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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(d) all of the above, or,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ophelia's mad scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

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

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

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

1-page Hamlet

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

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

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

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


Hamlet 3 page 2

Hamlet 3 page 3

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

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

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

All together now — a longer synopsis should:

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

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet chronological synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of 27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet true crime synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet as history synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm, where have I heard that supposition before?

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

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

Refreshing for something to be, isn’t it?

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

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

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

Hamlet self-help synopsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad

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

1-page Hamlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to suggest…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamlet 1 p synopsis bad 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


with one that covers the plot in more detail:

P&P synop vague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agent: So, what’s your book about?

Writer: About 900 pages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Synopsispalooza, Part VII: writing a nonfiction synopsis so it doesn’t sound like just another big fish story


I’d like to start out with a request for clemency today, campers. Since the advent of Querypalooza early last month, I’ve been inundated with eager questions from anxious queriers. I’m thrilled about this, honestly — I do not think that writers, aspiring or otherwise, talk about this vital among themselves nearly enough. For that reason, I would like to make a formal request (or, more accurately, to codify a policy I had to adopt in self-defense a while back).

Ahem: would you mind posting questions in the comments section of the blog, rather than sending them to me via e-mail? Ideally, in either the comments section of the most recent post or, even better, in a post related to the question?

I ask for several reasons — and not due to the predictable it’s considerably less time-consuming for me to answer blog-related questions during my designated blogging time, rather than throughout my rather packed workday excuse. First, it’s more generous to other members of the Author! Author! community: if you have a question, chances are others do, too. Asking me to address your concerns privately deprives other readers of the opportunity to see the answer and ask follow-up questions. Second, it’s inefficient; it makes more sense for me to spend 20 minutes answering a question in the comments than to answer the same question 20 times individually, at 4 or 5 minutes per answer. Third, while I’m flattered that readers feel that I am approachable, it goes against the fundamental nature of a blog to follow up on discussions here by contacting me in secret.

Let’s all enjoy the discussion, shall we? I’d appreciate it.

Back to business. So far in Synopsispalooza, we’ve discussed what a synopsis is and isn’t, how it should be formatted, how to make it as brief as a single page, and how to cobble together something longer. I’ve also reminded you repeatedly — look, I’m about to do it again now — that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission packet synopsis. Check EACH agency’s submission requirements for its individual preferences.

“But Anne!” those of you simultaneously querying or submitting to many agencies wail, and who could blame you? “Won’t that take a lot of extra time? Doesn’t it imply that instead of churning out one all-purpose synopsis, I may have to write several of different lengths? And what do I do if an agency’s guidelines do not specify a length, but merely says something like include a brief synopsis? Is that code for a particular length?”

My, you ask a lot of questions within a single breath, multiple queriers. In the order asked: yes, but it’s necessary; yes, but it’s necessary; I’ll get to that three paragraphs hence, and no — why would it be in an agency’s interest to trick aspiring writers about that?

Hey, nobody said that this process was going to be easy — or easy to figure out. It isn’t, even for the most talented first-time writer. If any malignant or ill-informed soul ever tells you otherwise, you would be better off whacking yourself in the head with a 15-pound carp than taking that ridiculous counsel to heart.

Not that I’m advising anyone’s whacking himself in the head with a fish of any size, of course. It’s not good for the fish, and it’s not good for you.

The general rule of thumb for everything an aspiring writer sends an agent is send them precisely what they ask to see. If their guidelines (usually available on its website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides; check both) ask for a 1-page synopsis, send a 1-page synopsis; if it asks for 4 pages, send 4. If, however, neither an agency’s published guidelines (for a query packet) nor the letter requesting materials (for a submission) specify how long a requested synopsis should be, it is up to you. Just don’t make it longer than 5 pages.

Why 5? Because, as I have mentioned in previous posts in this series, 5-page synopses have historically been standard for agents to ask clients they have already signed to produce for their next projects. If an agent does for some esoteric reason of his own expect queriers to guess what number he is thinking, it’s probably 5.

Not that the point of this exercise is to guess what the agent is thinking. Not about synopsis length, anyway.

Last time, if you will recall, we established that a nonfiction synopsis has six goals — that’s one more than we discussed last year, for those of you keeping track; the market’s continually evolving — and that those aims are different from the primary goals of a novel synopsis. To recap, a successful nonfiction synopsis should:

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

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

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (if the group or organization is large, go ahead and say how large, so Millicent the agency screener can’t accidentally underestimate it);

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

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

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

Let’s go back to the statistics issue, as it puzzles many first-time queriers and submitters. I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book is, I told wide-eyed readers gathered around the virtual campfire, 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 — or any nonfiction book, actually. Unless it’s a tell-all by a celebrity fresh out of rehab or somebody who used to work at the White House, few manuscripts’ market appeal is self-evident on the title page.

Do I already hear some impatient huffing out there? “This doesn’t seem right to me, Anne,” a few nonfiction writers protest. “While I understand why I am forced to descend to the sordid mention of market conditions and readership in my book proposal, my query letter, and any verbal pitch I might work up nerve to give in a conference elevator, the synopsis is supposed to be a summary of what the book is about. Therefore, it must be entirely about content, a pristine run down of just the facts, ma’am. Kindly mend your ways accordingly, missie.”

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

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: if you want to query or pitch nonfiction to the pros, there’s no way to avoid discussing marketing issues. It’s the price a nonfiction writer pays for not having to write the entire book before selling it.

Why, yes, that does tend to be a trifle satisfying to novelists everywhere, now that you mention it. They have to write the whole darned book before they can legitimately start sending out queries and submissions; typically, all a nonfiction writer has to polish off is a sample chapter and a book proposal. And proposals, for the benefit of those of you who have not yet written one, are made up almost exclusively of marketing material.

There’s a reason for that, of course. I hate to break anyone’s bubble about the marriage of art and business, but marketability typically plays a far, far more important role in whether an agent, editor, or even contest judge will be interested in a nonfiction project than in novel. Most of the time, nonfiction sells better.

Don’t believe me, fiction-readers? Okay, try this little experiment: 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 nonfiction 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 better-selling genres.

Which means, at the querying and submission stages, that a nonfiction synopsis that acts like a fiction synopsis — that is, 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.

Stop waving that dead fish at me. I didn’t set up this system; I just attempt to render it a trifle less opaque for newcomers.

Yes, the quality of the writing does make a difference in any query or 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 it’s not at all unusual for an author to be able to sell a nonfiction book, even if it’s a memoir, based on only a single chapter and a book proposal.

More huffing? Okay, go ahead and spit out that resentment: “But Anne, I’ve seen agency websites/listings in agency guides/heard one agent make an offhand comment at a conference and took it as an indicator of how every agent in North America feels insisting that they will ONLY look at memoirs that are already 100% written. So I guess you just misspoke about memoirs being sold by proposal, right?”

Well, I could see where a reader might think that as a memoirist who sold two books via proposal, my view might be a trifle skewed, but no: the vast majority of memoirs sold every year to U.S. publishers come in proposal form, not as finished manuscript. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too — not only are proposals significantly quicker for Millicent the agency screener and her cousin Maury the editorial assistant to read; it’s commonplace for publishers to ask for content change in a nonfiction book after acquiring it. Or even as a condition of acquisition.

Yes, even in memoirs — the writer may have lived the life, but ultimately, the editor is the one who decides what parts of that life are and are not included in the published book. And yes, that sometimes does involve editorial feedback like, “What if you approached this real-life incident in a completely different manner on the page than you did when it happened?”, “Is the mother character really necessary to the story?” and “How would you feel about leaving out that 50-page digression on three years of your childhood?”

Sorry, Mom — the editor says you’re toast. And apparently, 1974-1977 weren’t that interesting.

Given the likelihood that the acquiring editor will request changes, why would an agency stipulate that a memoir that’s probably going to undergo significant revision be completed before the writer queries? Well, a couple of reasons.

Topping the list: memoir can be emotionally devastating to write; I know plenty of perfectly wonderful memoirists who went through years of angst about whether they would be able to commit their lives to paper at all. An agency that doesn’t accept partially-written projects can be relatively certain that the writer will deliver the goods. Also — and again, I don’t want to send any of you memoirists out there spinning into shock, but better you hear this from me — it’s not unheard-of for agencies with this requirement to expect memoirists to construct a book proposal for the already-completed manuscript after they’re signed to a representation contract.

Yes, you read that correctly: a memoirist with a finished draft will probably have to write a book proposal for it, anyway. Working with an agency with a finish-it-first requirement does not necessarily equal a get-out-of-writing-a-proposal pass.

Try to look on the bright side. Since a proposal must talk about the storyline as if the book were already completed, it’s quite a bit easier to write with a manuscript already in hand. Why, all you have to do to come up with an annotated table of contents is to flip through the book, see what each chapter is about, and summarize it.

Besides, the goal of a nonfiction query packet is to prompt Millicent to ask to see the proposal and/or sample chapters, right? So if you’re querying a nonfiction project, the pros will expect you to have a proposal already in hand. So why wouldn’t 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 before anyone asks: no, “Because I spent seven years writing it!” is not a sufficient answer to any or all of the last four questions. In the throes of writing, revising, and composing marketing materials for 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 every syllable of 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 trifle unclear, but my end readers will get it,” take it 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 telling Millicent that it is — 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, Pittsburgh 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.

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before that one? It tends to come as a shock to writers living outside the Boston-DC Amtrak corridor.

Naturally, I’m not saying that northeasterners are myopic; let’s just say that the news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of a day’s drive of their workplaces is likely to affect Americans. The rest of the country is far more likely to know about the general tenor of life in NYC or LA than the fine denizens of those megapoli (megapolises looks so silly) than the other way around. Of course, 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 know, I know: this attitude seems rather odd in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional differences 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 Seattle CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.

And schools. And indoor plumbing. I’m not entirely sure that my agent believes I don’t live in a tent with a yeti. He likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the New York City hospital where he was born.

The first time he said it to me, he was taken completely by surprise when I, a 6th-generation West Coaster, instantly responded, “Oh, that’s so sad. You should get out more.”

I’m not bringing this up to rib him — okay, so I am just a little bit — but because being aware that agents may not be completely hip to your target demographic means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis just how big and eager your market actually is for a book like yours.

You might want to bring it up in your query as well. And perhaps in the cover letter you tuck into your submission packet.

What can happen if you don’t, you ask? Only triggering one of the most common rejection reasons for nonfiction: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to only a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche marketis industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: technically, it 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.

Ten points to all of you who just gasped in annoyed disbelief: you are quite right that, in actuality, both of these groups are quite large — Trout Unlimited has 150,000 volunteers, and an estimated 1.5 – 2 million children and adults have cerebral palsy. The extended demographic of people who love members of both of those groups must logically extend into the millions.

Yet someone unfamiliar with those demographics might not be aware of that — which means that in many instances, if not most, a professional reader will be relying solely upon the information that you provide or his own guesstimate if you do not. 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 before deciding whether to reject your query packet or submission.

“But Anne,” astonished veteran web-browsers everywhere exclaim, “why should I have to go to that trouble in the age of the Internet? If Millicent is curious about the size of my target market, all it would take is a 10-second web search to see if her guesstimate is correct.

Ah, but you’re assuming that she would drop everything to perform such a search. She’s not: screeners in agencies and publishing houses simply don’t have the time, and often, contest organizers specifically tell their judges that they may rate entries 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. As anyone who has ever lived near a good fishing river could tell you, 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 reality 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 over the last hundred years. 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?

Which brings me to another very common piece of conference lore: over the years, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors tell writers of so-called works of purely regional interest that they’d be better off submitting their nonfiction, memoirs, and even novels to regional publishers. 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?

Admittedly, there are a quite a few more regional publishers for nonfiction than for fiction or memoir; that’s true of small, independent presses in general. Even for nonfiction, though, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard or LA.

What strategy tip may we derive from this? Since it’s a safe bet that Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel will in fact be perusing your query, submission packet, or contest entry with an eye to determining national interest, it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials — yes, including your synopsis — to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.

In the synopsis, as in the query letter and pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your topic, 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 some handy hints on how to find statistics to back up such claims, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)

Okay, impatient huffers, your time has once again come. Have at it: “But Anne, every time I go to a writers’ conference, all of the agents and editors keep saying that the most important thing for me to show up front is my platform. How does all of what you’ve been saying here fit in with that?”

Very well, actually — and I’m glad that you brought this up, oh huffers. In a nonfiction 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. Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a nonfiction 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?”

So 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 nonfiction book lately.

To clear the brows of those of you knitting them right now, 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 nonfiction author enough to want to believe what he says in his 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, a child actor on a hit TV show, or NBA superstar, do mention it — but don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. As we discussed in Querypalooza, your platform consists ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the single best person currently residing in the universe to write this particular book — and that members of the reading public might flock to see you do it.

Not books in general: this book. It’s a great idea to devote 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.

Don’t look at me that way; I’m doing you a favor here, not just assigning extra work for its own sake. All of you nonfiction writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform before you have ANY contact with an agent or editor — you should be able to talk about yourself as an expert on the subject matter of your book. Trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run if you get used to thinking of yourself that way before you walk into a publishing house to meet with your new editor.

Synopsis-writing time is a great opportunity to start, because 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. A memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, after all. Ideally, any statement of your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.

So should your synopsis. For instance, if your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, invest a sentence or two of your synopsis in talking about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on the culture. 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, singing “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of models.

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 trilogy I am working on now is set at Harvard; I got my undergraduate degree there. Think that is going to make the books 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 about to explode.

It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query, since (brace yourself, novelists) in this tough market, most agents will be pleased to see it. But for fiction, keep your synopsis platform-free; self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.

Whew, that was a lot of gut-wrenching reality to cover in a single post, wasn’t it? I’m sure all of us could use some nice down time. If only we knew someone who might take us fishing…

More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows tomorrow, of course. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part III: keeping some of those plot cats concealed in the bag

concealed cat

Last time, I let the cat out of the bag, all right: I divulged the secret that just because many diverse people — agents, editors, contest rule-writers, fellowship committees, etc. — use the term synopsis, it does not mean that they are necessarily all talking about an identical document. Different individuals, agencies, and institutions want different lengths, so it always behooves an aspiring writer to double-check each entity’s individual requirements. Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis.

And the crowd went wild; perhaps I should have begun with a 5-page synopsis and worked my way down. There seems to be something about the very idea of a 1-page synopsis that sends aspiring writers spiraling into an oh, my God, I have to write this in the next five minutes tizzy. Or so I surmise from the fact that my e-mail inbox (not the way I prefer to receive questions, folks; post ‘em in the comments, please) has been stuffed to the gills for the past two days with behind-the-scenes pleas to explain further.

I find this a trifle odd, there was absolutely nothing in that last post to indicate that I did not intend to give much, much more insight into the subject. Seriously, did the 27 posts of Querypalooza really leave any doubt about my great love of explaining things down to the last comma?

Relax, campers: this is only the third post into what promises to be a several-week series. To set your mind even more at rest, I’m going to go ahead and respond to a comment on the subject from eager-to-go reader Christie:

Great post, Anne. Just to clarify though, are you suggesting that a one-page synopsis doesn’t have to include the ending of the book? Should it just be a teaser?

Yes and no, Christie. Yes, a 1-page synopsis does not have to include the ending, just the premise and the central conflict. But no, it should most emphatically not be mistaken for a teaser or a back jacket blurb, intended just to provoke interest: a teaser typically just includes the premise, while a back jacket blurb usually consists of teaser + praise for the book.

The overwhelming majority of 1-page synopses both Millicent the agency screener and her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, see in query packets are either teasers or back jacket copy. Neither fulfills the intended purpose of a 1-page synopsis: to convince a professional reader to ask to see the manuscript.

In order to do that, even a 1-page synopsis is going to have to convey something of the feel of the manuscript. But unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide a brief-but-complete overview of the book in question’s plot or argument (more on that later in this series), a 1-page synopsis is essentially a movie trailer for the book, intended only to perform a limited number of functions.

What functions, you ask? Glad you asked:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

These goals should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through Querypalooza series: a 1-page synopsis shares essentially the same objectives as the descriptive paragraph in a query. The synopsis merely allows more room to achieve them. In both, the goal is NOT to tell everything there is to tell about the book — these formats are simply too short to permit it — but to give the reader/hearer enough of a taste to whet his or her appetite.

In order to provoke what kind of response, ideally, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along: the goal of a synopsis tucked into a query packet is to get the agent reading it to ask to see the manuscript, not provide so much information that reading it would be redundant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least, not since you learned the difference between a synopsis and a back jacket blurb. Again, I’m not talking about those oh-so-common soi-disant synopses that don’t summarize the book so much as promote it. (This is the best novel since MIDDLEMARCH, only less depressing!) But of that pitfall, more follows anon.

If you find the necessity for brevity intimidating, you are hardly alone. I am perpetually meeting aspiring writers agonizing over it — and interestingly, the level of panic about writing them doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to how confident the writer feels about the manuscript itself, its level of polish, or even, in many cases, the writer’s level of familiarity with the publishing industry.

What that gut-wrenching fear does have to do with, evidently, is the imperative for brevity. Which is not, let’s face it, the natural impulse of those of us who sit down and write books.

Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans. Naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

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

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

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

Of course, it was simpler for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches. It is, as I mentioned last time, a learned skill.

To be fair, I also hadn’t lived through any of the real-life events that I had every reason to expect formed major incidents in the book. (What tipped me off that her novel might border on the autobiographical? What tips off so many pitch-hearers and query-readers: the fact that the author not only prefaced her summary with that statement so beloved of first-time novelists, “Well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me…” but she also very kindly told me after her descriptions of each fact-based incident in her 43-minute plot summary how the actual events had been different, as an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. Quick hint to those of you writing autobiographical fiction: to a professional reader like an agent, editor, or contest judge, such statements almost never render a writer more credible as a narrator; if people in the publishing industry want real stories, they turn to memoir and other nonfiction. Save the accounts of how closely your novel mirrors your life for interviews after your book is published; trust me, your biographers will be agog to hear all about it.)

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

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

This is why, I explained to her, I always draft my pitch and synopsis before I write the book. About 1/3-1/2 of the way through the writing process seems to be the best time: less distracting than if I wait until the manuscript’s completely polished. I know that I can always tweak it down the road.

Stop clutching your chests; this honestly does make sense. Naturally, early-penned synopses and pitches will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens, but I’ve never known a writer who could not easily give a one-page synopsis of her book when she was two weeks into writing it — and have seldom known the same author to be able to do so without agony a year later.

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

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

At least as a rough draft: you can always revise it later on. Why get the constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

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

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

I can tell that some of you still are not convinced. Okay, here is an even better reason to take the time early in the process to start thinking about the synopsis: in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, you will have an easier time at the querying and submission stage.

How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for a synopsis. Wouldn’t you rather be able to say, “Sure; I’ll get that out to you right away,” instead of piping through mounting terror, “Wow, um, I guess I could pull one together and send it with the chapter you requested…in a month or two…will you excuse me while I track down my heart medication?”

More to the point, if you start earlier, you’ll have a better chance of writing a good synopsis that does credit to your writing skills. As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample — and will be judged accordingly.

A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization. Especially if the summarizer in question is trying to cram a 380-page plot into a scant couple of pages.

But just what does summarization mean in this context? Is it, as my dinner companion assumed, simply a shortened version of a long tale, including all of the twists, turns, subplots, and descriptions of what perspective and voice each of the mentioned scenes is in?

Of course not. In a synopsis, a writer is supposed to tell her story compellingly: basically the plot of the book, minus the subplots. Which is why, in case you’d been wondering, it’s a mistake to overload the synopsis with detail, instead of sticking to the major plot points.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s send Aunt Jane into a the agent of my dreams just asked me to tuck a synopsis into my submission packet, and I haven’t even begun to think about writing one! frenzy and aim her toward her book. (If you’re having trouble reading the words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + in order to enlarge the image.)

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

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

I heard you think that, synopsis-writers who already have requests to send pages: sorry to be the one to break it to you, but in a submission that includes a synopsis, Millicent will NOT immediately turn to the manuscript if she finds the synopsis unsatisfying. This is not like pretending you couldn’t hit the volleyball to save your life to get out of P.E. class in junior high school: a writer can’t wiggle out of the necessity of producing a professional synopsis by doing it poorly.

Besides, it’s not in your best interest to underestimate the potential importance of the synopsis in Millicent’s decision-making process. In the rather unlikely circumstance that she reads the synopsis first (submission screeners tend to pounce upon the first page of the manuscript right away, to see if they like the writing, then move on to a requested synopsis later), all a poorly-constructed synopsis is likely to impel her to do is reach for her already-prepared stack of form-letter rejections.

Hey, I don’t make the rules; I merely tell you about them. Pass the crawfish etouffée and tell me about your novel.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for quite some time. Yes? “Okay, Anne,” many of you call out, rubbing life back into your tingling appendages, “I get it why I need to take the time to produce a synopsis that presents my book’s premise and central conflict well. But the length of the synopsis listed in the agency of my dreams’ guidelines is not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, so why not just write it as such. And while I’m at it, why shouldn’t I tuck the same highly flattering 1-page synopsis into my next contest entry to run a little promotional copy past Mehitabel?”

Well, the first reason that comes screaming to mind is that Millicent and Mehitabel have back jacket blurb-style synopses tossed at them all the time. You’re not going to win any points for originality, and frankly, telling an agent or contest judge how terrific your writing is never works out as well as showing them that you’re talented.

Why not? This style of synopsis-writing lends itself to a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts. The result often looks a little something like this:

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

But is this synopsis-cum-blurb a successful description of the book? Of course not. To understand why, let’s evaluate the effectiveness of all three of today’s synopses. Force yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example: try to read it purely for content. Then go back and take another gander at our first two examples of the day.

How do they compare? Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the first and second SHOW that why it might be appealing through specifics — let me ask you: how well does each fulfill the criteria for 1-page synopsis success that we established above?

Oh, have you forgotten what they are in the haze of panic at the prospect of having to write a 1-page synopsis yourself? Okay, let’s recap:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

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

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

Obviously, the last example fails in almost every respect. It does (1) introduce a few of the main characters and part of the premise, but this description dumbs them down: Lizzy seems to be the passive pawn of Mr. Wickham, and not too bright to boot. It mentions (2) one of the conflicts, but neither the most important nor the first of the book. It also entirely misses the book’s assessment of (3) what’s at stake for Lizzy (other than the implied possibility of falling in love with the wrong man). Most seriously, (4) this blurb actively misrepresents the tone and voice of the book, presenting it as a torrid romance rather than a comedy of manners.

Why is this a mistake? Well, think about it: would an agent who represents steamy romantica be a good fit for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE? Would s/he be likely to have the editorial connections to place it under the right eyes quickly?

And think about it: isn’t an agent who gets excited about the book described in this third example likely to be hugely disappointed by the opening pages of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE?

Example #1 — what I like to call the run-on synopsis — performs better on a lot of levels, doesn’t it? It presents both (1) the characters and premise fairly well. It doesn’t leave enough cats in the bag (Aunt Jane hasn’t left much to Millicent’s imagination, has she?), but you have to admit, it is an accurate representation of the plot, up to a certain point.

Unfortunately, a querier or submitter is not being graded on completeness. Aunt Jane should be concentrating on telling this story well, not in its entirety.

Especially since the brevity of the synopsis renders thoroughness impossible. By getting sidetracked by a minor conflict, its writer rapidly runs out of room to present the (2) primary conflict of the book. By focusing so exclusively on what happens, rather than upon establishing, say, the protagonist’s motivations and desires, it underplays (3) what’s at stake for her.

Hmm, I seem to have placed that last bit in boldface. One might almost take it for an aphorism on synopsizing.

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

The middle example — the one that, if you will recall, is little more than a reformatted and slightly expanded version of the descriptive paragraph of the query letter — succeeds in fulfilling each of our goals. Or does it? Can you think of ways to improve upon it without extending the length beyond a single page?

Quick, now: Aunt Jane needs to know immediately, because the agent of her dreams asked her today to send the first 50 pages and a synopsis, and page 45 has just popped out of her printer. Can you pick up the pace, please?

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

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

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

I’ll leave you chewing on all of these big issues for the nonce; I don’t want to send any of you reaching for your heart medication again. After all, writing an eye-catching synopsis takes time.

So take a few nice, deep breaths. You don’t need to polish it off today.

Next time, I’m going to be returning to these same examples with a more technical eye, to see how the smaller structural and presentation issues play into a synopsis’ success. Keep up the good work!

Welcome to Synopsispalooza!

Rosie the RiveterRosie the Riveter reversed
Rosie the Riveter3Rosie the Riveter 4

Has everyone recovered from Querypalooza, our early September foray into the joys of all things query-related? Well, I haven’t, either, but that’s not going to stop us from pressing forward into the rest of the material in the query packet, is it?

So welcome to Synopsispalooza, brought to you by popular demand. Although I shall not attempt to replicate the breakneck pace of Querypalooza (three posts per day? Even I can can’t believe that, in retrospect), I can confidently predict that this point-by-point analysis of how to conceive, write, and present a professional-looking synopsis without driving yourself nuts in the process will be as intense as our last series.

You didn’t think I was going to let you send off those query letters you’ve just perfected with just a so-so synopsis, did you? If we’re going to do this unpleasant thing, we might as well take the time to do it right.

That’s actually not a bad motto for any aspiring writer preparing to plunge into the often hair-tearing stress of trying to summarize a 400-page book in 5 pages. Or 3. Or even — sacre bleu! — 1. Practically nobody enjoys writing the blasted things, but given how important they can be to a query or submission packet’s success (yes, really) and the fact that you’re going to be spending hours on end trying to construct one (yes, unfortunately), you might as well invest another few hours in learning the ropes. Think of it as practice for your future life as a career writer.

Does that houseplant flying past my head mean that somebody out there is unhappy with the implication of that last sentence? Yes, Virginia, I’m afraid so: professional writers have to churn out synopses all the time.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that with practice, that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? does in fact subside. After your third or fourth book, you will probably be able to toss off a synopsis with hardly any brow-mopping at all.

Heck, if you’ve been working with an agent who likes to see synopses for books that his clients are even considering writing — yes, dear Miss V, they do exist — you may well start thinking in synopsis form. I’ve been known to write a synopsis for a 350-page tome just after polishing off the first draft of page 10 of the manuscript.

Pick your jaws off the floor, novelists. All nonfiction authors have to learn to pitch work they haven’t yet written. How would it be possible to construct a book proposal otherwise?

And do stop flinging that greenery, implication-gleaners. “But Anne,” many of you shriek, potted palms already in hand, “I had always thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, then swiftly forgotten because I’d never have to use it again. Why would I ever need to write one other than to tuck into a query or submission packet?”

You’re sitting down, I hope? It may come as a surprise to some of you, but synopsis-writing is a task that dogs a professional writer at pretty much every step of her career. Just a few examples how:

* An aspiring writer almost always has to produce one at either the querying or submission stages of finding an agent.

* A nonfiction writer penning a proposal needs to synopsize the book she’s trying to sell, regardless of whether s/he is already represented by an agent.

* Agented writers are often asked to produce a synopsis of a new book projects before they invest much time in writing them, so their agents can assess the concepts’ marketability and start to think about editors who might be interested.

Basically, the more successful you are as a writer of books, the more often you are likely be asked to produce one of the darned things. Thus, synopsis-writing is a fabulous skill to add to your writer’s tool kit as early in your career as possible.

Amazingly frequently, though, writers both aspiring and agented avoid even thinking about the methodology of constructing one of the darned things until the last possible nanosecond before they need one, as if writing an effective synopsis were purely a matter of luck or inspiration. It isn’t. It’s a learned skill.

But don’t panic: we’re going to be spending Synopsispalooza learning it.

What makes me so sure that pretty much every writer out there could use a crash course in the craft of synopsis-writing, or at the very least a refresher? Well, let me ask you something: if you had only an hour to produce a synopsis for your current book project, could you do it?

Okay, what if I asked you for a 1-page synopsis and gave you only 15 minutes?

I’m not asking to be cruel, I assure you: as a working writer, I’ve actually had to produce synopses under deadlines that short. Agented writers run fresh book concepts past their agents all the time, so it’s far from uncommon to hear something like, “Great, I’m having lunch with an editor who might be interested in that tomorrow. Can you get me a synopsis by morning?” Heck, I’ve been asked to pitch a future book whose premise I’d barely discussed with my agent to an editor at a party, so I had to essentially write a synopsis in my head on the spot.

And even when I had longer to crank something out, why would I want to squander my scarce writing time producing a document that will never be seen by my readers, since it’s only for internal agency or publishing house use? I’d rather just do a quick, competent job and get on with the rest of my work.

I’m guessing that chorus of small whimpering sounds means that some of you share the same aspiration.

The second reason I suspect even those of you who have written synopses before could stand a refresher is that you can’t throw a piece of bread at any good-sized writers’ conference in the English-speaking world without hitting at least one writer complaining vociferously about how awful it is to have to summarize a 500-page book in just a couple of pages. I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer at any stage of the game who actually LIKES to write them, but those of us farther along tend to regard them as a necessary evil, a professional obligation to be met quickly and with a minimum of fuss, to get it out of the way.

Judging by conference talk (and, if I’m honest, by the reaction of some of my students when I teach synopsis-writing classes), aspiring writers are more likely to squander their energies on frustration at the size of the task — or resenting the length, as if a 3-page synopsis were much, much harder than a 10-page one. (It isn’t, once you know the ropes.)

Frequently, I meet aspiring writers who seem downright insulted by the imperative to produce synopses for their books at all. “But Anne,” they protest, and who could blame them? “There’s just so much going on in my book. If I could have told the story in just a few pages, I would have written a short story, not a novel!”

A good point, and not an uncommon one: aspiring writers’ complaints usually center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at Mount Olympus and cries, need it be so cruelly short? What on earth could be the practical difference between reading a 5-page synopsis and a 6-page one, if not to make a higher hurdle for those trying to break into a notoriously hard-to-break-into business? And how much more could even the sharpest-eyed Millicent learn from a 1-page synopsis that she could glean from a descriptive paragraph in a query letter?

I can answer that last one: about three times as much, usually. And the answer to those first two questions is the same: time.

Let’s pause a moment to consider why an industry devoted to promoting book-length works would even want to judge a new writer’s writing and plotting ability by a 5-page synopsis. In order to render this foray more productive, I’m going to suggest you take a gander at a genuinely informative essay in last September’s Barnes & Noble Review by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker on the state of modern publishing. It’s a bit of a depressing read, admittedly, but I cannot emphasize enough how essential it is to a career writer’s long-term happiness to gain a realistic conception of how the publishing industry works.

In the midst of some jaw-dropping statements like, “Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors,” Menaker gives a particularly strong explanation for why, contrary to prevailing writerly rumor, editors expect the books they acquire not to require much editing, raising the submission bar to the point that some agency websites now suggest in their guidelines that queriers pay a freelance editor like yours truly to clean up their manuscripts before even beginning to look for an agent. Quoth Mssr. Menaker:

The sheer book-length nature of books combined with the seemingly inexorable reductions in editorial staffs and the number of submissions most editors receive, to say nothing of the welter of non-editorial tasks that most editors have to perform, including holding the hands of intensely self-absorbed and insecure writers, fielding frequently irate calls from agents, attending endless and vapid and ritualistic meetings, having one largely empty ceremonial lunch after another, supplementing publicity efforts, writing or revising flap copy, ditto catalog copy, refereeing jacket-design disputes, and so on — all these conditions taken together make the job of a trade-book acquisitions editor these days fundamentally impossible. The shrift given to actual close and considered editing almost has to be short and is growing shorter, another very old and evergreen publishing story but truer now than ever before. (Speaking of shortness, the attention-distraction of the Internet and the intrusion of work into everyday life, by means of electronic devices, appear to me to have worked, maybe on a subliminal level, to reduce the length of the average trade hardcover book.)

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Which made your intestines contract into the tighter ball, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

Since rejection feels so personal, it can be hard for an isolated writer to differentiate between rebuffs based upon a weakness in the manuscript itself, a book concept that’s just not likely to sell well in the current market, and a knee-jerk reaction to something as basic as a manuscript length that would be expensive to print and bind. It’s far, far too easy to become bitter or to assume, wrongly, that one’s writing can be the only possible reason for rejection.

Don’t do that to yourself, I implore you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for your writing.

I sense some ferns about to be lobbed in my general direction. “What’s the point of depressing us with all this, Anne? We’re all told constantly that publishing is getting harder and harder to break into, but I thought these ‘Palooza posts were devoted to practicalities. So why aren’t you getting on with, say, giving me a template for a winning synopsis?”

Well, in the first place, if you’ve come here for a quick one-size-fits-all formula, Virginia, Author! Author! is probably not the right writers’ community for you. Here, we try not to rip anything out of context: as I like to remind my readers early and often, savvy writers take the time to learn why the publishing industry wants them to jump through a particular hoop. That makes it easier to jump through it with style.

As we’ve already seen with so many aspects of the querying and submission process, confusion about what is required and why often adds considerably to synopsis-writers’ stress. While the tiny teasers required for pitches and query letters are short for practical, easily-understood reasons — the fact that an agent and her screeners need to get through a bunch of ‘em in a limited amount of time, for instance, or the necessity for the letter’s being a single page, which also boils down to a time issue, since the single-page restriction exists to speed up Millicent the agency screener’s progress through the day’s queries — it’s less clear why, say, an agent would ask to see a synopsis of a manuscript he is ostensibly planning to read.

I sympathize with the confusion, but I must say, I always cringe a little when I hear writers express such resentments. I want to take them aside and say, “Honey, you really need to be careful that attitude doesn’t show up on the page — because, honestly, that happens more than you’d think, and it’s never, ever, EVER helpful to the writer.”

Not to say that these feelings are not completely legitimate in and of themselves, or even a healthy, natural response to a task perceived to be enormous. Let’s face it, the first time most of us sit down to do it, it feels as though we’ve been asked to rewrite our entire books from scratch, but in miniature. From a writerly point of view, if a story takes an entire book-length manuscript to tell well, boiling it down to 5 or 3 or even — shout it along with me, campers — sacre bleu!, 1 page seems completely unreasonable, if not actually impossible.

Which it would be, if that were what a synopsis was universally expected to achieve. Fortunately for writers everywhere, it isn’t.

Not by a long shot. Aren’t you glad you were already sitting down?

As I’m going to illustrate over the next week or two — oh, you were expecting this to be a shorter ‘Palooza? — an aspiring writer’s impression of what a synopsis is supposed to be is often quite different from what the pros have become resigned to producing, just as producing a master’s thesis seems like a much, much larger task to those who haven’t written one than those of us who have.

And don’t even get me started on dissertations.

Once a writer comes to understand the actual purpose and uses of the synopsis — some of which are far from self-evident, by the way — s/he usually finds it considerably easier to write. So, explanation maven that I am, I’m going to devote this series to clarifying just what it is you are and aren’t being asked to do in a synopsis, why, and how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Relax: you can do this. Before I launch into the nitty-gritty of how to distill the essence of a manuscript, already written or otherwise, let’s start with the absolute basics:

A synopsis is a brief overview IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Unlike an outline, which presents a story arc in a series of bullet points (essentially), a synopsis is fully fleshed-out prose. Ideally, it should be written in a similar voice and tone to the book it summarizes, but even for a first-person novel, it should be written in the third person.

The lone exception on the voice front: a memoir’s synopsis can be written in both the past tense and should be written in the first person. Go figure. (Don’t worry — I’ll be showing you concrete examples of both in the days to come.)

Typically, the professional synopses an already-agented writer would be asked to produce are 5 pages in standard manuscript format (and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces; see my parenthetical comment about the examples to come). Querying or submission synopses may be the standard 5 pages or shorter, depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest — so do make sure to double-check any written guidelines an agency’s website, small press’ submission standards, or contest’s rules might provide.

And before you fling that succulent you’ve got concealed behind your back: yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

For the first few years I blogged, I merely talked about the long form, since it was the industry standard; much shorter, and you’re really talking about a book concept (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, please see the BOOK CONCEPT category at right) or a longish pitch, rather than a plot overview. However, over the last few years (not entirely uncoincidentally, as more and more agents began accepting e-queries), agencies began to request shorter synopses from queriers, often as little as a single page. There’s nothing like an industry standard for a shorter length, though. Sometimes, an agent will ask for 1 or 3, or a contest for 2. It varies.

Let me repeat that a third time, just in case anyone out there missed the vital point: not every agent wants the same length synopsis; there isn’t an absolute industry standard length for a querying, submission, or contest synopsis. So if any of you had been hoping to write a single version to use in every conceivable context, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.

That resentment I mentioned earlier is starting to rise like steam, isn’t it? Yes, in response to that great unspoken shout that just rose from my readership, it would indeed be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet that would fly at any agency in the land.

Feel free to find that maddening — it’s far, far healthier not to deny the emotion. Try punching a pillow until the feeling subsides. Once you’ve calmed down, however, let’s take a look at why an agency or contest might want a shorter synopsis.

Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, Millicent really is overworked — and often not paid very much to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

“Well, duh, Anne,” our Virginia huffs, clearly irate at being used as every essayist’s straw woman for decades. “I also understand the time-saving imperative; you’ve certainly hammered on it often enough. What I don’t understand is this: if the goal is to save time in screening submissions, why would anyone ever ask for a synopsis that was longer than a page? And if Millicent is so darned harried, why wouldn’t she just base her assessment on that descriptive paragraph in the query letter?”

Fabulous questions, Virginia. You’ve come a long way since that question about the existence of Santa Claus.

Remember, though, Ms. V, it’s not as though the average agency or small publishing house reads the query letter and submission side-by-side: they’re often read by different people, under different circumstances — and, in submissions, at different times. Synopses are often read by people who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. The marketing department in a publishing house, for instance.

More to the point for aspiring writers, if an agent (or her Millicent) has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll often scan the synopsis to see what happens in the rest of the book. Ditto with contest judges, who have only the synopsis and a few pages of a book in front of them. They may not be checking merely out of curiosity, either: one of the purposes of a novel synopsis is for the writer to demonstrate that he can indeed resolve the conflicts he set up in the premise.

And, of course, some agents will use a synopsis promotionally, to cajole an editor into reading a manuscript — but again, 5-page synopses are traditional for this purpose. As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses that have recently become so popular typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all.

Why not? Well, realistically, a 1-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky-but-predictable follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — if I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why don’t all agents just forward it to editors who might be interested, rather than the entire manuscript of my novel?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are in publishing. Much of the time, tradition does.

Thus, the argument often heard against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear. Publishing houses buy on the manuscript itself, not the summary. Nonfiction, by contrast, is seldom sold on a finished manuscript.

So for a novel, the synopsis is primarily a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request from a novelist — indications of target market, author bio, etc.

For nonfiction, of course, all of these would be included within the aforementioned book proposal — which is why, in case you had been wondering, requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents — you guessed it — time.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format works out to roughly 1250 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses — marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake: publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy.

In a query or submission packet synopsis, praise for a manuscript or book proposal, rather than an actual description of its plot or premise, is not going to help Millicent decide whether her boss is likely to be interested in the book in question. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what the pros want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but some indication of what the book is ABOUT: its protagonist and antagonist, central conflict, setting, and so forth.

In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb-type synopsis is so common, many agencies use it as — wait for it, Virginia — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, that is a trifle unfair to those new to the biz, now that you mention it, but the logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (the pros reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.

With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away.

“In heaven’s name,” Virginia cries, “WHY? They must let a huge number of really talented writers who don’t happen to know the ropes slip through their nets!”

To take your metaphor for another spin, Virginia, there are a whole lot of fish in the submission sea — and exponentially more in the querying ocean. As I MAY have pointed out once or twice before in this forum, agencies (and contests) typically receive so many well-written submissions that their screeners are actively looking for reasons to reject them, not to accept them.

An unprofessional synopsis is an easy excuse to thin the ranks of the contenders. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

Before anyone begins pouting: as always, I’m pointing out the intensity of the competition not to depress or intimidate you, but to help you understand just how often good writers get rejected for, well, reasons other than the one we all tend to assume. That fact alone strikes me as excellent incentive to learn what an agency, contest, or small publisher wants to see in a synopsis.

And, to quote the late, great Fats Waller, let him have it just that way.

The hard fact is, they receive so many queries in any given week that they can afford to be as selective as they like about synopses — and ask for any length they want. However much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

Thus the variation in requested length: submission guidelines are an excellent environment for the expression of individual preferences.

Chant it with me now, campers: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth writing-evaluation machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one and all because that’s what she has on hand, for example, rather than the requested 5 to one, 3 to two others, and 1 to the fifth and sixth — but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

If I ran the universe, the fact that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission synopsis would be far more openly acknowledged. Each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with the aforementioned clear, concise list.

Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. (You know, the kind of one-size-fits-all expectations most aspiring writers believe exist but do not.) Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.

Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed in recent months, I do not run the universe (or gravity, more’s the pity), so aspiring writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Sounds a bit familiar? It should: the same principle applies to query letters.

As convenient as it would be for aspiring writers everywhere if you could just write the darned thing once and make copies as needed, it’s seldom in your interest to do so. Literally the only pressure for standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula, so they could write it once and never think about it again.

You could make the argument that there should be an industry standard until you’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that, in the long run, you will be far, far better off if you give each what s/he asks to see. Just that way.

Well, so much for synopses. Next time, we’ll move on to author bios.

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you through both its construction and past its most common pitfalls. By mid-October, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit. Trust me, this hammer is going to serve you well for a long, long time.

But keep asking those probing questions, Virginia: this process is far from intuitive. And, as always, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

Curtis Moser author photoJens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:


As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

Naming names, part III: hey, I don’t make the rules


Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north! Way to combine those provinces and keep them together!

At the risk of sounding trite, my most memorable Canadian experience actually was Mountie-related. I was leaving an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts in a museum in Victoria, I thought the sudden transition to bright sunlight had done something terrible to my eyes: everywhere I looked, I saw blaring red. Every square foot of public space was filled with Mounties in uniform — scarlet jacket, shiny black boots, the works — chatting with friends and relatives. Hundreds, at least, a veritable red sea.

The sight was, I need hardly say, staggering. I felt as though I had accidentally stumbled into a recruitment poster.

Back to business. In the roughly 24 hours since I wrote my last post on name selection, I have sensed a certain amount of reader bewilderment. (Never mind how I know that. Blogging imbues one with super-sharp sensory perceptions.) At least a few hands, I suspect, are still raised from Wednesday. Not too surprising, I suppose, since I have been writing all week about how to avoid confusing readers.

For the last couple of posts, I have waxed long on the Cast of Thousands phenomenon, manuscripts that name every character, no matter how minor, down to the dogs and the goat tethered in the back yard in Chapter 3. “Who,” the befuddled reader cries helpfully, “are Ernest, James, and Algernon, and what are their respective relationships to Delilah, the character I have been caring about for the last hundred pages? Have they been mentioned earlier in the book, and I have simply forgotten them, or is this their first appearance?

Don’t dismiss this cri de coeur as the just punishment of an inattentive reader, my friends — from a reader’s perspective, manuscripts afflicted with COT can get overwhelming pretty fast. Especially, as we have discussed, if the COT members have similar names, either beginning with the same capital letter (to which the skimming eye is automatically drawn, right?), ones that replicate letter patterns and sounds, or — and we have not yet talked about this much — are too like the other proper names in the book.

Still in doubt about the eye-distracting effect of all of those capitals? I wouldn’t want you to have to take my word for something like that — cast your gaze over this sterling piece of prose.

Names first letters

See the problem? No? Okay, get up from your desk chair, take two giant steps backward, and look at it again. Notice where your eye is drawn first?

Even when the names don’t look anything alike, introducing too many of them in one fell swoop can prove equally frustrating to the reader. Again, take a gander:

Names in abundance

An avalanche of characters on page 1, in particular, before the narrative has established a context in which they might be understood, tends to have a character-blurring effect.

“Who are all these people?” the reader muses. “And why are they all dressed in the quite striking uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police?”

Either variety of confusion, it pains me to say, causes readers to cast otherwise well-written books aside, it pains me to report. If that’s not a strong enough reason for a writer self-editing a Frankenstein manuscript to say, “Hmm, perhaps I should devote a few hours of my precious revision time to weeding out some of the extras lurking in the corners of my story,” here’s another: our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, tends to become impatient when characters pile up.

As, indeed, do editorial assistants, contest judges, and other professional readers; just because it’s their job does not mean that they possess a magical ability to absorb 23 names in a single page without mixing them up. “How,” the hapless peruser of a COT-riddled manuscript wonders, “am I supposed to keep all of these characters straight? Is this writer planning to market this book with a program, or perhaps dress the background characters in numbered jerseys, so the reader can possibly tell the individual members of this mob apart?”

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Next!”

Ooh, the notion of the pros not putting in the necessary effort to keep track of all of your characters ruffles a few writerly feathers, doesn’t it? “Wait just a minute” I hear some of you murmuring indignantly. “An ordinary reader may not have options if s/he forgets who is who, but Millicent does. If she finds she’s forgotten who a character is, she has a perfectly easy way to find out — her boss asked that I send a synopsis along with my submission. All she has to do is flip to the back of the packet. Or are you saying that if I have a lot of characters in my opening scenes, I should place my synopsis first in the packet?”

To take the last question first, no — at least, not unless an agency specifies in its submission guidelines that it prefers to see submissions packaged that order. Why is it in your interest to pay attention to such minor niceties? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: a submitter should always send a requesting agent PRECISELY what s/he asked to see.

No more, no less. Yes, even if she asked for the first 50 pages and your chapter ends a paragraph into page 51. No fudging.

And please trust a frequent literary contest judge (hey, I don’t spend all of my scant leisure time wandering around Canadian museums) when she tells you that rule applies to stated length restrictions in contest rules, too. Part of what you are demonstrating by your submission or entry is that you can follow directions, after all. Professional readers tend to harbor great affection for writers who pay attention to the details of requests; it’s so rare. Writers who start printing out pages after reading only the first line of a request for materials seem to be the norm, unfortunately, not the exception.

That giant tsunami-like rush of air you just heard was every agent, editor, and denizen of every publisher’s marketing department sighing in unison. They honestly do have a reason to be cranky on this point.

But enough of their pain — I’m sensing more conceptually-based disturbances of the ether out there, especially from those of you just on the cusp of stuffing synopses into submission envelopes. “But Anne,” the more literal-minded ether-rockers cry en masse, “I just read a blog by an anonymous agent/heard an agent say at a conference/happened to be eavesdropping in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from the dais at any writers’ conference, and this guy said he didn’t care about exact page count in requested materials; he just wanted the first three chapters. So aren’t you, you know, wrong about the importance of sticking to 50 pages?”

Actually, literal rockers, you’ve provided evidence in support of my point, not against it. Remember, no matter how much aspiring writers would like for there to be an absolutely uniform set of expectations for submissions — and a well-publicized one, at that — individual differences do exist. So once again, long-time readers, please take out your hymnals and sing along: if your submission-requester says he wants to see something specific in your submission packet, for heaven’s sake, give it to him.

Ditto with contest rules, incidentally. General submission or entry guidelines only kick in when the requester doesn’t ask for something different — which is to say, the vast majority of the time. (As always, if you’re unfamiliar with how professional manuscripts differ from printed books or other commonly-scene formats, I implore you to check out the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right. Actually, I would strongly recommend any reader new to this blog to take a gander at those categories first.)

Which is to say: if the agent you overheard wants four chapters, you should send four chapters. If she asks you to give your pitch in mime while juggling seventeen oranges, you should consider doing that, too, because she’s the one who is going to be deciding whether she wants to represent you or not.

That being the case, is your first professional contact with her truly the best time to say (at least implicitly), “Look, I know what you said you wanted to see, and that request was based upon your far greater knowledge of both how the publishing industry works and how you like to read, but I’m just going to assume that I’m right and you’re wrong. Got a problem with that?”

I can tell you now: she will. So will her Millicent and any contest judge you might see fit to treat in a similar fashion.

That being said, don’t revere such requests so highly that you fall into the extremely common trap of generalizing any such quirky individual preferences into industry-wide expectations. Writers brand-new to the biz make this mistake all the time, learning only through hard experience that such extrapolations seldom pay off. Just because one agent, small publisher, and/or contest has a wacky preference doesn’t mean that any other agent, small publisher, and/or contest will share it.

Or, to express it in mathematical terms, 1 agent’s preference ? every agents’ preference.

Bear that in mind, please, the next time you find yourself confronted with the latest panicky iterations of “Oh, my God, I heard an agent speak last week, and submission standards have completely changed!” that trouble the literary world in the wake of every conference season.

Whenever you encounter any hyper-specific submission guidelines that deviate sharply from the rules of standard manuscript format that an agency might post on its website or an agent might specify at a conference — like, say, specifying that submissions may only be in Helvetica or that they should be bound, both usually no-nos — should be treated as applicable to THAT REQUESTER ALONE, rather than to every authors’ representative currently walking the earth.

Everyone clear on that? Good.

Back to the original question, and thence to my argument already in progress: why wouldn’t a professional reader who got a large character list mixed up simply fish out the synopsis for reference? And if helping a busy Millicent keep the characters straight is a legitimate purpose for a synopsis, shouldn’t it come first in the packet?

In a word, no. If you put the synopsis at the front of your packet, Millicent is just going to toss it aside and go straight to the first page of your manuscript. If dear Millie reads all the way through your submission and likes what she sees, THEN she will read the synopsis.


You’re hoping that I’m kidding, aren’t you? Bizarre but true, that synopsis you slaved to make short enough is not always considered at the submission stage. Reading the synopsis is often not necessary to determining whether to ask to see the rest of the book — and why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis of a manuscript she has just finished reading in its entirety?

Seriously — ask at the next writers’ conference you attend. There’s a certain logic to this, at least for fiction. After all, if a book made it to the submission stage, presumably, the novel’s premise was deemed acceptable by the query screener or the agent to whom the writer pitched it. The only reason to read the synopsis at the submission stage, then, would be to find out what happens after the last page of the submission.

Try not to waste any energy being annoyed about this. If Ernest, James, and Algernon appearance in Ch. 2 was brief enough, chances are that they wouldn’t have shown up in the synopsis, anyway.

While I’m apparently free-associating about any and all topics related to character names, and since this contest entry season, this seems like a dandy time to talk about character name choice that could get a writer into a whole lot of trouble. Yes, Virginia, I’m talking about that pesky but oh-so-common literary contest rule that forbids entrants from mentioning their own names anywhere in a submission.

Kind of inconvenient for memoirists and other writers of the real, isn’t it? In practice, this ubiquitous rule means that entrants in memoir and personal essay categories, not to mention those many fiction writers who like to blur the line between fiction and nonfiction by making themselves characters in their own narratives, have to select new monikers for themselves.

Stop laughing, oh writers of thinly-veiled autobiographies passing as fiction. For a writer who has embraced the unique difficulties of thinking of herself as a character in a book, renaming himself can be a genuine chore. Novelists attached to their characters’ names should be sympathetic to that: if it’s trying to track down and change every mention of Monique to Madge when she’s your creation, imagine the emotional difficulties involved when Monique has to rechristen herself.

That’s not to say that the no-name rule itself is objectionable. However annoying renaming may be to contest-entering writers of the real, it exists for a very good reason: for a contest to be worth its salt, it must be able to claim that its judging procedures are not biased; the first step to assuring lack of personal bias is to institute blind judging, where no judge knows the name of any given author. Admittedly, some competitions are only apparently unbiased, but for the most part, contest organizers take authorial anonymity very seriously indeed.

So no, finding a clever way to get around the rules is not going to endear you to them. Not at all.

Which is why I am about to turn very hard-line: if you are submitting a memoir entry, FOLLOW THE RULE ABOUT NOT HAVING YOUR OWN NAME APPEAR ANYWHERE IN THE MANUSCRIPT. And do bear in mind that this rule applies to not only your entire name, but either your first or your last appearing alone as well.

That may seem like rather redundant advice — every contest entrant everywhere should follow all the rules in the contests he enters, right? — but this is the single most common way memoir entries get themselves disqualified. For a memoir entry, you should never just print up the opening chapter of your book and send it in; check the rules very carefully and apply them to your pages first.

You could, of course, sidestep the issue entirely by not entering a piece of writing in which dear self is a character — which is, again, a trifle difficult for memoirists and other habitual writers of the real. The second-best way that I’ve found is to christen oneself anew with the name that you wish your parents had had the wit and wisdom to give you in the first place.

Come on — none of us had the name we wanted in junior high school. Pick the one you believe would have made your life lovely and do a search-and-replace.

Obviously, you’re going to want to make a duplicate document of the chapter or essay you’re planning on entering in the contest before you perform this bit of minor surgery — as I said, it’s never a good idea just to print up the requisite number of pages from your already-existing manuscript and send off to a contest. (Your slug line in your submitting-to-agents version will have your name in it, for one thing.) Perhaps less obviously, you’re going to need to perform the search-and-replace function for both your first and last name, as well as any nicknames you might have incorporated into the manuscript.

Even when you’ve gone to all the trouble of using a pseudonym, it is a good idea to add a note on the title page, saying that since the contest forbids the author to mention his own name, you will be using “Bobby” (not your real name) throughout.

Why take that extra precaution, you ask? Because it’s practically impossible not refer to yourself by name in the story of your own life. Since judges are aware of that, and become accordingly eagle-eyed.

And don’t think being coy about it will help you evade their scrutiny, either. Make yourself comfortable; I’m going to tell you a little story.

I went to college with Danny, a very clever, very ambitious writer who eagerly contributed pieces to the on-campus humor magazine. (As those who happened to be hanging around Harvard at the time would no doubt be quick to point out, I use the term humor loosely here: the magazine was seldom actually funny to those who were not in the writers’ clique, but bear with me.) Danny had every reason to try to get his articles published: the magazine had long ago spawned an extremely profitable off-campus humor magazine, so a successful Lampoon piece could be a stepping-stone to a career as a comedy writer.

Despite or perhaps because of these articles’ worth as resume-candy, it was the practice of the magazine to publish all of its pieces without bylines, to encourage collaboration amongst members of the writing club. But as I said, Danny was ambitious: he, like many of the other writers in the club, was anxious to graduate with clippings he could use to promote his work later on. So Danny did something exceptionally crafty: he inserted his own name into every ostensibly anonymous piece he wrote, much as Jerry Lee Lewis used to refer to himself in his own lyrics, so radio listeners would know who sang the song.

His favorite way of doing this was to insert an imaginary conversation with himself into the text, so an alter ego could address him by name, as in, “Danny boy, you’re really in trouble now!” Occasionally, he would vary it by having an authority figure yell at his narrator: “Wilson, you’re out of line!” (Because Danny is now a fairly prominent magazine writer, I should say straight away: to protect his identity, Wilson is not Danny’s actual last name. See me practicing what I’ve been preaching?)

Now, as my parenthetical aside just told you indirectly, Danny’s little stratagem actually did help him generate the clippings he coveted, but he was relying upon his club’s editorial indulgence to let him get away with breaking the rules. In a contest, however, this practice would have gotten him disqualified immediately.

I bring this up not because I suspect that there are legions of Machiavellian-minded rule-breakers out there, but because I have seen so many contest entrants apparently doing inadvertently what Danny did on purpose. Within the first-person narrative common to memoirs, narrators tend to talk to themselves all the time, à la Hamlet: “Danny, you get ahold of yourself, now.” And that single reference, to a judge who was looking to pounce upon contest rule violations, could get a memoir entry disqualified.

Yes, Virginia (if that’s even your real name), even though it would be highly unlikely, without the judge’s having the list of memoir entrants by his side for first-name cross-referencing purposes, for the judge to guess the author’s identity. Simply the implication that the author might have referred to himself can appear to be a rule violation.

So a word to the wise: innocent naming mistakes can knock your entry out of competition. It would behoove you, then, to prepare your entry, like your queries, under the assumption that the judge who is going to read it is the nastiest, most curmudgeonly nit-picker since, well, me.

“But Anne,” I hear you cry, quite rightly pale at the prospect of encountering yours truly as a contest judge, “if this mistake is usually made inadvertently, how can I hope to avoid it?”

Well asked, oh fearful trembler. Experience sharpens the editing eye. Rest yourself upon the judge’s reading couch for a moment, and take a look at where these slips most commonly occur.

Let’s say the memoir’s author is named Biddy MacAlister-Thames, not a name anyone’s eye is likely to encounter on a page without noticing. Even if Biddy has had the foresight to rename herself Libby McPherson-Seine and do a search-and-replace accordingly, she should double-check her entry especially carefully in the following places:

(1) When another character directly addresses the narrator: “Biddy, have you seen the our pet tiger, Max?”

(2) When another character is talking about the narrator behind her back: “Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver. He’s paying too much attention to that Biddy next door.”

(3) When another character refers to the narrator by an abbreviation that a search-and-replace might not catch. “I’m talking to you, Bid,” is substantially less likely to get changed automatically than, “I’m talking to you, Biddy.”

(4) And, in the VAST MAJORITY of childhood memoirs, when the narrator gets in trouble, some adult shouts some version of: “Elizabeth Deirdre MacAlister-Thames, you come in this house this instant!”

Remember, in order to violate the rule, even if a character other than the author appears with the author’s last name, it can cost you. So keep our Biddy should keep her eye out for these kinds of situations, too:

(5) When a third party addresses a family member: “Mrs. MacAlister-Thames, your daughter is under arrest.”

(6) When the narrator refers to her family collectively, or to a possession as theirs: The Easter Bunny had been unusually generous to the MacAlister-Thames family that year.

Remember, as I pointed out above, self-references to either your first or last name, not just to both together, count as rule violations. So Biddy would be wise to do a search-and-replace for BOTH her first AND last names in her entry before she printed it up, would she not?

Yes, it’s a tedious thing to have to do, Biddy (or whatever you’re calling yourself these days), and yes, you have my sympathies for having to do it. But frankly, I would rather see you annoyed and on the finalist list than not proofread and disqualified.

I’m funny that way, at least since I was partially blinded by a Mountie convention. Keep up the good work!