Why & When Should You Write a Synopsis?

cat typewriterWhen I was just beginning as a novelist, the publisher guideline request “submit a synopsis and sample chapters” was intimidating to say the least. There was something terrifyingly daunting about writing a succinct compelling summary of my 300-page novel packaged into just a few pages. As author Katherine Eliska Kimbriel said, “The instinctive response [of the author] is to clap on a helmet and start digging a trench.” I had a right to be terrified. In some ways the synopsis is the hardest thing for a novelist to write. Yet it is the first thing most publishers and agents want (and have time) to see of your cherished project (aside from those sample chapters, of course). Every fiction writer who wants to sell in the current market must know how to write a synopsis because that’s what an editor wants to see first. Most editors (if they’re good) are overworked with scarce enough time to answer their phones, much less their emails.

I’m not going to describe how to write a synopsis in this post. If you want to see an excellent summary of what a good synopsis should look like, there are many excellent descriptions by professional editors, agents and other writers who describe what a synopsis is and even give examples—including my own book “The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now!”, Chapter “O.” Elizabeth Lyon also describes the synopsis (as opposed to an outline) in several of her how-to books.cat-on-typewriter

Instead, I present here why you should write that dreaded synopsis, and way before you finish your book, too.

Synopsis vs. Outline

A synopsis is not an outline. Both are useful to the writer, yet each serves a very different purpose. An outline is a tool (usually just for the writer) that sketches plot items of a book. It provides a skeleton or framework of people, places and their relationships to the storyline that permits the writer to ultimately gauge scene, setting, and character depth or even determine whether a character is required (every character must have a reason to be in the book, usually to move the plot). For writers just beginning, this is an excellent tool to keep the narrative spare and compelling and to remove superfluous characters and other things (a common beginning writer inclination). A synopsis, on the other hand, is an in-depth summary of the entire book that weaves in thematic elements with plot to portray a compelling often multi-level story arc. This is usually what an editor wants to see, although I have seen them request an outline as well. To put it basically, the outline describes what happens when and to whom, while the synopsis includes the “why” part.

What a synopsis does (along with the sample chapters and extremely important query letter) is get your manuscript read by an editor. That’s the real purpose of a synopsis. An editor makes his/her decision to look at your manuscript based on these three items: query letter (intro to you); sample chapters; and your synopsis. Ultimately, their decision resides with whether your project fits their own imprint at the time.

If that isn’t reason enough to write a synopsis of your novel, below are two others:

Synopsis as Storytelling Prompt

cat typewriter2A synopsis of your novel goes beyond the outline to help polish elements of story arc, characterization with plot and setting with story. The synopsis can answer questions perplexing the author, stuck on a scene or plot item. It helps you weave your novel’s elements into a well-integrated story that is compelling at many levels. Because the synopsis is based on emotional turning points (related to theme), character dramatization of the premise is a key foundation. It makes sense to write drafts of your synopsis as you go along in the novel; that way it’s useful to both you and to the editor and then it’s more or less written when you need to submit it along with sample chapters…and not quite as daunting a task either.

Synopsis as Marketing Summarytrees sunlight

Your well-written synopsis is often used internally by the publishing house staff (e.g., by artist, copywriter, and sales department) once your novel has been accepted.

I advise you to write it now. Don’t wait. Make the synopsis work for you throughout your novel’s journey.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Who’s Your Audience and Why Should You Care?

winter-path-in-sunThe artistic process, whether painting or prose, is admittedly the child of self-expression. The long-standing image of the artist cloistered in her studio—hunched over a writing desk or standing before a canvas to create from the depths of his/her soul—is surely a truism. Artists create from the heart; we dive deep inside our often-tortured souls and closeted past to draw out the universal metaphors that speak to humanity and share—

Ay, there’s the rub. For to share is to have a dialogue and to have a meaningful dialogue is to demonstrate consideration of the other. Somewhere in that journey that began with self, others entered. It is, in fact, something of a paradox and a conundrum for many artists. One that has challenged the artistic community for centuries. It is also why many artists have relied on agents, benefactors, and advocates to effectively communicate, target — and even interpret—their often abstruse “message” to appropriate audiences.

Purists will tell you that a true artist need not consider her audience; because her self-expression naturally finds relevance with the culture and zeitgeist from which she writes through universally understood metaphor: her story is their story.

But is that enough?

I suppose it finally comes down to whether you are interested in sharing. I don’t know any published authors who don’t wish their books to sell. Every storyteller needs an audience to connect with and engage. That is ultimately what good storytelling does: engage, connect, rouse emotions and evoke empathic feelings. Make an impact.

Does identifying and targeting a specific audience result in more satisfied readers and ultimately better sales? Of course it does. The more you—and whoever is helping you market your work—know about your audience, the more likely you are going to attract them to your book, convince them to buy it and ultimately connect with them through story.

That’s the irony of art: it is a treasure that is created out of the depths of solitude but ultimately brought into the light and shared with the world. For your art to have impact, you must know and understand your world.

Knowing your audience will affect every aspect of your book project. It will help determine:

  • What your story is about and how you write it (e.g., language, “voice” or personality, narrative style, tone or mood/attitude, characters, setting and theme, even length)
  • What genre and sub-genre(s) it lies under
  • The look and tone of the cover and blurb (one that matches the story and its audience; I previously wrote about book jacket blurbs and book covers )
  • All aspects of promotion, including the language and images you use, where you direct your marketing and how (e.g., medium, timing, etc.)

For your work to succeed, it’s important to consider the following:

  • collision-with-paradise-smallWrite to the audience’s expectations (given the promise of your work): success of stories with readers will rely on the alignment of expected story structure, tone and endings. My romance SF therefore reads differently from my hard SF in so many ways.
  • darwins-paradoxWrite to the understanding level of your intended audience: how and what I write for my hard science fiction audience (with expectations on accurate and intelligent exploration and extrapolation on science) is different from the style I use for my historical fantasy. This will include “voice”, language and use of specific vocabulary, terms and concepts, sentence structure and pace.
  • Write with the knowledge of your relationship to the reader: how will you gain their empathy and buy-in to your story? This will depend on the genre of your work and expectations of its associated readership.

 

Understand Your Audience

Who is going to read your work? To what age group to they belong? What culture and sub-culture? What gender(s)? What education and intellectual capacity? Economic status? What regions? What political leanings? Prejudices and beliefs? What knowledge-base? For instance, you wouldn’t use a lot of multi-sylabic latinisms in an action thriller; but you might in a literary fiction or even high fantasy. If you research and create a profile of your intended reader, this will help you identify who you are writing to.  “Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing,” says SkillsYouNeed.com.

It isn’t enough to know who is reading, but why they are reading your writing. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Who do I want to read this? Who are you writing for? They are your primary audience; the ones you will truly resonate with your story; they will be your fans: who are they?
  2. Who else is likely to read this? This is your secondary audience, readers who may not necessarily read your genre but are interested in the issues or premise of your story or will appreciate how you’ve handled it in your story: who might they be? 

 

Writers are Solopreneurs

In his 2014 article in Forbes, Jayson DeMers shares that: “Market research was once the purview of only big companies. If you weren’t a Fortune 1000 brand, investing in any form of customer research was outside the scope of what many businesses could afford. Today, advances in market research technology have opened a whole range of services to even the smallest businesses. Small enterprises and solopreneurs routinely test ideas before they take them to market, saving tens of thousands of dollars and years of time developing products and services that fall flat with the market.”

Given the current publishing paradigm—which offers less and less to the author, writers are now more than ever required to understand their audience, given their need to be solopreneurs, succeeding on their own know-how, rather than relying on some marketing department that no longer exists.

To know your audience is to know your story better.

A previous version of this article was published in the Clarion Foundation blog and presented by Lynda Williams.

 

nina-2014aaNina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

Writing a Review on Amazon or Goodreads…It’s Not So Hard To Do

blue-forest-pathWHY Do a Review

There are several reasons to provide an online review.

As a reader, you can offer a recommendation to your fellow readers on a writer whose work you like. You are doing that writer a BIG favor by providing the review; just by adding an additional voice to that book’s virtual shelf. Any voice is better than no voice at all. This is why I generally don’t do negative reviews: just by adding a review (good or bad) you are adding to the voices associated with that book. I prefer to concentrate on adding a positive voice to the conversation. I’d rather spend my time helping and supporting writers and works that I like than bashing works I don’t care for. So, if you like a writer / book, letting other readers know right where the book is selling is a very effective way to help.

water-is-amazoncan-usa

Figure 1. Amazon Canada reviews of “Water Is…” (with added Amazon USA reviews)

Online reviews on Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon (primarily Amazon.com, but also Amazon.ca for Canada, and others throughout the world) are very useful and much appreciated by writers who you are reading and who want to keep writing for you. Goodreads (a primary book review and recommendation site) is another excellent site to place a review. It’s a free website for book lovers, who can feature their bookshelves, write reviews and rank books.

last-summoner-goodreads

Figure 2. Goodreads reviews and ranks for “The Last Summoner”

Reviews are one of the best ways to give back to the writers you wish to support. And, believe me, writers need that support! With Christmas coming around the corner, now is a prime time to get that review out that you’ve been thinking of doing to help your favorite writer or book. As a writer, if you aren’t writing reviews or making some recommendations on books and authors you like, you may wish to read my article on reciprocal altruism and the case of the vampire bat.

natural-selection-amazon

Figure 3. Amazon USA Kindle reviews for “Natural Selection”

HOW to Do a Review

I think so many of us get into thinking that we must write a “book report” like the one we hated doing in high school. But a review—particularly a good one—is not a book report. It is not the same as a critique, which may go into depth about artistic interpretation and symbolism. A review for a bookseller, like Amazon, Kobo or Barnes & Noble, is a lot simpler and serves a different purpose.

A good review provides key information on how the book resonated—or didn’t—with you. It’s really not that hard to write. Here are some tips:

  • A book review is NOT a plot outline. You don’t need to tell the potential reader all the ins and outs of the story. In fact, to get a good sense of the book, particularly if it is a non-fiction reference book, you don’t need to finish the book before you review it. What you do need to have done is read enough to have the book “speak” to you in some way.
  • Reviews are about connection and resonation. What did you like most about the book or what bothered you the most? The best reviews have a balance of both positive and negative things. But they don’t need to. Are you glad you bought it? Why? Did you learn something? Did it change your perspective? How did it touch you? Would you buy more by the same author? Would you recommend it? And if so, why. Think of your fellow readers. In fact, that’s a good way to write the review:
  • Write in a conversational tone as if you are describing the book to a friend you are recommending it to. You don’t need to get all technical or “literary” or use fancy or clever language. Write in the language that feels familiar to you. Remember, you’re writing to other readers.
  • Just be honest. What’s the first thing that comes to you? Write from the heart: “I loved this book because…” Perhaps it’s the memorable main character. Or the rich setting and history. Or the incredible world. Or the imaginative idea and twists in the story. Or the unforeseen but appropriate end. Did the book linger with you? Tell us why.
  • A book review can be short and work very well. I’ve seen a single under 10-word sentence for some reviews of my books. But those less than 10 words mean a lot, especially if they say: “Amazing wealth of information!” Or “A wonderful read.” Or “brilliantly written!” Short is direct and clean—like a poem—and distills your impressions down to an essence that will appeal to many. It will more likely be read in a sea of longer reviews. See examples in Figures 1, 2, and 5.
  • Combine this with a good title and you have a very powerful statement. I’m talking about the space that Amazon also provides for a “title” to your review (see examples in Figure 1 and 3), which appears at the top in bold and is, therefore very prominent. Be mindful of this title as readers may skim through these and use them alone to gain a sense of the reviews. Think of it as a one-line book tag, a distillation of how you felt about the book (e.g., This book changed my perspective on water; I want to be her when I grow up), or who you are, even (e.g., Limnologist Recommends…)
  • Ranking a book is useful. Most bookseller and book review sites include a place for you to rank the book, without even needing to put in a written review. These all help a reader sense the book’s popularity. You can also help by “liking” other people’s reviews, helping to give them importance.
darwins-paradox-goodreads

Figure 4. Goodreads rankings for “Darwin’s Paradox”

WHERE to Do a Review

I’ve already mentioned the main sites that either sell books online or talk about books. The major bookstore sites include: Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Indigo. There are many other online booksellers, but the ones I mentioned will get to the most readers; so, your review will serve its purpose more powerfully there.

Just a note here about Amazon: I’m a Canadian and my books sell on Amazon.ca as well as on Amazon.com (in the USA). My books also sell in Japan, Australia, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy, just to name a few countries. Each of these countries is represented by its own Amazon online store (like Amazon.ca for Canada). If you write a review on Amazon.ca, it will only show up on Amazon.ca. If you write a review on Amazon.com, it will show up on all the other Amazon sites (see Figure 1). Generally, it’s best to write your review on the site from where you bought the book; but, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve bought a book on one Amazon site and written a review on another.

Goodreads is one of the best book review sites, given its popularity and large, diverse and active membership. Goodreads readers—and their authors—take books seriously. But even there, reviews can vary from extensive to a few sentences as shown in these reviews for my writing guide “The Fiction Writer” (Figure 5), and in Figure 2 for “The Last Summoner.”

fiction-writer-goodreads

Figure 5. Goodreads Reviews for “The Fiction Writer”

WHAT Reviews Look Like

I’ve included throughout this article examples of reviews for my various books which show you a range of style and impression—both positive and negative. Writers do want an honest review. Yes, we’d rather see all positive reviews. But the negative review has its place, the very least, to demonstrate to readers that the critique forum is objective and unbiased and embraces free expression.

Notice that Goodreads embraces a platform that shows a combination of review and rank, which works very well (see Figure 2). Also, notice the Goodreads ranks for my first novel, “Darwin’s Paradox” in Figure 4, which represent a healthy range from 1 to five stars. Figures 6 and 7, below, demonstrate the full range of reviews a single book can get, in this case for the first book, “Outer Diverse”, of my space adventure trilogy, “Splintered Universe”.

outer-diverse-goodreads2

outer-diverse-goodreads-neg

Figure 7. Another Goodreads review of “Outer Diverse”

So, have fun writing your review; but go and write it!

 

nina-2014aaa

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.