How to Write a Book Synopsis (and Know When a Book is Ready to Query)

I wrote my first book report in third grade and it was a disaster. Like the little homework-lover I was, I’d prepared: I read the book well in advance and wrote a portion each night (I distinctly recall it being chunked into requiring a paragraph or two write up about setting, characters, maybe “new to you” vocabulary, etc.), until the night before it was due. And I’d saved the best for last: the plot summary.

Let’s just say 8-year-old me had been deeply moved by the story of Scruffy, the orphan street dog, and when I sat down to summarize her 152-page adventure, I just couldn’t comprehend skipping a single, critical moment. I detailed it all, until it was well past my bedtime, my parents were scolding me both for still being awake and for procrastinating on a major project, and I was about six handwritten pages deep into my “summary.” (When my parents were skeptical of it qualifying as a “summary,” I held my ground and insisted that it was “shorter than reading the whole book.”)

For context, and humor, here’s the Goodreads summary of the book (SO MUCH HAPPENS! Adult me is in awe of the professional talent evident in fitting all the twists and turns into such tight copy, honestly, hahahahaha)

Has anyone else read this book? This cover is SEARED into my memory. I’ve never forgotten the beat up paperback I read!

Life began in hardship for Scruffy, carried to survival by her mother from a fire in a condemned building, only to be orphaned by a sheepherder’s rifle. Soon she is rescued and nursed back to health by some merciful children but leaves them to make her way back to the city. A kindly street performer takes her in and shower her the possibilities of human decency. But in the middle of a cold night, fate decides that Scruffy must once more be alone. 

Alone that is, until a bullterrier named Butch accepts her as part of the street pack that beds down each night in an abandoned car and roams the streets and back alleys during the day. Then one terrible day they are all taken to the pound and condemned to death. But by now, Scruffy has a talent for survival. She not only saves the day but she becomes a national celebrity!

Scruffy, Jack Stoneley, Goodreads

Unfortunately, my parents’ correctness was painfully proven the next day when we all had to read our book reports aloud to the class and everyone else was able to do theirs in about five minutes…and my mic was cut off after about fifteen (hahahahahahaha/cringe).

Given the whole slightly traumatic book report experience, maybe it’s no surprise that I approached writing a book synopsis with a bit of dread. How, I bemoaned, was I supposed to compress my 50,000-word book baby into a trim, double-spaced page or two? In 2015, when I first started querying agents seriously, I (unsuccessfully) tried to skirt around the minority of literary agents that required them. But by 2019, when I was back in the querying trenches, they were practically standard request among agents (for good reason). And they’re often utilized elsewhere: for quick pitches at conferences, in submission packages to editors.

Simply put, there’s no escaping writing your book synopsis.

And, more importantly, you shouldn’t. I’d argue that to write a book-deal worthy book synopsis, you have to have a book-deal worthy book. Beyond the frustrations of writing succinctly, the main source of my book synopsis dread is that it reveals problems. When I’m beating my head against a wall trying to make it read like the story isn’t slow in the middle, a character’s motivation isn’t trite, the premise isn’t too complicated…there’s a pretty good chance that the real reason the synopsis isn’t working is because the book isn’t working.

[cue ice-cream eating pity party]

Isn’t that the worst thing in the world to realize? And the worst timing, when you’re 3-infinity drafts in, polished and chomping at the bit to query, only to realize it has broken bits that still need attention and it’s back into the revision cave? Writing a book synopsis is the ultimate litmus test, a pass-fail situation.

But it also provides me with a big-picture, top-level perspective that can help me identify and correct structural problems I was previously blind to. And that’s actually a great tool to have in your tool belt! And, by choosing to write them earlier, to fold it into the revision process, I get a stronger book faster.

So, after a lot of practice, this is my tried-and-true method:

  1. Write chapter summaries. 2-3 sentences for every. single. chapter.
  2. Panic when I reread the chapter summaries, because despite thinking I’m done with the book at this stage, this bare-bone skeleton of the story usually highlights plot holes, pacing issues, etc.
  3. Write myself an edit letter.
  4. Revise the book.
  5. Rewrite chapter summaries to suit the new draft.
  6. Compress those chapter summaries into a one- to two-page summary that reflects the entire shape of the book, complete with the main character(s) motivation(s), the stakes, major plot points, the full character arcs (and how they change), and make sure to include the ending. This is key: whoever is reading this book synopsis wants the ending spoiled. They want to know if they like the shape of the book, the themes, before committing to reading all 50,000-100,000 words.

Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

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