Writing the Synopsis: giving the editor what she wants

I hate writing synopses. I feel embarrassed looking at my plot and characters reduced to a few paragraphs. The whole thing looks stupid and childish. Why would anyone read this dumb crap anyway?

Moreover, I have never met an author who likes writing synopses. Virtually every one I get is prefaced with ‘I’m rubbish at writing these’, and usually the author is correct.

And yet, we all have to write them, so suck it up.

But KJ, why do I have to?

Because you need to convey to your editor if it’s worth her while reading your submission. That includes telling her how the story develops, right to the end. Synopses that end: ‘But can Boris persuade Florence of the truth?’ or ‘…Will they survive?’ or, most loathsome of all, ‘If you want to know the answer, you’ll have to read the book!’ are a waste of the editor’s time.

But doesn’t that spoil the book for her?

No. It may well be relevant to her decision whether to read the damn thing at all. If your novel ends with the hero going back to his wife, leaving the heroine devastated, it may be a very good book, but it won’t work for Harlequin Romance. If it ends with a cliffhanger, and we need to read Book 2 to find out if the hero survives, and if the editor is not empowered/inclined to commit to two books, there’s no point her looking at book 1. Ditto if your book depends on the entire middle section being conveyed through the medium of an embedded interpretative dance video. The editor would like to know this sort of thing before she embarks on reading it, and she won’t thank you for the surprise.

Alright! Fine! I’ll write a full synopsis. So how do I do this, then?

There’s no one size fits all, but here are some guidelines that work for me, and (the things I do for you) some examples from the synopsis for my first book.

The Set-Up

Summarize the necessary information at the start of your synopsis, to make your plot clearer and to ensure that, if the editor doesn’t like that kind of thing, she can hand it to someone who might.  If there’s a complex setting, eg a fantasy world, kick off with that before you get into the story. Do not try to weave in the information in the same order as it appears in the book, or to include all the main characters and every plot development. This is a synopsis, not a very heavily edited MS.

My synopsis for The Magpie Lord began:

A fantasy / M/M romance set in a late Victorian England where magic exists.

It gets you started nicely to say who the book is about:

Lucien Vaudrey, the younger son of the seventh Earl Crane, was exiled to China by his father aged 17. He built a new life as a smuggler and trader with the aid of his manservant/valet/henchman Merrick. Now the suicides of his father and his elder brother have made Lucien the new Lord Crane, and he is forced to return to England and to Piper, his decaying family home.

Why has he had to come back to England? It doesn’t matter from a synopsis point of view (it’s not directly relevant to the main thrust of the plot), so I’m not saying, but I’ve included ‘forced’ so it’s clear he’s in a difficult situation. His family is relevant to the main plot development, and Piper is where the action happens, so they need to be in here. Merrick is a major supporting character, but in fact I should have left him out – he’s vital to the book, but not to the synopsis. Wasted words.

Tip: If you’re not completely sure if your details are relevant, stick them in and then, if they don’t recur in the completed synopsis, take them out again.

Now the basic set up that introduces the other hero:

As the story opens, Crane is suffering attacks of what seems to be suicidal mania. He seeks magical assistance. Stephen Day arrives to help.

And who is he when he’s at home?

Stephen’s family were destroyed by Crane’s father and brother. He loathes the Vaudrey family. But he is a justiciar, enforcing the law of the magical community, and duty demands that he help Crane now.

This paragraph jams in all the backstory we need about a major source of conflict in the central relationship, and tells us about Stephen’s (relevant) job too. It’s an info dump but that’s fine: that’s what a synopsis is.

At this point I went into the plot (which I won’t copy here – if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book! Oooh, that felt good.) But it was a lot easier to summarise the plot once I didn’t have to keep breaking off to explain stuff, plus I’d ensured the editor knew from the first lines whether it was something she might want to read.

The Main Plot

Conveying the set-up is generally more important than giving the plot itself. Once you’ve established your main characters, situation and their problems, you almost certainly don’t need to do more than say ‘and then stuff happens.’

A lengthy chase around Europe’s art capitals ensues, as Uncharacterised Man and Token Woman seek the clues they need, hampered at every turn by an offensive albino and a poorly concealed villain.

Only really massive plot twists need to be included, not a blow-by-blow account.

Tip: If it’s a ‘romance with other’ (ie romantic fantasy, romantic suspense) don’t forget to indicate the progress of the relationship along with the progress of the other plot. It’s easy to summarise why the hero is fleeing the mafia and what steps the heroine takes to protect him, but if you’re writing a romance, your editor needs an idea of the conflict between the main characters, how their relationship goes up and down, and how issues are resolved. (If there is no conflict or up-and-down in your central relationship, you’ve done something wrong.)


So, to synopsise: Introduce your setting, introduce your characters, show us your central conflicts and plot drivers, and don’t forget the ending. Lengthwise, follow guidelines, but if there aren’t any: one side of A4, single spaced.  And don’t worry if it makes you cringe. We’re all in the same boat there.

Go on, tell me how you write them…

Getting to the Editor: follow the guidelines

‘Hi, I have a manuscript I’d like to send you but I see you don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Please call me back to ask me to send it to you.’ – Actual message on my actual voicemail.

It is really hard to get your MS read by a publisher.

That’s just how it is. Everyone is writing a book. Literally, everyone on this planet, all seven billion of us, with the single exception of an author I contracted three years ago and who still hasn’t bloody delivered, is writing a novel. Getting yours in front of an editor is hard.

There’s no magic bullet. But:

1) Find an agent or a publisher who might be interested in it.

Do your research. Look at the publishers of books similar to your MS. Check they accept unsolicited submissions. Use their website, or the Writers and Artists Yearbook or similar.

Sending your MS to people who don’t publish that genre is a waste of everybody’s time, particularly yours. It is, of course, possible that an editor at Harlequin will look at your poetry collection/history of the Hundred Years War/cookery book and say, ‘This is so amazing, we must find a way to publish it – let’s set up a completely new imprint!’ But it’s only possible in the sense that it’s possible somewhere in the universe there is a planet made entirely of snot: the principles of infinity dictate that it must happen, but I’m not expecting to see it in my lifetime. If the guidelines say, ‘We only publish short books (up to 20,000 words)’, I’m unlikely to change my mind for your 1.5 million word Suitable Boy fanfiction. If the agent says ‘no fantasy’ she means ‘no fantasy’ and if your fantasy is so brilliant that any agent would snap it up despite her seething hatred of all things elvish, still send it to agents who want to see fantasy.

2) Check the submission instructions and follow them.

Just do it, alright? If you can write a 50,000 word MS, you can read six lines of instructions. Or, to put it another way, if you can’t follow six lines of instructions, I’m going to query whether you can take editorial guidance.

If the ed asks for double spacing, then double space*. If it says ‘attachments in .rtf format, then find out how to save as RTF format**. If it says ‘first three chapters only’ then don’t send all of it***, or chapters 4-7****.

* My eyes hurt.

** I’m guessing they work on a crappy old Mac.

*** I suppose this makes no difference with electronic subs but it’s annoying as hell with paper. I have enough paper in my life.

**** …because you might as well say ‘Chapters 1-3 are awful.’

3) Don’t ‘make your MS stand out’ by doing damn fool things like putting glitter in an envelope, printing your work on deep red paper, enclosing topless glamour shots of yourself or pretending to be a rabbit complete with rabbit author photo and letter pp’d for Mr Flopsy.

None of this will be new to anyone interested in getting published. But if I had a pound for every lovingly crafted, sweated-over MS that I drop in the reject pile because it’s just not for my list, or it’s arrived in WordStar and I can’t open it, I’d be able to afford sorely-needed therapy. You may think the guidelines are picky or trivial or pointless; you may have heard from someone on the internet that editors put them there to weed out the people who don’t have the imagination and tenacity to ignore them (this…just…no); you may believe that only the writing matters and your story’s quality will shine through no matter how it is presented.

All I’m saying is, I’m a commissioning editor, and I made it my business to follow the submission guidelines exactly.

Being an Editor: The other stuff

– This contract is asking for a definition of ‘Editor’, can you supply something?

– How about ‘irritable, tea drinking pedant’?

– I’ll put that in the boilerplate.

What editors do all day has been brilliantly summed up in this handy pie chart from Sarah Fletcher ( and @sjhfletcher).


I can’t better that, but it made me think of some of the other things that I have done as an editor aside from make tea and swear at Word.

  • Briefed an illustrator to draw an invisible dragon.
  • Negotiated swear words. (‘You can have all the twats and both pricks but we have to lose the shit.’)
  • Written the hitherto untyped sentence, ‘We’re going to need a lot more accordions in this.’
  • Fielded calls from men pitching erotic novels who want to explain the ins and outs of the plot. Tip: the purpose of their call may not be to pitch a novel.
  • Measured the slush pile with a ruler. (9 feet 4 inches.)
  • Let a particularly loquacious author keep talking on the phone just to see how long she would go on unchecked. Cracked at 1 hour 20.
  • Edited a book translated from the Chinese, where the author had used English quotes for the chapter epigraphs, translated them into Chinese, and now couldn’t supply the originals. Spent a day in the library attempting to source original quotes based on text that had gone into Chinese and out again. Speed read Tom Jones in the process. Didn’t find the quote.
  • Worked out what had gone wrong when the MS included several big chunks of text like this but extending to entire paragraphs:

 Ks,rd ;sihjrf jrstyo;u/ |Upi do;;u ;oyy;r yjomg.| jr rcv;so,rf/

and retyped it into English.

  • Used the word ‘tweak’ to describe both the alteration of a semi-colon to a colon, and a complete rewrite of the ending.
  • Had an email argument with an author over a single comma that lasted two full days and eventually covered three sides of A4 with closely argued reasoning, examples and citations.
  • Discussed the finer points of editing erotica including dubious consent with a colleague while out one evening. Silenced the entire pub.

So if you’re wondering why the editor still hasn’t got back to you on your MS…this is what she’s doing.

Or making tea. One of them, anyway.