The blurb on the front cover of this book pretty much sums up why I bought it and read it: "Writers show you how they sold their books from outlines!" Myself, I think that what the book contains are synopses, not outlines, but that may be splitting hairs. What it undoubtedly has is the work of a variety of professionals in science fiction and fantasy, covering every possible type of synopsis you can imagine -- from David Brin's summary of his Uplift universe to the brief paragraphs Joe Haldeman jotted down to sell The Forever Peace.

Like many (most? all?) authors, when confronted with the need to write a synopsis, I get perplexed. How long should it be? What should I put in? What should I leave out? Is there a format I should follow? This book has reassured me that although there may be wrong answers (anything which doesn't accurately convey the story of the book), there is no single right answer. Even synopses by the same author vary -- and these are all synopses for books that sold (although Charles Sheffield's weren't written for publishers but were written after the fact as one-pagers for movie studios).

Examining the examples presented, however, does lead to some conclusions.

Walter Jon Williams's outline for Metropolis starts with a discourse on the state of modern fantasy. "Fantasy is dead. Sorry about that, but it's true." He discusses the history of fantasy and what fantasy should be. Then he starts positing a modern fantasy, built from the ground up, with a discussion of its magic system and politics before he ever gets to the meat of the actual story.

Katharine Kerr's contribution, for The Snare, includes its cover letter, a brief summary, and the background of the universe she's writing in.

Barry Malzberg's synopsis for Beyond Apollo is exactly two paragraphs long -- and the second paragraph is about the style and voice of the book.

One of Mike Resnick's contributions begins, "This is the story of three men: one who is evil, one who does evil, and one who worships evil."

What do all of these have in common? They talk outside the book, setting the stage. They give an overview beyond "A does B because of a broken heart, then C comes along and confuses the issue." It's not just actions and motivations. They go into the worldview and what makes this place different from any other fantasy or science fiction book in the submission pile.

That's not the only way to write a synopsis, however. Laura Resnick's contribution In Legend Born starts right in with the story, describing the actual events in the different sections of the book -- the prologue, part I, part II, and part III. Similarly, Susan R. Matthews, for Angel of Destruction, goes through the entire book chapter by chapter, outlining in great detail ("In the opening scene . . . "). Kevin J. Anderson's outline for the first book of the Saga of the Seven Suns doesn't break down by chapter, but it does go on for more than 30 pages (and that's after a background description of the series and the primary characters). Thus, great detail of the actual occurrences is possible, with or without setting up the world first.

The lessons I have taken away from this book are that there is no one right length for a synopsis; that if the world is different enough to need explanation or to show how it stands apart, then including that information is fine; and that each book is going to require its own treatment. Oh, and that just as not every book I pick up fascinates me, not every synopsis does, either. There were some I didn't want to read through because of the jargon or it seemed like I'd seen the plot before or nothing stood out. Which is probably how editor's feel, too -- no matter how your synopsis is written, there's no guarantee it's going to be the right fit for any given editor.

I recommend this book as a reference for all writers. It's useful to see how different authors have written their synopses, whether they did it before or after the fact, and what they decided to include. I think that the next time I sit down to write one myself, I'll feel more confident in what I'm doing, and I would hope other writers would, as well.

I Have This Nifty Idea . . . Now What Do I Do With it? selected and edited by Mike Resnick Wildside Press, copyright 2001 ISBN:1-58715-481-1