Book marketing 101: synopses, part V, or, everybody loves me — what’s the matter with you?

Yesterday, 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 a close personal friend of the MC as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it.

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, because neither is really about the book.

Yet both are rather common, you may be surprised to hear. 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 island in the Caribbean.

And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, 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.

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for Millicent. 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 of the phrases above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot say — they comes 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.

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.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate. First, 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.

Second, 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.

Third — and here is where talking about it will genuinely help you in your professional progress — 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.

Other than that, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people as the book itself. At least if the book is any good.

And if you doubt that, 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 let’s talk.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why you wrote the book is not very 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.

From that rather cold POV, 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.

I hate this, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book primarily because they feel so isolated during the writing process. It is 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. Go with that impulse.

But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in your platform, or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry until after a contract is signed, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. Publishing types tend to regard it as a sign of writerly inexperience, a symptom of unprofessionalism.

In other words: back into the pond, fish.

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 may give an honest answer. 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.)

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 NF 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 believe 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!

Book marketing 101: nonfiction synopses, part II, synopses, part IV, and platform, part I

I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book, I told my wide-eyed readers gathered around the campfire, is you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it. When you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it… and thus the market appeal of your book.

This is particularly true if you are pitching a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one. The news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas.

If those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.

It seems silly in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Boise CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.

And schools. And indoor plumbing.

I know: depressing. But being aware that agents may not be hip to your market means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis — and perhaps in your cover letter as well — just how big your target market actually is.

This isn’t a bad idea for novelists, either: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche market is industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”

Okay, okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: it technically means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.

I think my definition is closer to what they actually mean, however, because I’ve seen too many agents and editors dismiss books without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually angle for trout or who have cerebral palsy. I’ve never seen a guesstimate that wasn’t low, sometimes by a factor of millions.

The same often holds true for regional interest. Due to the perversity of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might well flock to the bookstores for it.

Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn.

But let that SAME story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set. If THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, I seriously doubt that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance.

Over the years, I’ve heard many agents and editors tell writers of so-called regional works that they’d be better off submitting their NF and even novels to regional publishers, but in recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry isn’t like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground.

It’s a lovely fantasy, though. Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”

Doesn’t happen very often, alas. Even for nonfiction, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard. So it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.

Here, as in the pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your subject matter, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a VERY good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For more hints on how to find statistics to back up your book, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)

In a NF book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, you probably haven’t pitched a NF book lately.

Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

Platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic.

Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a NF author enough to want to read her book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.

But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State or NBA superstar, do mention it. Don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. The platform is ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the best person in the universe to write this particular book.

Give some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book. All of you NF writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform BEFORE you have ANY contact with an agent or editors — your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise.

This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.

“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best authority upon my own life?”

Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view. As someone whose memoir’s publication process has been plagued by legal threats over whether I had the right to tell the story of my own life or not, I am here to tell you: not everyone may agree with you that your personal experience is yours to discuss in print.

Yes, I know: it seems self-evident that a memoirist would be an expert on the story he tells, because it’s his own life. But a memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, and your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.

If your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, for instance, take a sentence or two of your synopsis to talk about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on it. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, going “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of model trains.

You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.

For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the novel I am writing now is set at Harvard, where I got my undergraduate degree: think that is going to make my novel more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.

I can feel fiction writers’ blood pressure going up right now, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query letter. But for fiction, keep your platform out of your synopsis; in the eyes of the industry, self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.

Before anyone points out to me that other sources give different advice about crafting synopses, I’m going to be brutally honest with you here: very few writing teachers will advise you to include your platform in your synopsis, even for a NF book. That’s material for the author bio, they will tell you.

Many writers include a background paragraph in their query letters — a great place to present your platform, eh? — but personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to give a quick nod to the platform in the NF synopsis as well, if it makes your work sound more credible. It’s not uncommon for a synopsis to end up in different hands than the query letter, after all.

They’re not going to know if you don’t tell them, I always say. Go ahead and state your qualifications, but keep it brief, and make it clear how those qualifications, well, qualify you to write this book.

More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows in the week to come. Keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the nonfiction synopsis, or, believe me when I tell you…

Welcome back to my ongoing series on how to craft an attention-grabbing synopsis BEFORE you need it, so you will not be thrown into forty-seven kinds of panic the instant an agent or editor asks you to send one. Last time, if you will recall, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller. For nonfiction, the task is a trifle more complicated.

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

oz-the-great-and-terrible.tiff

In a NF synopsis, your goal is threefold: to give the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to demonstrate that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

The argument is the most important element here — in the synopsis, you should not only show the content of the argument, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, yes, I know: this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out your argumentative style be to, you know, read your book?

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jimmy Stewart on his back?

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

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

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

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s roughly how long your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, an agency screener’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. This isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup, even if your mother’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, a good professor would not try to cram an entire semester’s worth of material into the first lecture, right? Neither would a good NF synopsizer. Instead, both outline their work in general, try to convince their audiences that it is worthwhile to sign up for the class or buy the book in order to learn more about the topic.

Your first task, then, is to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, you will need to show how your take on it is original — and to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument.

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

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

If you’re writing a NF book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter anyway, of course, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you do not include a BRIEF explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it, the second and third goals on our list. If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, this is even more important. Make it plain why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

There is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this brief paragraph achieves Goals #2 and #3:

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

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

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

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

There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable forum? Well, no matter how large the prospective market for your book is (unless it is an already well-covered market, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size. ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book.

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

Book marketing 101: synopses, part II, or, surprise me, please. Please?

Yesterday, I launched into a discussion one of the more frustration-generating tasks a writer faces on a routine basis, compressing a deliciously complex, breathtakingly nuanced 400-book into a 5- or 3-page summary in standard format. Unlike the — let’s see, how shall I describe them? — fulfilling parts of writing a book, a synopsis is unlikely to spring into your head fully-formed, like Athene; most writers have to flog the muses quite a bit to produce a synopsis they like.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult/I’ll do right now./ The impossible/will take a little while.

Yes, your synopsis does need to be ultra-polished, but then, so does everything you place under a prospective agent’s nose. Synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write.

No matter how good your book is, your best strategic move is to take some time to make your synopsis gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t as hard as it seems at first blush. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

Even if you are not planning to send out queries or submissions anytime soon (much to those sore-backed muses’ relief), I STRONGLY recommend investing the time in generating and polishing a synopsis BEFORE you are at all likely to need to use it. That way, you will never you find yourself in a position of saying in a pitch meeting, “A 5-page synopsis? Tomorrow? Um, absolutely.”

There was a reason that I introduced you to that Billie Holiday song; it’s the mantra of the working writer.

Actually, if you can bear it, it’s a great idea to pull together a couple of different lengths of synopsis to have on hand, so you are prepared when you reach the querying and submission stages to provide whatever the agent in question likes to see.

What lengths might you want to have in stock? Well, a 5-page, certainly, as that is the most common request, and perhaps a 3 as well. As clever readers Cindy and Dave pointed out in the comments on yesterday’s post, it’s getting more common for agents to request — you might want to make sure your heart medication is handy before you finish this sentence — a 1-page synopsis.

Tale a deep breath: if you’ve been working your way through the Book Marketing 101 series, you probably already have a 1-page synopsis floating around in your mind. You may know it by its other name: the 2-minute pitch. (For tips on how to construct one of these babies, please see the aptly-named 2-MINUTE PITCH category at right.)

Unfortunately, the 5- and 3-page versions are not sitting in my hat next to the 2-minute pitch and that rabbit, so I can’t pull them out as if by magic. So let’s hunker down and talk about constructing them from scratch.

It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. Not every time, mind you; just the first. Why? To alert a skimming agent or editor to the fact that — wait for it — a new character has just walked into the story.

Because Millicent might, you know, miss ’em otherwise.

It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that look something like this:

ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (44 if he’s a day, I would guess; Author! Author! hopes he feels better soon) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD (∞) do?

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence and submitting it, please, be my guest. Really. I’d like to read it.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material.

And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel [that] I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — and brace yourself, because I’m about to divulge some serious words of wisdom here — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample.

Oh, had I mentioned that before? Well, it cannot be said too often, in my opinion. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a great storyteller.

Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling: from the POV of a novelist, 3 — 5 pages (or 1, heaven help us) hardly enough space to tell the story of a stoplight going from green to red with much panache.

But you know something? Agents and editors think so highly of writers’ talent that they expect you to do it anyway.

Bless them for their optimism, eh? You’d think, after reading hundreds of these things per week, that their faith would waver a bit, but no. Even the most hardened publishing type retains a belief in the possibility of the perfectly entertaining synopsis so intense that it makes the average 6-year-old’s belief in Santa Claus seem like positively Voltaire-ish levels of skepticism.

And that is pretty darned impressive, considering that all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel in a synopsis, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. The results, alas, can be mind-bogglingly boring, even if the book itself is exciting.

“But Anne!” I hear you cry, and who could blame you? “My book is about a love affair between a bomb-defusing stockbroker who moonlights as a cat burglar and a former Olympic ice skater who now sits on the UN Security Council when she’s not designing speedboats or skeet shooting. How boring could a straightforward summary of THAT premise possibly be?”

Oh, my dear, you would be surprised. I read a LOT of synopses each year, and let me tell you, through sheer repetition, the plots of even the raciest potboilers can start sounding awfully similar after awhile.

And the average agent reads as many of them in a day as I do in six months. Under such an assault of plotting, even if the reader is armed with the best possible intentions and the greatest conceivable love of literature to begin with, the eyes begin to glaze, passing indifferently over massacres and heretofore-unknown sex acts alike.

So how, given that your synopsis is inevitably going to be read in the midst of an avalanche of others with similar claims to a reader’s attention, can you make yours stand out?

As any great storyteller can tell you (and will, at the slightest provocation), keeping the audience’s attention is largely dependent upon the storyteller’s skill in juggling a number of factors: pacing, character development, and detail, to name but a few. A storyteller who cannot surprise her audience from time to time is probably going to end up boring them, at least a little.

Work on cultivating the element of surprise. If the plot has twists and turns, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, but do not merely summarize the plot as quickly as possible (as — sacre bleu! — most of the synopses any agent receives will). Try to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to make the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. (Where have I heard [that] before?) And don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified the agent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 — 5 pages?

Or — gulp! — 1?

Don’t worry; you can do this. There are more rabbits in that hat, and the muses are used to working overtime. Keep up the good work.

Book marketing 101: what do you mean, I need a synopsis, too?

Did you notice yesterday that I began a subtle segue into synopses? Well, okay, not all that subtle — I just started saying that this or that piece of advice could also be applied productively to your synopsis. Which, in case you weren’t aware of it, you are going to need to market your book.

I do hope that wasn’t a terrible surprise to anyone.

Literally every writer in the world who deals with either an agent or an editor will need to produce a synopsis at some point — and since the first of those points is often immediately following a querying at a literary conference, I wanted to make sure to cover it before I ended the Book Marketing 101 series.

Actually, glancing back over my archives, I’m rather stunned at how long it’s been since I’ve devoted a post to ’em; like most unpleasant subjects, I guess we’ve all been gliding past this one with genteelly averted eyes. Since I haven’t talked about it in depth for a while, let’s start with the absolute basics.

For those of you new to the term, a synopsis is a brief exposition IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Typically, professional synopses run from 3-5 pages (in standard format, and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor.

Yes, Virginia, you read that correctly: agency guidelines and contest rules sometimes ask for much shorter synopses, 1 or 2 pages — and this is maddening, as it would obviously be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet for our work that would fly at any agency in the land.

As I have mentioned before, though, 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.

Give each what she asks to see. Literally the only pressure for length 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.

Why might an agency want a shorter one? 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.

As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all. Why not? Well, realistically, a 1- or 2-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?” (If you’ve never pitched your work verbally to an agent, and want to learn how to do it, please check out the PITCHING category at right. No matter how good a book is, learning to describe it in terms the entire industry will understand is a learned skill.)

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? “Wait,” I hear some of you saying, “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 doesn’t the agent just forward it to editors who might be interested?”

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. So the argument against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear.

Fiction is sold to publishing houses on the manuscript itself, not the summary. So for a novel, the synopsis is 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.)

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 — indications of target market, author bio, etc.

Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent, who needed it to put together a book proposal. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents 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.

But let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we? Today, in most cases, a 3 or 4 page synopsis is all a fiction writer will need.

But think about that for a moment: 4 pages in standard format is roughly 1000 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a 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 synopsis is so common, most agencies use it as — wait for it — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.

Yes, it’s 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. They know you’ll come swimming back.

I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work being treated that way, or indeed, that of any dedicated writer. 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, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms.

Because it’s so easy for a too-long or too-short synopsis to be dismissed, though, I would advise NEVER allowing your synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. Since 3-4 pages is industry standard, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard. Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret: for fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, include enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow…

Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you past its most common pitfalls. In a week or so, you’ll be teaching other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!