Create rich, hard stuff first: synopsis-outline

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The richest writing for a book is rarely published, but everyone needs it. The synopsis, or a very detailed outline, is the hardest stuff to create, too. A synopsis tells the essentials of a story so you can see themes and arcs. Without one, you’re writing to discover your book’s story. That’s fun. It also takes much longer than you’d believe, if you want a great story with soul and sweep.

One other misbelief is that working from an outline makes creating a book no fun. Gina Sorrell, whose novel The Wise Women released in 2022, said on a Reedsy seminar that outlining didn’t take the fun out of writing. She thought it would, though. “I kept thinking I’m not going to have any fun with it. I’m not going to discover things. And what I’m learning is that’s not true.”

Caroline Leavitt, who’s published ten novels, said in the seminar that she always hires a development editor when she begins a book to help with her outlines. A synopsis, she adds, is just a fancy word for an outline. (It’s more than that, because a synopsis presents outline events as a narrative, with none of the subheadings or indents that make an outline easier to step through.

Selling through your summary

Selling a book to a publisher or attracting an agent means telling the story in summary. Sometimes it’s detailed summary. Agents don’t like reading more than three pages of synopsis, but at some point an editor at a press will want to see that 15-page synopsis you crafted. Those pages of synopsis also save you hundreds of pages of discovery, Leavitt says.

After she’d sold a book and it did well starting from an outline, “I thought that I was losing all the creativity. So I went back to free writing and I ended up with these 800-page books that had no story. I began to realize that you can outline, and there are surprises because everything changes.”

These documents are hard writing. Doing the hard stuff first gives you what the book needs: Characters who don’t always get what they want, but they get what they need. Growth that characters must deal with, and the track of their moral arc. You find the catalyst, the thing that has changed their world. Readers love to watch characters grow.

Leavitt and Sorrell trade wisdom for nearly 40 minutes  in a YouTube recording of the seminar. Near the end of that time, the book trailer for Sorrell’s new novel showed us how simple animation and good summary copy can entice readers, too.
Creating a synopsis and outline comes down to things like learning what you want your story to stand for, and knowing how the book is going to surprise the hero as well as the reader.

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