Synopsispalooza, Part VIII: not all horn-tooting is sweet music, at least not to Millicent’s ears


I shall be striving for brevity this evening, campers. This is the height of deadline season for many of my clients, and virtually the only thing that the small army of doctors and physical therapists who seem to have kidnapped my various body parts since the accident agree upon is that working a second over 16 hours in a day isn’t good for my recovery.

So I’m going to make a valiant attempt to be uncharacteristically terse this evening — no, make that morning. (Please don’t tell the doctor.) And while what I shall be saying at such a rapid clip will be primarily addressed to nonfiction synopsizers, please don’t tune this post out, novelists: our pitfall du jour has swallowed up many an otherwise promising fiction synopsis, too.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform. Why? Well, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent even on her most rushed day (and even in her worst mood) that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are describing. But that does not mean that the platform should overwhelm the book’s content in your synopsis.

Before I move the carnival parade that is Synopsispalooza down the block to more concrete how-to advice, I want to devote this evening’s morning’s post to the single most common pitfall into which Millicent sees nonfiction synopses tumble — and a significant proportion of fiction synopses, come to think of it. Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, sees it even more.

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

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes. (If you are not, be grateful. There used to be only a handful of television stations, so sometimes, tuning in to those roasts was well-nigh inevitable.)

How might such platitudes turn up in a synopsis, you ask? In the midst of a cacophony of one’s own horn-blowing, typically. We’ve already talked about the nails-on-a-chalkboard annoyance factor of the dreaded This book is a natural for Oprah! claim in a query letter, but believe me, reviewing one’s own work is equally Millicent-irritating in a synopsis.

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

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every fiction synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… — or every memoir synopsis that mentioned gratuitously, based on my real-life story… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the surviving members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it (self-aggrandizement, that is, not Eric Idle) in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies friendlier to first-time authors. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.

And believe me, you people are lumpy. No wonder I don’t get as much restful slumber as my doctors advise.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it? To Millicent, it is approximately as distracting from an otherwise well-written synopsis as this is from the rest of this post:


Go ahead — try to keep your eye from straying back up here as you read the paragraphs to come. Walk a mile in Millicent’s moccasins.

I hear some of you chortling out there, do I not? “Oh, Anne,” those of you confident about your descriptive abilities tell me gently, “you’re sweet to worry about my query and synopsis, but I know better than to waltz into that obvious a bear trap. My book is a sensitive, lyrical story of a fascinating person…”

Stop right there, unjustified chortlers. What was that last sentence, if it was not self-review?

Half of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? A good trick, given all of the gymnastics going on above.

Well might you: the average synopsis-writer tends to confuse qualitative description of the book with content-based description of the book. To professional eyes, the former is boasting; the latter is a professional synopsis.

“What’s the difference?” truculent former chortlers demand. “A synopsis is supposed to describe the book, right? I’m just making it sound good.”

Not to Millicent or Mehitabel, I’m afraid — and for very solid reason. Tell me, which gives a stronger idea of what a book is about, this synopsis opening:

Ripped from today’s most explosive headlines, EXPLOITATIVE TRASH is a searing indictment of a world gone mad. Told from the perspective of RONNIE LEGUME (14 going on 90), a beautifully-drawn headstrong street kid with a hidden heart of gold — she must conceal it, because where she comes from, nothing valuable is safe for long — the reader breathlessly follows the day-to-day pulse of life on the mean streets of an upper middle-class suburb. Cul-de-sacs have never seen such horror before.

or this one for precisely the same book:

Recent transplant from reform school RONNIE LEGUME (14) does not fit in with the other kids in her mom’s cul-de-sac. Try as she might to blend into his new, upper middle-class surroundings, the tough act that helped keep her safe for seven long years is just too helpful in keeping bullies at bay here. These people might pretend to be respectable, but behind closed doors, Ronnie keeps discovering levels of depravity that would have made her former warden blush.

Honestly, which one would you rather read? It’s really not a very difficult choice, from a professional reader’s perspective: the first is essentially a review; the second introduces an interesting character in an interesting situation. So which gives the better sense of the subject matter? The first distances the reader from the story; the second thrusts the reader right into Ronnie’s world. Which gives the better sense of the book’s tone and focus? The first peppers the reader with clichéd phrases that make this story seem like a hundred others; the second uses unexpected phrasing to make the story appear more original. Which makes the writer seem like the more gifted storyteller?

The sad thing is, the writer of the first might very well believe that he IS giving a just-the-facts-ma’am description. After all, he is using the synopsis to tell what the book is about, right?

That’s precisely the problem: he’s talking about the book, rather than telling the story. In a fiction or memoir synopsis — and often in a nonfiction synopsis as well, if it has a strong historical narrative — it’s vital to tell the book’s story in a compelling manner. All qualitative statements about the book do is take up space that could have been used to tell the story more vividly — and to make it come across as more original.

Originality is key in good synopsis storytelling — why should Millicent request a manuscript if its query synopsis made it sound similar to 27 out of the last 50 manuscripts she read? Emphasizing the surprising parts of the story or argument is always a better strategy in a synopsis than making it sound like any other book she’s likely to have read recently, published or otherwise. Or like a movie, TV show, graphic novel, or any other writer’s production other than your own.

Speaking of originality, don’t underestimate just how much the frequency with which synopsizers attempt the first approach or its first cousin, the back-jacket blurb synopsis, contributes to what turn-offs they are for our pal Millicent — or Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week or even 25 contest entries in a sitting, commonalities between ostensibly unrelated stories can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, similarities can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

So I ask you: if 11 of those contest entry synopses contained similar boasts about the quality of the writing, 8 shared at least one plot twist, and you could send only 5 on to the next round of judging, which would you send? Common gaffes make both the contest judge and the agency screener’s decision-making process so much easier.

“But Anne,” some now-chastened former chortlers ask politely, “I understand why I should not toot my own horn. But above, you said that I should not reproduce somebody else’s trumpet solo on my behalf, either. if my writing teacher actually did tell me that I had written the best comic novel since CATCH-22, why shouldn’t I shoehorn that information into my synopsis? It’s not as though I’m the one reviewing my manuscript.”

True, but the synopsis is not the proper place for anyone to review the book in question. Even if David Sedaris, S.J. Perlman, and Dorothy Parker all laughed themselves sick at your wry witticisms, stick to demonstrating that wry wit — and your storytelling ability — in the synopsis. Trust me, you’ll be able to find other opportunities to work other people’s opinions about your work into your marketing copy.

May I suggest, for instance, the back jacket of the book?

Within the context of a synopsis, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the appropriateness of the comparison to CATCH-22 — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, or how apt a descriptive statement that implies an evaluation of quality may be, none of these forms of self-compliment are going to impress Millicent or Mehitabel. On the whole, they prefer to make up their own minds about the quality of the writing in front of them.

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

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

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of nonfiction synopses (and even more memoir synopses) go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. These misguided documents tend to run a little something like this:

I wrote this heart-wrenching memoir over the violent objections of my mother, my father, my maternal grandmother, my great-aunt, my six siblings, and my parakeet, Ralph. Despite their begging me not to tell the story of our family’s sordid seven years as goat-smugglers, I felt that this story must be told. The truth shall set us free, and besides, the goats had already gotten their side of the story out to the media.

Well, of course, a memoirist’s relatives are going to kick up a fuss at the prospect of long-buried family secrets being revealed. That’s practically a given (and a reason that so many memoirs are the objects of lawsuit threats; I speak from experience). You have every right to be concerned, personally, although it’s rare that such threats come to fruition. Hurt feelings are rarely actionable, and even when they are, truth is a pretty good defense against a charge of libel.

But none of that is remotely relevant to any situation in which someone in an agency, publishing house, or judging a contest might be reading your synopsis. Why should Millicent care about the hurt feelings of people she has never met — or their literary opinions, for that matter?

Don’t bore her with your reservations in the synopsis; save those qualms to thrill your biographers. Instead, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — intriguing specifics that Millicent is unlikely to see in any other synopsis this week.

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

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

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

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

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?” (Okay, so maybe this one applies only to me.)

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

And yours is, isn’t it? I sincerely hope so, for your sake: a writer who honestly believes that the story of how you came to write a book is more interesting than the story in the book is going to have a devil of a time figuring out how to market it. As much as the writing process fascinates those of us in the throes of it, frankly, it doesn’t tend to be all that interesting to non-writers.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely ever to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book.

Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that most of the eyes in the room don’t glaze over at this point.

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

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

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning to get a trend like that past an agent or editor.

From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

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

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

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after the ink is dry on your contract.

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

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

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

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

All right, I really must get some sleep now. Keep those trumpets in their cases where they belong, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

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