An interview with the author of THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY

Recently I had the pleasure of reading THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY by author and screenwriter, Chris Haviland.  Over the course of many years and with the help of countless  friends such as well- known writers, Ben Bova and Kevin Anderson, Chris has compiled a collection of actual synopses that writers such as Terry Brooks, Frank Herbert and Margaret Weiss, to name a few, sent to publishers.  Some of these synopses were short and to the point, others …well.  H.G. Wells was so confident that along with his story idea he quoted the percentage he expected to be paid and when he wanted his work published!  Each author’s synopsis is preceded by a short biography and comments from Chris. 

If you have aspirations of becoming a writer and want to pick up pointers from some of the best authors on how to sell your idea, THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY will be an invaluable tool.  If you are looking just for a fascinating look behind books you may have read, you might be surprised at what the concept was originally pitched as before it evolved into its final form.




Please give us some background as to what you have done professionally. 

I originally began my career in filmmaking, with a BA in Radio / TV / Film from UNT. I co-founded a movie production company at the new Universal Studios Florida in March 1990, having already been there for a year working as a PA, Extra and Stand-in on various movies and television shows. My role in the company was to write screenplays. We had some close calls but ultimately did not succeed in raising private financing for any of mine. We finally fund a script written by our other partners, however, in the family genre. I ended up as a co-producer on that film. Shot in 1997 as THE FIRST OF MAY, we cast Julie Harris, Mickey Rooney, Dan Byrd, and Joe DiMaggio, and it was distributed to HBO and still plays on some cable stations. Meanwhile I ended up working for the web content and mobile device industries to support my new wife, and later my new kids, and I've become skilled at Operations Process Improvement. Over the years I built or improved back-end processes for four startups (,, LiftDNA which was acquired by OpenX, and most recently Soft card which was acquired by Google) and numerous other gigs. As of this interview I'm back on the market for another position. In between all this I have written screenplays that have fared well in writing contests, most recently a science fiction satire called CODE & CREATION which was a semi-finalist in the prestigious Nicholl Fellowships, sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (of Oscar / Emmy fame), becoming one of 129 best out of 7,197 entries in the biggest screenwriting competition in history until that time. I have also sold a few short stories, but with the publication of THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY this year I'm shifting my focus back to novel writing.


1.  What got you interested in writing THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY?

It began in the 80's with frustration at writing my own synopses for my own work, not being clear as to what plot points in a long novel should be in front of the publisher to help them make a decision. I learn better by seeing real examples rather than reading a "how to" book. For example, it was easier for me to learn how to write spec screenplays by reading actual spec screenplays that sold, rather than reading any one particular non-screenwriter's book on how to do it. At the Maui Writer's Conference in 2002, I was having a conversation with author Ben Bova about the publishing process, and I told him I had always wished there was a book of ACTUAL synopses that other authors wrote which led to a contract. He thought it was such a good idea that he encouraged me to put it together myself, then pitched it to his wife (the late Barbara Bova, literary agent) who picked me up. It was a completely unexpected project.

2.   You say you have more letters that didn’t make it in here.  Will there be a second book? 

I have enough material for 2 more books! Some of it is really fantastic stuff by some legendary deceased authors. However, the first book needs to be successful enough to warrant a second book. There is a possibility I might create a supplementary online "magazine" of synopses to publish these (a suggestion from David Brin a few years ago, before I found my current publisher) but I'd have to get a lot of publishing rights cleared with estates, which is a huge challenge (and one of the main reasons they didn't make it into the first book).

3.   How did you decide which ones to use?

The criteria mostly came down from WordFire Press in May 2014. Number one priority: do I already have worldwide rights to publish in any media? If I didn't, or at least some dialog started with the author or estate, then I had to set the chapter aside. With what was left, I had to re-contact all my authors and estates and get them up to speed. In some cases I needed additional materials from them which weren't in my early drafts of the book, such as the author photo. This process alone took about four months of work, and I actually passed my first deadline. I had to shave a few authors out of the stack because I could not re-establish contact with them. But WordFire Press was supportive of what I was trying to accomplish, and extended my deadline a bit. It paid off, because the resulting book has an impressive and diverse selection of authors, career levels, and styles. I also had to choose someone to write the book's introduction, and I preferred it to be a career editor. Fred Pohl had passed away since I had spoken to him. So I decided to contact former Del Rey editor Betsy Mitchell, to whom Terry Brooks introduced me back in 2002. And she not only agreed, she dropped everything and wrote it! It was the perfect fit (especially as she was on the receiving end of many of these authors).

One more thing I’d like to add: The Synopsis Treasury was targeted at Science Fiction & Fantasy authors. While I attempted to solicit many mainstream authors, I was either not able to make contact, or they had nothing to submit. Not all authors write synopses, but apparently, Science Fiction & Fantasy authors write and submit them more often. Or perhaps genre publishers require them more often. I’m not sure. 
 A few of the authors, while best known for science fiction or fantasy, a represented in my book by a mainstream synopsis, such as H.G. Wells’ THE WHEELS OF CHANCE which was a romantic comedy he wrote in between his major science fiction masterpieces. In fact a majority of Wells’ books were mainstream, not what we would call science fiction, but SF is what he is best known for now. It should be remembered that the genre had not yet been define at that time. In fact it actually coalesced out of his work and some of Jules Verne’s (also mostly an adventure writer) to become a new sub-genre of adventure with the dawn of the industrial era. Regardless of the genre, the book can be of great use to anyone interested in how to write a synopsis for the eyes of a publisher or agent. But science fiction & fantasy literary fans will also find it fascinating!

4.   Do you have a favorite?

I don't know, because I like all of them for different reasons! If I was cornered to deliver a favorite chapter, it might be Robert A. Heinlein's, because I like the dialog between Heinlein and Fred Pohl (himself a renowned science fiction writer) who was his magazine editor at the time. This dialog shaped a rough draft into a final draft. Pohl never had a problem telling a major author that he didn't like something, and Heinlein had no problem dealing with what his editor didn't like. I think there's a lot to be learned from that.

5.   With your own writing, do you find your final product close to your original concept or do you use a synopsis mainly to give you only a direction in which to proceed?

I write my synopsis after I finish the novel, so it tends to be the same as my original concept. I write more screenplays than novels, but the process is the same. However, I try to get a lot of outlining done prior to writing the story. I don't always stick to the outline because sometimes the story bends itself as the characters find their voices and personalities, and I think of new ideas along the way. At that time I may rewrite the outline to make sure I know where I'm going, but sometimes I'll do that mentally and not on paper (since it's very time consuming and I lose momentum when writing outlines). Some publishers will want an outline, but usually not in the first submission. Outlines are longer and more detailed chapter summaries. The synopsis is far more condensed, and I'll boil the story or outline down to a synopsis when I'm ready to start shopping the manuscript. Of course some accomplished authors can sell their novel idea before they write it, and will claim that the final product can and often will end up different from the synopsis. Sometimes they work closely with the editor between each draft of the novel to shape it further. So the synopsis is just a starting point in the submission process, nothing more.

6.  If you were an editor reading these synopses, what would you be looking for that would either turn you off to a story idea or compel you to want to buy it?

I have never worked as a fiction editor, so that's a good question. I think like a writer and an end-reader, but editors are trained to think like a marketing professional. They know what books in their list are selling and have an instinct for the types of story elements, themes and character types that seem to be working best for them right now. That's why one publisher will say, "not for us" and other may give you a try. Their sales results and specialties are different. My best answer would be to first look at the sub-genre to make sure it's the flavor that sells for my company, and then look deeper at how the protagonist evolves from start to finish, and how the plot unfolds (potential for suspense and forward movement). It's easier for a storyteller to sell than a wordsmith these days, especially if you're using a synopsis. (All writers are both storytellers and wordsmiths, but they usually lean either toward one style or the other. The "storyteller" uses fairly simple language to build interesting characters and drive the plot forward. They are less likely to win an award for their ability to choose an interesting combination of words to describe their scene, but are more likely to sell lots of books. Good example: J.K. Rowling. The "wordsmith" uses a strong command of language to convey emotion, like painting a portrait with words. They are more likely to win a literary award for their creative narrative, but risk slowing the plot down which doesn't work as well in today's immediate-gratification market. Good example: Ray Bradbury. If it's a new author I would be more strict about the storytelling elements because an accomplished author has an audience to give the book an extra push, and a synopsis can't give a proper example of wordsmithing anyway.

7.  With so many authors turning to self publishing, do you think the quality suffers because of a lack of sales pitch needed?

Quality is determined ultimately by the end reader, and the reader can only really speak for themselves.  The self-published author (who does all the publishing themselves – finds the printer, handles the book format, etc) and the vanity-published author (who pays a third-party press to do all that work) both skip the step where they have to sell it to a marketing professional who knows what sells. That is a risky decision, especially when the writer is paying for everything and will not likely recoup their investment, not to mention warehousing their inventory for years to come (although e-book publishing and POD is quickly overtaking the warehousing method for these types of publications). Instead, these authors have to put on their marketing hat without really knowing what sells well and try to sell to the end reader. Their target is inevitably going to prioritize the type of synopsis found on the cover copy on the back of the book, which is not the same style of synopsis. The cover copy has to tantalize the reader to find out more about the story, not tell them how it ends, whereas the synopsis to the publisher is the other way around.

8.  Any new projects you’d like to tell us about?

Most recently I have optioned a horror-comedy screenplay called FANG HUNTERS to an independent producer. On option is like a lease rather than sale. The producer "owns" the property for a period of time that allows them to budget the script and raise financing before deciding to put down the money to buy it. When the option runs out, the rights fall back to the screenwriter. This is how many, many movies get made, and a majority of them never get produced. The reality of the movie business. So while it's a cool milestone, it's just the first of many. Meanwhile, I have a handful of other screenplays on the market. And I'm working on a rewrite of a major space opera novel manuscript which almost sold to a major publisher, but ultimately it took well over a year for them to make a firm decision to move forward with it, and in that wait period I decided to withdraw my submission and break it into a trilogy of shorter novels rather than a really long one. I feel it will sell better this way. I hope to send that back into market again soon.

9.  Where can we find THE SYNOPSIS TREASURY?

The Synopsis Treasury is available to order in print from the usual sources, as well as in e-book. Kevin J Anderson also bundles it with his other writing instruction books via WordFire Press. Kevin J. Anderson and I will both be attending Dallas FanDays over the Memorial Day Weekend where signed copies will be on sale at Kevin's table.

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