Never put the cart before the horse.
It’s an adage used to describe the logical order of things—anything other than the horse in front would be preposterous. It’s just how things are done.
Writers traditionally write the book and, upon preparing to begin its marketing, realize that they also need a synopsis to summarize their work. That’s a logical order. A novel and a synopsis are two separate things, so it makes sense to do them separately.
Depends on the writer, I suppose. While some writers are meticulous about creating outlines for their novels, many others are simply content to allow their muses the freedom to wander at will. We call them plotters and pantsers (because they write by the seat of their pants. Probably another adage, but it's best saved for another time.)
I’ve long debated whether I was a plotter or a pantser and, to be truthful, I’ve never been able to decide—until now. That’s because I finished the first draft of my work-in-progress this week and today I thought I’d work on its synopsis.
Bringing Back the Pain
I wrote the synopsis several years ago and hadn’t really looked at it since then. I felt very much like I’d put the cart before the horse when I wrote it; I had a general idea of where the story was going and a bare skeleton of story, but that was it. Before I threw myself back into the project this summer, I had written perhaps 20k words into the book. I’d tripled it over the last two months, adding flesh and blood to the skeleton.
Writers know the will of a story often overwrites the will of the writer. In the case of this manuscript, I encountered a pile of technical details that had to be sorted. The story is about a social worker who becomes involved with a client and, as more story got written, I realized my therapist faced greater challenges than the ones I originally gave her. Chalk it all up to truth being stranger than fiction, and fiction needing to make sense. (Brings to mind this QT article.)
The story evolved. It had to, if I wanted it to be any good.
Today, I pulled out the existing synopsis and realized it wasn’t good enough anymore. That meant the synopsis had to evolve, too.
I remember the first time I wrote a synopsis. I thought it would be impossible to pare down my novel into a mere page or two, and I struggled with it. I agonized over it. I hated every minute of it.
So I did the professional thing and sucked it up. I did everything I could to get better at writing them because I knew if I wanted to sell my book, I’d need a synopsis to sell it for me.
Although I haven’t learned to like writing those tedious things, I have improved my synopsis-writing skills. Knowing how important they are to the success of my projects enables me to respect their place in my work. I think that’s why I wrote that original synopsis back when I had only a handful of scattered chapters. It was a part of the book that couldn’t be shoved aside until the end.
I also have come to believe that I wrote that synopsis 20k words too late.
Redemption for the Evil Synopsis
This is like having one of those grown-up moments. I get them every now and then and they absolutely rot because part of me thinks I can be a kid forever. Synopses are very grown-up things. They are important marketing tools that are no fun to write but are necessary to ensure the success of our work.
Yech. Just writing that makes me look over my shoulder, looking for a walker or denture cream or some other sign that I had officially become Old As Dirt. It kind of deflates the exuberance of youthful devil-may-care imagining and creating and writing.
So why did I think I wrote it too late? Because, if I’d written the synopsis first, I’d have realized where my plot was weak, where my character’s waffled on their convictions. Much of the last two months of writing was spent trying to reconcile old material with the new. Had I written the synopsis first, the book would have had better direction, better flow, and I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time going through the chapters, wondering why certain scenes just didn’t work.
The synopsis, I realized, isn’t just a marketing tool—it’s a crafting tool that gives a novel a reason to exist, even before it’s written. I have come to realize that synopsing is just as important as the noveling itself. (Yes, they are now verbs. Somebody call Webster.)
And the best part is that I still don’t have to define myself as a plotter or a pantser. A synopsis doesn’t keep the crazy ponies of my writer’s mind from stampeding across the page. A story doesn’t cease to evolve just because it’s been plotted. And I’m still free to pants my pants off, however awkward an image that phrase evokes.
Put the Cart Before the Horse
I still don’t think I can cold-start a novel by writing a synopsis before anything else. My stories generally emerge from random scenes and passages I write while exploring an inspiration. If I like an idea, I’ll keep with it. But now that I’ve explored its tremendous usefulness as a crafting tool, I’ll pen a synopsis a lot sooner.
Synopsing early can identify themes I may have subconsciously written into those first few chapters—identifying those themes means I can go back through a first draft, adding subtle nuance or clever coincidence or full-tilt emotional enhancement so visceral no reader could miss it. Synopsing early means I don’t lose track of secondary characters or the importance of their roles in the story. Synopsing early means less pain later, when all I had to do is tweak and polish the synopsis before submission. When I finally finish this current book, I don’t want to delay sending it off. I’m way too eager to get back in the game.
That's a win-win-win for me.
Most important, an early synopsis ensures that the novel is a story is worth writing, while preventing a lot of deleted scenes and abandoned subplots along the way. Maybe it is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, but the horses appreciate knowing they have a cart to pull once I give them free reign.
And, once they start off, they don’t need to slow down until they get to THE END.
Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. Visit Ash at www.ashkrafton.com for news on her urban fantasy series The Books of the Demimonde (Pink Narcissus Press) or stop by the Demimonde Blog at www.ash-krafton.blogspot.com .