Countdown to a contest entry, part VII: one of these things is not like the other, or, not everything called a synopsis should be identical

Or, to put it graphically:
01_01_53-vulture_web.jpg is not the same fowl as 01_01_7_thumb.jpg

What, you ask, am I talking about? Well, last time, I began talking about the differences between a synopsis that an aspiring writer might submit along with a query or requested pages and one that works well in a contest submission. Although they are called by the same name, they actually serve different purposes, so it’s in your best interests to craft them differently.

Hey, both vultures and peacocks are birds, but you don’t expect them to move from Point A to Point B precisely the same way, do you? Would you feed a peacock Vulture Chow?

Of course not. You’d feed it Peacock Yummies.

So, to separate the fish from the fowl, I spent our last post talking about how and why a successful contest synopsis and a killer submission synopsis can and should be different. I have to say, I had expected to hear a little more groaning from the peanut gallery about this — I am, after all, suggesting that you write a 3 – 5 page summary of your book for contest submission that you will pretty much never be able to use for any other purpose on God’s decreasingly green earth.

See? Nothing. You people must be getting desensitized to the idea that reading this blog may lead an otherwise perfectly rational writer to say, “More work for me? Bring it on!”

I was especially surprised not to hear much squawking from the nonfiction writers, particularly those of you brave souls gearing up to enter a memoir in a literary contest. I think that nonfiction entrants typically have a harder time producing a winning synopsis — or perhaps I merely believe that because I have more often been a judge in nonfiction than fiction categories.

For fiction, the task at hand is a bit closer to writing a submission synopsis: tell a good story in a reasonable amount of juicy detail. If this sounds vaguely familiar to those of you who suffered through last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series, you have an excellent memory: that’s more or less the goal of the 2-minute pitch as well.

Seems perfectly straightforward, now that you’ve seen me say it, right? Yet you would be flabbergasted — at least, I hope you would — at how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that the point is to tell a terrific story. Seriously, in my experience, less than 10% of the entries include synopses that indicate storytelling ability, rather than going through a rote exercise in summarization.

Where do the other 90% go wrong, you ask? Good question. Strap a parrot to your shoulder and follow me.

As I explained yesterday, all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. You’re going to want to show the entire story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But 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. Both need to be engaging reads that draw the reader into the story you’re telling.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible — yes, even if all you are allowed is a 1-page synopsis — but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, you read that correctly, too: a good synopsis should be written in the same voice as the book, for both contests and for submission.

Changes the way you think of the synopsis, doesn’t it? Again, this should sound familiar to some of you: a good pitch conveys the same tone as its book, too.

So if you’re writing a comedy, you had better make sure that the judge at least chuckles a couple of times while reading your synopsis — and, word to the wise, as nothing is more stale than a joke told twice with a ten-minute period, repeating the same funny line in both chapter and synopsis is not the best means of invoking hilarity.

A sexy book deserves a sexy contest synopsis, too, and a thriller’s synopsis had better be, well, thrilling. If your horror synopsis doesn’t make the reader blanch (try it out on strangers in a coffee shop), add gory details until it does.

And so forth. You’re a writer; you’re good at this sort of thing.

For nonfiction, the assignment is slightly less straightforward. You will need to make it plain that you’re a good arguer making an intriguing argument, but it would also behoove you to include certain elements of the book proposal that you would never include in a submission synopsis.

Some indication of the target market, for instance. A passing reference to why your book is better at conveying this set of information than anything currently on the market. A minuscule tease about how the publication of this book, as opposed to any other entered into the contest, will make the world just a little bit better for those who read it.

All of which would be completely inappropriate in a synopsis sent along with requested materials, right? Right? Anybody out there?

For starters, such a submission synopsis would be redundant with the both the book proposal and, most likely, with the query letter as well. Think about it: you might, if an agent’s listing or website asked for it, include a synopsis with your query letter, but if you’re going to make the case that the agent should drop everything and read your book proposal, the argument belongs in your query letter. You might conceivably be asked to send a synopsis along with requested materials, but for nonfiction, an agent or editor is far more likely to ask to see the entire book proposal — which, naturally, would include entire sections on who the target audience is, why they would benefit from your book, and how your book is different and better than anything remotely similar currently on the market.

For a memoir, admittedly, an agent is slightly more likely to ask to see the first couple of chapters plus a synopsis, but still, most memoirs, like other nonfiction, are sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. (And no, Virginia, I’m not sure why there are so many sources out there that say otherwise. I’ve sold two memoirs to publishers without having written more than the first chapter and a proposal for either.)

But as I mentioned yesterday, the trick to a memoir synopsis, for a contest or submission, is much closer to the goal for fiction: it needs to sound like a great yarn well told. What it does not need to be — and should not be — is an extended discussion of why you decided to write a memoir in the first place.

Did some jaws just hit the floor out there? I’m not entirely surprised. For some reason, it is hugely common in contest synopses for memoirists (and sometimes other NF writers as well) to treat the synopsis as though it were a response to an impassioned crowd storming their writing spaces, demanding to know who the heck the author is, to think he has the right to think his pet topic might interest even a single other human being, let alone thousands or millions.

Defensive does not even begin to describe it.

A lot of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points. Which means, unfortunately, that an experienced judge’s knee-jerk response to a synopsis that engages in this practice even a little tends to be exaggerated.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying: “Next!”

“Wait just a minute!” the sore-jawed cry. “Why would personal revelation in a synopsis be regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? In a memoir, I would think that it would be downright desirable. Why aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the contest synopsis?”

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? In the eyes of the professional readers, though, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. There, you may state your case in market terms in the section dedicated to that purpose.

(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching. There, you may indulge in this impulse for as long as a couple of sentences, as long as your reasons give Millicent the agency screener some hit why those reasons will prompt readers to be interested in the story you are telling..

(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “Are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?” At that point, you may discourse for as long as it takes for the agent to drink a cup of coffee — or until her other line rings, whichever comes first.

(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet. They will be far more interested in your listing the addresses, phone numbers, and websites of every bookstore where any local might recognize your mug, but they’re going to want you to come up with a nice sound bite about why you wrote the book as well.

(5) Within the context of an interview after the book is released. Interviewers love hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So you can go to town after the book comes out.

(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote their books. You have my permission to do this for the rest of your life.

Other than those few occasions, it’s considered over-sharing — yes, even for memoirists. In a contest entry, it is never considered anything but self-indulgent.

Just don’t do it. In your contest synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest synopsis is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, and if your entry is in a nonfiction category, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your synopsis.

If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, go back and reread that list above three more times. If you are still wedded to the idea after that, imagine me sighing gustily — then stick the explanation at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

For nonfiction, keep reminding yourself that your goal in a contest synopsis is threefold:

a) to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case,

b) to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

c) to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

In pursuit of Goal A, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid.

Make absolutely certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is – and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

In doubt about whether you’ve pulled this off successfully? Hand your synopsis to an intelligent non-specialist in your area (smart adolescents are great at this), have her read it — then ask the reader to summarize the argument for you without looking at the paper. Take notes on what parts come back to you fuzzily: those are the parts of the synopsis that need work.

If you are pinched for space in your entry, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. State outright why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. As in:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist — and a successful climber of K2.

Then go on and tell us what the book is about. If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them, as you would in a query letter or book proposal. Remember, one of the things that the judges are evaluating is the book’s marketability.

Yes, yes, I know that those of you who have been following this series closely you are sick of my pointing that out. (But not as sick as seeing yes over and over throughout this post, right? Chant it with me now: redundant phrasing annoys readers!) However, how likely is a judge who thinks your target market is a quarter of its actual size to give you high marks?

By making its actual size plain in a nonfiction entry’s synopsis, you can minimize that dreadful possibility. As in:

Two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them. GET ME AWAY FROM THESE PEOPLE! is written from an agoraphobic’s perspective, someone who truly understands what it feels like to have fear shrink the space around him

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are the expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name.

But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. in the topic at hand or went to a specific culinary school. Go ahead and state your qualifications –- just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name.

I sense that I’ve lost some of you. Or does all of that impatient sighing merely indicate that the bus for which many of you are waiting while reading this is behind schedule? “I get it, Anne,” those of you not lingering under a bus shelter moan. “A well-crafted synopsis can increase a contest entry’s overall chances of winning. But no matter what you say, I simply don’t have time to fine-tune my contest synopsis. I’ll be lucky to get my entry postmarked on time as it is!”

Okay, now it’s my turn to sigh: while certainly understandable, this is an exceedingly common attitude for contest entrants, at least in competitions for book-length works. You wouldn’t believe how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute. Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the manuscript that counts, right? — it’s tempting just to throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges will pay attention to it. Many a fine entry has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis.

I won’t go so far as to say, of course, that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to point out, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically enjoy an edge over the unhappy many that do not.

I have a few tips up my sleeve on how to increase that edge, of course — but you don’t have the time for that, do you, gusty sighers? Okay, let me spend what time we have left today on a quick, easy way to make a contest synopsis come across as the work of a serious writer: correct formatting.

Oh, stop laughing. Every year, hundreds — nay, thousands — of contest entries get, if not actually disqualified, then at least read with a less kindly eye, simply because they are presented incorrectly.

Sadly, even those conscientious aspiring writers that have taken the time to learn how to format their work professionally (by, say, consulting the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right) often mispresent their synopses. First, let’s look at the first page of a synopsis one might submit to an agent:


As you may see, a submission synopsis simply adheres to the rules of standard manuscript format: one-inch margins all the way around, slug line in the top left margin, page number in the slug line, indented paragraphs, the works. (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of standard manuscript format, were previously unaware that such a thing existed, and/or are unsure how proper formatting for a short story or article differs from a book manuscript or proposal, you’ll find plenty of visual examples under the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category.)

Note, too, that the first time a character is introduced to the story, her name appears entirely in capital letters. That makes it easier for skimming eyes to follow — and if that seems like an invitation to screener laziness, bear in mind that Millicent and her compatriots are reading literally hundreds of pages per day. Their eyes are tired.

Do you want to be the writer who makes those eyes’ little lives easier or harder?

The title of the work is on the first line of the page, with the information that it is a synopsis on the second double-spaced line. Why state up front that it’s a synopsis? Well, remember a few months back, when I described that catastrophic collision between two interns in an agency hallway? Does “Hey, you got memoir in my thriller!” “No, you got thriller in my memoir!” ring a bell?

Since submitted manuscripts are unbound in any way, individual pieces of them tend to wander off on field trips of their own. Slug lines can go a long way toward allowing those hapless interns to piece the manuscripts back together.

Guess what? So can clearly-labeled synopses.

For this reason, I like to label subsequent pages of the synopsis as such as well. It’s not strictly required, but hey, the subsequent pages are every bit as likely to go wandering as the first, right? The result looks like this:


All clear on the format for the submission synopsis? May I suggest that this would be a dandy time to bring up questions, if not?

Okay, on to the contest synopsis. The primary difference is — anyone? Anyone?

Yes, that’s right: in a blind-judged contest (i.e., in the respectable ones that are worth your time and money to enter), the writer’s name cannot appear on any page of the entry. Not the first, and certainly not the last.

Obviously, this is going to affect the slug line, but that’s easily resolved. Lookee:


See? Very simple, very swift to implement. Notice any other differences between this and the submission synopsis?

If you are looking for purely cosmetic differences, there aren’t any, other than the slug line. However, on the content level, I did tighten up the synopsis a bit for the benefit of the contest judge.

Why, you ask? Because I happen to know (having read the contest rules as closely as I urge you all to do) that this contest accepts entries up to fifty pages long. Almost everything that happened within the first two pages of the submission synopsis occurs during the first fifty pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

Even so, the judge will most likely read the chapters before turning to the synopsis — that way, if the writing in the chapter is not good, they can skip the synopsis altogether. So why recap more than is necessary, especially if including a 4-page contest synopsis will allow Aunt Jane to include another page of text?

Seem rules-lawyerish? Exactly; contests are run by people who just adore rules. Go with the flow.

Next time, conditions permitting, I shall polish off the hot topic of contest synopsis-polishing. Keep up the good work!