There are several reasons why, for the last two posts, I have been using terms like “planning” and “pre-writing” and “notes” more often than “outline.” The main one is that the outline that the writer sends to an editor as part of a proposal is a very different matter from the writer’s personal pre-writing plan, and using the same term for both confuses a lot of people.
For one thing, there are more requirements for a submission outline. A pre-writing plan is a personal tool; it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but the author. A book proposal outline (aka synopsis) is a sales document; its purpose is to help sell the book to an editor. It therefore has to be clear and well-organized and communicate to somebody else. A book proposal outline needs to tell the editor the important story information he/she needs in order to decide to buy the book – who the main characters are, what the key plot-points are, what the book is about, how the central problem is finally resolved. This is seldom the same as “the things the author has lots of trouble with and needs to figure out in advance,” though there’s often a lot of overlap.
Most book proposal outlines are plot summaries (See #4, below). Approximately 90% of people, when they hear this, go straight to the action plot, even if that is not what the book is actually about. “Elizabeth and Jane have tea with Darcy’s sister” isn’t what most people these days would think of as a main action plot-point; “Lydia elopes with Wickham” is more like it…which is fine, if they are writing The Hunt for Red October, but not so good if they are writing a book whose core story is social or emotional, like Pride and Prejudice. In other words, pay attention to what your book is actually about, not to what you think will sell or what you think the editor might want.
Do not be afraid to rewrite. It took me four “final drafts” to get a plot summary for Thirteenth Child that my agent found acceptable, and every objection she had to the first three was absolutely right…and each of those “final drafts” went through multiple rewrites where I revised and honed and refocused them before I sent them to her.
Also, 100+ thousands of words will sound dumb when you boil it down to 2% of the total; everybody’s does, get used to it. And remember that your proposal outline is competing with other people’s proposal outlines, which are boiled down just as far and sound just as stupid, so you all are operating under the same handicap.
There isn’t a standard format for book proposal outlines. I have seen a lot of them, from professional writers, all of whom sold books, and the formats vary wildly. For instance:
1. Chapter by chapter
“Chapter 1: Linda, the heroine, finds a purple monkey sitting at her breakfast table when she comes downstairs in the morning. Much surprised, she questions it, and finds out that she is to be recruited to Save The World. She refuses and strangles the monkey.
“Chapter 2: The monkey’s death is registered with the local police, and Ropcop is assigned to the case. Linda quickly finds herself on the lam, charged with gratuitous monkey-murder…”
2. Gossip column style
“On Beta Eta Nine, in the first half of the year 3419, lived LINDA – a perpetual student attempting to get her third AED (Alien Education Degree – two steps up from a Ph.D.) from the College of Improbable Sciences. An egghead, a bit of a loner, and outwardly conventional, Linda discovers a taste for action when she meets…REGINALD, a purple monkey with a low taste for meddling and an irritating earnestness. Though she kills him at their first meeting, he will return – but only after she has begun running from ROPCOP, a depressive lawman with a serious narco-tab problem …”
After setting up the characters and their motivations, the outline then continues with the summary of the plot. This seems to be most effective when the book is a character-centered one.
3. Dramatis Personae, followed by plot
LINDA: Perpetual grad student living on Beta Eta Nine. An egghead and a loner, she is too conventional for her own good. Her goal is to clear her name so that she can get back to earning yet another Alien Education Degree from the College of Improbable Sciences.
REGINALD: A purple monkey with no sense of humor and a low taste for meddling. Faced with the End Of The Universe As We Know It, he just has to do something.
ROPCOP: A cyborg policeman with a tendency to depression and a serious narco-tab habit…
LINDA discovers REGINALD in her kitchen one morning. When she demands an explanation, he tells her that she has been chosen to Save The Universe. LINDA kills him in a fit of rage at his meddling, then flees in panic…
4: Straight narrative, starting with background information
“Five years before the opening of this book, in the year 3414, the five-tentacled inhabitants of Ursula IV held a revolution. The government of the planet was destroyed; unfortunately, so were a lot of embassies and neutral spaceships. Most unfortunately of all, in one of those embassies was the Gizmo Of All-Get-Out, a gadget with the ability to influence the mind of the Evil Overlord himself (yes, that’s why he always makes such stupid mistakes!). The Gizmo was thought lost, and the Evil Overlord began a rampage across dozens of worlds, unstoppable at last…until he neared the Beta Eta system five years later.
“As the E.O. approached their system, the meddling monkeys of Beta Eta Seven sent Reginald, one of their most irritating members, to Six to recruit perpetual grad student Linda in a last-ditch attempt to stop him. But Linda was having none of it; she murdered the emissary (a temporary inconvenience for Reginald) and took off into the back alleys one step ahead of the law…”
5. Narrative, opening where the story does (This is usually third-person, but I’ve seen it done in first so I’m throwing it in here this way, just as an example of how far the format question can be stretched.)
“So there I was, hair in rattails, looking for my Cheerios, and there’s this purple monkey sitting in my kitchen. He told me some nonsense about saving the universe from the Evil Overlord, but I knew I didn’t have time for that if I was going to get my last thesis in on time. And then he keeled over, right in front of me. So I ran. I mean, I’m not used to purple monkeys dying in my kitchen, and I hadn’t had my coffee yet. Ropcop will tell you that I killed the little jerk, and if I’d known what he was getting me into…but I didn’t, honest…”
Using a first person voice for a plot synopsis is probably best done if the book itself is in first person and if the character is not too discursive in her speaking style – the idea is to keep the thing short, after all.
6. The grade-school outline method:
I. Beta Eta Six
A. Linda comes downstairs and finds a purple monkey
1. He is eating her breakfast cereal
2. He tells her she has to Save The Universe
3. She kills him.
B. Linda is immediately charged with gratuitous monkey-murder
1. She runs away
2. Ropcop is assigned to the case.
3. He pursues her.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’m quite sure anyone here could come up with several more perfectly usable varieties if they wanted. How you do a synopsis depends on what you think will best reflect the book you have written. But really, the function of the synopsis is mostly to reassure the editor that you have something that hangs together, that the ending doesn’t come completely out of left field, that the plot doesn’t morph from action-adventure to brooding-atmospheric in Chapter 6 (well after the first-three-chapters the editor has actually gotten to look at).
And yes, it probably sounds a bit contradictory to say “a synopsis or proposal outline is a sales tool” and then tell you to ignore what you think the editor wants to buy when you write it. But a bang-up outline that misrepresents the book is not going to sell it; all it will do is annoy the editor. And you really don’t want to do that.