Synopsispalooza, Part XVIII: the story’s not just about that melancholy Dane, is it?

Ophelia's mad scene

All aglow with excitement, writers of multiple-protagonist novels? I sincerely hope so, because last time, we whiled away an autumn Sunday evening discussing an array of strategies for folding spindling mutilating gently compressing a work of literature told from several distinct points of view — or by several different narrators — into (gusty sigh) the 1-page synopsis that so many agency guidelines and contest rules seem to be requiring these days.

And what did the golden rule of not driving yourself crazy in a valiant attempt to squish 400 pages of narrative told from 8 perspectives into 1 page of readable text? Not those panicked 40-pages-boiled-down-to-a-sentence generalizations so popular with first-time synopsizers everywhere, but not even trying to replicate the narrative complexity of the book in a space that scanty. Instead, in a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective book, tell the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

I suspect that conclusion did not altogether astonish those of you who had been following the rest of last weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza posts: as we saw in Saturday morning’s post on 1-, 3-, and 5-page novel synopses, Saturday evening’s dizzying array of memoir synopses, and Sunday morning’s multiple takes on a nonfiction synopsis, a 1- or 2-page synopsis has different goals than its longer counterparts.

Oh, the primary purpose of any query or submission synopsis, regardless of length, is to generate a great longing in our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to see all or part of the actual manuscript, of course, but in a 1-page synopsis, all a novelist really has space to pull off is to demonstrate the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it. Preferably entertainingly, and ideally, in a voice and tone similar to that of the book.

Or, to put it in the checklist format we’ve been embracing throughout Synopsispalooza, a 1-page synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

Those expectations remain basically the same, regardless of how many protagonists or narrators any given manuscript might happen to be able to boast. It’s not as though a querier, submitter, or contest entrant can shout at Millicent or Mehitabel, “Wait — my manuscript has more narrators than all of those other queriers/submitters/competitors for a blue ribbon in your fine literary contest. It’s only fair to give me more space for my synopsis, since I have more to summarize. About ten times as much should be about right,” and expect her to waive any pre-set length restrictions.

Oh, s/he can shout it until s/he is blue in the face, if s/he wants to give Millicent and Mehitabel a good laugh. That one should have ‘em rolling in the aisles. But the instant they stop chuckling, either will say, “No, but seriously, where’s your 1-page synopsis?”

So just tell the story of your book, as any other novelist would. As we saw last time, a successful 1-page synopsis for a multiple-perspective novel need not — and should not — contain any discussion of the narrative choices at all. To revisit our favorite plotline:

1-page Hamlet

Yes, this 1-page synopsis would work equally well for a single-voiced telling of HAMLET as for one that followed Hamlet, his father, his mother, Ophelia, and Horatio around in the tight third person in alternating chapters, now that you mention it. Or even, since a novel synopsis should always be in the third person, no matter what the narrative voice of the book might be, a version where Ophelia and Hamlet narrate in the first person, Hamlet, Sr. and Gertrude’s perspectives are presented in the third person, and the reader is implicitly drafted into operating as both a castle guard and Greek chorus throughout versions told in the second person plural.

The possibilities are endless. A very flexible document, that 1-page synopsis.

Actually, since the synopsis is not the proper place to be discussing point of view choices, anyway, all of you multiple perspective-mongers could extend the same logic to a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis: tell the book’s story precisely as you would if the manuscript did not feature interestingly different point-of-view choices. Seriously, it could work, and very well, too.

Do those hundreds of pencils, pens, and wadded up pages of synopsis draft flying in my general direction mean that some of you don’t believe me? Okay, let’s try an experiment: take a gander at this 3-page synopsis of the same story — and, as always, if you find you are having trouble making out the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

All through? Excellent. Now let me ask you: how does the manuscript described in that synopsis tell the story? Is it written in the tight third person? A distant third person? Is it in the voice of an omniscient narrator, or the voice of one of the characters?

Come on, admit it: it’s possible that the book is told in the voices of several of the characters, isn’t it?

Again, that’s not entirely accidental, since a novel synopsis for any of those narrative choices would need to be written in the third person, rather than the voice(s) of the book, and eschew English Lit-class discussion of protagonists and antagonists, right? In fact, any 3-, 5-, or even 8-page novel synopsis could share essentially the same structure — and definitely shares the same goals.

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise(s),

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

(4) show the central story arc(s) through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(5) show how the plot’s primary conflict(s) is resolved.

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

#6 just put some wind back into some diversity of voice-lovers’ sails, didn’t it? “But Anne,” the full-sailed crow triumphantly, “aren’t you hoist with your own petard? How can I possibly demonstrate the voice of the book in my synopsis when my novel is written in 14 distinctly different voices? Obviously, I’m going to need to reserve some page space to explain that — because, equally obviously, I don’t want my beautifully differentiated array of perspectives to be mistaken for some manuscript told entirely from (ugh!) one point of view.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Millicent expects voice and perspective choices to be a pleasant surprise not revealed to her until she actually starts reading the manuscript. So no matter how cleverly constructed your 14 voices might be — and kudos if you’ve managed to make each distinct; after 2-3, multi-voiced narratives often begin to blur a trifle — the synopsis is not the right place to bring them up.

I feel your pain, though, former crowers: this approach probably sounds an awful lot like being told to ignore all of your protagonists but one. “Here we go again,” you’re probably muttering under your breath, “expecting my book to be just like everybody else’s: the story of an interesting person in an interesting situation. By definition, though, a GOOD multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations! How can I possibly choose?”

How about by not choosing to privilege one protagonist over the others? Even in a 3- or 5-page synopsis, your best bet is to tell the story of the book, not the various stories of the characters.

Hey, you did it for the 1-page synopsis, right?

Stop wincing; repeating that nifty trick for the higher dives of the longer synopses may not be as hard as you think. For a novel with multiple protagonists to work, it must have an underlying unitary story — necessarily, unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories. (Which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried and submitted as such.) Even if it is told from the point of view of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That commonality makes far more sense as focus of your synopsis than many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell the story in your book. Strip the story to its basic elements, and talk about that for 3-5 pages. To be absolutely blunt about it, at the synopsis stage, you’ll probably have an easier time pleasing Millicent with a simplified version of a complex storyline, anyway.

Why, you demand in horrified tones? Well, there’s a practical reason — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason.

Let’s take the most straightforward one first: from Millicent’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within those first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie. That’s even more likely to happen in a pitch — unless the pitcher makes it absolutely clear right off the bat how all of those names are all tied together, the pitch-hearer’s eyes will begin to glaze over.

How might that affect even a very careful synopsizer of a multiple-protagonist plot? As I mentioned earlier in Synopsispalooza, it’s actually fairly common for novel synopses to talk about several characters in some detail, leaving Millicent to guess which is the main character. As a matter of expedience, then, most experienced Millicents will simply assume that the first character mentioned by name in a synopsis is the protagonist.

Well might you gasp, writers of multiple points of view. If a synopsis for a multiple protagonist novel were written to be purely reflective of the order of events in the plot — the most popular means of structuring a fiction synopsis, always — and the person who happens first to take action on page 1 is not the primary plot-mover in the rest of the book, Millicent is likely to wonder where he’s gone. She’s also, unfortunately, prone to stop reading if the welter of names gets too confusing.

Yes, yes, I know: for writers of character-heavy prose, this may seem grossly unfair, but try to picture what’s going through Millicent’s head just before she makes the decision to move on to the next query or submission packet. She’s been reading packets for hours on end; if all of the named characters from all of those synopses suddenly rushed into her office, the floor would collapse. Then, with all of those proper names and premises swirling around in her head, her next synopsis begins like this:

Hamlet chronological synopsis

Come on, own up: all of those names had your head spinning by the middle of the second paragraph, didn’t they? Even the most open-minded professional reader would be likely to zone out at that point. There’s just too much to remember.

To those of you who are chortling at the notion that remembering twelve names in two paragraphs might strike anyone as being a heavy intellectual burden, I have a question for you: if you didn’t already know what the play was about, which of those 12 characters would you think was the most important to the story, based upon this account?

Not so easy when you’re on the other side of the submission packet, is it? The play’s not called FRANCISCO, GUARD OF ELSINORE, campers — but I think we can all begin to appreciate why a weary-eyed Millicent in her fifth hour of opening query packets might leap to that conclusion.

Still not convinced that a laundry list of plot points is not the best synopsis strategy for a complex narrative like yours? Including that much detail is an incredibly inefficient use of space. Lest you doubt: the full page above takes us only up to midway through Act I, Scene V; HAMLET has five acts.

At that rate of summation, how many pages would the synopsis have to be to contain the whole plot? 15? 20?

No wonder so many writers of multiple POV novels find themselves banging their foreheads against their computer monitors in frustration over requested synopses, shrieking, “5 pages? That’s impossible! I mean, if they allowed me 10, I might have a chance, but…” A completely understandable reaction, if the goal actually were to boil down the entire plot and narrative choices of a 500-page novel down to those 5 pages.

Fortunately, it’s not. While I sympathize heartily with the angst those head-bangers experience, the problem here isn’t really the length of the synopsis — it’s the writer’s insistence upon seeing the plot and the narrative structure as so inextricably interwoven that story cannot be broken out from it. Thus the frustration: the task of summarizing everything in the manuscript is, in fact, an impossible one.

First-time pitchers often set themselves the same mile-high hurdle, by the way. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake. And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 4.

Out of 27.

How does this happen? Thinking of the book as an integrated whole incapable of dissection, mostly — that, and not having much practice talking about their work with professionals, or even other writers. I’m perpetually astonished by how often first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before approaching an agent. Not having had the experience of observing just how quickly the average hearer’s eyes glaze over, they think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean ENTIRE. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that, in either a pitch or a synopsis. If you ramble on too long in either, the person on the receiving end may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

Word to the wise: keep it snappy, and emphasize the storyline.

If you are totally at a loss about how to begin to figure out what is essential, enlist the assistance of a sympathetic friend who has not yet read your manuscript. (No fudging on this point, or the exercise won’t work.) Ideally, you’ll want to choose someone with a fine memory and a good sense of humor, as the favor you are about to ask is likely to try her patience.

Find her a comfortable seat, hand her a pad of paper and a pen, and ask her to take notes on the story you are about to tell. Set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes and start talking about your book.

If the time runs out before you have finished with the story, have her tear up her notes before your doubtless watering eyes. (Yes, it’s cruel, but nobody ever said trimming a complex plot was easy, right?) Then reset the timer and start again at the beginning of the book.

Once you have made it all the way through the plot in the allotted time, take a quick glance at her notes, your handy highlighters in hand. Mark every reference to perspective; do the same with any bottom-lining summary statements about characterization along the lines of Bertrand was a busy man. Hand the pad back to your long-suffering friend, grab your own notepad, and ask her to tell the story back to you, leaving out the highlighted parts. Make a note of every major plot point and scene she mentions — and no fair correcting her if she leaves out elements you consider essential.

After you have praised your helpful friend to the skies, promised to heap her with appropriate tokens of your undying gratitude, and sent her home for some well-deserved rest, take a long, hard look at your notes. If someone unfamiliar with the book heard just those bullet points, would he be able to follow the story? If not, what patches would be necessary before he could?

If your list of plot points does not yield an outline that you can use as a structure for a 3-, 4-, or 5-page synopsis, don’t be downhearted — that wasn’t the point of the exercise. The goal here is to help you become comfortable of thinking of your manuscript as a story, not as a collection of words on paper.

Didn’t see that coming, did you? I freely admit it: this is not the kind of practical exercise I usually assign, but it’s essential for anyone tackling the daunting task of writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel to stop thinking of the book as a collection of disparate characters’ stories. There’s a communal story there somewhere. The more often you tell your story out loud beginning to end — and, I must say it, the more sensitive you become to the points at which your hearer begins to fidget with impatience because you’re going into too much detail — the more prepared you will be to sit down and write a synopsis that focuses upon that story, not the narrative tricks.

I know that it’s counterintuitive, but in a synopsis for a complex plot about complex characters, the fewer the narrative tricks, the better, generally speaking. Remember, yours is almost certainly not going to be the only synopsis that Millicent has read recently, and if she is even remotely backlogged, she will be skimming: drawing your plot in broad strokes is more likely to draw her in than super-intense blocks of minute twists.

One of the simplest ways to steer her in the right direction is to talk about only one or two characters in the opening paragraph, setting the stage, as it were, for the rest of the synopsis to be about those people. Clearly, this may not be a viable solution for a novel about, say, 7 or 8 people, unless there happens to be a scene near the opening of the book where they all appear.

In practice, the opposite is often the case: many, many multiple perspective manuscripts don’t bring all of the protagonists together until the final chapter or scene. Yet another reason that organizing the synopsis to be slavishly reflective of the book’s running order, including each and every plot point, may not be helpful at all. In fact, it might even be harmful to the story’s clarity.

But before any of you run rushing I hasten to add: that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to open your synopsis with, Once upon a time, there were 18 protagonists…, either. Or even, in the case of our last example: My version of the Hamlet legend is told from the points of view of five protagonists: Prince Hamlet, his father, his mother, his girlfriend, and his best friend.

Oh, I realize that stating the perspective rules up front might seem like the most straightforward way to minimize the probability of Millicent’s spending the first three pages of your 5-page synopsis waiting for Francisco and Bernardo to dominate the plot once more. I also, from years of teaching pitching and querying classes, am aware that to most writers of multiple-protagonist novels, the point of view choices are the very first thing mentioned when describing their books.

If the number of voices is not the most important fact for Millicent to grasp about the manuscript, this emphasis seems to imply, it’s certainly the most interesting. Actually, from the writer’s point of view, there’s an excellent reason to think of a multiple POV manuscript in this manner: the different perspectives are an integral part of the story being told.

From the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are indeed monumentally important. But from a marketing point of view — which is to say: the view of anybody who has worked at an agency or publishing house, ever — they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question.

Yes, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written — and yes, that would be a problem, if Millicent genuinely expected a 3- or 5-page synopsis to provide her the same experience as reading the book. Fortunately for the sanity of synopsizers everywhere, however, she knows the difference between a 450-page manuscript and a 5-page synopsis of it.

When I say that a good synopsis gives some indication of the voice and tone of the book, I’m not referring to the literal voices that make up a multi-narrator narrative. I’m talking about literary voice: the way of using words, the rhythm, the vocabulary choices, the sentence structures. In a smoothly integrated multi-voiced narrative, the authorial voice carries over into each and every protagonist’s narration, right?

What I’m suggesting, then, is that for the purposes of writing your longer synopsis, you should mentally separate the overall story from how you have chosen to tell it in the book; continuing to think of them as inextricably linked will render writing a compelling overview significantly more difficult. Instead, try creating an new character — an omniscient third-person narrator who stands outside the story, yet knows everything that’s going on.

Why, that’s you, isn’t it? Who better to tell the book’s story to Millicent in the synopsis?

What’s that you’re wailing, campers? That this advice would require you to come up with yet another narrative voice? Why is that problematic, when part of the point of shoving this synopsis into your query or submission packet is to show Millicent that you can write. If you can — and you can, can’t you? — telling the book’s story in your own voice as the novel’s creator, rather than from the POV of any individual character, should be, if not a walk in the park, at least a doable jog several times around the duck pond.

And, honestly, isn’t it a more interesting challenge than either trying to show each protagonist’s initial situation and conflict in succession in such a short amount of page space or just listing the book’s events in chronological order? It’s certainly more likely to show off your writing talents than the usual first-time synopsis-writer’s method of just summarizing everything in the book as bluntly as possible.

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as, “Well, a missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.”

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise. Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it make for a strong synopsis tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a paragraph on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on? We tried that yesterday, recall; it looked a little something like this:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

All of those perspectives are distracting from the story, are they not? Not only is the plethora of characters likely to confuse Millicent, but the structure here is repetitious: in granting each protagonist a separate set-up, the synopsis necessarily revisits the premise of the book over and over again. Is that really the best way to convince Millicent that here is a strong story by a writer worth reading?

Don’t let the innovative structure and perspective choices of your book become a liability in your synopsis; you want your storytelling skills to shine. Instead, highlight the major characters by ramping up the character development. And why not show off your good writing and trenchant insights through the inclusion of unexpected little details here and there that she won’t have seen before?

You’re expecting me to toss off a 5-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist version of HAMLET abounding in such details and character development, aren’t you? Well, I’m not going to do it — and not merely because this post is running awfully long, even by my standards. After all, those charming little touches, vivid images, and startling insights into the human condition are going to be different for each authorial voice, aren’t they? So I won’t encourage you to copy me; I’m sure your own literary voice is just itching to come out and play.

Next time, we shall once again be discussing synopsis length — and, if I know myself, probably a few more concrete examples as well. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XVII: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? I hope so, because we’ve been covering a whole lot of material in this expedited Synopsispalooza weekend: various lengths of novel synopsis on Saturday morning, an assortment of memoir synopses that evening, and this morning, different flavors of nonfiction synopsis. This evening, I had planned on blithely tossing off 1-, 3-, and 5-page versions of HAMLET told from multiple perspectives, as an aid to the many, many writers out there struggling with queries and submissions for multiple-protagonist novels — and then I noticed something disturbing.

As I often do when I’m about to revisit a topic, I went back and checked our last substantive Author! Author! discussion of diverse perspective choices. Upon scrolling through last April’s lively discussion of multiple-protagonist narratives (which began here, if you missed it), I realized that I had inadvertently left all of you perspective-switchers with a cliffhanger when I injured my back last spring: I devoted a post to writing a 1-page synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel, fully intending — and, heaven help us, promising — that I would return to deal with 3- and 5-page synopses on the morrow.

You poor patient souls are still waiting, are you not? I’m so sorry — after my injury, I took a two-week hiatus from blogging, and I completely forgot about finishing the series. Then, to add insult to injury, I’ve been chattering about complex novel synopses under the misconception that those of you who followed last April’s discussion were already conversant with the basic strategy of synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel.

Why on earth didn’t any of you patient waiters tell me that I had left you hanging? Who knows better than a writer juggling multiple perspectives that no single actor in a drama, however important, has access to the same sets of information that each other actor does?

No matter: I’m going to make it up to you perspective-jugglers, pronto. This post and the next will be entirely about writing a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel.

So that those new to the discussion will not have to play catch-up, this evening, with your permission, I would like to revisit the substance of that last post before I went silent, as it honestly does (in my humble opinion, at least) contain some awfully good guidelines for pulling off one of the more difficult tricks in the fiction synopsizer’s repertoire, boiling down a story told from several perspectives into a 1-page synopsis. To render this discussion more relevant to this weekend’s festivities, I shall be both updating it and pulling in examples from our favorite story, HAMLET.

You didn’t expect me to banish the melancholy fellow before the weekend was over, did you?

Let’s leap back into the wonderful world of the 1-page synopsis, then. I would not be going very far out on a limb, I suspect, in saying that virtually every working writer, whether aspiring or established — loathes having to construct synopses, and the tighter the length restriction, the more we hate ‘em. As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces, and who can blame us? Obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to a single page.

Unfortunately, if one intends to be a published writer, particularly one who successfully places more than one manuscript with an agent or editor, there’s just no way around having to sit down and write a synopsis from time to time. The good news is that synopsis-writing is a learned skill, just as query-writing and pitching are. It’s going to be hard until you learn the ropes, but once you’ve been swinging around in the rigging for a while, you’re going to be able to shimmy up to the crow’s nest in no time.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the happiest metaphor in the world. But it is rather apt, as the bad news — you knew it was coming, right? — is that even those of us who can toss off a synopsis for an 800-page trilogy in an hour tend to turn pale at the prospect of penning a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. It makes even the most harden synopsizer feel, well, treed.

Why? Well, our usual m.o. involves concentrating upon using the scant space to tell the protagonist’s (singular) story, establishing him as an interesting person in an interesting situation, pursuing interesting goals by overcoming interesting obstacles. Even if you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect be quite daunting — but if you have chosen to juggle multiple protagonists, the mere thought of attempting to show each of their learning curves within a 1-page synopsis may well make you feel as if all of the air has been sucked out of your lungs.

Nice, deep breaths, everybody. It’s a tall order, but I assure you, it can be done. The synopsis-writing part, not just returning air to your lungs.

How? By clinging tenaciously to our general rule of thumb for querying a multiple-protagonist novel: the key lies in telling the story of the book, not of the individual protagonists.

Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option. So let’s spend the rest of this post talking about a few strategies for folding a multiple-protagonist novel into a 1-page synopsis. Not all of these will work for every storyline, but they will help you figure out what is and isn’t essential to include — and what will drive you completely insane if you insist upon presenting. Here goes.

1. Stick to the basics.
Let’s face it, a 1-page synopsis is only about three times the length of the average descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Basically, that gives you a paragraph to set up the premise, a paragraph to show how the conflict comes to a climax, and a paragraph to give some indication of how you’re going to resolve the plot.

Not a lot of room for character development, is it? The most you can hope to do in that space is tell the story with aplomb, cramming in enough unusual details to prompt Millicent the agency screener to murmur, “Hey, this story sounds fresh and potentially marketable — and my, is this ever unusually well-written for a single-page synopsis,” right?

To those of you who didn’t answer, “Right, by jingo!” right away: attempting to accomplish more in a single-page synopsis will drive you completely nuts. Reducing the plot to its most basic elements will not only save you a lot of headaches in coming up with a synopsis — it will usually yield more room to add individual flourishes than being more ambitious.

Admittedly, this is a tall order to pull off in a single page, even for a novel with a relatively simple plotline. For a manuscript where the fortunes of several at first seemingly unrelated characters cross and intertwine for hundreds of pages on end, it can seem at first impossible, unless you…

2. Tell the overall story of the book as a unified whole, rather than attempting to keep the various protagonists’ stories distinct.
This suggestion doesn’t come as a very great surprise, does it, at this late point in the weekend? Purely as a matter of space, the more protagonists featured in your manuscript, the more difficulty you may expect to have in cramming all of their stories into 20-odd lines of text. And from Millicent’s perspective, it isn’t really necessary: if her agency asks for a synopsis as short as a single page, it’s a safe bet that they’re not looking for a blow-by-blow of what happens to every major character.

Still not convinced? Okay, step into Millicent’s dainty slippers for a moment and consider which species of 1-page synopsis would be more likely to make her request the manuscript (or, in the case of a synopsis submitted with a partial, the rest of the manuscript). First, consider the common multiple-perspective strategy of turning the synopsis into a laundry list of what parts of the story are told from which characters’ perspectives:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

Poor Will is so busy accounting for all of his narrative perspectives that he does not have room to present much of the plot, does he? This structural choice forces him to cover the same plot elements over and over again. Compare this to the same story told as a single storyline, a smooth, coherent narrative that gives Millicent a sense of the actual plot of the book:

1-page Hamlet

There really is no contest about which presents Shakespeare as the better novelist, is there? That’s no accident: remember, in a 1-page synopsis, the primary goal is not to produce a carbon-copy of the entire book, but to tell what the book is about in a manner that will prompt the reader to want to hear more.

So tell Millicent just that, as clearly as possible: show her what a good storyteller you are by regaling her with an entertaining story, rather than merely listing as many of the events in the book in the order they appear.

In other words: jettison the subplots. However intriguing and beautifully-written they may be, there’s just not room for them in the 1-page synopsis. Trust me, Millicent is not going to think the worse of your book for having to wait until she actually has the manuscript in her hand to find out every nuance of the plot — or, indeed, how many individual perspectives you have chosen to weave together into a beautifully rich and coherent whole.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere cry out in anguish, “I wrote a complicated book because I feel it is an accurate reflection of the intricacies of real life. I realize that I must be brief in a 1-page synopsis, but I fear that if I stick purely to the basics, I will cut too much. How can I tell what is necessary to include and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. The short answer is that in a 1-page synopsis, almost everything should be excluded except for the book’s central conflict, the primary characters involved with it, and what they have to gain or lose from it.

If you still fear that you have trimmed too much, try this classic editors’ trick: write up a basic overview of your storyline, then ask yourself: if a reader had no information about my book other than this synopsis, would the story make sense? Equally important, does the story sound like a good read?

Note, please, that I most emphatically did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the narrative as it appears in the manuscript. Remember, what you’re going for here is a recognizable version of the story, not a substitute for reading your manuscript.

Which leads me to suggest…

3. Be open to the possibility that the best way to tell the story in your synopsis may not be the same way you’ve chosen to tell it in the manuscript.
Amazingly, rearranging the running order in the interests of story brevity is something that never even occurs to most struggling synopsizers to try. Yet in a multiple-perspective novel that skips around in time and space, as so many do, or one that contains many flashbacks, telling the overarching story simply and clearly may necessitate setting aside the novel’s actual order of events in favor of reverting to — gasp! — a straightforward chronological presentation of cause and effect.

Chronological order may not be your only option, however: consider organizing by theme, by a dominant plotline, or another structure that will enable you to present your complex story in an entertaining manner on a single page. Opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — yes, even if doing so necessitates leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot or ten of closely-observed character development.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book, just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it. If you try to do too much here, you’ll only drive yourself into a Hamlet-like state of indecisive nuttiness: because no version can possibly be complete in this limited amount of space, no over-stuffed option will seem to be right.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags in a vain attempt to regularize your breathing again: believe me, #3 is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your novel — or, indeed, upon the complexity that tends to characterize the multiple-perspective novel. It’s a purely reflection of the fact that a 1-page synopsis is really, really short.

Besides, achieving clarity in a short piece and maintaining a reader’s interest over the course of several hundred pages can require different strategies. You can accept that, right?

I’m choosing to take that chorus of tearful sniffles for a yes. Let’s move on.

Storyline rearrangement is worth considering even if — brace yourselves; this is going to be an emotionally difficult one — the book itself relies upon not revealing certain facts in order to build suspense. Think about it strategically: if Millicent’s understanding what the story is about is dependent upon learning a piece of information that the reader currently doesn’t receive until page 258, what does a writer gain by not presenting that fact until the end of the synopsis — or not presenting it at all? Not suspense, usually.

And before any of you shoot your hands into the air, eager to assure me that you don’t want to give away your main plot twist in the synopsis, let me remind you that part of purpose of any fiction synopsis is to demonstrate that you can plot a book intriguingly, not just come up with a good premise. If that twist is integral to understanding the plot, it had better be in your synopsis.

But not necessarily in the same place it occupies in the manuscript’s running order. It may lacerate your heartstrings to the utmost to blurt out on line 3 of your synopsis the secret that Protagonist #5 doesn’t know until Chapter 27, but if Protagonists 1-4 know it from page 1, and Protagonists 6-13′s actions are purely motivated by that secret, it may well cut pages and pages of explanation from your synopsis to reveal it in the first paragraph of your 1-page synopsis.

Some of those sniffles have turned into shouts now, haven’t they? “But Anne, I don’t understand. You’ve said that I need to use even a synopsis as short as a single page to demonstrate my fine storytelling skills, but isn’t part of that virtuoso trick showing that I can handle suspense? If my current running order works to build suspense in the book, why should I bother to come up with another way to tell the story for the purposes of a synopsis that no one outside a few agencies and publishing houses will ever see?”

You needn’t bother, if you can manage to relate your storyline entertainingly in the order it appears in the book within a requested synopsis’ length restriction. If your 1-page synopsis effectively builds suspense, then alleviates it, heaven forfend that you should mess with it.

All I’m suggesting is that slavishly reflecting how suspense builds in a manuscript is often not the most effective way of making a story come across as suspenseful in a synopsis, especially a super-short one. Fidelity to running order in synopses is not rewarded, after all — it’s not as though Millicent is going to be screening your manuscript with the synopsis resting at her elbow, so she can check compulsively whether the latter reproduces every plot twist with absolute accuracy, just so she can try to trip you up.

In fact, meticulous cross-checking wouldn’t even serve her self-interest. Do you have any idea how much extra time that kind of comparison would add to her already-rushed screening day?

Instead of worrying about making the synopsis a shrunken replica of the book, concentrate upon making it a compelling road map. Try a couple of different running orders, then ask yourself about each: does this synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Do the events appear to follow logically upon one another? Is it clear where the climax falls? Or does it merely list plot events?

Or do those frown lines on your collective forehead indicate that you’re just worried about carving out more space to tell your story? That’s a perfectly reasonable concern. Let’s make a couple of easy cuts.

4. Don’t invest any of your scant page space in talking about narrative structure.
Again, this should sound familiar to those of you who have been following this Synopsispalooza. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English Lit class-type sentiments as the first protagonist is Evelyn, and her antagonist is Benjamin. Nor is it in your best interest to come right out and say, the theme of this book is…

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: just as this kind of language would strike Millicent as odd in a query letter, industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a synopsis.

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

Don’t believe me? I’m not entirely surprised: convinced that the proliferation of narrators is the single most interesting and marketable aspect of the novel — not true, if the manuscript is well-written — most perspective-juggling aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that a narrator-by-narrator approach is the only reasonable way to organize a synopsis.

On the page, though, this seldom works well, especially in a 1-page synopsis. Compare the second example above with the following, a synopsis entirely devoted to analyzing the book as a critic might, rather than telling its story:

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

Not particularly effective at giving Millicent a sense of the overall plot, is it? Because the story is so complex and the individual characters’ perspectives so divergent, the seemingly simple task of setting out each in turn does not even result in an easily-comprehended description of the premise. Heck, the first three perspectives ran so long that our Will was forced to compress his fourth protagonist’s perspective into a partial sentence in the last paragraph.

Minimizing one or more narrators in an attempt to save space is a tactic Millicent and her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran literary contest judge, see all the time in synopses for multiple-protagonist novels, by the way. Protagonist-juggling writers frequently concentrate so hard on making the first-named protagonist bear the burden of the book’s primary premise that they just run out of room to deal with some of the others. In a synopsis that relies for its interest upon a diversity of perspectives, that’s a problem: as we saw above, an uneven presentation of points of view makes some look more important than others.

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

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short — which brings me back to another suggestion from earlier in this series:

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice for synopsizing a multiple-protagonist novel, but it’s just a defensible an option for a 1-page synopsis as for a descriptive paragraph or a pitch. As I pointed out above, the required format doesn’t always leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room.

Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story. You might even want to try writing a couple of versions, to see which protagonist’s storyline comes across as the best read.

Dishonest? Not at all — unless, of course, the character you ultimately select doesn’t appear in the first 50 pages of the book, or isn’t a major character at all. There’s no law, though, requiring that you give each protagonist equal time in the synopsis. In fact…

6. If you have more than two or three protagonists, don’t even try to introduce all of them in the 1-page synopsis.
Once again, this is a sensible response to an inescapable logistical problem: even if you spent a mere sentence on each of your nine protagonists, that might well up to half a page. And a half-page that looked more like a program for a play than a synopsis at that.

Remember, the goal here is brevity, not completeness, and the last thing you want to do is confuse our Millicent. Which is a very real possibility in a name-heavy synopsis, by the way: the more characters that appear on the page, the harder it will be for a swiftly-skimming pair of eyes to keep track of who is doing what to whom.

Even with all of those potential cuts, is compressing your narrative into a page still seeming like an impossible task? Don’t panic — there’s still one more wrench left in our writer’s tool belt.

7. Consider just making the 1-page synopsis a really strong, vivid introduction to the book’s premise and central conflict, rather than a vague summary of the entire plot.
Again, this wouldn’t be my first choice, even for a 1-page synopsis — I wouldn’t advise starting with this strategy before you’d tried a few of the others — but it is a recognized way of going about it. Not all of us will admit it, but many an agented writer has been known to toss together this kind of synopsis five minutes before a deadline. That’s a very good reason that we might elect to go this route: for the writer who has to throw together a very brief synopsis in a hurry, it’s undeniably quicker to write a pitch (which this style of synopsis is, yes?) than to take the time to make decisions about what is and is not essential to the plot.

Yes, yes, I know: I said quite distinctly farther up in this very post that the most fundamental difference between a descriptive paragraph and a synopsis is that the latter demonstrates the entire story arc. In a very complex plot, however, sketching out even the basic twists in a single page may result in flattening the story, rather than presenting it as a good read.

This can happen, incidentally, even if the synopsis is well-written. Compare, for instance, this limited-scope synopsis (which is neither for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel nor for HAMLET, but bear with me here; these are useful examples):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

See how easy it is to lose track of what’s going on in that flurry of names and events? (And see, while we’re at it, proof that it is indeed possible to hit the highlights of a complicated plot within a single page? Practice, my dears, practice.) Again, a pitch-style synopsis wouldn’t be my first choice, but for a 1-page synopsis, it is a respectable last-ditch option.

An overstuffed 1-page synopsis often falls prey to another storytelling problem — one that the last example exhibits in spades but the one just before it avoids completely. Did you catch it?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Yes, Anne, I did — the second synopsis presents Elizabeth primarily as being acted-upon, while the first shows her as the primary mover and shaker of the plot!” give yourself seventeen gold stars for the day. (Hey, it’s been a long post.) Over-crammed synopses frequently make protagonists come across as — gasp! — passive.

And we all know how Millicent feels about that, do we not? Can you imagine how easy it would be to present Hamlet’s story as if he never budged an inch on his own steam throughout the entire story?

Because the 1-page synopsis is so short, and multiple-protagonist novels tend to feature so many different actors, the line between the acting and the acted-upon can very easily blur. If there is not a single character who appears to be moving the plot along, the various protagonists can start to seem to be buffeted about by the plot, rather than being the engines that drive it.

How might a savvy submitter side-step that impression? Well, several of the suggestions above might help. As might our last for the day.

8. If your draft synopsis makes one of your protagonists come across as passive, consider minimizing or eliminating that character from the synopsis altogether.
This is a particularly good idea if that protagonist in question happens to be a less prominent one — and yes, most multiple-protagonists do contain some hierarchy. Let’s face it, even in an evenly-structured multi-player narrative, most writers will tend to favor some perspectives over others, or at any rate give certain characters more power to drive the plot.

When in doubt, focus on the protagonist(s) closest to the central conflicts of the book. Please don’t feel as if you’re slighting anyone you cut — many a character who is perfectly charming on the manuscript page, contributing a much-needed alternate perspective, turns out to be distracting in a brief synopsis.

Speaking of distractions, I’m going to sign off for the night before I provide you with any more. Next time, I shall be discussing strategies for folding your many protagonists into 3- and 5-page synopses.

I really do mean it this time, honest. Tune in tomorrow, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part XII: burning the candle at both ends. Or even in the middle.

candle-flames-at-lourdes

Hey, we’ve reached a milestone this evening, campers: this is my 1300th post here at Author! Author! Should any of you have been stunned by the bewildering array of categories on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page, there you have your answer.

I had planned something special to mark the occasion, but then, I keep waking up each morning, murmuring, “Yes, today is going to be my day for gloating about Mario Vargas Llosa’s finally winning the Nobel Prize in Literature on the blog,” because, really, the guy’s been on the short list for my entire adult life. Then, too, it’s honestly a very, very big deal for a comic novelist to grab the prize — offhand, I can’t think of a remotely funny winner since John Steinbeck, and his humor was not particularly consistent. But then I look over my plans for Synopsispalooza, weigh them against my ever-variable post-crash energy levels, and put it off another day. But rest assured, I shall indeed be talking about Vargas Llosa’s work here shortly.

In the meantime, brace yourselves, campers: today is going to be a long one, if my energy holds out. (Not a foregone conclusion, I’m afraid; this afternoon’s noble experiment in city walking has caused my knee to resemble a relief map of Madagascar.) I missed a few days of posting over the last week, and I honestly would like to try to wrap up Synopsispalooza this coming weekend, so we may get back to more close textual analysis.

At least until Authorbiopalooza. And Formatpalooza. There’s a lot on the agenda this fall.

So let’s get right back to our synopsis troubleshooting checklist. For those of you joining us mid-series, this checklist is intended less to help any aspiring writer who might happen to stumble upon it to create a jim-dandy synopsis from scratch, but to improve an already-existing draft. So haul out those highlighter pens, print up a copy of your synopsis, and we’ll dive right into the fray.

Lest those of you not currently in the throes of updating your synopsis should turn away at this point, I hasten to add: of course, the description already-existing draft could logically be applied to a synopsis that you polished off ten minutes ago as easily as one you’ve been using for the last year. And these questions would be quite useful even if you have only just begun thinking about your synopsis, too.

So wherever you are in the process, please feel free to jump right in. My goal here is to encourage you to regard synopsis-writing as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form, rather than treating it as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent.

Okay, so the darned thing is still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce, but addressing these the following issues will help it show off your talent more effectively. Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far:

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

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

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

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

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

Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least comfortable with the underlying logic for suggesting such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By jingo, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question in the comments; folks have been a trifle quiet of late.) Let’s move on.

(6) If this synopsis is for a novel, is it clear who the protagonist is — and that s/he is the most interesting person in the story?

Hey, don’t laugh — fiction synopses frequently imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity is a bit hard to avoid, but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

Ditto, surprisingly, for memoir synopses — but of that, more follows anon.

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

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

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

Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: in a query or synopsis, the perspective choices are not relevant; let the manuscript demonstrate those choices. In your synopsis or descriptive paragraph, tell the story of the book, not of a particular character or array of characters.

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

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

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

Trust me, you don’t want Millicent to have to take an extra a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes to make it through your synopsis. Contrary to popular opinion amongst enthusiasts of slice-of-life literature, if a story sounds mundane on the synopsis page, particularly at the query packet stage, most Millicents are not going to be eager to read the book.

Everyman may be a popular protagonist, but super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis. Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”

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

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

I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull. I also feel another set of questions coming on.

(8) Does the synopsis make it plain enough how not only that the protagonist isn’t dull, but how? If a reader had no other information than what’s on the memoir page, would he be aware s/he is different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page? Better still, how can you make those traits apparent through unusual phrasing, unexpected plot twists, and juicy details Millicent isn’t likely to have seen in the 9 of the last 14 synopses she read?

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

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

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

In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: instead of squandering valuable synopsis space on making the case that your protagonist is Everyman, concentrate on the ways that he isn’t just like the people you expect to be reading the book. Trust the manuscript to delight the reader with your trenchant insights into everyday life, to elicit the gasp of recognition; the synopsis is not the proper venue for demonstrating your capacity for gleaning such meaning from the mundane.

In a synopsis, your job is to make your protagonist sound interesting enough to justify having an entire book devoted to his escapades. To put it more prescriptively, emphasize what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

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

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

In a manuscript, yes, but on the synopsis page, no. I’ve seen many a synopsis tell the overall story of a memoir well, but leave the reader guessing which member of the five-person family, thirty-person ball team, or twenty-member presidential cabinet is the central figure of the story and author.

How does this happen? All too often, memoirists simply follow general guidelines for synopsis-writing — it should be written in the third person, regardless of the narrative voice of the manuscript; it should be in the past tense, etc. — assuming, wrongly, that anything labeled synopsis should be more or less identical. But a memoir synopsis should always be written in the first person and the past tense, leaving no doubt whatsoever whose story is being told and by whom.

Memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because the events in them really happened. Or so I surmise from how often synopses, queries, and pitches include an insistent refrain of “But it’s a true story! It really happened!”

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, real-life events are not always interesting on the page. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

Why? Partially, the synopsis format: they tend to abound in generalizations and summaries of action, rather than intriguing details and sketched-out scenes. Verbal anecdotes often share these defects, sacrificing storytelling for brevity. The combined effect can be very flattening: just as an inherently exciting plot may be scuttled by an uninspired telling in a manuscript, an over-summarized account of even the most thrilling real-life event can sound pretty dull in a synopsis.

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

If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. What are the reasons a novel-reader would be delighted to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline? Emphasize those aspects of your character and story in the synopsis.

Having trouble casting yourself as the hero/ine of a novel, even temporarily? Here’s a good trick for making any protagonist come across as more complex on the synopsis page.

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

Or, to twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well? If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s uncannily sensitive am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles.

So when in doubt, ratchet up the conflict on the synopsis page — and make it clear that the protagonist is vitally interested in the outcome. Nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Trust me on this one. In Millicent’s mind, conflict = interesting. She probably works for an agent who goes around spouting the old industry truism, a good manuscript has conflict on every single page.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s debatable. But if Millicent rejects your query packet or submission at the synopsis-reading stage, that’s a debate you’re never going to get to have with the agent of your dreams.

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

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

Yes, even at the synopsis stage. Remember, the goal of the synopsis is to get Millicent, Maury, and/or Mehitabel excited enough to want to read the manuscript.

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

Not just matter in general, but to readers already buying books on similar topics. Which leads me to…

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

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

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

Unfortunately, most aspiring writers do not pause to consider that probability before blithely sending off their query or submission packets. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

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

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

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

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

They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence. Which, common sense tells us, no one without highly-specialized psychic abilities can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

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

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes. Just make your book sound original, okay?

Some of you are pouting at that last bit, aren’t you? “But Anne,” inveterate bestseller-readers point out, “I’ve done my homework; I’ve gone to conferences. The same authors sell well year after year, so I’ve written a manuscript that’s more or less in the style of (fill in bestseller here), except mine is far, far better. Why wouldn’t that excite any market-minded agent?”

Your question made me smile, oh pouters: there was a good joke on the subject making the rounds of agents a couple of years back.

A writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

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

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality.

What does sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So at this point in literary history, you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Don’t believe me? Have you checked out the sales figures on PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES?

The fact is, a too-close imitation of a bestseller is always going to strike Millicent as rather derivative of the bestseller — and doubly so if the bestseller in question happens to be a classic. Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One big caveat, however: please bear in mind that Millicent (like Maury and Mehitabel) tends to make a strong distinction between original and weird, as well as between plausible and implausible. Which brings me to…

(13) If the book is fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

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

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page. If the internal logic of the premise doesn’t seem to be applied consistently in the synopsis (or in the manuscript, for that matter), Millicent is likely to pass.

Yes, even if the synopsis in question happens to be for a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional and every other character has a couple of extra arms, toes, or senses. If a plot doesn’t seem to be following its own rules, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

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

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story.

(Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. That’s usually an automatic-rejection offense for Millicent. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post when I finally polish off this run of series on practicalities and get back to craft issues.)

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

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison. “Is it one of those automatic-rejection reasons you mentioned up there in the parentheses when you thought nobody was looking? I’d really have to do it a lot to annoy her, right?”

Got the smelling salts handy? In a manuscript submission, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. So it really isn’t all that surprising that Millicent’s first inclination upon being knocked out of the story is to mutter, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

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

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

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

Why such a mob? You may not catch the “Hey, wait a minute!” moments, but chances are that at least one of #2-4 will. Listen carefully to any follow-up questions your experimental victims may have; address them in the synopsis, so that Millicent will not be moved to ask them of the ambient air at the screening stage.

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

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Which brings me to…

(14) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Again, not self-evident. Too often, nonfiction writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

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

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

My, that was a lot to absorb in a single post, wasn’t it? Lucky that I kept the laureate-pushing to a minimum, eh? Keep up the good work!