Some great news about a good writer!

Once again, I find myself in the delightful position of having excellent news to report: please join me in a gigantic round of applause for wonderful writer and fun human being Phoebe Kitanidis, who has just sold her YA novel, WHISPER, to Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. Congratulations and many happy returns of the achievement, Phoebe!

It couldn’t happen to a nicer person, either. Those of you who attended the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named may remember Phoebe — she was one of the generous and intrepid agented writers who kindly agreed to spend three solid days listening to conference attendees’ pitches and giving useful feedback.

Strong girls who read may already be familiar Phoebe’s nonfiction work, including her recently-released Fab Girls’ Guide to Friendship Hardship. This little gem sounds like a book I would have LOVED to have had in my hot little hands in junior high school:

In kindergarten, friendship was easy. She’d set her snack down next to another little girl, and by the end of recess, they’d be the best of friends. Fast-forward to middle school and suddenly fashion matters, mean girls rule, and everyone wants to join the coolest clique. Now more than ever, she needs best friends forever — girls who knew her better than anyone and who stick by her no matter what. Whether she’s stuck in a fading friendship, caught in the popularity trap, or dealing with mean girls, the Fab Girls Guide to Friendship Hardship will break down the solutions to her friendship problems step by step. Best of all, it will teach her how to free herself from poisonous friendships forever and be the best friend she can be. Soon, she’ll be on her way to meeting new people and making room for friends who truly respect and understand her … because she deserves nothing less!

WHISPER — due out in the summer of 2010, to give those of you new to the game some idea of the usual time lapse between sale and publication — is Phoebe’s first YA novel, and it sounds like a hoot. Since I’m always eager to show my readers good examples of brief (say, query letter-length) synopses, here’s how Publishers’ Marketplace describes it:

A 16-year-old can hear wishes — every woman in her family can – but for her older sister, this gift is a curse, and when her sister runs off, trying to find a way to get rid of her power, the girl is the only one who has the ability to find her.

That’s a heck of a book keynote, isn’t it? Phoebe’s own description is even better, I think:

It’s a teen paranormal about a girl named Joy who is the ultimate people-pleaser. Joy can psychically hear other people’s secret wishes–from “gee, I’d wish I had a glass of water” to (later in the book) the darkest of human desires.

Come on, admit it — if were Millicent and saw that in a query letter, you’d immediately ask for the manuscript, wouldn’t you?

Congratulations again, Phoebe, and I’m looking forward to announcing your book’s publication here on Author! Author!

I want candy!

We begin today with great news about a member of our little Author! Author! community, campers: reader Jake La Jeunesse’s OLD FRIENDS has taken an Honorable Mention in the Stage Play category of the 2008 Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. Congratulations, Jake! Way to build up your ECQLC!

That’s short for Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, for those of you joining us late.

Ah, ECQLC, those lovely little tidbits that make Millicent the agency screener’s weary eyes light up in the biographical paragraph of a query letter. Placing in contests (particularly ones known to attract many entries and stiff competition, like Writers’ Digest’s), acceptances to writers’ residences (such as the ones I discussed yesterday, which also usually involve one’s writing fighting its way through heavy competition), writing programs (either degree-granting or of the intensive workshop variety), public speaking experience, even consistent participation in a well-established critique group — all of these are legitimate professional credentials for a writer, every bit as much as previous publications.

Make sure to mention ‘em in your query letters.

If you are in the querying stage of your writing career, or plan to be there within the next year or two, it’s definitely worth giving some thought — and entering the occasional contest — to building up your ECQLC quotient. Credentials generally take time to accumulate, after all; heck, a three- or four-month turn-around time for a contest entry is positively abnormally quick. And it can take time to convince the editor-in-chief of your community paper to let you write a couple of book reviews, even if you do it for free, in order to be able to list it as a publication credential.

Do I sense some squirming discomfort out there from those of you who have read my last couple of posts? “But Anne,” I hear a harassed few exclaim, “you’ve just been telling us that we need to make time for our writing, so I thought you understood. I have a full-time job, family, friends, obligations — as it is, I feel as though I have to fight tooth and nail to carve out any time to write at all! Come to think of it, one of the things I resent most about the querying process is how much time it sucks away from creating new work.

“Given the choice,” these intrepid souls continue, “why would I — or any sane aspiring writer — place our books on a back burner in order to devote still more of that scant time to entering contests or writing free pieces for local papers, just so I’ll have clippings?”

Interesting point, time-pressed many. For the most part, I’m with you on this one: marketing (which querying certainly is), learning about craft, attending conferences, making connections with other writers who may help you improve your writing now and/or help you down the line — these are all time-consuming and often expensive. As you say, you could be using those resources to complete your book-in-progress.

See? I do get it.

For that reason, I wouldn’t advise letting the pursuit of ECQLC make serious inroads into your writing time. You don’t, after all, have unlimited amounts of it, and all of the marketing classes and networking in the world won’t make a particle of difference if your book is not well-crafted.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration: we’ve all stumbled across volumes in the bookstore that made us gasp, “Okay, who does THIS author know” (to put it politely) “to have been able to land an agent for THIS?” But presumably, if you were already a celebrity or had connections that would permit you to bypass — again, putting it politely — the craft-related steps of the production of the book, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you?

Oh, don’t deny it. You’d be off hobnobbing with your fancy friends, with no thought for those of us who nursed you as a pup.

For those of us operating under the normal restrictions of landing an agent and getting published, I would consider it reasonable — better than that: cleverly career-minded! — of you to set aside deliberately, say, 5% of your writing time for professional development activities like contest entry, taking classes, going to book readings to meet local authors, etc.

Why 5%, you ask? Because if you write on a regular basis, it’s enough time actually to accomplish something, yet it’s not a high enough chunk of your writing time to prove a major obstacle to the progress of your book. Think of it as a smart investment in your future.

Before any purists out there start screaming that I’m mercenary-minded, allow me to add quickly: for the sake of our art, I wish I could tell you that the publishing world routinely rewards single-minded writers who rigorously refuse to be distracted by the less creative aspects of the business. But I’m not going to lie to you — over the years I’ve seen many, many, many truly talented writers passed over by agents and their Millicents.

Why, you cry to the heavens? Because it’s far, far easier to dismiss an uncredentialed writer than one with some ECQLC.

Yes, regardless of the quality of their respective writing. Long-time readers, take out your hymnals and sing along with me: if you can’t get an agent or editor to READ your manuscript, the quality of the writing isn’t going to help get it published.

Sorry about that. If I ran the universe…well, you know the rest. In the universe I don’t run, here is what I hope is a pleasant flashback to your childhood, to help cheer you up:

All nice and calm again? Excellent. Let’s get back to the topic at hand.

Toward the end of my last post, I suggested that it might behoove you to make a list of the conditions you believe you would need in order to have a productive writing retreat. All right, everybody, hand in your homework, so I can grade it.

Just kidding; no need to post your lists as comments. But your breath caught for just a moment out of long-ago school habit, didn’t it?

I do hope that you’ve been giving some serious thought to what should be on your list, however. If you haven’t started, or if you’re having trouble even beginning, let me rephrase the question: what is the absolute minimum you would need to have with you/over your head in order to dig in for anywhere from a long weekend to a couple of months and to literally nothing but WRITE.

Did you catch the logical problem with what I just said? Obviously, no human being can write 24/7, with no breaks at all. Eating, for example, is more or less indispensable to the maintenance of human life, contrary to what some of us thought in the mid-80s. So, I’m told, is sleep.

You’d be amazed by how frequently writers forget to budget time or money for either when they’re planning to retreat.

Completely understandable, of course: it’s not all that hard to picture a gleeful writer, pleased almost to the point of disbelief at the prospect of being able to devote unbroken time to a writing project, packing in unseemly haste, muttering, “6 days — that’s 144 hours of work. I can finish my revision in 144 hours, if I don’t take breaks and live on protein bars stuffed in my cardigan pockets, so I don’t have to move even a few feet in order to feed myself…”

Stop right there: trust me, you can’t. And you will be (a) completely miserable, (b) quickly become unproductive, and eventually (c) make yourself sick if you even try.

So promise me you won’t, so I don’t have to stay up at night worrying about you. Thank you.

The impulse to overtax oneself on retreat is, I suspect, part and parcel of a mindset that often afflicts time-strapped writers, whether they are lucky enough to be able to go on retreat or not. See if this scenario sounds at all familiar:

Stephanie so yearns for sustained writing time that when she is finally assured she’s going to have an entire day (or two, or twelve…work with me here, people) to herself, she’s beside herself with joy. In a frenzy of excitement, she spends the week prior to her writing day(s) feverishly making lists of everything she plans to do: finish Chapter 12, write Chs. 13-15, compose a new and improved query letter from scratch, compose synopsis…the list goes on and on. As the day itself approaches, Stephanie finds herself doing housework and running errands during her regularly-scheduled normal writing time: ah, well, no matter; she can make it up later.

Once her planned writing intensive begins, though, Stephanie sits down, makes sure everything around her is perfect — and two hours later, is in tears because she can’t seem to write. What happened? she wonders angrily.

What did happen to Stephanie? Any guesses?

If you suggested that perhaps she had raised her expectations of what she could achieve in her allotted time, give yourself a gold star for the day. Aspiring writers do this all the time — they build up the pressure on themselves to perform that they set themselves up for…well, not necessarily failure, but at least for disappointment in themselves.

The common name for this is writer’s block.

Allow me to share a professional writer’s secret: in the long run, it’s far more sensible to set small, reasonable tasks, eating away at a big project like completing a novel in ladylike little bites, rather than trying to write an entire book in a sitting.

Oh, you may laugh, but at every formal writing retreat I’ve ever visited, I’ve met at least one writer who was attempting to polish off her long-neglected novel during a week- or month-long residency, because she just didn’t know when she’d have time to get back to it again, driving herself crazy in the process. Or who was trying to start one and get halfway through it before he left.

Keep your expectations about what you can achieve during your writing time reasonable. Really, you’ll accomplish more in the long run, I promise.

For those of you who would like some extra credit, here’s a follow-up question: Stephanie did something else that made her intensive retreat time less likely to be successful. What was it?

35 points (on a scale of what? Who can say?) if you immediately piped up to point out that she stopped honoring her usual daily writing time. Why was this a poor idea, since she knew she had some spare time coming up? Because that raised the expectations for her own productivity during her intensive writing time even higher, rendering falling short of them even…class?

That’s right, even greater. Help yourself to a lollypop on your way out the door after the bell rings.

On that candy-related note (I knew I’d get back to it somehow), I’m going to wind down for the day, but before I do, allow me to place the proverbial bug in your ear while that lollypop is in your mouth: when planning intensive writing time, it’s a really, really good idea to budget in — over-budget, even — thinking time into it.

Or, as your horrified mind probably just referred to it, time when you’re neither writing, eating, or sleeping.

No, I haven’t gone mad, nor am I nudging you surreptitiously toward lowering your performance expectations even more. (Although, hey, I wouldn’t stop you from doing the latter, by any means.) I’m talking, my friends, about what the pros call processing time.

That being said, I’m going to wind up today by repeating my question from yesterday: what factors would you actually need to have in place in order to work productively on a writing retreat? May I suggest adding to your list time to eat, sleep, and just plain think about things?

Hey, let’s run with that and add a secondary set of goals to our list: tweak it to include conditions you would need in order to do these not-writing-yet-necessary-activities happily and well. Because, believe me, planning for those will assist you in the pursuit of your primary goal, scoring yourself some prime-quality intensive writing time.

So, at the risk of sounding redundant across blog posts, give some thought to what you would need. I promise you, we will put your homework to good use.

Keep up the good work!

Getting away with it — your book, that is

Last time, I extolled the virtues of the writing retreat, that time-honored institution where a writer in the throes of creation tells everyone she knows (politely, I would hope, but that’s not strictly necessary) that she needs to get away from them and all familiar influences for a bit in order to go on a honeymoon with her book-in-progress. Since I was fresh from a lovely not-quite-long-enough writing retreat when I wrote that post, I might have over-rhapsodized a bit, but the fact remains, getting away from it all can be a positive boon for birthing that manuscript.

And no, I’m not going to provide any graphic metaphor here about the female critter of your choice’s wandering off into the middle of the woods to give birth in private. I’m quite confident that each and every one of you is perfectly capable of thinking up your own.

Amongst serious writers, aspiring and published alike, the mere mention of the term writing retreat brings a far-away, wistful look to the eye. “Ah, sanctuary,” they seem to be thinking. Yet nine times out of ten, when they awake from their fantasy-induced stupor sufficiently to discuss retreating, they describe something very formal, well-organized, and perhaps most importantly run by someone else.

Basically, what they have in mind seems to be an artists’ colony, a sort of year-round summer camp where the creatively-inclined seclude themselves in luxuriously-appointed cabins to work, emerging only to eat, perhaps sleep, and socialize with the other artistes. If there were also a gourmet chef and a truly gifted massage therapist on staff, well, who would quibble?

If this sounds a bit familiar, I shouldn’t wonder: minus the massage therapists and plus a medieval castle, it’s more or less the destination in Elizabeth von Arnim’s THE ENCHANTED APRIL. A terrific novel to read on a rainy midwinter day, especially if you’re longing for a writing retreat, but let’s face it, renting a medieval castle in Italy with hot-and-cold running servants is beyond most of our reaches.

Truth compels me to say — hold onto your wallet, Maude — that such retreats actually do exist in the real world. If you like, I could tell you of three three-star vegetarian meals per day served in an eagle sanctuary, or of centuries-old chateau in the south of France where winds waft the scents of nearby lavender fields through well-scrubbed windows.

But presumably, if you could afford an extended sojourn in such places whenever you felt the need to lock yourself up with your book, you would be consulting a travel agent, not yours truly.

Sometimes writers’ descriptions of retreats involve even less interaction with the rest of the human race than the tourists delights mentioned above: in some descriptions, the writer envisions himself in a comfy-yet-well-funded bungalow intelligently designed to promote both creative endeavor and sleep; a shoeless staff of well-trained minions might rap softly against the windowsill before depositing the writer’s meals on the doorstep and tip-toeing away, but otherwise, blissful solitude.

Again, I’m not going to lie to you: such artists’ retreats do in fact exist. Let the fantasy-construction begin immediately.

The problem is, most of the deluxe retreats are either quite expensive (think four-star hotel) or require several levels of stiff competition (think admittance to an Ivy League school, then cut those chances in half) in order to win fellowships to attend them. Then, too, most of these colonies are set up to accommodate other kinds of artist; many artist colonies don’t set aside space for writers at all.

Which is not to say that there aren’t some excellent writer-only retreats out there — certainly, they exist. Poets and Writers magazine regularly lists the application and fellowship deadlines for them, in fact.

So if you already have a few solid literary credentials under your belt — contest semifinalist, anyone? — it can be well worth your while to apply. Believe me, being able to say, “I was an XYZ writing fellow” makes for some pretty fancy ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy). Do be aware, however, that the application process is often lengthy and sometimes application fees are expensive.

And, while we’re facing things, here’s a word to the wise: if you are planning to apply for a residency at one of these retreats, set aside as much time and as many resources to enter as you would a literary contest. Then double it.

Why? Well, it’s not at all unusual for a residency application to be as long or longer than the average college application. It’s not even unheard-of for them to ask for references. (In answer to that great unspoken question hanging in the air: ask other writers, usually, teachers, agents, and so forth. Yet another great reason to join an excellent critique group, eh?)

Pop quiz, class, to see who has been paying attention in recent months: if a market-savvy querier knows that every syllable in his query packet is in fact a writing sample by which Millicent is likely to judge his mettle, and if a knowledgeable submitter is aware that every sentence in her submission packet is also a writing sample, should a clever residency applicant regard every word in his/her/gender neutral application packet as:

(a) a mere formality to be written in the half-hour before the packet must be postmarked?

(b) something to be scrawled in pencil on the application form, because what matters is the content of the answers?

(c) indelible evidence that the jury of application-readers will use to determine whether to bother to read the requested formal writing sample at all after they’ve laughingly cashed the check for the application fee?

(d) a writing sample that will be judged with a harshness that would make the proverbial East German gymnastics judges of Olympics past wince, murmur, “Ooh, that was harsh,” and turn away in horror?

If you said (c) or (d) — or, better still, both — congratulations: you are emotionally prepared to pull together a potentially winning residency application. If you said (b), make sure to walk into the nearest available writers’ conference and tell the established authors; they’ll want to pat you on the head and call you adorable.

If you said (a), of course, you’re like 95% of writers who enter literary contests — and about 90% of those who apply for residencies at artists’ retreats. The organizers of those contests and fellowships would encourage you to apply early and often; they depend upon your application fees to keep their programs running.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t bother to apply if you’re not willing to put in the time to make your application syllable-perfect — and as when considering whether to enter a contest, be realistic about the fact that any hours you invest in filling out those forms is almost certainly going to be coming out of your possibly scant writing time.

When figuring out just how big a bite applying for a residency is likely to take, bear in mind that virtually any application will ask for a 5-25 page writing sample — much like the aforementioned literary contest, right? Obviously, this renders the application process substantially less time-consuming for those with already-polished pieces in hand to complete.

Pay close attention to the length restrictions: virtually any competition will disqualify applicants who exceed them. This can lead to rather thorny problems for novelists and other writers of book-length works.

Why? Well, short story writers and poets can often just whip out their best work and hand tuck it into the application packet, but again, as with contest entries, length restrictions often mean sending in a fragment, rather than an entire chapter.

Also, often (but not always, natch; read and re-read the rules until you’re blue in the face to be sure), writers of longer works will be expected to fit a synopsis of the book in question into the few pages specified by the rules, as part of the writing sample.

Aren’t you glad that I suggested last month that you construct BOTH a 1-page and a 5-page synopsis of your work to have on hand, for occasions like this.

Whatever you send, make absolutely certain that it is your best work. Assume, if anything, that your pages will be judged MORE harshly than by Millicent the agency screener or her aunt, Mehitabel the contest judge; after all, you’re asking the folks reading it to feed and house you, not merely to hang a ribbon on your chest.

Proofread your application within an inch of its life — long-time readers, chant it with me now — IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD.

I sense some nervous shifting in chairs out there. “Um, Anne?” I hear some anxious would-be applicants quaver. “I understand that applying for a residency in an artists’ retreat is likely to be time-consuming, exacting, and no great fun. I didn’t expect it to be any of those things. But you mentioned in passing — almost as a throw-away line, really — that you recommended applying to those ‘who already have a few solid literary credentials under (their collective) belt,’ and have since maintained an ominous silence about those of us who have, to put it politely, not yet attained literary recognition. How should the latter handle the application process?”

Ooh, good question, nervous quaverers. The short answer: extremely carefully or not at all. Take a realistic look at what ECQLC you have to offer, and do your homework about how likely it is to impress the people deciding who is going to occupy the tiptoed-to bungalows.

I know, I know: after my lengthy series on querying this summer, you are probably good and sick of my telling you to do some research about those to whom you would like to send your work for evaluation, but think about it: the more prestigious the retreat center is, the pickier those who select residents will necessarily be — and the more likely to favor applications that boast NEA fellowships, moderately successful previous publications and well-reviewed gallery shows. There’s no point in wasting an application fee on a retreat center that doesn’t look twice at an applicant until she’s been on the National Book Award short list a couple of times.

In fact, before deciding to apply for any competitive residency — and, more importantly, before investing hours in the application and/or signing the application fee check — I would strenuously advise doing a bit of research about who won that fellowship the previous year, and the year before that. Check the organization’s website; if they tend to smile the already-published, they’ll often want to boast about their fellowship recipients’ achievements.

Lest those of you treading the earlier steps of the path to publication despair, there are a few — a very few — fellowship-granting artists’ retreats that specifically look to provide opportunities to good writers with relatively few credentials. (But if you’re looking to boost your ECQLC quotient for occasions like this, please see the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the list at right.) And, as I can tell you from personal experience, once a writer has won one writing residency, it’s usually easier to win the next.

Credentials, you see. They snowball over time.

But generally speaking, the scantily-published do tend to pay for their writing retreats themselves. Which is — dare I say it? — yet another reason that an aspiring writer seeking a retreat situation, even an informal one, might want to devote a few hours to surfing the various fellowship-granting institutions’ websites.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? But how else are you going to figure out what draws writers to these retreats in the first place other than time and space to write?

More importantly, what about a gussied-up artists’ colony seems to you as though it would help you make serious progress on your book project? What amenities do you think you would absolutely need in a retreat situation, and which would merely be nice?

You’re seeing where I’m going with this, aren’t you?

Here’s the last thing I shall ask all of us to face today: while pretty much every serious writer dreams of being able to — and even paid to! — squirrel herself away and write for some concentrated stretch of time, there just aren’t as many paid residencies as there are gifted people to fill them. I’m rooting for those of you who want to take your chances to win the few slots, of course, but realistically, if you want to take a retreat, it’s not your only option.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper something pretty much every professional author learns at some point: you can set up your own writing retreat, and it needn’t cost an arm, a leg, or two weeks of work on a fellowship application to win a month of unfettered writing time. It will, however, require your figuring out what precisely you would need to have available to you in order to do literally nothing but write productively for, say, a week.

Seriously, what would the necessary conditions be for you, specifically? Time, space, 24-hour room service, a clerk-typist, a dog-friendly environment so you could bring your pet?

I’m talking practicalities here, my friends — not a one-size-fits-all laundry list for what a generic writer might need, but a thoughtfully put-together list of YOUR absolute necessities. For now, don’t worry about how difficult it would be to attain the conditions on your list — just go ahead and include whatever you think would make you a happy, wildly productive writer.

See why I talked about the fancy retreats first today? They were to get your place-imagining muscles warmed up. Feel free to use the Enchanted April castle or prestigious artists’ colony’s drool-inducing list of amenities to fantasize about what you would like, but only so you may clear the fantasies out of your head in order to consider the bare bones with which you could work.

Give it some thought; if possible, jot down some notes.

Why should you do that, in the midst of your probably already-packed schedule? Because in the days to come, we’re going to be using that personalized must-have list of yours to design a writing retreat that you can afford on every level.

Don’t stress out about this; trust me, it’s going to be fun. Keep up the good work!

I’m back! (And other self-evident statements)

Howdy, campers! I’m returned from my writing retreat, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and any other animal health-related cliché you might like to insert here. I was in a magical land where the phone didn’t ring every five minutes, no one showed up asking to disturb me for just a sec, e-mail apparently didn’t exist, and, as you may see in the photo above, happy children were evidently able to run, if not actually walk, on water.

It was pretty fabulous. Especially the phone-not-ringing part; to give you a sense of the kind of peace I’m talking about, my mother-in-law wasn’t even certain what state I was inhabiting last week. I’m fond of her, but…bliss!

Those of us habituated to writing (or revising) under deadlines — a state of being with which most writers new to working with an agent are surprised to learn tends to crop up with some frequency as soon as one signs an agency contract, not merely after one sells a book to a publisher — often take retreats out of necessity, of course: editorial statements like “You can remove the protagonist’s sister, set the timeframe back ten years, and completely rearrange the last third of the book by three weeks from Thursday, right?” are more common than those fond of regular work hours might like.

Sometimes, the only way to meet a deadline is to lock oneself away where the phone doesn’t ring.

However, I’m a firm believer in the value of retreats for writers at every stage of their careers. Time and space to do literally nothing but concentrate on the writing process can be invaluable; imagine, for instance, having the luxury of no other demands so you could think about a revision before you commit to it, or to figure out several options for a story arc before trying to shape it on the page.

Just hold it right there, all of you who rolled your eyes at the very concept of a retreat, muttering, “Oh, as if I’d ever have time for that.” Allow me to suggest something: writers perpetually busy with non-writing projects usually benefit more from taking time just to write than those of us lucky (or dedicated) enough to be able to organize our everyday life to guarantee consistent stretches of writing time.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief, writers in mid-project typically aren’t actually granted extra hours in the day or an additional day per week to ply their craft. No, not even if it’s a very good one indeed, or they’re very talented. The vast majority of the time, those of us bitten by the proverbial writing bug end up squeezing our beloved work in between all of the other demands of normal quotidian life.

Such as, to cite a completely hypothetical example, a mother-in-law who hasn’t yet grasped that a writer’s wanting to be left alone to work isn’t necessarily symptomatic of a deep, underlying hatred of either her or her son. Or that choosing to arrange one’s life so that taking the time to create vivid characters pretty much always trumps, say, ironing napkins isn’t a sign of warped values.

That’s one of the ways true artists can identify themselves, you know: the twin phenomena of longing to lock oneself up in a room alone for long periods of time and having at least one relative or friend who speaks about these sojourns as if they were a species of flagrant infidelity or deep perversion.

But I digress. My point before I veered off was this: as much as writers might like it if writing time just magically appeared in their schedules without its immediately being eaten up by something else, most of us lead such hectic lives that we have to fight for alone time to concentrate. The result, often, is really good book ideas that languish for months or years, waiting for their authors to find the time to get back to them.

Oh, it could happen, I suppose, without significant effort on the writer’s part — by, say, a modern miracle along the lines of a significant other’s spontaneously blurting out, “You know, honey, I’ve been calculating how much time you spend on housework in a given week. What if I took all of it off your hands, forever?”

I’m going to give you a moment to enjoy that one before I move on. Almost indecently attractive, isn’t it?

Or, for those of you who derive your fantasy fodder from the back pages of magazines like Poets & Writers, by winning a writing fellowship whose prize involves residency someplace remote and monastery-like. Or, depending upon your tastes, someplace mountainous, hot-tubbed, and hyper-social. (I’ve been in residence at both types of artists’ colony, so I can tell you from experience that both exist.)

Or a Horatio Alger event where you find a billionaire’s wallet (in Alger’s books, it was usually a millionaire, but a prudent person adjusts her fantasies for inflation), return it to him (always a him in these stories), and in gratitude for your all-American-boy honesty, he adopts you, leaving the rest of your life free to write. While he’s at it, he gives you the resources to rid the world of malaria, child starvation, and adult acne.

You know, so you have something to do in your spare time.

Oh, go ahead and laugh, but I meet writers all the time whose primary efforts toward creating significant chunks of time for writing in their lives seem to go toward indulging in this sort of fantasy. Not necessarily so flamboyant, typically, but still fantastic: I’ll sit down with it next week/next month/next year/after I retire or I’ll finish it when the kids are in school/out of school/finished with their medical residencies.

Or, more commonly, I’ll work on the book on my next vacation.

That sound those of you reading this outside the continental U.S. heard after that last one was the giant collective guffaw from the vast majority of Americans whose jobs don’t give any vacation time at all. Even though we have more working creative artists per capita than anywhere else on earth (true; look it up), being able to take as much a week or two off work is beyond most people’s reach.

So I would feel very lucky about my recent sojourn, mother-in-law or no. And does every retreating writer’s kitty celebrate her return by capturing an impressively large rodent and delivering it to the doormat as a welcome-home-and-where’s-my-kibble gift? I think not.

Obviously, I am a most fortunate woman. (And don’t you feel most fortunate that I went with the kid-on-the-beach photo, rather than one of Kitty’s present? But I’m digressing again.)

I always feel a little sad when I hear good writers say that they’re going to put off serious, roll-up-your-sleeves writing or revision until some dim future point when they will have unfettered time. These days, time tends to be inherently fettered and, as I mentioned, not all that prone to untying itself without some help.

Okay, now I’ve depressed myself, thinking about all of those nice, talented people with no time to write. I had been planning to use these ruminations to lead up to some pithy, practical advice about how to structure a personal writing retreat productively, because there’s quite a bit more to it than just finding a quiet room someplace and locking the door. However, now I feel as though I should come up with some tips about how to carve time out of a busy schedule to write.

Crumb.

Unfortunately, all of the blog-about-it notes I scrawled on the back sides of envelopes were about the former. (The key to successful improvisation is advance preparation, right?) I shall have to give the latter some serious thought, ideally after I’ve had some sleep in my own bed.

And also given Kitty’s little present a decent burial, and paid some necessary attention to my mother-in-law.

Tell you what: if you promise not to think I’ve skirted around a difficult issue with averted eyes, I shall devote my next post to fleshing out those notes on individual retreats — which tend to be far, far less expensive than the formal, let’s-get-together-with-a-bunch-of-other-artists variety. Then, in the days to come and while I am leading you through the mysteries of constructing a winning author bio (it’s been well over a year since I last broached the issue), I shall ponder tips for freeing up writing time on a daily basis.

In the meantime, will you do me a favor, please? I’m looking forward to spending the next couple of months talking primarily about craft issues, since we spent the warmer months delving into marketing ones. I have a small stack of craft questions from readers (I haven’t forgotten you, Harvey!), but I would love to hear more suggestions for what to tackle in the weeks to come.

I’m excited to be back in the blogging saddle again. Keep up the good work!

The untouchable starfish

Fair warning, campers: I’m not going to be posting again until the 25th or so. Sometimes, the only way to work through a knotty section of novel is to lock oneself up with it for days and days on end in some undisclosed location.

That’s right: I’m on a writing retreat.

Why in an undisclosed location? So one’s loving kith, kin, clients, neighbors, and everyone else who keeps telephoning one at home cannot track one down to say, “I know you’re busy writing, but I just had to ask you…” My set of kith, kin, etc. are pretty wily, bless ‘em, so I have taken pains to be well concealed.

Or perhaps I’m just lurking behind well-drawn blinds in my usual workspace. Only the Shadow knows for sure — or is it my hairdresser?

In the interim, I leave you with a parable to ponder.

Even in an intensive retreat, one needs to take the occasional break, to clear one’s head. I was slushing my way through the soggy sand adjacent to A Body of Water that Shall Remain Nameless when I stumbled — literally — over the jolly fellow above, minding his own business, just as I was minding mine.

(And no, I’m not actually sure that this is a male starfish; somehow, sexing echinoderms was a subject my otherwise excellent education skipped. Grant me some poetic license here. Call the starfish George and be done with it.)

The stereotypical child-with-a-pail noticed me crouching in a tidepool, attempting to discover George’s best side for photographic purposes. “A STARFISH!” he screamed, frightening the seagulls. “Dad, there’s a real, live STARFISH!”

Okay, so it wasn’t Shakespeare; more profound things have been said about sea creatures, undoubtedly. A fellow of George’s debonair charm clearly deserved a more lyrical tribute. But the kid was six, perhaps, and anyone could see that he’d never seen the like of George in the wild before.

Or of George’s cousin, Ambrose, sunning himself on the next rock over, or his great and good friend Justine, clinging to the underside of a nearby rock with some peculiarly green anemones. Our young friend greeted each with rapture and an impressively consistent grasp of the obvious: “Here’s another STARFISH! Dad, a STARFISH!”

Our young hero’s presumptive father, a lumbering beast of a man fetchingly attired in his best Twisted Sister T-shirt and lumberjack flannels, ignored his excited offspring’s first 27 or so iterations of this sentiment. He was better occupied in rolling around on a blanket, grappling a mature siren in leopard-print spandex who kept looking pointedly away from the child every time he cried out.

Surreptitiously watching the boy’s continued fruitless attempts to share his joy, I found myself hoping that she wasn’t Mom — likely, considering that the boy never tried to call her attention to anything — and that Dad was not our boy’s custodial parent. Maybe this was an exceptional outing, a date and visitation unexpectedly falling on the same day, perhaps due to some tragic accident that temporarily (please let it be temporarily) incapacitated all of the extremely competent caretakers who usually took the child to fun places and paid lots of attention to him.

“STARFISH!”

Although Exclamation #28 sounded to my untutored ear identical to those the child had uttered before, Dad seemed to find something exceptional in it; he disentangled himself from his date, leapt to his feet, and ran starfish-ward, screaming. “Ryan, don’t TOUCH it.”

Ryan was not, in point of fact, touching anything. He was pointing and shrieking: “Dad! A STARFISH!”

Evidently, the boy’s exceptional lung capacity was genetic, as was his extensive vocabulary: “Ryan, don’t get wet.”

“Here’s another STARFISH!”

“Don’t TOUCH it.”

Over the course of succeeding ten minutes of similar Edward Albee-worthy dialogue, any bystander within fifty yards would have learned that Dad’s opinions of proper beach behavior for a first-grader called for a complete avoidance of moisture, starfish (“STARFISH!”), sand, rocks, sea anemones (“LOOK!”), barnacles, pebbles, cast-off mussel shells (“A SHELL!”), and strange women fond of pointing any or all of the above out to a small child clearly thrilled to be encountering something new.

“BARNACLE!” (A word the lady had just introduced to his vocabulary.)

“Don’t TOUCH it. Don’t BUG the lady.”

The lady, I need hardly say, was not bugged by the child anywhere near as much as by good ol’ Dad.

The formerly-grappled siren, too, seemed to find the latter’s propensity to loom over Ryan, bellowing, less satisfying than his earlier activities. Perhaps she, too, was puzzled at such interest from a parent formerly content not twenty minutes before to turn his back whilst his child flung himself repeatedly into waves cold enough to render a wet suit advisable, or perhaps she was merely miffed that Ryan had not yet been carried off by a passing shark. Whatever her no doubt rich and complex motivations may have been, she wisely chose to recuse herself from the great debate.

“STARFISH!”

“Don’t TOUCH it.”

You know me, campers — like so many other professional readers out there, word and phrase repetition gets to me fairly quickly. I mean, shouldn’t one party or the other have noticed by now that saying EXACTLY the same thing to EXACTLY the same person was eliciting EXACTLY the same response as the last 15 times? If characters on a page kept saying the same things over again at a similar rate, Millicent wouldn’t just reject the manuscript; she’d burn it and do a little dance around its ashes.

Not only that — this scene was definitely slow; I would have cut virtually all of it. The essential conflict once established, the plot really didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Where was the character development? In what sense was this dialogue character-revealing? Where are the quirky tidbits and surprising statements that would make a reader want to see what these characters did next?

Allow me to let you in on a trick of the novelist’s trade: a character who bores the reader becomes unlikable QUICKLY. What’s more likely to court boredom than repetitious statements?

In the interest of changing the dialogue, then, if not to improve little Ryan’s starfish-related experience, I felt compelled to point out, “Excuse me, sir, but your boy doesn’t actually seem to be handling the wildlife. Perhaps you could assume that he’s heard you?”

An interesting anthropological phenomenon, formerly unbeknownst to me, abruptly manifested: in Undisclosed Location, I now know, women apparently only speak to men in order to indicate immediate sexual availability, rather than, as in my neck of the woods, to convey information or to encourage an exchange of ideas. In a time-saving move unfamiliar to those of us who live elsewhere (thank goodness), the locals evidently regard the actual content of a woman’s speech as secondary, or even irrelevant.

Or so I surmise, for Dad forgot all about both little Ryan and the siren in his eagerness to follow up on what he clearly regarded as an invitation; turning his back on both, he covered the ten feet between us with the speed of a chargng rhino. Predictably, he put all of his mastery of language into the come-on: “You alone?”

I can’t imagine why Ryan’s mother let this treasure get away. To make matters worse, Leopard Lady hoisted herself off her sandy blanket love nest, all set to mark her territory. Or so I assume from her single contribution to the scintillating intellectual exchange, “Hey!”

Perhaps it was selfish of me, but it seemed to be time to leave Ryan to what I’m guessing is going to be a lulu of a childhood. I’m sure his future therapist will find it fascinating. I backed slowly away, as a prudent person does when confronted with wild animals in their natural habitat.

Fortunately for my escape prospects, the kid provided a timely distraction. “DAD! There’s MORE over HERE!”

Without taking his beady eyes off me, Dad shouted, “Ryan! Don’t TOUCH it.”

I was gone before little Ryan could find another starfish, but as I rapidly put beach between me and the now re-grappled couple (oh, you wouldn’t have looked back?), I kept trying to fathom the mindset of someone who would bring a child to a beach — for what seemed to be the first time, judging by Ryan’s excitement level — and expect it to be a non-tactile experience. Was he afraid of his offspring’s getting dirty? Had Dad perhaps not noticed the nearby massive ocean, notable for the cleansing properties of its water?

Or was he afraid of the kid’s harming the beasties? But if so, what could possibly have been his objection to Ryan’s handling the occasional rock or cast-off bird feather?

Once again, I cursed their family’s non-revealing dialogue. More articulate characters would have told me far, far more in many, many fewer lines.

Now, the scene I’d witnessed could have been atypical of the family, of course. Perhaps this is a parent who routinely introduces his offspring to the joys of particle physics, for instance, or square dancing. Perhaps on a good day, Dad is overflowing with new and exciting vocabulary for Ryan to learn; maybe, if the universe is a good and loving place, he will eventually teach his child that it’s possible to construct a sentence that isn’t a command.

Admittedly, too, no one concerned — including and especially, I would imagine, George the starfish. (“STARFISH!”) — was actually in favor of Ryan’s poking at living creatures in a way that might cause them pain. And I certainly wasn’t the one who was going to have to deal with the kid if a rogue anemone suddenly detached itself from its comfortable rock and lunged for his jugular.

Yet after I had left the happy menage-à-trois (at least on court-ordered visitation days) far behind, I began to worry about little Ryan’s future intellectual and artistic development. How thoroughly (and repetitiously) Dad had stomped upon excited discovery of the new!

Shouldn’t adults worry when kids DON’T find the world around them thrilling and interesting, rather than when they do? How many times will Dad express similar sentiments before Ryan learns not to express enthusiasm about learning something — and how many times after that before he stops even feeling it?

Should little Ryan grow up to be a writer — I would dearly love to read this scene from his point of view, wouldn’t you? — he’s going to need every iota of his sense of wonder intact and fully functional. (Not to mention having a somewhat larger vocabulary at his disposal.) For what, after all, lies at the heart of the trenchant and surprising observations of the world around us that we writers so love to tuck into our manuscripts, if not the capacity to identify quirkiness in the mundane and point it out to others?

So keep on getting excited by those starfish, Ryan. I was pretty thrilled to discover George, too.

May you all discover starfish of your own while I’m writing up a storm on my retreat; may your meaty insights serve you — and your future readers — well. May your dialogue be interesting and character-revealing. Most of all, keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing, part XIII: where you stand depends upon where you sit

This is, in my humble opinion as a novelist, quite possibly the greatest newspaper headline in the history of the printed word; I came across it outside a small-town diner this morning. It’s so delightfully human, isn’t it? The stock market is in distress, the polar icecaps are melting, and a sign in the restaurant window testified to the number of local young people currently serving in active combat (and, tragically, the two who no longer are), yet what concerns the citizens of this hamlet? Budget cut-related turmoil at the dog shelter.

I was charmed.

If that headline appeared in a novel about small-town America, it simply wouldn’t be believable — proving yet again something that I have often maintained on this blog, that reality tends to be a lousy writer. Just because something happens doesn’t necessarily mean that it will seem plausible on the page.

It’s the writer’s job to make it so.

That’s enough free-association for one day, I think. Let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. To recap:

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?

(10) In a NF synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

Everyone clear on those? Superb. Let’s proceed to something fresh — actually, while it’s in the front of my mind, let’s go ahead and address the plausibility issue.

(12) If I’m marketing fiction or memoir, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible? If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing #12. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page.

Yes, even in a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional. Otherwise, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

Why? Well, when a reader is swept up in a drama (or a comedy, for that matter), she engages in behavior that Aristotle liked to call the willing suspension of disbelief. Basically, she enters into a tacit understanding with the author: the rules that govern the world of the book, no matter how wacky or impractical they may be for the reader’s world, are precisely what the narrative says they are. Most of the time, as long as the narrative abides by them, the reader will be willing to go along for the ride.

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story. (Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post.)

Millicents are notoriously sensitive to being pulled out of a story by a plausibility problem. So are their bosses, the agents who employ them to reject as high a percentage of submissions as possible, and the editors to whom those bosses sell books.

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison.

Are you sitting down? Got the smelling salts handy? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but in a manuscript, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. Thus, Millicent may be excused for thinking as soon as she casts her hyper-critical eye over one, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

Okay, so this may be an unfairly broad conclusion to draw from a line or two in a synopsis — especially when, as we’ve discussed earlier in this series, many, many talented aspiring writers simply throw together their synopses at the last possible minute prior to sealing the submission or contest entry envelope. But lest we forget, Millicents are in the BUSINESS of making snap judgments; they couldn’t get through the hundreds of queries and submissions they see every week otherwise.

Aren’t you glad you had those smelling salts handy?

If you’re not absolutely certain that your synopsis is internally consistent enough to pass the plausibility test, have someone else (NOT someone who has read the manuscript, ideally) read it and tell the story back to you. Better yet, have someone else read it, tell the story to a third party, and have the third party try to reproduce it for you AND a fourth person.

You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that #4, at least, will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

Pay particular attention to any spot in the text the provokes an unexpected giggle. Few narrative gaffes provoke bad laughter — the giggles that spring from readers or audience at a spot where the writer did not intend for them to laugh — as readily as deviations from the internal logic of a story.

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Too often, NF writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible.

It’s just not true.

Just as a novel’s plausibility depends upon the narrative’s consistently following its story’s internal logic, a NF account or argument needs to hang together, with no missing steps. In a manuscript, plausibility problems tend to arise from incomplete set-ups and telling stories out of chronological order.

(If any of you would like me to elaborate upon these in the weeks to come, I would be delighted; leave a comment below. For today’s purposes, I’m going to move on.)

Where NF synopses usually fall down on the job is by providing insufficient background — prompting questions like, “Why did this happen?” Again, you will be much, much better off if you can solicit such questions from someone other than Millicent, so you may address them before she reads your synopsis.

I really went to town on that last point, didn’t I? I’m going to gloss over the rest of the synopsis questions quickly, so I can polish them off today and send you on your merry way for the weekend.

Don’t worry; the rest are pretty self-explanatory.

(13) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis Is there an indelible image that the reader can take away?

To put it another way, does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

And so forth. As with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast — and, in order to approve them for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make her job easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

What you DON’T want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(14) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle, but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis. Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry remember what they’ve read; make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

(15) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t fight it; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(16) Are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading synopses intended for submission, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent the screener on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(17) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

And if it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(18) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses.

95% of writers — and 99.98% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Once, when I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself.

And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(19) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

This is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason: believe it or not, misplaced cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words that are generally omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Triple-check all character and place names.

(20) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before, and recently, but this is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content, so it bears repeating. It’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party.

As I MAY have mentioned earlier in this series, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing.

Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(21) Finally, does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

Doesn’t it? Huh?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased AND have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Whew, that was a long one, wasn’t it! Make those synopses shine, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part XII: that pesky synopsis checklist revisited, or, when Millicent checks the freshness seal

Welcome to day two of my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way, a sort of hit parade of the most commonly-made mistakes. Rather than regarding the synopsis as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent, I would encourage you to regard it as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form.

Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively.

Got your highlighting pens all ready? Excellent.

Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far — and FYI, those of you who slogged through my Book Marketing 101 series in the summer of 2007 or indeed any of my earlier posts on the fascinating subject of synopsis-improvement, some of these questions are new, freshly minted to torment you and improve your submissions. You’re welcome.

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least conversant with why I might have suggested such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By Jove, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question.) Let’s move on, shall we?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

I can hear some of you laughing at the first part of that question, but actually, fiction synopses that imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity might make some sense — but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

And no, in answer to what some of my more literal-minded readers just thought very loudly indeed, you should NOT clarify this point by the inclusion of such English class-type sentences as The protagonist is Martha, and the antagonist is George, any more than you should come right out and say, the theme of this book is… Industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a query, synopsis, or book proposal.

Why? Veteran synopsis-writers, take out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk ABOUT the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.

I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”

Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: tell the story of the book, not of a particular character.

And before anybody point it out: yes, I’m aware that this approach might cause a conscientious writer to run afoul of Point #6, but honestly, the multiple-protagonist format doesn’t leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room. Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story.

And, above all, be certain that your synopsis doesn’t violate Point #7.

(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

Again, this question may make some of you giggle, but you’d be surprised at how often novel synopses stress the averageness of their protagonists, the everydayness of their dilemmas, and seem to taunt Millicent with a lack of clear motivation or major plot twists. “How on earth,” she is wont to exclaim, “is this super-ordinary character/this very common situation going to maintain my interest for 350 pages, when s/he/it is already starting to bore me a little in this 5-page…zzzz.”

Clearly, Millicent could use a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes, eh?

Seriously, super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis — which I suspect may come as something of a surprise to many of you.

What makes me think that, you ask? Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”

Or, to put it in a less melodramatic manner, these writers are fond of slice-of-life writing.

The problem is, book-length slice-of-life writing can be pretty hard to sell — and nearly impossible to synopsize excitingly. Even the most character-driven of literary fiction needs to have a plot of some sort and a protagonist engaging enough (or appalling enough) to render the reader willing to follow him/her through the relevant high jinks, right?

Stop wailing, please, literary fiction writers; yours is a highly specialized market, and you shouldn’t be sending out synopses to agents who don’t represent your kind of writing, anyway.

“Okay, Anne,” some of you literary fiction writers say, bravely wiping your eyes, “I realize that I’ve chosen to write in a book category that represents only about 3-4% of the fiction market; I know that I’m going to have to target my queries very carefully. But I have a wonderful slice-of-life novel here about Everyman and Everywoman’s universal struggles to deal with the everyday. How should I go about synopsizing it?”

In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: by emphasizing what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

Before any of you get huffy at the prospect of soft-selling your aim of holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, listen: no agent, no matter how talented, is going to be able to sell a novel by saying, “Oh, this book could be about anybody”; no matter how beautiful the writing may be, the agent of your dreams is eventually going to have to tell an editor what your book is about.

In industry-speak, ordinary is more or less synonymous with dull. Sorry to have to be the one to break that to you, but it’s true.

I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull — so why isn’t s/he, precisely? How is s/he different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

Getting the picture? The synopsis needs to demonstrate not only that you can write, but that your book concept is fresh.

Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page?

(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? And you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you?

If you walked a mile in Millicent’s shoes (sipping her latte, no doubt), or cozied up to Mehitabel the contest judge, you would know otherwise. To your sorrow, probably.

Just make it clear who the narrator is, okay?

Actually, memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because they are true.

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, that’s not always the case. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

So the synopsis-writing memoirist has an additional goal: not only to present her life story as important and intriguing, but also to render it pellucidly clear precisely how her life has differed from other people’s. A memoir synopsis that doesn’t convey this information within the first paragraph or so — ideally, by showing, rather than telling — tends not to maintain Millicent’s interest thereafter.

If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. Why would a novel-reader want to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline?

While we’re on the subject, another good way to determine what might make dear self interesting to others…

(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?

To twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well?

If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles — but nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Admittedly, not every good novel features life-or-death stakes. Nevertheless, your story is going to be more memorable to someone who reads synopses for a living if the conflict appears to be vitally important to the protagonist.

Trust me on this one.

(10) In a NF synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?

Again, this is a stakes issue: remember, however passionately you may feel about your chosen topic, Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and her Aunt Mehitabel will probably not already be conversant with it. It’s your job as the writer to get them jazzed about learning more.

Yes, even at the synopsis stage.

One of the more reliable methods of achieving this laudable goal is not only to present your subject matter as fascinating, but also to demonstrate precisely why your readers will find it so.

In other words, why does your subject matter, well, matter? Which leads me to…

(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?

When agents specialize in a particular kind of book (and virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books, NF books, romances, and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

Translation: Millicent sees a whole lot of plot repetition in any given pay period..

This may seem self-evident, but it has practical ramifications that many aspiring writers do not pause to consider. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Most likely, the application of Millicent’s favorite word: next!

”Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear those of who have attended conferences before protesting. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Yes, you are quite right, anonymous questioners: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t typically what they mean in practical terms.

Since it would be completely impossible for a book acquired today to hit the shelves tomorrow, and extremely rare for it to come out in under a year — and that’s a year after an editor buys it, not a year from when an agent picks is up — what is selling right now is not what agents are seeking, precisely. They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence.

Which. common sense tells us, no one can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

So when agents and editors tell writers at a conference that they are looking for books that resemble the current bestseller list, they really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes.

Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

”Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy.

The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

At the time of the experiment, there was much tut-tutting discussion of how this outcome was evidence that editors wouldn’t know great literature if it bit them, but my first thought was, how little would you have to know about the publishing industry to think that an unsolicited, unagented novel would NOT be rejected unread by the big publishers? Mightn’t this have actually been a test not of how literature fares, but what happens to submitters who do not follow the rules?

My second thought, though, was this: at this point in publishing history, wouldn’t even an excellent rehashing of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seem old hat? How could the submitter possibly have presented it in a manner that seemed fresh?

After all, it’s been done, and done brilliantly — and re-done in many forms, up to and including BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. I can easily imagine pretty much any English-speaking editor’s taking one look, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, God, here’s somebody ripping off Jane Austen again.”

My point, in case you were starting to wonder, is that agents and editors tend to be pretty well-read people: a plot or argument needs to be pretty original in order to strike them as fresh. The synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs from the rest.

And what’s the easiest, most direct way of doing that, for either fiction or nonfiction? By including surprising and unique details, told in creative language.

Even if your tale is a twist on a well-known classic (which can certainly work: THE COLOR PURPLE is a great retelling of the Ugly Duckling, right?), you are usually better off emphasizing in the synopsis how your book deviates from the classic than showing the similarities. Here again, vivid details are your friends.

Okay, that’s enough mental chewing gum for one day. The rest of the checklist follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part XI: the dreaded rise of the Peanut Butter Index, or, it’s time to dig out those highlighting pens again

Is everybody comfortable? Would you like to grab yourself a cup of tea, a cookie or two, perhaps a nice sandwich? Before we resume our ongoing discussion of synopsis troubleshooting, I need to talk to you about something serious, so you might want to have sustenance readily to hand, to fortify you.

Not that I want to add to the general air of gloom pervading pretty much every source of information in the continental U.S. at the moment, but I’d like to put a bug or two in your ear — who ever came up with that revolting expression, I wonder, and why did anyone think to perpetuate it? — about what hard economic times tend to do to the publishing industry. Don’t worry, though: I come not to bury the industry, but to praise it, at least indirectly.

As pretty much everyone who has heard a Manhattan-based agent or editor speak within the last six months is already aware, the mainstream publishers have been rather nervous about the economy for quite some time now. Rumor has it that it’s rendered some already risk-averse people even more risk-averse.

What does that mean translated out of economic-speak? It’s harder than ever to convince an editorial committee to take a chance on an unusual book — or an untried author.

Not that it’s ever been a particularly easy sell, of course.

What’s the rationale behind this increased difficulty, you ask? Well, when the average Joe (he of the much-vaunted six-pack, presumably) faces economic uncertainty — or, for that matter, the certainty of a lost job — he tends to slow his purchase of non-necessities. Apparently, to those benighted souls not hopelessly enslaved to the power of the written word, books fall into the non-essential category.

I know; weird.

What does sell well to ol’ Joe in uncertain times? In the U.S., peanut butter and jelly, cereal, ramen, and other inexpensive comfort foods. In fact, PB & J sales are such a good indicator of consumers’ feelings about the economy that trend-watchers keep an eye on ‘em.

Seriously — it’s called the Peanut Butter Index. (One also hears about it as the PB&J Index, the Oreo Index, or the Mac & Cheese Index, but these terms all refer to the same basic trend.) It may sound a bit silly, but I assure you, folks in the publishing industry take it very seriously: when the PBI is high, the prevailing wisdom goes, new book sales tend to be low.

Library card usage, interestingly, tends to rise. (Hey, readers are smart. And good sandwich-makers, apparently.)

What does a high PBI mean for the average aspiring writer, you ask? Well, typically, the difficulty of landing an agent increases, especially for writers of books that do not easily fit into the traditional big-sales categories. This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone concerned wanting to be mean to the aspiring: agents, bless their ever-picky hearts, don’t like to take on books that they aren’t relatively certain they can sell in the current literary market.

The second reason may surprise you a little: submissions to agencies and publishing houses have historically rises fairly dramatically in tough economic times. (You didn’t think the Great Depression’s literary richness was a coincidence, did you?)

Why? Well, as you may have noticed in chatting at cocktail parties with people who say they WANT to write but produce a million and twelve reasons why they haven’t been able to finish a book/screenplay/that e-mail they’ve been meaning to respond to for months, authorship is not an uncommon Plan B for people who don’t write habitually. And, let’s face it, as hobbies go, writing is a relatively inexpensive one, at least until one starts to query and submit.

Human nature in all of its hopeful glory: when ambient circumstances block the road leading toward one dream, the intrepid soul often seeks out another. Kind of sweet, isn’t it?

It’s can also be problematic for the habitual writer, because I can tell you now, in the months to come, agencies and small publishers are going to see an upsurge in queries and submissions. Which means, unfortunately, that Millicent the agency screener is almost certainly going to find even higher piles of reading material on her desk.

Those of you who have been visiting Author! Author! for a while are probably already cringing, aren’t you? Let’s let the whole class in on why: when Millicent has more to read, she must perforce scan each query and/or submission faster. Her rejection rates may be expected to rise accordingly.

Why? Because it’s not as though time expands when she has more to read each day — or as if her agency is likely to increase the number of writers it intends to sign this year just because the absolute number of queries rises.

I’m telling you this not to depress you — honest! — but so that you may adjust your expectations and plans accordingly. In the months to come, it’s probably reasonable to expect Millicent’s critical eye to be just a little sharper than normal, her boss to be just a little less eager to fall in love with a new author, and turn-around times in general to be just a little bit lengthier.

None of which will have anything to do with you personally, the quality of your manuscript, or your potential as a writer. Remind yourself of that early and often, please.

I would also strenuously suggest that those of you who were considering sending out a raft of queries anytime in the near future (or have been tinkering with a promised submission in an effort to get it perfect) to plan on mailing them out sooner rather than later. I know — it may seem like poor timing to submit during a sharp stock market decline, but if the PBI remains high for the rest of the year, the always heavy post-New Year query and submission avalanche will probably be of epic proportions.

Not to send you into a flurry of panic, but if you could manage to get those queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’ll probably be even better off. The publishing industry tends to slow to a crawl during the winter holidays, anyway, so why not beat the proverbial Christmas rush?

There’s something else you can do to improve your chances of being one of the lucky few who will manage to get their books published within the next couple of years: even in the face of grim economic news, don’t stop buying books in your book category.

Ideally, books that share some significant characteristics with what you write so well. Written by first-time authors, if you can manage it, or at least penned by those who are still walking amongst the living. And no, checking them out from the library will not do, alas.

This advice may sound flippant, but listen: agents and editors are smart, too; they keep a close eye on trends. We’ve also seen how even a single bestseller in a previously lax category can suddenly send the pros scrambling to find similar manuscripts — think about what COLD MOUNTAIN did for historical fiction, for instance, or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY for chick lit.

By the same token, when new sales decline in any book category, everyone who writes that type of book suffers.

It’s a sort of domino effect. When a certain type of book stops selling well — or never sold well in the first place — denizens of publishing houses start muttering amongst themselves, “Well, I guess, I won’t be acquiring any more of those books anytime soon.” When editors begin so muttering, agents who make their livings by selling that sort of book turn pale — and tell their Millicents that they’re really not looking to pick up clients in that category just now.

And guess what that does to her rejection rates?

What’s the best way to change their collective minds about how marketable a particular book category is? Increasing sales in it, that’s how. Industry types tend to be very sensitive to even minor upsurges in sales.

So I repeat: this would be a very, very good time to continue — or get into — the habit of purchasing the kind of book that you write, especially books published within the last 5 years (the industry’s outside limit for current sales). Think of it as market research, a way to keep up with what the industry is interested in seeing these days. Heck, I know many authors who routinely claim buying competitors’ books as income tax deductions — although I since neither they nor I are tax experts, you should talk to someone who is familiar with taxes for artists before you start filling out those forms.

I hear some incredulous huffing out there. “Yeah, right,” some cynics will sneer. “My buying a single book is going to reverse a major economic trend. While I’m at it, I think I’ll juggle the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Of course, no single book sale will alter conditions for aspiring writers everywhere. But if you get into the habit of buying books in your chosen category and encourage all of your kith and kin to do the same, it’s a start. If aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world embraced the same laudable practice, editorial minds could indeed be changed — and where editors minds go, good agents’ are never slow to follow.

Yes, even when the PBI is at an all-time high.

Okay, that’s enough economic theory for one day; let’s get back to the business at hand, learning how to craft a winning synopsis.

It turned out that yesterday’s nagging feeling that I was about to produce a checklist of common synopsis mistakes to avoid was 100% accurate. Kind of predictable, actually, as I am addicted to such lists and synopses vary so much that there honestly is no single reliable formula for producing the perfect one.

But you can steer clear of the problems agents and their screeners see every day, right?

Let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. (Let us be even more optimistic and further assume that you have launched upon the synopsis-creating process long enough before you need one that you have time for an editing phase.) Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? And why does that question make my long-time readers chuckle?

I freely admit it: this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text, and it will make rhythm problems leap off the page at you.

Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think for an instant that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity — it’s the one with a word missing here or there.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words, ungraceful phrases, and stuff that you don’t quite remember why you wanted to include in the first place, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Why? Well, if you’ve been following this series for the last couple of weeks, you should be chanting the reason in your sleep by now, but allow me to repeat it: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are.

Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you have writing talent.

Not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because in these days of steeply-rising PBI, agents and editors will be hearing from tens of thousands of people who have done that, but that you have a gift with words and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line or image of the book does not make a guest appearance in the synopsis, whyever not?

(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?

This is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap, that is.

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound like a good story? Does it hang together? Does this presentation make me eager to read it?

This is where most synopses stumble, frankly, because it is hard for a writer to notice about his own work: most synopses summarize plot or argument adequately, but in the rush to fit everything in, the telling becomes a bit dry. The goal here is not to provide a laundry list of major plot points, after all, but to give an overview of the dramatic arc of the book.

The easiest way to tell if the synopsis is holding together as a good yarn is to hand it to someone who has NOT been around you while you have been writing the book (trust me, you’ve been talking about your plot or argument, if only in your sleep). Ask her to read it over a couple of times.

Then chat with her about something else entirely for half an hour.

At the end of that time, ask her to tell you the plot of the book — WITHOUT looking at the synopsis again. Don’t comment while she does it; just write down the points that fell out of her account.

After you have thanked this kind soul profusely and sent her on her way, highlight the missed points on the synopsis pages. Read through the synopsis, omitting the highlighted bits: does the story hold together without them?

If so, are those bits really necessary?

If the storyline suffers from the omissions, go back over the individual sentences that depict those plot points. Chances are, your reader found these points unmemorable because they were summarized, rather than enlivened with specific details — or because they concerned subplots that aren’t strictly necessary to understanding the central storyline.

(4) Does the synopsis tell the the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

You wouldn’t believe — at least, I hope you’re far, far too good a storyteller to believe it readily — what a high percentage of the fiction synopses Millicent sees consist simply of X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened. Yes, a synopsis is short, but this is not the most effective way to tell even a truncated story, is it?

Fortunately, to a professional eye, there are a couple of pretty good structural indicators that a synopsis has fallen into laundry-list mode. Once again, your trusty highlighting pen is your friend here. Go through the synopsis and mark every use of the word AND and THEN, as well as every instance of the passive voice.

Then revisit each marked sentence with an eye to revision. All of these phenomena tend to be symptomatic of rushed storytelling.

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that a writer trying to crush an 80,000 word story or argument into three pages might conceivably feel a mite rushed. But trust me on this one: that is not the primary impression you want to give an agency screener.

Another good indicator of a tendency toward laundry-listing is…

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable, or are some mentioned so quickly that they might start to blur together in the reader’s mind?

Including a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, is an extremely common first novel phenomenon; mentioning too many of them in a synopsis is another.

Why is a too-large cast problematic? Well, lest we forget, Millicent tends to scan synopses awfully darned quickly — that’s why we capitalize each character’s name the first time it appears, right? If too many character names show up too close together in the synopsis, she’s not necessarily going to keep all of them straight in her mind.

Don’t be too hard on her about this, please: remember, she won’t just have your 27 characters tumbling about in her head, but also the 15 characters in the synopsis she read immediately before yours, the 38 from the one before that, and the 183 from that novel she was scanning on the subway. (She’s a Tolstoy fan, apparently.)

How many is too many, you ask? The hand-the-pages-to-a-relative-stranger trick is dandy for determining this: ask a kind soul to read the synopsis, chat about other things for ten minutes, then have him tell the story back to you. Unless your characters’ names are unusually wacky, chances are good that the teller will remember only the names that are most active in the plot.

If you’re too shy or too rushed to attempt this test, trot out your highlighter pens and mark all of the proper names the first time they appear in the synopsis. After you’re done, arrange the pages along a table, countertop, or even along the floor, then go do something else. Move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, for instance, or take a nice, brisk walk around the block.

You spend too much time sitting in front of your computer screen, you know. I worry about you.

When you return, stand a couple of feet away from the pages, admiring the proportion of highlighted to non-highlighted text. In most professional synopses, the highlighting will be heaviest in the first couple of paragraphs, with occasional swipes every paragraph or two later on.

If, on the other hand, your pages look as though they fell into an unusually vivid inkwell, you might want to consider reducing the number of characters you mention.

More checklist items follow next time, of course. Try not to fret too much about the economy, and keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part X: the seductive power of the well-constructed synopsis. (Or two.)

Yesterday, in the midst of a discussion about how to banish annoyance about having to summarize your beautifully complex plotline or subtly nuanced argument in just a few pages from your synopsis — because nothing, but nothing, frames writerly resentment about practicalities better than a synopsis, unless it’s a query letter or pitch — I suggested working out your (completely legitimate) aggressions in other, more constructive manners.

Like screaming at your imaginary friend or jousting with the end of your couch. Try christening a particularly unattractive throw pillow Millicent and giving it to your favorite dog to worry; pull up a chair, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show.

I don’t mean any of this humorously. (Okay, so I don’t mean it only humorously.) The agent-seeking process and road to publication genuinely frustrating, even for the lucky few for whom it is speedy.Don’t keep it inside, festering in your guts.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t loose it on an agent or editor until after you’ve signed a contract with ‘em. Ideally, not even then.

Instead, show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is — and that you understand agents’ and editors’ time constraints by getting to your point as rapidly as possible.

Here’s a novel thought on how to do that: what if you crafted the first paragraph of your synopsis as carefully as the first paragraph of your book? Not merely by including a hook, that much-recommended-by-English-comp-teachers-everywhere grabber of an initial sentence intended to suck the reader directly into the story of a novel or memoir, but by presenting a vivid impression of your fascinating protagonist in a situation rife with conflict, bolstered by juicy and unusual details that appeal to one or more of the reader’s visceral senses?

Or, for a NF book that isn’t a memoir, how about opening with a blazingly interesting anecdote that illustrates the vital impact of your subject matter upon real life, told in similarly rich detail?

It’s just a suggestion. I can tell you from long experience, though, that it’s just a good a way to grab Millicent’s attention in a synopsis as it is to wow a contest judge in an entry. Acting fast, literarily speaking, is great strategy when dealing with super-fast readers.

Speed of probable reading should never be far from a savvy synopsis-writer’s mind. Why? Well, agents do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books or because they cherish a secret antipathy for literature: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all.

Sorry. If I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr — and my schedule would permit me to post before the wee hours of the morning on a more regular basis.

However, as a glance at the clock clearly tells me, I do not, in fact, run the universe. Unfortunate.

Let me approach this diamond-hard truth — the one about from a slightly different angle, because understanding this complex phenomenon is vitally important to a writer’s mental health and happiness during the querying and submission stages: in order to get picked up, a submission not only needs to strike an agent (and, at a big agency, her screeners) as both wonderful and marketable — it needs to do so QUICKLY.

Why, I hear you shout in the general direction of the heavens? The sheer volume of manuscripts from which they have to select the handful they will represent. As a direct result of the imperative to narrow down the competition as early in the game as possible, most submissions are — are those of you new to this blog sitting down? — rejected on the first page, most query letters within the first paragraph, and most synopses within the first two.

Aren’t you glad you sat down first?

The synopsis, then, is one of your few chances to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please.

But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work — and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled.

Actually, you might want to avoid it even if your characters are deeply resentful, because Millicent and her cronies see so many synopses written in that particular tone. Cleaving to it, even if it’s genuinely representative of the book’s voice, may well render it harder for your submission to get noticed as unique.

It’s human nature, I’m afraid, for past experience to color one’s perception of the new. In Millicent’s case, the foibles of last 150 synopses she’s read — or 1500, or 15,000 — will almost certainly affect her assessment of the next one she reads.

I believe the colloquial term for this sort of reaction is knee-jerk.

Again, I’m sorry to have to report just how easy it is for a synopsis to trigger the rejection response. As I believe I have mentioned before, I don’t run the universe; I only write about it.

Because it is safe to assume that Millicent’s super-itchy finger will be on the rejection button for the entire time she’s reading your synopsis — perhaps even literally on the rejection button, if you have submitted it via e-mail; as I’ve mentioned often before, it’s significantly easier and faster to reject an e-mailed submission or query — you’re not only going to want to grab her attention quickly. You’re also going to want to make sure that the synopsis you send her serves precisely the purpose you wish.

Is this a good time to suggest that a synopsis that a writer might choose to send with a query letter actually serves a slightly different purpose than one that an agent asks one to send along with the first 50 pages or the entire manuscript?

Yes, I am about to suggest that you might want to come up with different versions to suit the different occasions. Take some nice, deep breaths, and that dizzy feeling will pass in a few seconds.

I’m going to try to make the differences as clear as humanly possible.

The Query Synopsis
Naturally, any synopsis is going to summarize the book’s contents, but the synopsis accompanying a query packet has to meet a few specialized criteria in order to be successful. If a query letter is a verbal hallway pitch, the synopsis destined to be tucked into a query envelope is the surrogate for the book itself, enabling you to lay out the plot at greater length than a paragraph in a query letter permits.

The primary purpose of a query synopsis, then, is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pages — or, if you’re lucky, the entire manuscript, right?

Let me repeat that, because it’s important: the purpose of the query synopsis is to garner a request for pages, not to cause the agency screener to set it down with a sigh and say, “What a beautiful story. Now I don’t need to read the book.”

Remember how during the summer, I talked at length about how landing an agent and/or finding a publisher is about convincing them to fall in love? If the query letter is the personal ad, the query synopsis is the coffee date.

But let’s not kid ourselves here: its goal is seduction.

Which is why you’re going to want to include all of those juicy, original details early on — as with any good seduction, you’re going to want to make a great first impression that conveys an intriguing promise of untold glories to come. Make it clear what is fresh and different about this book from anything else they’re likely to read this year — or this decade, for that matter.

How are you going to pull that off? How is this for starters: make the book sound well-rounded and satisfying, providing enough detail to pique Millicent’s interest, but not so much that the screener begins to wonder if you’ve sent the synopsis or the first few pages of the book. When in doubt, stick to the strongest dramatic arc or argument in the book.

In other words, tell a good story, but don’t get bogged down in the details. For heaven’s sake, though, don’t be a tease; PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved.

Yes, yes, I know — I brought this up earlier in this series, but leaving out the ending is such a common rookie synopsizer mistake that it bears revisiting. A synopsis is the place to show off what a clever plotter or argument-monger you are, not to tease with vague hint about what might happen.

To put it even more bluntly: this is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games — or, as Millicent likes to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”

So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.

Next!

And realistically, there tends to be a fairly large time gap between when an agent or screener reads a query synopsis and when our Millicent can expect to be holding the manuscript in her hot little hands to find out what’s going to happen next. It’s not a profession that attracts the type of person who automatically skips to the last page of a murder mystery to find out who dunnit, after all.

Even if it did, trust me, anyone who is going to be reading a synopsis in an agency is going to be aware of the probable time lag before the suspense can possibly be relieved. If she scans the mail eagerly every day and pounces upon the submission the instant it appears, it’s still bound to be at least a few weeks.

Tell me, cliffhanger-lovers: when’s the last time that you set a book down at an exciting point, walked away for a month, then came back to it?

The Submission Synopsis
Within your submission packet, a requested synopsis serves quite a different function from the query synopsis, which (as I mentioned above) is expected to summarize the entire book. In a packet of requested materials, though, the synopsis has a different goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp.

From the requesting agent’s POV, a submission synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. In other words, it is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

Repeat that last paragraph like a mantra while you are constructing your synopsis.

Before any super-literal reader reaches for a hatchet and chops every bit of premise from his synopsis, let me caution against going too wild with the cuts — it would be a mistake, obviously, not to mention anything that happens in the first 50 pages at all. Since the agent already has your partial in hand, however, your submission query can gloss over the premise much more quickly than in a query synopsis.

If you’re thinking, “My, but something about this rings half a dozen bells in the back of my weary head,” give yourself a gold star: I discussed this strategy in a post last week, in talking about clever ways to chop lines and paragraphs off a too-long synopsis. As I mentioned then, the vast majority of synopses spend FAR too much page space establishing the premise; move along.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone.

Usually, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you in a pitch meeting) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, THEN turn to the synopsis.

Thus, it is relatively safe to assume that Millicent doesn’t need you to spend a page of the synopsis setting up the premise and introducing the protagonist. Remember, her eyes, like most agents’ and editors’, have been trained to spot and regard repetition as one of the seven deadly sins.

The others, in case you’re interested, are Boring, Incorrectly Formatted, Rude Approach, Confusing, Been Done, and Vague.

The submission synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Tomorrow — or actually, my clock tells me, later today — I shall cover some tips on how to avoid the most common synopsis bugbears, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong.

That’s right, gang: it’s time for another of my trademark troubleshooting checklists. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part IX: a much-needed pep talk, or, when and where primal screaming is and is not constructive

I’ve been worrying about something: has my advice that virtually any aspiring writer will be better off sitting down to construct a winning synopsis substantially before s/he is likely to need to produce one coming across as a trifle callous, as if I were laboring under the impression that the average aspiring writer doesn’t already have difficulty carving out time in a busy day to write at all? Why, some of you may well be wondering, would I suggest that you should take on more work — and such distasteful work at that?

I assure you, I have been suggesting this precisely because I am sympathetic to your plight. I completely understand why aspiring writers so often push producing one to the last possible nanosecond before it is needed: it genuinely is a pain to summarize the high points of a plot or argument in a concise-yet-detail-rich form.

Honestly, I get it.

As it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable. In fact, the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

the-scream-detail.tiff

Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

Okay, so these may not sound like like the best motivations for taking a few days out of your hard-won writing time to pull together a document that’s never going to be published before you absolutely have to do it. Unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores wailing under time pressure, though, procrastinating about producing one is an exceedingly bad idea.

But as of today, I’m no longer going to ask you to take my word for that. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one — taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book. And that’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

I know, I know — from a writer’s point of view, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense; we all know (or are) shy-but-brilliant writers who would rather scarf down cups of broken glass than give a verbal pitch, yet can produce absolute magic on the page. Unfortunately, in contexts where such discussion is warranted, these gifted recluses are out of luck.

I know it’s hard, but try to think of this phenomenon in a positive light: an aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it.

Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Even writers who are absolutely desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. As I have mentioned earlier in this series, in the throes of resenting the necessity of producing a query letter and synopsis, it is genuinely difficult NOT to grumble about having to simplify a beautifully complicated plot, set of characters, and/or argument.

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to HAVE to summarize the book in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

There is just no way around summarization, in other words. Just get on with it.

Here’s another good reason to invest the time: by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? As anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with a regularly conference-attending agents can tell you, pretty much all of them have at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

For those of you who haven’t yet found yourself floundering for words in front of an agent or editor, allow me to warn you: the unprepared pitcher almost always runs long. When you are signed up for a 10-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters.

You know, mundane little details, such as whether the agent wants to read the book in question.

Contrary to the prevailing writerly wisdom that dictates that verbal pitching and writing are animals of very different stripes, spending some serious time polishing your synopsis is great preparation for pitching. Even the most devoted enemy of brevity will find it easier to chat about the main thrust of a book if he’s already figured out what it is.

Stop laughing — I have been to a seemingly endless array of writers’ conferences over the years, and let me tell you, I’ve never attended one that didn’t attract at least a handful of aspiring writers who seemed not to be able to tell anyone else what their books were about.

Which is, in case you were wondering, the origin of that old industry chestnut:

Agent: So, what’s your book about?
Writer: About 900 pages.

The third inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, or to tuck in with your first 50 pages, you will look like a star.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off in the ten minutes prior to the post office’s closing, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all. I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect resentment.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. All too often, the result is a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

Believe me, to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

No, really, the peevish, just-the-facts-ma’am synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent would be happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it. It’s the first 50 pages that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample. If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or (even more common) to toss it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit is your best writing.

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor (or, even less sensible, their screeners and assistants). They did not make the rules, by and large.

And even if they did, let’s face it — in real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole damned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!”

Okay, so it’s mighty satisfying to contemplate saying it. Picture it as vividly as you can, then move on.

I’m quite serious about this. My mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length. Be as specific as possible, but try not to repeat yourself; the goal here is to touch upon every scintilla of resentment lodged in the writing part of your brain.

Then find the nearest mirror, gaze into it, and tell yourself to get back to work. Your professional reputation — yes, and your ability to market your writing successfully — is at stake.

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for either the querying process or a conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion the Industry and pound it silly twice a day. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones.

Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen — but I’ve never seen it work to the venting writer’s advantage. I’ll spare you the details, because, trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

Next time, I shall delve into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial. In the meantime, keep up the good work!