Synopsis-writing, part XIII: where you stand depends upon where you sit

This is, in my humble opinion as a novelist, quite possibly the greatest newspaper headline in the history of the printed word; I came across it outside a small-town diner this morning. It’s so delightfully human, isn’t it? The stock market is in distress, the polar icecaps are melting, and a sign in the restaurant window testified to the number of local young people currently serving in active combat (and, tragically, the two who no longer are), yet what concerns the citizens of this hamlet? Budget cut-related turmoil at the dog shelter.

I was charmed.

If that headline appeared in a novel about small-town America, it simply wouldn’t be believable — proving yet again something that I have often maintained on this blog, that reality tends to be a lousy writer. Just because something happens doesn’t necessarily mean that it will seem plausible on the page.

It’s the writer’s job to make it so.

That’s enough free-association for one day, I think. Let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. To recap:

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

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

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone clear on those? Superb. Let’s proceed to something fresh — actually, while it’s in the front of my mind, let’s go ahead and address the plausibility issue.

(12) If I’m marketing fiction or memoir, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible? If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

I could sense some of the novelists out there rolling their eyes before I even finished typing #12. “Um, Anne?” a few of you scoffed. “What part of FICTION don’t you understand? By definition, fiction writers make things up.”

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page.

Yes, even in a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional. Otherwise, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

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

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story. (Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post.)

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

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison.

Are you sitting down? Got the smelling salts handy? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but in a manuscript, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

Why? Well, any gaffe that breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief is, ultimately, a storytelling problem. Thus, Millicent may be excused for thinking as soon as she casts her hyper-critical eye over one, “Oh, this writer isn’t a very consistent storyteller.”

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Too often, NF writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible.

It’s just not true.

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

(If any of you would like me to elaborate upon these in the weeks to come, I would be delighted; leave a comment below. For today’s purposes, I’m going to move on.)

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

I really went to town on that last point, didn’t I? I’m going to gloss over the rest of the synopsis questions quickly, so I can polish them off today and send you on your merry way for the weekend.

Don’t worry; the rest are pretty self-explanatory.

(13) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis Is there an indelible image that the reader can take away?

To put it another way, does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

And so forth. As with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast — and, in order to approve them for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make her job easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

What you DON’T want to do — oh, you may think you do, but it’s not in your best interest — is to make your job as a synopsizer easier by reusing text from the first chapter of the book. Especially, as synopsis-writers for contests so often do, by recycling the opening paragraph of the book.

Which leads me to…

(14) Does the opening of the synopsis read too like the opening of the book?

This may make some of you giggle, but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis. Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting.

Millicent and her ilk tend to regard this as a symptom of authorial laziness, but I suspect that there is usually more to it than that: I think that aspiring writers, having slaved to create a memorable opening for their books, often regard those opening paragraphs as some of their best writing. If it really is so, they reason, why not feature it in a document where it’s likely to do them some good?

If you believe nothing else I tell you today, please believe this: it won’t do you any good. People in the publishing industry remember what they’ve read; make sure every sentence you submit within a packet is different.

(15) Is my synopsis in the present tense and the third person, regardless of the tense and voice of the book itself? For a memoir, is it in the first person and past tense?

This is one of those secret-handshake things that render a rookie’s submission so apparently different from an experienced writer’s, from Millicent’s perspective: a professional synopsis is ALWAYS in the present tense and third person, unless the book in question is a memoir.

Yes, even if the book being synopsized is written in the first person. Don’t fight it; it’s just a convention of the trade.

(16) Are its pages numbered?

Even after years of reading synopses intended for submission, I remain perennially shocked at how few of them identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike.

Why do I attribute this to faith? Well, like everything else in a manuscript or book proposal, the synopsis should not be bound in any way; like pretty much everything else on earth, paper responds to gravity.

Translation: things fall; pages get separated, and some luckless soul (generally, the person under Millicent the screener on the agency’s totem pole, if you can picture that) is charged with the task of reordering the tumbled pages.

Place yourself in that unhappy intern’s Doc Martens for a moment: given the choice between laboriously guessing which page follows which by perusing content, and pitching the whole thing (into what we devoutly hope is the recycling bin, but is probably merely the overloaded wastepaper basket) and moving on to the next task, which would YOU choose?

Okay, so maybe you’re ultra-virtuous. Allow me to rephrase: what if you were Millicent, had 20 other submissions to screen before lunch, and had just scalded your tender tongue on a too-hot latte?

Don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

(17) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book, or does it just begin abruptly? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

And if it seems a bit silly to tell the nice people who asked you to send a synopsis that what they’ve got in their trembling hands is in fact a synopsis, remember that in a largish agency, the person who requests a submission is often not the person who subsequently reads it. Not the first person, anyway.

Even if it were, from the envelope-opener’s perspective, being expected to recall one request for further materials from — how long? Perhaps a month? — before is tantamount to being asked to guess how many fingers the author is holding up.

In Nebraska, when the guesser is standing in midtown Manhattan. Don’t make ‘em guess.

(18) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what your word processing software tells you is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses.

95% of writers — and 99.98% of non-writers — fall into the trap of thinking that if a document passes muster with their computers’ spelling and grammar checkers, it must therefore be spelled correctly and grammatically sound. That is, alas, generally not true.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries are NOTORIOUSLY inaccurate — and often surprisingly outdated. I am fascinated by the fact that mine evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations.

Don’t believe me? Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary?

And don’t even get a professional editor started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers. Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips necessary accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Once, when I was not looking, it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

Editors like to fantasize about the special circle of hell reserved for those amoral souls who teach our children that the differences between these don’t matter. I’ll spare you the details, but they include the constant din of fingernails on chalkboards, a cozy relationship with angry skunks, and the liberal application of boiling oil to tender parts.

Grammar checkers also typically butcher dialogue, especially if it contains necessary slang. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do.

Read the manuscript for yourself.

And if you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the Internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web.

So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary, for heaven’s sake. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

(19) Are all of the proper nouns spelled correctly?

This is a perennial agents’ pet peeve, and with good reason: believe it or not, misplaced cities, states, and even character names are rife in synopses.

Why? Because these are words that are generally omitted from standard spell-checkers — or are entered with a number of possible variations. So unless you have inserted all of the proper nouns in your work into your spell-checker’s memory, it will often overlook the difference between your elegant heroine, Sandy, and that trollop who wandered into your synopsis unbidden, Sandie.

Triple-check all character and place names.

(20) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

Yes, I’ve talked about this one before, and recently, but this is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content, so it bears repeating. It’s often not as visible to the author as it is to a third party.

As I MAY have mentioned earlier in this series, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) 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, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

If you have even the vaguest suspicion that your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your marketing materials — may give off a even a whiff of that attitude, hand it to someone you trust for a second opinion.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing.

Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(21) Finally, does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

”Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor? Catch me — I’m about to faint with surprise!”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

It’s just common sense, really. If you heard an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at an agents’ and editors’ forum or during a pitch meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

Doesn’t it? Huh?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased AND have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, contrary to popular belief amongst aspiring writers and as I have been pointing out for several years now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment — and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s.

And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even the moment after someone complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?), as opposed to the moment after you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now. As the old international relations truism goes, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent (or an editor, or a contest feedback form, or every last member of your writers’ group, or the Wizard of Oz) has advised you to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean everyone in the industry will greet that tweak rapturously.

Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for the SPECIFIC eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Whew, that was a long one, wasn’t it! Make those synopses shine, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part XII: that pesky synopsis checklist revisited, or, when Millicent checks the freshness seal

Welcome to day two of my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way, a sort of hit parade of the most commonly-made mistakes. Rather than regarding the synopsis as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent, I would encourage you to regard it as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form.

Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively.

Got your highlighting pens all ready? Excellent.

Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far — and FYI, those of you who slogged through my Book Marketing 101 series in the summer of 2007 or indeed any of my earlier posts on the fascinating subject of synopsis-improvement, some of these questions are new, freshly minted to torment you and improve your submissions. You’re welcome.

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

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

(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?

(4) Does the synopsis tell the the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?

(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?

Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least conversant with why I might have suggested such darned fool things?

I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By Jove, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question.) Let’s move on, shall we?

(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?

I can hear some of you laughing at the first part of that question, but actually, fiction synopses that imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity might make some sense — but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

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

Why? Veteran synopsis-writers, take out your hymnals and sing along: 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.

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

Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: tell the story of the book, not of a particular character.

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

And, above all, be certain that your synopsis doesn’t violate Point #7.

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

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

Clearly, Millicent could use a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes, eh?

Seriously, super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis — which I suspect may come as something of a surprise to many of you.

What makes me think that, you ask? Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”

Or, to put it in a less melodramatic manner, these writers are fond of slice-of-life writing.

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

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

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

In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: by emphasizing what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.

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

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

I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull — so why isn’t s/he, precisely? How is s/he different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

Getting the picture? The synopsis needs to demonstrate not only that you can write, but that your book concept is fresh.

Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page?

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

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

If you walked a mile in Millicent’s shoes (sipping her latte, no doubt), or cozied up to Mehitabel the contest judge, you would know otherwise. To your sorrow, probably.

Just make it clear who the narrator is, okay?

Actually, memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because they are true.

As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, that’s not always the case. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.

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

If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. Why would a novel-reader want to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline?

While we’re on the subject, another good way to determine what might make dear self interesting to others…

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

To twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well?

If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles — but nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.

Admittedly, not every good novel features life-or-death stakes. Nevertheless, your story is going to be more memorable to someone who reads synopses for a living if the conflict appears to be vitally important to the protagonist.

Trust me on this one.

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

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

Yes, even at the synopsis stage.

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

In other words, why does your subject matter, well, matter? Which leads me to…

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

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

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

This may seem self-evident, but it has practical ramifications that many aspiring writers do not pause to consider. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

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

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

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

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

Which. common sense tells us, no one can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

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

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes.

Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

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

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy.

The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, that’s enough mental chewing gum for one day. The rest of the checklist follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part XI: the dreaded rise of the Peanut Butter Index, or, it’s time to dig out those highlighting pens again

Is everybody comfortable? Would you like to grab yourself a cup of tea, a cookie or two, perhaps a nice sandwich? Before we resume our ongoing discussion of synopsis troubleshooting, I need to talk to you about something serious, so you might want to have sustenance readily to hand, to fortify you.

Not that I want to add to the general air of gloom pervading pretty much every source of information in the continental U.S. at the moment, but I’d like to put a bug or two in your ear — who ever came up with that revolting expression, I wonder, and why did anyone think to perpetuate it? — about what hard economic times tend to do to the publishing industry. Don’t worry, though: I come not to bury the industry, but to praise it, at least indirectly.

As pretty much everyone who has heard a Manhattan-based agent or editor speak within the last six months is already aware, the mainstream publishers have been rather nervous about the economy for quite some time now. Rumor has it that it’s rendered some already risk-averse people even more risk-averse.

What does that mean translated out of economic-speak? It’s harder than ever to convince an editorial committee to take a chance on an unusual book — or an untried author.

Not that it’s ever been a particularly easy sell, of course.

What’s the rationale behind this increased difficulty, you ask? Well, when the average Joe (he of the much-vaunted six-pack, presumably) faces economic uncertainty — or, for that matter, the certainty of a lost job — he tends to slow his purchase of non-necessities. Apparently, to those benighted souls not hopelessly enslaved to the power of the written word, books fall into the non-essential category.

I know; weird.

What does sell well to ol’ Joe in uncertain times? In the U.S., peanut butter and jelly, cereal, ramen, and other inexpensive comfort foods. In fact, PB & J sales are such a good indicator of consumers’ feelings about the economy that trend-watchers keep an eye on ‘em.

Seriously — it’s called the Peanut Butter Index. (One also hears about it as the PB&J Index, the Oreo Index, or the Mac & Cheese Index, but these terms all refer to the same basic trend.) It may sound a bit silly, but I assure you, folks in the publishing industry take it very seriously: when the PBI is high, the prevailing wisdom goes, new book sales tend to be low.

Library card usage, interestingly, tends to rise. (Hey, readers are smart. And good sandwich-makers, apparently.)

What does a high PBI mean for the average aspiring writer, you ask? Well, typically, the difficulty of landing an agent increases, especially for writers of books that do not easily fit into the traditional big-sales categories. This has absolutely nothing to do with anyone concerned wanting to be mean to the aspiring: agents, bless their ever-picky hearts, don’t like to take on books that they aren’t relatively certain they can sell in the current literary market.

The second reason may surprise you a little: submissions to agencies and publishing houses have historically rises fairly dramatically in tough economic times. (You didn’t think the Great Depression’s literary richness was a coincidence, did you?)

Why? Well, as you may have noticed in chatting at cocktail parties with people who say they WANT to write but produce a million and twelve reasons why they haven’t been able to finish a book/screenplay/that e-mail they’ve been meaning to respond to for months, authorship is not an uncommon Plan B for people who don’t write habitually. And, let’s face it, as hobbies go, writing is a relatively inexpensive one, at least until one starts to query and submit.

Human nature in all of its hopeful glory: when ambient circumstances block the road leading toward one dream, the intrepid soul often seeks out another. Kind of sweet, isn’t it?

It’s can also be problematic for the habitual writer, because I can tell you now, in the months to come, agencies and small publishers are going to see an upsurge in queries and submissions. Which means, unfortunately, that Millicent the agency screener is almost certainly going to find even higher piles of reading material on her desk.

Those of you who have been visiting Author! Author! for a while are probably already cringing, aren’t you? Let’s let the whole class in on why: when Millicent has more to read, she must perforce scan each query and/or submission faster. Her rejection rates may be expected to rise accordingly.

Why? Because it’s not as though time expands when she has more to read each day — or as if her agency is likely to increase the number of writers it intends to sign this year just because the absolute number of queries rises.

I’m telling you this not to depress you — honest! — but so that you may adjust your expectations and plans accordingly. In the months to come, it’s probably reasonable to expect Millicent’s critical eye to be just a little sharper than normal, her boss to be just a little less eager to fall in love with a new author, and turn-around times in general to be just a little bit lengthier.

None of which will have anything to do with you personally, the quality of your manuscript, or your potential as a writer. Remind yourself of that early and often, please.

I would also strenuously suggest that those of you who were considering sending out a raft of queries anytime in the near future (or have been tinkering with a promised submission in an effort to get it perfect) to plan on mailing them out sooner rather than later. I know — it may seem like poor timing to submit during a sharp stock market decline, but if the PBI remains high for the rest of the year, the always heavy post-New Year query and submission avalanche will probably be of epic proportions.

Not to send you into a flurry of panic, but if you could manage to get those queries and submissions out before Thanksgiving, you’ll probably be even better off. The publishing industry tends to slow to a crawl during the winter holidays, anyway, so why not beat the proverbial Christmas rush?

There’s something else you can do to improve your chances of being one of the lucky few who will manage to get their books published within the next couple of years: even in the face of grim economic news, don’t stop buying books in your book category.

Ideally, books that share some significant characteristics with what you write so well. Written by first-time authors, if you can manage it, or at least penned by those who are still walking amongst the living. And no, checking them out from the library will not do, alas.

This advice may sound flippant, but listen: agents and editors are smart, too; they keep a close eye on trends. We’ve also seen how even a single bestseller in a previously lax category can suddenly send the pros scrambling to find similar manuscripts — think about what COLD MOUNTAIN did for historical fiction, for instance, or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY for chick lit.

By the same token, when new sales decline in any book category, everyone who writes that type of book suffers.

It’s a sort of domino effect. When a certain type of book stops selling well — or never sold well in the first place — denizens of publishing houses start muttering amongst themselves, “Well, I guess, I won’t be acquiring any more of those books anytime soon.” When editors begin so muttering, agents who make their livings by selling that sort of book turn pale — and tell their Millicents that they’re really not looking to pick up clients in that category just now.

And guess what that does to her rejection rates?

What’s the best way to change their collective minds about how marketable a particular book category is? Increasing sales in it, that’s how. Industry types tend to be very sensitive to even minor upsurges in sales.

So I repeat: this would be a very, very good time to continue — or get into — the habit of purchasing the kind of book that you write, especially books published within the last 5 years (the industry’s outside limit for current sales). Think of it as market research, a way to keep up with what the industry is interested in seeing these days. Heck, I know many authors who routinely claim buying competitors’ books as income tax deductions — although I since neither they nor I are tax experts, you should talk to someone who is familiar with taxes for artists before you start filling out those forms.

I hear some incredulous huffing out there. “Yeah, right,” some cynics will sneer. “My buying a single book is going to reverse a major economic trend. While I’m at it, I think I’ll juggle the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Of course, no single book sale will alter conditions for aspiring writers everywhere. But if you get into the habit of buying books in your chosen category and encourage all of your kith and kin to do the same, it’s a start. If aspiring writers all across the English-speaking world embraced the same laudable practice, editorial minds could indeed be changed — and where editors minds go, good agents’ are never slow to follow.

Yes, even when the PBI is at an all-time high.

Okay, that’s enough economic theory for one day; let’s get back to the business at hand, learning how to craft a winning synopsis.

It turned out that yesterday’s nagging feeling that I was about to produce a checklist of common synopsis mistakes to avoid was 100% accurate. Kind of predictable, actually, as I am addicted to such lists and synopses vary so much that there honestly is no single reliable formula for producing the perfect one.

But you can steer clear of the problems agents and their screeners see every day, right?

Let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. (Let us be even more optimistic and further assume that you have launched upon the synopsis-creating process long enough before you need one that you have time for an editing phase.) Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD and IN ITS ENTIRETY.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? And why does that question make my long-time readers chuckle?

I freely admit it: this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text, and it will make rhythm problems leap off the page at you.

Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think for an instant that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity — it’s the one with a word missing here or there.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words, ungraceful phrases, and stuff that you don’t quite remember why you wanted to include in the first place, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

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

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Why? Well, if you’ve been following this series for the last couple of weeks, you should be chanting the reason in your sleep by now, but allow me to repeat it: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are.

Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you have writing talent.

Not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because in these days of steeply-rising PBI, agents and editors will be hearing from tens of thousands of people who have done that, but that you have a gift with words and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line or image of the book does not make a guest appearance in the synopsis, whyever not?

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

This is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important.

If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you.

Insofar as a hole can leap, that is.

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

This is where most synopses stumble, frankly, because it is hard for a writer to notice about his own work: most synopses summarize plot or argument adequately, but in the rush to fit everything in, the telling becomes a bit dry. The goal here is not to provide a laundry list of major plot points, after all, but to give an overview of the dramatic arc of the book.

The easiest way to tell if the synopsis is holding together as a good yarn is to hand it to someone who has NOT been around you while you have been writing the book (trust me, you’ve been talking about your plot or argument, if only in your sleep). Ask her to read it over a couple of times.

Then chat with her about something else entirely for half an hour.

At the end of that time, ask her to tell you the plot of the book — WITHOUT looking at the synopsis again. Don’t comment while she does it; just write down the points that fell out of her account.

After you have thanked this kind soul profusely and sent her on her way, highlight the missed points on the synopsis pages. Read through the synopsis, omitting the highlighted bits: does the story hold together without them?

If so, are those bits really necessary?

If the storyline suffers from the omissions, go back over the individual sentences that depict those plot points. Chances are, your reader found these points unmemorable because they were summarized, rather than enlivened with specific details — or because they concerned subplots that aren’t strictly necessary to understanding the central storyline.

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

You wouldn’t believe — at least, I hope you’re far, far too good a storyteller to believe it readily — what a high percentage of the fiction synopses Millicent sees consist simply of X happened, then Y happened, then Z happened. Yes, a synopsis is short, but this is not the most effective way to tell even a truncated story, is it?

Fortunately, to a professional eye, there are a couple of pretty good structural indicators that a synopsis has fallen into laundry-list mode. Once again, your trusty highlighting pen is your friend here. Go through the synopsis and mark every use of the word AND and THEN, as well as every instance of the passive voice.

Then revisit each marked sentence with an eye to revision. All of these phenomena tend to be symptomatic of rushed storytelling.

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable that a writer trying to crush an 80,000 word story or argument into three pages might conceivably feel a mite rushed. But trust me on this one: that is not the primary impression you want to give an agency screener.

Another good indicator of a tendency toward laundry-listing is…

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

Including a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, is an extremely common first novel phenomenon; mentioning too many of them in a synopsis is another.

Why is a too-large cast problematic? Well, lest we forget, Millicent tends to scan synopses awfully darned quickly — that’s why we capitalize each character’s name the first time it appears, right? If too many character names show up too close together in the synopsis, she’s not necessarily going to keep all of them straight in her mind.

Don’t be too hard on her about this, please: remember, she won’t just have your 27 characters tumbling about in her head, but also the 15 characters in the synopsis she read immediately before yours, the 38 from the one before that, and the 183 from that novel she was scanning on the subway. (She’s a Tolstoy fan, apparently.)

How many is too many, you ask? The hand-the-pages-to-a-relative-stranger trick is dandy for determining this: ask a kind soul to read the synopsis, chat about other things for ten minutes, then have him tell the story back to you. Unless your characters’ names are unusually wacky, chances are good that the teller will remember only the names that are most active in the plot.

If you’re too shy or too rushed to attempt this test, trot out your highlighter pens and mark all of the proper names the first time they appear in the synopsis. After you’re done, arrange the pages along a table, countertop, or even along the floor, then go do something else. Move the laundry from the washer to the dryer, for instance, or take a nice, brisk walk around the block.

You spend too much time sitting in front of your computer screen, you know. I worry about you.

When you return, stand a couple of feet away from the pages, admiring the proportion of highlighted to non-highlighted text. In most professional synopses, the highlighting will be heaviest in the first couple of paragraphs, with occasional swipes every paragraph or two later on.

If, on the other hand, your pages look as though they fell into an unusually vivid inkwell, you might want to consider reducing the number of characters you mention.

More checklist items follow next time, of course. Try not to fret too much about the economy, and keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part X: the seductive power of the well-constructed synopsis. (Or two.)

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

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

I don’t mean any of this humorously. (Okay, so I don’t mean it only humorously.) The agent-seeking process and road to publication genuinely frustrating, even for the lucky few for whom it is speedy.Don’t keep it inside, festering in your guts.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t loose it on an agent or editor until after you’ve signed a contract with ‘em. Ideally, not even then.

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

Here’s a novel thought on how to do that: what if you crafted the first paragraph of your synopsis as carefully as the first paragraph of your book? Not merely by including a hook, that much-recommended-by-English-comp-teachers-everywhere grabber of an initial sentence intended to suck the reader directly into the story of a novel or memoir, but by presenting a vivid impression of your fascinating protagonist in a situation rife with conflict, bolstered by juicy and unusual details that appeal to one or more of the reader’s visceral senses?

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

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

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

Sorry. If I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr — and my schedule would permit me to post before the wee hours of the morning on a more regular basis.

However, as a glance at the clock clearly tells me, I do not, in fact, run the universe. Unfortunate.

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

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

Aren’t you glad you sat down first?

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

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I am about to suggest that you might want to come up with different versions to suit the different occasions. Take some nice, deep breaths, and that dizzy feeling will pass in a few seconds.

I’m going to try to make the differences as clear as humanly possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

From the requesting agent’s POV, a submission synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book. In other words, it is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

Repeat that last paragraph like a mantra while you are constructing your synopsis.

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

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

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

In a word, yes, but not alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Tomorrow — or actually, my clock tells me, later today — I shall cover some tips on how to avoid the most common synopsis bugbears, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong.

That’s right, gang: it’s time for another of my trademark troubleshooting checklists. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part IX: a much-needed pep talk, or, when and where primal screaming is and is not constructive

I’ve been worrying about something: 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.

As 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. In fact, the very prospect of pulling one together can leave a talented writer feeling like this:


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 like the best 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 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. And that’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 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.

I know it’s hard, but try to think of this phenomenon in a positive light: 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.

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.

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 summarize the book 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.

There is just no way around summarization, in other words. Just get on with it.

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 bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die.

Those of you who have pitched at conferences know what I’m talking about, right? As anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with a regularly conference-attending agents can tell you, pretty much all of them have 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.

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 is, in case you were wondering, the origin of that 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 in with your first 50 pages, you will look like a star.

You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission 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 resentment.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. All too often, the result is 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.

Believe me, to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis.

No, really, the peevish, just-the-facts-ma’am synopsis is the norm, not the exception; as any Millicent would be 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, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw 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 first 50 pages 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.

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

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? 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 (or, even less sensible, their screeners and assistants). 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 damned book, if you liked my pitch or query, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!”

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, 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. 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. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for either the querying process or a conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion the Industry and pound it silly twice a day. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones.

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 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. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part VIII: the perils of self-revelation — and some great tidings about one of our own!

I am delighted to open today’s post in my favorite manner, by announcing good news about a member of our little Author! Author! community: Seattle-based author Michael Schein’s first novel, the historical mystery Just Deceits, has just been published by independent publisher Bennett & Hastings. Congratulations, Michael!

Michael’s the kind of writer I especially love to see make it into print: the rara avis who not only writes an intriguing book, but also has done his homework about the industry. We first met a couple of years ago when I was teaching a class on conference pitching, a notoriously difficult subject to wrestle to the ground within a single-day class, and certainly a skill that generally takes quite a bit of practice to pull off well.

Imagine my astonishment, then, when Michael walked into the pitch-practicing portion of the class (try saying that three times fast!), sat down, and uttered this:

In 1793, the most powerful family in Virginia found itself embroiled in scandal: Richard Randolph and his sister-in-law, the beautiful and impetuous Nancy Randolph, were charged with adultery and infanticide. Based on actual events, Just Deceits tells the story of the Trial of the Century – the 18th Century – as the remarkable defense team of wily Patrick Henry and ambitious John Marshall battled each other, their clients, family intrigue, the prosecution, and the truth itself, trying to save their clients from the gallows. In its ribald portrayal of a young legal system already driven more by spectacle than evidence, Just Deceits calls into question the feasibility — and even the desirability — of uncovering “the whole truth.” Ultimately, in the secrets revealed and the relationships celebrated, Just Deceits is as much a story of a trial of love as the trial in the courtroom.

Pop quiz for those of you who followed my pitching series this summer (conveniently accessible now under the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right, should you be interested): why is this a good pitch? Or, for that matter, a great summary paragraph for a query letter?

I hope that all of you shouted immediately, “Because it makes me want to read the book!” Ultimately, that is the goal of any pitch.

Or, as we’ve been discussing lately, any synopsis. Notice how well Michael has utilized specifics, rather than generalities, to draw the reader into the story: this is not just the tale of some couple, but of interesting people from a fascinating background — oh, and they actually existed.

Not a bad achievement for a scant 141 words, is it? And here you had been complaining about the necessity of describing your book in five pages.

Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that Michael was dealing with a lulu of a historical incident, either, or that he’d spent a lot of years honing his suspense-building skills. Take a gander at his yummy back jacket blurbs:

“Michael Schein’s excellent debut novel, Just Deceits, is the perfect book for lovers of courtroom thrillers, historical fiction, mysteries, or anyone looking for an exciting page-turner that also stimulates the mind. Schein’s writing is crisp, the characters are vivid and engaging, and there are many unexpected twists on the way to a stunning ending. I couldn’t put it down!”

– Robert Dugoni, NYT bestselling author of The Jury Master, Damage Control, and The Cyanide Canary

“Just Deceits is an exceptionally well-written novel that combines a gripping legal who-done-it with a rich and clever historical tale. Because the line between truth and belief is not neatly drawn, the book is also a significant contribution to the genre of the novel of ideas. The reader looking for thoughtful fun will not be disappointed.”

– Julian Riepe, former Book Acquisition Manager,

The moral: yes, learning how to write a pithy pitch, query letter, or synopsis — not to mention finding out enough about how the publishing industry operates to get any of these onto the right desks — is a heck of a lot of work. But, as with any other skill, it can indeed be learned by a smart writer willing to do his homework.

And, lest we forget amid all of the recent talk about the grim economy and its effects upon publishing prospects, aspiring writers still are getting their first novels into print. Hooray!

Speaking of the dire doom and gloom predictions that we have been hearing so much lately, agent Michael Bourret, of the agency that represents yours truly, has written an excellent essay about the allegedly imminent demise of the publishing industry. He argues — persuasively, I think — that while the industry is obviously going through a period of great change, that isn’t necessarily cause for the world-weary despondence that so often haunts the halls of writers’ conferences these days.

It’s also a time of opportunity, for agents, editors — and for you.

Has that gotten you all fired up about crafting your synopsis? Good. Let’s get back to the nitty-gritty business of building a great one. As it happens, Michael’s ability to summarize his book intriguingly and well is not entirely unrelated to today’s topic.

Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?

Yesterday, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’ t it?

And if you doubt the latter, scroll back up to the top of the page and re-read those blurbs of Just Deceits. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses, you may be surprised to hear.

How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own island in the Caribbean.

And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

More’s the pity.

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichés.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

Other than those three situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people as the book itself. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN let’s talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse.
But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry — at least, not until after a contract is signed — unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. .

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a NF book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part VII: the nonfiction synopsis revisited, or, tell me again who needs to read this book and why?

For the benefit of those of you who are joining us in mid-series, I’ve been spending the last week or so going over (and over, and over) the ins and outs of that most dreaded of submission-packet candy, the humble synopsis. No one can say that I haven’t been thorough about it this time around, I suspect: we’ve covered what a synopsis is and isn’t (9/22) and how it should be formatted (9/23-29), as well as how to make it as brief as a single page (9/23-27) or as long as 5 (9/29-10/2).

(For those of you brand-new to this blog, welcome and fair warning: I’m given to exhaustive multi-part examinations of, well, everything. Blame my years in graduate school — and if you’re looking for a how-to for something specific, I would highly encourage you to peruse the rather extensive category list located on the lower right-hand side of this very page.)

Although many of the principles covered earlier in this series will apply to either a fiction or nonfiction synopsis — or to a memoir synopsis, which is stylistically sort of a combination of both — last time, I began talking about the specialized problems facing nonfiction synopsizers. (Hey, if it isn’t a word, it should be.)

Last time, if you will recall, we established that a nonfiction synopsis has four goals — and that those aims are different from the primary goals of a novel synopsis. To recap, a NF synopsis should:

(1) give the argument of the book in some detail;

(2) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case;

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

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

I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book, I told my wide-eyed readers gathered around the campfire, is you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it.

Thus, when you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it…and thus the market appeal of your book.

Do I already hear some impatient huffing out there? “Aren’t you a little confused, Anne?” I hear a few NF writers protest. “While the book proposal, the query letter, and the pitch may descend to the sordid mention of market conditions and readership, the synopsis is supposed to be a summary of what the book is about. Therefore, it must be entirely about content. Kindly mend your ways accordingly, miss.”

You’re partially right, impatient huffers: a fiction synopsis should indeed concern itself entirely with its book’s subject matter and voice, rather than marketing concerns. A professional nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, is mostly about content, but often contains the elements of a micro-proposal as well.

Why? Well, perhaps not all currently working nonfiction authors would agree with me, but marketability typically plays a far, far more important role in whether an agent, editor, or even contest judge will be interested in a NF project than in novel; NF, after all, is usually sold on a book proposal, not the entire manuscript, and proposals, for the benefit of those of you who have not yet written one, are made up almost exclusively of marketing material.

Why? Well, most of the time, NF sells better.

Don’t believe me, fiction-readers? Walk into the nearest large chain bookstore and take a good, long look around. Are most of the books fiction or nonfiction? Assuming it is the latter (as is the case in most non-specialist bookstores), how are the bookstore’s NF sections arranged?

99.99% of the time, it will be by subject matter — unlike the fiction, which is usually arranged by author’s last name, with perhaps separate sections for the larger genres.

Which means, at the querying and submission stages, that a NF synopsis that acts like a fiction synopsis — sticking to the story and nothing but the story — is typically a less effective marketing tool than one that gives some indication of what kinds of readers are in desperate need of this particular book and why.

Hey, I didn’t make the rules; I just attempt to clarify them a trifle.

Yes, the quality of the writing does make a difference in any submission, but the fact is, while novels can — and do — sell on the writing alone, even the best-written nonfiction is seldom marketed primarily upon the quality of the writing. In fact, that i’s not at all unusual for an author to be able to sell a NF book, even if it’s a memoir, on only a single chapter and a book proposal.

Given this prevailing expectation, trust me: you’ll be better off if you make it pellucidly clear in the synopsis who your target market is, why your book will appeal to them, how and why your subject matter is interesting — and, if you’ll pardon my committing the sacrilege, why a non-expert in the field might find it fascinating.

And as much as I hate to be the one to break it to everyone, “Because I spent two years writing it!” is not a sufficient answer to any or all of the last four questions on that list. In the throes of writing, revising, and querying a book, it can be hard to remember that.

Remember, too, that for the synopsis to whet an agent, editor, or contest judge’s appetite for reading the proposal — the essential task of a synopsis tucked into a query packet, right? — the book’s content needs to come across as not merely intriguing to its target readership, but to industry types as well. So if you ever find yourself saying, “Well, that’s a little unclear, but my end readers will get it,” take that as a sign from the heavens that you should be rushing to revise that particular piece.

As with a fiction synopsis, you’re going to want to show why the book is appealing, rather than merely saying so — and the trick to that, often, lies in eschewing generalities in favor of juicy, intriguing specifics.

In this spirit, I reiterate: when writing a synopsis, it’s merely prudent to assume that professional readers will underestimate the size of your target audience…and thus the market appeal of your book.

This is particularly true if you are pushing a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one.

Why? Well, let’s just say that the news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas. If those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.

I’m quite serious about this. It seems silly in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Boise CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.

And schools. And indoor plumbing.

I know: depressing. But being aware that agents may not be hip to your market means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis — and perhaps in your cover letter as well — just how big and eager your target market actually is.

What can happen if you don’t, you ask? One of the most common rejection reasons for NF: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to a niche market.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche market is industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: it technically means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to what they assume to be a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.

Yes, yes, I know: in actuality, both of these groups are rather large, but someone unfamiliar with those demographics might not be aware of that. To be blunt about it, I’ve never seen a guesstimate that wasn’t low, sometimes by a factor of millions.

Please, I implore you, don’t assume that an agent, editor, or contest judge will necessarily be charmed enough by the writing in your synopsis (or book proposal — or book, for that matter) to conduct a little independent research. Screeners in agencies and publishing houses simply don’t have the time, and often, contest organizers specifically tell their judges that they may rate ONLY what’s on the page.

Which means, in practice, that Millicent is extremely unlikely to dismiss that book aimed at anglers without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually fish for trout.

Such as, for instance, our pal Ernest Hemingway, above. He had — and has — a whole lot of company. But I suspect that you’d have to run into a trout fisherperson or two before you’d see a book on trout and spontaneously cry, “By gum, there’s an immense market for this!”

The same often holds true for regional interest, alas. Due to the perversity of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might reasonably be expected to flock to the bookstores for it.

Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn these days. Or so I surmise, from the immense number of books set there.

But let that SAME story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set. Think about it: if THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, do you honestly think that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance?

Over the years, I’ve heard many agents and editors tell writers of so-called regional works that they’d be better off submitting their NF and even novels to regional publishers, but in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry is not, after all, like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground, started by spunky youngsters in their dorm basements, if necessary.

Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”

Doesn’t happen very often, alas. It’s a lovely fantasy, though, isn’t it?

Even for nonfiction, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard. So it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.

Here, as in the pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your subject matter, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a VERY good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For more hints on how to find statistics to back up your book, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)

In a NF book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, I’m guessing that you probably haven’t pitched a NF book lately.

Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

Platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic.

Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a NF author enough to want to read her book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.

But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State or NBA superstar, do mention it. Don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. The platform is ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the single best person currently residing in the universe to write this particular book.

Give some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book — and yes, that means before you sit down to write the synopsis, too. All of you NF writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform BEFORE you have ANY contact with an agent or editors — your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise.

This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.

“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best living authority upon my own life?”

Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view.

Yes, I know: it seems self-evident that a memoirist would be an expert on the story he tells, because it’s his own life. But a memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, and your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.

If your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, for instance, take a sentence or two of your synopsis to talk about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on it. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, going “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of model trains.

You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.

For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the novel I am writing now is set at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree: think that is going to make my novel more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.

I could feel fiction writers’ blood pressure rising throughout the last few paragraphs, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. Go back and reread that comforting earlier bit about fiction often selling on the quality of the writing alone; repeat as often as necessary until your head no longer feels as though it’s going to explode.

It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query letter. But for fiction, keep your platform out of your synopsis; in the eyes of the industry, self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.

Before anyone points out to me that other sources give different advice about crafting synopses, I’m going to be brutally honest with you here: very few writing teachers will advise you to include your platform in your synopsis, even for a NF book. That’s material for the author bio, they will tell you.

Many writers include a background paragraph in their query letters — a great place to present your platform, eh? — but personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to give a quick nod to the platform in the NF synopsis as well, if it makes your work sound more credible.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, it’s not uncommon for a synopsis to end up in different hands than the query letter, after all. They’re not going to know if you don’t tell them, I always say. Go ahead and state your qualifications, but keep it brief, and make it clear how those qualifications, well, qualify you to write this book.

More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows in the days to come. Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part VI: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the…oh, you only want a couple of pages?


Okay, so I did end up taking a day off for my birthday — but, perversely, it was the day after. Suffice it to say that there’s been quite a bit going on in my part of the world.

Back to the topic at hand, my ongoing series on how to craft an attention-grabbing synopsis BEFORE you need it, so you will not be thrown into forty-seven kinds of panic the instant an agent or editor asks you to send one. As those of you who write nonfiction may have noticed, I’ve been concentrating for the last few posts upon the specialized problems of novel synopses.

Specifically, if you will recall, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller. For nonfiction, the task is a trifle more complicated.

Don’t worry — I have a LOT of experience writing both types, as it happens: I’ve sold two memoirs to publishers, and my second novel is just starting to make the rounds. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run.

In a NF synopsis of any length, your goal is fourfold:

(1) to give the argument of the book in some detail;

(2) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case;

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

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

In anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis.

The argument is the most important element here — it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order.

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

I’m already sensing some disgruntlement out there, amn’t I? “But Anne,” I hear some NF writers grumble, “this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my book?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way.

Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors.

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

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

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, the agent will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can they possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s roughly how long your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, an agency screener’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. These days, contrary to popular opinion, NF queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels. Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction.

Go figure.

At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for NF writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

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

Even if your mother’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s.

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

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

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the NF synopsis. Period.

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

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to mention that in your opening paragraph, or at least in the second. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter, and explain what the book is going to teach people about it.

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help?

And once you have made that clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other book will?

Of course — I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic. Your first task, then, is to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating.

To achieve this successfully, you will need to show how your take on it is original. To do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book. Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

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

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case.

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

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the BOOK PROPOSALS category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back. The rest of you may feel free to move on.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you do not include a BRIEF explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis.

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

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

In other words, your goal here is to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

Piece o’ cake, right?

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

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do?

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

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks. No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are.

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

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

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

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book.

On that stirring statement, I think I shall end for the day. More on NF synopses follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part VI: la la la la TO ME

All right, I’ll admit it: this isn’t actually a picture of me at a former birthday. Unlike so many dark-eyed adult brunettes, I never was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed mite with pigtails. Also, like other children with autumn birthdays growing up in wine country, my family was usually harvesting a few tons of something on or about my birthday, so my cake tended to be consumed at school, as cupcakes. Oh, and I have always looked terrible in pastels; even as a very small child, I wouldn’t be caught dead in ‘em.

Otherwise, I assure you, this picture is an uncannily accurate reproduction of an annual event in my past.

Yesterday (known to literature-lovers everywhere as Pre-Anne Eve, natch), I gave a few genteel indications of how a 5-page synopsis — still, whatever some writing-advice websites claim, the most common requested length for a novel synopsis — might conceivably differ from a 1-page synopsis.

To be specific, I alleged that the extended synopsis should give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. Rather than attempting to cram an in-depth summary of every twist and turn of the book into just a few pages, I suggested that a savvy writer might content herself with showing who the major characters are, what the major conflicts between them are, and illustrating how they played out by describing a few scenes with a wealth of sensual detail.

Or, to cast it in step-by-step terms:

(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. (For NF 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), and

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

Let’s talk for a moment about #4, writing the synopsis in roughly the same voice and in the same tone as the novel it summarizes. As I’ve mentioned, 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.

No need to get obsessed with making sure the tone is identical, of course — 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 novel you’ve written and can produce it consistently, even in a relatively dry document.

Why might an agent or editor want you to demonstrate the latter skill? Well, 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.

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.

What you should also not do — but, alas, all too many aspiring writers do — is attempt to replicate the voice of the book by lifting actual sentences from the novel itself. 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.

They recall what they’ve read.

See the problem, especially if — as not infrequently happens, especially with contest entries — the chapters containing the lifted verbiage and the synopsis are read back-to-back? A good 30% of contest synopses make this mistake, reproducing entire sentences or even entire paragraphs from the chapters included in the entry, invariably costing the entry originality points.

Do I see some raised hands from those of you who habitually recall what you’ve read? “But Anne,” I hear some of you pointing out, and who could blame you? “Didn’t you tell us just a couple of days ago that it was a grave error to assume that Millicent (the agency screener), Maury (her cousin who works as an editorial assistant), and/or Mehitabel (their aunt, the contest judge) will necessarily read both our synopses and the rest of our submissions?”

Excellent point, sharp-eyed readers. 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 ask this question with all possible speed: “Is there a vibrantly interesting detail that I could insert here instead?”

To over-writers (like, I must admit, myself), 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 next time), 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 over and above the wailing and gnashing of teeth out there? “But Anne,” a couple of voices crying 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 trick: 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.

Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines. Then 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 fiction 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 an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 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?


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, you should also sit down and read it 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.

Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

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

If 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; 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.

Try trimming this down to just a few sentences and moving on to the rest of the plot.

If this seems to you like a dangerous strategy to embrace in what is, after all, a marketing document, think about it: if the agent or editor asked to see Chapter 1 or the first 50 pages, and if you place the chapter BEFORE the synopsis in your submission packet, the reader will already be familiar with both the initial premise AND the basic characters AND what occurs at the beginning in the book.

So why be repetitious?

Let 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.

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. 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.

Oh, you didn’t honestly believe you’d make it through my birthday without being subjected to another bad cake pun, did you? Keep up the good work!

Synopsis-writing 101, part V: stretching your limbs…well, a little

So far in this series, I’ve been going over prepping a synopsis for tucking inside a query envelope, adding to the partial an agent has requested that you send, plopping into a contest entry, or having at the ready in anticipation for such a request at a pitch meeting. For the last few posts, I’ve been concentrating upon that bane of writers everywhere, the 1-page synopsis, which is essentially a written-down verbal pitch.

The summary part of a pitch, anyway. A 1-page synopsis needs to be a quick, pithy introduction to the premise, the protagonist, and the central conflict of the book.

Piece o’ proverbial cake to do all that within a single page in standard format, right?

By contrast, the 5-page novel 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.

Why? To make the agent, editor, or contest judge reading it exclaim spontaneously, “Wow — this sounds like one terrific book; this writer is a magnificent storyteller.”

Again, piece of cake, right?

Don’t shrug, 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. Especially if you are intending to query or pitch at a conference anytime soon. As I MAY have mentioned before, 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.

(Wait — I have nagged you some time in the recent past about prepping an author bio, haven’t I? Off to check the archives…oh, dear; it’s been quite some time. Perhaps, after I polish off this series and take that long-anticipated plunge back into craft for at least a few weeks, I shall take another run at it.)

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.

If you take nothing else away from this series, please remember this: writing a synopsis well is hard, even for the most seasoned of pros; be sure to budget adequate time for it.

If the task feels overwhelming — which would certainly be understandable, faced with the daunting task of summarizing a 400-page book in just a few well-written pages — 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.

Yes, you read that correctly: even a comparatively long synopsis shouldn’t depict every twist and turn of the plot — just strive to give a solid feel of the mood of the book and a basic plot summary. 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.

Or, to return to our list of goals from a few days back:

(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. (For NF 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), and

(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,” I hear some of you protest, “what you’re suggesting sounds a heck of a lot like sitting down and summarizing the book!”

Not really — not if you winnow the story down to its most essential elements, rather than trying to list everything that happens. If you’re having trouble doing that — and at the risk of sounding like your last English literature teacher — set the actual happenings of the novel aside for a moment and think about its 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?

I’m quite serious about this. Asking yourself the scant handful of questions that would turn up on an exam will help you identify the essentials. 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?

(b) What does s/he want more than anything else? What or who is standing in the way of 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 achieve this goal?

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

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.

Piece o’ cake, right?

Don’t, I implore you, make the extremely common mistake of leaving out point #6 — the one that specifies that you should include the ending. Too many aspiring writers do this in a misguided endeavor to goad Millicent the agency screener 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.”

To professional eyes, this is a rookie mistake, at least in a synopsis longer than a page or two.

Why? Well, from their point of view, part of the goal of an extended synopsis, after all, 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 fact, 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. Either, they surmise:

a) the synopsis’ author isn’t aware of the purpose of an extended synopsis, 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 not how the publishing industry works, the fish analogy above may reasonably be applied. Next!

c) the synopsis’ author is probably 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!

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. Again, 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.

And yes, I do seem to have cake on my mind today, but for very good reason: tomorrow is my birthday. (And Truman Capote’s, as it happens.) I’m going to sign off for now, so I have time to pen a little treat for you all to have tomorrow while I am blowing out my candles.

How many? That’s for my memoir’s publishers to know, and you to find out if the legal issues around it are ever resolved. Keep up the good work!