Conference Faculty Blog – Stephen Barr

I’ve yet to meet a single author who relished the opportunity (or even considered it an ‘opportunity’ as opposed to a potentially Sisyphean endeavor) to take their novel, sporting tens of thousands of carefully considered and curated words, and boil it down to that dreaded, almost diseased-sounding entity—the synopsis.  They’re probably just a bitch to write—packing a jet plane’s worth of luggage into one of those adorable “seats one person and a wallet” mini-cars you see driving around town nowadays—but there’s also that common complaint, the artist’s soul screaming at the idea of compartmentalizing the richness of his or her story and its themes and its epic, path-of-an-intercontinental-missile character arcs into a few short paragraphs, so that some time-starved stranger can decide in thirty seconds whether or not it “seems up my alley.”  I guess it does sound kind of awful.  It might even be straight-up antithetical to the writer’s reason for writing.  It’s function over form, that is.  Form over function would allow for that cheeky response made famous by some obviously clever writer whose name I’ve forgotten.

“What’s your novel about?”

“It’s about 275 pages.”

It’s been on my mind, though, not only because synopsizing is one of the necessary evils of publishing (and, more to the matter at hand, a necessary evil of writers conferences), but also because I read an impossibly excellent book recently, a novel by Javier Marías, where I feel like the dude in question boiled his story down not to a paragraph or two or three, but to a single sentence (a sentence that now happens to be my favorite of all time).

“How can I know today your face tomorrow?”

And that book, by the way, is called Your Face Tomorrow (it actually belongs to a trilogy, and technically, the first book’s title is Fever and Spear, but it launches the Your Face Tomorrow series.  Never mind all that, though.  Just read them.  They’re totally radical.)

I know I’m being sort of abstract here, and that if you showed up to a writers conference with a synopsis that simply read, “How can I know today your face tomorrow?” most agents and editors would either gesture or actually say WTF?  But maybe they wouldn’t.  Because how awesome is that line?  And isn’t it marvelously suggestive of something personal and intimate and interesting and clearly involving the space between one person and another, which is usually what every single story in the universe is about?  I would request the BEJEEZUS out of that story if someone handed me that single-sentence-synopsis.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is this.  Next time you’re facing the task of compressing your heart and soul—that is, your beloved and forever-labored-over novel—into a synopsis, into two or three paragraphs, and you’re bemoaning the artlessness of the exercise, see what happens when you try to compress it down into a single sentence.  That sentence is probably already in your novel somewhere.  It’s not a line jam-packed with nouns and verbs all racing to suggest the major plot beats in under sixteen seconds, it’s just a line that means what your novel means.  Now that, my friends, is an artistic endeavor.  And maybe there’s a way to work backwards from that moment, memorize what it feels like to find substance in a single molecule of your many-stranded novel, and transform the act of synopsizing into the art of synopsizing.  Until it’s both function and form.


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5 Responses to Conference Faculty Blog – Stephen Barr

  1. Robin Olson says:

    Great blog post Stephen! I am meeting with you on Friday and I will come armed with a one sentence synopsis: How does this sound: Where unbelievable trust meets undeniable truth. See you soon!

  2. Beth Browne says:

    Wow, that’s a lot to think about. And I can’t wait to see your face in October!! Wonder if I will know it… LOL!

  3. Kia says:

    This is a fantastic post from Stephen Barr! And what a brilliant way to approach the dreaded synopsis. One sentence that is probably already in your W-I-P. I’m going to look for my sentence now.


    Excellent Post! But is there a limit to the “preferred” amount of words ? Because even a sentence can have 300 words! HaHa! Just trying to be funny because I’d rather be drug behind a truck naked than write a synopsis 🙂

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