Ever written pitch and synopsis first?

HareBrain

Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Oct 13, 2008
Messages
13,696
Location
West Sussex, UK
Since, as most of us know, writing a synopsis and pitch for a submission is the most hideous mental torture ever, it struck me that it might make sense to write those first, get them sounding great, and base the story around them. This might work in two ways. First, it should give the submission more chance of success, because you've already made sure it will read well to an agent. Second, it's generally held to be true that if you can't write a good synopsis of your story, it might not be a good story. Conversely, having a condensed version that reads well of itself ought to help make the whole thing a more satisfying read, because you'll be keeping in mind all the way through what the most important elements and developments are.

I don't mean this just in the sense of being a planner -- you can write a perfectly planned story and still not be able to synopsise it well.

So, has anyone tried this, or know of published authors who do?
 
I'm pretty sure Adrian McKinty pitched The Chain to an agent before he'd completed it - how far down the planning and writing he was, I'm not sure. Also, when I do a funding application this is exactly what needs to be done, so I've done it for three books to date.
 
I can't imagine any summary I wrote surviving contact with me writing about it!

I'm not sure if it counts, as I was writing to hire, but when I wrote Straken for Games Workshop I had to produce a synopsis and stick to it. This is presumably to stop writers going off track and doing some wacky non-IP stuff, but I found it both restrictive and useful. Interestingly, when I got to the end, my editor and I felt that the beginning needed to be altered, so it's clearly not perfect.

I think for anything I've written purely off my own back, I'd find it too confining. However, it might be a good idea for a writer to write a vague summary of "What this book is about" before diving in, setting out the concept, characters and main plot points before starting.
 
Not for novels, but I did it for a screenplay once.

I had a meeting with a Hollywood agent/management company a few years ago, and while they liked a script I sent them, they said they preferred to work from new ideas and invited me to pitch 10 one sentence logline ideas. They would then select one they liked (if they liked one) and we'd develop the screenplay.

I had seven ideas I thought were pretty good, but struggled to come up with the other three to fill out the list. Eventually, I concocted the rest and of course they picked the last one, my least favourite. I spent a few months developing a treatment (extended synopsis/outline) based on the one-liner with one of their guys and we eventually had a solid 25 page treatment we both agreed could work. They then suddenly dropped the project (and me) without explanation.

It was pretty disappointing (hence my download here), and while it was interesting working with the company, the whole thing was a waste of time (I didn't get paid, something I won't agree to again). But not unusual. :giggle:
 
I used to pretty much do that all the time. Not for my first trilogy, but for all the books after that. When you are selling a publisher an option book, it's different than sending them a manuscript when they are not yet familiar with your writing. And my financial situation was such that getting an advance for merely writing a proposal, rather than continuing to write on spec, was very desirable.

Mind you, the finished books (especially for those that were second and third in a series) often veered away (sometimes quite far away!) from what I had originally proposed. The sequel to GM is a case in point, since it could hardly be more different from what I initially thought I was going to write—it had the same main characters and the same setting, but the events of the plot were about as different as they could possibly be, since I completely stalled out on the story I had proposed and had to think of something else altogether to get myself writing at all. But my editors didn't care, and neither did I. The basic idea was to see if there might be an actual publishable story in my initial ideas for the book, and just so long as I produced an actual publishable story vaguely related to what I had first sent them, then everyone was happy.

But from a personal standpoint, and to answer your question, I did find writing the synopses and so forth as a very good way to start the process of generating a plot. I do recommend it as an excellent way to begin. Not the only way, of course, but one that I found extremely useful, and which others might find similarly useful. Then, once the plot started to develop on its own, I'd consult the synopsis and sometimes even follow it, but if better ideas occurred I would go with them instead.
 
"Imagine Laverne and Shirley, but in a Dyson sphere that is traveling backwards through time."
 
Since, as most of us know, writing a synopsis and pitch for a submission is the most hideous mental torture ever, it struck me that it might make sense to write those first, get them sounding great, and base the story around them. This might work in two ways. First, it should give the submission more chance of success, because you've already made sure it will read well to an agent. Second, it's generally held to be true that if you can't write a good synopsis of your story, it might not be a good story. Conversely, having a condensed version that reads well of itself ought to help make the whole thing a more satisfying read, because you'll be keeping in mind all the way through what the most important elements and developments are.

I don't mean this just in the sense of being a planner -- you can write a perfectly planned story and still not be able to synopsise it well.

So, has anyone tried this, or know of published authors who do?

It reminds me of the snowflake method or a method of software development (allegedly) popularized in Amazon (Write the press release first, then develop the design, then write the code.)

I think the philosophy works decently for software and science: articulate the end goal first and then guide your efforts to that.

I began work on my novel in that way, via the snowflake method. I _suppose_ the original one line snowflake might mostly work still for the current version, but anything more detailed than that one liner is hopelessly out of date because the story evolved.

I don't think there is a downside of doing this, but my guess is that for many people, at least myself, I will have to do the synopsis and pitch again, after the writing is done.

To me the value of the exercise would be in focusing the start of my writing.
 
and just so long as I produced an actual publishable story vaguely related to what I had first sent them, then everyone was happy.
It's funny how things translate between worlds. When I was in academia and in the world of grant funding, that's what my advisors said about grants: as long as you produce something new and interesting and in generally the same field (i.e biology) the NIH wasn't going to come after you and say "You promised to cure Colon Cancer, instead you cured Brain Cancer, so no more funding for you!"
 
I've tried it. As others have said, the synopsis rarely survives the actual writing, meaning I have to pretty much write it again anyway. Doing it beforehand just becomes another iteration.

Doing so also added a small but discernible guilt load as I developed the story and found I was not hewing to the line I had laid out in the pre-synopsis. This eventually led me to jettison the synopsis and pretend I'd never written it. Felt much better after that.

I've also discovered the nasty secret that we don't write just one synopsis (blurb, summary, etc.). We write several, of varying lengths, for different destinations and audiences. There's no way I want to try all that beforehand.

And lastly, when it came to the actual writing, I did not find that doing upfront work helped. At all. What has helped is making notes--call them sketches or early drafts or whatever--that give me a good idea of the story's ending, the central characters and their arcs, and the antagonist(s). Sometimes more, like the opening, or key scenes, or waypoints. Not a full outline, which comes later and is in constant revision. But doing those initial notes has served me better than did the synopsis.

All that said, it *is* worth having something ready to hand for when someone says oh you're working on a story, what's it about? Saying it's about 300 pages never amuses them as much as it does me.
 
I do find writing a pitch right at the start a useful exercise. It does tend to change (often!) as I actually write the story, but it helps me keep on track as to 'what is this story actually about'.
 
I usually do a pitch for stories before writing. Rarely a full synopsis but that's because I just can't see that far into the future as a rule.
 

Back
Top