I managed to get my application for a New Writing North writers’ award in by the January deadline, and it had to include a synopsis of the latest novel I’m working on. The prospect of writing a synopsis strikes fear into the heart of the most hardened scribbler. It was tough enough to produce a summary of my first novel once it was complete. You put considerable effort into writing what you think is a carefully constructed work that (with luck) builds over 100,000 words or so into a satisfying whole, only to then have to reduce it down to perhaps a mere page of text (as some literary agents require). It’s even more daunting to try this with a piece of work you’ve only just embarked upon.
But I have learned that the exercise of synopsis writing (however tiresome) is a good test of whether you have a viable story, nonetheless. Some practitioners, of course, consider the whole idea of linear narrative an outdated irrelevance, perhaps preferring to pen something voiced across multiple time-frames by a chorus of kitchen appliances. For those of us who do value storytelling, however, its success really does stand or fall on whether there is a coherent ark of development overall, and the same for each significant character. For a reader to be fully engrossed, events do need to be consequent upon one another. And if it’s impossible to render the sense of that movement in synopsis length, then the piece probably needs rethinking. This was certainly true of the very first draft of my first novel, which defied all attempts at succinct summarising (actually, it could best be summarised as a dog’s breakfast).
Having said this, though, the process of writing has to remain dynamic rather than be pegged to a blueprint. It’s good to start out with a synopsis so you’ve some idea of where you’re heading and by what route, but the essential creative decisions have to be made as you go. Since submitting the synopsis to New Writing North I have, for instance, already revised it in some important respects. And the work I submitted to them in support of it has also, already, been significantly rewritten. I find it best to approach each chapter by asking myself what it needs to show to serve the overall plan, and then asking myself afterwards if it has successfully done so. I’m always reluctant to move further forward until I’m satisfied of this.
Happy writing (and endless revising) in 2014.