Last week, a friend and I were talking about a synopsis she had to evaluate for work. There were things she liked about it, but something about it was making her pause. So we talked about it, and almost immediately, I knew something about the author of the synopsis. She most likely hadn't written the whole book.
How could I know that? There were two dead giveaways. First, the author touted a long list of contest wins. Now, don't get me wrong. I think contests are a fine way to get your work in front of an editor and gain some credibility in the early stages of your career. But there comes a point when a new writer ought to be shifting out of contest territory and into publication territory. If you just stay in contest-land, we'll kind of wonder why. Is there something wrong with the books? Is there a lack of follow-through? Is the writer somehow addicted to the contest vibe?
In this case, it seemed pretty clear to me that there was a lack of follow-through. And that brings us to the synopsis.
Let's say your synopsis is 4 pages long, and your book is 400 pages long. You can expect that roughly one synopsis page will be spent on every 100 pages of the text, but that's not a perfect ratio. In fact, probably the first quarter and the last quarter will take up slightly more room in the synopsis, and the middle two quarters will be slightly compressed. This is because the premise and the resolution often take more word space to explain properly, and if you need to compress the synopsis, it's usually easiest to compress the plotty stuff, which ordinarily would fall in the middle two quarters of the synopsis.
In this case, we saw a very different pattern. The first half of the synopsis was devoted to the first 50-75(ish) pages of the book. There was quite a lot of detail about the initiating event and the events in the early chapters. It was apparent that the author really understood this part of her story.
But after that, the synopsis read like a tick-list of unrelated events. "They go shopping. Then he goes on vacation for a week. Then she talks to her mom on the phone. Then they run into each other at the coffee shop. He gives her a newspaper. Then she realizes she's in love. Then he surprises her at her office. The end."
Those were not the actual events, of course. The actual events were somewhat more interesting in some ways, but they were also as wholly unrelated to each other as the items in that list. There was no sense of causation. No clear arc being described for either of the characters. It read as though the author had brainstormed a list of things that could plausibly happen in this particular story, but hadn't thought through whether these things amounted to a plot.
If she had written the entire book and shown it to betas and spent some time analyzing her own work, I'm sure the author -- who demonstrated competence in so many ways -- would have realized the disjointed nature of the events in the book. In fact, I hazard to say she would have realized it as she was writing the first draft. At some point, she would have asked a question about why her characters were behaving in this manner, and she would have realized the motivation and arcs were poorly conceived and the plot was just a mash of events with no "glue" to hold them together. (Yes, she would have. Seriously, you could tell how smart she was.)
So, the synopsis was beautifully detailed for the first half, and a disconnected list of episodes for the second half. The first half of the synopsis focused on the first eighth of the book. The author had a long list of "first chapter" type contest wins. This led me to conclude that the entire book had not been written, and I think my friend agreed. She didn't cut the author loose at that point, because there was strong evidence of talent, but she was wary about how things might proceed from that point.
This one, we'll file under "Things You Can Tell Just By Reading The Synopsis."