in one coffee drinkin' bagel scarfing morning with my critique partners, I found out I was way off. They set me straight.
    And looking back at it now, I must have committed 5 of those deadly synopsis sins.
    Good thing my soul is still in tact, and I'm so happy there are people out there, you included Mary, that know the ins and outs of the dreaded synopsis.
    Now I have the tools to do a much better job.
    Thanks so much for your wisdom!!!
    Have a brilliant day:)
    Tamara

  2. Joanne // March 8, 2011 at 7:55 AM  

    Hi Mary,
    A sincere welcome to the Pink Fuzzies, and thanks to Mary M. for inviting you. I am guilty of all of the synopsis sins, especially #1. In my current historical WIP, there are several characters besides the Hero and Heroine who are an important part of the story. These characters include the villain and the sister of the heroine.I find the synopsis is difficult to write with these 4 names constantly surfacing.
    Any advice?

  3. Judy // March 8, 2011 at 8:28 AM  

    Mary, you make it all make sense, providing us with a tool we can use. No wonder your workshops are in demand! I personally find a synopsis very difficult to write and I know I'm not good at it. So, this will be a tremendous help! Thank you SO much! Come back and see us again!

  4. Nightingale // March 8, 2011 at 10:44 AM  

    Very helpful post. I'm at work but when I get home, I'd love to post a couple of sentences. I just went through the agony of writing a synopsis for a novella I submitted to Samhain and would love an opinion, Mary. All of the pointers were excellent. I'm guilty of some, but happy to say not guilty on some counts.

  5. Connie Gillam // March 8, 2011 at 11:19 AM  

    Thanks, Mary for being here today.

    I'm attempting to write a short synopsis (600 words or less) for a contest.
    My protagonist is trying to solve the murder of his brother that occurred eight years earlier.
    How do I pick what's important to reveal without spending a lot of time on backstory?

  6. Anonymous // March 8, 2011 at 11:47 AM  

    I looked at my wip synopsis and yep most of the sins are there. Some I have to go back to the drawing board. How about this?

    A former navy seal, now head of a major security company, and a teacher with psychic abilities have to join forces to save a kidnapped child. The kidnapper, a business rival in the security industry, sets up the teacher as a decoy to cover his own involvement...

    Melba

  7. Carol Burnside aka Annie Rayburn // March 8, 2011 at 12:40 PM  

    Great tips, Mary!

  8. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 12:46 PM  

    Hi Tamara ~~Great news is you're not alone in how you feel about a synopsis. Most novel writers wrestle with taking a 65k or 95k or 100k project and whittling it down to 2 or 5 or 10 pages. But it is a craft skill that can be learned -- maybe never made
    easy :-) but learnable! Thanks for popping in and sharing!
    ~~ Mary B

  9. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 12:50 PM  

    Hi Joanne ~~ Thanks for asking about how to cut down on the number of names in a synopsis. I recommend no more than 3 -- and it sounds like you have 4. Now as the author you know these characters so well that when you write Susie or Bella or Gwen that you automatically think - sister to hero. But if instead of her name you write Frank's sister [Frank being the hero] you keep the focus on Frank and not on sis. She just plays a role and then use your third name for the villain. Or give the sister the coveted name spot and call the villain the villain :-) Sounds almost too simple but it can work. Trust me!
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  10. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 12:52 PM  

    Hi Judy ~~ thank you so much for your kind words and for stopping by today. I'm soooooooooooo into making easy what I can because we all know writing to be published is plenty hard on its own! Take care and thanks again for sharing ~~ Mary B :-)

  11. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 12:53 PM  

    Nightingale -- thank you for stopping by! I don't know if my feedback on a couple of sentences taken out of context will help but I'm willing to give it a try. See you later!
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  12. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 1:03 PM  

    Hi Connie ~~ Great question! One of the biggest challenges is to know what to leave in and what to leave out. A short synopsis should focus on the overall structure of the story. One or two sentences of backstory for the hero and heroine which highlights their internal conflict [or obstacles to love] and their external goals [which should create conflict between them] A paragraph for the opening which again clarified goals, the meet and initial emotional reactions and any obstacles then seque to the first plot point where they have come together not necessarily for the same goal but from this point forward each of their major actions will impact the other. Seque next to the crisis or second plot point [about middle of the story] where the relationship has changed and tell [not show] how the relationship has changed. Next paragraph is the Black Moment when all seems lost for the relationship in particular. In a romance it's all about the relationship :-) the external plot impacts it but keep the focus on the couple. Then a final paragraph or so for the resolution of the story telling how the individuals have grown and changed and the status of the external goal, any secondary or subplot threads and the HEA of the relationship. If you only spend 2 paragraphs or so on each of these 5 key areas of a story an editor/agent can see if the conflict is strong, the characters grow and change, that there are no major plot holes and the story tracks from beginning to end. I hope this helps. This is exactly what we'll be studying in the two-week Synopsis class that starts next week at www.Writersonlineclasses.com because it can be challenging to let go of all the other wonderful elements of our story. But if our plots don't hold together an editor/agent don't have time to see just pretty words.
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  13. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 1:09 PM  

    Hi Melba ~~ Thanks for sharing your set up - so now we know why these two have to work together but you'll want to include a hint of backstory as to why it'll be hard for them to do just that -- the internal conflict. For example if the A former Navy Seal's ten-year old niece is kidnapped and his only help is the child's psychic teacher, who may be involved in the kidnapping. This is rough but already the cold reader gets to see what's at risk [a ten year old is a stronger image than 'a child] and now we know why the teacher and Seal are connected rather than random strangers and we get to see what pulls them together and what keeps them apart. The focus is not on them. Make sense? Hope this helps a little. Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  14. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 1:10 PM  

    Thank Carol for stopping by and taking the time to read the tips. Hope they help!
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-) off to teach her online class but I'll be back later!

  15. Amy Sue Nathan // March 8, 2011 at 1:40 PM  

    I always love lists of what NOT to do. I find it easier to follow than the lists of what TO do. By knowing what's sinful in a synopsis - it can help me delete or avoid the traps altogether. Thanks, Mary!

  16. Maura // March 8, 2011 at 1:47 PM  

    Thanks so much for the synopsis tips. I will definitely be reviewing them as I review my current synopsis. Like many other writers, I loathe writing them. Am I putting in too much? Too little? Is it snazzy enough to catch attention? Oddly, though, I find it much easier to review/edit someone else's synopsis. Perhaps because I am not as emotionally invested, it's easier for me to see what's important to the synopsis and what isn't.

  17. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 2:00 PM  

    Amy Sue ~~ I love your thought process :-) Glad you found the list helpful - best of luck on your synopses!
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  18. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 2:03 PM  

    Hi Maura ~~ nice to see you here! Yes -- it is easier to see the boo-boos in another's synopsis because you don't know the story as well so aren't trying to wrestle an 800 pound gorilla into a cat
    carrier :-) I always recommend getting 1-2 cold readers to review a final synopsis to catch what we no longer can see and to point out any "I don't understand" issues. Thanks for sharing ~~ Mary B :-)

  19. Raconteur Spot // March 8, 2011 at 2:07 PM  

    I am writing a novella and I took a stab at the synopsis the other day. I do have a surprise ending in the book w/ a 2nd male lover and I don't want to give it away in the synopsis or in the cover design. Does this leave it flat? Its not engaging enough?

    A friend recommends Amara to an online dating site for well endowed men. Feeling naughty but anxious she registers for the site. She soon strikes up an online romance with Sevastien; a mixed Puero Rican and black member on the dating website. They talk for months and despite having great comraderie, chemistry, and erotic conversations online; he never calls. She travels to Puerto Rico to close a pending business deal only to be confronted with her online lover at the negotiation table. Sevastien has a secret he's been keeping. Will there be a future for them or will they only ever have one hot night?

  20. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 2:14 PM  

    Hi Raconteur ~~ In a synopsis an editor/agent needs to know how the story ends - they need to know that something isn't happening out of the blue,, the resolution of the relationship, does it give the reader of commercial fiction that high-five sense or in literary fiction that take away of thought provoking awareness. What you posted here is not really a synopsis -- it's more a blurb or pitch that works well in a query/cover letter but doesn't share enough to tell an editor/agent that the story holds together. Make sense?

    Hope this helps ~~ Mary B :-)

  21. Conda V. Douglas // March 8, 2011 at 2:24 PM  

    Wonderful reminders and cautions about synopsis, whether short or long. One tip I've found useful: if at all possible have a writing critique partner write yours and vice versa. It's so hard when we're so close to the work!

  22. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 2:34 PM  

    Conda ~~ Oh -- love the idea! I only have three caveats. First - make sure their voice is not radically different than your own. Can you see Jennifer Cruise writing a synopsis for Suz Brockmann? And second -- make sure they understand what needs to be included and what can be left out. And third -- make sure they don't know your story so well that they will do the 7 Deadly Sins :-) Thanks for sharing ~~ Mary B :-)

  23. Mary Marvella // March 8, 2011 at 3:41 PM  

    Good afternoon, Mary!

    You are doing your usual fabulous job!

    I'll be printing this blog and the comments! See you after I tutor.

  24. Pryce // March 8, 2011 at 3:43 PM  

    Hi Mary,

    I never thought of how "father" is more descriptive than Bill - great tip.

    Recently an editor at a conference asked me to submit a synopsis for a series. Can you provide any tips for a series synopsis and how this may differ from a novel synopsis?

    Thanks,
    Pryce

  25. Dee White // March 8, 2011 at 3:46 PM  

    Thanks Mary and Mary for a great post.

    Mary B, this is such good advice.

    Writing a synopsis is so hard to do well. Your tips are great and I now know the things to try and avoid in the future.

  26. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 3:51 PM  

    Hi Mary M :-) Thank you so much for inviting me to share and connect with other writers. You rock!!

    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  27. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 4:04 PM  

    Hi Pryce ~~ how fun to see you here! Congrats on the request -- that's exciting news! A series synopsis can mean one of two things -- they want a synopsis that shows where the first 3 books or 5 books or 7 in the series are going. Think of a favorite TV drama over 3 or 5 or 7 shows and show what the protagonist's internal and external conflicts are over several books and how what he/she is dealing with changes his/her Everyday World or where the story started in the first book in the series. I'll use an example. In the lovely Margaret Maron series set in NC with a bootlegger's daughter turned judge as the protagonist - Margaret might have shown that in the first book in the series the protagonist had to overcome her issues with her father, embrace the best aspects of her past to move forward and give it her all to run for judge of her community where memories were long and family reputations could save or skew you. In the first book she lost her election, but in the second book she was nominated to replace another judge who had to leave. But instead of making her dream come true this appointment added complications because she was now on the other side of the political wall from most of her family and friends. In the third book she has to juggle her new duties with a family crisis in her extended family and in the fourth book it's her father's contacts that helps her find justice. See? Just a little snippet about each book in the proposed series. In the Maron series it's all about Southern family ties, a sense of place in transition and finding justice while juggling a full plate. The second option is to write a strong synopsis for the first book with an ending line or two that sets up the second book. Then write a paragraph or so blurb for the next 2 books in the series [focusing on the major issues or conflicts] Maybe 2 paragraphs for book 2, 1 paragraph for book 3 and if you have a book 4 or 5 then a few sentences for each. The editor/agent wants to see that your story themes hae enough meat on them to cover several books and that the story series stays strong. Make sense?
    Hope this helps a little ~~ have fun with the process! ~~ Mary B :-)

  28. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 4:06 PM  

    Hey Dee ~~ fun to see you here!! I won't go as far as saying that writing a synopsis will ever be fun but the process can be less painful :-))

    Cheers and take care ~~ Mary B :-)

  29. EngridE // March 8, 2011 at 5:47 PM  

    Hi Mary :-)
    *sigh* I am editing/revising my WIP and have, honestly, not given a thought to writing a synopsis. Your post was, as in your online lectures, informative & easy to understand. Thanks, Mary, something else I have to pay attention to along with "Pacing."

  30. Pamela Gervai // March 8, 2011 at 6:05 PM  

    Hi Mary - dropping in from your Pacing Class & due to see you shortly on your Synopsis Class too. Stalking you all the way from New Zealand. Thanks so much for all your tireless help.

    best regards,

    Pamela.

  31. Danielle Monsch // March 8, 2011 at 6:07 PM  

    Synopsis is one of those areas I truly feel I have no clue what I'm doing. At this point, I'm just muddling through it and hoping for the best.

    Is there a website or book that you could recommend that shows some sample synopses... you know, something to the effect that here is the synopsis for this book, and this is why it works. Something like that would be so helpful!

  32. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 6:13 PM  

    Engrid ~~ Too funny -- sometimes it feels like that. We work and work to master a craft technique and before we have a chance to celebrate we find out there's more to learn!! That's why writing to be published is not for
    wussies :-)) Thanks for stopping by and hang in there!
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  33. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 6:15 PM  

    Pamela --- how fun to know you'll be in the upcoming Synopsis class!! We'll have a great [and intense] two weeks -- pretty soon you'll have to host a How to Pace Yourself in Mary B class . Thanks so much for stopping by ~~ Mary B :-)

  34. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 6:22 PM  

    Dani ~~ I know that Lisa Coll has a pretty decent book out on Query Letters and I think she may have one on synopses -- but basically anything from Writer's Digest publishers tends to be cool. You have to understand plot to understand a synopsis because that's a large part of what they are meant to show an editor/agent. I'm afraid I don't know any book that has examples of synopses that sold fiction -- but it's a great idea! Thanks for popping in here ~~ Mary B :-)

  35. Denise of Ingleside // March 8, 2011 at 6:38 PM  

    Synopsis is something I need to know more about. This is a wonderful post. I'll be taking notes for my writing journal :)
    and after Mary's Pacing class, I'll be taking Synopsis now :)

    love,
    Denise of Ingleside

  36. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 6:46 PM  

    Hi Denise ~~ delighted that you found your way over here. I only teach the class once, maybe twice a year because it's so intense -- we literally tear apart your story to find the internal and external conflict, the external goals, the plot points, crisis and climax of your story and make sure your character growth and change that's needed is clear in the beginning and is resolved at the end of the story -- piece of cake :-)) Actually it can be a great way to pre-plot a story or act as a revision piece if the story is already written. Synopses can really tell a cold reader so much about whether a story is solid or iffy :-) Thanks for finding your way here today! Cheers ~~ Mary
    B :-)

  37. Donnell // March 8, 2011 at 7:13 PM  

    Mary, don't be grabbing Mary B. too hard now, she's fragile, but she certainly knows her stuff. Sorry I'm so late getting here, I've been writing in between painting walls. Your muse always hits when you're up on a ladder.

    Off to tell people to check out this post. Great information. Thanks Mary M. and Pink Fuzzies

  38. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 7:37 PM  

    Donnell -- moi? Fragile? Like an old shoe . Have fun with that painting and when you're done I've got a few spots you can patch up ~~ bad Mary :-)

  39. Lauri // March 8, 2011 at 8:55 PM  

    Thanks so much for the helpful tips! After handling transitions properly, the hardest task for me is paring down the characters so I don't include too many proper names-I like your reminder that a descriptor (brother,husband) might be more helpful than the proper name-I'm going to go back and edit right now! And thanks for your thoughts on series synopsis. A great post!

  40. Scarlet Pumpernickel // March 8, 2011 at 9:13 PM  

    Mary welcome to the pink fuzzies, we are so please to have you come and hang out with us. Wow, what an interesting blog you've given us. I intend to print this out and use it to revise my synopsis.

    MM, thanks for snagging Mary for the Fuzzies.

  41. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 9:15 PM  

    Hi Lauri ~~ Thanks so much for taking the time to pop in here today. Delighted to know some of the thoughts have been helpful!
    Have fun with your synopsis.
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  42. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 9:17 PM  

    Scarlet ~~ It's always a pleasure to drop by and share with such lovely writers!! And how can a blog go wrong with the word 'sin' in it. That's almost as juicy as that other three letter word that starts with 's'.
    Cheers ~~ Mary B :-)

  43. Edie Ramer // March 8, 2011 at 9:25 PM  

    Great post. I'm sure I've committed all of those sins, and more than once.

  44. Anonymous // March 8, 2011 at 9:34 PM  

    Hi Mary, I'm in your Pacing class--thanks for the tip about stopping by at PFSW today. I've written synopses for the same book--ranging from one page to eight pages. The eight-pager was for myself, to keep my story on track while writing it. My current WIP has a twelve-page synopsis--again, just for me. I don't understand why people hate them so much--I think they are incredibly useful. Maybe I have a fuzzy brain--but I use my synopsis for focus and direction. Elizabeth Palladino

  45. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 10:18 PM  

    Hi Elizabeth P ~~ thanks for making your way over here and you're right -- synopses can be a very useful tool to keep on target. Glad to hear that you use them that way!!

    Cheers and thanks again ~~ Mary B :-)

  46. Mary Buckham // March 8, 2011 at 10:21 PM  

    Hi Edie ~~too funny! I'm thinking this is a good way for a rumor to get started - hey, pssst, did you here what sins Edie committed last week? Sorry -- there's a reason folks don't let me loose that often!

    Thanks for jumping in here ~~ Mary B :-) wondering if there's a 12 Step Program for Synopsis Sinners

  47. Mary Marvella // March 8, 2011 at 11:20 PM  

    OMIGOD, Mary! that could be your next project! !2 steps for the synopsis sinners here. Love it!

  48. Mary Buckham // March 9, 2011 at 12:16 AM  

    Mary M and other Pink Fuzzy Slipper Writers all -- thank you for hosting me here today and for giving writers every where a gathering place so unique.

    Take care and happy writing ~~ Mary B :-)

  49. Sandy Elzie // March 9, 2011 at 7:54 AM  

    Mary,
    What a great article! And timely for all of us putting our work "out there".

    Thanks for the advice.

    Sandy

  50. Mary Buckham // March 9, 2011 at 12:40 PM  

    Hey Sandy ~~ How fun to see you here and gold stars to every one taking that big scary step of submitting their work. It's the only way to get published!!

    Cheers and long distance hugs ~~Mary B :-)

  51. Bratty // March 10, 2011 at 12:44 AM  

    *drools* I love your class, Mary. Didn't know you had a book out. This is helpful!

  52. Mary Ricksen // March 10, 2011 at 1:16 PM  

    I wish I knew half of what you know Mary!!!