How to Write a Synopsis – Notes


The Literary Consultancy (TLC) were good enough to write about how to write a synopsis and cover letter. Here are my notes on what was written:

  • Synopsis definition: ‘a brief description of the contents of something’
  • Purpose: “to inform a literary agent or publisher of the type of book you are writing/have written in a concise, appealing fashion”
  • Submissions to agents and publishers should include a “cover letter, synopsis and sample chapters” rather than a whole work
  • A synopsis demonstrates that you know your story and that it is clear, persuasive or gripping
  • think of the project as an enjoyable literary exercise and an opportunity to show your work off in its essential form
  • For examples, refer to book blurbs or plot summaries in reference books or on Wikipedia
  • A synopsis should demonstrate where your work fits into the market. Think of marketing ‘hooks’ or current hot topics
  • A “fiction synopsis should comprise a brief summary followed by a more detailed synopsis”
  • But before this, know which genre you are writing in
  • Begin with a brief summary of 30–75 words (like you would see on the back of a book) to whet the appetite
  • Follow this with a more detailed synopsis of 350–450 words, but not a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown
  • Give “a detailed overview which clearly and concisely conveys how the story flows and unfolds and […] what is interesting about it”
  • Confirm when the story is set, the setting/background, the central and other pivotal characters, the dramatic turning points and any other salient information
  • The cover letter should be economically written and confident sounding
  • Address a well-researched literary agent by name
  • Say you are enclosing the synopsis of a book called ‘[title]’, which is a [genre] novel
  • Refer to writers you feel you are similar to
  • “If you have something interesting to say about yourself, such as that you have won a writing competition or published before in relevant publications, do include this briefly in the cover letter”
  • “Whilst it is worth spending time ensuring you have a good, short, confident cover letter, synopsis and it is important to stress that there is nothing as important to an editor than the quality of your writing and your ability to sustain the interest of a reader in the main body of the text.”

Note to self – next step: write the synopsis and cover letter.


Success and Failure in Online Writing

Black Box by Jennifer Egan is, as I understand it, a novelette released Tweet by Tweet. It seems to have been written Tweet by Tweet too.

I can’t imagine that it was written over the same ten days that it was released within even though I could have done that. Sure, my effort would be as good as this, but I could have done it. Saying that, I perceive this to be good but I’m not entirely convinced that it really is. Perhaps I’m just going on the premise that it’s good because it was written by a famous author.

Actually, I only gave it three stars out of five on Goodreads so perhaps I don’t think it was that good. It wasn’t such an easy read. There was a disjointed feel to it that, I suppose, came from the chopped up nature.

It’s funny how reading something in that style makes me want to write in that style now. I am struggling to reassert a hypotactic style that string together clauses into something coherent and whole that can entertain as well as inform. There’s a lesson there if you’re wondering how to imitate another author’s style.

So yeah – it’s not very pretty to read. It’s a disjointed thing. It tells a story but the story seems false somehow; like cornflakes made out of cheese paste.

Verdict: limited success.

Jennifer’s tale is a whole heck better than Letter to Linus by William Gillespie. Basically, it’s a prose experiment in several parts with seemingly random links between them. I think that I might possibly have read all the available words in that ‘story’ but not in the right order. I kept wanting to extract it all and sort it into the correct order so that I could make sense of it but the individual parts of the text were not interesting enough for me to want to do that. Enough said.

Verdict: fail.

Going Beyond Paper

It’s no coincidence that you’re reading this on a screen; for I have gone beyond paper. In fact, almost everything I’ve published has been in an electronic format. The exception is a children’s book I published on Amazon, just to see how easy it was (very). To date, my paper sales have netted me the princely sum of £9.67, and it’s all pure profit. Please don’t tell the t*xman.

They say that the future is electronic. And (almost) everything I’ve published is electronic. So why do I have a couple of thousand books in the attic that I’ve never read?

I guess that I have a vision of myself in a bed catching up on my reading at some point in the distant future. My leg is broken and so I’m not expected at work. The electricity is off and so there are no e-books either online or offline. There’s only me, a huge stack of books and … erm … a huge pile of tinned soup that I’ve yet to get around to collecting. Oh, and a tin-opener.

I’m stocking up for a world without books. In the future, entertainment will have been transferred to other formats:

  • one or another of the current electronic formats:
    • interactive books,
    • e-books,
    • digital audiobooks), or
  • the book alternatives
    • movies,
    • YouTube videos of cute pussycats,
    • electronic games,
    • browsing the internet aimlessly or
  • future forms
    • being in the game,
    • exploring the world virtually,
    • book immersion via implants,
    • consciousness upload to digital realms.

When that future arrives, I’ll just read. Or perhaps I’ll be seduced off into something I haven’t even imagined. Or maybe (wonder of wonders) I’ll converse with other people.

So, there are options available for those who haven’t got a stack of paper books. Are you up for any of those alternative forms of entertainment? Or are you still licking your finger and turning, turning, turning those pages?

And aside from that – how are you going to publish your own musings? Paper, electronics or something else?

Yours – Interested of York.

Why I Prefer to Look (at Books)

I love to read books. I love it so much that I read while I’m walking down the street. And no, I don’t walk into things. Well, not very often.

When winter comes, and the nights draw in, there isn’t enough natural light to read whilst walking to and from work. At times, when I don’t feel too foolish, I use my smartphone as a torch and read my book in the dark. And no, I don’t bump into things. At least, not too often.

When the weather turns wet, I carry a bit umbrella in one hand and a book in the other one, and I carry on reading. And yes, I sometimes bump into people. But they don’t seem to mind too much.

Every so often it gets too wet and too dark for me to be able to read my book and so I’ll pop it in my bag and pull out my phone. I have two options: I can read, or I can listen.

I’m halfway through Moby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville in audiobook form at the moment. Because the weather is good and the rain has eased off, I’ve been at the halfway point for quite a while.

I prefer books because when my mind wanders off from the story I automatically stop reading. But with an audiobook, it just carries on without me and I end up having to rewind.

I prefer books because sometimes I want to think about what I’ve read. And that’s easy with paper. I just stop, and I think, and then I go back to the words. With audiobooks, control of the voice is not as closely keyed to my mind. I have to press a button to stop the voice. Stopping is not as easy as just looking away.

And when I read words on paper, I can read more slowly if the words are long or the phrasing is more complex. And I can speed up if I find short words or an action scene or if I just want to skim over a passage to get to a more exciting part. With audiobooks, it’s just one speed. And never the one I need at any particular part of the book.

So yeah, I prefer books. eBooks are good too. I can treat them like paper books. The experience is much the same as a proper book.

How about you; how do you get your fix?

The Future of Fiction (part two)

In 2012, Maureen Freely wrote:

The Strange Case of the Reader and the Invisible Hand

In 2019, I say, in reply, that Maureen writes well and in a way that interests me. She speaks of the future of literary (as opposed to commercial) publishing in such a way that I think she is saying that there isn’t one.

She then said that UK readers are looking for books with a strong narrative that has echoes of the latest prize-winner, that are not philosophical novels (ones that have more speculation than plot), are hard-edged thrillers with multiple murders in the first page, psychological thrillers with a female (rather than a male) lead, are stories packed with exotic sights, sounds and smells and are novels that race to a dramatic conclusion that confirms their (the reader’s) world-view; in other words – commercial novels. So if you happen to be a literary writer, what are you going to do?

Then she rounds it all up by asking us to imagine what more we, as writers, could do if we could cast off the chains of the reader. Well, I say hurrah for Maureen and hurrah for the seductive enthusiasm of optimists.

The Future of Fiction (part one)

In 1996, John O’Brien wrote

31 Questions and Statements about the Future of Literary Publishing, Bookstores, Writers, Readers and Other Matters

In 2019, I have this to say:

You’re full of falafel, Mr O’Brien. When you say that people are falling out of love with literature and books and that publishers will no longer be able to support those forms of fiction that make little money then you’re right, but only if publishing stands still.

We won’t stand still. We’ll move on to other forms of writing that are disseminated in different ways. Instead of books and screens that try to imitate books, we’ll have the software and hardware that make reading a book as easy and enjoyable as watching the movie version.

I’ll tell you more about it later, but believe me – it’ll be good.

Interview with Robert about Experimental Fiction

Q. So, Robert, now that you’ve come to the end of the experimental fiction chapter and completed all the exercises, I wonder if you’d mind answering a few questions?

R. Surely.

Q. Here we go then: has your attitude to your work changed?

R. This chapter has taught me that, although it’s fine to push back the frontiers of literature, it’s also worth bearing a few things in mind. The first thing is that if you’re going to experiment it’s good to equip your reader with the ability to make the journey with you. The best experiments don’t just blindly go where no writer has gone before and expect others to follow, they lay a trail of breadcrumbs so that they can both be followed (in terms of being read and being emulated) and be able to make their way back home. There’s nothing worse than going out on a limb only to find that it is too thin to support you. It’s necessary to know what path you have taken and be able to make your way back home afterwards. This can take the form of being able to experiment one day and write a conventional story the next day. Or it can be in terms of knowing the methodology of your experiment so that you can repeat it in the future and, more importantly, other writers can too. (in experimental methodology, reproducibility means an independent researcher should be able to replicate the experiment, under the same conditions, and achieve the same results) A second thing I have learned is that it’s good not to tick too many people off with your experiments. For example, I spent a couple of hours this afternoon writing an experimental piece about the Hillsborough Disaster. I made the mistake of treating the subject flippantly. This doesn’t work unless you can show that the humour has some purpose; something that helps heals or transforms the situation.

Q. Hmm; deep. Thanks for that. Will you incorporate any of the experimental approaches you’ve tried out into your work in future?

R. I think that I already incorporate experimental approaches into my work. It’s just that I do it so inexpertly that they’re indistinguishable from the ravings of a madman. Not that I have anything against madmen, mind, it’s just that I need to learn more about the art and craft of experimenting than this chapter has taught me. Still, I have some avenues that I can explore. Practising is one. Reading more contemporary experimental fiction is another. I have a long way to go here before I practice with any kind of competence.

Q. Appreciate your thoughts. What have you learned from reading and critiquing your fellow students’ experiments?

R. There’s a great mix of talent here on this course and this is brought sharply into focus for me by this chapter. Some, like me, need more practice, but others have mastered the art of experimental fiction. It’s actually quite illuminating to critique someone’s work. It shows me how well I’ve absorbed the teachings and it allows me to see more clearly what I need to do to improve. Exemplars are very useful, whether they follow the criteria in the teachings or not. I specifically have learned that it’s important to follow instructions closely when completing exercises and that punctuation, sentence length and even genre style make big differences in how a piece of writing is interpreted/perceived.

Q. And finally: how might this feed into your critical and reflective writing?

R. I find that the more critiques I do, the easier they get. The more I reflect on any kind of writing, whether it be that of established authors, that of fellow students and even my own work, the more insight I get into the process of writing. TMA03, in particular, was a huge learning experience for me. For perhaps the first time in my life I read (and reread) books whilst thinking consciously how specific effects were achieved. I don’t think I did a particularly good job of the TMA, but I still took a lot of benefit from doing it. It’s strange, but I find that I can either read a story for the enjoyment of it, or reading it whilst thinking how it works, but I can’t do both at the same time. I would like to know how to do both simultaneously. Any tips? Anyone?

Q. Well, thank you, Robert, for your thoughtful and illuminating replies to my questions. I’m sure our readers will join me in saying that it truly is worth reflecting on the things we have learned.

R. Thank you; I’m sure you’re right.