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

oz-the-great-and-terrible.tiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go figure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piece o’ cake, right?

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

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

How did you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *