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


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:


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


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!

How to write a really good synopsis, part IV: the nitty and the gritty

wind power

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been showing you examples of good and not-so-good 1-page synopses, so we could talk about (okay, so I could conduct a monologue about) the overarching strategies that rendered them more or less effective. Since I haven’t exactly been overwhelmed with howls of protest on the subject — really? The prospect of constructing a 1-page synopsis for a 400-page novel of a complexity that would make Tolstoy weep annoys nobody? — I’m going to assume that we’re all pretty comfortable with the basic goals and strategy of a 1-page synopsis intended for tucking into a query envelope or to copy and paste at the bottom of an e-mailed query.

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

Who am I to resist the charms of a well-stroked rabbit’s foot? Let’s take another gander at the good 1-page synopsis for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:

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

For the most part, standard format for a synopsis is the same as for a page of manuscript: double-spaced, 1-inch margins all around, indented paragraphs (ALWAYS), Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the works. (If you’re unfamiliar with the rules of standard format, you will find them conveniently summarized in the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.) As with the first page of a manuscript, the author’s contact information does not appear on the first page of the synopsis. Unlike the first page of a manuscript, however, the title of the book should appear on the first page of a synopsis, along with the information that it IS a synopsis.

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, it seems as though those pages have a life of their own. Especially when the air conditioning breaks down and someone in the office has the bright idea of yanking the rotating fan out of the closet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced — wait for it! — a humorous treatment of the material. And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel that I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

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

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

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

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

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

Take a medal out of petty cash if you noticed that the pages are not numbered: a major no-no in any submission, ever, and one of the more common mistakes. And yes, you should number it, even for a one-page synopsis — and no, you should not number it consecutively with the manuscript, unless a contest rules SPECIFICALLY tell you to do so. The first page of a synopsis is always page 1.

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

Don’t treat it as if it were one; it looks unprofessional to the pros.

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

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

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

Oh, and it doesn’t contain a slug line or numbering, either. But I doubt Millicent would even notice that in mid-guffaw.

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

Why is this a problem? Well, it’s considered stylistically weak, a sign that the synopsis is talking ABOUT the book instead of getting the reader involved in the story. Or, to put it another way, and a bit more bluntly: a fiction synopsis is supposed to tell the story of the book; one that pulls the reader out of the story by talking about it at a distance tends not to do that well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part III: keeping some of those plot cats in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many different people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check the requirements.

Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis. Unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide an overview of the book in question’s plot or argument, a 1-page synopsis is essentially a teaser for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

This goal should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through my recent Pitching 101 series. In both verbal pitching and 1-page synopsizing, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along with me now: to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, not since you learned what they were for; I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone; I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it. Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

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

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

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

Of course, it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches; it’s a learned skill.

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

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

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

This is why, I explained to her, I always write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses, as I suggested in passing yesterday. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

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

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

At least a rough draft: you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, your work will hit the agent market faster. How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for one. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…”

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

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

As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample, too — and will be judged accordingly. A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in? Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell a compelling story: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots.

Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points:

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

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

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them.

The other common panicked response to the demand for brevity, particularly in a 1-page synopsis, is to turn it into a projected back jacket blurb for the book. Contest judges see this all the time: the requested synopsis is, after all, not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, many contest entrants apparently think, so why not use it as an opportunity for promotional copy?

The result, alas, tends to be a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts, looking a little something like this:

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

If you can bring yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example, take a close gander at the content. Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the second and third SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above? To recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but dumbs it down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book, but it entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man).

Most seriously, (4) this blurb pretty actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners. Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romances be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And when you come right down to it, isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well, but in getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

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

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the summary portion of a 2-minute pitch — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals.

Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and she’s just about to finish printing up the former. Can you pick up the pace of revision, please?

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

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

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

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce. Next time, we’re going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success.

Keep up the good work!