Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.7: but how can I tell if the synopsis I have written is good enough to leave alone?

centurians in bondage

Hello again, campers —
Okay, I promise that this is the last time I shall post an extra post (for this weekend, at least), but after the last couple of days’ intensive discussion of how to write a 1-page synopsis, I thought some of you might appreciate a little guidance on how to tell whether what you have come up with is ready to be sent off.

As it happens, I had such a post rattling around my archives. Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I told you: piece of cake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, next!

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

Again, next!

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

The wily fiend! Next!

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

All together now: next!

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

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

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

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

Piece of — oh, never mind.

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

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

I thought not. Let’s move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For most synopses, it is the latter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-huh. So would Millicent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See? Advance research really does pay off, Jane.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.6: you tell your side of the story, Hamlet; I’ll tell mine. Later, perhaps.

sarah-bernhardt_hamlet

Hello, campers —

My apologies to those of you who spent the afternoon and evening yesterday holding your breath, symbolically at least, in anticipation of my promised run-down on how to read, interpret, and follow contest entry rules. I honestly did mean to go into that last night — I’m all too aware that the postmark deadline for the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday — but health matters, alas, intervened. Long story. And if I have one rule I like to follow in life it’s not to give contest advice while on painkillers.

I’m still a bit groggy, so I’m going to cling to that excellent precept for at least a few hours longer. In the meantime, here is another of my favorite posts on how to write a 1-page synopsis. This one tackles the always-daunting challenge of trying to construct a synopsis for a multiple-perspective narrative.

Just in case anyone who might be thinking of entering a contest could use a few tips on the subject. Enjoy!

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.

Keep up the good work!

Countdown to a contest entry, part 8.4: to be or not to be — 1, 3, or 5 pages

olivier hamlet

Still hanging in there, campers? For those of you joining us late — which is to say, those of you who blinked for a minute or didn’t happen to have tuned in yesterday, when I changed my mind about how I was going to handle our series-in progress — I imagine you are a trifle stunned by how many posts on the mysteries and challenges of writing a 1-page synopsis I have managed to toss up here in a remarkably short time.

“What happened?” I hear the newcomers shouting. “There we were, working our way through a hasty yet thorough discussion on contest entry preparation — and all of a sudden, here are three posts on how to construct a 1-page synopsis! Ack, there’s a fourth! What fresh madness is this?”

Actually, it’s an ongoing madness. Since the postmark deadline for the writing contest I have been planning to use this very evening as a rule exemplar, the William Faulkner/William Wisdom Literary Competition is this coming Tuesday, and as part of its complicated charm lies in (a) its being one of the relatively few contests for previously-unpublished writers that accept book-length entries (yes, really), (b) it also has a Novel-in Progress category, (c) entering either category requires the construction of a 1-page synopsis, and I know from lengthy experience that (d) most aspiring writers would cheerfully opt for wrestling seven live alligators if it would get them out of writing a 1-page synopsis for a 350-page book, I though this might be a dandy time for a crash review of how to write one.

Don’t understand why writing a page of text might be a daunting challenge for someone who, after all, likes to write? Well, let me put it this way: see that gigantic second sentence in the last paragraph? That’s 129 words. A double-spaced 1-page synopsis runs about 400 words. And I wasn’t trying to describe a complex plot.

Those alligators are looking better now, aren’t they?

Last night’s three posts were about how to figure out what does and does not belong in a 1-page synopsis. Today’s extra posts — oh, you thought I wasn’t still going to post on contest rules and how to follow them this evening? How long have you known me? — will focus on the differences between a 1-page synopsis and its longer siblings. Should help those of you trying to pull that contest entry together figure out how to streamline your synopsis.

I have to say, I’m kind of tickled to have the excuse to re-run this post. It’s one of my all-time favorites — and, appropriately enough, it was written in the course of another blogging orgy.

Besides, its subject matter had also been on my mind this week, as I had been reading Nicole Galland’s terrific new retelling of OTHELLO, I, Iago. Could not put it down, as they say, until I finished it in the wee hours. And you know how closely I read text; it’s not easy to draw me that deeply into a story unless the writing is impeccable.

So I have a lot of Shakespeare rattling around in my brain at the moment. Ho there! Enjoy!

Welcome to this weekend’s expedited Synopsispalooza offerings. For those of you who missed yesterday evening’s teaser, I shall be posting twice per day this weekend (at roughly 10:30 am and 7:30 pm Pacific time) in order to cram as many practical examples of solid synopses of various lengths in front of my readers’ astonished eyes.

Why go to such great lengths? Well, perhaps I’m mistaken, but my bet is that most of you have never seen a professional synopsis before, other than the few fleeting glimpses I’ve given you throughout Synopsispalooza. So while I’ve given you formatting examples, a few 1-pagers, counterexamples, and a whole lot of guidelines, some of you may still be having difficulty picturing the target at which you are shooting.

Amazing how often that’s the case with the pieces of paper commonly tucked into a query or submission packet, isn’t it? The overwhelming majority of queriers have never seen a successful query; a hefty proportion of synopsizers have never clapped eyes upon a professionally-written synopsis; herds and herds of submitters have never been within half a mile of a manuscript in standard format, and a vast multitude of newly-signed writers have absolutely no idea even how to begin to organize an author bio on the page.

And some people wonder why I keep blogging on the basics. I’m not a big fan of guess what color I’m thinking submission standards.

Since my brief for this weekend is to generate a small library of practical examples, contrary to my usual practice, I’m not going to dissect each synopsis immediately after they appear. Instead, I’m going to leave them to you to analyze. In the comments, if you like, or in the privacy of your own head.

I can already feel some of you beginning to panic, but fear not — you already have the tools to analyze these yourself. We’ve just spent 13 posts going over what does and doesn’t work well in a synopsis, right? I’m confident that you are more than capable of figuring out why the various elements in these examples render them effective.

My goal here today is to give you a sense of the scope of storytelling appropriate to three commonly-requested lengths of synopsis. Because deny it as some of you might, I still harbor the sneaking suspicion that there are a whole lot of aspiring writers out there who are mistakenly trying to cram the level of detail appropriate to a 5-page synopsis into a 3- or 1-page synopsis.

That way lies madness, of the O, that this too too solid text would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a shorter synopsis! variety. Trust me, unless you actively long to be complaining that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter
, you don’t want to venture down that primrose path.

Besides, the ever-popular cram-it-all-in strategy isn’t likely to produce a successful shorter synopsis. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this series, the goal of a 1-page synopsis is not the same as a longer one. No one who requests a single-page synopsis seriously expects to see the entire plot summarized in it, as is routinely expected in a 5-page synopsis.

What might those different expectations yield on the synopsis page? Glad you asked; read on.

A quick caveat or two before you do: these are not intended to be the only possible synopses for this particular story; they’re quick-and-dirty stabs at it in a couple of hours while icing my knee. (I overdid this week; I’m reclining on pillows as I write this.) So kindly spare me quibbles about how I could have improved these or made them conform more closely to the text. I already know that once or twice, I presented some of the events out of chronological order, for ease of storytelling.

But guess what? If Millicent the agency screener asks to read your entire manuscript based upon your synopsis, she is not going to call you up to yell at you because they did not match up precisely. Nor will her boss, the agent of your dreams, or a contest judge. In fact, there is literally no point along the road to publication, except perhaps in a writing class, that anyone with the authority to yell at you is at all likely to perform a compare-and-contrast between your synopsis and your manuscript, checking for discrepancies.

Again, absolute literal accuracy is not expected in a synopsis; the pros are aware that plotlines will change slightly with subsequent revisions. What’s important here is presenting the story arc well — and that it comes across as a good story.

I am anticipating that many of you will know the story well enough to catch minor chronological rearrangement, by the way; this is a far more useful exercise if the story being presented is one with which you’re familiar. Besides, I wanted to stick with something in the public domain.

With those broad hints, and the assistance of that moody pick of Sir Larry above, most of you have probably tumbled to it already: you’re about to read several synopses of HAMLET.

Why HAMLET, and not, say, ROMEO AND JULIET, which is a bit better-known in this country? Partially, I chose it because in many ways, it’s the ultimate literary fiction storyline: it’s about a passive guy who sits around thinking about all of the negative things going on in his life and planning that someday he’ll do something about them.

Okay, so that’s a stereotype about literary fiction, but it’s a clich? for a reason. As any Millicent working in a LF-representing agency would happily tell you, far too many would-be LF writers mistakenly believe that the less that happens in a manuscript, the more literary it is.

That’s a misconception: what differentiates LF from other fiction is usually the vocabulary and sentence structure choices; LF assumes a college-educated readership (whereas most mainstream fiction is pitched at about a 10th-grade reading level), and often engages in experimental storytelling practices. Let’s face it, the kinds of sentences that Toni Morrison can make sing most emphatically would not work in other book categories. But I digress.

The other reason to choose HAMLET is that while most of you have probably seen it at least once, I’m betting that very few of you have ever seen it performed live in its entirety. Even the most text-hugging of theatre companies usually cuts an hour or so out of the play. (The major exception: Kenneth Branaugh’s film version does in fact contain every word. You’ll feel as though you’ve spent a month watching it, but there is a lovely Hamlet-Horatio scene that I’ve never seen performed in any other version.)

So I’m synopsizing a story that pretty much everybody has seen or heard synopsized, at least a little. That should prove helpful in understanding what I have chosen to include and exclude in each version.

To head off whining at the pass: yes, the lettering here is rather small and a bit fuzzy at the edges; that’s the nature of the format. To get a clearer view, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly, to enlarge the image.

But before anybody out there gets the bright idea to steal any of this and turn it in as a term paper, this is copyrighted material, buddy. So you wouldn’t just be cheating; you’d be breaking the law.

So there. I didn’t go to all of this trouble so some con artist could avoid reading a classic. (Hey, I said that writing synopses was easy for a pro, not that it was even remotely enjoyable.)

Caveats completed; time to leap into the fray. Here, for your perusing pleasure, is a 5-page synopsis of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

Hamlet 5 page 1

Hamlet-5-page-2

Hamlet-5-page-3

Hamlet-5-page-41

Hamlet-5-page-5

Pop quiz: I’ve deliberately made a really, really common mistake here, to show you all just how easy it is not to notice when tossing together a synopsis in a hurry. Did anyone catch it?

If you immediately raised your hand and shouted, “You misspelled Yorick’s name!” give yourself a gold star. You wouldn’t believe how often writers misspell the names of their own characters in synopses — or forget that between the time they originally wrote the synopsis for that contest that sounded so promising and when an agent asked for the first 50 pages and a 5-page synopsis, the protagonist’s best friend’s name had changed from Monica to Yvette, because Monica might strike a skimming reader as too similar to Mordred, the villain’s name.

And what’s the cure for that type of gaffe, everyone? Sing out loudly, please: read your synopsis IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before you send it anywhere, anytime. And do it every single time you are asked to send it out; things change.

The 5-page synopsis was the industry standard for many years, and probably still the one you will be asked to produce after you have signed with an agent. In these decadent days of wildly different submission guidelines across agencies and contests, however, aspiring writers are asked to produce something shorter.

As I believe I have mentioned about 1700 times on the blog at this point, read the guidelines several times over before you submit or enter so much as a syllable. If the requester doesn’t specify how long the synopsis should be, then the length is up to you.

Just keep it under 5 pages. Longer than that, and you’ll just look as though you don’t have any idea how long it should be. If you go less than 5, fill the pages in their entirety (or close to it), so the length will seem intentional.

Tell the entire story in a 3- or 4-page synopsis. If you already have a 5-page version handy, you can often get there by simply lightening the level of detail. Like so:

Hamlet-3-page-1

Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

For a 1- or 2-page synopsis, the goal is different. While it is perfectly acceptable to depict the entire story arc, introducing the major characters, central conflict, and what’s at stake will do very nicely.

Which is to say: don’t even try to cut down a 5-page synopsis into a 1-page; it will only irritate you to the hair-yanking stage. Instead, start fresh:

1-page Hamlet

As you may see, I actually have covered the entire plot here, if a bit lightly. I’ve introduced the major characters and their main conflicts — and no more. I didn’t waste a paragraph describing the castle; I didn’t feel compelled to show what the characters looked like; I avoided incorporating clich?s about procrastination. Yet I’ve demonstrated that this story is interesting and holds together.

In other words, I did the writer’s job: I wrote a 1-page overview of the plot. Ta da!

Or rather, I wrote a 1-page synopsis geared toward convincing a literary or mainstream fiction-representing agent to ask to see the manuscript. If I were trying to market HAMLET as, say, a paranormal thriller, I would present it differently.

How differently, you ask? Take a gander. Just to keep things interesting, this time, I’ll do it as a 2-page synopsis:

Hamlet ghost page 1

Hamlet ghost page 2

Reads like quite a different story, does it not? Yet all that was required to pull that off was a slight tone shift, a tighter focus on the grislier aspects of the story, and an increased emphasis on the ghost’s role in the plot, and voil? ! Paranormal thriller!

That was rather fun, actually. Want to see the same story as a YA paranormal? Here you go:

YA Hamlet page 1

YA Hamlet page 2

The moral, should you care to know it: although most first-time novelists feel utterly controlled by the length restrictions of a requested synopsis, ultimately, the writer is the one who decides how to present the story. Only you get to choose what elements to include, the tone in which you describe them, and the phrasing that lets Millicent know what kind of book this is.

Makes you feel a bit more powerful, doesn’t it?

Tune in this evening for more empowering examples. Enjoy the control, campers, and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by Slate.com’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

Crowing for good reason: Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence winner Bruce Alford’s ROOSTER

Today, I am delighted to bring you the winning entry in the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition, Bruce Alford of Mobile, Alabama. In addition to carrying off top honors in Category I: literary fiction, Bruce’s breathtakingly delicate first page and well-constructed 1-page synopsis for ROOSTER also garnered the coveted Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence. Well done, Bruce!

As has been the case for all of the winners in this contest, I sat down to discuss this exciting opening and premise with the ever-fabulous Heidi Durrow, author of the intriguing recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky. (The contest was timed to celebrate the paperback release of her novel.) She writes literary fiction, and I edit it, so our appetites were very much whetted.

Especially for this entry. When the judges first clapped eyes upon it, the opening seemed almost eerily apt for this contest: the primary protagonist of Heidi’s marvelous literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, is half Danish, half African-American. It just goes to show you, campers — no matter how carefully a writer prepares a submission or contest entry, there’s no way that he can control what happens to be on Millicent the agency screener or Mehitabel the contest judge’s mind at the moment she happens to start reading it.

What’s that I hear you muttering, campers? You feel that’s a trifle unjust, that the imperatives of literature require that all manuscript assessments be made from a completely clear mind, as if Millicent and Mehitabel had not read 27 first pages earlier in that sitting? Or perhaps as if they had not previously screened any literary fiction at all, and had not become jaded toward common mistakes?

Fine — you try it. Here are Bruce’s materials as they might appear in a submission packet: page 1, synopsis, author bio. (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + to enlarge the image.) To make this an even fairer test, I shall not comment on the technical aspects at all until after Heidi and I discuss the content.

I’m going to stop you right here: quick, what’s your assessment of this book?

Approaching a new writer’s work with completely fresh eyes is more difficult than it might seem at first blush, isn’t it? Everything you have ever read, from your all-time favorite novel to your high school English literature textbook, contributes to your sense of what is and is not good writing.

So let me simplify the central issue for you: based on that first page alone, would you turn to page 2?

I would certainly read further. On the strength of that, let’s take a peek at the other materials in this packet.

Bruce Alford, a personal trainer, aerobics instructor and a former journalist, has published creative nonfiction and poetry in various literary journals. Alford’s “How to Write a Real Poem” was selected for Special Merit in the 2010 Muriel Craft Bailey Poetry Competition. His book of poems, Terminal Switching (Elk River Review Press), was published in 2007.

For a decade, he worked on drafts of Rooster. The book draws on tragedy in his family. His wife’s brother was missing for a week. Then migrant workers stumbled on his brother-in-law’s body near a tomato field in Louisiana. Over the years, as Alford wrote and re-wrote, he noticed that his relative’s short life and death said much about what being an American meant.

As an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, he teaches a full schedule of classes, including British and American Literature, Poetry Writing and Creative Non-Fiction. He is a reviewer for First Draft, a publication of the Alabama Writers’ Forum.

Does ROOSTER’s plot sound vaguely familiar? It should: it’s Hamlet, cleverly updated and set in an unexpected setting. Many highly successful novels have taken time-honored stories we all know and transformed them. Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, for instance, is a retelling of the Ugly Duckling; there have been so many versions of Cinderella that I cannot even begin to enumerate them.

While some writers might have chosen to conceal the eternal nature of the tale, Bruce has done something very interesting here: from the first line of the book, he evokes a fairy tale resonance. There was a girl in Denmark might be the opening of half of the stories in a Hans Christian Andersen storybook. That’s a definite marketing risk — chant it with me now, campers: most professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as stylistically weak writing, regardless of how and why it is used — but here, it may well pay off.

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.