Houses and Blueprints

Nope, no building going on here – this would be Today’s Analogy. I came up with this on the RWAOL boards a few days ago and like it so well that those of you who saw it there get to endure it again.

Here it is: the difference between a book manuscript and its synopsis is like the difference between a house and its blueprint.

Let’s say you had a chunk of land out in the country and you decided to build a house on it. For the purposes of this analogy, you would have absolutely no experience of building houses, but having been in a lot of them (and knowing which is the business end of a hammer) you decide that you can do it. Time is no object, although finishing sooner would be better than finishing later. Besides, you have some nifty ideas of how houses could work better than a lot of the ones you’ve been in so far. You have a firm idea in your head, a couple of reference books, and you go to it.

At some later point in time, you end up with a house. Along the way, you’ve learned a lot of stuff — maybe that gravity always wins, or that water will find the path of least resistance to run down, or a bunch of other sayings that you wish had been more familiar in the first place. You’ve built stuff and torn it out to do it again to make it look right, you’ve worked really hard and you have a finished house. TA DA! And for some reason, you decide to sell it. Eventually you find a buyer, who is all ready to write a cheque BUT asks to have a look at the blueprints first.


You, of course, never let on that you didn’t do any blueprints. You promise them to him/her the following week because they’re in Tahiti (or something equally plausible) and spend the weekend measuring the house. You back-engineer a set of blueprints, which are more or less accurate, the buyer is happy, you get the money and all is good.


With the money, you buy more land to build another house. How much fun is this? A lot less fun once you realize that your new land is within the boundaries of some municipality and that you will have to submit blueprints before beginning construction to get a building permit. Oh. You realize very quickly that creating a house on paper in advance of building it requires a whole different skill set than actually building one. You have to be able to envision the space to figure out where the light switches should be, where the plumbing should be, how high the ceilings should be, how the rooms flow into each other etc etc. This is a big change from standing in the framed house and saying “hey, let’s put the bathroom over there.”

During this painful learning process, though, you learn that there are people who can think in blueprint-mode, and even better, that these people might buy the house from you based on the blueprints and the lot i.e. before you even start building. There’s an incentive to get better at blueprints. The vast majority of people, however, are not interested in blueprints. They like houses. They like standing in houses and seeing their shape and detail and design, instead of trying to envision all of that from a line drawing.

And so it is that synopses are similar to blueprints and books are similar to houses. You probably wrote or are writing your first book without a synopsis, albeit with a pretty good idea of how stories should be told. You have some reference books; you’ve gone to some seminars; you know which is the business end of a pen (or a computer keyboard). And when you submit that book manuscript to a publisher, you’ll need to include a synopsis. Most of you will reverse-engineer the synopsis, which doesn’t really make a difference. The twist will come when you need to write a synopsis BEFORE you write the book.

Synopses are not like books in that they aren’t intended to entertain. They’re information documents. Blueprints show the building inspector where the plumbing and the wiring will be, how deep the foundations will be poured and what exactly is the structural support that will keep the house from falling down. A synopsis tells the editor what kind of book you’re going to write, it shows that you have characters and a sustainable conflict and a plausible resolution. It shows that you know how to construct a story so that it will hold up. If the synopsis shows that, you might sell the book on the power of the synopsis. Readers, of course, don’t care about your synopses. They want to read the book. But the synopsis can help an editor determine whether or not the book is one that people will want to read. Although it seems like a pain when you’re learning how to write synopses, they really do save time in the end. Once you wrap your mind around the way they’re done, you’ll be writing an 8-10 page synopsis on spec instead of a 400 page book. No matter how painful those pages are to come by, writing the synopsis will be quicker – and you’ll know before you write the book whether it has any structural issues that you can fix before you start writing, which is pretty cool.

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