Synopsispalooza, Part V: feeling a trifle hemmed in by those length restrictions, are we?

centurians in bondage

For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis. A 1-page synopsis should be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book. Or, to cast it in terms that those of you who followed my recent Querypalooza series should find very familiar, an extended version of the descriptive paragraph in a query letter.

So hey, all of you queriers who have been clutching your temples and moaning about the incredible difficulty of describing your 400-page manuscript in a single, pithy paragraph: I’ve got some good news. There are agencies out there who will give you a whole page to do it!

Does that deafening collective groan mean that you’re not grateful for triple or even quadruple the page space in which to describe your book? Is there no pleasing you people?

Okay, okay — so it may not be a piece o’ proverbial cake to introduce the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the boo within a single page in standard format, but by this point in the series, I hope the prospect at least seems preferable to, say, confronting an angry cobra or trying to reason with pack of wolves. Constructing an eye-catching 1-page synopsis is more of a weeding-the-back-yard level of annoyance, really: a necessarily-but-tedious chore.

Seriously, successfully producing a 1-page synopsis is largely a matter of strategy, not creativity, and not even necessarily talent. As long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of one of the most common short synopsis-writing mistakes — trying to replicate each twist and turn of the plot/argument; generalizing so much that the book sounds generic; writing book jacket promotional copy rather than introducing the story — it’s simply a matter of telling Millicent what your book is ABOUT.

Preferably in a tone and at a vocabulary level at least vaguely reminiscent of the manuscript. Is that really so much — or so little, depending upon how you chose to look at it — to ask?

By contrast, the 5-page synopsis – which, until fairly recently, was far and away the most common requested length, as it still is for those already signed with agents and/or working with editors at publishing houses — should tell the STORY of your book (or state its argument) in as much vivid, eye-catching detail as you may reasonably cram into so few pages. Preferably by describing actual scenes, rather than simply summarizing general plot trends, in language that is both reflective of the manuscript’s and is enjoyable to read.

Why concentrate upon how you tell the story here, you ask, rather than merely cramming the entire plot onto a few scant pages? Why, to cause the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller,” obviously.

Again, piece of cake to pull off in just a few pages, right?

Well, no, but don’t avert your eyes, please, if you are not yet at the querying stage — as with the author bio, I strongly recommend getting your synopsis ready well before you anticipate needing it. As I MAY have mentioned before, even if you do not intend to approach an agent whose website or agency guide listing asks for a synopsis to be tucked into your query packet, you will be substantially happier if you walk into any marketing situation with your synopsis already polished, all ready to send out to the first agent or editor who asks for it, rather than running around in a fearful dither after the request, trying to pull your submission packet together.

Even if you think that both of the reasons I have just given are, to put it politely, intended to help lesser mortals not anywhere near as talented than your good self, whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for the very last moments before you stuff a submission or entry into an envelope. That route virtually guarantees uncaught mistakes, even for the most gifted of writers and savviest of self-promoters.

In fact, you take nothing else away from Synopsispalooza, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it. Forcing yourself to do it at the last minute may allow you to meet the technical requirement, but it is not conducive to producing a synopsis that will do what you want it to do and sound like you want it to sound.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable — remind yourself that even though it may feel as though you effectively need to reproduce the entire book in condensed format, you actually don’t. Even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot.

Yes, even if the agency or contest of your desires asks for an 8- or 10-page synopsis. Trust me, people who work with manuscripts for a living are fully aware that cutting down a 370-page book to the length of a standard college term paper is not only impossible, but undesirable. So don’t even try.

What should you aim for instead? Glad you asked: in a 3-8 page synopsis, just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic summary of the primary plot, rather than all of the subplots. Show where the major conflicts lie, introduce the main characters, interspersed with a few scenes described with a wealth of sensual detail, to make it more readable.

Sound vaguely familiar? It should; it’s an extension of our list of goals for the 1-page synopsis. Let’s revisit those, shall we?

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes. (For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.)

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

I sense some squirming from the summary-resistant out there. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “am I missing something here? You’ve just told us not to try to summarize the entire book — yet what you’re suggesting here sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and doing just that!”

Actually, I’m not doing any such thing, summary-resisters. The distinction lies in the details: I’m advising you to winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens.

Yes, of course, there’s a difference. What an appallingly cynical thought.

If you’re having serious difficulty separating the essential from the merely really, really important or decorative in your storyline, you may be staring too closely at it. Try to think of your story as a reader would — if a prospective reader asked you what your book was about and you had only a couple of minutes to answer, what would you say?

And no, I’m not talking about that ubiquitous writerly response that begins with a gigantic sigh and includes a fifteen-minute digression on what scenes in the novel are based on real life. I’m talking about how you would describe it if you were trying to sound like a professional writer trying to get published — or, if it helps to think of it this way, like an agent describing a terrific new client’s work to an editor.

You wouldn’t waste the editor’s time rhapsodizing about the quality of the writing or what a major bestseller it was destined to be, would you? No, that would be a waste of energy: pretty much every agent thinks his own clients’ work is well-written and marketable. Instead, you would relate the story or argument in the terms most likely to appeal to readers who already buy similar books.

If you absolutely can’t get that account down to 5 minutes or so, try giving the 20-minute version to a good listener who hasn’t read a syllable of your manuscript, then asking her to tell the plot of the book back to you. The elements she remembers to include are probably — wait for it — the most memorable.

Or, if you don’t want to go out on a limb by recruiting others to help you, sit down all by your lonesome, picture your favorite English teacher standing over you, set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment, and write a brief summary of the book’s themes.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes; most authors are delighted to analyze their own books. Pretend that your book has just been assigned in a college English class — what would you expect the students to be able to say about it on the final?

No, the result will almost certainly not be a professional synopsis; this is an exercise intended to help you identify the essential of your storyline. It will also help you separate the plot or argument’s essentials from the secondary issues.

Why is that a necessary step? Well, lest we forget, a synopsis is a writing sample. It would hardly show off your scintillating literary voice or world-class storytelling acumen to provide Millicent with a simple laundry list of events, would it?

Please at least shake your head, if you cannot provide me with a ringing, “No, by jingo!” If you can’t even muster that, take a gander at how such a list might read:

SUZIE MILQUETOAST (34) arrives at work one day to find her desk occupied by a 300-pound gorilla (MR. BUBBLES, 10). She goes and asks her supervisor, VERLANDA MCFUNNYNAME (47) what is going on. Verlanda isn’t sure, but she calls Human Resources, to find out if Suzie has been replaced. She has not, but who is going to ask a 300-pound gorilla to give up his seat to a lady? Next, Verlanda asks her boss, JAMES SPADER (52), what to do, and he advises calling the local zoo to see if any primates might by any chance have escaped. Well, that seems like a good idea, but the zoo’s number seems to have been disconnected, so Suzie and Verlanda traipse to Highlander Park, only to discover…

Well, you get the picture: it reads as though the writer had no idea what to leave out. Not entirely coincidentally, it reads like a transcript of what most aspiring writers do when asked, “So what’s your book about?”

How does a seasoned author answer that question? As though she’s just been asked to give a pitch:

GORILLAS IN OUR MIDST is a humorous novel about how rumors get out of hand — and how power structures tend to cater to our fears, not our desires. It’s aimed at the 58 million office workers in the US, because who understands how frustrating it can be to get a bureaucracy to move than someone who actually works within one? See how this grabs you: Suzie Milquetoast arrives at work one day to find a 300-pound gorilla sitting at her desk. Is the zoo missing an inmate, or did HR make another hideously inappropriate hire?

A full synopsis? Of course not — but you have to admit, it’s a pretty good elevator pitch. It also wouldn’t be a bad centerpiece for a query letter, would it?

Which means, by the way, that it could easily be fleshed out with juicy, interesting, unique details lifted from the book itself. Add a couple of paragraphs’ worth, and you’ve got yourself a 1-page synopsis. Add more of the story arc, including the ending, toss in a few scene descriptions, stir, and voilà! You’ve got yourself a 3-page synopsis.

And how might you turn that into a recipe for a 5-page synopsis? Get a bigger bowl and add more ingredients, naturally.

But in order to select your ingredients effectively, you’re going to have to figure out what is essential to include and what merely optional. A few quiz questions, to get you started:

(a) Who is the protagonist, and why is s/he interesting? (You’d be astonished at how few novel synopses give any clear indication of the latter.)

To put it another way, what about this character in this situation is fresh? What about this story will a Millicent who screens submissions in this book category not have seen within the last week?

(b) What does my protagonist want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of her/his getting it?

(c) Why is getting it so important to her/him? What will happen if s/he doesn’t get it?

(d) How does the protagonist grow and change throughout pursuing this goal? What are the most important turning points in her/his development?

(e) How does the protagonist go about achieving this goal?

See? Piece of proverbial…hey, wait just a minute! Why, those questions sound a mite familiar, don’t they?

Again, they should: they’re the underlying issues of goals 1-3 and 5-6, above. If you answer them in roughly the same voice as the book, you will have met goal #4, as well — and, almost without noticing it, you will have the basic material for a dandy synopsis.

I told you: piece of cake.

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the story’s ending in the synopsis. Too many aspiring writers omit this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent and her ilk into a frenzy of wonder about what is going to happen next.

“But I want to make them want to read the book!” such strategists invariably claim. “I don’t want to give away the ending. Leaving the synopsis on a cliffhanger will make them ask to see it right away. Besides, how do I know that someone won’t steal my plot and write it as their own?”

To professional eyes, leaving out the ending is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page. In fact, it’s frowned-upon enough that some Millicents have been known to reject projects on this basis alone.

Half of you who currently have synopses out circulating just went pale, didn’t you?

Perhaps I should have broken it to you a bit more gently. Here goes: from a professional point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis is to demonstrate to someone who presumably hasn’t sat down and read your entire book that you can in fact plot out an entire novel plausibly. Agents and editors regard it as the writer’s job to demonstrate this in an extended synopsis, not theirs to guess how the plot might conceivably come to a halt.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (at least before I’ve helped you all to a slice of cake), but a talented sentence-writer’s possessing the skills, finesse, and tenacity to follow a story to its logical conclusions is not a foregone conclusion. In practice, the assumption tends to run in the opposite direction: if the synopsis leaves out the how the plot resolves, Millicent and her cousin Maury (the editorial assistant at a major publishing house) will tend to leap to one of four conclusions, none of which are good for a submitter. They are left to surmise that:

a) the synopsis’ writer isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, having confused it with back jacket copy, and thus is a fish that should be thrown back into the sea until it grows up a little.

In other words, next!

b) the synopsis’ author is a tireless self-promoter and/or inveterate tease, determined not to cough up the goods until there is actual money on the table. Since this is simply not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied here as well.

Again, next!

c) the synopsis’ author is one of the many, many writers exceptionally talented at coming up with stupendous premises, but less adept at fleshing them out. S/he evidently hopes to conceal this weakness from Millicent and Maury until after they have already fallen in love with the beauty of her/his prose and plotting in the early part of the book, in an attempt to cajole their respective bosses into editing the heck out of the novel before it could possibly be ready to market.

The wily fiend! Next!

d) or, less charitably, the synopsis’ author hasn’t yet written the ending, and thus is wasting their respective boss’ time by submitting an incomplete novel.

All together now: next!

Include some indication of how the plot resolves. Millicent, Maury, and their Aunt Mehitabel (the veteran contest judge) will thank you for it. They might even give you a piece of that delicious cake I keep mentioning.

Does that monumental gusty sigh I just heard out there in the ether mean that I have convinced you on that point? “All right, Anne,” synopsizers everywhere murmur with resignation, “I’ll give away the goods. But I have a lingering question about #4 on your list above, the one about writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. I get that a comic novel’s synopsis should contain a few chuckles; an ultra-serious one shouldn’t. A steamy romance’s synopsis should be at least a little bit sexy, a thriller’s a trifle scary, and so forth. But I keep getting so wrapped up in the necessity of swift summarization that my synopsis ends up sounding nothing like the book! How should I remedy this — by pretending I’m the protagonist and writing it from his point of view?”

Um, no. Nor should you even consider writing it in the first person, unless you happen to have written a memoir.

Nor is there any need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is absolutely identical to the book’s — in the same ballpark will do. You just want to show that you are familiar with the type of writing expected in the type of book you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Piece of — oh, never mind.

There’s a practical reason for demonstrating this skill at the querying and submission stages: it’s a minor selling point for a new writer. Increasingly, authors are expected to promote their own books; it’s not at all uncommon these days for a publishing house to ask the author of a soon-to-be-released book to write a magazine or online article in the book’s voice, for promotional purposes, for instance. Or a blog, like yours truly.

Yes, I know; you want to concentrate on your writing, not its promotion. The muses love you for that impulse. But would you rather that I lied to you about the realities of being a working author?

I thought not. Let’s move on.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers attempt — is to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself, cramming them indiscriminately into the synopsis. I know that you want to show off your best writing, but trust me, you’re going to want to make up some new verbiage here.

Why, you ask? Hint: people who go into the manuscript-reading business tend to have pretty good memories.

Trust me, they recall what they’ve read. When I was teaching at a university, I was notorious for spotting verbiage lifted from papers I’d graded in previous terms; the fraternities that maintained A paper files actively told their members to avoid my classes.

Similarly, a really on-the-ball Millicent might recognize a sentence she read a year ago — and certainly one that she scanned ten minutes ago in a synopsis if it turns up on page 1 of the attached manuscript.

See the problem? No? What if I tell you that in a submission packet, the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are often read back-to-back?

Ditto with query packets. And good 30% of contest entries make this mistake, reproducing in the synopsis entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry. Invariably, the practice ends up costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” some of you point out huffily, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just yesterday that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent, Maury , and/or Mehitabel will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers: the operative word here is necessarily. While it’s never safe to assume that EVERYONE who reads your synopsis will also read your opening chapter, it’s also not a very good idea to assume that NO ONE will. Shooting for a happy medium — including enough overlap that someone who read only one of them could follow the plot without indulging in phrase redundancy — tends to work best here.

Should you be tempted to repeat yourself, I implore you to counter that impulse by asking this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers, it may seem a trifle odd to suggest adding detail to a piece of writing as short as 5 pages, but actually, most synopses suffer from overgrowths of generalization and an insufficiency of specifics. So once you have a solid draft, read it over and ask yourself: is what I have here honestly a reader-friendly telling of my story or a convincing presentation of my argument (don’t worry, NF writers: I’ll deal with your concerns at length in a separate post), or is it merely a presentation of the premise of the book and a cursory overview of its major themes?

For most synopses, it is the latter.

Do I hear some questions amid the general wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices cry from the wilderness, “How can I tell the difference between a necessary summary statement and a generalization?”

Again, excellent question. The short answer: it’s hard. Here’s a useful litmus test.

(1) Print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every summary statement about character, every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.

(2) Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines.

(3) Ask yourself for each: would a briefly-described scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a telling character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more interesting to read?

I heard that gasp of recognition out there — yes, campers, the all-pervasive directive to SHOW, DON’T TELL should be applied to synopses as well. Generally speaking, the fewer generalities you can use in a synopsis, the better.

I’ll let those of you into brevity for brevity’s sake in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than vague generalities. Think about it from Millicent’s perspective — to someone who reads 100 synopses per week, wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile?

But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind? And if that unique grabber appeared on page 1 of the synopsis, or even in the first couple of paragraphs, wouldn’t you pay more attention to the rest of the summary?

Uh-huh. So would Millicent.

It’s very easy to forget in the heat of pulling together a synopsis that agency screeners are readers, too, not just decision-makers. They like to be entertained, so the more entertaining you can make your synopsis, the more likely Millicent is to be wowed by it. So are Maury and Mehitabel.

Isn’t it fortunate that you’re a writer with the skills to pull that off?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem and runs long (like, I must admit, today’s post), you can also employ the method I described above, but with an editorial twist:

(1) Sit down and read your synopsis over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot or argument of the book.

(2) Go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones.

(3) Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

(4) If so — take a deep breath here, please; some writers will find the rest of this question upsetting – do the marked sentences really need to be there at all?

If you’ve strenuously applied the steps above and your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1.

Sounds wacky, I know, but the vast majority of synopses spend to long on it. Here’s a startling statistic: in the average novel synopsis, over a quarter of the text deals with premise and character introduction.

So why not be original and trim that part down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot?

This is an especially good strategy if you’re constructing a synopsis to accompany requested pages or even unrequested pages that an agency’s website or agency guide listing says to tuck into your query packet, or contest entry. Think about it: if you’re sending Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission or query packet (its usual location), the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book before stumbling upon the synopsis.

So I ask you: since space is at a premium on the synopsis page, how is it in your interest to be repetitious?

Allow me show you how this might play out in practice. Let’s continue this series’ tradition of pretending that you are Jane Austen, pitching SENSE AND SENSIBILITY to an agent at a conference. (Which I suspect would be a pretty tough sell in the current market, actually.) Let’s further assume that you gave a solid, professional pitch, and the agent is charmed by the story. (Because, no doubt, you were very clever indeed, and did enough solid research before you signed up for your agent appointment to have a pretty fair certainty that this particular agent is habitually charmed by this sort of story.) The agent asks to see a synopsis and the first 50 pages.

See? Advance research really does pay off, Jane.

Naturally, you dance home in a terrible rush to get those pages in the mail. As luck would have it, you already have a partially-written synopsis on your computer. (Our Jane’s very into 21st-century technology.) In it, the first 50 pages’ worth of action look something like this:

Now, all of this does in fact occur in the first 50 pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, at least in my well-worn little paperback addition. However, all of the plot shown above would be in the materials the agent requested, right? Do you really need to spend 2 of your allotted 5 pages on this small a section of the plot, even if it is the set-up for what happens later on?

Of course not. Being a wise Aunt Jane, you would streamline this portion of your submission synopsis so it looked a bit more like this:

And then go on with the rest of the story, of course.

See what space-saving wonders may be wrought by cutting down on the premise-establishing facts? The second synopsis is less than half the length of the first, yet still shows enough detail to show the agent how the submitted 50 pp. feeds into the rest of the book. Well done, Jane!

While all of you novelists are hard at work, trying to perform a similar miracle upon your synopses, next time, I shall be tackling the specialized problems of the nonfiction synopsis. Yes, that’s right: we’re going to have our cake and eat it, too.

Don’t just ignore that 300-pound gorilla; work with him. And, of course, keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IV: getting down to the nitty-gritty, or, is this the part where I get to stomp on Tokyo?


Fair warning, campers: I’m in a foul mood today. I’ve answered the phone for eight telemarketers so far this evening, seven of whom refused to believe that I have not been secretly operating the A+ Mini-Mart out of my home. My physical therapists’ office forgot that I had an appointment today, so I got dressed up in my silly gym clothes for nothing. A client’s deadline just got moved up by a couple of months, meaning that his manuscript was due, oh, yesterday.

All of that I could take with equanimity. What really got my proverbial goat were the two — count ‘em, two — aspiring writers who chose today to appear out of the blue and demand that I drop everything to pay attention to them, despite the fact that neither knows me well enough to be asking for a favor, let alone demanding it, and did so in the rudest manner imaginable. Not only that, but each was so self-absorbed that s/he actually became angry with me for setting limits on how much of my time I would allow them to co-opt.

I was really very nice about it, honest. But both evidently chose to believe that because they had faith in their talent, I owed them my professional attention. One even sent me a document, presumably for me to edit out of the goodness of my heart.

Because, obviously, I could not possibly have anything else to do. I could get back to stomping on Tokyo later.

I wish I could say that this kind of thing does not happen to those of us who are kind enough to give the occasional free advice to the aspiring, but truth compels me to say otherwise. In fact, this attitude is so pervasive that quite a few pros simply avoid giving any advice to up-and-comers at all.

Which is why, in case any of you recent conference-goers had been wondering, it can be very hard to ask some of the speakers a pertinent question or track down an attending agent for a hallway pitch. They’ve probably been the victims of aspiring writers who mistook momentary interest, the willingness to answer a complex question, or even just plain old politeness for a commitment to a lifetime of non-stop assistance. One doesn’t have to encounter too many such boundary-leapers to start erecting some pretty hefty walls in self-defense.

Oh, I understand the impulse to push it from the aspiring writer’s perspective: since can be so hard to catch a pro’s eye that when you meet someone in the know who is actually nice to you, it can feel like the beginning of a friendship. And it may be — down the line. But from the pro’s point of view, all that friendly interaction was, or could possibly be construed as being, is just that, a friendly interaction with a stranger.

So imagine the pro’s surprise when she arrives back in her office to find five e-mails from that stranger, each more desperate and demanding than the last.

Wildly different understandings of the same interaction are especially prevalent at conferences that schedule pitching appointments for attendees. Most first-time pitchers walk into their sessions so terrified that if the agent or editor smiles even a little and listens sympathetically, they just melt. Here, at last, is a personal connection in an industry that can seem appallingly impersonal from the outside. So when the agent or editor concludes the meeting with a fairly standard request for pages, these pitchers sometimes conclude that the pro only made the request to be nice; s/he couldn’t possibly have meant it.

That’s the less common reaction. The significantly more common is to act as though the agent or editor has already committed to taking on the book. If not actually serving as best man or maid of honor at the writer’s wedding.

Yes, really — I see it at conferences all the time. The writer rushes home, instantly prints up his manuscript, and overnights it to his new friend. Or she rushes home, opens her e-mail account, and instantly sends the requested pages as an attachment to her new friend. Even if they received requests from other agents or editors, they won’t send ‘em out — that might offend the new friend, who clearly by now has a deep stake in signing the writer.

Then both writers fill Hefty bags with Doritos and plop themselves down between their telephones and their computers, waiting for the positive response that will doubtless come any minute now. And they wait.

Many of them are still waiting, in this era where some agencies have policies where no response equals assumed rejection. Others are stunned to receive form-letter rejections that contain no mention of their positive personal interaction at the conference at all. Some are unwise enough to follow up upon either of these reactions with a hurt or angry e-mail to that faithless new friend.

Who will, I guarantee you, be mystified to receive it. “Why is this writer taking my rejection so personally,” they murmur to their screeners, “not to mention so unprofessionally? We talked for five minutes at a conference; it’s not as though I made a commitment to help him. It’s my job to talk to writers at conferences, after all.”

“Hey, look,” Millicent says, pointing at her boss’ e-mail inbox, “your new protégé has just sent you yet another e-mail. Ooh, there’s a third. And a fourth!”

The agent buries her head in her hands. “Cancel my e-mail account. I’m moving to Peru to become a llama herder.”

What we have here, my friends, is a failure to communicate. Agents, editors, conference speakers, and writing gurus are nice to aspiring writers, when they are, because they are nice people, not because any of us (not the sane ones among us, anyway) are likely to pick a single aspirant at random and decide to devote all of our resources to helping him. Any of us who interact with aspiring writers on a regular basis meet hundreds, if not thousands, of people just burning for a break, yet not one of us possesses the magical ability to stare deeply into the eyes of a writer we’ve just met, assess the talent coiled like a spring in that psyche, and determine whether she, alone of those thousands, is worth breaking a few rules to help get into print. Nor are most of us living lives of such leisure that we have unlimited time or resources to devote to helping total strangers.

Yes, yes, I know: this blog is devoted to helping total strangers along the road to publication, and I do in fact post almost every day. Don’t quibble; I’m on a roll here.

Yet that level of instant, unlimited devotion is precisely what many aspiring writers simply assume is the natural next step after a pleasant initial interaction with a publishing professional. While most, thank goodness, have the intrinsic good sense or Mom-inculcated good manners not to start demanding favors instantly or barrage that nice pro with e-mails asking for advice or a leg up, the few who do are so shameless that, alas, they give all aspiring writers a bad name.

The moral: sometimes, a pleasant conversation at a conference is just a pleasant conversation at a conference. Don’t assume that polite interest in your writing equals a commitment to help you promote it. And never, ever, EVER risk alienating the rare pro who is willing to give a little free advice by presuming that the proper response to an act of kindness is to treat it as an invitation to ask for still more favors.

Any buildings still standing, or have I smashed them all with my giant lizard feet?

Okay, I feel better now. Time to get back to doing today’s single professional favor for masses and masses of writers I have never met. After that, I’m off the charitable clock.

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (okay, so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since the response so far has been no more traumatized than one might expect from writers faced with the prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep, I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the basic goals and strategy of a 1-page synopsis intended for tucking into a query envelope or to copy and paste at the bottom of an e-mailed query.

Before I move on to the ins and outs of writing the longer synopsis, I feel I should respond to some of the whimpers of confusion I’ve been sensing coming from some of my more structurally-minded readers. “Hey, Anne,” some of you have been thinking quite loudly, “I appreciate that you’ve been showing us visual examples of properly-formatted synopses — a sort of SYNOPSES ILLUSTRATED, if you will — but I’m still not positive that I’m doing it right. If I clutch my rabbit’s foot and wish hard enough, is there any chance that you might go over the various rather odd-looking formatting choices you’ve used in them before, say, I need to send out the 1-page synopsis currently wavering on my computer screen? Please? Pretty please? With sugar on top?”

Who am I to resist the charms of a well-stroked rabbit’s foot — especially when the request accompanying it is expressed so politely? Let’s take another gander at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

For veterans of my extended forays into the joys and terrors of standard format for manuscripts, none of the formatting here is too surprising, right? Printed out, this 1-page synopsis strongly resembles a properly-constructed manuscript page — and with good reason.

For the most part, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs (ALWAYS), doubled dashes, numbers under 100 written out in full, slug line, 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the list at right. Or you could wait until later in the autumn, when I shall be launching into Formatpalooza.)

What it should NOT look like, but all too many query packet synopses do, is this:

P&P synopsis no indent

Why might our Millicent instantly take umbrage at this alternate formatting? Chant it with me, long-time readers of this blog: the only time business formatting (i.e., non-indented paragraphs) is acceptable is in business letters (but not query letters or personal correspondence) or e-mails. Because folks in the industry are aware of that, there is a well-established publishing tradition of regarding block formatting as the structural choice of the illiterate.

So the disturbingly common practice of submitting a block-formatted synopsis (“Well, it’s not a manuscript page, so why should it be formatted like one?”) or query letter (“It’s a business letter, isn’t it? I’m trying to break into the book-writing business.”) is — how shall put this delicately? — a really bad idea. Remember, everything in a query or submission packet is a writing sample. Format the constituent parts so they will convince Millicent of your deep and abiding commitment to excellence in the written word.

As in manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

Hey, Millicent has a lot of pieces of paper littering her desk. Do you really want yours to go astray — or be mistaken for a page of your manuscript?

Worried about what might happen to all of that formatting if you e-mail your 1-page synopsis? Relax: if it’s a requested synopsis, you’ll be sending it as a Word attachment, anyway.

If the synopsis will be accompanying an e-mailed query, you’re still going to want to write it initially in Word. As with manuscript pages, if you format your synopsis like this in Word, copy it, and paste it into the body of an e-mail (as many agencies’ querying guidelines now request), much of the formatting will remain intact: indented and double-spaced. Easy as the proverbial pie. Of course, the slug line — the author’s last name/title/page # that should appear in the header of every page of your writing you intend to submit to professional readers — won’t appear in the e-mailed version, nor will the margins, but you can live with that, can’t you?

More to the point, Millicent can — much, much better, usually, than with a block-formatted synopsis. The fewer provocations you can give for her to start stomping on nearby buildings, the better.

I see some of the sharper-eyed among you jumping up and down, hands raised. “Anne! Anne!” the eagle-eyed shout. “That’s not a standard slug line in your first example! It says Synopsis where the page number should be! Why’d you do it that way? Huh? Huh?”

Well caught, eager pointer-outers. I omitted the page number for the exceedingly simple reason that this is a one-page synopsis; the slug line’s there primarily so Millicent can figure out whose synopsis it is should it happen to get physically separated from the query or submission it accompanied. (Yes, it happens. As I MAY already have mentioned, Millie and her cronies deal with masses and masses of white paper.)

If this were a multi-page synopsis, the slug line would include the page number, but regardless of length, it’s a good idea to include the info that it is a synopsis here. That way, should any of the pages mistakenly find their way into a nearby manuscript (again, it happens), it would be easy for Millicent to spot it and wrangle it back to the right place.

Sometimes, it seems as though those pages have a life of their own. Especially when the air conditioning breaks down and someone in the office has the bright idea of yanking the rotating fan out of the closet. Or Godzilla decides to take a stroll down a nearby avenue, shaking everything up.

Oh, you may laugh, but think about it: like a manuscript, a query or submission synopsis should not be bound in any way, not even by a paper clip. So if a synopsis page does not feature either the writer’s name or the title of the work (and the subsequent pages of most query synopsis often fail to include either), how could Millicent possibly reunite it with its fellows if it goes a-wandering?

Heck, even if it’s all together, how is she supposed to know that a document simply entitled Synopsis and devoid of slug lines is describes a manuscript by Ignatz W. Crumble entitled WHAT I KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING AND YOU SHOULD, TOO?

Don’t make Millicent guess; she may have had a hard day. Unidentified pages tend to end up in the recycling — or, if the Millicent happens to work in one of the many, many agencies that does not recycle paper (you’d be amazed), in the trash.

A second (or third, or fifth; extrapolate) page should also look very similar to any other page of standard-formatted manuscript, with one vital exception: the slug line for a synopsis should, as I mentioned above, SAY that the page it decorates is from a synopsis, not a manuscript, in addition to displaying the author’s last name, the title of the book, and the page number. (If you don’t know why a slug line is essential to include in any professional manuscript or why anyone would name something on a pretty page of text after a slimy creature, please see the SLUG LINE category on the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand side of this page.)

One caveat: if you are planning to submit a synopsis to a contest, double-check the rules: many literary contests simply disqualify any entry that includes the entrant’s name anywhere but on the entry form. (This is a sign of honesty in a contest, incidentally; it’s substantially harder to rig the outcome if the judges don’t know which entrant wrote which entry.) If you’re entering a name-banning contest, you should still include a slug line, but omit the first part: TITLE/SYNOPSIS/PAGE #.

Okay, some of you have had your hands in the air since you read the example above. “But Anne,” the tired-armed point out, “aren’t you ignoring the giant lizard in the room — or, in this case, on the page? You seem to have given some of the character names in all capital letters, followed by their ages in parentheses. Why?”

I’m glad you asked. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction and memoir synopses capitalize the entire name of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first.

Why only the first? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.

Because Millicent might, you know, miss ‘em otherwise. She reads pretty fast, you know.

It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopsis text that looks something like this:

ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (∞) do in response?

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d love to read it.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced — sacre bleu! — a humorous treatment of the material. Brevity need not be the death of wit.

And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel that I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — sing it out now, long-time readers — in a query or submission packet, the synopsis is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that fourteen or fifteen times already in this series? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer aims to use the synopsis to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating, well-rounded characters, but that the s/he is a terrific storyteller.

I heard that monumental collective gasp of dread. Don’t worry — in the days to come, I shall be talking about ways in which you can tweak your synopsis in order to convey that lovely impression.

For the nonce, let’s take a quick field trip back to yesterday’s examples of a not-so-hot 1-page synopsis. Now that you know what Millicent is expecting to see, do you notice any formatting problems here?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, screaming, “It doesn’t have a slug line! It doesn’t have a slug line!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Make that two if you also bellowed that it doesn’t say anywhere on the page that it is a synopsis.

Take a medal out of petty cash if you noticed that the pages are not numbered: a major no-no in any submission, ever, and one of the more common mistakes. And yes, you should number it (although technically, it’s optional for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rules SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. Just as the first page of Chapter 1 is always page 1, regardless of what may come before it in a submission packet, the first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

Top yourself with a halo if you also discovered that Aunt Jane made the rookie mistake of adding her name to the synopsis anywhere but in the slug line. For book-length works, the first page of text — regardless of whether it is in the manuscript, the synopsis, or any other requested materials — is not a title page.

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros. Save your contact information for your query or cover letter and your title page.

Everyone happy with his or her score on that quiz? Excellent. Let’s tackle yesterday’s other negative example:

Where do we even begin? Millicent would almost certainly not even read this one — in fact, she might burst into laughter from several paces away. Any guesses why?

Well, for starters, it starts too far down on the page, falling into the same title-page error as the previous example. It’s the over-the-top typeface, though, and the fact that the page uses more than one of them, that would set Millicent giggling and showing it to her coworkers.

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering, either. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that in mid-guffaw. Or while she is crying, “Next!”

It makes one other error for a fiction synopsis, a subtler one — and this one may surprise you: it mentions the title of the book in the text of the synopsis.

Why is this a problem? Well, for the same reason that it’s considered unprofessional to begin the descriptive paragraph in a query letter with something like LETTERS FROM HOME is the story of…: it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking about the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

And anyway, the title is already both at the top of the page (and SHOULD be in the slug line). Why, Millicent wonders impatiently, cradling her too-hot latte until it cools — she’s learning, she’s learning — would the writer WANT to waste the space and her time by repeating the information?

“Wait just a minute, Anne,” I hear some of my former questioners call from the rear of the auditorium. “You’re talking about the cosmetic aspects of the query synopsis as though it were going to be judged as pitilessly as the manuscript I’m hoping Millicent will ask me to submit. Surely, that’s not the case? The synopsis is just a technical requirement, right?”

Um, no. As I said, it’s considered a WRITING SAMPLE. So yes, the writing in it does tend to be judged — and dismissed — just as readily as problematic text anywhere else in the query packet.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But isn’t it better that you hear it from me than to be left to surmise it from a form-letter rejection? Or, as is more often the case, NOT surmise it from a form-letter rejection and keep submitting problematic synopses?

What? I couldn’t hear your replies over the deafening roar of aspiring writers all over the English-speaking world leaping to their feet, shouting, “Wait — my query or submission might have gotten rejected because of its formatting, rather than its writing or content?”

Um, yes — did that seriously come as a surprise to anyone? Oh, dear: I guess it really is time for a Formatpalooza.

While my former questioners are frantically re-examining their query packets and rethinking their former condemnations of Millicents, is anyone harboring any lingering questions about submission formatting? This would be a great time to ask, because next time, we’ll be leaving technicalities behind and delving into the wonderful world of storytelling on the fly.

After I trample that one last cottage on the edge of time. If I’m on a rampage, I might as well be thorough. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part III: keeping some of those plot cats concealed in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many diverse people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check each entity’s individual requirements. Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis.

And the crowd went wild; perhaps I should have begun with a 5-page synopsis and worked my way down. There seems to be something about the very idea of a 1-page synopsis that sends aspiring writers spiraling into an oh, my God, I have to write this in the next five minutes tizzy. Or so I surmise from the fact that my e-mail inbox (not the way I prefer to receive questions, folks; post ‘em in the comments, please) has been stuffed to the gills for the past two days with behind-the-scenes pleas to explain further.

I find this a trifle odd, there was absolutely nothing in that last post to indicate that I did not intend to give much, much more insight into the subject. Seriously, did the 27 posts of Querypalooza really leave any doubt about my great love of explaining things down to the last comma?

Relax, campers: this is only the third post into what promises to be a several-week series. To set your mind even more at rest, I’m going to go ahead and respond to a comment on the subject from eager-to-go reader Christie:

Great post, Anne. Just to clarify though, are you suggesting that a one-page synopsis doesn’t have to include the ending of the book? Should it just be a teaser?

Yes and no, Christie. Yes, a 1-page synopsis does not have to include the ending, just the premise and the central conflict. But no, it should most emphatically not be mistaken for a teaser or a back jacket blurb, intended just to provoke interest: a teaser typically just includes the premise, while a back jacket blurb usually consists of teaser + praise for the book.

The overwhelming majority of 1-page synopses both Millicent the agency screener and her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, see in query packets are either teasers or back jacket copy. Neither fulfills the intended purpose of a 1-page synopsis: to convince a professional reader to ask to see the manuscript.

In order to do that, even a 1-page synopsis is going to have to convey something of the feel of the manuscript. But unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide a brief-but-complete overview of the book in question’s plot or argument (more on that later in this series), a 1-page synopsis is essentially a movie trailer for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

These goals should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through Querypalooza series: a 1-page synopsis shares essentially the same objectives as the descriptive paragraph in a query. The synopsis merely allows more room to achieve them. In both, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, ideally, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along: the goal of a synopsis tucked into a query packet is to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

Actually, this isn’t a bad list of goals for any length synopsis. Certainly, it’s quite a bit more than most that cross Millicent’s desk actually achieve. However, for a longer synopsis — say, the 5-page version most frequently requested by agents of their already-signed clients, or a slightly shorter one intended for contest submission — I would add to the list:

(5) for a novel or memoir, show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

For nonfiction that isn’t story-based, present the planks of the overarching argument in logical order, along with some indication of how you intend to prove each point.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Does that sound like an overwhelming set of tasks to pull off in a few short pages — or the dreaded one page? I can see how it might feel that way, but believe it or not, the vast majority of synopsis-writers attempt to do far, far more.

How so? Well, the first time you tried to write a synopsis, didn’t you try to tell the entire story of the book?

I shall take that behemoth sigh of disgusted recognition as a yes — and if I had to guess (do I? Do I? Apparently, I do), I would wager that those of you who didn’t answer that question in the affirmative have not yet tried to write a synopsis.

At least, not since you learned the difference between a synopsis and a back jacket blurb. Again, I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone. I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it — and interestingly, the level of panic about writing them doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to how confident the writer feels about the manuscript itself, its level of polish, or even, in many cases, the writer’s level of familiarity with the publishing industry.

What that gut-wrenching fear does have to do with, evidently, is the imperative for brevity. Which is not, let’s face it, the natural impulse of those of us who sit down and write books.

Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans. Naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes, two excellently-becreamed courses, and a dessert that the waiter took great delight in lighting on fire later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away the fourth waiter bent upon stuffing me until I burst. “And I really like that it’s an easy one to pitch: two women, misfits by personality and disability within their own families and communities, use their unlikely friendship to forge new bonds of identity in a lonely world.”

The author stared at me, as round-eyed as if I had just sprouted a second head. “How did you do that? I’ve been trying to come up with a one-sentence summary for the last two years!”

Of course, it was simpler for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches. It is, as I mentioned last time, a learned skill.

To be fair, I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off that her novel might border on the autobiographical? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of each fact-based incident in her 43-minute plot summary how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoir and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear all about it.)

Still more importantly, because I had not yet read the book, I did not know the subtle character nuances that filled her pages. I could have no knowledge of how she had woven perspective with perspective in order to tease the reader into coming to know the situation fully. I was not yet aware of the complex ways in which she made language dance. All I knew was the premise and the plot — which put me in an ideal position to come up with a pithy, ready-for-the-conference-floor pitch.

Or — and I can feel that some of you have already jumped ahead to the next logical step here — a synopsis.

This is why, I explained to her, I always draft my pitch and synopsis before I write the book. About 1/3-1/2 of the way through the writing process seems to be the best time: less distracting than if I wait until the manuscript’s completely polished. I know that I can always tweak it down the road.

Stop clutching your chests; this honestly does make sense. Naturally, early-penned synopses and pitches will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

Those of you locked in mid-novel know what I’m about to advise, don’t you?

That lump in the pit of your stomach is not lying to you: I am seriously suggesting that you sit down and write at least a concise summary of the major themes of the book — if not actually a provisional 1-page synopsis (and, to be on the safe side, a 5-page one as well) — BEFORE you finish writing it.

At least as a rough draft: you can always revise it later on. Why get the constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Synopses, like pitches, are often easier to write for a book that has not yet come to life. At the beginning of the writing process, it is easy to be succinct: there are not yet myriad plot details and marvelous twists to get in the way of talking about the premise and central conflict.

Everyone who has ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “Gee, what is your book about?” knows this to be true, right?

I can tell that some of you still are not convinced. Okay, here is an even better reason to take the time early in the process to start thinking about the synopsis: in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, you will have an easier time at the querying and submission stage.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for a synopsis. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…in a month or two…will you excuse me while I track down my heart medication?”

More to the point, if you start earlier, you’ll have a better chance of writing a good synopsis that does credit to your writing skills. As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample — and will be judged accordingly.

A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization. Especially if the summarizer in question is trying to cram a 380-page plot into a scant couple of pages.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in?

Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell her story compellingly: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots. Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s send Aunt Jane into a the agent of my dreams just asked me to tuck a synopsis into my submission packet, and I haven’t even begun to think about writing one! frenzy and aim her toward her book. (If you’re having trouble reading the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + in order to enlarge the image.)

Contrast that, if you please, with the solid 1-page synopsis for the same book we discussed last time:

The difference is pretty stark, isn’t it? At the rate that the first example is crawling, it would almost be quicker to read the manuscript itself.

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. This is not like pretending you couldn’t hit the volleyball to save your life to get out of P.E. class in junior high school: a writer can’t wiggle out of the necessity of producing a professional synopsis by doing it poorly.

Besides, it’s not in your best interest to underestimate the potential importance of the synopsis in Millicent’s decision-making process. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them. Pass the crawfish etouffée and tell me about your novel.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for quite some time. Yes? “Okay, Anne,” many of you call out, rubbing life back into your tingling appendages, “I get it why I need to take the time to produce a synopsis that presents my book’s premise and central conflict well. But the length of the synopsis listed in the agency of my dreams’ guidelines is not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, so why not just write it as such. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I tuck the same highly flattering 1-page synopsis into my next contest entry to run a little promotional copy past Mehitabel?”

Well, the first reason that comes screaming to mind is that Millicent and Mehitabel have back jacket blurb-style synopses tossed at them all the time. You’re not going to win any points for originality, and frankly, telling an agent or contest judge how terrific your writing is never works out as well as showing them that you’re talented.

Why not? This style of synopsis-writing lends itself to a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts. The result often looks a little something like this:

Yes, I know that there’s a typo in the last paragraph, smarty pants — and I sincerely hope that you caught some of the many standard format violations as well. (If you didn’t spot any, or if this is the first you’ve ever heard that there is an expected format for book submissions, please dash as swiftly as your little legs will carry you to the archive list at right, click on the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED heading, and absorb, absorb, absorb.)

But is this synopsis-cum-blurb a successful description of the book? Of course not. To understand why, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of all three of today’s synopses. Force yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example: try to read it purely for content. Then go back and take another gander at our first two examples of the day.

How do they compare? Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the first and second SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above?

Oh, have you forgotten what they are in the haze of panic at the prospect of having to write a 1-page synopsis yourself? Okay, let’s recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but this description dumbs them down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book. It also entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man). Most seriously, (4) this blurb actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners.

Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romantica be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And think about it: isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well. It doesn’t leave enough cats in the bag (Aunt Jane hasn’t left much to Millicent’s imagination, has she?), but you have to admit, it is an accurate representation of the plot, up to a certain point.

Unfortunately, a querier or submitter is not being graded on completeness. Aunt Jane should be concentrating on telling this story well, not in its entirety.

Especially since the brevity of the synopsis renders thoroughness impossible. By getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Hmm, I seem to have placed that last bit in boldface. One might almost take it for an aphorism on synopsizing.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the text (as I’ve done several times throughout) helps demonstrate the tone and voice of the book? PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is one of the great comedies of the English language — so shouldn’t this synopsis be FUNNY?

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the descriptive paragraph of the query letter — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and page 45 has just popped out of her printer. Can you pick up the pace, please?

See how much harder it is to come up with good synopsis ideas when you’re trying to do it in a hurry? Wouldn’t have been nice if Aunt Jane already had a synopsis on hand to send when the request came in?

I know, I know: it’s exceedingly tempting to procrastinate for as long as you possibly can about embarking upon a task as difficult and as potentially annoying as this, but working on the synopsis well before anyone in the industry might reasonably ask to see it guarantees that yours will have a significant advantage over the vast majority that cross Millicent’s desk: it won’t have been tossed together at the last possible nanosecond before sealing the submission packet. Or the query packet, if the agency of your aspirations accepts unsolicited synopses.

The results of last-minute synopsizing, as Millie herself would be the first to tell you, are not always pretty. Your manuscript deserves better treatment than that, doesn’t it?

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce; I don’t want to send any of you reaching for your heart medication again. After all, writing an eye-catching synopsis takes time.

So take a few nice, deep breaths. You don’t need to polish it off today.

Next time, I’m going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part II: wait — what am I being asked to do this time?

Athene's birth from the head of Zeus

Welcome back to the second installment of Synopsispalooza, Author! Author!’s celebration of the trauma chagrin distressing practical imperative challenging necessity of compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5-page summary in standard format. Or whatever length the agent of your dreams or contest of your desires has seen fit to request.

I cannot emphasize that last part strongly enough: although there actually are a couple of standard lengths for synopses in the publishing world, there is no such thing as a standard length for synopses at the query and submission stage. It is your responsibility to check each and every agency’s guidelines to see whether the agent you have chosen to approach prefers a 1-page synopsis, 3, 5, or 8.

Or perhaps 2. Had I mentioned that there was no length standard for querying and submission packets, over and above individual agencies’ expressed preferences?

Or that it is well worth the extra five or ten minutes to double-check whether the agency has a policy on the subject, or if the agent of your dreams once gave a published interview in which she deplored being sent 5-page synopses instead of the 2 1/2 pages for which her heart yearns? As I pointed out in Synopsispalooza I, it never pays to assume that every agency means the same thing by the term synopsis: any given agency may well have a specific reason for wanting something different than all the others.

It’s only polite to respect that preference. And only prudent to do a web search on each agent’s name before you stuff the synopsis you already have on hand into an envelope.

Fortunately, this information is usually quite easy to find: after all, it’s in the agency’s own interest to be clear on the subject. Check the agency’s listing in one of the standard agency guides or its website. (If it has one; a surprisingly hefty percentage still don’t.) And always, always, ALWAYS follow any guidelines set forth in the communication requesting materials.

Yes, I am indeed saying what you think I’m saying: you wouldn’t believe how often, in the heat of post-request excitement, submitters simply disregard the instructions about what they’re supposed to send. Yet another reason for not stopping your life in its tracks to send out requested materials within hours of receiving that yes, eh?

Perhaps less understandably, queriers frequently seem to forget to consult either a guide or the relevant website — or both, since sometimes an agency’s guide listing and the submission guidelines on its website contain different information. When in doubt, go with the website’s restrictions: they’ve probably been updated more recently. Guide listings sometimes remain unchanged for years on end.

A good trick to help avoid the first mistake: do your homework, instead of blithely assuming that every agency must have identical expectations.

They don’t — and they expect writers serious about getting published to be aware of that. If the agency has made the information publicly available, Millicent the agency screener will expect any querier or submitter to be familiar with it. As will her boss.

Seriously, Millicent is not going to consider ignorance a legitimate defense. If your query packet does not include the 4-page synopsis her agency expects, she may well regard that as indicative of a lack of authorial seriousness, or at the very least lack of attention to the details upon which the publishing industry run. Since disregarding stated guidelines is so very common and it’s Millicent’s job to narrow down the competitive field for the very few new client slots her agency has available in any given year, she may well have been instructed to regard a 1-page synopsis, a 5-page synopsis, or no synopsis at all as the agency’s standard rejection triggers.

Why might a demonstrated lack of familiarity with an agency’s querying or submission guidelines — which are, lest I should not yet have made this point sufficiently, likely to differ from other agencies’ — raise red flags for Millicent? Readers who made it through my recent Querypalooza series (or, indeed, this afternoon’s post), feel free to shout out the answer: because a writer who isn’t very good at following directions is inherently more likely to be a time-consuming client than one who shines at producing what s/he is asked to produce.

I hear some annoyed huffing out there, don’t I? “Aren’t you borrowing trouble here, Anne?” some of you ask, arms aggressively akimbo. “Not stuffing the right array of things into a query packet could simply be a matter of having found out about an agent from writers’ forum or one of the many listing websites, rather than having plunked down hard cash for a Herman Guide or tracked down the agency’s website. If agents were REALLY serious about wanting everyone who approaches them to adhere to the guidelines on their sites, wouldn’t they make sure that the same information appears in every conceivable listing, anywhere?”

Well, that might be the case, if agents had infinite time on their hands (they don’t) or if most of the information on fora and secondary sites you mentioned were first-hand (it seldom is). But as I MAY have pointed out once or twice in the past, querying and submission standards are not designed to make life easier for writers; an agency sets its up to meet its own internal needs.

The advantage of relying upon one of the more credible information sources — Jeff Herman’s guide, Guide to Literary Agents, the Publishers’ Marketplace member listings, individual agencies’ websites — is that the information there comes directly from the agencies themselves. Notwithstanding the fact that these sources may occasionally provide mutually contradictory guidelines, you can at least be certain that someone at the agency you are planning to approach has at least heard of them.

Not so with a writers’ forum, an agency listing site, or even — brace yourselves, inveterate conference-goers — what an individual agent might have said in response to a question at a conference. While writers can glean useful information this way, it’s almost invariably second- or third-hand: it may be accurate, but it’s not necessarily what the agent or agency you’re planning to approach would like potential clients to know about them.

So while searching fora and generalist sites can be a good way to come up with a list of agents to query, that shouldn’t be a savvy writer’s only stop. Check out what the agency has to say for itself — because I can tell you now, their Millicent will assume that you are intimately familiar with its stated guidelines, and judge your queries and submissions accordingly.

Besides — and I’m kind of surprised that this little tidbit isn’t more widely known — it tends to drive people who have devoted their lives to the production of books NUTS to encounter the increasingly common attitude that to conduct a 20-second web search IS to have done research. Until fairly recently, conducting research meant actually going to a library or bookstore and looking into a book, a practice that people who sold them for a living really, really condoned.

They miss the days when that was common. They pine for those days.

Trust me on this one: aspiring writers who whine, “But how I was I supposed to know that you wanted a 1-page synopsis rather than the 5-page one the last agency wanted?” when that information is clearly included in a well-respected guide that anyone in North America could have walked into a bookstore and bought do not win friends easily at the average agency.

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s side of the desk, the other problem I mentioned, when queriers get so caught up in the excitement of querying or submission that they just forget to do every step recommended in the guidelines, looks virtually identical to poor research. The over-excited are often penalized as a result.

So how might one avoid that dreadful fate? Here are a few guidelines of my own.

For a query packet:

1. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
You saw that one coming, didn’t you? Never, ever assume that any given agency will want to see exactly what all the others do.

Yes, even if you heard an agent at a writers’ conference swear up and down that everyone currently practicing her profession does. It’s just not true — unless she was talking about professionalism, attention to detail, courtesy, and submissions in standard manuscript format. (And if you don’t know what that last one is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right before you even consider approaching an agent. Trust me on this one; you’ll be much happier for it at submission time.)

2. Take out a sheet of paper and make a checklist of EVERYTHING those guidelines request.
Don’t trust your memory, especially if you are querying several agents at once. Details can blur under stress.

3. Follow that checklist whilst constructing your query packet.
Again, you probably saw that one coming.

4. Before you seal the query packet (or hit the SEND button), go over your checklist again to make absolutely certain you’ve done everything on it.
Double-checking is the key. If you’re too nervous to feel confident doing this — and many aspiring writers are total nervous wrecks on the eve of querying, so don’t be shy about asking for help — ask your significant other, close friend, obsessive-compulsive sister, or some other detail-oriented person who cares about you to run the final check for you.

Sounds like overkill, but believe me, every agented and published writer in the world can tell you either a first- or second-hand horror story about the time s/he realized after s/he sealed the envelope/popped it in the mailbox/it was halfway to Manhattan that s/he had omitted some necessary part of the packet. Extra care will both help you sleep better at night and increase your query packet’s chances of charming Millicent.

5. Repeat Steps 1-4 for every agency you query.
Yes, really. It’s a waste of your valuable time to send off a query packet that contains a rejection trigger.

For a submission packet (and I warn you, some of these are going to sound awfully familiar)

1. Read over the request for materials and make a checklist of what you’re being asked to send.
Yes, I mean a physical list, written on actual paper. Don’t tell me that you can do it in your head: many a mis-packed packet has started life with that assertion.

Don’t tell me that you’re in too much of a hurry to do this before you get your manuscript out the door. Must I disturb your slumbers by telling you horror stories about writers who didn’t?

If the request came after a successful pitch, you may have to rely upon your recollections of what’s said, but if the agent asked you in writing for pages, don’t make the EXTREMELY COMMON mistake of just assuming that your first excited reading caught all of the facts. Go over your recollection several times and make a list of what to do.

2. Track down the agency’s SPECIFIC guidelines.
Yes, you should do this even if the requesting agent was very detailed about what s/he wanted. Chances are, the agent of your dreams shares a Millicent with other member agents; if the agency expects submissions to look a certain way, so will the communal Millicent.

3. Have a non-writer go over the request for materials, the agency in question’s guidelines, AND its website, making a separate list of all the agency’s requirements and requests.
No, it’s not sufficient to have someone else double-check your list at the submission stage — this packet is just too important. Have a buddy generate a separate list, to maximize the probability that nothing will be left off.

Why a non-writer, you ask? S/he’s less likely to get swept up in the excitement of the moment. Indeed, if you pick someone obtuse enough, s/he is quite likely to ask with a completely straight face while doing it, “So, when is the book coming out?”

As any agented writer can tell you, the proportion of the general population that doesn’t understand the difference between landing an agent and selling a book to a publishing house is positively depressing. Expect a few of your kith and kin to express actual disappointment when the agent of your dreams offers to represent you: seriously, that fantasy about how really great books magically get picked up by the perfect agent the instant the author types THE END, get sold to a publisher the following day, come out the week after, and land the author on Oprah is astonishingly pervasive.

Hey, I don’t make this stuff up. I just tell you about it, so you won’t get blindsided.

4. Compare and consolidate the two lists.
If there are logical discrepancies, go back and find out which is correct. (Hint: you are more likely to be able to reuse your fact-checker if you don’t do #4 in front of her.)

5. Make absolutely certain that your submission is in standard manuscript format.
I couldn’t resist throwing this in, because so many submissions fall victim to unprofessional formatting. If you have never seen a professional manuscript in person (and no, it does not resemble a published book in several significant respects), please go through the checklist under the THE MANUSCRIPT FORMATTING RULES category at the top of the list at right.

Hey, I put it at the top of the archive list for a reason. Proper formatting honestly is that important to the success of a submission.

I usually add a bunch of disclaimers about how there are many such lists floating around the web, all claiming to be definitive, but it’s tiring to pretend that there isn’t a lot of misinformation out there. I’ve won a major literary contest and sold two books using the guidelines I show on this site; my clients have sold many books and win literary awards relying upon these guidelines. I know agents who refer new clients to my website for these guidelines.

I am, in short, quite confident that my list will work for you. Use it with my blessings.

So as far as I know, there is literally no debate amongst professional book writers about what is required in a manuscript — although to be fair, the standards for short stories and articles are different. For any readers who still throw up their hands and complain that there isn’t a comprehensive set of guidelines out there, all I can suggest is maybe you’re spending a bit too much time surfing and not enough time talking to the pros.

That wasn’t as peevish as it sounded: seriously, if you’re tied up in knots because there isn’t any army out there forcing every single advice-giver to conform to a single set of suggestions, sign up for a writers’ conference or go to a book signing. Pretty much anyone in the industry will be perfectly happy to refer you to a credible source for formatting rules. Perhaps they’ll even send you back here.

But fair warning: almost without exception, they will be miffed at an aspiring writer who complains that an Internet search did not turn up definitive information. As I mentioned above, to book people, that’s simply not doing research.

6. Before you seal the submission packet, dig out the final version of that to-do list and triple-check that you did everything on it.
Again, if you’re not a very detail-oriented person — at least not when you’re extremely nervous — have someone else do the final flight-check. Often, significant others are THRILLED to be helping.

I spy a positive forest of raised hands out there. “But Anne,” all of you hand-raisers shout in chorus, “I’m a trifle confused. Why are you bringing query and submission packet assembly up so pointedly at the beginning of this series on synopsis-writing?”

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that it’s extremely common for aspiring writers to construct a synopsis and tuck it into every query and submission packet they send out, regardless of what any given agency wants to see? Or that quite a few queriers simply tuck a synopsis into every query envelope?

Whenever you are scanning guidelines, be it for a query packet, submission, or contest entry, pay extra-close attention to length restrictions for synopses. Millicents are known for rejecting a too-long or too-short synopsis on sight. Why? Well, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission. (See my earlier comment about the desirability of not wasting your own valuable time by assembling self-rejecting submission packets.)

If, as is the case with many agency guidelines, a particular agency does not set a length limit, be grateful: they’re leaving it up to you, not expecting you to read their minds and guess what they consider the industry standard. Use the length that you feel best represents your book, but I would STRONGLY advise not to go over 5 pages, double-spaced.

Yes, yes, I know: some agencies do ask for 8-page synopses. Obviously, if that’s what they ask to see, give it to them. Just don’t assume that any agency that doesn’t ask for a synopsis that long will be happy to see 8 pages fall out of your query packet.

That forest of raised hands just waved in the breeze. Yes? “But Anne, this is all very useful, but I want to know what should go in my synopsis. What works, and what doesn’t?”

Glad you asked, hand-wavers. The answer is not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but come closer, and I’ll let you in on the secret:

For fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, including enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read. Oh, and make sure the writing is impeccable — and, ideally, reflective of the voice of the book.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

For either, make sure to allot sufficient time to craft a competent, professional synopsis — as well as sufficient buffing time to render it gorgeous. Let’s face it, unlike some of the more — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing and promoting a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

Too few aspiring writers do, apparently preferring instead to toss together something at the last minute before sending out a submission or contest entry. (Especially a contest entry. I’ve been a judge many times; I know.)

I have my own theories about why otherwise sane and reasonable people might tumble into this particular strategic error. Not being aware that a synopsis would be required seems to be a common reason, as does resentment at having to produce it at all. Or just not being familiar with the rigors of writing one. Regardless, it’s just basic common sense to recognize that synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

Yes, no matter how beautifully-written your book may happen to be. Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far, far too savvy to make that mistake, right? Right? Have half of you fainted?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

Yes, it happens. As I mentioned in passing yesterday, it’s actually not all that uncommon for agented and published writers to be asked to provide synopses for books they have not yet written. In some ways, this is easier: when all a writer has in mind is the general outlines of the plot, the details are less distracting.

Actually, if you can bear it — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence –it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

Crunching any dry cracker should help the nausea subside.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well, if you are planning on entering any literary contests anytime soon. It’s getting more common for agents to request a 1-page synopsis, so you might want to hammer out one of those as well.

I can tell from here that you’ve just tensed up. Take a deep breath. No, I mean a really deep one. This is not as overwhelming a set of tasks as it sounds.

In fact, if you have every done a conference pitch, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Don’t believe me, oh ye of little faith? Okay, here’s a standard pitch for a novel some of you may have read:

19th-century 19-year-old Elizabeth Bennet has a whole host of problems: a socially inattentive father, an endlessly chattering mother, a sister who spouts aphorisms as she pounds deafeningly on the piano, two other sisters who swoon whenever an Army officer walks into the room, and her own quick tongue, any one of which might deprive Elizabeth or her lovely older sister Jane of the rich husband necessary to save them from being thrown out of their house when their father dies. When wealthy humanity-lover Mr. Bingley and disdainful Mr. Darcy rent a nearby manor house, Elizabeth’s mother goes crazy with matchmaking fever, jeopardizing Jane’s romance with Bingley and insisting that Elizabeth marry the first man who proposes to her, her unctuous cousin Mr. Collins, a clergyman who has known her for less than a week. After the family’s reputation is ruined by her youngest sister’s seduction by a dashing army officer, can Elizabeth make her way in the adult world, holding true to her principles and marrying the man she passionately loves, or will her family’s prejudices doom her and Jane to an impecunious and regretful spinsterhood?

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, right? This would be a trifle long as an elevator speech — which, by definition, needs to be coughed out in a hurry — but it would work fine in, say, a ten-minute meeting with an agent or editor.

It also, when formatted correctly, works beautifully as a one-page synopsis with only a few minor additions. Don’t believe me? Lookee:

See how simple it is to transform a verbal pitch into a 1-page synopsis? Okay, so if I were Jane (Austen, that is, not Bennet), I MIGHT want to break up some of the sentences a little, particularly that last one that’s a paragraph long, but you have to admit, it works. In fact, I feel a general axiom coming on:

The trick to constructing a 1-page synopsis lies in realizing that it’s not intended to summarize the entire plot, merely to introduce the characters and the premise.

Yes, seriously. As with the descriptive paragraph in a query letter or the summary in a verbal pitch, no sane person seriously expects to see the entire plot of a book summarized in a single page. It’s a teaser, and should be treated as such.

Doesn’t that make more sense than driving yourself batty, trying to cram your entire storyline or argument into 22 lines? Or trying to shrink that 5-page synopsis you have already written down to 1?

Yes, yes, I know: even with reduced expectations, composing a 1-page synopsis is still a tall order. That’s why you’re going to want to set aside some serious time to write it — and don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard that before?)

Because, really, don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified Millicent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 – 5 pages? Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime on good writers’ behalves.

Just don’t expect Athene to come leaping out of your head on your first try: learning how to do this takes time. Keep up the good work!

PS: Please do not panic when you see that the post immediately below this one is not in fact about synopses: in an effort to make up for some missed posting days last week, I shall be inserting posts analyzing the winning entries of theAuthor! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better contest between the next few Synopsispalooza posts. If you are looking for the previous Synopsispalooza post, but are too lazy enslaved to repetitive strain injuries time-strapped to scroll, you’ll find it just one click away here.

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in YA: Suzi McGowen’s A Troll Wife’s Tale and Sherry Soule’s Dark Angel (a.k.a. Beautifully Broken)

Suzi McGowen author photoSherry Soule author photo

No, I haven’t taken a look at the daunting task that is Synopsispalooza and abandoned it in terror — I shall be posting again in that excellent endeavor this evening. This morning, however, I would like to press forward with the next of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, the takers of second-place honors in Category II: YA, Suzi McGowen and Sherry Soule.

That’s Suzi on the left, Sherry on the right. Today, they are going to take us into the very trendy worlds of YA urban fantasy and YA paranormal.

Take a good gander at those well-constructed author photos — one of the reasons I asked the A!A!GFPMEB winners to provide them was to start all of you thinking about your author photos well before Authorbiopalooza in October. (It’s a Paloozapalooza this autumn at Author! Author!) Why think begin to ponder it well in advance? Well, two reasons. First, for most writers, coming up with a photo they like takes a few tries. Or a few hundred. Second, when the request for an author photo (or author bio, for that matter), it tends to be rather last-minute.

As in, “Oh, I’m going to start sending out your manuscript to editors tomorrow, Author McWriterly. Can you e-mail me a bio with a photo tonight?”

Trust me, you’ll be a much, much happier camper if you already have that photo — and that bio — in hand. (That’s true of synopses, too, actually, so be sure to tune back in tonight for more guidance on that front.)

Back to the business at hand. One of the problems faced by aspiring writers trying to break into a book category that happens to be hot at the moment — and remember, all publishing trends are temporary; what’s hot today may not be next year — is that, inevitably, there will be greater competition for the admittedly greater number of publishing slots. It’s an industry truism, as predictable as the flowers in spring: 1-2 years after a breakout bestseller appears, agencies will be flooded with queries and submissions with eerily similar premises.

And if there’s a series like TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER that hits the big time? So many submissions for books like them will appear that entire subgenres may be formed.

In a way, this phenomenon is good for aspiring writers, especially for those who happened to be working on, say, YA paranormal romances when the first TWILIGHT book came out. The nice thing about the ever-changing book market is that it actually does tend to reward writers who keep weeding their own particular patch of it year in, year out: eventually, their chosen category may well become trendy.

That’s important to bear in mind, because there are always plenty of people, including agents and editors at conferences, eager to declare a particular book category dead — or impossible to sell, which in the publishing world amounts to the same thing. Just ask anyone who was trying to land an agent for historical fiction six months before COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise bestseller.

That’s why they’re called surprise bestsellers: even the pros don’t necessarily see ‘em coming. Then they spend the next two years actively soliciting similar manuscripts, the following two tolerating similar manuscripts, and the next four wondering why in heaven’s name aspiring writers keep sending them similar manuscripts. Don’t they know the market has moved on to the next trend?

Of course, the cycle is longer with a breakout series; one has only to read the daily acquisitions listings on Publishers’ Marketplace or Publishers’ Weekly to see that books similar to TWILIGHT are still being picked up in droves. So naturally, thousands upon thousands of writers continue to describe their YA paranormals in TWILIGHTish terms, their YA fantasies in Potterish language, etc.

That strategy makes quite a bit of sense at the front end of a trend, or even at its height. The longer a wave continues, however, the harder it is to make a case that a manuscript by a writer who has never published before in that book category — like, say, the million or so adult fiction writers who have stampeded into the YA market over the past few years — is adding something new and original to the current offerings. And all too often, queriers abet that difficulty by emphasizing how their work is akin to the iconic bestseller in the category, rather than how it is different.

Which brings me back to today’s winning entries. As those of you who entered the contest may recall, one of the required elements was an identification of the entry’s book category and a brief explanation of what this manuscript would bring to that category’s already-existing target market. As so often happens with the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, most entrants mistook this requirement for either a request for a boasting back-jacket-style puff piece (This book will revolutionize Westerns!) or, you guessed it, an invitation to compare one’s own work with bestsellers.

Both of these approaches tend to sell original writing radically short. No matter how many times agents march into writers’ conferences and declaim, “I’m looking for books like Bestseller X,” the publishing industry has never been very taken with carbon copies. What these agents actually mean is, “Since editors are eager to replicate the success of Bestseller X, I am looking for new writers whose manuscripts will appeal to the same target demographic, those folks who have already demonstrated that they are willing — nay, excited about — buying similar books. So I want to see a manuscript with a fresh voice that nevertheless shares certain selling points with Bestseller X.”

Given that motivation, such an agent is unlikely to tell her agency screener (our old pal Millicent, natch) just to request pages from every querier whose descriptive paragraph says this book is just like Bestseller X, right? If a book category happens to be trendy, 70% of what crosses Millicent’s desk will be able to make that claim; by definition, surprise bestsellers change the expected selling points for new manuscripts in their book categories.

So what’s a better strategy for catching her eye? Assuming that any agency that represents that book category is already aware of Bestseller X’s selling points. Instead of telling her that your book shares them, why not show her how it is different, yet will appeal to the same target audience?

I can feel some of you who write in currently hip categories fighting that last paragraph. “But Anne, you said throughout Querypalooza that a querier has only a few lines to grab Millicent’s attention. So how can labeling my book as one with similar bestseller potential possibly undersell it?”

Glad you asked, conclusion-resisters. A lot of aspiring writers believe that a generic comparison to an established author’s work — which most this is the next Bestseller X! claims boil down to being, right? — is inherently more effective at promoting a manuscript than a specific demonstration of the book’s original elements.

As it happens, today’s winning entries disprove that assumption quite nicely. Here is Suzi’s brief description for A TROLL WIFE’S TALE:

You’ve heard of urban fantasy? That dark and gritty world of modern day cities, where elves and witches roam? My novel is the Young Adult version. Call it a suburban fantasy, where a female troll sets out to right wrongs, save the world, oh, and become a tooth fairy.

And here is Sherry’s for Dark Angel. (Please note: between the time that Sherry entered the contest and when we informed the winners — admittedly, a long time; my apologies — she changed the book’s title to BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN. A good call, I think — BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN is a perfectly marvelous title — but obviously, the judges had to work with the original entry. I hope this does not cause any confusion in future web searches, after the book comes out.)

DARK ANGEL is a twist on the young adult, boy meets girl, supernatural love story. This time the boy is the “normal” one and the girl is the supernatural and attractive teenager.

Both of these descriptions make the books in question sound rather generic, don’t they? The first doesn’t bring up an original element until the last few words. Not the best structure, strategically, as Millicent is likely to find the first three sentences a trifle perplexing: there is already a well-established YA urban fantasy category, so why not just state the book category up front and move swiftly on to what’s fresh, original, and exciting about this book?

Especially since there is so very much that is fresh, original, and exciting about this book. Take a gander at Suzi’s one-page description:

Troll Wife could use a job, so when she finds the poster on the telephone pole that says, “Any fae may apply,” she does. She’s as surprised as anyone when she’s accepted for training as a tooth fairy.

She’s also surprised by the impressive number of injuries she racks upon the job. A broken bone and a concussion? Eh, maybe she should have expected that. After all, learning to fly isn’t as easy as it sounds. But the gunshot wound? That was because she was fighting a monster that she ran into while collecting teeth.

The monster, called Oubliette, was a soldier in the war between the humans and the fae, hundreds of years ago. Now Oubliette wants to start the war all over again. This time, it wants to kill all the humans, not just most of them. The other tooth fairies should be her allies in this war against Oubliette, but Troll Wife doubts that any fae that smells like cotton candy can help save the world.

Troll Wife only has days to learn how to fight the Oubliette, protect the human children from it, and make sure that she collects her quota of teeth. While she’s at it, she needs to find out what dark secret the tooth fairies are hiding, and rescue herself from their tangled web.

Sounds like a genuine hoot, eh? But did you gain a sense of that delightful whimsy in the brief description?

DARK ANGEL’s brief description falls into an even more common querying trap: it presents the story as merely a gender-flipped twist on a bestseller. It also assumes — wrongly, based upon the longer description and the first page — that the similarity to that bestseller’s premise is the most interesting thing about this manuscript.

That made the judges rather sad, since on the page, it’s the least interesting thing about this story. Furthermore, the stories do not seem very similar. Take a peek at her longer description:

A sixteen-year-old impetuous outcast has seen ‘shadows’ for as long as she can remember and they always turn up when something bad is about to happen.

When those dark companions follow, Serenity Broussard to church with her family it begins no differently than any other day, except that she gets her first glimpse of the hot new guy in town. It’s a small town so it doesn’t take long for the gossip to spread about Trent Donavon, especially when he moves into his family’s rumored-to-be haunted mansion.

Trent and Serenity began to date and the seemingly perfect state of their relationship is thrown into chaos after she takes a job as an intern, helping restore his family’s estate. It doesn’t take Serenity long to realize that something is terribly wrong. The mansion is full of ghosts and secrets.

The house awakens latent psychic powers in Serenity, who finds herself being stalked by a ghost who tries to communicate with her in terrifying ways. The shadows lurking around Serenity—ever present and insubstantial are something else. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the different types of shadows entering our world—darkness—malevolence.

Shadows had another thing in common—an attraction to Serenity.

When Serenity finds Trent’s mother’s diary, it sends her on a quest to uncover the mystery surrounding the woman’s untimely death. Except things aren’t as black and white as Serenity thinks. Because not all ghosts want help crossing over, some want vengeance.

Admittedly, a few of the narrative choices here are genuinely distracting from the storyline being presented (are the dark companions in paragraph 2 the same as the shadows in paragraph 1, for instance, and if so, are they individual characters? Why is shadows in quotation marks — and why, for an American audience, in single quotation marks? Why risk Millicent’s wrath with two technically incorrect single-sentence paragraphs, when it would be so easy to form the concepts there into narrative paragraphs with at least two sentences? Why aren’t there spaces at the ends of the dashes, since any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format?), but those would all be quite easily fixed. What I want you to notice here is that the brief description and the longer description could be for entirely different books.

That wouldn’t be too surprising to Millicent — aspiring writers undersell their manuscripts’ originality this way all the time. Sad, but true. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, can we really blame Millicent for not being able to look at the first description of either of these books and extrapolate the second description?

That outcome would be a particular shame in the case of TROLL WIFE, because its premise is so darned charming and full of potential. (All of the judges preferred the title shortened, by the way, Suzi, although several of the judges — yours truly included — wondered if young girl readers would be a bit disturbed that the protagonist’s name and her social role are apparently identical.) That charm is apparent on page 1:

Suzi McGowen p1

Now, this page could use some revision — I suspect, for instance, that a hard-copy read-through would have caught that the narrative tells the reader twice that the protagonist is a tooth fairy, once at the end of paragraph one and again at the beginning of paragraph 2 — but is that why Millicent might start reading this with a jaundiced eye? Chant it with me now, campers: because professional readers stare at manuscripts all day, any deviation from standard format will leap off the page at them, distracting them from the writing.

There’s a reason I keep showing you so many before-and-after page 1s, after all. Take a peek at the same page after 2 minutes of cosmetic revision, and see if it doesn’t come across as more professional. For extra credit, compare it to the original revision and tell me what I changed.

Suzi revised

How did you do? I made five changes here: (1) moved the slug line to left margin (not mandatory, but the norm), (2) changed the chapter title from all caps to title case (thus the name: title case), (3) changed the spacing from an odd specific set to double-spaced, (4) changed the font from Courier to Times New Roman (again, not mandatory, but the norm for novel manuscripts), and (5) changed 14 in line 2 to fourteen. Of these five, only #5 — not writing out numbers under 100 in full — might have prompted Millicent to stop reading.

Yes, it really is that serious an offense against standard format — unfortunate, since so many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that the AP style restriction of writing out only numbers under ten applies to manuscripts. It does not: AP is for newspapers and magazines, and not all literary magazines adhere to it.

Having worked with Suzi and Sherry’s entries in soft copy (the better to show you before-and-after formatting, my dears), I suspect that both were relying on some sort of macro for the PC for their formatting — it was impossible, for instance, to alter the paragraph heading without deleting the title and the space above the text entirely and starting again from scratch. I realize that macros that purport to format a manuscript for a writer may be comforting, but actually, the restrictions of standard format are so simple that anyone reasonably familiar with Word should be able to set them up in five minutes flat. (If you don’t know what the requirements of standard manuscript format are, or indeed that there is a specific professional format for manuscripts, it would behoove you to take a peek at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

I hear some impatient huffing out there, do I not? “But Anne,” macro-huggers across the globe wail, “that sounds like a lot of extra work! I want my computer to do it all for me.”

Well, it is a touch of extra work — although not nearly as onerous as writers tend to speak of it as being — but let me put it this way: if a macro is wrong, its feelings are not going to get hurt when the submission gets rejected. The writer’s will. So who really should be in charge of making sure that the formatting is in apple-pie order?

True, one or two minor formatting gaffes are probably not going to be enough to trigger an automatic rejection. But then, it’s exceedingly rare that a first page gets rejected for only one reason. Presentation problems, like wolves, tend to run in packs.

So is it really all that astonishing that an experienced Millicent might open a submission packet, glance at a misformatted page 1, and assume that more presentation, proofreading, or even writing problems await her? Or that her patience for subsequent problems might be lower than for a perfectly-formatted page 1? Or, more to the point at submission time, that the first typo, grammatical error, or missing word in the text might combine in her mind with formatting problems to equal rejection?

See why I harp on formatting so much? To sharpen your eye for presentation, let’s see how the macro treated Sherry’s page 1:

The problems affect the sharp-eyed reader almost subliminally, don’t they? However, there’s one formatting error here that would draw Millicent’s eye as quickly as if the lines containing it were printed in red ink.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Here is the same page, properly formatted.

Did you catch it that time? If you are already jumping up and down, shouting, “I saw it the first time, Anne! The text uses an emdash instead of the standard format-requisite spacedashdashspace!” give yourself a gold star for the day. (Hey, I told you there was going to be extra credit for the eagle-eyed.) Because manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, the emdash — the Autoformat fix for dashes in Word that transforms them into straight lines connecting the surrounding words with no intervening spaces — is not correct in a manuscript. As you may see in the revised version above, the first word should be followed by a space, then two dashes, another space, then the second word. No exceptions.

Yes, I know that Autoformat will change what I just suggested into an emdash. Change it back, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

Okay, what else did I change? Interestingly, not what Suzi’s use of apparently the same macro might have lead us to expect: (1) moved slug line from the right to the left, (2) removed extra spaces in slug line (why have so many aspiring writers started adding spaces before and after the /s within the last year? It’s not correct, and it was not nearly so common before. It’s not as though standard format has changed in this respect.) (3) Moved the chapter title to the top line of the page, and, while I was at it, (4) changed the single space after the period to two, since that’s still the standard for manuscripts.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if the agent requesting your pages prefers the published book-style single-space convention, her agency’s submission guidelines should tell you so. If that’s what she wants, for heaven’s sake, give it to her, because for the agents who feel strongly enough about this to make public statements about it, it often is a rejection-worthy offense. Not only because they dislike the normal spacing, but because violating an individual agency’s stated submission standards just screams, “This writer not only cannot follow directions — he may not even have taken the time to check whether this agency had its own preferences!”

Why might that in itself render Millicent more likely to reject a submission? Because this is a detail-oriented business, writers who neglect the small stuff tend to be substantially more time-consuming for agencies to take on as clients.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the Author! Author! community — specifically, those of you who have not yet worked your way through one of my famous standard format series yet, I’m guessing — protest vehemently, “this is ridiculous. Surely, it’s the writing and the book concept that determine whether a manuscript gets accepted or rejected, not the petty little details. The agent or editor can always fix the small stuff before publication, after all. Even if a bunch of tiny, insignificant gaffes appear on page 1, I can’t believe that Millicent would just stop reading my submission.”

Oh, dear. I wasn’t going to do this, but if it saves even one good writer from undeserved rejection on formatting grounds, it’s worth it. Since Sherry revised her manuscript after the contest winners were announced, she was kind enough to send along the new version — indeed, the entire first chapter — for the judges to peruse. Obviously, it would not have been fair to the other entrants to judge the revised version, or even to provide extensive commentary upon it, but because it contained a couple of formatting problems that the original entry did not, I cannot in good conscience not flag them. One of them is, in fact, a presentation problem that might actually lead to Millicent’s not reading the submission featuring it at all.

So yes, you caught me: I have in fact structured this discussion to lead us to this point, necessitating showing you the revised version. Please, everybody, take these next examples in the spirit they are intended. (Seriously, I don’t want to see any snarky snickering about this in the comments; a tremendous number of aspiring writers make these particular mistakes, and we should all be grateful to Sherry for bringing them to our attention.)

So calmly, respectfully, wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and pretend you have just opened a submission packet to find this first page:

Beautifully Broken title

And this second one:

Beautifully Broken page 1

When you were expecting to find this:

Sherry's title

And this:

Sherry #2

Still don’t believe that formatting makes a difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript? From the aspiring writer’s perspective, it might not seem to make much of a difference whether the title page is professionally formatted, or if it is in a wacky typeface, or if the first page of text is numbered 2 instead of one. But to her — and to agents, editors, and well-informed contest judges — there’s more than just words on a page at stake.

This is about respecting tradition. The publishing world values its traditions, and even if it did not on general principle, as those of you who have followed my past series on standard format are aware, manuscripts look a particular way for a variety of practical reasons. Every industry has the right to establish and maintain its own standards; most of the assertions that this or that has changed in manuscript format come from the outside.

Also, favoring professionally-formatted submissions a matter of practicality: an aspiring writer who takes the time to learn how to present his writing professionally is usually also one who has found out how publishing does and does not work. Thus, he is more likely than the average aspiring writer (who does not do his homework, as a general rule) to have realistic expectations about what an agent can and cannot do for him, the kind of turn-around times to expect on submissions to publishing houses, the necessity for not pouting when the editor asks for revisions, the imperative to promote one’s own book after it comes out, rather than passively waiting for the publishing house (or one’s friends who happen to be bloggers) to do it for him, and so forth. He’s just an easier client to promote.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, first, that I should plan to add a Formatpalooza to this autumn’s festivities; it actually was quite surprising to me how few of this contest’s entries arrived properly formatted. I don’t want any of my readers to get rejected on technical grounds, if a few weeks of my effort every year can help prevent it.

Second, have you noticed that since I’ve had to spend so much time going over the presentation and formatting problems, I haven’t had the luxury of talking about the writing much? That’s a pretty accurate representation of how distracting these issues are for professional readers: if the presentation and formatting are off, it’s awfully hard for good writing even to get noticed.

And that’s a real shame here, because there were some writing choices that we could have discussed productively. The prevalence of the incorrect single-sentence paragraph that we’ve already discussed in this series, for instance — in English prose, a narrative paragraph properly consists of at least two sentences; established authors like Joan Didion began breaking the rule not because they were unaware of it, but because to the hyper-literate, it is genuinely shocking to see a non-dialogue single-sentence paragraph. Thus the emphasis that this narrative choice places on the offset sentence: it shouldn’t be that way without a very good reason.

Unfortunately, in common usage, as well as in both of these pages, single-line paragraphs are used not for emphasis, but for rhythm. To a professional reader, this is not a very sophisticated way to establish beats. Save the single-sentence paragraphs for only that occasion when what is being said in them is going to come as a genuine surprise to the reader.

I would also have liked to talk about the and then convention, a notorious Millicent’s pet peeve. In a written narrative that does not involve time travel, events are assumed to be presented in the order that they happened chronologically. Thus, professional writing typically avoids the and then so dear to aspiring writers’ hearts, because it is logically redundant. The pros reserve it for only those occasions when the then part seems to come out of nowhere.

Hey, where have I heard that logic before?

Then, too, there’s the trailing off with an ellipsis… trope. Quite a few Millicents, especially the classically-trained ones, will have a knee-jerk negative to a narrative sentence or paragraph that ends in that manner. It’s fine in dialogue, where those three dots are expressing an audible phenomenon (the speaker’s voice trailing off or the effect of being interrupted in mid-thought), but the practice of borrowing that dialogue convention to make a narrative voice seem more conversational is, again, considered a not very sophisticated writing trick.

Because, really: aren’t there thousands of ways a narrative paragraph could generate suspense without resorting to punctuation?

Oh, how I wish I had time and space to talk about all this. In lieu of that, I’ll have to content myself with just posting the marked-up versions. (And mailing them to their authors, of course, but I do that routinely, so those brave enough to submit their work for critique here do not have to squint.) Here’s Suzi’s:

Suzi edit 2

And here’s Sherry’s:

Sherry edit 2

Moral: there’s no such thing as a detail too small to escape a professional reader’s notice — and no such thing as a first page that could not use one last going-over before being submitted. Join me at 7 pm PST for the resumption of Synopsispalooza, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Welcome to Synopsispalooza!

Rosie the RiveterRosie the Riveter reversed
Rosie the Riveter3Rosie the Riveter 4

Has everyone recovered from Querypalooza, our early September foray into the joys of all things query-related? Well, I haven’t, either, but that’s not going to stop us from pressing forward into the rest of the material in the query packet, is it?

So welcome to Synopsispalooza, brought to you by popular demand. Although I shall not attempt to replicate the breakneck pace of Querypalooza (three posts per day? Even I can can’t believe that, in retrospect), I can confidently predict that this point-by-point analysis of how to conceive, write, and present a professional-looking synopsis without driving yourself nuts in the process will be as intense as our last series.

You didn’t think I was going to let you send off those query letters you’ve just perfected with just a so-so synopsis, did you? If we’re going to do this unpleasant thing, we might as well take the time to do it right.

That’s actually not a bad motto for any aspiring writer preparing to plunge into the often hair-tearing stress of trying to summarize a 400-page book in 5 pages. Or 3. Or even — sacre bleu! — 1. Practically nobody enjoys writing the blasted things, but given how important they can be to a query or submission packet’s success (yes, really) and the fact that you’re going to be spending hours on end trying to construct one (yes, unfortunately), you might as well invest another few hours in learning the ropes. Think of it as practice for your future life as a career writer.

Does that houseplant flying past my head mean that somebody out there is unhappy with the implication of that last sentence? Yes, Virginia, I’m afraid so: professional writers have to churn out synopses all the time.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that with practice, that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? does in fact subside. After your third or fourth book, you will probably be able to toss off a synopsis with hardly any brow-mopping at all.

Heck, if you’ve been working with an agent who likes to see synopses for books that his clients are even considering writing — yes, dear Miss V, they do exist — you may well start thinking in synopsis form. I’ve been known to write a synopsis for a 350-page tome just after polishing off the first draft of page 10 of the manuscript.

Pick your jaws off the floor, novelists. All nonfiction authors have to learn to pitch work they haven’t yet written. How would it be possible to construct a book proposal otherwise?

And do stop flinging that greenery, implication-gleaners. “But Anne,” many of you shriek, potted palms already in hand, “I had always thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, then swiftly forgotten because I’d never have to use it again. Why would I ever need to write one other than to tuck into a query or submission packet?”

You’re sitting down, I hope? It may come as a surprise to some of you, but synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. Just a few examples how:

* An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one at either the querying or submission stages of finding an agent.

* A nonfiction writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell, regardless of whether s/he is already represented by an agent.

* Agented writers are often asked to produce a synopsis of a new book projects before they invest much time in writing them, so their agents can assess the concepts’ marketability and start to think about editors who might be interested.

Basically, the more successful you are as a writer of books, the more often you are likely be asked to produce one of the darned things. Thus, synopsis-writing is a fabulous skill to add to your writer’s tool kit as early in your career as possible.

Amazingly frequently, though, writers both aspiring and agented avoid even thinking about the methodology of constructing one of the darned things until the last possible nanosecond before they need one, as if writing an effective synopsis were purely a matter of luck or inspiration. It isn’t. It’s a learned skill.

But don’t panic: we’re going to be spending Synopsispalooza learning it.

What makes me so sure that pretty much every writer out there could use a crash course in the craft of synopsis-writing, or at the very least a refresher? Well, let me ask you something: if you had only an hour to produce a synopsis for your current book project, could you do it?

Okay, what if I asked you for a 1-page synopsis and gave you only 15 minutes?

I’m not asking to be cruel, I assure you: as a working writer, I’ve actually had to produce synopses under deadlines that short. Agented writers run fresh book concepts past their agents all the time, so it’s far from uncommon to hear something like, “Great, I’m having lunch with an editor who might be interested in that tomorrow. Can you get me a synopsis by morning?” Heck, I’ve been asked to pitch a future book whose premise I’d barely discussed with my agent to an editor at a party, so I had to essentially write a synopsis in my head on the spot.

And even when I had longer to crank something out, why would I want to squander my scarce writing time producing a document that will never be seen by my readers, since it’s only for internal agency or publishing house use? I’d rather just do a quick, competent job and get on with the rest of my work.

I’m guessing that chorus of small whimpering sounds means that some of you share the same aspiration.

The second reason I suspect even those of you who have written synopses before could stand a refresher is that you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about how awful it is to have to summarize a 500-page book in just a couple of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to squander their energies on frustration at the size of the task — or resenting the length, as if a 3-page synopsis were much, much harder than a 10-page one. (It isn’t, once you know the ropes.)

Frequently, I meet aspiring writers who seem downright insulted by the imperative to produce synopses for their books at all. “But Anne,” they protest, and who could blame them? “There’s just so much going on in my book. If I could have told the story in just a few pages, I would have written a short story, not a novel!”

A good point, and not an uncommon one: aspiring writers’ complaints usually center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at Mount Olympus and cries, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business? And how much more could even the sharpest-eyed Millicent learn from a 1-page synopsis that she could glean from a descriptive paragraph in a query letter?

I can answer that last one: about three times as much, usually. And the answer to those first two questions is the same: time.

Let’s pause a moment to consider why an industry devoted to promoting book-length works would even want to judge a new writer’s writing and plotting ability by a 5-page synopsis. In order to render this foray more productive, I’m going to suggest you take a gander at a genuinely informative essay in last September’s Barnes & Noble Review by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker on the state of modern publishing. It’s a bit of a depressing read, admittedly, but I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to a career writer’s long-term happiness to gain a realistic conception of how the publishing industry works.

In the midst of some jaw-dropping statements like, “Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors,” Menaker gives a particularly strong explanation for why, contrary to prevailing writerly rumor, editors expect the books they acquire not to require much editing, raising the submission bar to the point that some agency websites now suggest in their guidelines that queriers pay a freelance editor like yours truly to clean up their manuscripts before even beginning to look for an agent. Quoth Mssr. Menaker:

The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Which made your intestines contract into the tighter ball, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

Since rejection feels so personal, it can be hard for an isolated writer to differentiate between rebuffs based upon a weakness in the manuscript itself, a book concept that’s just not likely to sell well in the current market, and a knee-jerk reaction to something as basic as a manuscript length that would be expensive to print and bind. It’s far, far too easy to become bitter or to assume, wrongly, that one’s writing can be the only possible reason for rejection.

Don’t do that to yourself, I implore you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your writing.

I sense some ferns about to be lobbed in my general direction. “What’s the point of depressing us with all this, Anne? We’re all told constantly that publishing is getting harder and harder to break into, but I thought these ‘Palooza posts were devoted to practicalities. So why aren’t you getting on with, say, giving me a template for a winning synopsis?”

Well, in the first place, if you’ve come here for a quick one-size-fits-all formula, Virginia, Author! Author! is probably not the right writers’ community for you. Here, we try not to rip anything out of context: as I like to remind my readers early and often, savvy writers take the time to learn why the publishing industry wants them to jump through a particular hoop. That makes it easier to jump through it with style.

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

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

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

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. Fortunately for writers everywhere, it isn’t.

Not by a long shot. Aren’t you glad you were already sitting down?

As I’m going to illustrate over the next week or two — oh, you were expecting this to be a shorter ‘Palooza? — an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

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

Relax: you can do this. Before I launch into the nitty-gritty of how to distill the essence of a manuscript, already written or otherwise, let’s start with the absolute basics:

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

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

Typically, the professional synopses an already-agented writer would be asked to produce are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come). Querying or submission synopses may be the standard 5 pages or shorter, depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest — so do make sure to double-check any written guidelines an agency’s website, small press’ submission standards, or contest’s rules might provide.

And before you fling that succulent you’ve got concealed behind your back: yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

For the first few years I blogged, I merely talked about the long form, since it was the industry standard; much shorter, and you’re really talking about a book concept (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, please see the BOOK CONCEPT category at right) or a longish pitch, rather than a plot overview. However, over the last few years (not entirely uncoincidentally, as more and more agents began accepting e-queries), agencies began to request shorter synopses from queriers, often as little as a single page. There’s nothing like an industry standard for a shorter length, though. Sometimes, an agent will ask for 1 or 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Let me repeat that a third time, just in case anyone out there missed the vital point: not every agent wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. So if any of you had been hoping to write a single version to use in every conceivable context, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

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

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. Try punching a pillow until the feeling subsides. Once you’ve calmed down, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

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

“Well, duh, Anne,” our Virginia huffs, clearly irate at being used as every essayist’s straw woman for decades. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is this: if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? And if Millicent is so darned harried, why wouldn’t she just base her assessment on that descriptive paragraph in the query letter?”

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

Remember, though, Ms. V, it’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances — and, in submissions, at different times. Synopses are often read by people who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. The marketing department in a publishing house, for instance.

More to the point for aspiring writers, if an agent (or her Millicent) has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll often scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them. They may not be checking merely out of curiosity, either: one of the purposes of a novel synopsis is for the writer to demonstrate that he can indeed resolve the conflicts he set up in the premise.

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

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky-but-predictable follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — if I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

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

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

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc.

For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the aforementioned book proposal — which is why, in case you had been wondering, requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time.

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

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses — marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake: publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy.

In a query or submission packet synopsis, praise for a manuscript or book proposal, rather than an actual description of its plot or premise, is not going to help Millicent decide whether her boss is likely to be interested in the book in question. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what the pros want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but some indication of what the book is ABOUT: its protagonist and antagonist, central conflict, setting, and so forth.

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

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

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

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

To take your metaphor for another spin, Virginia, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea — and exponentially more in the querying ocean. As I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them.

An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

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

And, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, let him have it just that way.

The hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

Thus the variation in requested length: submission guidelines are an excellent environment for the expression of individual preferences.

Chant it with me now, campers: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth writing-evaluation machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one and all because that’s what she has on hand, for example, rather than the requested 5 to one, 3 to two others, and 1 to the fifth and sixth — but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

If I ran the universe, the fact that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission synopsis would be far more openly acknowledged. Each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with the aforementioned clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. (You know, the kind of one-size-fits-all expectations most aspiring writers believe exist but do not.) Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed in recent months, I do not run the universe (or gravity, more’s the pity), so aspiring writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar? It should: the same principle applies to query letters.

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

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

Well, so much for synopses. Next time, we’ll move on to author bios.

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. By mid-October, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit. Trust me, this hammer is going to serve you well for a long, long time.

But keep asking those probing questions, Virginia: this process is far from intuitive. And, as always, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in adult fiction, David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR

Dave McChesney author photoEllen Bradford author photo

My apologies for the must-have-been-agonizing delay between the prize posts for the first-place winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest and the second-place winners. Believe me, the lapse was not intended to be editorial: I’m excited about both of today’s winners, but I had a bit of a car-crash recovery setback earlier in the week. I didn’t want to risk sounding grumpy about two writers whose narrative voices I like quite a bit.

So a drum roll, please, for the joint winners of second prize in Category II: Adult Fiction: David A. McChesney’s SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS and Ellen Bradford’s PITH AND VINEGAR.

While all of that portentous rumbling is still hanging in the air, let me take a moment to air one of my pet peeves: gratuitous quotation marks. The other day, a staffer at my physical therapist’s office handed me a special-ordered piece of medical equipment in this bag:

misused quotes

What, one wonders, was the writer’s intent in placing quotation marks around my name? Was he in some doubt about whether it was my real name — as in, This belongs to the so-called Anne Mini? Did he mistakenly believe that he was shipping this not particularly personal piece of equipment not to my PT, but to a monogrammer, and he wanted to make sure the right spelling stitched into it? Or had someone immediately behind him just shouted my name, and he was quoting her?

Was this merely a case of forgotten attribution? Is this an obscure quote from a book I do not know — a minor work of Charles Dickens, perhaps? Or, still more disturbingly, is this kind soul trying to let me know, albeit in code, that somebody out there is talking about me?

None of the above, probably: my guess would be that the guy with the marking pen thought, along with a surprisingly high percentage of the marking-things population, that quotation marks mean the same thing as underlining. He is mistaken.

Don’t ever follow his example. To a professional reader, the common practice of placing things in quotation marks to indicate either emphasis in speech (“Marvin K. Mooney, will you ‘please go’ now?”), a stock phrase (everybody laughed, because “all the world loves a lover”), or just to call attention to individual words on a sign (Fresh “on the vine” tomatoes, 3 for $2) simply looks illiterate. Sorry to be the one to break the harsh news, but it’s true.

So how should one use quotation marks? How about reserving them for framing things that characters actually say?

I know; radical. The next thing you know, I’ll be calling for aspiring writers to use semicolons correctly.

I do not bring any of this up lightly — or, indeed, purely to rid the world of a few more sets of perplexingly-applied quotation marks. Both of today’s entries grabbed the judges with their strong, distinct authorial voices, but each left us murmuring amongst themselves, speculating about what the writer’s motivations might have been.

Although these two first pages don’t actually have a great deal else in common — other than both beginning the text 1/4 of the way down the page, rather than 1/3; the addition of a single additional double-spaced line would have made a positive cosmetic difference in both — the judges agreed that they shared a certain kinship: the unanswered question might well lead even an agency screener who admired the writing to hesitate about reading on.

Why? Well, Millicent isn’t all that fond of unanswered questions on page 1, and with good reason: in order to be able to recommend a novel manuscript to her boss, she is going to have to be able to tell him (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

If Millicent can’t answer any of these questions. she’s going to have a hard time convincing the agent even to read the submission. (Actually, she prefers to be able to answer all of them by the bottom of p. 1, but she’s prepared to change her mind between then and p. 50.) And no, “But the writing is so good!” is no substitute for being able to come up with answers: books are pitched to editors within well-established categories.

So when a fresh, new narrative voice that does not appear to fit comfortably within an existing book category, our Millie is left in something of a quandary. How, she wonders, is she going to make the case for this book?

That’s a good exercise to apply to any manuscript, incidentally: reading a first page or book description and trying to figure out the book’s category is excellent practice for narrowing down your own. In that spirit, take a gander at Dave McChesney’s first page and book description; tell me, what do you think the category is?

Dave McChesney's p 1

If you found yourself murmuring, “Hmm, this reads like Naval Adventure,” you agree with most of the judges. Even more so if you additionally told yourself, “I’d bet a doubloon that there’s adventure awaiting those characters within the next page or two.” Although some of the judges felt that it might have been more of a Millicent-grabber to toss the characters straight into that imminent action, none denied that page 1 set up the expectation for excitement.

Cast your eyes over the book’s description, though, and see if you think the proverbial shoe still fits the assumed book category:

McChesney synopsis

Still sounds like a rollicking Naval Adventure, doesn’t it? Or do I sense some puzzled head-scratching out there?

“Wait just a doggone minute, Anne,” head-scratchers across the English-speaking world protest. “He hopes to quickly set out for his world, England, and Evangeline, but finds obstacles continually placed in his path? In the known world? Does this take place in a different world, or this one? And if it’s the former, shouldn’t that be made clear to Millicent on page 1?”

Well caught, head-scratchers — and in answer to that last question, a resounding yes. Let’s take a gander at how Dave himself categorizes his book:

SAILING DANGEROUS WATERS, the second Stone Island Sea Story, combines Naval Adventure and Fantasy. An additional yet similar world gives these voyagers of the early nineteenth century more seas to sail and challenges to meet. Uniquely, they are aware of and able to control their journeys between the two worlds.

An interesting notion, right? But you can already hear Millicent slapping her forehead and muttering, “How on earth am I going to define this book for my boss?”

Universally, the judges felt that in fairness to Millicent, some fantasy elements should appear on page 1. Otherwise, they argued, it was simply too likely that when she came upon fantastic happenings later in the manuscript, she might conclude — wrongly in this case — that Dave did not know that he was genre-jumping, or that the authorial choice to present a fantasy premise in a completely dedicated naval fantasy voice was in fact a choice, not a misunderstanding of how book categories work.

That’s why Dave’s taking the quite large risk of telling Millicent in his brief book description (and presumably in his query) that this is a category-crosser is quite smart. True, there is not a great deal of demonstrable overlap between the readership of these two categories. (Which is why I am bound to mention marketing advice agreed-upon by a full half of the judges: since this is such a strong Naval Adventure voice, why not write a straight Naval Adventure first, land an agent that way, and then segue into fantasy with the NEXT book?) Also, if an agency is not open to the possibility of combining these two disparate categories in a single book — or, in this case, a series — its Millicent may well reject the query on that basis alone.

So why is it smart to give her the opportunity up front? Because for a truly genre-expanding novel to make it into print, it’s going to need an agent willing — nay, eager — to take on the challenge. Trust me, it’s far, far easier on a writer emotionally to find out a particular agent is not up for it at the querying stage, rather than several years into an unhappy writer-agent relationship.

Let’s assume for the moment that Dave’s query has already passed muster with the Millicent guarding an agency very much up for this challenge. How might Millie respond to this first page?

Dave's edit

As you may see (and we have continually seen throughout this series), how a professional reader responds to a page of text can be extraordinarily different from how an ordinary reader might. I would be surprised, for instance, if many of you had caught the verb repetition in lines 1 and 2, or the lack of a necessary paragraph break on line 8. (It’s a bit confusing to have one person speak and another — or in this case, several others — act within the same paragraph.) Or, really, to be actively annoyed by the almost universal Baby Boomer tendency to compress the phrase all right into alright.

I blame album cover lyrics for the ubiquity of that last one. (If you don’t know what album covers are, children, ask your grandparents.)

Nor would the average reader be likely to gnash her teeth over the preponderance of tag lines, those pesky he said, he mentioned, he groaned speaker-identifiers, but Millicent’s choppers are unlikely to remain ungnashed. Why? Well, one of the standard measures of the reading level of the target audience is the frequency with which tag lines appear: in books for early readers, for instance, who may well be reading aloud or having the book read to them, tag lines are virtually universal.

“See Spot run, Dick,” Jane said.

“I see Spot run,” Dick replied. “Run, Spot, run.”

In most adult fiction, on the other hand, tag lines are deliberately minimized. Although the frequency with which they are expected to appear does vary from book category to book category (chant it with me, campers: there is no substitute for reading widely in your chosen book category, to learn its norms), most of the time, it’s simply assumed that the reader will be able to figure out that the words within quotation marks are in fact being spoken aloud by a character without the narrative’s having to stop short to tell us so.

After all, quotation marks around words can only mean that either those words were spoken out loud or the narrative is trying to cast doubt upon the authenticity of something (as in “I see you’re wearing your ‘designer’ dress’ again, Alice.”), right?

Typically, tag line minimization is achieved by incorporating other action or thought into a dialogue paragraph — or simply to alternate between already-established speakers. Like so:

“Oh, there’s Spot at last.” Jane blew on her freshly-filed nails to free them from dust before she applied screaming red polish. “And there he goes. See Spot run, Dick.”

Dick backed against the wood-paneled wall, eyes wide. “I see Spot run. Run, Spot, run!”

Jane lowered one heavily-lashed lid, the better to aim her gun. “How would you feel about following Spot’s example, Dick?”

“Pretty darned good.”

“Then run, Dick, run, before I change my mind and turn you into Swiss cheese.”

These are all easily-fixed matters of style, however. There was one obviously deliberate authorial choice, however, that left the judges scratching their heads as if they had wandered into a dandruff convention. Millicent almost certainly would have the same reaction. Any guesses as to what on this page might engender that response?

If you flung your hand into the air, shouting, “Oh, I’ve been scratching my head raw over this one, too! Why are Original Vespican, Original, Baltican all in italics? They aren’t foreign words, are they, or the names of ships, which could legitimately be italicized?”

Apparently not — from how they are used here, they may be the names of nationalities or tribes. If that’s the case, however, it’s hard to guess what the authorial point of italicizing them could possibly be: one does not, after all, routinely employ italics when talking about Swedish fjords or Navaho rugs.

Presumably, there is a perfectly sound rationale behind this authorial choice — Dave’s been an active member of the Author! Author! community for years, and never have I known him to set at naught the rules of standard format for frivolous reasons. I said as much to the other judges, in fact. But they felt — and I must say I concur — that however valid it might be to include those italics in the published version of the book, at the submission stage, the manuscript should omit them.

Why? Well, as we all know (at least I hope we do), manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects. Double-spacing, for instance, and doubling dashes. While it might conceivably be possible for a writer to justify an occasional deviation from standard format, remember, the submitter is literally never there when Millicent screens his manuscript; it is going to need to stand on its own merits. And Millicent is not all that keen on formatting originality: she knows all too well that any fancy formatting in the published book would be the editor’s call, not the author’s.

In Dave’s case, then, it could certainly be argued that no one but his future editor is genuinely qualified to determine whether those italics should remain or not. However, that perfectly legitimate point is not likely to help him much at submission time, if Millicent gets tired of scratching her head over it.

So I offer up this question for your pondering pleasure: since Millicent’s delicate eyebrows are so very likely to be lifted beyond the point of comfort by those page 1 italics, wouldn’t it be more prudent for Dave to hold off on those italics-by-choice until he can discuss it with his future editor? That way, the risk of the italics triggering rejection drops to zero, and he can still make a case for including those italics in the eventual book.

Isn’t it amazing how much issues ostensibly unrelated to either the quality of the writing, the strength and consistency of the narrative voice, or even the inherent excitement of the story can affect its submission chances?

With that capacious question ringing in our ears, let’s turn to Ellen Bradford’s extremely likable page 1:

Ellen Bradford p1

Engaging, isn’t it? I must say, this one won me over in spite of myself: as a professional reader, I tend to be a trifle suspicious of self-deprecating narrators; it’s hard to keep it up for the entire length of a book. It’s even harder to do if the narrative is genuinely funny, as this page is — self-deprecating humor often lends itself to one-note storytelling, and even when it doesn’t, those who do not get the jokes are wont to write off the narrator as whiny.

Hey, I don’t control readers’ reactions. I just tell you about ‘em.

This is a voice that a lot of readers would quite happily follow for chapters on end — but is it compelling enough to carry Millicent on to page 2?

That’s not at all a frivolous question, or even a reflection upon the writing here: let’s face it, Millicent doesn’t make it to page 2 in most submissions. And contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the quality of the writing is not always the determinant of whether she flips the page.

Remember, our Millie likes to be able to answer the basic questions about a submission in at least a cursory way by the bottom of page 1. To recap: (a) who the protagonist is, (b) what the book is about, (c) the book category, (d) to what specific target audience within that book category’s already-established readership it should be marketed, and (e) how this book is different/better than what is already on the market for the folks mentioned in (e).

Take another gander at Ellen’s page 1. How many of those questions would you be comfortable answering?

Oh, it establishes the protagonist and the tone of the book beautifully; one could even make a pretty good guess that the target market is women insecure about their appearance — which is to say pretty much all of us. But what is this book about? Where would it sit on a shelf in Barnes & Noble?

Because the judges were all about book category-appropriateness, the contest’s rules asked entrants to provide a brief paragraph dealing with questions (b) – (e). Here’s Ellen’s response:

Pith and Vinegar will turn the world of adult fiction on its ear. Or its kidney. Take your pick. But what remains non-negotiable and absolutely, undeniably 100 percent pure fact is that adult fiction will be resting on an unfamiliar body part.

As will the story’s heroine.

Again: funny, even charming. But did it answer those professional questions, beyond alerting us that it is fiction aimed at adults?

Is it Mainstream Fiction? Women’s Fiction? Chick lit? The judges were inclined toward the latter, but let’s take a peek at the longer book description, to see if we can find out more.

Pith and Vinegar synopsis

Okay, so the book sounds like a hoot; I give you that. And now we know that it is Women’s Fiction — which is fabulous, as this is a voice that would appeal to many, many readers in that target market. There is surprisingly little funny fiction out there right now featuring larger female protagonists, so you go, Ellen!

But this description would be at a very serious competitive disadvantage at most US-based agencies. Care to guess why?

If you already had your hand in the air, crying out, “But Anne, those paragraphs are not indented, and she skipped a line between paragraphs!” give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You are quite right: in dealing with the publishing industry, every paragraph should be indented. Block-formatting just looks illiterate to Millicent.

You wouldn’t want her to think you were the kind of person who would shove quotation marks around perfectly innocent words and phrases for no apparent reason, would you?

No, but seriously, folks, this is a trap into which well-meaning aspiring writers inadvertently stumble all the time. An agency’s submission guidelines ask for an unusual addition to the query packet, or the form-letter positive response to a query requests a much shorter synopsis than the writer has on hand. So he tosses something off — only to realize with horror a few days after he sent it that those additional requested materials were not in standard manuscript format.

If that doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, think of it this way: which would you prefer, Millicent’s starting to read your synopsis with an open mind, or her harrumphing at the first sight of it, “Oh, no — I wonder if the manuscript is improperly formatted, too,” and beginning to peruse your word with a pre-jaundiced mind?

There’s another common generator of Millicent’s knee jerks back on page 1. Let’s take a gander:

Ellen's edit

A couple of those points caught you by surprise, didn’t they? Almost universally, Millicents are a mite touchy about having jokes explained to them, at least on the page. After the tenth time it happens in a single day of screening, it can start to feel like a minor insult to one’s intelligence.

And there’s some justification to that: the writerly impulse to over-explain has does typically have its roots in a fear that the average reader won’t get it. Much of the time, those fears are unfounded; inveterate readers are a pretty savvy bunch, and professional readers even more so.

Here, those fears are definitely unjustified — it would be perfectly easy to follow the metaphor without, say, the narrative’s informing us three times that it is indeed a metaphor, or repeating the word potato every few lines. With an image that strong, it’s a safe bet that the reader is going to remember it.

Yet our amusing narrator seems far more afraid that the reader’s mind will stray off the relevant spud than to let us know where the story is set, how the narrator fits into the world she is depicting (perhaps she works at the Bloodworthy News?), or even the time frame — because, let’s face it, a lot of women have felt potato-shaped across a broad array of contexts for at least the last century. (They might well have felt that way before, but bathroom scales were not widely available until the 1920s, so they didn’t have numbers to back up the general impression.)

Are you seeing a running theme here, though? Both of these winning entries left Millicent guessing about a few significant matters at the bottom of page 1 — and in both cases, one of those significant somethings was the book category.

But that’s actually not the primary reason that a well-trained Millicent might not turn the page. Any guesses?

Hint: the problem I have in mind is noted twice on the marked-up example above.

Yes, that’s right: the single-sentence paragraphs. Aspiring writers just love these, and as we’ve discussed, they can work well in moderation — to introduce a bit of genuinely startling information or a plot twist that might get lost to the skimming eye if the sentence were attached to the paragraph above or below.

The vast majority of the time, that’s not how such one-line paragraphs turn up in manuscript submissions, however. A surprisingly high percentage of writers who aspire to be funny seem to believe that a single-line paragraph is the only way to designate a punch line, a tactic about as subtle as following Millicent around with a drum kit and executing a rim shot each and every time she reads a joke.

Think about it: if the reader can see from across the room that a joke is coming, because every joke that preceded it in the text was also in a single-sentence paragraph, hasn’t the narration lost the element of surprise so crucial to maintaining a humorous tone all the way through the book?

That doesn’t appear to have been Ellen’s motivation in creating the single-sentence paragraphs here, though; my guess is that they are intended to reflect the greater-than-full-stop pause these statements might carry in verbal speech. Regardless, breaking the it takes at least two sentences to form a narrative paragraph rule doesn’t actually provide any benefit to the narrative — certainly not a large enough bang to outweigh the risk of a very well-read Millicent’s knee jerking over it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here are the opening three sentences as submitted:

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato.

Well, metaphorically speaking, I was a potato. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Got those firmly in mind? Now cast your eyes over them with the single-sentence paragraph problem removed in the most obvious manner imaginable — although while I’m at it, I’ll do a spot of trimming.

If eyes were the windows to the soul, I was a potato. Well, metaphorically speaking. Physically, I didn’t look like a root vegetable unless I turned sideways in one of those nasty change-room mirrors that sadistic shops selling Barbie-sized clothing always mounted on their flimsy doors.

Was any meaning lost in that transition? Any nuance, even? Is there anything to prevent someone reading it out loud from emphasizing that first sentence?

Of course not. The same holds true for the other single-sentence paragraph. Let’s review it in context:

A few stray hairs perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right.

I may in some tiny and insignificant way, have resembled a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes, like a potato.

And here it is again, cleaned up a trifle:

A few stray hairs, perhaps, under harsh fluorescent lighting, but everyone knew how cruel those lights could be.

All right, I may, in some tiny and insignificant way, resemble a potato. But some potatoes on eBay looked like the Virgin Mary or Albert Einstein, so there was a lot of genetic variance. And metaphorically speaking, I was covered with many eyes.

Okay, so that was more than a trifle, but you know how I (and Millicent) feel about word repetition and comma use. My point is — and you probably saw this coming, right? — that stand-alone paragraph wasn’t actually adding anything significant to the text. The next paragraph was able to absorb it into its first sentence with no loss of meaning at all.

What lesson are we to derive from all of this? Several, actually. First, I clearly was eager to jump back into the swim of commenting on these entries — this is a long post, even by my standards. Second, while it may require a bit of plot massage, the more you can show Millicent of the book’s tone, what it’s about, who the protagonist is, and so forth by the bottom of page 1, the happier she will be.

Finally, as we’ve been seeing throughout this series, even a very well-honed narrative can often benefit from a bit of judicious revision. Just to stick that bug in the ear of all of you who are going to receive requests for pages in the months to come: fight the urge to send off those pages instantly; it’s well worth your time to re-read those pages IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before popping ‘em in the mail or hitting SEND.

Do I need to remind you about Millicent’s jumpy knee? Don’t make me pull out another quotation mark example to get her going.

A few more contest entries to come, then it’s on to Synopsispalooza, beginning on Saturday. Well done, Ellen and Dave, and keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winner in YA, Natalie Hatch’s Breeder


I’ve got a relatively short one for you tonight, campers: YA Natalie Hatch’s BREEDER, first-prize winner in Category II: YA. I’m fond of this entry, perhaps because Natalie had me by the end of the first page of her brief description: the tale of a runaway girl who takes up with a crew of space pirates.

What’s not to like, really?

Should the length of this post be seen as in itself a commentary upon Natalie’s first page? Well, yes and no. No, because I’m hurrying through our ongoing praise/critique fiesta on the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — the reason I am posting twice today, to make sure that we get through them all before Synopsispalooza begins on Saturday. And yes, because today’s winning page does not offer all that many gaffes to point out.

That’s a good thing, of course, and perhaps not an altogether surprising one. Since entries closed for this contest, Natalie tells me, BREEDER won the YA category in an Australian children’s and YA writers’ competition. So were I to devote this post entirely to praise and skimp on the critique, I doubt anyone would blame me.

But that’s not really my style, is it? I’m here to milk these marvelous first pages for all of the discussion value I can.

A little praise to start out, however: Natalie’s book definitely has a great premise, an interesting protagonist in an interesting situation, facing a genuinely difficult conflict. In YA, that last is not a foregone conclusion: as our old pal, Millicent the agency screener would be only too glad to tell you, many, if not most, YA submissions feature relatively low-stakes conflicts.

Oh, what’s going on may feel like the end of the world to the protagonists of these novels, but the actual consequences of their actions, even in a worst-case scenario, are often as low as oh, no, my parents might find out. Not that there haven’t been interesting YA plots with this as the most horrifying imaginable outcome, but still, you can understand why a Millicent who screens YA queries and submissions all day, every day might conceivably long for something a bit more dramatic.

The book description for BREEDER will definitely make her sit bolt-upright in her chair. The stakes could hardly be higher for the protagonist:

The Farm needs Breeders, young girls drafted into two years of human egg production for the benefit of rich, but infertile, inner worlds. Lenni Nichols would rather die than receive the riches that await her at the completion of compulsory service. Unfortunately, faking her own death, disguising herself as a male and getting off world is harder than it looks. When Lenni signs on as an engineer to a scavenger vessel, she hopes most of her worries are over. Besides, all she has to do is hide from The Farm’s bounty hunters until the two years are complete and she will be free. Instead, she is plunged head-first into the treacherous life of space pirates. Faced with betrayal, love and loss, Lenni must overcome her own weaknesses in order to survive. She allows vengeance to taint her life and is almost consumed by it, straddling the fine line separating vigilante and villain.

Admit it — you’re already imagining the treacherous life of space pirates, aren’t you?

So am I, and yet, as a longtime reader of adult SF and fantasy, this plot does remind me a little of Octavia Butler’s superlative trilogy, XENOGENESIS, where human women are forced to become breeders for an alien-human hybrid race. Some resisters do in fact planet-hop, flee for their lives against incredible odds, etc., but biology turns out to be destiny in some very unexpected ways.

Given the subject matter here — delightfully original for a YA novel, as the judges kept pointing out to one another — the comparison may be unavoidable. However, I, for one, am not any the less eager to read Natalie’s work for reminding me of Octavia Butler’s.

Again, what’s not to like?

As the pros say, though, it all depends upon the writing. As it happens, that writing is quite good:

Natalie Hatch p1

I ask you, however: had you not already read the book description, would you have thought of that grabber of a first page as YA? Or would you have focused instead on the subject matter and categorized it as science fiction?

Give that matter a bit of thought, please. Before I give my opinion on the subject — and the judges’ — I want to slip a word in edgewise about my favorite editorial obsession, manuscript format.

Oh, didn’t you catch the formatting problems in the page shot above? Why don’t you go back and take a closer, Millicent-style look? I’ll wait. (If you’re having trouble seeing specifics, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + in order to enlarge the image.)

Need a hint? Okay: there are five formatting problems here, one major and four minor. Need a better hint? We saw a very similar major problem in one of the first prize-winning entries in the Adult Fiction category.

If you have been jumping up and down for the last two paragraphs, shouting, “I know! I know! The left and right margins are too wide!” give yourself a gold star. (I’ve been saying that enough throughout this series that I feel as though I should start including downloadable gold stars in my posts.) They are indeed too wide, by U.S. submission standards: 1″ on all four sides is the norm.

Natalie’s page has 1.25″ margins on the left and right, 1″ margins above. While, as I mentioned yesterday, super-wide margins actually are very nice from an editorial perspective — so much more room for scrawling commentary! Be still, my beating heart! — they are not what Millicent has been trained to expect. Also, they throw off the word count estimate terribly.

Perhaps even more serious from a submission perspective (and definitely more serious if Natalie should decide to query an agency that permits the inclusion of the opening page in her query packet), widening the margins also decreases the amount of text she can include on page 1. And why might that be problematic, campers?

If you cried out, “Because the majority of submissions are rejected on page 1, Anne,” well, you probably already have a closet full of gold stars by now. But well reasoned, anyway.

To show those of you strapped for space just how much more room, here is Natalie’s first page, reformatted. To buy her even more room to wow Millicent, I switched the typeface from Courier New to Times New Roman.

Natalie reformatted

Did you catch the four minor problems, now that I’ve fixed them? All of them would have been easier to catch in hard copy than on a computer screen (if you were already murmuring, “Read every page I’m planning to submit to an agency IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD,” good), but the changes are apparent, if you look for them. In the order they appeared in the original:

1. The title of the book was italicized in the slug line.

2. Not enough space between the chapter heading and the first line of text.

3. The text is not consistent about whether it is going to use 2 spaces after a period or just 1.

4. Line -5 began with a space, not a letter.

Of these, #3 is far and away the most common in submissions. Before the rise of the Internet, and thus before public squabbles about whether it was time to jettison the second space after a period (it is never correct to use only a single space after a colon), it was quite rare to see inconsistent inter-sentence spacing: everybody just hit the space bar twice, and that was that. Now, however, since some agents call for one space and some for two, aspiring writers seem to have become confused, sometimes doing it one way, sometimes another.

This solution is unacceptable to neither party. Whether you decide to embrace the double-space convention (correct, but annoying to the small-but-vocal single-space minority) or the single space (pleasing to enthusiasts, but annoying to everyone else), you must apply it consistently throughout your manuscript.

Yes, even if you do the prudent thing and format your manuscript as single-spaced for agents who request it that way, and double-spaced for everyone else. As with all formatting, doing it sporadically will only make your manuscript look confused.

Now that we have those nit-picky-yet-vital formatting issues out of the way, we can return to the question of voice. Clearly, this voice works for this story, but it is YA? If so, what makes it YA, as opposed to the same story aimed at adult readers?

Frankly, I think it depends upon whether this page 1 lands in a YA-representing agency, one that does exclusively adult fiction, or both. Setting the issue of voice-appropriateness aside for the moment, look how Millicent responds to this opening:

Natalie edit

Personally, as an editor, I might have asked a few more follow-up questions than Millicent: how can silence be syrupy, for instance, a word usually associated with saccharine expressions of emotion? If it’s meant literally here (and, from the context, I suspect it is), how could enough of our heroine be left after an explosion to deserve the descriptor syrupy? What are the ages of these two characters? What is their relationship? Why does her suicide benefit her mother?

But as a reader, I would definitely been have been willing to turn the page in order to find the answers. Turn the page being the operative phrase here, right?

Most submissions are, after all, rejected on page 1. Which is precisely why the question of age-level appropriateness is so crucial in this case: if a YA-seeking Millicent sees this as adult-aimed — or, even more dangerous, adult-themed — writing, she may well reject it, regardless of how it is labeled.

I see some knitted brows out there. “But Anne,” some readers pipe up, “I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal about this. A single narrative voice might well appeal to both teens and adult readers. What’s the big deal?”

The big deal, if you were not sufficiently frightened by the prospect of Millicent rejecting this page on voice-appropriateness grounds, is that this is going to be a tough premise to sell to YA booksellers, school librarians, and other adults responsible for determining what books are available to young readers. Traditionally, reproductive issues have not been all that popular with these adults as subject matter for teens; selling girls’ reproductive capacity might then reasonably be regarded as even trickier to convince an angry parent should be in a high school library.

I’m bringing this up because the voice on this page could very easily be tweaked in order to gear this story to adults. Had the reader been given some reason to believe one or both of the characters in the first scene were teens, that might not be possible, but in the absence of any reference to age, as it stands, there’s nothing about the voice, vocabulary, or even the protagonist that just screams YA voice.

Frankly, the judges engaged in some debate about whether this would have worked better as adult fiction. I was not the only judge to bring up Octavia Butler; the main (only, really) female character in William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER was also mentioned, but that seemed like a bit of a stretch. Most of us felt that this plot and this first page could make it in the tough adult SF market, although when the book description was added to the mix (particularly the part in the contest entry that said the target market was age 15 and up), the consensus was that this first page could also work as YA.

But there was a problem with that formulation: while readers aged 15-21 are technically part of the YA market, in practice, even older YA tends to be aimed at 13-year-olds. And there’s a good reason for that, especially for SF or fantasy — readers above that age are often already fairly deeply into adult fiction.

So what precisely is the difference between writing for Natalie’s intended target audience and for adults?

The usual answer — and one I do not like very much, on general principle — is that if the protagonist is an older teenager (say, around the age of the target market for this book), and female, the book must be YA, because (the logic runs) only a teenage girl would care about a teenage girl protagonist. (Cough, cough.) If, on the other hand, the protagonist is an older teenager and male, whether the book is YA or not depends entirely upon the situation and the writing.

Why? Hold onto your hats, ladies: because both male and female readers are more used to identifying with male protagonists.

Had I mentioned that I dislike this argument? It pops up all the time in literary fiction circles; the same story that with a male protagonist would be marketed as LF might well be steered toward the YA market if it’s about a girl. Rather than hash out that grand debate, though, let’s get back to Natalie’s first page.

Ultimately, the judges decided to take the writer’s word about the target audience — and happily, there is nothing on this page (barring the subject matter itself, which will be an insuperable barrier for some parents) that would rule it out as a YA voice. For a writer harboring sophisticated expectations of her readership, that was a savvy choice.

Given the subject matter, though — reproduction-for-sale has not historically been parents of teenagers’ rush-out-and-buy-it topic for their progeny — I would advise erring on the side of divulging too much about these characters on page 1, rather than too little. Even an oblique reference to age, perhaps accompanied by some expression of feeling toward the protagonist’s mother, might well land this opening firmly in the YA camp.

Although for YA, the nagging question will remain, unavoidably: did the mother sell our heroine into reproductive indentured servitude? Followed closely by: since subaltern is generally just a descriptive term for someone at a lower level in an organization, why is the word capitalized here?

For the answers to these and other burning questions, of course, we must turn to the rest of the book. Which, naturally, was impossible for the contest’s judges — and for the rest of us, until we may purchase it in a bookstore. By then, presumably, the book category issue will have been resolved by the person with the ultimate say: the acquiring editor at a publishing house.

Congratulations on a fine job, Natalie; congratulations on both contest wins. As always, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:


As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Trouble Comes, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Juniper Ekman

Juniper Ekman

After our in-depth discussion of the differences between adult fiction and YA narrative voices last time, I’m delighted to be able to bring you today a marvelous example of a fresh YA voice: 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in YA winner Juniper Ekman. Like the three other A!A!AEE winners whose work you have already seen, Juniper took top honors in her category. Thus, she is also the Grand Prize winner in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I. (And what an evocative author photo, eh?)

If Juniper’s name seems familiar to those of you who have been hanging around here at Author! Author! for a while, pat yourselves on the back for your retentive memories: she also won November’s Words to Write By contest. If you recall (hey, I know you’re up for it), that contest asked entrants to submit the quotes that most inspired them as writers, along with a brief explanation why. Here is what Juniper sent in:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?” ~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?


I am a writer.

I have books to write.

You tell ‘em, Juniper. I, for one, am quite in favor of your taking the time to write — and I suspect that in the years to come, many, many young readers are going to be pretty psyched that you did it, too.

What makes me (and the current contest’s judges) think so, you ask? Well, for starters, look how many young readers will identify with her book’s core issue:

Trouble Comes is a contemporary YA novel about finding home wherever your heart lets you, making peace with a life you didn’t ask for, and troubling yourself to care about the world’s troubles. It concerns itself with bowling tournaments, small town secrets, unexpected heroes, and unpleasant people who nevertheless matter.

That first sentence actually isn’t a bad definition for YA aimed at the older part of its market, is it? What teenager has not muttered at least once recently, I SO didn’t ask for this life!

The longer book description, thank goodness, delivers on this rather hefty promise — which a great many don’t, by the way. It’s far from uncommon for an agency screener to be taken with the descriptive paragraph in a query, only to turn to the synopsis tucked into the submission packet to discover a plot or argument that doesn’t seem to match the query.

Juniper’s, however, does fit well with both her brief description and the narrative voice of the book. So you may judge for yourself, here is the longer description.

Trouble Comes description

While I’m praising this page, I should mention the not insignificant achievement that the characters, situation, and narrative voice were engaging enough to make me discount one of my personal pet peeves as a professional reader: character and place names that are a trifle too on the nose. They don’t but every pro, but they’re a bit 18th-century for my taste. Back when defining characters by a ruling passion was fashionable, you could get away with a schoolmaster character named Mr. Thwackum in adult fiction, but now, it’s considered more stylish not to give the whole candy store away up front.

Besides, who wants literally-minded readers to mutter over one’s book, “Oh, come on — Mr. and Mrs. Struggle realized prior to their daughter’s christening that her future life would be trying enough that they should name her Constance?”

Admittedly, names that are direct reflections of the personalities of people and places have enjoyed a long history in YA, as any Roald Dahl fan could testify. Villains are especially likely to be called something like Dastard Lee. These days, however they’re usually confined to works intended for younger readers, rather than the devourers of the kind of meaty, complex characters and situations that appear on page 1 of TROUBLE COMES.

I find too-apt naming especially trying if several characters in a single story are tacitly waving signs declaring This is what I am like! No need to read closely for character development! I might, for instance, have overlooked a town called Last Chance (a remarkable coincidence to which, you will note, the book description specifically calls attention) if the character we’re told is constantly — ahem — sharing her no doubt considerable charms with a variety of Mr. Right Nows to refresh herself as she proceeds along the road to Mr. Goodbar had not been called Mona.

If that didn’t elicit a chuckle, try reading that last sentence out loud. A 13-year-old reader might not catch the implication (although most of the 13-year-old writers I know would), but Millicent definitely will. So might some young readers’ parents — and that could conceivably be a marketing problem, especially for public school libraries.

And while I’m quibbling, I would also like to point out that Journey Jones scans a bit too like actor January Jones’ name — not an insignificant consideration, since that similarity may well cause some readers to picture the protagonist looking like the actor.

Hey, it’s my job to worry about things like this. I only jump all over manuscripts I genuinely like, recall.

Besides, the narrative voice and genuine grabber of an opening don’t need the adrenaline boost of names that let the reader in on the joke. Juniper’s narrative voice captivated the judges, not merely because the writing was so good, but because it was so nicely attuned to her target audience.

This is how YA writing is done, folks. See for yourself — and, as usual, my apologies if the individual letters a trifle blurry on your browser; try holding down COMMAND and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Juniper Ekman's entry

Pretty impressive, eh? In fact, like Jennifer Sinclair Johnson’s Grand Prize-winning entry in Category II: Adult Fiction this page displayed such a strong, assured authorial voice so well suited to its target audience that it actually presented me with a blogging problem: other than the accolade itself, the primary benefit for winning this contest was supposed to be a heaping helping of my patented extensive feedback. But how much feedback could I possibly give on pages as clean as Juniper and Jennifer’s?

You’re all familiar with what the term clean means in a publishing context, right? A clean manuscript is one clean (or relatively so) of typos, grammatical errors, logical holes, missing words, formatting problems, and all of the other hard-to-catch but annoying-to-professional-readers minute points that separate polished prose from, well, the other kind.

Juniper’s first page is so much cleaner than 95% what our old pal Millicent the agency screener sees in an average day that she might be tempted to overlook the few minute details that should be corrected here. (Seriously, your future agent is going to be jumping up and down about your revision eye, Juniper: it’s rarer in talented writers than one might perhaps hope.)

Half of you did a double-take midway through that last paragraph, didn’t you? (Is that the mathematical equivalent to every one of you doing a single-take?) “A few minute details? But this page looks cosmetically perfect to me!”

Ah, but you don’t stare at professionally-formatted manuscripts all day, as an agent or editor routinely does — or the motley collection of nearly-correctly and flatly incorrectly-formatted submissions that find their way to Millicent’s desk. Try to look at a page from the perspective of someone who sees nothing else for hours, days, weeks on end.

Trust me, those tiny gaffes actually would start to jump off the page at you. In fact, you might well begin to find them a trifle annoying. Perhaps — dare I say it? — disproportionately so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, take a long, hard look at Juniper’s first page above. Really concentrate on burning that image into your mind.

Got it firmly imprinted upon your brainpan? Good. Now take a gander at the same page with some minutiae cleaned up:

Juniper's entry formatted

It’s more visually pleasing this way, isn’t it? Pop quiz: what did I change?

Would you believe that it was as many four different things? I moved the slug line to the left margin (it was indented), standardized the spacing after periods (one was off in line 1, and yes, Millicent would have noticed it), added a comma in line 3 (that Millie would have corrected automatically while reading), and removed an instance incorrect capitalization in line -2.

That’s it. And yet the second version looks significantly more polished, does it not? Even just shifting the slug line makes it seem better put-together.

As I have been known to tell the many, many aspiring writers who like to argue with me at conferences about whether minute formatting details actually make a difference at submission time (they do, invariably) and/or if it is Millicent’s job to look past presentation problems in trying to evaluate a manuscript (it is, explicitly), once a professional reader has been at it a while, she develops an almost visceral sense of whether the page in front of her is put together correctly or not.

Translation: don’t expect the little stuff to escape her notice. Or not to affect her evaluation of your work.

True, the miniscule alterations I made above didn’t actually change the writing in this fine opening page, but yes, Millicent — and her boss the agent, as well as the editor to whom the manuscript will eventually be pitched — would prefer the second version. Universally.

So it’s well worth the effort to scrub one’s submissions to this incredibly high presentation standard. Minor gaffes actually are distracting to professional readers — you want your writing to shine without any smudges on it.

Before you blow me away with your collective sigh of resignation, permit me to add: this level of nit-pickery is excellent practice for later in your writing career. Remember, once you have landed an agent, perfectly clean manuscripts will be the minimum expectation, not the icing on the writing cake.

But yes, I’ll admit it: I was a trifle relieved when I noticed the first of those itsy-bitsy flaws on this otherwise spic-and-span page. It’s genuinely a pleasure for an editor to be able to suggest the changes that would elevate a great first page to a perfectly-presented one.

Okay, enough about possible fixes. Let’s talk about what makes this first page so very good from a submission perspective: the narrative voice.

Specifically, that it comes across as both original and as distinctively YA.

That last bit prompted a chuckle or two out there, didn’t it? “But Anne,” doubting Thomases and Thomasinas everywhere point out, and who could blame them? “In what conceivable context would a reader not already know before beginning to read this that it’s from a YA book? Presumably, Juniper would be sending this to a YA-representing agency, where it would be read by a YA-trained Millicent working for a YA-representing agent, who would then in turn be offering it to YA-handling editors. YA-reviewing critics would pass judgment upon it, and readers would find it in the YA section of a bookstore. Even here, you presented it as YA. Am I missing something here?”

Perhaps one thing, oh doubters, but it’s a significant one: if Millicent — or her boss, or the acquiring editor — murmurs over even a single sentence of page 1, “Oh, this doesn’t read like YA,” the rest of that pretty series of events you mentioned will not happen.

Voice and vocabulary-appropriateness for the target audience is always important, but never more so than in a YA submission. Even if Millicent likes the writing qua writing, if the vocabulary is pitched even slightly too high or the tone is too adult, it may well end up in the reject pile. And don’t even get me started on how much more difficult it is for manuscripts with substantial amounts of profanity or — ahem — too-specific discussion of the protagonist’s anatomy and the various ways might be co-mingling with other characters’ corporeal beings.

If you doubt that, you might want to hie yourself down to your local junior high school or public library with a YA section. Buy the librarian a nice cup of tea and get her to tell you about the last 17 times a parent came storming into the stacks, demanding to know how a book like this made it into her child’s hands.

You’d be astonished how often the objection is to a single sentence. Or even a word, particularly if it is of the Anglo-Saxon variety.

Juniper’s first page is, I am pleased to report, happily free of triggers for this sort of parent — which is a good trick, given Mona’s apparent — ahem — frequency of physical generosity. A lot of aspiring writers would have taken a cue from films and TV shows aimed at teenagers and peppered the dialogue with profanity.

This opening scene doesn’t need it for authenticity, though. And don’t you just love the tension inherent in the exchange at the bottom of the page?

Remember how I mentioned last time that one of the species characteristics, as is were, of YA was the preponderance of ands, especially in first-person narratives? Juniper embraces that norm here. She does it so well, in fact, and in such a likable, believable YA voice that I suspect that when you first scanned her page 1, the ands did not strike you as especially abundant.

Yet they were, at least by adult fiction standards: as we discussed some months back, since professional readers are trained to spot repetitions and inconsistencies, Millicent’s eye tends to be drawn to them. Take a peek, for instance, at where Millicent charged with screening adult fiction manuscripts would find herself focusing:

Juniper's entry ands

Notice how the percussive and use is almost as distracting to the adult-oriented reader’s eye as the formatting and grammatical anomalies. There’s a reason for that: young readers are used to instructional texts, where sentence structures and vocabulary choices are deliberately repetitive, but adult readers are not. So younger readers’ eyes will tolerate quite a bit more word repetition than older readers’ will.

But with YA-reading glasses firmly in place, this is not only an engaging voice, but an unusually clean page of manuscript. Let Millicent do her darnedest, there’s not a lot to critique here — a trifle unfortunate for illustrative purposes here, but a tremendous plus in a submission.

Remember how I mentioned during Querypalooza that Millicent and her ilk are looking to fall in love with a submission? Take a peek at her reaction when she does.

Juniper's edit

Okay, so it was really my reaction — and a composite of the judges’ — but still, it’s rather startling to see that much praise on a professionally commented-upon manuscript page, isn’t it?

I could, of course, dwell upon a couple of content revisions I would like to see Juniper make — what did that corpse look like when Journey first spotted it, for instance, and how was her second glimpse different? How did the sight of it make her feel, not just in her head, but in her body? — but I think I’ll leave that discussion to Juniper, the agent lucky enough to sign her, and the editor destined to fall in love with this narrative voice.

For now, I shall limit myself to saying well done, Juniper! To you and all of you conscientious, talented writers out there, keep up the good work!