I spent years (too many damn years) writing overlong synopses for terrible movie scripts. One place I worked for demanded a minimum of two pages, which might seem pretty short for a 100-page screenplay, but keep in mind that most movie stories can be described in fairly specific terms in three paragraphs. Also keep in mind that nobody ever read the synopses, which made the process even more galling. Even when I got used to it, I still dreaded it.

Now, I’ve found a potential publisher for my novel. They asked first for a “synopsis,” which made me write a quick, enticing paragraph. Then, they asked for a “plot outline,” and I realized they wanted something much more specific, akin to what I used to write.

I’ve never done this before, at least not with a novel. Actually, I’ve never done it with my own work, and I know writers tend to find great importance in things readers don’t give a fuck about. Could I create a digest-sized version of my novel without sounding like a moron? Probably, but how long should it be? If a 100-page summary is two pages, does that mean one page per every 50 pages is a good baseline?

I turned to the Internet for answers, perhaps my first mistake. There’s no clear consensus on this process. Outlines are the TV series bibles of the literary world — everyone has their opinions, including those to whom you’re submitting, but there don’t seem to be any hard rules beyond “double-spaced.” There isn’t even a consensus on font choice.

I’m pitching two novels. The first runs a little over 400 manuscript pages; the second is Reader, which I’ve not quite finished and have just passed the 700-page mark. (I expect it to run about 100 more.) Did I plan Reader as an epic tale of capitalist failure, an aynti-Randian tome of misery and humiliation? Nope! I just wrote an outline and don’t plan to stop writing until I’ve reached the self-destructive final chapter. The story’s bigger than I thought — big enough that the long-winded three-act structure actually could be divided into three separate novels, a trilogy of terror aimed at Hollywood neophytes — but I don’t want the synopsis to exceed five pages if I can help it.

I can’t, though. The synopsis for the first novel is an even five pages and allows the story to unfold in the same way the novel does, with the same style and wit. Maybe I should have just made it a short story. The synopsis for the twice-as-long Reader runs twice as long. So, is that a problem? It seems like it shouldn’t be, but it feels like it is. Maybe it’s my own problem.

Posted by D. B. Bates on December 5, 2011 11:27 AM