A brief digression on names, featuring some lighthearted admonitions on being careful how you label people

Helen Burns' shame

Since I have been hammering so hard on the perils of word, phrase, and concept repetition in my recent Frankenstein manuscript series, I thought it might be nice to take a break for a couple of days, if only to stop the more conscientious revisers among you from waking up in the dead of night, screaming, “No! Please! I shall cut the number of eye-distracting conjunctions in my manuscript by half! Just take away the thumbscrews!” After those few days had passed without revision-related screaming abating much, I decided that I was going to take a few baby steps away from the much-stared-at manuscript page and talk about a related topic near and dear to most novelists’ hearts: character naming.

Then, after I have lulled you into a nice, complacent creative reverie, I shall leap right back into the burning issues of revision. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Before I launch into the meat of today’s post, however, I’d like to note the passing of someone I have never met personally, but has been gracing Author! Author! at least once per year as the wry star of one of my all-time favorite anecdotes. Those of you who have been hanging out here at A! A! for a while may remember the late gentleman (may he rest in perpetual peace) who taught us that it’s never, ever safe to assume that one’s audience will share one’s prejudices.

Once upon a time, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at a Washington, D.C.-area law school for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was a bit lonely: he had been tenured for so long that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge.

So, one day, determined to make friends, he walked into that room full of strangers, sat down next to the least intimidating-looking law professor, and introduced himself. They chatted a bit, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When conversation floundered, he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, way back in the early 1980s, and resuscitated a tried-and-true question: “So, what does your wife do?”

Much to his astonishment, his new friend broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the professor had just said the funniest thing in the world. He laughed so hard that other faculty members turned around to stare.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused at this response. “I’m sorry — doesn’t she work?”

This question abruptly ended the other man’s laughter. “Oh, she does,” he replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact. She’s on the Supreme Court.”

The Harvard professor had, of course, been talking for the last half an hour to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin. The latter, a fellow of infinite jest, apparently dined out on that story for years.

May you spend eternity telling that one at the dinner parties of the afterlife, Martin. And may all of us down here remember that when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say — and especially how you label people — because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are.

Why is that lesson an important one for aspiring writers to embrace, you ask? Well, all too often, especially in nonfiction, aspiring writers assume that what is funny — or shocking, or ordinary — to them will automatically strike our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, in precisely the same way, resulting in more guffaws and huffs of displeasure over submissions and contest entries than anyone would care to admit. To avoid subjecting your writing to this dreadful fate, bear in mind: no matter how deeply our own kith and kin might share our personal, political, social, etc. views of the world, we can never be sure that the agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge to whom we submit our writing will share that worldview.

There endeth today’s parable. Let’s get back to work.

We writers, as I mentioned before the impulse to eulogize sidetracked me, tend to take great pride in our characters’ names. Even when we have simply borrowed our local postmaster’s name for a minor character, combined a freshman roommate’s first name with our least-favorite high school teacher for another, and lifted a period name for a protagonist from an old census list, we are not only pleased with ourselves — we will tell anyone who will listen just how we came up with a name as nifty as Thisbe Holt.

Don’t believe that impulse to be universal? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into any author reading, anywhere in the world, and ask the novelist signing books how he ever thought of those incredibly evocative character names in his novel.

I can tell you now that there is not an author on earth who will laugh and say, “Evocative? What’s evocative about Mary Smith?” Instead, you will be treated to a bright, toothy smile and an intensely detailed ten-minute description of just where and when the author dreamed up those names.

It’s true; it’s written on the sand in words of flame. Oh, and congratulations for having made that author’s day.

There are, of course, many, many excellent sources of apt character names — for an amazingly rich source of inspiration and guidance on the subject, run, don’t walk to Askhari Johnson Hodari’s guest post on naming — but I am not going to talk about any of them today. (Which is requiring some restraint on my part, as I went all the way from nursery school through high school graduation with a classmate named Glee Burrow, a name I have been longing for decades to immortalize.) Nor, as all of you weary-eyed revisionists will no doubt be delighted to hear, am I going to repeat my caution about over-using character names in a text.

No, today, I shall be talking about naming your characters in such a way that your readers are likely to remember them — and be able to tell them apart in a book with a whole lot of characters. That may not sound especially difficult (how likely is even a reader slow on the uptake to confuse a fisherman named Paul and a jeweler named Ermintrude, right?), but in a manuscript where fifteen characters are introduced within the first two pages, the task can be a lulu.

Especially, as I mentioned last week, if too many of the names begin with the same letter, encouraging the eye to skip wildly between capitals. Take a gander:

Too many names example

Quite a large cast to reveal in the first moments of the first scene, isn’t it? Let’s face it, no matter how beautifully-drawn and exquisitely differentiated any subsequent character development for Jeremy, Jason, Jennifer, and Jemima might be, a skimming reader — like, say, Millicent (whose name means, appropriately enough, strong in work) — is likely to get ‘em confused on page 1.

I’m sensing some resistance from those of you writing about irresistible triplets named John, Jeffrey, and Jacobim. “But those are my characters’ names,” you protest, and who could blame you? “The names are integral to the characters! I can’t change them now! Besides, the example above wouldn’t really confuse any reader who was paying attention.”

Oh, you can complain all you like that since the narrative explained quite clearly who Bertrand, Benjamin, and Bertha were, as well as the interrelationships between Armand, Aspasia, Antoinette, Annabelle, and Angelica, not to mention the monarchy’s likely effect on the character whom we are left to guess is probably the protagonist, but if you pepper your page 1 with so many names that a reasonably intelligent reader might legitimately become confused, those clear explanations might not matter enough to encourage her to keep reading.

Especially if the her in question is a Millicent who has fifty submissions to read before lunchtime. Remember, agency screeners read fast; if they aren’t sure what’s going on and who the book is about by the middle of page 1, they generally stop reading a submission. As in forever.

What can a humble writer do to avoid walking into that dreadful fate? Actually, you already know: as I mentioned earlier in the Frankenstein manuscript series, a skimming reader is extremely likely to confuse characters with names that look or sound alike, so it’s best to give them monikers that not even the fastest reader could mistake for one another. Now we can build upon that excellent rule of thumb with what we learned from the example above: readers are also prone to confuse identities if a narrative introduces too many characters too quickly — or without making it pellucidly clear which in an opening crowd scene are the ones he reader will be expected to remember.

That last bit is equally true for fiction or nonfiction, so don’t doze off, memoirists and historians: it’s as important for your manuscript as for a novel for Millicent to know who and what your book is about before she loses interest. If the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rushes into view on page 1, the reader is going to have no idea which of those 360 singers is the protagonist unless the narrative spotlights him, so to speak.

Make sure she doesn’t need a program to tell who is who in your opening pages. Yes, even if that means banishing the entire alto and tenor sections to a scene later in the book.

Ditto with a synopsis: if it’s not clear who the protagonist is, consider ousting some of the character names. And please, whatever you do, don’t blow off this advice if your opening page or synopsis introduces only a handful of characters; what may seem like a reasonably intimate crowd to you, who have read the page 475 times, may well seem like a mob to a skimmer who is reading page 1 for the first time.

Allow me to add hastily, before any rules-lawyer out there begins demanding a maximum number of names that can appear on page 1: no such standard exists. Clarity is the goal here, and good storytelling. A lot depends upon what else is going on in the scene.

You don’t want Millicent to be so busy concentrating on names that she misses the absolutely crucial yet subtly-phrased aside from your protagonist on line 16, do you?

The same holds true for a synopsis, by the way. If your plot is crammed with action, you might want to limit how many character and place names you toss at Millicent per paragraph, so she can zero in on the essential conflicts.

To show you just how hard it is to keep characters straight in an action-packed storyline, let me trot out another of my all-time favorite examples: the plot of the opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall’isola d’Alcina by Francesca Caccini, first performed in 1625. On the remote chance that some of the details of the plot may have slipped your minds, here’s a quick synopsis of just a few of the twists and turns that might leave an audience member drop-jawed:

The brave knight Ruggiero, ensnared by the love spells of the evil sorceress Alcina (who had a nasty habit of turning her exes into trees; opera gives one a lot of room for imaginative touches), has deserted both his fighting obligations and his warrior girlfriend, Bradamante. So another sorceress, Melissa, turns herself into an image of Ruggiero’s father, Atlante, to try to free him. Dressed as Atlante (and turning from an alto into a baritone for the occasion, a nifty trick), Melissa berates Ruggiero for lying around in sensual bliss when there’s work to be done.

A single three-minute solo later, Ruggiero’s mind is changed, with no argument from the big guy himself: he is free from the spell, and goes on to bellow some extraordinarily nasty insults at Alcina while Punchinello dances around with a squid.

As is my wont, I’m going to pause at this point to vent a bit: this type of persuasion in an interview scene — where the protagonist’s mind is changed on an issue about which he is supposedly passionate simply because someone tells him he’s wrong — occurs in novel submissions more often than you might think. Many a protagonist who is downright tigerish in defense of his ideals elsewhere in the book is positively lamblike when confronted by a boss, a lover, a child, etc. who points out his flaws.

As protagonist, he has an entire book (or opera, as the case may be) to play with — couldn’t he argue back just a little? Usually, the result is a more interesting scene. Why? Long-time readers of this blog, take out your hymnals and sing out together now: because conflict is almost invariably more interesting in a scene than agreement.

Okay, I’ve cleared that out of my system for now. But if you are worried about the efficacy of your manuscript’s interview scenes, I would strongly advise taking a gander at the posts under the INTERVIEW SCENES THAT WORK category on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.

I think I’ve distracted you enough. Time for a pop quiz: quick, without re-scanning the paragraphs where I glossed over the opera’s plot, try to name as many of its characters as you can.

How did you do? I originally mentioned six, but don’t be hard on yourself if you only came up with one or two. Most readers would have experienced some difficulty keeping all of those sketchily-defined characters straight.

Heck, seeing them introduced en masse like that, I would have trouble remembering who was who, and I’ve seen the opera!

Introducing too many characters too fast for any of them to make a strong impression upon the reader is extremely common in the opening few pages of novel submissions. No wonder, then, that in manuscripts where there are so many people lurching around that it reads like a zombie convention in downtown Manhattan, Millicent cannot tell for several paragraphs, or even several pages, which one is the protagonist.

As with so many of the manuscript traits that we’ve seen raise red flags, part of the reason Millicent tends to be touchy about openings with casts of thousands is that she sees so darned many of them. I think TV and movies are to blame for how common first-page crowd scenes have become in recent years: filmic storytelling techniques are primarily visual, so many writers want to provide a snapshot-like view of the opening of the book.

Many, many, many writers. More than enough to cast the necessary extras for a zombie scene in downtown Manhattan hundreds of thousands of times over.

In case I’m being too subtle here: it’s in your strategic interest to limit the number of characters introduced within the first couple of pages of your submission. And no, as much as any literal-minded reader out there might prefer that I provide a chart specifying how many is too many, broken down by genre, length of work, and mood of Millicent, every writer is going to have to use her own best judgment to figure out how many zombies should be lurching altos should be singing characters should appear on page 1.

But you didn’t think I would leave all of you to make that determination without any guidelines did you? Here are a couple of tests I like to apply when in doubt about just how big the opening scene’s cast should be.

1. Does the text make the relative importance of the protagonist plain?
If you are not sure — and the author is often not the best person to answer this particular question — try applying a modification of the quiz I asked you to take above:

(a) Hand the first page of your book to a non-writer. (NOT a relative, lover, or someone with whom you interact on a daily basis, please; these folks’ desire to see you happy may well skew the results of the test.)

(b) Ask her to read through it as quickly as possible.

(c) As soon as she’s finished, ask her to put down the paper. Talk about something else for a couple of minutes.

(d) Have her tell you who the main character is and what the book is about. If she starts talking about characters other than your protagonist, you have too many; if she can’t tell you anything about the plot, consider opening with a different scene, one that more accurately represents the crux of the book.

Why did I specify a non-writer, you ask? Writers tend to be unusually good at absorbing character names; the average reader is not. And your garden-variety agency screener scans far too rapidly, and reads far too many submissions in a given day, to retain the name of any character who has not either been the subject of extensive description — which can be problematic in itself — or a mover or shaker in the plot.

Perhaps not even then. Our buddy Millicent has a lot on her mind — like that too-hot latte that just burned her full pink lip. (You’d think, after how long I have been writing about her, that she would have learned by now to let it cool, wouldn’t you? But that’s an agency screener for you: speed is of the essence.)

2. Does the text portray each named character as memorable?
Again, you may want to seek outside assistance for this one. This test is also useful to see how well your storytelling skills are coming across,

(a) Hand the entire first scene to that non-writer and ask her to read it as quickly as possible, to reproduce Millicent’s likely rate of scanning.

(b) Take away the pages and talk with her about something else entirely for ten minutes.

(c) In minute eleven, ask her to tell you the story of that first scene with as much specificity as possible. Note which names she can and cannot remember. If she’s like 99% of skimmers, she will probably remember only the two primary ones.

(d) After thanking her profusely, sit down with your list of passed-over names and the manuscript: do all of these folks really HAVE to make an appearance in the opening scene?

If the answer is no, you have a few fairly attractive options for getting rid of them. Could some of them be consolidated into a single character, for instance, to reduce the barrage of names the reader will have to remember?

Or could any of them be in the scene, but not mentioned specifically until later in the book, where the protagonist encounters that character again? (A simple statement along the lines of, “Hey, Clarence, weren’t you one of the thugs who beat me to a pulp last month?” is usually sufficient for later identification, I find.)

Or are these characters mentioned here for purely photographic reasons? In other words, is their being there integral to the action of the scene, or are the extraneous many named or described simply because they are in the area, and an outside observer glancing at the center of action would have seen them lurking?

In a screenplay, you would have to mention their presence, of course — but in a crowd scene in a novel, describing the mob as monolithic can have a greater impact. For instance, which sounds scarier to you, Mr. Big threatening Our Hero while surrounded by his henchmen, Mannie, Moe, and Ambrose — or surrounded by an undifferentiated wall of well-armed baddies?

Personally, I would rather take my chances with Ambrose and Co. than with the faceless line of thugs, wouldn’t you? My imagination can conjure a much scarier array of henchmen than the named three. (Mannie has a knife; I just know it!)

I know, I know: when you create a novel, you create the world in which your characters live, and that world is peopled. But in the interest of grabbing Millicent’s often mercurial attention, would a smaller cast of characters, at least at the outset, render your book more compelling?

You could also opt to introduce your characters gradually, rather than dumping them all upon the reader in a group scene. More gradual revelation will allow the reader to tell the players apart, thus rendering the ones you reveal early on more memorable. It is worth giving some thought to how much those first few players in your story stick in the mind, anyway, particularly if your opening is — wait for it — an interview scene.

Why? Well, since the primary point of an interview scene is to convey necessary information to the reader, and the main thrust of an interview scene that opens a book is almost invariably to introduce background and premise, character development tends to fall by the wayside. Or, if it doesn’t in the text, it often does in the reader’s mind.

Think about it: if the reader is being given a great deal of background in a chunk, interspersed with relatively minor details about the tellers of that history, which is the reader more likely to remember?

Yes, yes, I know: in a perfect world, it would be enough to mention these things once in manuscript, and readers would remember them forever — or at any rate, for the next few chapters. But in practice, particularly with the rapid once-over a professional reader is likely to give a manuscript, names often start to blur together.

Don’t believe me? Okay, who was with Jeremy, and what were the names of the princesses he was trying to save?

The ubiquitous advice to screenwriters not to feature more than one character whose name begins with the same sound is basically very good, you know — if your story has a Cindy, you’re better off not also depicting a Sydney, for instance, or a Cilla. I once edited an otherwise excellent book where 8 of the 11 children of the family being depicted all had names that ended in –een: Colleen, Maureen, Doreen, Marleen, Laurene, Arleen, and Coreen, if memory serves. I eventually had to draw extensive diagrams on scratch paper, just to keep track of who was allied with whom on any given page.

Doubtless, there are families where such naming patterns are normal, but it made it darned hard to remember whose storyline was whose.

Again, I know: character names are vital to the writer’s relationship with them. However, trust me on this one — no agent is going to care that Sydney is your favorite name in the world, if she keeps confusing him with your protagonist Cindy; no editor is going to want to listen to your protestations that Chelsea and Charity are not in enough scenes together to confuse anyone of normal intelligence.

Argue about names AFTER a publishing house buys your book. Opt for clarity at the submission stage.

And never, under any circumstances, christen your characters with names beginning with the same first letters as other proper nouns prominent in your text. When the same letter is used repeatedly, swift reading can become a tad confusing. Slide your eyes over this morsel:

Tanya had rented her in-line skates from Tucker last time she came to Taormina, but Tammy was so insistent that they frequent Trevor’s establishment on Trent Road this time that Tanya could not resist her blandishments. If only Tommy had joined them on this vacation, instead of fly to Toronto with Tina and the Tiny Tot Orchestra; he would have known how to handle Tammy.

See how perplexing all of those Ts are to the eye? (Not to mention extraordinarily difficult to read out loud; you may not be giving public readings at this point in your career, but you should be thinking ahead.) If the facts here were important to the plot, the reader would have to go back and re-read this passage, something that agency screeners are notoriously reluctant to do.

Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: time, time, time.

As I MAY have mentioned above (and, not to put too fine a point on it, have been mentioning periodically in this forum for the past five years), the denizens of agencies and publishing houses read much, much faster than your friendly neighborhood bookstore browser. Not out of any hatred of the written word, but out of sheer self-defense.

In a way, it’s perfectly understandable: tell me, if you had a hundred 50-page submissions on your desk, were anticipating another hundred within the next couple of days, AND had other work to do (including opening those 800+ queries that came this week), how much time would YOU devote to each?

It’s just a fact: no matter how good your writing is, agencies are generally awash in queries and up to their ears in still-to-be-read submissions. As one of those submitters, you really do not have very long to wow ‘em. Rather than letting this prospect make you fear that your work is going to get lost in the crowd, let it be empowering: the vast majority of the time, it’s the small errors early on, not the big ones in the middle, that get submissions rejected.

That’s a hard pill to swallow, I know. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: many, if not most, aspiring writers have an unrealistic idea of what happens to those packets of requested materials they send. Naturally, we would all like for our work to be read promptly, carefully, and in its entirety by a thoughtful, intelligent professional reader well versed in the conventions of our particular genres.

And that does happen — occasionally. But significantly more often, packets sit around in agents’ and editors’ offices for weeks on end, and/or are read hurriedly, and/or are discarded after only a few pages. Frequently after only one, or even after only a few paragraphs.

Why should you find that encouraging? Because you can fix the little problems in your opening pages with relative ease, and let your good ideas and fine writing shine through.

So if I’ve seem to be harping upon small matters here lately, believe me, it’s not just to make your life harder by suggesting new and different ways for you to revise your manuscript. I’m just trying to help you minimize the technical problems — and thus maximize the probability that your fine writing will have a chance to speak for itself.

More thoughts on character names follow — along, no doubt, with more tirades about those pesky interview scenes. Diversify your character names, everyone, and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t borrow Glee’s name, please, at least not in its entirety; I have big plans for it.

The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part XI: yes, I am fully aware that real people use run-on sentences in everyday speech, and good dialogue strives for realism, and first-person narratives should sound like real speakers, but honestly, must we go overboard?

gin and tonic 4

Before we joined hands in my last post to skip merrily through several different levels of feedback on a single page, we were embroiled in an energetic discussion of that most overused of words in manuscripts, and. As we have seen close up and personal in my last couple of posts, too great an affection for this multi-purpose word can lead, to run-on sentences, dull action sequences, and contracting nasty warts all over one’s kneecaps.

Well, okay, perhaps not the last. But the results still aren’t pretty, as far as Millicent the agency screener is concerned. Seriously, any reasonably busy professional reader sees and in print so often that she might as well have a WANTED poster with its image plastered on the wall above her desk.

And‘s crime? Accessory to structurally repetitive prose.

Let’s face it: no other individual word is as single-handedly responsible for text that distracts the eye, enervates the mind, and wearies the soul by saying different things in more or less the same way over and over again on the page. Take, for instance, that immensely popular sentence structure, X happened and Y happened:

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sentence, of course, standing alone. Solitude, however, tends not to be its writer-preferred state. A perennial favorite in both submissions and contest entries, the X happened and Y happened sentence structure all too often travels in packs.

Vivian had her cake and ate it, too. Jorge ate what was left of Vivian’s cake and then went out and baked his own. After having tried his cake, Frankenstein’s monster broke into his apartment and destroyed his oven.

“I’m stopping him,” the monster told reporters, “before he bakes again.”

See the problem? Like any kind of sentence that appears too often within a short run of text, its tends to bore the reader after a while, even if the subject matter is inherently interesting — and yes, Virginia, even if every sentence in the run isn’t put together in precisely the same way. That’s and‘s fault, you know; when too many of them appear on a page, even the untrained eye starts unconsciously counting them up.

How does a trained eye like Millicent’s respond, you ask, especially if the ands in question have rampaged all over page 1 of a submission — or even, heaven help us, a query letter? Here’s a clue: what’s the most over-used word in Millicent’s vocabulary?

That’s right: “Next!”

That’s not to say, naturally, that the X happened and Y happened sentence structure doesn’t have some legitimate uses. It is appealing to writers because, let’s face it, it can provide a quick way to inform the reader of quite a bit of action in a short amount of text.

Instead of having to write a brand-new sentence for each verb with the same subject, all of the action can be presented as a list, essentially. That can be especially handy if the individual activities mentioned are necessary to plot, characterization, or clarity, but not especially interesting in and of themselves.

Weary from a long day at work, Ernie sat down and removed his heavy steel-toed boots.

Nothing wrong with that, right? The reader doesn’t need to spend two sentences mulling over Ernie’s rather predictable post-workday actions. Now, while we’ve got our revision spectacles on, we could debate from now until next Tuesday whether the reader actually needs to be told that Ernie sat down — it’s not exactly a character-revealing move, is it? — but that’s a matter of style, not proper presentation, right? Technically, this is a perfectly legitimate way to convey what’s going on.

Often, though, aspiring writers will treat even quite a thrilling string of events in this manner, purely in the interest of telling a tale rapidly. This tactic is particularly popular amongst synopsis-writers trying to compress a complex plot into just a page or two.

ERNIE (27) comes home from work one day, removes his steel-toed boots, and discovers that the third toe on his left foot has transformed into a gecko. He cuts it off in a panic and takes it to a veterinarian, DR. LAO (93). Dr. Lao examines the gecko-toe and determines it has the capacity to knit exquisite sweaters. He and the gecko kill Ernie, go into business together, and soon take the skiwear market by storm.

Not the most scintillating way of describing the story, is it? The repetitive structure gives the impression that none of these potentially quite exciting plot developments is important enough to the story to rate its own sentence. Obviously, that’s a problem in a synopsis, where the goal is to present the story you’re telling as interesting and exciting.

Perhaps less obviously — brace yourself, and-lovers; you’re not going to like this — this structure can create a similarly dismissive impression on a manuscript page. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but skimming eye like You-Know-Who’s will frequently note only the first verb in a sentence and skip the rest.

Before any and-hugger out there takes umbrage at the idea of every sentence in his submission or contest entry not getting read in full, let’s take a moment to think about verb-listing sentences from Millicent’s perspective — or, indeed, any reader’s viewpoint. If an action is not crucial enough to what’s going on for the writer to have devoted an entire sentence to it, why shouldn’t a reader assume that it’s important to the scene?

I sense some squirming out there. “But Anne,” some of you and partisans hasten to point out, “while I admit that sometimes I lump a bunch of activity together in a few short, list-like sentences in order to speed things up a bit, that’s not the primary way I use and in my prose. As you yourself have mentioned, and not all that long ago, stringing together sentences beginning with but or yet, it creates the impression conversation-like flow. Isn’t that essential for a convincing first-person narrative?”

Actually, partisans, echoing recognizable speech patterns is only one technique for constructing a plausibly realistic first-person narrative voice — far and away the most popular technique, as it happens; just ask Millicent how often she sees it on any given day of submission-screening. There’s a pretty good reason for that, of course; it would be hard to denying that

I woke up the next morning and poisoned my husband’s cornflakes.

is chatty, casual, echoing the way your local spouse-poisoner is likely to describe her activities to her next-door neighbor. True, it doesn’t quite match the arid eloquence of Ambrose Bierce’s

Early one June morning in 1872, I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.

But then, what does?

You would not be alone, then, if you feel that the heavy use of and is downright indispensable in constructing dialogue or a first-person narrative. Many actual living, breathing, conversation-producing people do incorporate the X happened and Y happened structure into their speech with great regularity.

In many cases, with monotonous regularity. Certainly, it can feel awfully darned monotonous to the reader, if it appears on the printed page with anywhere near the frequency that it tumbles out of the average person’s mouth.

Yes? Do those of you who have been following this series have anything you’d like to add here? Perhaps the observation that no matter why a word, phrase, sentence structure, and/or narrative device appears over and over again within a short span of text, it’s likely to strike a professional reader as repetitive?

No? Were you instead thinking of my oft-repeated axiom that just because something happens in the real world doesn’t necessarily mean that a transcript of it will make compelling reading?

Despite the sad fact that both of these observations are undoubtedly true, few real-world patterns are as consistently reproduced with fidelity in writing as everyday, mundane verbal patterns. Sociological movements come and go unsung, jargon passes through the language literarily unnoted, entire financial systems melt down without generating so much as a mention in a novel — but heaven forfend that redundant or pause-riddled speech should not be reproduced mercilessly down to the last spouted cliché.

And don’t even get me started on the practically court-reporter levels of realism writers tend to lavish on characters who stutter or — how to put this gracefully? — do not cling tenaciously to the rules of grammar when they speak. In some manuscripts, it seems that if there’s an ain’t uttered within a five-mile radius, the writer is going to risk life and limb to track it down, stun it, and pin it to the page with quotation marks.

Again, I’m not saying that there aren’t some pretty good reasons for this impulse. Many aspiring writers consciously strive for prose that echoes the kind of conversational rhythms and structures one hears every day, particularly when they are penning first-person or present-tense narratives.

“I want it to sound real,” they say with engaging earnestness. “My goal is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

Unfortunately, from Millicent’s perspective, most of these writers don’t realize just how widespread this particular goal is — or that much real-life conversation would be either deadly dull, logically incoherent, or at minimum not literarily interesting transferred directly to the printed page.

Why? Well, for plenty of reasons, but to concentrate upon the one most relevant to us today: because real-life speakers repeat both words and sentence structures to an extent that would make even the most patient reader rip her hair out at the roots in frustration.

And I’m talking arm hair here, people. If you doubt the intensity of this reaction, here’s a little experiment:

(1) Sit in a crowded café for two hours, jotting down the conversations around you verbatim.

No fair picking and choosing only the interesting ones; you’re striving for realistic dialogue, right?

(2) Go home and type up those conversations as scenes, using only the dialogue that you actually overheard.

No cheating: reproduce ALL of it.

(3) Wait a week.

(4) Seat yourself in a comfy chair and read the result in its entirety.

If you can peruse the result without falling into a profound slumber, congratulations! You have an unusually high threshold for boredom; perhaps you have a future as an agency screener. Or maybe you have cultivated an affection for the mundane that far outstrips that of the average reader.

(5) Ask yourself honestly: does the dialogue you overheard have any entertainment value at all when reproduced in its entirety? Or are only selected lines worth preserving — if, indeed, any lines deserve to be passed down to posterity at all?

Even if you are lucky enough to stumble upon an unusually witty group of cafÉ denizens, it’s highly unlikely that you would be able to get the result past Millicent, either as dialogue or as narrative. In professional writing, merely sounding real is not enough; a manuscript must also be entertaining enough to hold a reader’s interest.

Yes, Virginia, even if the manuscript in question happens to be literary fiction, if it’s book-length. Most of what goes on in the real world, and nearly everything that’s said, doesn’t rise to the standards of literature.

Not of good literature, anyway. And that’s as it should be, as far as I’m concerned.

There’s more to being a writer than having adequate transcription skills, after all; merely reproducing the real isn’t particularly ambitious, artistically speaking. Think about it: wouldn’t you rather apply your unique worldview and scintillating ability with words to create something better than reality?

In that spirit, let’s revisit that sentence structure beloved of the real-life speaker, X happened and Y happened and see if we can’t improve upon it. Why, here’s an example of it wandering by now.

Ghislaine blanched and placed her lily-white hand upon her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando nodded with satisfaction and strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously and continued to move closer.

Did it bug you that time? Each of these sentences is in fact grammatically correct, and this structure reads as though it is merely echoing common spoken English. It’s also pretty much the least interesting way to present the two acts in each sentence: the and is, after all, simply replacing the period that could logically separate each of these actions.

By contrast, take a look at how varying the sentence structure and adding the odd gerund livens things up:

Ghislaine blanched, her lily-white hand clutching her swiftly-beating heart. Orlando strode toward her, grinning. She grabbed a poker from next to the fire and glanced around for an escape. He chortled villainously, moving closer every second.

Easier to read, isn’t it? Admittedly, the prose is still pretty purple — or at least a blushing lilac — but at least the paragraph is no longer jumping up and down, screaming, “My author knows only one way to structure a sentence!”

Most agents, editors, and contest judges would agree with the paragraph’s assessment of its creator, alas. They tend to have a very low tolerance for over-use of this particular sentence structure. Seriously, I’ve seen pens poked through manuscripts at the third instance of this kind of sentence within half a page. Screaming has been known to ensue after the sixteenth use within the same space.

If that seems like an over-reaction, consider this: most professional readers go into the job because they like to read. Adore it. Can’t get enough of lovely prose. Lest we forget, people who work at agencies are individuals with personal preferences, rather than the set of automatons sharing a single brain that many aspiring writers presume them to be. I can guarantee, however, that they all share one characteristic: they love the language and the many ways in which it can be used.

What does that mean in practice, you ask? Millicent screens manuscripts all day at work, pulls a battered paperback out of her bag on the subway home, and reads herself to sleep at night; her boss totes submissions back and forth on that same subway because he’s so devoted to his job that he does half of his new client consideration at home. And no matter how many manuscripts they reject in a given week, both wake up each and every day hoping that today, at last, will bring an amazing manuscript into the agency, one to believe in and shepherd toward other lovers of good literature.

With such an orientation, it’s genuinely frustrating to see a great story poorly presented, or an exciting new voice dimly discernible through a Frankenstein manuscript. Or — and this happens more often than any of us might care to think — when a talented writer was apparently in such a hurry to get a scene down on paper that a series of potentially fascinating actions degenerated into a list that barely hints at the marvelous passage that might have been.

I sense that some of you still don’t believe me. “But Anne,” you cry, “I just love the charge-ahead rhythm all of those ands impart to a passage! If the writing is strong enough, the story gripping enough, surely a literature-lover like Millicent would be able to put her repetition reservations aside?”

I see that it’s time to get ruthless: I’m going to have to show you just how much damage an injudicious application of ands can inflict upon even the best writing. To make the lesson sting as much as possible, let’s resurrect an example I used a week or two ago, the exceptionally beautiful and oft-cited ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY. To refresh your memory:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Even before I finished typing this, I could sense hands shooting up all over the ether. “Aha, Anne! He began two sentences with and! And he used the very X happened and Y happened structure you’ve been complaining about for the last two posts. So you must be wrong about them both, right?”

No, actually — I selected this passage precisely because he does incorporate them; he also uses the passive voice in one sentence. He does it sparingly, selectively.

Look at the horror that might have resulted had he been less variable in his structural choices. (I apologize in advance for this, Scott, but I’m making a vital point here.)

And I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, and I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, and that it was somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, and it was where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, and in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. And it eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster and we will stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The moral: even when the writing is very good indeed, structural repetition can be distracting. (Take that, writers who believe that they’re too talented for their work ever to require revision.)

Where might one start to weed out the ands, you ask? Glance over your pages for sentences in which and appears more than once.

Chances are high that such a sentence will be a run-on, in any case. So you may be sure to spot them in the wild, a multiple-and run-on will probably look something like this:

In avoiding the police, Babette ran down the Metro stairs and out onto the platform and into the nearest train.

This is a classic run-on — too much information crammed into a single sentence, facilitated by those pesky conjunctions. Ask yourself: is there another, more interesting way I could convey all of this information? If not, is all of this information even necessary?

Some writers, of course, elect to include run-on sentences deliberately in their work, for specific effect: to make the narrator sound less literate, for instance, or more childlike, or to emphasize the length of a list of actions the protagonist has to take to achieve a goal. Or sometimes, the point is to increase the comic value of a scene by the speed with which it is described, as in this excerpt from Stella Gibbons’ immortal comedy, COLD COMFORT FARM:

He had told Flora all about his slim, expensive mistress, Lily, who made boring scenes and took up the time and energy which he would much sooner have spent with his wife, but he had to have Lily, because in Beverly Hills, if you did not have a mistress, people thought you were rather queer, and if, on the other hand, you spent all your time with your wife, and were quite firm about it, and said that you liked your wife, and, anyway, why the hell shouldn’t you, the papers came out with repulsive articles headed “Hollywood Czar’s Domestic Bliss,” and you had to supply them with pictures of your wife pouring your morning chocolate and watering the ferns.

So there was no way out of it, Mr. Neck said.

Quite the sentence, eh? (Not the second, silly — the first.) I’m going to part company with pretty much every other editor in the world for a moment and say that I think that a writer can get away with this sort of run-on every once in a while, under three very strict conditions:

(1) IF it serves a very specific narrative purpose that could not be achieved in any other manner (in this example, to convey the impression that Mr. Neck is in the habit of launching into such diatribes on intimate topics with relative strangers at the drop of the proverbial hat),

(2) IF it achieves that purpose entirely successfully (not a foregone conclusion, by any means), and

(3) If the writer chooses to do this at a crucial point in the manuscript, s/he doesn’t use it elsewhere — or at least reserves the repetition of this choice for those few instances where it will have the greatest effect.

Why minimize it elsewhere? Well, as we have seen above, this device tends to create run-on sentences with and…and…and… constructions, technically grammatical no-nos. You may be doing it deliberately, but as with any grammatical rule, many writers who do not share your acumen with language include them accidentally.

Let me ask you this: how is a speed-reading Millicent to tell the difference between a literate submitter pushing a grammatical boundary on purpose and some under-read yahoo who simply doesn’t know that run-ons are incorrect?

Usually, by noticing whether the device appears only infrequently, which implies deliberate use, or every few lines, which implies an ingrained writing habit.

I’ve been sensing disgruntled rumblings out there since point #3. “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “I read a great deal, and I see published literary fiction authors break this rule all the time. Doesn’t that mean that the language has changed, and people like you who go on and on about the rules of grammar are just fuddy-duddies who will be first up against the wall come the literary revolution?”

Whoa there, disgruntled rumblers — as I believe I may have pointed out before, I invented neither the rules of grammar nor the norms of submission evaluation. If I had, every agency and publishing house would post a clear, well-explained list of standard format expectations on its website, along with explanations of any personal reading preferences and pet peeves its staff might happen to have. Millicent would be a well-paid, under-worked reader who could spend all the time she wanted with any given submission in order to give it a full and thoughtful reading; her boss would be able to afford to take on a difficult-to-market book project every month or so, just because he happens to like the writing, and the government would issue delightful little checks to compensate writers for all of the time they must now spend marketing their own work.

As simple observation will tell you that these matters are not under my personal control, kindly take me off your literary hit lists.

Even in literary fiction, it’s dangerous to include grammatically incorrect sentences in a submission — to someone who hasn’t read more of your work than the first few pages of your manuscript, it’s impossible to tell whether you are breaking the normal rules of grammar in order to create a specific effect, or because you just don’t know the rule. If an agency screener concludes that it’s the latter, she’s going to reject the manuscript, almost invariably.

Then, too, the X happened and Y happened structure is just not considered very literary in the business. So the automatic assumption if it shows up too much is that the material covered by it is to be read for content, rather than beauty of prose.

To quote Millicent’s real-life dialogue: “Next!”

Unless you are getting an extremely valuable effect out of a foray into the ungrammatical, it’s best to save your few opportunities to do so intentionally for when it serves you best. At the very least, make sure that two such sentences NEVER appear back-to-back.

Why? To avoid that passage appearing to Millicent as the work of — horrors! — a habitual runner-on, or even — sacre bleu! — the rushed first draft of a writer who has become bored by what’s going on in the scene.

Neither may be a fair assessment in your case, of course. But when you do find patches of ands in your text, step back and ask yourself honestly: “Do I really NEED to tell the reader this so tersely — or all within a single sentence? Or, indeed, at all?”

“Perhaps,” (you’re still speaking to yourself here, in case you were wondering) “I could find a way that I could make the telling more interesting by adding more detail? I notice by reading back over the relevant paragraphs that my X happened and Y happened sentences tend to be light on telling specifics.”

My, you’re starting to think like an editor, reader. A Frankenstein manuscript just isn’t safe anymore when you’re in the room.

Since your eye is becoming so sophisticated, take another look at paragraphs where ands abound and consider the opposite possibility: are you rushing through the action of the scene too quickly for the reader to enjoy it? Are some of those overloaded sentences cramming four or five genuinely exciting actions together — and don’t some of these actions deserve their own sentences?

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, is the repeated use of and in fact your manuscript’s way of saying COME BACK AND FLESH THIS OUT LATER?

C’mon, admit it — almost every writer has resorted to this device at the end of a long writing day, haven’t we? Or when we have a necessary-but-dull piece of business that we want to gloss over in a hurry?

You thought you were the only one who did this, didn’t you?

Don’t be so hard on yourself — writers do this all the time. When the point is just to get lines down on a page — or to get a storyline down before the inspiration fades — X happened and Y happened and Z happened is arguably the speediest way to do it. It’s a perfectly acceptable time-saving strategy for a first draft — as long as you remember to go back later and vary the sentence structure. Oh, and to make sure that you’re showing in that passage, not telling.

When we forget to rework these flash-written paragraphs, the results may be a bit grim. Relying heavily on the and construction tends to flatten the highs and lows of a story.

But we all already know that, right? When actions come across as parts of a list, rather than as a sequence in which all the parts are important, the reader tends to gloss over them quickly, under the mistaken impression that these events are being presented in list form because they are necessary to the plot, but none is interesting enough to sustain an entire sentence.

Which, I’m guessing, is not precisely the response you want your sentences to evoke from Millicent, right? Call me psychic — and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VIII: taming the many-headed beast, or, what do you mean, you want me to sum up a 12-protagonist novel in a single page?

gargoyles at Mirapoix2

The very title of today’s post made most of you cringe, didn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised. 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. Although they require great care and effort in construction, they’re not documents that one’s fans are ever likely to see, after all: they are used purely to market one’s books to agents, editors, and, frequently, contest judges.

In short, anyone who might be inclined to judge your manuscript without reading it. Hard to imagine why any writer would resent that, eh?

But our feelings about synopses run even deeper than disliking their potential substitution value, don’t they? As a group, we just don’t like having to cram our complex plots into such short spaces. That, too, is understandable: obviously, someone who believes 382 pages constituted the minimum necessary space to tell a story is not going to much enjoy reducing it to 1, 3, or 5 pages.

Does all of that bated breath out there indicate that those of you who have been following this series on juggling protagonists are hoping that I’ll tell you that you don’t even have to try?

Sorry, my dears: not this time. 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. Distract your mind from trying to visualize it by looking at the pretty picture of gargoyles above, please. (Oh, you thought I included all of these photos just to separate the posts?)

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. 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.

Sound familiar? It should: it’s also the basic goal of the query letter descriptive paragraph and any length of pitch. Unlike a query or pitch, however, the synopsis needs to show the entire story arc, not just the premise of the book.

If you happen to be dealing with a single protagonist, that prospect may seem quite daunting. 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.

Once again, the key lies in telling the story of the book, not the protagonists. Indeed, in a 1-page synopsis, you have no other option.

Before I elaborate upon that horrifying thought, I should set a few ground rules. Since I’ve gone over the ropes of short-short synopsis-writing in some depth in this forum (for a few dos and don’ts for writing a 1-page synopsis, please see the HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS category on the archive list at right. Or if you dug up this post in the archives in the midst of a frantic last-minute search, try starting here), I don’t propose to start from scratch here.

What I would like to do instead is talk 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.

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. (Is it more helpful or terrifying to think of it that way, do you think?) 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,” 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 our protagonist-juggling series? 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.

In a single-page synopsis, the goal is to tell what the book is about. 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.

That last paragraph stirred up as many fears as it calmed, didn’t it? “But Anne,” complexity-lovers everywhere protest, “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 and what is not?

Excellent question, complexity-huggers. To answer it, 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 did not suggest that you ask yourself whether the synopsis in your trembling hand was a particularly accurate representation of the book. 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 briefly 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 aspiring writers to try. Do bear in mind, though, that opting for clarity may well mean showing the story in logical order, rather than in the order the elements currently appear in the manuscript — in chronological order, for instance, if your narrative jumps around in time, or by leaping over those five chapters’ worth of subplot.

Oh, stop hyperventilating. I’m not suggesting revising the book. Just making your life easier while you’re trying to synopsize it.

For those of you still huffing indignantly into paper bags, trying to regularize your breathing again: believe me, this suggestion is in no way a commentary on the way you may have chosen to structure your 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.

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, though: 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 a 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 strain 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. “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 showing off 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 the synopsis?”

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. 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 series. It’s not merely a waste of valuable sentences to include such English 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.

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

Actually, you could, in a synopsis this short. Which brings me back to another suggestion from a few days ago.

5. Pick a protagonist and try presenting only that story arc in the 1-page synopsis.
This wouldn’t 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 strategy in the 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. And there’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 isn’t for a genuinely multi-protagonist novel, but bear with me here; it’s what I have on hand):

pride-and-prejudice-synop

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 complex 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 second example exhibits in spades but the first 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?

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. Don’t be afraid to do some trimming, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XVI: what’s black and white and read all over?

skunk on a rampageglasses on newspaperold-fashioned police car

Answer: not a synopsis, necessarily. It’s only read sometimes.

That double-take you just did was well-justified. “You drive me to distraction, Anne,” many synopsizers cry, rending their garments. “Here we have been spending weeks on perfecting the darned thing, and now you’re raising the possibility that no one will read it? Just what kind of sick torture-fest are you running here?”

Now, now, I didn’t suggest that synopses are never read. Once you’re signed with an agent, s/he will undoubtedly read your synopsis of your next book.

Before that point, however, it’s a bit hit-and-miss. Although agents routinely ask submitters to send along a synopsis with requested manuscript pages, and agency guidelines frequently call for one to be tucked into a query packet, it’s seldom the first thing read. And if Millicent the agency screener has already decided yea or nay on a book project, why should she invest another minute or two in reading the attached synopsis?

You were doing further damage to your garments by the end of that last paragraph, weren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you protest through gritted teeth, “you just said yourself that they ask us to send the wretched things; it’s not as though any sane person would sit around tossing off synopses for pleasure. Why would they request a synopsis if they don’t intend to read it?”

Ah, but they do — at least, they intend to read some of them.

Allow me to explain before you rip that nice shirt any further. Let’s take the synopsis tucked into the query packet first. As most of us in the Author! Author! community know to our sorrow, it’s Millicent’s job to make up her mind pretty quickly about queries. As in under 30 seconds a piece.

Before you get your hackles up about all of your hard work on your query receiving that little scrutiny, do the math. If the average agency receives somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week — or more, if it has a compelling website featuring an easy-to-fill-out submission form that allows a querier to bypass the tedium of writing a query letter — and each takes 30 seconds to open and read, that’s between 6.5 and 12.5 hours of agency time just to read them. And that’s not counting all of the additional hours to read requested materials.

If that doesn’t seem like a huge time investment to you, consider this: agencies do not make any money off reading queries at all; they make money by selling the work of their already-signed clients. Oh, they might see some cash from taking on any writer in today’s query pile, but that’s going to take time.

And that, in case any of you have been wondering, is why many agencies do not accept queries at all. Instead of investing in at least a half-time employee to screen queries, they obtain new clients through recommendations from current clients, or by blandishing authors unhappy with their agents into switching.

Back to Millicent’s comparatively writer-friendly agency. Let’s say that the agency in question calls for a 1-page synopsis to be included in every query packet. If she read all of them in their entirety, even assuming that each took her only an additional minute, that would raise the agency’s investment in query processing to 20 to 37.5 hours per week.

Or, to put it another way, a half- or full-time employee. Given the additional cost, what do you think the probability is that a newly-trained Millicent will be directed to give every query synopsis submitted a thorough once-over?

Uh-huh. Depressing, but logistically necessary, I’m afraid.

So how will she decide which to read and which to skip? The ones that are not professionally formatted would be the obvious ones to pass by, as would those whose query letters prompted a rejection. If Millie’s already decided to give the project a pass, she doesn’t need to spend any more time on the query packet, right?

By the same token, she doesn’t have a tremendous amount of incentive to take the time to peruse the synopses accompanying queries that immediately caught her interest. If she already knows that she wants to see the manuscript, why spend the extra minute on the synopsis?

So which ones virtually always get read? The ones where she’s on the fence about requesting pages — which means that the synopsis is a very, very important writing sample.

Not clear on why? Okay, here are two different 1-page synopses — and continuing my trend of summarizing works in the public domain, I’ve tackled ROMEO AND JULIET. Again, if you are having trouble reading any of these examples, try double-clicking on the image and either enlarging it in a new window or downloading it to your desktop. (Also again: if I find out that anyone is lifting any part of what follows and turning it in to a freshman English teacher, noggins will be rapped mercilessly.)

Wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins, and tell me which is more likely to induce her to tumble down on the by gum, I’d like to see this manuscript side of the fence, and which would send her reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections:

Romeo and Juliet synopsis

Or:

Bad R + J synopsis

Both summarize the plot in a single page, but there’s really no contest here, is there? (If there was any hesitation at all about your shout of “YES!” or if you’re perplexed about why the bad example does not have indented paragraphs and the good example does, please rush with all possible dispatch to the SYNOPSIS ILLUSTRATED and HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT categories on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page. Millicent probably would not read even a line of this one.)

I’m going to level with you here: on any given day, a Millicent working at an agency that expects synopses to be included in a query packet would see many, many more of the second type than the first. It makes her job significantly easier and speedier, of course, because she barely would have to glance at the second in order to decide to reject it. Yet setting aside the obvious formatting and presentation problems — everyone caught the lack of slug line, block-justified paragraphs, and insane typeface choice, right?— what else would strike Millicent as less professional about the second example if she did go ahead and read it?

How about the fact that it’s terribly vague? Compared with the first example, it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities — and that makes this story downright hard to follow. The first example contains summary statements, but because they are grounded in specifics, Millicent will be able to follow what is going on with ease,

Also, who are the characters here? This guy is not an adequate character-identifying phrase. Where does this story take place? What century is it? Why are these people using poison and daggers instead of guns?

And so forth. My point is, Millicent’s assumption that the unprofessional formatting was representative of the polish of the synopsis in general would have been accurate in this instance. Just something to ponder the next time you find yourself resenting how quickly the average query packet gets screened.

Another factor that Millie is going to work into her yea-or-nay decision on the query packet is whether the manuscript in question seems to be a good fit for her agency. The descriptive paragraph in the query letter may not have given her a clear enough sense of what the book is about. And frankly, if the query letter did not include the book category — and a good 90% do not, despite my years of griping here on the subject — she may need to read the synopsis to figure out what kind of book it is.

Which provides me with a perfectly glorious segue into demonstrating a couple of matters I touched upon briefly earlier in this series. As I devoutly hope those of you who have been paying close attention recall,

(a) regardless of the tense of the manuscript, the synopsis should be in the present tense, and

(b) even if the manuscript is written in the first person, the synopsis should be written in the third person, UNLESS

(c) the manuscript being synopsized is a memoir, in which case the synopsis should be written in the past tense and the first person.

Everyone clear on that? I see most of you nodding, but so that the notion that one or two of you might find this somewhat convoluted rule a trifle confusing won’t keep me up fretting in the dead of night, I’ve come up with a couple of concrete examples. First, let’s take a gander at a synopsis for one of the best-selling memoirs of the 20th century:

Kon-Tiki synopsis

It only makes sense for the author (well, not the author — me, but play along with my conceit here) to synopsize his work in these terms, right? He’s describing something that happened to him, a story that only he could tell. In fact, a large part of his platform is that only he and five other people could possibly give a first-person account of this remarkable voyage.

As an interesting contrast, let’s now look at the synopsis for a novel that’s written as though it were a memoir: in the first person and as if the author were actually the titular woman’s nephew.

Auntie Mame synopsis

See how the use of the proper tense and voice for a fiction synopsis renders it instantly plain that this book is a novel, not a memoir? If the query letter fell into the oh-so-common traps of not mentioning whether the book is fiction or nonfiction (you’d be astonished at how common that is) or mentioning up front that it’s based on real events, Millicent could know right away from the synopsis into which book category it should fall.

Everyone with me so far? This is counter-intuitive stuff.

Oh, and in answer to what a panicked few observant souls out there just thought very loudly: yes, the slug line in that last example was entirely in capital letters; some writers prefer to do it that way. Use either that looks best to you, but be consistent between the synopsis and the manuscript.

Speaking of manuscripts, while the query synopsis is intended to prompt Millicent to ask to see the manuscript, a synopsis tucked into a submission packet of requested materials serves a slightly different purpose — or rather, a couple of different purposes, potentially. Which of those purposes is operative determines how likely the synopsis is to get read.

Again, the crucial factor here is saving time. If a synopsis accompanies a partial manuscript, Millicent will seldom read it before scanning the requested pages of the book. Why? Well, if the opening pages don’t grab her, she’s going to reject the submission, right? So why would she invest several minutes in perusing a synopsis for a manuscript she’s already decided to reject?

By the same token, it’s not necessarily in her interest to read it if she likes the partial manuscript. Oh, she might be curious about what happens next, but isn’t far and away the best way to find out to request the rest of the manuscript?

Generally speaking, the shorter the number of requested pages — and this applies equally well to query packets for agencies that ask for a writing sample up front, by the way — the more likely Millicent is to read the submission synopsis.

Do I sense some head-scratching out there? “But Anne, a lot of agents ask for a synopsis even when they request the entire manuscript. But by the logic above, why would Millicent bother to read the synopsis when she has the whole shebang in front of her?”

Good question, head-scratchers: often, she won’t. But her boss might want to take a gander at it before reading the manuscript herself, and she certainly would want to have that synopsis on hand when she picks up the phone or sits down and writes an e-mail to an editor about your work.

Who’d have thought that something so annoying could be so beneficial down the line? Polishing your synopsis is not only good short-term marketing strategy, but an excellent long-term investment in your writing career.

You are in this for the long haul, aren’t you? This isn’t the only book you’re ever planning to write, is it?

Kudos to you for knuckling down and learning this challenging-but-essential writerly skill. When you’re effortlessly tossing off the synopsis for your eighth book while your agent eagerly waits for it, you’ll be awfully glad you took the time now.

Speaking of things you might want to get a head start upon, next week, I shall be guiding all of you through the mysteries of the author bio. Increasingly, agencies are requesting these in submission packets, and even in query packets — and even if the agent of your dreams doesn’t ask you for yours until your manuscript is ready to head out the door to editors, you’ll be much, much happier if you don’t try to crank it out at the last minute. Like a well-crafted synopsis, it benefits from advance thought.

My, I have high expectations for you, don’t I? The agent you deserve will as well. Take it as a compliment to your talent — and the seriousness with which you have chosen to develop it.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XV: I’m okay, you’re okay, and so is a little definitional ambiguity, or, all right, already — I’ll do a post on synopsis length

medic waving white flag

I thought that I’d tied up the last few dangling loose ends of this extended (not to mention new and improved!) series on synopsis-writing, honest I did. I fully expected to be moving on to that last common query and submission packet ingredient, the author bio.

The muses had other ideas about how I should spend my day, apparently.

How do I know what the Old Girls are up to these days? Oh, I interpret omens, like everybody else involved in publishing: for some reason mortals are powerless to explain, for instance, Dan Brown’s prose continues to be super-popular while the work of many a fine author wielding subtle plot devices and interesting sentence structures languishes on the remainder table. While many a book-watcher would conclude that this is a sure sign that the Muses are either in a collective coma or on a very, very long vacation, I choose to take it as an indication that the Ladies on High would simply like all of us to pay a trifle less attention to the bestseller lists.

Sometimes, though, the messages from the muses are a trifle more direct. Take, for instance, the three nearly identical questions posted by three apparently unrelated readers within the last few weeks:

But what if the directions don’t give a specific length? Are you expected to include a 5-pg or the 1-pg version? (I’m assuming the 1-pg is this mysteriously vague “brief synopsis.”)

Could you mention again what each {length of} synopsis is used for? So many agents on my list ask for a “brief synopsis” and I have no idea how many pages “brief” is supposed to be.

I do have a question, though, which you may have already addressed: If submission guidelines don’t state the length of the synopsis, what should I assume? Five pages, or one? I’ve also seen the term, “two-page treatment.”

Strikingly similar, aren’t they? Is there some sort of epidemic of vagueness suddenly striking agencies’ websites this month, or are aspiring writers not reading as well as they were a month ago? Or is that rumor going around again, the one that maintains that agents have started deliberately adding misleading guidelines in the hope of confusing aspiring writers into being afraid to query?

Oh, yes, one does hear that little gem from time to time. It’s one of the great writerly urban legends, second only to the whopper about every agency in the country’s subscribing to a secret service that tells them at a click of a button whether any other agency has already rejected the query in front of them. Another popular myth: agencies keep such meticulous records of queries that if an aspiring writer queries, spends five years completely revising the manuscript, then queries again, the agency screener will instantly recognize it as a book they’ve been offered before and reject it accordingly.

Those of us whose job it is to translate between writers and those on the other side of the submission desk spend a lot of time quelling those sorts of fears. No matter how many times you hit them with the stick of truth, they rise again to trouble the sleep of aspiring writers.

Even if these questions were in response to a new set of urban myths or a fad in submission guideline-writing, it would have been tempting to assume that they weren’t: since none of the askers showed the ambiguity in context (by including more than a couple of words they found confusing in quotes, for instance), I’m basically having to guess what they find objectionable about the phrase brief synopsis.

Is it the fact that the term is redundant by definition? Or are they just miffed because not every set of agency guidelines gives specific length restrictions for synopses?

Experience tells me that it’s almost certainly the latter. How do I know? Because not only am I constantly hearing from writers panicked because they’re not certain that they are following rules correctly — sometimes because the guidelines are ambiguous, sometimes because they’re simply uncomfortable with not having their work checked for accuracy before they submit it, both completely legitimate reasons to consult a freelance editor — but I am constantly hearing from agents and editors who complain that writers can’t seem to follow directions.

Why, there’s a perfectly clear set of guidelines posted on the agency’s website, isn’t there? Isn’t there?

In short, while the popularity of this particular question may be new, the essential tension isn’t. Generally speaking, aspiring writers want far more guidance about what agents and editors expect than they’re getting, and those on the business side of the business believe that anyone seriously interested in writing professionally either knows the ropes already or can easily find out what to do.

Having recently done a virtual tour of a few dozen agency websites, checking out submission requirements, my sense is that they haven’t changed much recently; there are simply more agencies with websites than five years ago. The fact that they display less uniformity of expectations between sites than aspiring writers might like isn’t new — it’s just better-advertised.

Nor was there a particularly strong trend toward using either the dreaded term brief synopsis or asking for treatments of any length. (The latter is a movie industry term, not a publishing one, though, so it may well pop up in the guidelines of those relatively rare agencies that represent both screenplays and books.) Oh, plenty of agencies did not specify a particular length for the synopsis, but since the 5-page synopsis is so commonly used in agencies and publishing houses, and since agency guide listings have been asking for 3-5 page synopses for decades, everyone would just know to be in that ballpark.

Which is the short answer to the question, incidentally: if the guidelines don’t give a firm length, the agency does not have a firm expectation on the subject. As long as it’s in the general ballpark of what’s expected, you’ll be fine. Next question?

I heard that vast collective moan. Just then, I sounded like an agent or editor who was asked at a conference how long a synopsis should be, didn’t I?

Well, not completely, bit not merely because I didn’t automatically roll my eyes at the question — which, to save all of you conference-enthusiasts the trouble of trial and error, half the folks on the agents’ and editors’ forum dais would automatically do at this particular question. What they would actually say is, “Read the agency’s submission guidelines,” then call on the next would-be questioner, pleased at having evaded helping out someone who just hadn’t bothered to learn how the game is played.

Which would, of course, miss the point of the question entirely.

Let me run through the underlying logic here, because being able to place oneself in an agent or editor’s shoes is a really, really useful professional skill for a writer at any stage of her career. As I mentioned above, it’s rare that you’ll meet one who doesn’t believe that a writer’s not knowing how agencies work is a pretty good indicator of professionalism; that’s the basic justification for automatically rejecting Dear Agent letters and queries that run longer than a page, right? A writer who sends a three-page query is not only unlikely to be able to follow directions, they reason — her writing probably isn’t very polished, either.

Unfair to the talented individual who doesn’t happen to know the ropes yet? Undoubtedly. But statistically provable, based upon ALL of the queries and submissions the average agency receives over the course of a year? Absolutely.

So to them, the ability to follow an agency’s stated submission guidelines is not only a prerequisite for a writer’s getting her work read by an agent — it’s an indicator of professionalism. Thus, when a writer stands up at a conference and asks to be told how to write a synopsis, what they tend to hear is, “I haven’t bothered to learn anything about how the industry works. Because I’m lazy, I’m coming to you for a quick answer.”

Is that assumption disrespectful to the questioner? Of course. But doesn’t the habitual terseness and even sometimes downright anger many agents and editors display at being asked such questions make more sense now? They’re not responding to the question so much as the perceived tell-me-a-secret-so-I-don’t-have-to-do-my-homework attitude.

I hear all of you gnashing your teeth. “But Anne,” frustrated queriers and submitters across the English-speaking world wail, “don’t they realize that every agency’s guidelines seem to call for something different? Or that many of them are vague? How am I supposed to know whether what they have in mind by a brief synopsis is 1 page, 3 pages, 5 pages, or 117? What’s next — are they going to ask me to guess what color they’re thinking?’

Before I answer that, take a nice, deep breath. Not that wimpy shallow one you just took: a real one.

Feeling calmer now? Good, because it’s going to make what I’m about to tell you much, much easier to accept: If they don’t ask for a specific length for the synopsis, it’s because they don’t care how long it is — unless it is wildly out of keeping with professional standards.

See why I wanted your brain nice and oxygenated for that one? Given how easily it is for aspiring writers to fall into the trap of believing (inaccurately, as it happens) that guidelines are just a bunch of arbitrary tests designed to trick writers, I’m betting that the last paragraph came as a great, big surprise to quite a few of you.

Especially to those of you who have stared at an agency’s website until your eyes blurred with tears, muttering, “What length do they want me to guess?”

Seriously, they’re not trying to trick you, and they’re not expecting you to read their minds. These are people who spend their lives nitpicking over commas; believe me, if seeing a 4-page synopsis rather than a 3-page synopsis would ruin their days, they’d specify. So here’s a rule of thumb in which you may absolutely place your trust:

If the agency’s guidelines ask for a particular length of synopsis, send one of that length; if they don’t specify, then it’s up to the submitter how long it should be. Just don’t go over 5 pages — or less than 1 full page.

Oh, dear — that last bit sent your arbitrariness-sensors blaring, didn’t it? Actually, this is a matter of aesthetics: as I mentioned last time, in a synopsis, fuller pages tend to look more intentional to the pros than those less than half-full of text, probably because professional authors are used to having page limits. A synopsis that just sort of peters out 3 lines into page 4 is likely to strike Millicent as a first draft, rather than something tightly edited.

That was catnip to the paranoids out there, wasn’t it? “Aha, Anne — we’ve caught you. If that’s a secret handshake sort of thing, how do I know that the term a brief synopsis isn’t some sort of code? How do you know that every agent who uses it doesn’t have a specific length in mind?”

Um, experience? Not to mention a strong understanding of probability: what precisely would be the benefit to these folks in coming up with a secret definition of a term that is on its face deliberately ambiguous? And why on earth would people who spend their lives in cutthroat competition with one another waste their all-too-precious time getting together to conspire on something that couldn’t possibly benefit them?

Look deeply into my eyes and repeat after me: there is no secret definition here, and 100% of the demand for standardization of submission guidelines comes from aspiring writers, not agents. No matter how much aspiring writers might like for there to be absolute standards, agencies have different expectations for a lot of parts of the query packet — that’s why they post guidelines.

Think about it: if there were one set of expectations governing the entire industry, why would individual agencies bother to post guidelines?

In short, everyone has something different in mind by the term brief synopsis. They each want what they want, period; if they care about a specific length, they will say so up front. If they just want a synopsis to try to find out what the book is about, and they don’t want to get sent a 20-page diatribe, they may well employ the adjective brief.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, honest.

I realize that the explanation above may seem a bit out of character for me — usually, I’m encouraging in-depth analysis, not bottom-lining things. But in my experience, aspiring writers usually ask this sort of question because they believe (sometimes rightly) that their queries and submissions will be rejected on sight if they guess wrong, essentially, in gray areas. They want all of the grayness removed.

That’s understandable, of course. But remember how I showed above how differently folks in the biz sometimes hear writers’ questions? That perfectly legitimate longing to be told precisely what to do tends to be interpreted on the other side of the querying desk as either a lack of confidence or — brace yourselves; this one’s nasty — as a lapse in creativity.

Seem odd? Think about it from an agent’s perspective: writers are constantly going out on interpretive limbs in their manuscripts, right? So why should it be scary to apply their own judgment to something that could be seen as a creative decision, the length of the book summary?

So when she omits mention of how long the synopsis should be from her guidelines, she doesn’t merely misunderstand the writerly terror of doing something wrong; she doesn’t get why you don’t consider the freedom from length restrictions a gift.

It might even strike her as a trifle arrogant: is this writer really so sure that everything in his query or submission packet is so marvelous that the ONLY reason she might reject it is the length of the synopsis?

The fact is, it’s really quite rare that a submission, or even a query, has only one red flag. There’s a bright flip side to that: if a writer follows all of the actually posted guidelines and adheres to standard format, sending in a four-page brief synopsis rather than the 5-page one the agent might have had in mind is not going to make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

95% of the time, the writing and the content determine that.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, for starters, that an aspiring writer’s energy would be better invested in the actual writing, rather than obsessing over whether there’s a secret handshake imbedded in the submission guidelines. Follow what directions are there, use standard manuscript format as your guide where an individual agency’s rules are silent, and accept that agents tend to assume that writers are intelligent people, not psychic ones.

Do your best to follow the guidelines you’re given, then move on.

Believe it or not, becoming comfortable with ambiguity is great training for working with an agent or an editor: it’s not at all uncommon for an editor to expect an author to revise an entire book based upon just a couple of sentences of commentary, or for an agent to expect a client to structure a submission one way for submission to editor A and another for editor B without having to hold the client’s hand every step of the way.

Try to think about navigating every agency’s slightly different expectations as a dry run for those more glamorous challenges.

Is everyone clear on the length issue? Or is someone planning to e-mail me the dreaded question again six hours from now? No, but seriously, folks, I guess I should have devoted a post entirely to this question years ago; how lucky that the muses poked three readers in a row to ask the relevant question.

Many thanks to whichever muse coordinated that effort. But if you found this post at all helpful, may I ask you to do me a favor right now?

Please leave a comment with your suggestion for the category name under which this post should repose on the archive list at right. It shouldn’t be more than about 30 characters (slug line length!), but it should catch the eye of someone running down the list, looking for an answer to the question, “If guidelines don’t specify a length, how long should a synopsis be?”

If you were about to suggest HOW LONG SHOULD A SYNOPSIS BE? as the heading, I’m way ahead of you: in my experience, people scanning the S section of the list tend to miss categories that begin with Hs.

Why am I asking for your help in this? Because I happen to know from past questions that all three of the readers who brought this up are quite good at finding answers online. My guess — and my own brief research on what else is out there for aspiring writers bears this out — is that while this question comes up in writers’ forums, pros in the field seldom take it on.

See earlier comment about thinking like an agent or editor. It’s just not a question that someone who has been at it a while would think to ask.

I was also kind of disturbed by the responses I got when I asked a few fellow writers-on-writing if they’d been getting this particular question more lately. (Hey, when I do research, I do research.) Literally all of them advised me to ignore the questions BECAUSE they were repeated, perhaps with the addition of telling question-repeaters that on a blog where readers ask really good questions all the time, reading the earlier comments on an ongoing series might make some sense. They also pointed out, with some justification, that I’ve provided so many categories on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page that readers don’t always take the time to do a site search using the easy-to-use search engine located at the upper right-hand side of this page. Those bloggers over 35 concluded their feedback with diatribes about how much it annoys them that so many people now believe that if the answer to a question doesn’t pop up in the first three pages of a Google search, that’s the extent of research possible on the subject.

As you may have noticed, I chose to eschew this collective advice. Oh, I’m not saying that I don’t occasionally want to follow their lead and bellow at readers to check the archives, or that I might from time to time think about not revisiting topics for which there are already several hundred well-identified posts clearly labeled on the right-hand side of this page. I’m aware that most readers don’t archive-dive on a regular basis; that’s why I come back to pitching once per year and standard format at least twice. Some readers peruse only the latest issue; others read intensely for a short period, then stop; still others come tearing up, breathlessly wanting one very specific question answered. To make it accessible for everyone without boring the daily readers into a stupor, I try to keep things lively.

And I’m not going to claim that it isn’t kinda annoying to receive several e-mails three times per week accusing me of never having covered subjects that have their own categories on the archive list. Which makes this a good time to reiterate my question policy for the benefit of those of you who missed my last request on the matter: if you have a question or suggestion, PLEASE post it as a comment; it’s infinitely more time-consuming for me to answer one question a hundred times via e-mail than to answer it once as a comment. Trust me, it’s highly unlikely that you’re the only person who has your question; if you ask it in public, then everyone else who is curious can benefit from the answer.

But frankly, I worry about the reader who stumbles upon my blog at 3 AM when the query or submission packet is going into the mail at 9 AM. There’s a LOT of material here — don’t take my word for it; read any of the 15 e-mails I receive per week telling me that it’s intimidating and I really should a narrow it down to four or five pages that tell every aspiring writer everything he needs to know about the publishing process and leave it at that.

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know, I find the notion of barking unexplained orders at confused aspiring writers really distasteful. I spend a lot of time here trying to make a genuinely opaque process more comprehensible, so I’m certainly not going to dumb down my approach. (And the 30 e-mail admirers I hear from every week cheer! Thanks for the support, but my agent’s going to be a lot more impressed if you post your kind thoughts here.)

But I do want the panicked to be able to find the answers to their questions. So I ask again: how should I title it in order to catch that bleary 3 AM eye?

A final wrap-up on synopses follows next time — and I mean that, muses. Keep me abreast of those new writerly legends, everybody (via the comments, please). And keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XIII: building your synopsis from solid wood, or, do you think it’s EASY to come up with a thematically-appropriate photo every day?

window corner

Did you enjoy your day off, everyone? I like to think of it as step one in declaring my birthday (and Truman Capote’s, and Euripedes’. as it happens) an international holiday. Rested and refreshed, let’s meander back to our ongoing list of questions designed to ferret out the most pervasive of synopsis problems. The hit parade so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(12) If I’m marketing fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

(13) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Is everyone happy with all of those? More importantly, is everyone’s synopsis happy with all of those?

For the sake of getting on with it, I’m going to assume that the answer is a resounding, “By gum, Anne, YES!” But if you have any questions about what I’ve covered so far, please feel free to bring ‘em up in the comments. (And for those of you new to how blogs work: to leave a comment, go to the very bottom of the post, after the category listings, and click on the green word COMMENTS. That will take you to a form where you can leave, well, comments.)

Moving on — and all of these apply equally well to a synopsis intended to rest within a query packet, a submission packet, and a contest entry, by the way:

(14) Does the first couple of paragraphs of my synopsis contain an indelible image that the reader can take away?

Since part of the goal in a synopsis is to convince Millicent the agency screener that the manuscript is fresh, unique, and well-written, wowing her with the first paragraph is essential. So wiggle your way into Millicent’s moccasins and ask yourself: does the opening of the synopsis contain something both unique and memorable? A vivid sensual image, for instance? A surprising juxtaposition of words? A fresh emotional dilemma?

In short, something that she hasn’t already seen — preferably never, but at least not within the hour?

Don’t tell me, please, that there’s something terrific at the bottom of the page, or that if Millie will only have the patience to make it to the middle of page 3, she’ll be hooked. All of that may well be true, but remember, you can’t be sure that Millicent will make it to page 3, or even the bottom of the page.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: screeners stop reading as soon as they’ve reached a conclusion about a submission.

Again, this isn’t a matter of laziness, meanness, or a hatred of literature — Millicent has to get through a lot of these in any given workday. So as with a contest entry, screeners tend to pass judgment upon synopses pretty fast. Also, in order to approve a query or submission for continuing on to the next step of the screening process, screeners often need to be able to describe the book in just a sentence or two. Giving Millicent (or a contest judge) a fantastic detail will make that part of her job significantly easier.

Trust me, you want to make her job easier.

Still want to believe that she’ll read on if the writing is good enough? Okay, let’s assume for a moment that she will. (Although 9 times out of 10, she won’t.) Let’s further assume that she likes what she sees when she does read on. Which would you rather be, the synopsizer whose pages prompt Millie to run into her boss’ office and cry, “Wow, I’ve just seen an image I’ve never seen before!” or the one whose synopsis requires two minutes of explanation about why it caught her interest?

Believe me, Millicent isn’t the only one who keeps glancing at her watch. Her boss’ timepiece is set even faster than hers.

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

Which leads me to…

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

This may make some of you giggle — this list has been a real laugh riot, hasn’t it? — but you wouldn’t believe how often the first paragraph or two of manuscript are actually identical to the first paragraph or two of its synopsis.

Yes, even in contest entries, where the synopsis and chapter are almost always read within the same sitting. Strategically, that’s just not very bright, in a context where a writer is trying to prove within a scant allotment of pages that it’s worthwhile to read his entire book.

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

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

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

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

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

(17) If the synopsis is longer than one page, are its pages numbered?

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

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

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

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

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

Even if you cried, “Of course I would take the time!” in each instance, Pollyanna Karenina, don’t rely upon the kindness of strangers. Especially busy ones who have been trained to believe that unnumbered pages are unprofessional in a submission. Make it easy to put the pages back in the proper order.

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

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

Having trouble picturing that? Here’s a crib for the visually-minded:

Looking familiar, I hope? Everyone clear on why those paragraphs need to be indented?

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

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

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

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

Naturally, like every other piece of paper you intend to send anywhere near an agency, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere.

Period. No excuses. I’m not listening.

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

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

Don’t believe me? At this point in human history, should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into my spell-checker’s vocabulary?

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

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

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

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

Read the manuscript for yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

Triple-check all character and place names. Seriously.

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

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

So once more, with feeling: writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

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

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it.

Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, just before you send it out, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, of course), and ask yourself a final question:

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

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

Well caught, oh ironic fainters. Yes, I am the queen of specialized submission packets. Down with genericism, I say!

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

Doesn’t it? Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, that’s enough poking at your synopsis for now. Next time, by popular request, I am going to make a jump from a fairly high dive: I’m going to show you a 5-page, 3-page, and 1-page synopsis for the same book, to help give those of you new to the game a clearer idea of the scope of each. Yes, that’s right: I’m VOLUNTARILY sitting down and writing three separate synopses of the same story.

Never say I didn’t do anything for you, people. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part XII: originality, plausibility, and burning all of those candles at both ends

candles at Lourdes

Brace yourselves, campers: today is going to be a long one. Think of it as a candle that’s going to stay lit for a while.

I’m not going to be waxing lengthy today merely because I’m returning my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way, although that’s part of the reason. Once a year, I like to bring readers a sort of hit parade of the most commonly-made mistakes. Normally, I draw it out a bit more, arranging the problems by topic and devoting different days to different species.

But I’ve got to be honest: tomorrow is my birthday, and I’m not planning on spending it blogging. (Yes, I know that I have in previous years; my personal new year’s resolution is to try to reduce my 16-hour work day to something closer to 12. Since it’s hard to pry me away from the computer mid-scene, my first step toward chiseling away at my average hours is to take days off a bit more frequently.)

So let’s get right to business, shall we?

For those of you joining us mid-series, this checklist is intended less to help any aspiring writer who might happen to stumble upon it to create a jim-dandy synopsis from scratch, but to improve an already-existing draft. That, and to encourage you to regard synopsis-writing as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form, rather than treating it as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent.

Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively. (Hint: you’re going to want to have a hard copy of your synopsis and a few highlighter pens in front of you. Go ahead and print it out; I’ll wait.)

All ready? Excellent. Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That question made some of you giggle, didn’t it? Actually, fiction synopses that imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity is a bit hard to avoid, but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.

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

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

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

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

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

And, above all, be certain that your synopsis doesn’t violate Point #7. Oh, hadn’t I brought up #7 yet?

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

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

Trust me, you don’t want Millicent to have to take an extra a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes to make it through your synopsis. Contrary to popular opinion amongst enthusiasts of slice-of-life literature, if a story sounds mundane on the synopsis page, particularly at the query packet stage, most Millicents are not going to be eager to read the book. Everyman may be a popular protagonist, but super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In industry-speak, ordinary is more or less synonymous with dull. Sorry to have to be the one to break that to you, but it’s true. I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull.

So why isn’t s/he, precisely? How is s/he different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?

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

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

But what about a nonfiction story? Glad you asked.

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

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

And you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you? If you walked a mile in Millicent’s shoes (sipping her latte, no doubt), or cozied up to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, you would know otherwise. To your sorrow, probably.

Just make it clear who the narrator is, okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust me on this one. In Millicent’s mind, conflict = interesting. She probably works for an agent who goes around spouting the old industry truism, a good manuscript has conflict on every single page.

Yes, yes, I know: that’s debatable. But if Millicent rejects your query packet or submission at the synopsis-reading stage, that’s a debate you’re never going to get to have with the agent of your dreams.

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

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

Yes, even at the synopsis stage.

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

Which leads me to…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence. Which, common sense tells us, no one without highly-specialized psychic abilities can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.

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

I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes. Just make your book sound original, okay?

Some of you are pouting at that last bit, aren’t you? “But Anne,” some of you inveterate bestseller-readers point out, “I’ve done my homework; I’ve gone to conferences. The same authors sell well year after year, so I’ve written a manuscript that’s more or less in the style of (fill in bestseller here), except mine is far, far better. Why wouldn’t that excite any market-minded agent?”

Your question made me smile, oh pouters: there was a good joke on the subject making the rounds of agents a couple of years back.

A writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

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

Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality.

What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So at this point in literary history, you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

Don’t believe me? Have you checked out the sales figures on PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES?

The fact is, a too-close imitation of a bestseller is always going to strike Millicent as rather derivative of the bestseller — and doubly so if the bestseller in question happens to be a classic. Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One big caveat, however: please bear in mind that Millicent (like Maury and Mehitabel) tends to make a strong distinction between original and weird, as well as between plausible and implausible. Which brings me to…

(12) If I’m marketing fiction, does my synopsis make the story I’m telling seem plausible?

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

Quite true, oh scoffers, but for even the most outrageously fantastic storyline to hang together, it must be plausible — at least in the sense that the characters would actually do and say the things they do and say on the page. If the internal logic of the premise doesn’t seem to be applied consistently in the synopsis (or in the manuscript, for that matter), Millicent is likely to pass.

Yes, even if the synopsis in question happens to be for a novel where obeying the law of gravity is merely optional and every other character has a couple of extra arms, toes, or senses. If a plot doesn’t seem to be following its own rules, it’s hard for the reader to remain involved in the story.

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

Note that as long as clause. If a narrative violates its own rules, the agreement is violated: in thinking, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense,” the reader is knocked out of the story.

(Ditto, incidentally, when a first-person or tight third-person narrative suddenly switches, however momentarily, from the protagonist’s perspective to something that the protagonist could not possibly perceive. That’s usually an automatic-rejection offense for Millicent. But perspective-surfing is a subject for another blog post when I finally polish off this run of series on practicalities and get back to craft issues.)

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

I just felt some of you go pale. “How sensitive?” those of you who have submitted recently enough that you haven’t yet heard back squeak in unison. “Is it one of those automatic-rejection reasons you mentioned up there in the parentheses when you thought nobody was looking? I’d really have to do it a lot to annoy her, right?”

Got the smelling salts handy? In a manuscript submission, a single instance is often an automatic rejection offense.

Yes, even in a synopsis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t a bad fix-it strategy for nonfiction, either, especially for memoir. Which brings me to…

(13) If my book is nonfiction, does it come across as both plausible and as though I’m a credible source?

Too often, NF writers in general and memoirists in particular assume that just because they are recounting true events, their narratives will be inherently plausible. Unfortunately, it’s just not true.

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

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

I think I’m going to leave you with that lovely conceptual cliffhanger and sign off for a couple of days. Those birthday candles aren’t going to blow themselves out. Many happy returns of tomorrow for all of us, and keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part VIII: truth in advertising

parrot sketch

It’s got to be a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers: as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t turn up here yesterday, the monster deadline I mentioned last week has devoured me whole. While I’m busy crawling out of its gullet, though, I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you.

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

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

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

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

And if you doubt the latter, 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 novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… 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 remaining 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 in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow. More’s the pity.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?”

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.

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

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN 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 industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

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

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

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

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should 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 a contract is signed.

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.

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

How to write a really good synopsis, part III: keeping some of those plot cats 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 different 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 the requirements.

Being an intrepid soul, I jumped right in and tackled the most feared of such requests, the single-page synopsis. Unlike a longer synopsis, where the writer actually is expected to provide an overview of the book in question’s plot or argument, a 1-page synopsis is essentially a teaser 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.

This goal should sound very, very familiar to those of you who made the hard trek through my recent Pitching 101 series. In both verbal pitching and 1-page synopsizing, 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, campers? Everybody open your hymnals and sing along with me now: 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 our pal Millicent the agency screener’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? 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 giant-sized 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 what they were for; 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. Some years ago, I met a marvelous writer at a conference; 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 a 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 two years!”

Of course, it was easier for me than for her: I have years of experience crafting synopses and pitches; it’s a learned skill.

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? 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 the fact-based incidents 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 memoirs 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 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 write the pitch before I write the piece. Less distracting that way. You can always tweak it down the road, but why not get the basic constituent parts on paper first, while the plot elements are still painted in broad strokes in your head?

Ditto for synopses, as I suggested in passing yesterday. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops and the plot thickens in writing, 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 a rough draft: you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task throughout the creation process, your work will hit the agent market faster. How so? Well, think how much happier you will be on the blessed day that an agent asks you for one. 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…”

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.

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

As I mentioned earlier in this series, too many aspiring writers seem to forget that the synopsis is a writing sample, too — and will be judged accordingly. A panicked state is not, I have noticed, the most conducive to smooth summarization.

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 a compelling story: 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:

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

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. 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.

The other common panicked response to the demand for brevity, particularly in a 1-page synopsis, is to turn it into a projected back jacket blurb for the book. Contest judges see this all the time: the requested synopsis is, after all, not all that much longer than a standard back jacket blurb, many contest entrants apparently think, so why not use it as an opportunity for promotional copy?

The result, alas, tends to be a series of vague generalities and unsupported boasts, looking 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.)

If you can bring yourself to ignore the many cosmetic excesses of that last example, take a close gander at the content. Setting aside the most important writing distinction between these three examples — the third TELLS that the book is good, whereas the second and third 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? To 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 dumbs it 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, but it 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 pretty 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 romances 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 when you come right down to 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, but in 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.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how little actual quotation from the book (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 summary portion of a 2-minute pitch — 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 she’s just about to finish printing up the former. Can you pick up the pace of revision, please?

See how much harder it is 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.

The results, 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. Next time, we’re 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!

Another query packet classic: ladies and gentlemen, I give you the dreaded synopsis

Yes Virginia text

Did that title make some of you cringe? Curl into a little ball and whimper? Dash screaming from the room?

That’s right, folks: it’s once again time for my yearly foray into the mysteries of synopsis-writing. 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?

I’m kind of excited to be exploring the subject again, to tell you the truth. Having recently had to produce several synopses on a tight deadline myself — yes, Virginia: unlike query letters, agented writers still have to produce synopses on a regular basis — I’m fresh from that oh, God, how can I possibly give any sense of my book in so short a space? feeling this time around. So I’ve been overhauling my classic advice on the subject, fine-tuning it so what I say is in fact what I do.

Before I launch into the resulting avalanche of insights, however, I want to give you all a heads-up about some alternate reading material that might help everyone understand the culture within which synopses, queries, and manuscript submissions tend to be read.

A bit surprised? I don’t blame you; this is sort of out of character for me. As the proprietor of a self-consciously practical blog on all things writerly, I seldom use this space to urge my readers to click elsewhere and read any of the many articles out there about the state of the publishing business. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that most of my readers don’t come to Author! Author! primarily because they a little extra time to kill: as those of you who stuck with me through my recent How to Write a Really Good Query Letter series, I tend to operate on the proposition that we’re all here to work.

Not that we don’t have a quite a bit of lighthearted fun on the way, of course. But I figure that those of you deeply interested in the dire predictions that keep cropping up about the future of books can track them down on your own. (As, I must admit, I do on a regular basis.)

Today, I’m going to make an exception. In the last week or so, a couple of really informative essays have popped up on the web. The first, a series of observations in the Barnes & Noble Review about, you guessed it, the state of modern publishing, is by former Random House executive editor-in-chief Daniel Menaker. I think it’s essential reading for any aspiring writer — or published one, for that matter — seeking to understand why getting a good book published isn’t as simple as just writing and submitting it.

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 have their books freelance-edited 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 stomach knot tighter, the bit about book length or that slap about writers’ insecurities?

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. 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 length. 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.

The second piece I’d like to call to your attention is a fascinating discussion of ethnic diversity (or lack thereof) in the children’s book market by children’s author, poet, and playwright Zetta Elliott. An excerpt would not really do justice to her passionate and persuasive argument against the homogenization of literature — children’s, YA, and adult — but if you’re even vaguely interested in how publishers define who their target markets are and aren’t, and how that can limit where they look for new authorial voices, I would strongly recommend checking out her post.

Back to the business at hand: some of your hands have been waving in the air since the third paragraph of this post. “What on earth do you mean, Anne?” shout impatient hand-raisers everywhere. “I thought synopsis-writing was just yet another annoying hoop through which I was going to need to jump in order to land an agent, a skill to be instrumentally acquired, 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.

Because 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, 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. We’re going to be spending this segment of the query packet contents series 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? A couple of reasons. First, 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 professional writer, I’ve actually had to work under deadlines that short. 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 them 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 respond with frustration, often to the point of feeling downright insulted by the necessity of synopses for their books at all.

Most often, the complaints center on the synopsis’ torturous brevity. Why, your garden-variety querier shakes his fist at the heavens 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.

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 — time and 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 — 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 — 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, 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 — 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. Since I haven’t talked about synopses in depth for a good, long while, 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, professional synopses 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 in 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.

Yes, Virginia, in the series to come, I will be discussing how to write both long and short versions.

That’s new for me: 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 couple of 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 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. While you’re grumbling, 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, 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 go off the 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. Synopses are often read by people (the marketing department in a publishing house, for instance) who have direct access to neither the initial query nor the manuscript. Frequently, if an agent has asked to see the first 50 pages of a manuscript and likes it, she’ll 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.

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 follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?”

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? Let’s let Virginia be your spokesperson: “Wait — this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. 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 within the industry; 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. (This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal. For some helpful how-to on constructing one, check out the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL on the archive list at right.)

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.)

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. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

Crunching a dry cracker should help quell the nausea that prospect induced, Virginia. Let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? For now, let’s stick to the current requirements.

Why is the 5-page synopsis more popular than, say, 3 pages? Well, 5 pages in standard format is 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.

And in a query 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 industry professionals 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 a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

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’s a trifle unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry 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 (they 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 borrow your metaphor, 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.

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

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. Which explains the variation in requested length: every agent, just like every editor and contest judge, is an individual, not an identical cog in a mammoth machine. An aspiring writer CAN choose ignore their personal preferences and give them all the same thing — submitting a 5-page synopsis to one but do you really want to begin the relationship by demonstrating an inability to follow directions?

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work — or indeed, that of any dedicated writer — being treated that way. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, 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 the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that 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. 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, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms. 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.

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 things 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 for the darned thing, 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. Tomorrow, 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. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be advising other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

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