THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES III: A ONE-PAGE SYNOPSIS

This series of posts was inspired by an edit. Cut out of the final edition of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction was a short appendix that began with this paragraph:

We’ve learned a lot over the last few hundred pages or so, and I know you’ve been paying close attention all along. But just when you thought you were done, now comes the hard part—actually doing something with the wisdom you’ve gathered here. In order to get the creative juices flowing, here are some exercises designed to help you put some new ideas and skills into practice. Don’t wait until after you’ve finished your novel to start on these—go ahead and write a log line, a cover letter, and so on for a book you think you might want to write, or something you’re making up off the top of your head, then do it again when you have something specific to talk about. You might be interested to see how different they are.

There were only so many pages in the book, but on the infinite elbow room of the internet there are homework assignments:

Write a one-page synopsis of your novel.

Describe your novel on one side of one letter-sized page, single spaced, with standard margins, set in 12-point type. Make sure we meet at least the protagonist and the antagonist (hero and villain), have a clear sense of the subgenre, the central conflict, and include the end of the story—don’t just set it up then expect any editor is going to trust you to bring it on home at the end.

This is probably the most difficult of the exercises, and not just because you have to figure out how to make a 400-ish page manuscript make sense in one page, but because you have absolutely no control whatsoever over the size of that page. I’m going to give you extremely specific formatting instructions, and you have got to follow every single one, without even the slightest variation, which likely means you’ll have to write and rewrite this synopsis over and over and over again until you fear your brain will melt in your skull and run out your ears.

In my many years as an editor I’ve seen “one-page” synopses set in 6-point type with all the paragraph breaks taken out—every goofy rookie attempt to pack as much text on the page as possible. Don’t do that, you’re fooling no one, and making yourself look like a rank amateur. No one will read that—I guarantee it.

This could be construed by many as another arrogant editor excuse to not read someone’s undiscovered masterpiece. Go ahead and think that, if you’re content to spend the rest of your life as an angry wannabe, or another tiny fish in the ever-expanding sea of ignored self-published e-books.

Ouch. Tough talk, but from the heart. If you want to do this professionally, behave like a professional. Now, that doesn’t mean that the substance of your book can’t be utterly groundbreaking. I’m a sincere and heartfelt champion of the literary novel, and I love it when a book surprises me on any level, and the more levels of surprise the better. So please don’t misconstrue this advice as some kind of call to blandness or formula—not in your writing, in the heart of what you do—but please allow yourself and your book to be taken seriously at that vital stage before anyone has experienced it.

Here are those format demands again, with a bit more detail:

One side of one letter size page:

All of the text must be contained on one side of one standard sized page, which in America is 8.5” x 11”. If you’re in Europe and the UK, A4—unless you want to sell your book to an American publisher, in which case it’s up to you to resize it to 8.5” x 11” (aka “letter size”). If a prospective editor or agent accepts email submissions, chances are they won’t check the paper size and just send the document to a printer where it will hang, waiting for someone to load A4 paper into a bypass tray. I can’t tell you the horror and confusion this situation has caused me in the past, operating as part of a shared printer network community. Go ahead and put an editor or agent through that, if you would like her to start out hating you.

12-point Times New Roman:

It is absolutely unacceptable to set the type size any larger or smaller that 12-point, and if you use any typeface other than Times New Roman, you have probably already doomed yourself, though there are a few that some editors might find okay, especially fonts that look so much like Times New Roman they might as well be (like Times or New Century Schoolbook), but then if you’re doing that, why not just use Times New Roman? It used to be that Courier was de rigueur, but now it looks clunky and old fashioned. Condensed fonts are not your friend. They’re ugly, difficult to read, and say: “I’m cheating!”

Standard margins:

Never manipulate your margins, even by minute fractions of an inch. Literally anything you do to pack more type onto the page will be instantly transparent and may as well be a flashing neon sign that says, “Hi, I’m a rank amateur hobby scribbler, probably sending you a detailed round-by-round transcript of my last D&D adventure, so go ahead and waste your time if you want to, but otherwise this one has ‘recycle bin’ written all over it.” I’m being mean again, but you just have to get it—there is no excuse for goofing around with this.

No space between paragraphs:

This is the only fair way to gain a little extra space. Begin each new paragraph with a half-inch tab. Also, avoid bullet points and other lists. That tends to give the thing the impression of a business memo or resume, and that’ll work against you. You want to show off your prose writing skills here, too, so make it look like a page of story.

Name, contact information, and title:

This may sound like obvious advice but please don’t forget to include your name and some kind of contact information—an email address is usually enough. Set the title of the book in bold at the top of the page, with two lines above it and two lines below. This is going to take up a little space—even forcing you to cut a sentence or three, but start out strong, people. Start out strong!

And that’s white paper, by the way.

I once (at least) saw a submission in which 9-point black type was printed on fluorescent green paper. This move was undoubtedly intended to attract attention to this great fantasy masterpiece. And it may very well have been a masterpiece, but the world will never know. I didn’t even try to read one word of this synopsis, for fear of a grand mal seizure. The effect of tiny black type against neon green made for quite a work of kinetic pop art—it actually seemed to move of its own accord—but there’s just not one chance in Hell anyone’s going to read that, and anyway the ensuing seizure will wipe all memory of the content of the piece from the benighted mind of the valiant reader.

Which brings me to content demands:

Introduce the hero and the villain:

Tell us about these two characters at least, but you know you’re not going to have room to hit on every single character in the book. If you can’t describe your hero and your villain in one sentence each, at least as they stand at the beginning of the book, you’re just not trying hard enough—and it’s not because your characters are too well conceived, too detailed and viscerally human. They better be, if your novel is going to be any good, but at this stage, you just want to get to the very heart of them.

Luke Skywalker is a simple farm boy from a frontier planet whose destiny collides with a galaxy spanning empire of evil.

Conan is a barbarian warrior who wanders the primitive world of Hyperborea with a sword in his hand and a heaviness in his heart.

Those aren’t actually that great, but start with that kind of thing and keep rewriting until you get that ah-ha moment. You’ll know it when it gets there, however long it might take.

Have a clear sense of the sub-genre:

It’s perfectly fine to just come right out and say it:

Star Wars is a fast-paced, adventure-driven space opera full of starship battles, exotic aliens, and flashing light sabers.

Red Nails is a pulp-inspired sword & sorcery adventure story.

And please don’t take this opportunity to over sell:

This is the greatest work of High Fantasy in the history of American letters.

If you’re trying to sell me the book, I assume you think it’s good. Tell me about the characters and the story, not your overinflated opinion of it or yourself. It might very well be the greatest work of High Fantasy in the history of American letters—every editor starts every new manuscript hoping to discover just that—but you’re going to have to let your book make that case. And yeah, if you think that the opinions of your brother, your D&D group, some online gaming buddy, or some cheesy editorial service is going to help you, please pause, take a deep breath, and a get a hold of yourself. Nothing says, “Hi, I suck,” more than: “I paid a guy to tell me this was good,” or “My mother, who never reads fantasy, read it and said it was the best book she’s ever read.” She’s your mother. She has to say that. If editors have any one thing in common it’s that they like to think for themselves and make up their own minds, and every one of them is utterly convinced that he knows more than your mother.

This may not apply if your mother is Betty Ballantine, but sparing that. . . .

Define the central conflict:

This is another one that you really should be able to communicate in one sentence. In the past we’ve talked about the fact that the conflict at the start of the book can certainly transform as the story unfolds, but start us off with something at stake:

The Empire has built a planet-destroying super-weapon, and it’s up to Luke and his friends to stop it or the Rebel Alliance is doomed.

And if your story hinges on a significant shift in that initial conflict, by all means tell us that here.

But it turns out that the Rebel Alliance is a front organization for the Galactic Yakuza, and former enemies will have to unite to oppose this new, greater threat.

Holy crap, I just made Star Wars more interesting. Go me!

Tell us how it ends:

Yes, I know, it goes against every writer’s every instinct, but this one-page synopsis must end with a giant spoiler. This is one of the many ways in which the synopsis differs from cover copy. You have to tell us that you know where your story ends. And again, just say it:

The story ends with the destruction of the Death Star and a new hope for the fledgling Rebel Alliance.

This says, “This is a story with a happy ending.” And happy endings are okay. If Star Wars ended with: Though Luke manages to save Princess Leia from the clutches of the Empire, he has to sacrifice his own life to do it, and the Empire’s control over the galaxy remains strong.

That’s pretty dark, but dark is good, too. Some editors really like dark, some really don’t, and this is a risk—disqualifying your book before he gets to read it and realize that though he normally eschews happy endings, say, you pulled this one off with such subtlety and aplomb he just has to buy this book.

Hell, there’s risk in all aspects of life.

But if you just let the story hang there, chances are you won’t get a read anyway, even from the editor who likes the sort of ending you’ve written. And it’s always better to have your manuscript read by half the editors in that genre than none of the editors in that genre.

It only takes one offer to launch a career.

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES III: A ONE-PAGE SYNOPSIS

  1. Kevin T. Stein says:

    “Go ahead and think that, if you’re content to spend the rest of your life as an angry wannabe, or another tiny fish in the ever-expanding sea of ignored self-published e-books.”

    That is offensive.

    • Philip Athans says:

      It was meant to be shocking, so that aspiring authors understand that there are myriad ways to torpedo their own careers, just by making a few bad decisions, and sometimes you just have to do things a certain way or unnecessarily burden your own work and career. Writing should be read. There are no extra points awarded for obscurity.

  2. Brenda says:

    A quick question about general formatting:

    You mentioned “standard” margins, but I’ve heard arguements that this is 1″ all around or 1″ top & bottom and 1.25″ left and right. Which do you consider “standard”?

    Also, should the synopsis be single-spaced or double-spaced?

    Thanks Mr. Athans, I love this blog!

    • Philip Athans says:

      Good questions!

      I let the fine people at Microsoft decide that for me, so Word seems to default to top/bottom: 1″, left/right: 1.25″, gutter: 0″.

      And yes, this is one of those instances where single-spaced is okay.

  3. Pingback: THE FANTASY AUTHOR’S EXERCISES IV: A Brief History of the Alpha Centauri System | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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