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!

Queryfest, part XXIX and I/II: tracking the wily US letter outside of its natural habitat

Last time, judging by the number of horrified private e-mails I have received since I last posted, I suspect I outdid myself on the reader-cautioning front. As so often happens, what induced widespread panic was not one of my habitual grand, wide-ranging philosophical statements, but commentary on a relatively small, practical matter it had never occurred to me to discuss in this forum — and, based upon the aforementioned e-mails, had not occurred to many of my international readers as a problem.

At the risk of sending still more of you charging into the streets, wild-eyed and screaming, allow me to recap: if you are planning upon querying or submitting to a US-based agency, your letter/synopsis/manuscript/everything else you even consider sending them should be printed on US letter-sized paper (8.5″ x 11″), not the internationally standard A4 (8.26″ x 11.69″).

(Oh, and at the risk of repeating myself on another point: it honestly is more efficient — and easier on me — if readers post their reactions and questions in the comments here on the blog, rather than sending them via e-mail. That way, I do not end up composing 42 separate soothing responses when only one would suffice. Also, if you post questions and concerns here, the chances are infinitely higher that some future reader with a similar perplexity will find the response. Karma points for all concerned!)

Those of you far-flung readers who did not immediately clutch your chests and hurl maledictions toward the muses are, I would guess, (a) not intending to approach US-based agents and publishing houses, in which case you should indeed stick with A4, (b) already aware that when in Rome, it’s only polite to do as the Romans do, in which case your tact is to be commended, or (c) smugly assuming that as you are cost-conscious enough to be approaching these agents and publishers electronically, this admonition simply does not apply to you. In that final case, I’m afraid I have some bad news.

You see, US printers and photocopiers are stocked with 8.5″ x 11″ paper — and it’s not at all beyond belief that an agent, literary contest, or small publisher whose submission guidelines specify electronic submissions will want at some point to print out your synopsis, query, entry, or manuscript. So even if you are submitting electronically from abroad, your submissions should be formatted for US letter-size paper.

Half of you did double-takes at the mention of the word contest, didn’t you? That’s right, campers: the overwhelming majority of the surprisingly hefty number of contest entries sent from abroad to writing contests here are misformatted. Either they are printed on the wrong size paper or, if the entry arrives electronically, they are formatted for A4. Any guesses why either might result in instant disqualification, even if the contest’s rules did not specify US letter?

Award yourself a gold star if you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “I know, Anne! A4 allows more words per page than US letter, even with the same margins. So if the pages were full and the contest had length restrictions for entries, it would be quite easy to run quite a bit over the expected word count inadvertently.”

Quite right, gold star recipients. To borrow an example from the other side of the Atlantic, here is how the opening to the third chapter of Sir Walter Scott’s IVANHOE would appear in US letter — and, as is our wont here at Author! Author!, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting + repeatedly.

Here’s the first page of that chapter again, formatted for A4. Can you blame Mehitabel, everyone’s favorite veteran literary contest judge, for suspecting that ol’ Walt was trying to sneak in some extra verbiage?

In a paper submission, she’s likely recognize the problem here as a different paper size. In an electronic submission, though, she might just have a vague sense that something was wrong here. 11-point type instead of 12-point, for instance, or the whole shebang shrunk by 97%: both are fairly common dodges contest entrants (and aspiring writers frustrated by too-short synopsis requirements in general) utilize to try to side-step length restrictions. So even if she had not already knocked this opening out of finalist consideration for all of those which clauses (not considered particularly graceful writing, by current American standards) or the U.K. spellings (when in Rome, etc.), she might well have moved it to the disqualification pile for formatting reasons.

Did that blinding flash of light I saw illuminate the ether a moment ago indicate that the logic puzzle-lovers among you have just extrapolated correctly? “But Anne,” you cry, clutching your metric rulers, “does that mean that all of the time I have already invested in getting my query down to a single page — or whittling my synopsis down to a specified number of pages, or hacking at my contest entry until it is the length requested in the rules — has not in fact achieved my desired object? Are you (gulp) telling me (shiver) that because I wrote all of these assuming the A4 format, they are too long by US letter-sized paper standards?

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, swift calculators. As we saw in a previous post, writers querying, submitting, and entering from abroad frequently violate US length expectations without either intending to cheat or realizing that they have. And no, neither Mehitabel nor her niece, our pal Millicent the agency screener, will necessarily cut you any slack for not being aware of the difference in the paper supply.

Well might you gasp like a trout yanked from the murky depths to sunlit air, e-mailing queriers. If you have been composing your queries in Word set to printing on A4, copying your letters, and pasting them into an e-mail, they probably are longer than a US-generated query would be. And yes, Millicent probably has noticed.

Tempted to think that you might get away with it, are you? Let me ask you: if you had spent the past few months reading thousands of 1-page queries, do you honestly think that your brain wouldn’t automatically start counting lines if the one in front of you seemed a touch on the long side?

While it can be annoying to trim an extra line or two from a query that’s already bumping up against the one-page limit, and downright maddening to try to round a contest entry off so the last page does not end in mid-sentence (although in a contest for book-length works, just as in an agent’s request for a specific number of pages, no one expects the bottom of the last page to end a sentence, section, or thought), I reserve most of my compassion for the hapless submitter-from-abroad wrestling with a synopsis. Pretty much no matter who a writer is or how long the synopsis in question is supposed to be, every line is precious. And since the convention for synopses is to fill all of the allowed pages to the last line or the one before it — you knew that, right? — those few extra lines afforded by A4 paper can make quite a bit of difference.

Yes, of course I’ll show you. To borrow another story from across the pond, force it into a YA format (hey, it’s been a boring day), and present it in US letter:



Uses up every available line, does it not? Here’s precisely the same synopsis formatted for A4.



Makes more of a cumulative length difference than you would have thought, doesn’t it? This second version could take another entire paragraph — and don’t tell me that in summarizing a plot as complex as HAMLET, our friend Will would not have appreciated a little extra descriptive space. Not on this continent, buddy!

Now that I have impressed upon you the importance of using the paper size (and accompanying formatting) if you will be sending queries, synopses, manuscripts, and/or contest entries to the US from abroad, I still have that uneasy sense that those of you affected by this news might be gathering your pitchforks and torches to storm the castle, anyway. “But Anne,” you shout, brandishing the aforementioned weapons of mad scientist intimidation, “it’s not as though US letter is common outside the US. Where would you suggest I pick some up?”

Ooh, good question, pitchfork-brandishers — and a much better question than it would have been just a few years ago. For quite some time, the answer was fairly easy: US-based Kinko’s stocked US letter paper in its outlets all over the world. Once FedEx and Kinko’s merged, however, that seemed to become quite a bit less common. So while I could, as most writing advisors still do, just glibly tell those of you living abroad to track down a US-owned company, walk in, and demand to buy a ream or two of their paper, that’s less feasible than in days of yore.

So what’s a writer to do? The advice would be to order US letter paper from an American-owned company that has branches in your neck of the woods — while Amazon UK doesn’t seem to stock it, Amazon US does, and they do ship abroad. Shipping costs will be expensive enough, though, that you might want to try stopping by your local stationary store first, smiling as sweetly as you can, and asking them to order a box for you, just for comparative pricing purposes. (Your stationer may know US letter by its alternate name, American quarto.)

Yes, that’s rather inconvenient, but certainly less so than the primary answer I found when I did a quick online search — which was, I kid you not, “Go ask at the American embassy.”

While I’m on the subject of tracking down hard-to-find office supplies necessary to the writing set, this seems like an excellent time to repost a question that nonfiction writer Liz brought up the last time I wrote about the rigors and strains of pulling together a nonfiction proposal. After having eyed the photo I posted, she inquired:

What is the make of this portfolio? I cannot find one like this that is not made of paper/card and 30 pages max capacity. Please help!!

I can’t even begin to estimate how many times a year I hear this particular cri de coeur, both via e-mail (boo!) and popping up in the comments (hooray!). Since the comments are, for some reason that escapes me, not searchable with that handy little search engine that continually lurks for your exploratory pleasure at the upper right-hand corner of this blog, though, some of you may have missed my answers. Let’s go ahead and address this in a searchable part of the blog, hey?

For those of you who are not already gnashing your teeth over this particular problem, in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders — yes, even at the submission stage. Don’t even consider trying to use anything fancy or colorful; it will just look unprofessional to the pros. What Millicent and her boss, the agent of her dreams, will expect to find in a nonfiction submission is something like this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. And whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript. Well, not quite the same: the marketing part of the proposal is placed (neatly, please) on the left-hand pocket, while the sample chapter, author bio, and clippings are typically placed on the right-hand side.

Which leads us right back to Liz’s problem, right? A book proposal usually runs in the neighborhood of 30-60 pages, including sample chapter, so she, clever writer, wants a folder that holds at least 20 pages per side. Generally speaking, plastic folders tend to hold more in their pockets than the flimsy cardstock type. (Liz’s proposal won’t be discarded if she sends it a nice cardstock folder; it’s merely more likely to get a bit mangled in transit.)

Once again, the Internet is the writer’s friend here. The Office Depot website carries an Oxford brand pocket folder that can hold up to 200 pages. It’s looks like it may be available only online, though. Scrolling through the site, I found one that they seem to sell in their stores, an Office Depot brand 2-pocket poly folder that holds up to 50 pages..

They also, should anyone happen to be in the market for it, sell a really nice 24-lb. US letter paper. While 20-lb. paper is fine for a submission, I prefer 24-lb.: it won’t wilt in the hand with repeated readings.

Oh, you don’t want Millicent to get so excited about your writing that she passes pages of it around the office?

Again, though, you might want to toddle down to your local stationary emporium and inquire. You might be surprised at what’s lurking in their back room.

My overall point, should it have gotten a trifle lost in the welter of details, is that when it comes to querying, submission, and literary contest entry, what might be easiest — or most obvious — for the writer often is not what the people on the receiving end are expecting. Yes, that’s can be kind of annoying, but remember, one of the things an aspiring writer is demonstrating at query or submission time is that she can present her work professionally. That means, among other things, printing manuscripts on the size of paper currently in use in that agency and presenting proposals in the kind of quiet, dignified folder that allows the writing to speak for itself.

Because that’s how the Romans roll, people. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did it? Heidi and I discussed that very question.