At long last, the synopsis!

Our yard seems to have broken out in mushrooms over the weekend — the result of both the Pacific Northwest’s abrupt conversion from summer to winter weather and the landscape fairies (great big men, really, but as those of you who have been following my renovation saga have probably gathered over the last six months, a tad unpredictable in the timing of their visits) having spread around a great deal of mulch of forest origin. The beauty above is about twice the width of my foot.

Back to business. Does it seem as though I’ve been procrastinating about going over how to construct a synopsis this time around? I’m perfectly willing to admit it: I have; I dislike writing them, too. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while MAY have noticed, brevity isn’t really my strong point.

People become novelists for a lot of reasons — now you know mine.

The fact is, though, synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one in order to land an agent; a NF writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell; an agented writer will be asked to produce a synopsis for her agent to hand to an editor. Even in the happy event that an author has a successful book or two under her belt, she’s still going to need to summarize her next project for her agent and editor.

I know: it’s depressing, from a writerly point of view.

How do I know that? Because you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about it. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier wonders, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business?

As we’ve seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — time and the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments, because I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings is are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — sacre bleu!1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. However, as I’m going to illustrate over the next week or so, an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

My point is, once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax; you can do this. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, let’s start with the absolute basics.

For those of you new to the term, a synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, professional synopses are typically 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest. Increasingly, however, agents are beginning to request shorter synopses, which can be as little as a single page. (Don’t worry; we will be discussing how to write both types.) Sometimes, an agent will ask for 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Yes, Virginia, you read that correctly: not everyone wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. The requested variations multiply like, well, mushrooms.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. While you’re grumbling, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

Ah, Virginia has her hand raised. “I understand that, Anne,” she says, clearly piqued to be everyone’s constant exemplar of naïveté for so many years. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is, if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? Why not just go off the descriptive paragraph in the query letter or pitch?”

Fabulous question, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

It’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an agent into reading a manuscript — but 5-page synopses are usual for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?” (If you’ve never pitched your work verbally to an agent, and want to learn how to do it, please check out the PITCHING category at right. No matter how good a book is, learning to describe it in terms the entire industry will understand is a learned skill. Trust me on this one.)

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? “Wait,” I hear some of you saying, “this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry; much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. (This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal.)

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc. (For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the book proposal.)

Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent, who needed it to put together a book proposal. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

But let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, it’s unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To answer that trenchant little question, let us turn once again to the wit and wisdom of the late, great Fats Waller. If you happen to have access to some old 78s (or the soundtrack for Ain’t Misbehavin’), it’s worth giving the entire lyrics of Find Out What They Like a close listen: I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone as straightforward romantic advice, of course, but it’s not a bad explanation of the underlying logic of easy dismissal.

On the off chance that one or two of you don’t have Mssr. Waller’s opus at your fingertips at the moment, here is a representative excerpt from the song. To clarify its applicability, substitute agent’s interest for man, agent for daddy, and aspiring writer for gal:

I used to wonder right along why I couldn’t hold a man.
Every love affair went wrong, until I changed my plan.
I’m having no more trouble now, my daddy’s nice as he can be
Ladies, I will tell you how — that’s if you’ll take a tip from me.

Find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.
Give ‘em what they want and when they want it, without a single word to say.

You’ve got to cater to a man and if you don’t,
He’ll find some other gal to do the things you won’t.

Crude, undeniably, and admittedly, awfully darned sexist as love advice (if you’re too young to see why at first glance, ask your mother. On second thought, don’t), but it does get right to the heart of the usual writerly objections to having to write a synopsis at all.

For instance: why reject a blurb-like synopsis on sight? Quoth the late Mssr. Waller:

Just use more sugar if he says your jam ain’t sweet
Or he will sneak for his dessert across the street.

To put it slightly less colorfully, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea; as I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them. An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders.

As always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis — and let them have it just that way.

Thank you, Fats.

To take another of the common questions, why does it need to be so brief? Every agent will probably give you a slightly different answer to that one, but the hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want.

You CAN say no, of course, and send them the same 1-, 3-, or 5-page you have constructed to send But, to refer again to our text du jour:

Now you will lose him if you give him lollipops
When you know he’s crazy just to have some chops.

Every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work being treated that way, or indeed, that of any dedicated writer. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar?

It should — the same principle applies to query letters. As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned things once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow…

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be teaching other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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