The great leap of faith… and some practical advice on writing a synopsis

After I pulled together a winning entry for a contest within the course of a single working day, a number of writing friends asked me, in tones raging from outrage to wonder, some version of “How the hell did you pull THAT off?” Two matters seemed to strike these querants especially: how did I win a prize for a book when all I had written was a chapter, and how did I manage to create a synopsis – that legendary bugbear of writers everywhere – without agonizing over it for weeks?

Allow me to address the book vs. entry issue first. It is a peculiarity of literary contests that the entry requirements for NF books and novels tend to specify short page limits, sometimes even shorter than the requirements for the short-story entries. Often, only a chapter or 10-25 pages carry the burden of representing the entire work.

While this is especially frustrating to novelists – who, after all, are certainly entitled to stretch a story out, there is an excellent practical reason to limit the length of the entries: in any large contest, literally thousands of hours are devoted to the reading all the entries. The more pages the rules allow, the more reading time is required.

To stick close to home, the PNWA’s fine volunteers thoughtfully read and comment upon hundreds of entries every year, bless their warm and furry hearts; there is no way that they would have time to plow through that many full manuscripts. The entry deadline for next year’s contest would need to be ten minutes after the winners of this year’s contest were announced.

You do the math: at least two judges have to read every entry in the first round alone, every additional page the guidelines allow raises the cost in volunteer-hours (or in some contests, the paid staff hours) of hosting a contest. Not to mention the hours put in by the section chairs, who read the entries AND the extensive commentary by the first-round judges, or the judges of each category, who read the finalists’ entries, the first-round judges’ commentary, and the section chair’s commentary.

That’s thousands of reader-hours devoted to your entries, my friends. (In case you didn’t know, in the PNWA contest, the final judges of each category tend to be drawn from the pool of editors and agents attending the conference each year – so the finalists get a thoroughly professional final evaluation.)

While coordinating all of this effort has left many a torn-out hair on many conference-organizer’s office floor, from the entrants’ perspective, there is a definite upside to the need to limit the length of entries. In all my years of entering contests, applying for residencies, and assisting my editing clients to do the same, I have never ONCE seen an application that asked point-blank if the book in question were actually finished.

You might want to consider jumping through this loophole, if you are halfway through a book whose early chapters really sing. There is often half a year or more between contest entry deadlines and when the winners are announced – if you are proud of your opening chapters, and there is the remotest chance you will be finished by the awards ceremony, I say go for it.

Especially if you are a novelist. As you probably already know, if you go the normal fiction route, your fiction needs to be 100% complete and, if possible, print-ready before you can legitimately query an agent, but if you win a major award, you’re a Promising Young Talent (whether you are actually young or not). If you are completely honest with the agents who approach you after you win — NEVER say you have completed a work that you haven’t; this is a business that operates on tight deadlines – you could end up signing with the agent of your dreams BEFORE you finish your magnum opus.

Or, if taking such a large leap of faith rubs your risk-averse soul the wrong way, you can learn from my experience, and consider writing your marketing materials BEFORE you get into writing the meat of the book. Then, when the magic moment arrives when you feel ready to launch your manuscript on its maiden voyage, you will not suddenly find yourself in the annoying position of having to summarize the work you have just completed – at exactly the moment when you are most aware of your invention’s startling complexity. All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a query letter, a pitch, and a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents.

Trust me, if you listen to any agent talk for more than a couple of minutes about the 500-800 queries he or she receives per week, one moral will come through loud and clear: having a terrific manuscript is not enough to land an agent, for the very simple reason that the vast majority of manuscripts are rejected long before they are ever seen by anyone in an agency. The problem that leads to most first-round rejections is a lack of professionalism in the query letter and synopsis.

These are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. Take some time to make them 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.

But maybe you are a writer in the other camp, one of the many who agonize for months or even years over getting your marketing materials letter-perfect. Good for you for being well-informed about the vast importance of these seemingly cursory summaries of your work to your eventual success. For you, writing at least the rough draft of your materials early in the creation process makes even more sense; you’ll have more time to tweak later on, and in the long run, if you multi-task, your work will hit the agent market faster.

What are the advantages to creating the synopsis in advance? 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 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. I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: yes, compression is a marketing necessity, but frankly, it’s a little insulting to be expected to smash multi-layered complexity into just a few pages of text, or sacre bleu! the much-dreaded three-sentence pitch, isn’t it?

If you resent this necessity for brevity, you are not alone. I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans last year; naturally, as conference etiquette demands, I asked her over crawfish etouffée what her first novel was about.

Forty-three minutes and two courses later, she came to the last scene.

“That sounds like a great novel,” I said, waving away a waiter bent upon stuffing me with cream sauces until I burst. “And for a change, 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 pitches; it’s a learned skill. Still more importantly, 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.

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. 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. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, I think you’re better off writing it well in advance.

In the unlikely event that I have been too subtle about my views in earlier postings, I am a great fan of anything that helps writers get their work out to agents and editors swiftly. Good writers have to toil hard enough, and wait patiently more than enough, to deserve to learn a few shortcuts. In the weeks to come, I shall be passing along as many tips as I can for streamlining the submission process without compromising the quality of the work. Keep your eye out for them: in the long haul, they may save you a lot of time.

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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