Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.5: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

hamlet ghost drawinghamlet ghost drawing2
hamlet ghost drawing3hamlet ghost drawing4
hamlet ghost drawing5hamlet ghost drawing6

Didn’t expect me back so soon, did you, campers? Here’s this morning’s second installment in our ongoing trilogy of concrete examples of 1-page synopses. In this version, we’re talking about different stripes of nonfiction. Enjoy!

So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XX: taking those hurdles without breaking your stride, or, what’s black and white and read all over?

herd of zebra b & wskunk on a rampage
glasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car
strawberries b & wpenguin

Answer: not a query packet, synopsis packet, or even contest synopsis, necessarily. All of those are read only sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified, but before I elaborate on that rather lame joke, allow me to begin today with some completely wonderful news about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: congratulations to Kate Evangelista, who just landed an agent for her YA novels. Well done, Kate!

Keep that good news rolling in, everybody; there are few things I enjoy more about blogging than announcing my readers’ literary triumphs. It’s a long, long road from initial bright idea to publication, campers, and the more we can enjoy other one another’s successes, the happier we shall all be as we keep pushing forward.

Back to that double-take you did at the top of the post — and had I mentioned that it was well-justified?

“You drive me to distraction, Anne,” synopsizers across this fine land of ours wail, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending post after advice-heavy post on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that after all of that blood, toil, tears and sweat I’ve expended, no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here in this autumn of Paloozas??”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency submission guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do. At least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries.

As in less than 30 seconds. You’ve already shredded a few outfits over that one, I’m assuming, and come to terms with it.

If you haven’t, before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math: If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time every week just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money at all from reading queries; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. So while they might eventually see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case those of you who have been thumbing through one of the standard agency guides recently had been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing the dosh in setting at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their current agents into switching.

Oh, you’d be surprised at how many agented authors are looking to switch at any given time. Particularly recently, given the difficulty of selling adult fiction over the last couple of years. There’s only a certain number of times even the most patient among us can hear, “This is great — can you turn it into YA, preferably with the inclusion of vampires and/or zombies, within the next few weeks?” before beginning to cast longing eyes elsewhere.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing another 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, devoting a full-time employee, rather than a half-time one. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically understandable, I’m afraid, in the aforementioned tough sales environment.

So how will Millicent decide which to read and which to skip? Glad you asked:

1. The ones that are obviously incorrectly formatted.

The vast majority that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to ignore, if she’s in a rush. For a busy Millicent, the more of these, the better. In fact, a Millicent working for a very popular agent might well adopt the even higher standards typically utilized by literary contest judges: the reject-on-sight group would include synopses not in standard format (and if you were not aware that there is a standard for such submission-packet inserts, by all means, keep reading), those in odd typefaces, and those in business format (i.e., single-spaced and without indented paragraphs).

Before any of you e-queriers panic: if an agency’s submission guidelines ask queriers to include a synopsis of any length in the body of an e-mailed query (it’s exceedingly rare that any will ask for it as an attachment, due to the likelihood of computer virus transfer), it’s okay for that synopsis to be formatted like an e-mail, with single spacing and non-indented paragraphs, although you are also welcome to insert it in standard format. However, if the guidelines specify imbedding a writing sample or the first few pages of the book, that text should be in standard format.

Everybody clear on that? Yet another reason, if you needed one, to read every agency’s submission guidelines very, very carefully before you send them so much as a syllable of your writing.

2. The ones that she can tell at first glance need work.

Typos can really cost you here, as can those dropped words that so often result from repeated revision. Yet another reason to both spell-check and read every word in your packet or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Why print out an e-query before sending? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because it’s much, much easier to miss a typo, missed word, or logic problem when proofing on a backlit screen.

3. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a rejection response

Many, if not most, queriers operate on the rather sweet assumption that Millicents — or, in most of these pretty mental pictures, their bosses, the agents to whom the queries are addressed — will conscientiously read every comma and exclamation point in a query packet before making a determination whether to ask for the manuscript or not. They simply don’t have the time.

Or, to put it as Millie herself might: if already decided to give the project a pass, why spend even a few more seconds on the query packet? She has dozens more to get through before lunch.

I hear you grumbling about that. In practice, though, that incentive not to agonize too long over a decision can work in the writer’s favor. Like so…

4. The ones attached to query letters that have already prompted a positive response

This, too, is a time-management issue: Millicent doesn’t have a tremendous reason to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why invest an additional unnecessary minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where Millicent is genuinely on the fence about requesting pages — or Mehitabel the contest judge is trying to break a tie between a couple of promising entries.

Which means, in practice, that in that relatively small fraction of cases, the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by Jove, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but a harried Millicent probably would not read even so much a line of that second one. An understandable choice, right: there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “By jingo, YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

Unfortunately, on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it.

Is that loud rapping sound echoing out there in the ether a good third of your tapping your feet impatiently? “You can stop bludgeoning that equine corpse anytime now, Anne,” a few of you snort, and with some justification. “I already know that presentation counts. I’m looking for more insight into how to improve my synopsis here.”

I was just getting to that, foot-tappers, when you jumped the proverbial gun. But since you are so eager, I’m going to turn the question back to you: setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and oddball typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. Yes, the first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease. Not only that, but by showing her something unusual in the synopsis, details that she won’t have seen in any other synopsis that day, week, or, ideally, year, the first version might give her the impression that this Shakespeare person might actually be able to write.

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is hardly an adequate character-identifying phrase. And where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

My point, should you care to know it: Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been quite accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her ultimate yea-or-nay decision is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. Again, most aspiring writers simply assume that the quality writing and the marketability of the book’s premise are the only decisive factors, but that’s not true: like agents, agencies specialize. If neither already has the connections in place to sell a particular book project — or, more commonly in this market, the agent doesn’t believe she could sell it right now — Millicent will be under instructions to pass.

Sort of changes how you look at any rejections your book may have racked up recently, doesn’t it?

Because she does have to consider fit for the agency and the current market, the synopsis can be a make-or-break document. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about, after all, or she may be a trifle skeptical about how the premise offered in the query would play out over the course of an entire book. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping to aspiring writers everywhere on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into one last iteration of a principle that has reared its helpful-but-ugly head throughout the entirety of Synopsispalooza: what makes a good synopsis for one type of book will not necessary work for another book category. That being said, all synopses should share some species similarities. Feel free to shout them along with me:

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on all that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a final few concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author, in this instance, since I’m the one who wrote this little gem, but play along with me here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s next take a peek at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? That’s extremely useful for Millicent: if the query letter falls into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or failing to state up front that it’s based on real events, she could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? Please pipe up, if not: this is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way, but it not the only way it can be done. Personally, I prefer lower-case — in the e-mail age, all caps comes across to some readers as shouting — but feel free to use either that looks best to you. Just make sure be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but also an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

Oh, you hadn’t thought beyond the synopsis for this book? Why, you are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Before I wrap up this post — and Synopsispalooza — I want to tackle one other common synopsizer’s concern, a puzzlement particularly likely to strike writers of SF, fantasy, and YA. Let’s let intrepid archive-comber Brian express it in his own terms.

I’ve more or less finished polishing up my synopsis and am wondering about a nitpick. The book ending doesn’t sound particularly like an ending in synopsis form, for the reason that the book is intended to be part of a series and the ending leads directly into the beginning of the next book. And it sort of ends on a cliffhanger too. I’m worried that Millicent may mistake this as my having committed the cardinal sin of leaving out the ending. I mentioned in the query letter that the book was part of a series, but should I convey this in the synopsis as well?

Thanks for bringing this up, Brian — you are entirely right to be worrying about omitting an ending, at least in a synopsis longer than 1 or 2 pages. And why might that be a problem in a longer novel synopsis, campers?

If you immediately bellowed, “Because part of what a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis is expected to demonstrate is that I can indeed plot out an entire book!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Nay, the series: you’ve obviously been paying close attention.

Even in the face of that imperative, though, a series-writer should not make reference to the next book in the synopsis. To an agent or editor considering only the first book, it would necessarily come across as a touch presumptuous, not to say irrelevant. Besides, the synopsis is not the proper place for this information.

Where is, you ask? Well, that’s kind of a tough question at the query or submission stage. In theory, the fact that the book is part of a series should be irrelevant: if they’re not grabbed by the story in Volume I, they’re not going to be interested in seeing Vols. 1-6, either.

In practice, however, there are many book categories in which a premise having series potential might in fact be quite relevant to Millicent’s assessment of its marketability. If you happen to be writing in a category where series are quite common — say, SF, fantasy, or YA — you might want to work the information into your query letter. Try working it into the marketing paragraph: The first book in a three-volume series, MARS ON A BUDGET will appeal to readers interested in intergalactic travel.

But under no circumstances does should you mention the other books in the synopsis. Concentrate instead upon showcasing what renders this book unique — and making its plot in book sound like a good story, beginning to end. To pull that off, you’re going to have to find away to tell the story of Book #1 in a way that is dramatically satisfying.

Which the first book of a series would need to be in order to prompt readers to want to rush out and buy the next, right? It’s a common misconception that a cliffhanger alone will achieve this effect, but let’s face it, unless the reader is drawn into the story long before the end, he’s not going to read as far as that suspenseful ending.

One reader most assuredly will not: Millicent. Thus, the series-writer’s goal in a query or submission synopsis for the first book should be to find a way to make the ending of Book #1 sound like

(a) it wraps up the plot of this book (not the series) in a satisfying manner, even if the manuscript itself does not tie up all of the loose ends,

(b) if the reader did not immediately pick up a sequel (which he will not be able to do right away, since most series are published sequentially, not simultaneously), the story could stand on its own, and

(c) you’re not counting on subsequent books in order to make sense of the storyline in Book #1 retroactively, as surprisingly many series synopses imply.

In other words, pretend it’s not the first book in a series, but a stand-alone novel, and write the synopsis accordingly.

There’s no other sensible way to go about it, really. Remember, while an agent or editor may base her decision whether to read Book #1 upon the synopsis (or, more likely, whether to ask for the rest of Book #1 after having read a partial), she will be basing her decision to read Book #2 upon Book #1, not upon a synopsis for Book #1.

Concentrate on garnering interest in one book at a time. When your adoring new agent is clamoring for you to produce synopses for the next five books in your series because an editor fell in love with Book #1, that will be the time to worry about showing how all of the stories tie together.

And that’s it for Synopsispalooza, folks. Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now figure out how it’s done.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon: this weekend, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

Hint, hint. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVI: just what went on in that castle, anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

hamlet ghost drawinghamlet ghost drawing2
hamlet ghost drawing3hamlet ghost drawing4
hamlet ghost drawing5hamlet ghost drawing6

So far in this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza series — or, as they’ve been calling it chez Mini, “your insanely time-consuming weekend of synopsis examples” — we have taken a gander at 1-, 2-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a novel and 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for a memoir. This morning, as promised, I shall be showing you several different versions — and different types of platform — for a nonfiction book. Or rather, to keep the examples interesting, for several different kinds of nonfiction book.

Why mix it up more this time than in the previous posts? Well, there are quite a few kinds of nonfiction book: what might work beautifully in a synopsis for, say, a journal’s account of a sensational murder case might not present a historical analysis of the same case nearly as well.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s return to our by-now-familiar example and compare how a synopsis for a true crime version of Hamlet by a writer with a journalistic background would differ from how a historian would present his case for a book on the Elsinore murders. Beginning with the journalist:

Hamlet true crime synopsis

Ace journalist Walter Winchell certainly makes the his take on the well-worn Hamlet story sound like a grabber, doesn’t he? A fresh take on a demonstrably popular subject is always popular with Millicent the agency screener. Wisely, Mssr. Winchell also makes it quite plain what kind of evidence he has to offer in support of his challenge to the prevailing wisdom on the subject.

But you don’t need to take my word for this being a winning synopsis. We’ve already established criteria for success in a nonfiction synopsis of any length, right? To recap, a nonfiction synopsis that’s not for a memoir should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter;

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it;

(3) mention who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject, if applicable;

(4) give some indication of how the writer intends to prove the case, showing the argument in some detail;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

Actually, those are the goals of a longer synopsis — say, 3-5 pages — but Mssr. Winchell has managed to hit most of these points in a single page. (Well done, Walt!) Fringe benefit: since he has embraced our earlier premise that a good nonfiction synopsis is a miniaturized book proposal, all he would need to do in order to lengthen this 1-page wonder into a longer synopsis, should he need one, would be to add more specifics and beef up his credentials as the obvious person to break this exciting story.

Let’s take a peek at a synopsis for straightforward historical account of the famous murders. To make the task a trifle more challenging, let’s remove the conceit of present-day headline value.

Hamlet as history synopsis

Doesn’t sound as though it has nearly as large a target audience as the first version, does it? That’s not necessarily a drawback in a nonfiction synopsis, by the way: in this case, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the book’s probable appeal. The Mad Prince of Denmark is not, after all, likely to be a natural for Oprah.

Appropriately, then, everything in this synopsis is geared to the readers most likely to be interested in this book: the academic tone, the intensive level of proof in the argument, the largely theoretical stakes all proclaim a college-educated audience. Yes, college-educated readers interested in tracing the historical and literary background of centuries-old plays is a niche market, but as any Millicent working at a history-representing agency would be aware, it’s a readership that buys a heck of a lot of books. No reason for Herodotus to risk compromising his credibility, then, by claiming the potential audience implied in — wait for it — “It’s a natural for Oprah!”

I bring this up advisedly: all too frequently, nonfiction writers turn Millicent off by pretending (or even just implying) on the query or synopsis page that their target audiences are much, much larger than they actually are. This is a strategic mistake, one that’s likely to get a synopsis rejected on sight.

Seriously, agents who habitually sell manuscripts in your book category have a very clear sense of how big the general audience for that type of book is. While including demographic statistics for the specific target market for the specific subject matter of your tome is a good idea — as we discussed earlier in this series, Millicent may not be aware of just how many drive-in movie enthusiasts are out there; if your book happens to be about drive-in theatres, you might want to mention the size of the Drive-in Fan Club — exaggerated general claims are extremely unlikely to convince a professional reader that your book is marketable.

So kudos to Herodotus for being savvy enough not to claim that every English teacher in America will rush to buy this book!. Instead, he stuck with the much more believable assertion that pretty much anyone who stumbled upon his volume in a bookstore would be at least vaguely familiar with the story of HAMLET.

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

Yes, readers who have had their hands in the air since the top of the second example? “But Anne,” the sharp-eyed point out, “the formatting of the title is different for these two synopses. In the first, the subtitle has its own dedicated double-spaced line, but in the second, both title and subtitle are on the first line of the page. What gives?”

Well caught, patient hand-raisers. Either version is correct in a nonfiction synopsis. Generally speaking, longer subtitles tend to have their own lines, but unless either the title or subtitle is so long that it would be impossible to contain both on a single line, the choice is up to the writer.

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

Oh, and you know how I keep urging all of you to read every syllable of your synopses IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, rather than merely relying upon your word processing program’s spell- and grammar-checker, and to double-check that all proper names are spelled correctly? That last example provides an excellent reason to follow this advice religiously: because I was tired, I didn’t notice until after I posted the original version of this synopsis that Word’s spellchecker had changed Gesta Danorum to — I kid you not — Gestapo Decorum.

Which, while it would be a great title for a history about manners during the Second World War, was not what I meant. Thank goodness I did a dramatic reading of all of today’s examples at the brunch table, eh?

Just for fun, let’s take a peek at how a psychologist might synopsize the same basic story. Note how cleverly Dr. Welby works in his credentials.

Hamlet self-help synopsis

It’s fascinating how different these three takes on the same story are, isn’t it? From Millicent’s perspective, although they all draw on the same source material, each makes a beeline for its own book category.

And that’s how it should be. Signing off for now…

Still more hands just shot into the air, didn’t they? “But Anne,” those of you who believe that I don’t have anything else to do this weekend point out, “for both the novel and memoir synopses, you showed not just a 1-page version, but 3- and 5-page renditions as well. So where are the extensions of these, huh? Huh?”

Well, first, you might want to do something about that aggression you have going there; perhaps Dr. Welby’s self-help book could offer a few suggestions. I’m aware that there’s a common Internet-based assumption that every answer to any given searcher’s question should be instantly available on a single webpage — or, in this case, a single blog post — but as is so often the case, complex reality isn’t easily compressible into just a few hundred words.

That’s particularly true in this case — and for reasons that should be apparent to anyone in the throes of constructing a book proposal. While, as I mentioned above, expanding any of these 1-page synopses could be achieved by the simple expedients of beefing up the writer’s platform, adding statistics to back up claims about the target readership and the book’s importance to that readership (although Dr. Welby has already done an excellent job of demonstrating both), and telling more of Hamlet’s story as it relates to their respective arguments, my blowing up the first two of these useful text-bolsterers in order to fill the larger space allotment would involve my just making up background for the authors.

Fictional platform does not carry much example value, in my experience. Nor do made-up statistics, although since I did some actual research to construct the examples above, much of the content of the second and third examples is true. (Don’t quote it in your term papers, though, children: do your own archive-diving.) So while it would be amusing to expand these three examples — especially the first — the exercise probably would not help all of you nonfiction synopsis-writers a great deal. Sorry about that, truth-tellers.

In this evening’s post, I shall be tackling the ever-burning issue of how to write a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XV: alas, poor Yorick; I knew him in his 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions

hamlet and yorick

Is everyone excited about this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza schedule, or, as I like to think of it, the Saturday and Sunday of Synopses? In this morning’s post, I provided you with concrete examples of 5-, 3-, 2-, and 1-page synopses for the same story, so you might see the different level of detail expected in each, as well as how the content selection and tone might be varied to fit the story into a couple of other book categories.

To that noble end, I borrowed from a story most of you were likely to know, a little number called THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK, by an up-and-coming writer named William Shakespeare. This evening, I am going to use that same storyline to come up with examples of 1-, 3-, and 5-page synopses for memoir.

Hey, if you weren’t familiar with it before this morning’s post, you’ve certainly seen enough versions of it to be conversant with it now, right?

Why go over memoir synopses in their own post, since a savvy memoirist could use the same storytelling techniques as a novelist does to shape a compelling narrative? (For some tips on how to pull that off, please see my previous Synopsispalooza post on the subject.) Several reasons, actually.

First, as I mentioned in this morning’s post, the vast majority of aspiring writers in general — and, it’s safe to conclude, first-time memoirists in particular — have never seen a professional synopsis for their type of book. As, indeed, I surmised from plaintive-yet-practical questions like the following, posted by intrepid memoirist Pamela Jane on an earlier Synopsispalooza installment:

Is there any place where we can view an successful memoir synopsis? That would be wonderfully helpful.

As an experienced writing teacher, I make bold to interpret requests like this as an indication that I might not have been generating enough practical examples of late. Surely, that alone would make for an excellent second reason to devote an entire post to making up the shortfall. (And don’t worry, nonfiction-synopsizers who do not write memoir: I shall be churning out concrete examples for you tomorrow a.m.)

Third, and perhaps most important for instructive purposes, while memoir synopses share basic formatting and goals with novel synopses — chant them with me now, campers: any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format, and the primary purpose of a query or submission synopsis is not to summarize the book so well that every question is answered, but to prompt Millicent the agency screener to ask to see the manuscript — there are some essential differences. To name but three:

(1) A memoir synopsis should be written in the past tense, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the present tense.

(2) A memoir synopsis should be written in the first person singular, whereas a novel synopsis should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the book.

(3) A memoir synopsis should tell the story of the book in standard manuscript format, without special formatting for the introduction of new characters, whereas a novel synopsis should alert the reader to the first appearance of a character (but only the first) by presenting his name in all capital letters, preferably followed by his age in parentheses.

I suspect that none of those will come as a complete surprise to any of you memoirists out there, but as I’m not entirely sure whether I’ve covered #3 explicitly in a previous Synopsispalooza posts (hey, cut me some slack — do you have any idea how many pages of text it has already run?), let’s talk about it now. Although the capitalization convention is specific to fiction, Millicents (and their contest-judging aunts, Mehitabels) do frequently see memoir synopses with characters introduced as JOAN OF ARC (19). Heck, they occasionally break open submission envelopes to encounter memoirists introducing themselves as I, ARNETTE (7 at the beginning of the story).

That’s neither necessary nor expected in a memoir synopsis. Thus, while a memoir synopsis would mention that Milton Sedgwick sat next to me in my first-grade class. Evidently, he intended to major in yanking my pigtails, a novel synopsis might herald ol’ Milton’s advent in the story with MILTON SEDGWICK (6) devoted our first-grade year to yanking Janelle’s pigtails.

Yes, yes, I know: some of you have probably heard otherwise, but having sold a couple of memoirs, I know whereat I speak. Trust me, both Millicent and Mehitabel may be relied upon to understand that the perpendicular pronoun appearing frequently throughout the memoir synopsis refers to the author/protagonist; neither is at all likely to confuse you with your constantly-weeping track coach or your sociopathic sister just because you haven’t capitalized their names on the synopsis page.

Everybody clear on that? Please chime in with questions, if not; I would hate to have Millicent or Mehitabel perplexed by a half-capitalized set of characters on the synopsis page.

The fourth reason — yes, I’m still justifying, thanks — is the first cousin the first: since very few aspiring writers ever get a chance to take a peek at a professionally-formatted synopsis, some of you might not be aware that under no circumstances should a synopsis of any length be in business format. Or, to put it in terms every user of e-mail can understand, unless an agency’s guidelines, requested materials letter, or contest’s rules specifically ask you to include your synopsis in the body of an e-mail, a synopsis should NEVER be single-spaced, devoid of indentation at the beginning each paragraph, block-justified (i.e., with straight margins on both the left and right sides of the page), or contain a skipped line between paragraphs.

Again, is everybody clear on why that is the case? Not all aspiring writers are: Millicent and Mehitabel shake their heads on a daily basis at synopses formatted as though the writer were unaware (as is, indeed, often the case) that indenting paragraphs is not optional in English prose. Save the non-indented paragraphs and single-spacing for business letters and e-mail, where such barbaric practices belong.

Don’t you tell me that a query letter is a business letter. Part of presenting yourself professional entails adhering to the formatting standards of the industry you are seeking to join. Believe me, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses think of their business as exceptional.

So what should a properly-formatted memoir synopsis look like, whether it will be gracing a query packet, livening up a submission packet, or increasing your chances of winning in a contest entry? A little something like this 5-page synopsis for HAMLET — written, for your educational pleasure, from the melancholy Dane’s own point of view. (As always, if you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key while pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Hamlet memoir 5.1a

Hamlet memoir 5.2

Hamlet memoir 5.3

Hamlet memoir 5.4

Hamlet memoir 5.5

See how easy it would be for Millicent to tell from a quick glance at the first couple of lines that this is a synopsis for a memoir, not a novel? Or for Mehitabel to notice that an entry in the memoir category of her contest had accidentally ended up in the fiction category pile?

While we’re straining our eyeballs, trying to read like these two worthy souls, did anyone catch the gaffe on page 4? (Hint: it’s in the first line of the third full paragraph.)

Spot it now? To Millicent or Mehitabel, it would be fairly obvious what happened here: this synopsis was originally written as if it were for a novel, in the present tense. In the rush to change it over to the proper presentation for a memoir — possibly because the writer had only just learned that the past tense was proper for memoir synopses — one verb got missed.

And what’s the best preventative for that kind of Millicent-annoyer, campers? That’s right: reading your synopsis IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button.

As you may see, a 5-page synopsis (or the rare one that’s even longer) permits the memoirist to tell his story in some fairly complete detail. Like the novel synopsizer, he’s usually better off describing individual scenes within the story than simply trying to summarize huge chunks of activity within just a few quick sentences.

The same principle applies to the 3- or 4-page synopsis. Obviously, though, since there’s less room, Hamlet can describe fewer scenes:
Hamlet memoir 3.1

Hamlet memoir 3.2

Hamlet memoir 3.3

Admittedly, there are a few more summary statements here — the first paragraph contains a couple of lulus — but for the most part, this synopsis is still primarily made up of descriptions of scenes, not just hasty summaries of activity. Cause and effect remain clear. Notice, too, that the sentence structure varies throughout: none of the repetitive X happened and Y happened and Z happened that dog the average mid-length synopsis here.

As we saw in this morning’s post, quite a different strategy is required to pull off the dreaded 1-page synopsis. Here, our boy is going to have to rely pretty heavily on summary statements — but that does not mean specificity need be abandoned altogether.

Hamlet memoir 1 page

Still a pretty gripping yarn, isn’t it? That’s because Hamlet managed to retain the essential story arc, even when forced by length restrictions to jettison most of the scenes upon which his longer synopses rested.

If you’re still having trouble either seeing the difference between these levels of detail and/or are having trouble translating from theory into practice, don’t start out trying to synopsize your own book. Pick a story you know very well and try writing 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions of it. Repeat as often as necessary until you get the hang of it, then go back to your own opus.

Hey, writing a synopsis is a learned skill. What made you think you would be good at it without some practice?

Why start with somebody else’s book, you ask? If you’re not close to the story, it’s often easier to catch its essence — and that goes double if your story actually is your story.

Remember, the key to writing a great memoir synopsis of any length is to treat yourself as the most interesting character in the most interesting story in the world. Tell that story — but don’t leave either why you are fascinating or why your situation is compelling to Millicent or Mehitabel’s imagination. Make sure both show up on the page.

Hey, if Hamlet can compellingly retell the five-hour play of his life in 5-, 3-, and 1-page versions, so can you. Join me tomorrow for some nonfiction synopsis examples, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part X: the seductive power of the well-constructed synopsis. (Or several.)

Sorry about the unusually long silence, campers — I had a bit of a health setback. I’ll tell you a bit about it (and gloat over the long-overdue Nobel laurels bestowed upon comic novelist Mario Vargas Llosa) when I have a trifle more energy. In the meantime, back to the business at hand.

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

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

I don’t mean any of this humorously. (Okay, so I don’t mean it only humorously.) For years, I’ve been giving writers published and unpublished alike those old-fashioned Bozo Bop Bags — inflatable plastic with a weight in the bottom so every time you hit it, it bounces up again — as birthday and congratulations-on-landing-an-agent presents. Everyone laughs at first, but most of my recipients do report that they end up using them, possibly because it’s a whole lot more comforting to imagine Millicent looking like this:

Bozo Bop Bag

Than like this:

Harpy

My point is, the agent-seeking process and road to publication is genuinely frustrating, even for the lucky few for whom it is speedy. Don’t keep it inside, festering in your guts: do something constructive with it.

At least don’t do anything self-destructive with it. And for heaven’s sake, don’t loose it on an agent or editor until after you’ve signed a contract with ‘em.

Ideally, not even then. (And if you don’t understand why, please see my earlier post on the self-defeating nature of most writerly resentment aimed at the folks on the business side of the industry.)

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

Here’s a novel thought on how to do that: what if you crafted the first paragraph of your synopsis as carefully as the first paragraph of your book?

Not merely by including a hook, that much-recommended-by-English-comp-teachers-everywhere grabber of an initial sentence intended to suck the reader directly into the story of a novel or memoir, but by presenting a vivid impression of your fascinating protagonist in a situation rife with conflict, bolstered by juicy and unusual details that appeal to one or more of the reader’s visceral senses?

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

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

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

Sorry. If I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr — and writers and editors with my years of experience would not allow themselves to be cajoled into pulling all-nighters in order to comply with suddenly-moved deadlines and the brand-new demands of someone who has had three months to give feedback, but didn’t actually get around to it until three and a half days before he wanted the revised pages.

However, as even the most cursory glance at my schedule for the last week would tell you, I apparently do not run the universe. Unfortunate for all concerned, I think.

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

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

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

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, Virginia: I am about to suggest that you might want to come up with different versions to suit the different occasions, and not merely, as I intimated earlier in this series, to meet various length restrictions.

Take some nice, deep breaths, and that dizzy feeling will pass in a few seconds. While you’re regaining your bearings, I’m going to try to make the differences as clear as humanly possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what’s Millicent likely to do if she even flirts with that conclusion, campers? That’s right: next!

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

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

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

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

From the requesting agent’s point of view, a submission synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. Therefore, from the writer’s point of view, the submission synopsis is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

Repeat that last paragraph like a mantra while you are constructing your synopsis. Or while you’re punching out your Bozo.

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

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

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

In a word, yes, but not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Next time — or after I’ve caught up on my sleep, whichever comes first — I shall cover some tips on how to avoid the most common synopsis bugbears, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong.

That’s right, gang: it’s time for another of my trademark troubleshooting checklists. You know you love ‘em, even though they madden you. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part IX: for those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed, or, there is a proper time and place for primal screaming — and the synopsis page isn’t it

orangutan_yawn

I meant to post yesterday, honestly; blame my physical therapist’s fondness for crying out, “Just lean on your hands for another few minutes while we try X…” I use those hands for other things, as it turns out. I even had this half-written before PT yesterday, but all of my hand and wrist strength had been used up for the day.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: life is no respecter of deadlines.

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

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

Honestly, I get it. The newer a writer is to the task, the more impossible — and unreasonable — it seems.

And frankly, aspiring writers have a pretty good reason to feel that way about constructing synopses: it is such a different task than writing a book, involving skills widely removed from observing a telling moment in exquisite specificity or depicting a real-life situation with verve and insight, the expectation that any good book writer should be able to produce a great synopsis off the cuff actually isn’t entirely reasonable.

So it’s probably not utterly surprising that the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:

the-scream-detail

Rather than the way we feel when we polish off a truly stellar piece of writing, which is a bit more like this:

singing-in-the-rain

There’s just no getting around it: synopsis-writing, like pitch- and query-writing, is not particularly soul-satisfying. Nor is it likely to yield sentences and paragraphs that will be making readers weep a hundred years from now — fortunate, perhaps, because literally no one outside of an agency, publishing house, or contest-judging bee is ever going to see the darned thing. Yet since we cannot change the industry’s demand for them, all we writers can do is work on the supply end: by taking control of WHEN we produce our synopses, we can make the generation process less painful and generally improve the results.

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

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

First — and this is a big one – taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you have an actual conversation with an agent (either post-submission or at a conference) is going to make it easier for you to talk about your book professionally.

Don’t sneeze at that advantage, perennial queriers — it’s extremely important for conference-goers, e-mail queriers, and pretty much everyone who is ever going to be trying to convince someone in the publishing industry to take an interest in a manuscript, because (brace yourselves) the prevailing assumption amongst the pros is that a writer who cannot talk about her work professionally probably is not going to produce a professional-quality manuscript.

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

Why? Well, it’s sort of like the logic underlying querying: evaluating a 400-page manuscript based solely upon a single-page query letter — or, even more common, upon the descriptive paragraph in that query — is predicated upon the assumption that any gifted writer must be able to write marketing copy and lyrical prose equally well. (Cough, cough.) Similarly, conference pitching assumes that the basic skills an agent must have in order to sell books successfully — an ability to boil down a story or argument to its most basic elements while still making it sound fascinating, a knack for figuring out how it would fit into the current market, the knowledge to determine who would be the most receptive audience, editorial and reader both, for such a book, the bravery to tell someone in a position to do something about it — are lurking in the psyche of your garden-variety brilliant writer as well.

Come to think of it, querying and synopsizing effectively require most of those skills as well, don’t they? Particularly synopsizing, if you think about it like a marketer, rather than like a writer.

And yes, you should try to do that from time to time: contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, being market-savvy does not necessarily mean compromising one’s artistic vision or selling out. As any working artist could tell you, one can be a perfectly good artist and still present one’s work well for marketing purposes. Refusing to learn professional presentation skills does not improve one’s art one jot; all it does is make it harder to sell that art.

So force yourself to think like a marketer for a second, rather than the author of that 380-page novel: if you were the book’s agent, how would you describe it to an editor? Perhaps like this:

(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.

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

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

Or, if you were the agent for your nonfiction book, you might go about it like this:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter,

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it,

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject,

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points,

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

In short, you would be describing your book in professional terms, rather than trying to summarize the entire book in 1-5 pages. In fact, try thinking of your synopsis as the book’s first agent: its role is not to reproduce the experience of reading your manuscript, but to convince people in the publishing industry to read it.

Tell me: does thinking of the pesky thing in those terms make it seem more or less intimidating to write?

Although it may feel like the former, in the long term, taking the time to do this well usually helps a writer feel less intimidated down the line. Investing some serious time in developing a solid, professional-quality synopsis can be very, very helpful in this respect. The discipline required to produce it forces you to think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of complex art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating.

Not only will it be easier for you to sit down and write a synopsis for your next book (and the one after that), but by training yourself not to answer the question, “So what do you write?” with a short, pithy, market-oriented overview of the plot or argument, you are going to come across to others as much more serious about your writing than if you embrace the usual response of, “Well, um, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Again, that progress is nothing at which to be sneezing. An aspiring writer who has learned to discuss his work professionally is usually better able to get folks in the industry to sit down and read it. That’s not a value judgment — it’s a fact.

Half of you are shaking your heads in resentful disbelief, aren’t you? “But Anne,” those of you annoyed by the brevity of a requested synopsis point out, “you keep saying that every syllable an aspiring writer sends to an agency is a writing sample. So how can I NOT think of the 3-page synopsis they want me to send as a super-compressed version of my book? Let me be all stressed out over trying to fit 100 pages into a paragraph or two, already.”

I can tell you how: because you’ll drive yourself crazy if you think of it that way. The purpose of a synopsis is not to summarize the entire book; it is to give a swift overview of its high points. Thus, the synopsizer’s problem is not compression — it’s selection.

Does the sound of a thousand pairs of eyebrows crashing into hairlines mean that some of you had never thought of it that way before? Cast your eyes back over those lists of what is supposed to be in a professional synopsis: do any of those steps actually ask you to summarize the book?

No, they are asking you to hit the high points — but to present those high points like a readable story or single-line argument.

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

But think about it for a second: any agent who signs you is going to have to be able to rattle off the book’s high points in order to market it to editors. So is any editor who falls in love with it, in order to pitch it to an editorial committee.

See why they might want to have a synopsis by their sides? This is not a pointless hoop through which agents, editors, and contest rule-mongers force aspiring writers to jump in order to test their fortitude; a synopsis is a professional requirement, necessary for any of these people to help you bring your writing to your future reading public.

You’re feeling just the teensiest bit better about having to write the darned thing, aren’t you?

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

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? Everyone who has hung out with either pitchers or pitch-hearing agents has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that. Your manuscript has many, many other high points, doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

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

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

Hmm, wasn’t someone just talking about unprepared pitchers always going long?

I also suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all; to them, it’s just busywork that agents request of aspiring writers, a meaningless hoop through which they must jump in order to seek representation.

No wonder they hate it; they regard it as a minor species of bullying. But we all know better than that now, right?

All too often, the it’s-just-a-hoop mentality produces a synopsis that gives the impression not that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, but rather that he is deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all.

And that’s a problem, because to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up beautifully against the backdrop of a synopsis. It practically oozes off the page.

Unfortunately, the peevish synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent who screens queries and submissions would be more than happy to tell you, it’s as though half the synopsis-writers out there believe they’re entering their work in an anti-charm contest. The VAST majority of novel synopses simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents to see aspiring writers suffer.

(You’re chortling at this attitude by this point in the post, aren’t you, even if you were one of the many who believed it, say, yesterday? If not, you might want to go back and reread that bit about why the agent of your dreams actually does need you to provide her with a synopsis. But back to the resentment already in progress.)

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just do the bare minimum they believe is required, totally eschewing anything that might remotely be considered style. Or, even more commonly, they procrastinate about doing it at all until the last possible nanosecond, and end up throwing together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

It’s the query letter and the manuscript that count, right?

Wrong. In case you thought I was joking the other 47 times I have mentioned it over the last couple of weeks, EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample.

If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand. It honestly is that important to your querying and submission success.

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

Realistically, it’s not going to help your book’s progress one iota to engage in passive-aggressive blaming of any particular agent or editor. It’s even less sensible to resent their Millicents. They did not make the rules, by and large.

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

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

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

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

I know, the exercise sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

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

Next time, I shall delve very specifically into the knotty issue of how a synopsis folded up behind a cold query letter might differ from one that is destined to sit underneath a partial manuscript. In the meantime, try to indulge in primal screaming only when nobody else is around, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VI: you can tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a synopsis, but you just don’t have the space for the whole truth

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

Brace yourselves, campers: I’m going to be a positive fountain of apologies today. First, I’ve only just noticed that the post that I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon, then gone merrily on my way, assuming I had left you entertained and informed, apparently did not actually go up on Author! Author! until earlier today. I have no idea why. Technically, that is; I know why I took a couple of days off from posting. (Hint: dum de dum dum TO ME.)

Second, I’m sorry about the resolution of the picture above; something went wrong in the uploading process that I didn’t have time to figure out and fix because I’m currently writing on a pretty tight deadline. Third, my regrets about the fact that the dialogue I quoted above does not include the grammatically-necessary quotation marks found in the original text; my blogging program would not allow them in a caption, for some reason best known to its programmers. Fourth, I beg the forgiveness of every L. Frank Baum fan out there: I’ve only just noticed that the quote I used is not from Dorothy’s first visit to the Wizard — the subject of the drawing — but one of her companions’.

Fifth, my profound apologies to those of you who have been following this series on synopsis-writing who happen to be promoting a nonfiction book. Not everything I’ve covered so far in Synopsispalooza has applied to you.

In my defense, like so much of the above, that’s not entirely my fault: outside forces dictate that the fiction, memoir, and nonfiction synopsis must all be slightly different. Since novel and memoir synopses are typically closer than nonfiction synopses are to either, I tackled them first.

In the middle of this festival of summary I like to call Synopsispalooza, I’ve been concentrating for so far primarily upon the specialized problems of novel and memoir synopses. Specifically, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller.

For a memoir, this too is crucial: the most gripping real-life account is going to fall flat on the page if it’s not told well, right? So basically, a memoirist should use the same tactics as a novelist, except in the first person and the past tense: make the book sound like a terrific story.

Have I been gone so long that anybody out there does not remember how to pull that off in a 1-page synopsis? Just in case, let’s review its goals:

(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.

All of these aims are easily transferable to a memoir, right? All you have to do is think of the memoir as story, rather than autobiography, and yourself as the protagonist, and summarize accordingly.

Does that seem a trifle vague? Okay, I’ll be more specific: A 1-page synopsis for a memoir should answer all of these burning questions — and some of these should sound awfully familiar:

Who am I? (other than the memoir’s author, that is)

What is my background? (Specifically, the part of it that renders it interesting enough to read about for 350 pages — and no, neither rampaging narcissism nor “But I spent all of this time writing it!” are adequate answers.)

How and why was/am I an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Who were the people in my life in the midst of all of this interestingness, and how do they move my story along?

What were my hopes and dreams — and what were the major barriers to my bringing them to fruition? Alternatively, what were my fears and how realistic were they?

What would I have gained by attaining these goals — and what would I have lost if I did not?

Here is how charming I am to follow on the page. Please fall in love with me as a protagonist, me as a writer, and ultimately, me as a client/new author signed to the publishing house/contest winner.

Piece of proverbial cake to pull off in a page, right? 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.

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

Again, it’s not all that hard to envision synopsizing a memoir in this manner in 3 or 5 pages. Like a novel, a memoir — a good one, anyway — consists of fully-realized scenes, not just a litany I did this and I felt that. Treat Millicent the agency screener to snippets of those scenes, depicted as vividly as possible.

In other words: as for a novel synopsis, you should minimize the number of generalizations in your memoir synopsis. Instead, use as many concrete details as possible — and make sure to include some tidbits Millicent is highly unlikely to see in anybody else’s synopsis. Instead of concentrating upon cramming as much material as possible on the page, focus on making yourself sound original and fascinating.

My, I’m leaning upon the boldface button heavily this evening, amn’t I? It must be the weighty presence of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Yet for nonfiction — and, if I’m going to be honest about it, some memoir as well — the task of constructing a synopsis is a trifle more complicated. Yes, you do need to come across as a great storyteller with a fascinating story to tell (and argument to make), but you also are charged with the sometimes heavy burden of convincing Millicent that your subject matter as interesting and important, as well as that you are the best possible writer in the universe to consult about it.

Naturally, that case is quite a bit easier to make if your subject matter is already widely recognized as interesting and important. Especially if you happen already to be celebrated internationally for your prowess in explaining it. In that case, you already have what people in publishing call a platform: a demonstrated ability to be able to get people to pay attention to you when you talk on this particular subject.

(Speaking of which, I’ve a favor to ask: over the years, quite a number of you have asked when I am planning to release this blog in book form, so you may have it sitting on your desk as you write. I am seriously considering pulling together a book proposal for a blog-based book this fall, and I could use some glowing blurbs of entreaty and/or testimonials from blog readers to dress up the proposal. If you’d like to help me out and earn my undying gratitude, drop me a line in the comments, and I shall contact you off-site. Thanks!)

If you are not already commanding public attention for your wit and wisdom on the subject matter of your nonfiction project, don’t worry — contrary to depressed murmurings on the writers’ conference circuit, a writer does not need to be already famous in order to have a platform for a particular book.

Yes, really. Trust me, I have a LOT of experience writing all three types of synopsis, as it happens: in recent years, I’ve sold both a memoir and a nonfiction book to publishers, and my second novel is making the rounds even as I type this. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run. (And if someone would be willing to say in a blurb that I’m more respected and feared than Oz in his heyday, there might be a candy bar in it for you. I just mention.)

In a nonfiction synopsis of any length, your goal is sixfold — and as those annoying disembodied voices on business’ voice mail systems so love to say, please listen carefully, as our options have changed in recent years:

(1) to present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) to mention in passing who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (the Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Harpo Marx Fan Club, the entire scientific community, etc.);

(4) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail (hey, you’re on your own on this one);

(5) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (not the same thing as official, organized interest, necessarily), and

(6) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book (not, alas, always self-evident to our Millie).

In answer to that immense gulp I just heard: yes, a nonfiction writer does need to pull that off in anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis. Oz was impressed, I’m told.

Nonfiction writers tend to have been stellar students, so I’m not at all astonished to see a plethora of hands politely raised already. Good students are frequently full of questions. “But Anne,” many of you point out politely — and believe me, I appreciate it. “That list above reads strikingly like the goals of a book proposal, a lengthy, heavily-detailed document that, correct me it I’m wrong, entire multi-page sections devoted to each of the numbered issues above. If I’m expected to accomplish all of that heavy lifting in the synopsis, what on earth am I supposed to be accomplishing in the proposal?”

The same thing, actually, but at greater length and with more evidence. Next question?

Just kidding; no need to burst into tears at the prospect. Lean in closer, and I’ll let you in on a little well-kept professional secret: a good nonfiction synopsis is not just a summary of the book’s argument, but a super-short book proposal.

Think of it as proposal concentrate. Add a sample chapter, a competitive market analysis, and an annotated table of contents, stir, and hey, you’ve got a book proposal. Not as tasty as fresh-squeezed, perhaps, but Millicent doesn’t have time to watch you argue it from scratch at the query packet stage.

I can feel you tensing up, but seriously, there’s no need. If you can write a book proposal — and you can, if you know enough about your subject matter to write a book — you can construct a really good nonfiction synopsis.

Where to begin, you ask? Well, I used to tell everyone who would listen that the argument was the most important element of a nonfiction synopsis — if it doesn’t come across as coherent and well-reasoned, after all, the book project is sunk. However, watching how nonfiction books are being marketed and bought these days, I’ve changed my tune. (To Dum de dum dum TO ME, apparently.)

Now, Oz the Great and Terrible is telling you that the single most vital aspect of a successful nonfiction synopsis lies in framing the central question of the book in a way that makes it appear not only interesting to Millicent – who, let’s face it, is almost certainly not going to be a specialist in your subject area; she was (or is) an English major, probably at a highly respected New England college — but likely to catch the notoriously fickle eye of the media. Basically, the synopsis needs to present the book’s concept as easy to promote to an already-existing audience.

If you doubt that, take a quick run to your local megabookstore and take a gander at how many political memoirs are coming out this month. It’s not that their subject matter is necessarily more fascinating than other nonfiction topics, or even, in many cases, that the author has such a terrific platform for telling the behind-the-scenes story. (The classic response of White House officials to tell-all books has historically been, “Who? Oh, didn’t he work here once for a week? I don’t even remember what he looked like.”) No, it’s that even the most poorly-written of these books are likely to be discussed on television and radio shows already devoted to such topics.

Hey, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t feed itself, you know.

Thus, at the risk of observing the obvious, a query packet synopsis that makes Millicent exclaim by the end of the first paragraph, “Oh, this one would be a cinch to promote!” is far, far more likely to generate a request to see the book proposal than one that prompts her to muse, “Hmm, this is beautifully written. Too bad only four people in Southwestern Montana will be interested.”

Up go the hands again. “Excuse me, Anne? I had gathered from your Querypalooza series — conveniently gathered for the benefit of those who missed it under the category of that name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page — that I was supposed to use the platform paragraph of my query to make the case that a readership already exists for my book. Wouldn’t tackling that again here be redundant?”

Ah, but synopses often end up places that query letters do not. A 1-page nonfiction synopsis might, for instance, sit by the phone for easy reference while an agent pitches the proposal to an editor; a 5-page synopsis might get circulated to an editorial committee before the acquiring editor makes and offer. The better a micro-proposal it is, the better legwork it can do for its writer.

That being said, the synopsis’ presentation of how and why the central problem of the book is typically a bit different from the query’s. It’s longer, for one thing, and less likely to include an explicit statement of how many articles The New York Times has run on the subject within the last two years.

It’s also more likely to be in the form of a story — and before any of you writing books on particle physics start guffawing, hear me out.

Every problem can be framed in the form of a tale; if you doubt that, just crack open any 7th-grade math textbook and take a gander at the word problems. While a purely technical exposition may well seem dry to the non-specialist, vividly-told real-world example of what can and does go wrong if the central problem of the book is not solves can instantly answer the questions, “So why will anybody care about this?” A gripping anecdote can serve the same function for a historical account.

So why not open your synopsis with a gripping one- or two-paragraph anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake in solving the problem tackled by the book?

Don’t laugh — it works. Especially for any sort of biography or memoir, a brief foray into storytelling can demonstrate not only that the writer is a fine storyteller, but can provide an intriguing entree to a subject that might at first glance appear dull to the non-specialist. Which, for example, does a better job of explaining the importance of breakthrough in sewing machine technology, this:

In the old days, a surprising number of textile workers lost fingers or even hands in industrial sewing machine accidents. Tamlyn Baker pondered the problem for forty-five years, invented a new kind of threading machine, then died in obscurity.

Or this:

The thread broke: for the eighth time that month, a burlap sack-maker lost a finger. Like the others, this woman would be fired and go home to tell her children to prepare to starve. Tamlyn swore once again to perfect her hands-free threading device, even if she had to burn every candle in the Midwest staying up to do it.

Okay, so the latter is a trifle melodramatic — but if you were Millicent, which book proposal would you request?

The second most important element of a nonfiction synopsis is the argument: it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order, rather than jumping around or leaving pieces out. No need to be pedantic about it, of course: In Chapter Eight… is not a transition likely to impress Millicent with your storytelling acumen.

Why is showing the basic argument of the book so important? Well, in a nonfiction synopsis, you should not only show the content of the book, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, you in the tenth row? “But Anne, this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my manuscript? Or at least my proposal?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a refreshing mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors because they have literally nothing else to do all day.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jean Harlow on his back, waving sparklers and smooching Clark Gable?

Okay, back to the real world: realistically, a nonfiction synopsis does indeed need to encapsulate the argument that it takes an entire book to make in just a couple of pages — or at least to establish the central question and indicate how you’re going to go about answering it.

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, an agent (or editor at a small publishing house) will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can she possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time? The one-page version perhaps, but the 5-page?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s about the maximum your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, Millicent’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, nonfiction queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels these days — and that’s saying something.

Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction. At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for nonfiction writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

So assume two minutes, maximum, possibly less. Let’s face it, this isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup.

Even if Mom’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s, you may find yourself in a descriptive pickle.

It is more than enough page space, however, to demonstrate that you have the writing skills to make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. It’s also enough time to show that you have a coherent plan for proving your propositions, and for indicating what evidence you intend to use.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it’s because the single most common mistake nonfiction synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise, with no indication of how they intend to make their case. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the nonfiction synopsis. Period. If it doesn’t appear to hold water — yes, even in a 1-page synopsis — the book simply isn’t going to strike the industry as marketable.

To make it appear as solid in the synopsis as I’m sure it is in the proposal and/or manuscript, don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people?

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to work that into the synopsis, early on. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter and explain what your book is going to teach people about it;

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Ultimately, how will both these readers and the world around them be better off because they read this book?

Oh, you don’t think your work is that important? If you don’t believe that your writing is capable of making the world a better place, why put in all of the effort to write it, break your heart querying, or bite your nails down to the elbow while you are waiting to hear yea or nay on your book proposal?

Once you have made the book’s worth clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other will? Of course, I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic.

Remember, it’s your job to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, a good nonfiction synopsis needs to show how the book’s take on the topic on it is original.

At the risk of repeating myself, in order to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book.

Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

Have I convinced you yet that you really do need to present a cohesive, well-argued theory here? And did I happen to mention the importance of its being cohesive?

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s 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.

Oh, don’t groan. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter overview anyway, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you overlook working in a brief explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis: while a platform always helps for a novelist, it’s often not practicable for a science fiction writer to say, “I’m an expert on life on the planet Targ, having lived there for forty-seven Targian years (two months our time),” is it?

If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, it’s even more vital to make these points clear. The synopsis needs to render it apparent to Millicent and Maury at a glance why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

In answer to the small, instinctive moans of protest that just escaped from your gullet: yes, this is repetitive with material you will cover in your book proposal. As I mentioned above, in most of the contexts in which your synopsis will travel — tucked into an envelope with a query letter; accompanying a sample chapter or contest entry; floating around a publishing house after an editor has already fallen in love with your proposal — the reader will not also be clutching your proposal.

In other words: don’t count on its being available to make your case. Your goal should be to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

As always, there is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this paragraph achieves Goals #3 and #4:

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 the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question was an excellent hook: it grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis.

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks.

No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are. Shame on you.

Take yourself out for a cupcake if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. (Which I made up wholesale for example’s sake, so for heaven’s sake, don’t quote it elsewhere.) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

Currently, two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable piece of marketing material for your book? Well, no matter how large the prospective audience for your book is (unless it is an already such a well-covered market that anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected know about it, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size.

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book. Oz, the Great and Terrible, tells you that more often than not, they will.

While Oz’ booming tones are echoing around in your brainpan, I think I shall end for the day, so all of your nonfiction writers out there may go off and meditate upon your target demographic and why it desperately needs your book. Join me tomorrow for another Synopsispalooza post, everyone, and keep up the good work!

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!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XVI: what’s black and white and read all over?

skunk on a rampageglasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car

Answer: not a synopsis, necessarily. It’s only read sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified. “You drive me to distraction, Anne,” many synopsizers cry, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending weeks on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here?”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do — at least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries. As in under 30 seconds a piece.

Before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math. If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money off reading queries at all; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. Oh, they might see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case any of you have been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing in at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their agents into switching.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing to 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, a half- or full-time employee. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically necessary, I’m afraid.

So how will she decide which to read and which to skip? The ones that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to pass by, as would those whose query letters prompted a rejection. If Millie’s already decided to give the project a pass, she doesn’t need to spend any more time on the query packet, right?

By the same token, she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of incentive to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why spend the extra minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where she’s on the fence about requesting pages — which means that the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by gum, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Millicent probably would not read even a line of this one.)

I’m going to level with you here: on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it. Yet setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and insane typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. The first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease,

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is not an adequate character-identifying phrase. Where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns?

And so forth. My point is, Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her yea-or-nay decision on the query packet is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping here on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into demonstrating a couple of matters I touched upon briefly earlier in this series. As I devoutly hope those of you who have been paying close attention recall,

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a couple of concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author — me, but play along with my conceit here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s now look at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? If the query letter fell into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or mentioning up front that it’s based on real events, Millicent could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? This is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way. Use either that looks best to you, but be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

You are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon, next week, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XV: I’m okay, you’re okay, and so is a little definitional ambiguity, or, all right, already — I’ll do a post on synopsis length

medic waving white flag

I thought that I’d tied up the last few dangling loose ends of this extended (not to mention new and improved!) series on synopsis-writing, honest I did. I fully expected to be moving on to that last common query and submission packet ingredient, the author bio.

The muses had other ideas about how I should spend my day, apparently.

How do I know what the Old Girls are up to these days? Oh, I interpret omens, like everybody else involved in publishing: for some reason mortals are powerless to explain, for instance, Dan Brown’s prose continues to be super-popular while the work of many a fine author wielding subtle plot devices and interesting sentence structures languishes on the remainder table. While many a book-watcher would conclude that this is a sure sign that the Muses are either in a collective coma or on a very, very long vacation, I choose to take it as an indication that the Ladies on High would simply like all of us to pay a trifle less attention to the bestseller lists.

Sometimes, though, the messages from the muses are a trifle more direct. Take, for instance, the three nearly identical questions posted by three apparently unrelated readers within the last few weeks:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Strikingly similar, aren’t they? Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites this month, or are aspiring writers not reading as well as they were a month ago? Or is that rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times you hit them with the stick of truth, they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if these questions were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is it the fact that the term is redundant by definition? Or are they just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I am constantly hearing from agents and editors who complain that writers can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

In short, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Generally speaking, aspiring writers want far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than they’re getting, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was there a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to the question, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, bit not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would, of course, miss the point of the question entirely.

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s not knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon ALL of the queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of professionalism. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that every agency’s guidelines seem to call for something different? Or that many of them are vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: If they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how easily it is for aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over commas; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned last time, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term a brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly benefit them?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here, and 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Think about it: if there were one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post guidelines?

In short, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I’m encouraging in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Think about it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book summary?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong; she doesn’t get why you don’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift.

It might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

The fact is, it’s really quite rare that a submission, or even a query, has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, sending in a four-page brief synopsis rather than the 5-page one the agent might have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, for starters, that an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on.

Believe it or not, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

Is everyone clear on the length issue? Or is someone planning to e-mail me the dreaded question again six hours from now? No, but seriously, folks, I guess I should have devoted a post entirely to this question years ago; how lucky that the muses poked three readers in a row to ask the relevant question.

Many thanks to whichever muse coordinated that effort. But if you found this post at all helpful, may I ask you to do me a favor right now?

Please leave a comment with your suggestion for the category name under which this post should repose on the archive list at right. It shouldn’t be more than about 30 characters (slug line length!), but it should catch the eye of someone running down the list, looking for an answer to the question, “If guidelines don’t specify a length, how long should a synopsis be?”

If you were about to suggest HOW LONG SHOULD A SYNOPSIS BE? as the heading, I’m way ahead of you: in my experience, people scanning the S section of the list tend to miss categories that begin with Hs.

Why am I asking for your help in this? Because I happen to know from past questions that all three of the readers who brought this up are quite good at finding answers online. My guess — and my own brief research on what else is out there for aspiring writers bears this out — is that while this question comes up in writers’ forums, pros in the field seldom take it on.

See earlier comment about thinking like an agent or editor. It’s just not a question that someone who has been at it a while would think to ask.

I was also kind of disturbed by the responses I got when I asked a few fellow writers-on-writing if they’d been getting this particular question more lately. (Hey, when I do research, I do research.) Literally all of them advised me to ignore the questions BECAUSE they were repeated, perhaps with the addition of telling question-repeaters that on a blog where readers ask really good questions all the time, reading the earlier comments on an ongoing series might make some sense. They also pointed out, with some justification, that I’ve provided so many categories on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page that readers don’t always take the time to do a site search using the easy-to-use search engine located at the upper right-hand side of this page. Those bloggers over 35 concluded their feedback with diatribes about how much it annoys them that so many people now believe that if the answer to a question doesn’t pop up in the first three pages of a Google search, that’s the extent of research possible on the subject.

As you may have noticed, I chose to eschew this collective advice. Oh, I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally want to follow their lead and bellow at readers to check the archives, or that I might from time to time think about not revisiting topics for which there are already several hundred well-identified posts clearly labeled on the right-hand side of this page. I’m aware that most readers don’t archive-dive on a regular basis; that’s why I come back to pitching once per year and standard format at least twice. Some readers peruse only the latest issue; others read intensely for a short period, then stop; still others come tearing up, breathlessly wanting one very specific question answered. To make it accessible for everyone without boring the daily readers into a stupor, I try to keep things lively.

And I’m not going to claim that it isn’t kinda annoying to receive several e-mails three times per week accusing me of never having covered subjects that have their own categories on the archive list. Which makes this a good time to reiterate my question policy for the benefit of those of you who missed my last request on the matter: if you have a question or suggestion, PLEASE post it as a comment; it’s infinitely more time-consuming for me to answer one question a hundred times via e-mail than to answer it once as a comment. Trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person who has your question; if you ask it in public, then everyone else who is curious can benefit from the answer.

But frankly, I worry about the reader who stumbles upon my blog at 3 AM when the query or submission packet is going into the mail at 9 AM. There’s a LOT of material here — don’t take my word for it; read any of the 15 e-mails I receive per week telling me that it’s intimidating and I really should a narrow it down to four or five pages that tell every aspiring writer everything he needs to know about the publishing process and leave it at that.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I find the notion of barking unexplained orders at confused aspiring writers really distasteful. I spend a lot of time here trying to make a genuinely opaque process more comprehensible, so I’m certainly not going to dumb down my approach. (And the 30 e-mail admirers I hear from every week cheer! Thanks for the support, but my agent’s going to be a lot more impressed if you post your kind thoughts here.)

But I do want the panicked to be able to find the answers to their questions. So I ask again: how should I title it in order to catch that bleary 3 AM eye?

A final wrap-up on synopses follows next time — and I mean that, muses. Keep me abreast of those new writerly legends, everybody (via the comments, please). And keep up the good work!