Dear Pamela on Crafting Your Best Memoir Synopsis

by Pamela Jane on September 20, 2016

As I mentioned last month, Dear Pamela is busy with memoir coaching and writing a new book series. This means she’ll only write her memoir advice columns every other month. She has promised to come back in November with her last advice column for 2016.

If you have questions about memoir writing that you need answered, please leave them in the comments section below today’s advice column or send your questions in an email to Be sure to use the Subject Line: DEAR PAMELA. Thanks. — Matilda

Seeking help on synopsis

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

I am having great difficulty in writing a synopsis for my memoir… No matter how much I seem to read about synopsis they don’t seem to cover memoir synopsis. My book is written in prose and verse and short story format. My book is called ‘Cuz I’m Mixed’ It’s about me as a young girl growing up in a culturally diverse mixed race family. Any suggestions you have I know would help…. So if you can HELP I would be most thankful.

Yours truly, Sharon-Seeking-Synopsis-Advice

Dear Pamela

Dear Sharon-Seeking-Synopsis-Advice,

Thank you so much for your question about writing a memoir synopsis. I think that any synopsis is difficult to write (even a synopsis for someone else’s book) so imagine how difficult it is to encapsulate the essence of a story you are so close to, a story in fact that is you.

You won’t believe this, but when I thought about your question and researched “how to write a memoir synopsis” I found my own post on this topic that I’d written for in 2010! Even more surprising, when I read it, I felt I learned something! Apparently we all have a wise inner self who knows more than we think we do.

Since I wrote that piece, however, I did sell my own memoir and was compelled to write a synopsis for it. So I am going to add to my original article another tip, (#6) that I was not aware of at the time. I am also enclosing links for other articles on writing memoir or novel synopsis (a novel synopsis is similar to a memoir synopsis since you are, after all, telling a story) that may be helpful to you.

I ran face-to-face into the issue of a synopsis when I thought I had everything I needed for my memoir package: a beautifully polished manuscript, a well-written query letter, and a strong proposal. But – surprise! – I discovered I needed a synopsis, too. I swear, a root canal or, better yet, writing another memoir would be a lot more relaxing.

I did on-line research about writing a memoir synopsis and found it’s really quite easy. All you have to do is toss it off, hitting the highlights while simultaneously demonstrating the dramatic arc in vividly evoked scenes that convey the universality of the story in the style and tone of the original piece.

It reminds me of my daughter’s driving lesson. She has her permit now and spent two hours on the road recently with Steve, a certified driving instructor. It was the first time she’d done night-driving on major highways. And then it started to rain.

“Turn on your windshield wipers!” cried Steve, as they merged on to Route 95, “check your blind spot, flip on your blinker and for heaven’s sake, speed up!”

What’s so hard about that?

Well, for one thing (driving aside; I didn’t get the merging traffic gene) writing a memoir is very different from summing one up. It involves different sides of the brain – special synapses for synopses. I think I may have missed out on that gene, too.

Weeks passed, and I was in despair about ever getting my synopsis written. My office was littered with reams of printed-out instructions for writing a memoir synopsis, testimonies from writers describing how they tore their hair out attempting it, and the grisly remains of my own failed efforts. Then my friend and fellow writer, Debbie, asked me what I wanted for Christmas. For a moment, I was quiet, thinking. What did I really want? And then it came to me.

“I’d like an hour or two of synopsis help,” I said.

Debbie readily agreed and even before we started, I got to work using a synopsis worksheet I purchased on-line for $5.00. A day later, my synopsis was complete!

My friend’s gift was the best Christmas present anyone could have given me. And so I’d like to pass this gift — this advice — on to you with six tips for writing your memoir synopsis.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Tip #1. Take it to the next level

In the movie You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox, played by Tom Hanks, is heading to a restaurant to meet his email soul mate (Meg Ryan) for the first time. Joe is a nervous wreck. What if his soul mate turns out to be hideously ugly? What if his dream girl isn’t the girl for him at all? Joe’s assistant, Kevin, offers him some relationship advice.

“You’re taking it to the next level…I always take a relationship to the next level and if it works okay I take it to the next level after that.”

Remember, you’re not trying to write a perfect synopsis on the first try. You’re just taking it to the next level. Even if all you do today is organize your papers, that’s taking it to the next level. You can worry about the next level after that tomorrow.

Tip #2. “Chunk it out”

A synopsis isn’t a detailed list of every event in the story – “this happened and then this happened and then this happened.” But in the early stages of composing, writing down a list of events can be helpful. Later this list can be shaped, trimmed, or expanded. But “chunking it out,” as a novelist friend of mine says, is a good place to start.

Tip #3. Highlight what you love

Once you have a list or a chapter-by-chapter outline of events, sit down and highlight every paragraph, sentence, or phrase that captures the essence and personality of your story. These highlighted sections are ones to include in your finished synopsis.

Tip #4. Find a friend

Just knowing there is a friend or colleague holding you to a deadline or waiting to give you feedback is an incentive to finish your synopsis. It’s like throwing out a safety rope and feeling a reassuring tension on the other end.

Tip #5. Have a little faith

Don’t worry about whether or not you have the synopsis gene. Have a little faith and accomplish the impossible. The genes will just have to catch up later.

Tip #6. Read other memoir or novel synopses. Lots of them!

Reading other synopses will give you a sense of the cadence and rhythm of the synopsis, and also what it consists of. Google the synopses of your favorite novels or memoirs, if you are able to find some, study how they are put together. You can even use these as a kind of template to write your own.

Sharon, I hope this post has been helpful to you; please feel free to comment if you have further questions, and I will do my best to answer.

Here are two links to check out that will help you with your book proposal:

1. What is the Difference Between a Query Letter and a Synopsis?

2. Back to Basics: Writing a Novel Synopsis | Jane Friedman

In my November Dear Pamela post, I will be looking at the question of how to target the perfect agent for your book.

If you have a question for Dear Pamela, please
leave a comment below or send an email along
with your question to
Be sure to put DEAR PAMELA in the Subject Line

Who’s Dear Pamela?

Pamela Jane is a children’s book author, and coauthor of Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic

Her new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story which Story Circle called “a fine, five star read” describes how she, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house while her husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills, a conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove her mildly mad, and ultimately led to her becoming a writer.

You can see Dear Pamela’s Memoir Book Trailer below. Follow her @austencats.

Recent Essays by Pamela Jane

The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story (In Literary Mama)

Just Wait! A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action (In The Writer)

Gradually, Naturally, Gracefully (In Mothers Always Write)

I Can’t Have a Baby Because I Have a 12:30 Lunch Meeting (in Mothers Always Write)

First Editing ServicePamela Jane heads the First Editing Service and invites you to contact her if you are interested. Click Here for more information.

The First Editing Service offers a great (and inexpensive) way to see where you have been and where you are going. Pamela’s understanding and insights have helped others with their memoirs and can help you move forward on your writing path.

Reviews of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story

“…Jane takes us masterfully through her story of a lifelong writer struggling to emerge.” —Deborah Heiligman, author, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award Finalist

“…a fine, five-star read!” – Story Circle Reviews

“…incisive, funny, and touchingly candid…” —Howard Rheingold, author, The Virtual Community and Net Smart

“…a harrowing story that invites the reader to experience the thrill and danger of the Sixties from a place of safety and acceptance.” —Tristine Rainer, author, Your Life as Story

“…an inducement to all writers who aren’t afraid to take their past experiences and use them towards the future of their dreams…” – a comfychair

“Jane’s memoir…of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, is the only one that gives us the opportunity to go into the heart and mind, behind the flashy images of the Woodstock and hippies of the Sixties.” – Jerry Waxler, author The Memoir Revolution

Want to know more about the background of Dear Pamela’s memoir? Read this article in The Writers — Just Wait: A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action.

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