: More on writing a synopsis that works
In the winter of ’01/’02 I posted a writing tip that contained all I knew about writing a synopsis. It neatly summarized Pam McCutcheon’s five plot point method—which I still think is brilliant way to get the right plot structure into your one page synopsis without overloading it.
In the fall of ’07 I found myself pitching (well, my agent was pitching) three books that I really wanted to write. One was a two-book series with a near-future SF setting involving Native American mythology and magic, and another that was set in an alternate world WWI dealing with several forms of magic and gypsies. The settings seemed unusual enough to pique people’s interest, the stories were strong, the characters had pretty good arcs…and every editor my agent pitched them to, including one I was currently working with and another that was interested in taking me on, turned all three proposals down flat.
“Spirit quests are a turn off.” “Gypsies are never popular—you’d think they would be, but they never sell.” “We’d like to see something with more action, more like you’ve done before.”
Who knew? But my Raven books would be full of action—they weren’t mellow and new-agey, they were going to have an edgy urban-fantasy tone, only with a lying trickster/shapeshifter instead of vampires. I loved these books, the main characters were talking in my head, and I really wanted to write them! So, filled with desperation, I sat down and rewrote my Raven pitch again from scratch. And this version sold to the first editor to whom my agent pitched it.
Rereading the two versions—of both my long synopsis and my one paragraph pitch—I can see why the first one failed and the second succeeded. They tell the exact same story, but there’s a huge difference between them, so (with my editor’s permission and a signed contract in hand) I offer them here for you to compare. I should mention that the synopsises are a longer version; this is the kind of synopsis you send along with the first few chapters to sell a book you haven’t written, as opposed to the one to two page version you write to interest an agent or editor in taking a look at a manuscript you’ve already completed.
But now; pitch one that didn’t sell:
The Raven Duet, book one:
The world is slowly succumbing to an ecological catastrophe, and an anthropology student learns that it can only be reversed by using a Native American artifact to restore the earth’s magical nexuses—she wasn’t able to save her father from cancer, even to present in the hospice when he died, but, guided by a trickster spirit, maybe she can save the world. However, she is stopped by security at the Canadian/Alaskan border, and she must chose between failure or learning to let go—she learns to forgive herself, and passes her quest into other hands.
And pitch two that sold:
A century after 9/11, in a high tech, high security world where bio-terrorism threatens to cripple the eco-system, magic is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The Raven Duet, book one:
When she sees a teenage boy shapeshift into a raven, Kelsey doubts her eyes and her sanity. But the stranger convinces her that he’s not a stalker, and that she can save the world from a looming ecological catastrophe with magic. What Raven isn’t telling Kelsey is that some of his kind would prefer to see all humans die. Hindered by mages who can influence both nature and human minds, and wanted by the law, Kelsey manages to elude Raven’s enemies and accomplish her task until she reaches the security-intense Canada/Alaska border. There, the combination of alien magic and human police prove too much for her to overcome. Realizing that finishing the task is more important than who completes it, Kelsey passes her mission on to a Native American youth.
The long synopsis that failed:
The Raven Duet, Book One:
Even as a child, Kelsey had a hard time passing responsibility on to others—she was finally kicked off the second grade soccer team because she could never bring herself to pass the ball. She got better at delegating minor responsibilities as the years passed, but when her father died of cancer, in a hospice instead of at home like he wanted, Kelsey’s mother shirked her responsibility in a way that Kelsey cannot forgive.
So when Kelsey is stalked by a crazy black-haired youth, who demands she go on a spirit quest to save the world from an ecological catastrophe, Kelsey’s first thought is to deal with the matter herself. The boy, who calls himself Raven, is so persistent she is almost ready to go to the police…until he shape-shifts into a raven in front of her eyes.
According to Raven the DNA plague that has already destroyed half the rain forests will eventually spread throughout the planet, unless the fading magical nexuses of the earth are restored by a human. And he has chosen Kelsey to restore the magic of western North America by carrying dust from a central nexus to seven magical nexus points through the Pacific Northwest and into Alaska.
Kelsey thinks they’re both crazy, but she’s sufficiently convinced that he might actually be the Native-American trickster spirit, Raven (and she’s sufficiently angry with her mother) that she agrees to run away and undertake the quest.
In the high-tech, high security world of 2128, simply robbing the museum for the pouch of sacred dust would be challenging enough. But what the trickster spirit hasn’t told Kelsey is that not all of the spirit world believes that humanity should be allowed to survive this latest catastrophe.
The sprits cannot act directly in the world, but they can influence both nature and human nature. Pursued by both the authorities and a hover-bike gang who believe she dissed them by escaping their attempted rape, Kelsey still manages to complete her quest as far as the Canada/Alaska border. But at the border checkpoint, with enemies closing in on all sides, she realized that the completion of the quest is more important than who completes it. She stages a distraction, which implicates the bikers, and while the authorities are occupied she throws the medicine bag of sacred dust to a Native-American boy on the other side of the great fence. They’re his spirits after all, surely she is leaving the quest in good hands…just as her mother left her father’s death in the proper charge when she put him into the hospice.
And version two that sold:
Raven Duet, Book One:
When a strange youth shapeshifts into a raven in front of her, Kelsey doubts her eyes and her sanity. But once he convinces her that she’s sane and he’s not a stalker, Raven explains that saving the forests of the world from a growing agro-plague that threatens the whole planet is up to Kelsey. And the first thing she has to do is to steal a pouch of “magical” dust, created by a shaman three hundred years ago, from the basement of the museum where it is stored.
Burglary is something Kelsey wouldn’t ordinarily do. But since her mother refused to let her father die of cancer in his own home, placing him in a hospice instead, Kelsey is ready to break some laws. Besides, Raven has mixed a handful of her father’s ashes into the dust to bind her into the magic, and Kelsey wants them back.
With the dust in their possession, Raven tells her it must now be delivered—by a human hand—to various magical nexus points scattered between Utah and Alaska. What Raven isn’t telling her is that a faction of his society wants humanity to fail and die, even if it means a significant weakening of the magical leys that exist in both his dimension and ours. And Raven’s enemies also have power in this world, both to sway nature and shift human minds.
Kelsey is dubious of his whole story, but she has seen him work indisputable magic, and the first nexus is just over the border in Idaho. She spins her mother a tale of going to stay with an aunt and sets off—and all her doubts are dispelled when she trickles a handful of dust onto the floor of a lava cave, and the resulting earth tremor sets off seismographs in three states. More, Kelsey can sense the magic working, flooding down the leylines to heal the earth’s fading immune system—and she suddenly realizes what a great responsibility this stranger has placed in her hands.
Raven’s enemies set a biker gang to kidnap Kelsey, and when she barely escapes, Raven is forced to tell her the truth. Now that Raven knows his enemies are after her, he can use his own magic to defend her from the bikers, who are tracking down the prey who humiliated them and escaped. And Raven does defend her, until his enemies turn human security systems against them.
A hundred years after 9/11, security in Canada is far looser than it is in the U.S., but a stranger without the proper documentation is always a threat—and Raven only discovers he has been slipped a poison that nullifies his ability to shapeshift after he has landed in jail.
Kelsey is trying to get to him without arousing the authorities’ suspicion when she’s approached by an old woman, another shapeshifter who reveals herself as one of Raven’s allies, and who takes Kelsey to the next nexus point—where, for the first time, the touch of the catalytic dust has no effect.
Kelsey realizes that the woman isn’t Raven’s ally, but one of his enemies trying to stop her—and that the grandmotherly villain doesn’t know that Kelsey can sense the dust’s effect on the leys. Thanking God for the control-freak streak in her nature, which kept the pouch in Kelsey’s hands despite the old woman’s attempts to get hold of it, Kelsey escapes her new “guide” and goes back to the small town where she manages to slip Raven an antidote for the poison that blocked his ability to shapeshift out of the jail.
But now the Canadian police are after the two of them, as well as the bikers, and wanted posters and their enemies’ magic work together to stop Kelsey and Raven. At the security-intense Canada/Alaska border the bikers (who know that a fugitive jail-breaker won’t dare go to the police) corner Kelsey, and she realizes that the forces allied against her are too great for her to overcome—just as her father’s death at home was more than her mother was able to overcome.
Finishing the task is more important than who completes it. Kelsey uses the bikers to cause a disturbance that distracts the authorities and—giving up on trying to control life, death, and the universe—she throws the pouch of dust over the border to a Native American youth. Surely he is the right person to finish saving the world, just as the hospice caregivers were probably the right people to care for her father after all.
(And this leads into the beginning of book two, where a pouch of magical dust lands at the feet of a boy of Native American heritage…who has been raised in the white culture as a city kid, and who has no clue what to do with it! But that’s book two.)
You’ll note that I managed to tell the entire story in the second version without using “spirit quest” or even “quest,” and I also put in a few more of the plot twists—but neither of those things are what made the difference. You could probably analyze it to death, counting active and passive verbs and things like that, but the simple fact is that one version is interesting and the other isn’t.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but I think what makes the biggest difference is that in the first version I’m telling the reader about the book from the author’s point of view, and in the second version I’m telling the story from Kelsey’s point of view.
It probably helped that the second version was pitched to an editor I’d worked with before and knew well, and adding a large portion of desperation doubtless gave it another boost. But it’s the shift in tone and attitude that really made the difference, and I hope comparing these two versions will help you to bring your own synopsises to life—before you hit the desperation stage!