Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And if you're a writer: which comes first, the book or the synopsis? If you'd asked me that a couple of weeks ago, I'd have said confidently that the book comes first - of course. How can it be otherwise? My experience has always been that the synopsis is the last thing to be written. How can you write the synopsis before the book is finished?
When I begin work on a book, I know its broad outline. I know its ending, though not necessarily exactly how I'm going to get there. A book develops while it is in the process of being written. So the synopsis can't possibly come first... can it?
It turns out it can. Last week I was asked by my agent for a synopsis of my new novel... the one I haven't yet written. Having spent most of November agonising over possible plot-lines, characters etc, and getting started on the writing, I was able to put a synopsis together, but it wasn't complete by any means. There was the character who barely rated a mention because I hadn't decided exactly what was going to happen to her. There was the parent who died... but I didn't know whether it would be the mother or the father, and whichever it was, there would be different consequences. And there was the character for whom I listed three possible endings.
Yes, I know it sounds like a complete dog's breakfast, but actually I was rather pleased with it. A synopsis, albeit incomplete - in advance of writing the book - wow!
The advice that came back from my agent was that the plot was too complicated, so why not ditch the sub-plot and concentrate on the main character and her story. Let's face it - that's advice you want to hear before you start writing the book, not after you've finished it!
Besdies, it is advice I'm happy to follow. I have known for a long time that I create huge plots. I remember the first time I did it - I was worried I might not have enough plot to make the book long enough (actually, it would have been fine), so I threw myself into some sub-plots... and the end result was a 366,000 word epic.
I made a start on the new version of the new book, knowing more about it than I'd known before I wrote the incomplete synopsis, but still not knowing the whole plot.
Then, on Thursday evening this week, I arrived home from the day job shortly after 7 o'clock to be greeted by an email asking if I could re-do the synopsis - "it has to be as strong as possible" - very quickly (ie immediately) for the editor.
Yikes. So at that point I had to put together the real thing. No room for incomplete plot strands. No chance to gloss over a character whose plot-decisions I hadn't yet made. It had to be not just complete but also written to a high standard. The real thing.
And you know what? I did it. When I sat down to write it, all I had in my head was the broad outline of the plot, but none of the nitty-gritty. By the time I finished it two hours later, I had the whole lot on the screen. Was it easy? No. Did it feel right and natural to create the synopsis before writing the book? No, it felt like pulling teeth. Is it going to make the writing of the book easier? My goodness, yes. The book may still develop in ways I haven't so far seen, but having such a clear and detailed view of the plot and the characters who inhabit it has made me feel confident about the story and eager to get writing.