I propose to take for granted, as soon as I can, that you will be ready to publish, on receipt of them, the opening chapters of a novel. I have got at work upon one sooner than I expected, & particularly desire it to come out without delay.
--Henry James, letter to Galaxy magazine, 1 December 1875
I'm working on a submission of a novel to an independent publisher. I've been assembling this submission for about a week now, I think. Cover letter, pitch, first chapter, synopsis...wait, synopsis? I have never written a synopsis for a novel. Novelists, almost to an individual, despise synopses. How does one boil down one's complex and subtle 90,000-word edifice into two pages, single-spaced? Imagine my relief when I trolled through my email inbox, looking for something helpful (I have long been in the habit of sending notes to myself about works in progress via email, to keep the notes in one place, more or less; this practice has not broken me of the contradictory habit of writing notes to myself about works in progress on bookmarks, on endpapers of books being read, in a variety of notebooks, on index cards, etc, notes that are invariably misplaced and only discovered well after the writing of the novel in question). There it was, an email from me with the helpful subject line, "Synopsis of the novel you're presently submitting for publication." Or words to that effect. I breathlessly printed the email out and began to read through it, only to discover that not only was it quite a hash of disconnected plot points, it only covers the first half of the novel. Alas.
Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.
No problem, though. I just need to re-read the second half of the novel and prune the thing down until I have a single page that captures the essence of that second half, right? Easy-peasy.
I have sat and looked hard at my unfinished synopsis, made notes to myself in the margins ("X's story; Y's story; Z's story"), paged through the manuscript, but I have not added a word to that unfinished work. Maybe, I thought, I would not be submitting this novel to this particular publisher. Most agents and publishers don't actually ask for synopses; they just want the pitch and maybe the first five or fifty pages.
However, I have over the last couple of years written a lot of short stories, which has been a good classroom for condensing large and complex ideas down into small spaces. Over lunch today, I described the job of writing a synopsis to Mighty Reader, and how it can't be just an enumeration of the plot, chapter-by-chapter. It must be, I said, a moving and interesting piece of writing in and of itself, it must be the novel in miniature, not a dry diagram of it.
"So it's essentially writing a very short story," Mighty Reader noted, not seeing that she had summed up the problem neatly in eight words. I am writing this post so that I will not at some future date mistakenly take credit for this idea, that a synopsis of a novel should be a short story, featuring all of the movement and life of a short story. It's a good idea, a clear and useful way of talking about synopses, an idea that I--the novelist of the house--wish I'd had myself.
Anyway, there it is: a short story. I can work with that. I can write a short story version of this novel. If perchance some other novelist stumbles across this post at some point, hopefully this idea will be useful to her. Don't worry about writing a summary: write it as a short story. Which is what I'll be doing instead of blogging for the next little while. And if the indie publisher for whom I'm doing this work decides to pass on my novel, I will at least have had the experience of writing a synopsis, and writing more of these for future novels won't seem like such an impossible task. Or so I say now. I haven't actually finished writing this one.