Summing it all up: the synopsis

Hi, gang —

For the past week, I have been talking about various circumstances that might lead to a good author receiving a form letter rejection. (If you missed my thrilling guided tour of the query letter, see earlier postings.) I would like to emphasize that the problems I have been pointing out for the last couple of days are by no means boneheaded mistakes: most of them are very sophisticated mistakes indeed, ones that require a lot of careful time, effort, and often following step-by-step directions in a writers’ magazine to make really well.

As I’ve said before, my goal here is to save you some time. Yes, the best way to learn is through direct personal experience, but I see no compelling reason that every English-speaking writer should have to make the same set of 23 mistakes before figuring out what agents and editors want to see. I’m trying to show you a few shortcuts.

Today, I want to talk about synopses, and no one’s gonna stop me. Not all agents want to see a synopsis along with the query letter (check the agent’s listing in one of the standard agent guides to make sure), but most do. Since literally every book will at some point require a synopsis, you might as well write a good one up front.

For the purposes of this discussion, I shall assume that you have already read up on them in one of the many excellent guides on the subject. (If anyone out there wants a blow-by-blow about how to write one from ground zero, send me a message via the COMMENTS function, below, and I’ll write a post on it.) Generally, a synopsis should run between 2 and 5 pages in length, double-spaced, with 1-inch margins. If yours is either longer or shorter than that, you might want to tinker with it until it fits within standard expectations before asking yourself the questions below.

Otherwise, read yours over IN HARD COPY, ALOUD. As regular readers of this blog are already aware, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody out there does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, drop me a comment, and I shall make everything clear.) Like a bad therapist, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded, but 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. If you’re in doubt, look it up.

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basis story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

Okay, let’s assume that you’ve read and reread your synopsis, and it is both grammatically impeccable and one hell of a good story; Will Rogers, Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker would all gnash their venerable teeth, if they still had them, in envy over your storytelling skills. Now it’s time to start asking yourself a few questions:

(1) Is my synopsis brief and the length requested by the agent? Is it double-spaced, in 12-point type, with standard margins?

Yes, I know I mentioned all this already. Check again, because any of these problems will generally result in your synopsis being placed into the rejection pile, unread.

(2) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? Is every page numbered? And does every page contain the slug line MY LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

Again, this is nit-picky stuff — but people who work at agencies and publishing houses tend to be nit-picky people. (Try saying that four times fast!) The sooner you accept that, the happier your writing life will be.

(3) If I mention the names of places, famous people, or well-known consumer products, are they spelled correctly?

I did not realize until I started editing professionally just how common it is for writers to misspell proper nouns. Here again, I blame the demon word processing programs: mine has the infernal impudence to insist that Berkeley, California (where I happen to have been born) should be spelled Berkley, like the press. Trust me, any West Coast-based agent or editor will know which one it should be — and wonder why you don’t.

Yes, it is unfair that you should be penalized for the mistakes of the multi-million dollar corporations that produce these spelling and grammar checkers. Pacific Northwest-based editors have been known to throw spitballs at Microsofties; I content myself with occasionally sending them a roster of the fine English faculty at the University of Washington, with the suggestion that perhaps it was time to retake English 101. I know what the fate of people who propagate false spelling and grammatical information if I ran the universe — boiling oil would be amusingly involved — but alas, I am not so empowered. And look what the result has been: Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, living in a state with no personal income tax, and the world is full of bad grammar.

From your perspective as a querying writer, there can be very serious consequences to these grammatical and spelling oversights caused or at least encouraged by word processing programs: agents and editors cannot tell whether you as, say, a cookbook author, can’t spell to save your life, or haven’t bothered to proofread — or if some yahoo in Woodinville just couldn’t be bothered to check a dictionary to see how hors d’oeuvre is actually spelled by the French. (I had to enter that one in my custom dictionary.) To the agent or editor, YOU are invariably the one who looks unprofessional.

This doesn’t mean not to spell-check: you should. But you should never rely upon a spell-checker or grammar-checker alone. They’re just not literate enough.

If you have any doubt whatsoever about your own proofreading skills, lasso a friend with better ones. Hire a professional editor. But do not expect to get by with the level of perfection deemed good enough by those who design word processing programs.

(4) If I use clichés for comic effect, have I reproduced them correctly?

As I have mentioned before, I frown upon the use of clichés in print. (You can’t see me doing it, but I am frowning at it right now.) Part of the point of being a writer is to display your thought, not the truisms of others. And frankly, I think any good author should be able to make it through a 1-page query letter and a 2-5 page synopsis without quoting other people. Occasionally, however, there are reasons to utilize cliché — the best reason, of course, being to make fun of them.

You would not BELIEVE how common it is for writers to reproduce clichés incorrectly. (I would not believe it myself, if I had not been a judge in a number of literary contests.) And an incorrectly-quoted cliché will, I assure you, kill any humorous intention deader than the proverbial doornail. So make sure that your needles remain in your haystacks, and that the poles you wouldn’t touch things with are ten-foot, not 100-foot. (How would you pick up a 100-foot pole, anyway?) When in doubt, ask someone outside your immediate circle of friends — your own friends may well be making the same mistake you are.

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

Too many writers forget that the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample. It needs to shimmer with talent. “This happened, and then this, and then this,” is, alas, generally not the best way to shimmer.

Don’t worry about depicting every twist and turn of the plot — worry about giving a solid feel of the mood of the book within the context of a basic plot summary. Show where the basic conflicts lie, introduce the major characters, but make sure to pick a scene or two to present in a wealth of sensual detail. Show ’em what you can do.

(6) Have I left out anything crucial — like the ending twist?

This is yet another agents’ pet peeve. A lot of authors depict the plot in exquisite detail, and then leave the synopsis-reader flat. “I want to preserve the suspense,” these writers say. “I don’t want to give everything away.”

While I understand the innate storyteller’s instinct that prompts this strategy, I still think it is a mistake. Literally every agent I have ever asked about it has said that his or her reaction to such synopses is not a furor of excitement to find out how the book ends, but a snap judgment that the writer has not yet finished the book.

Trust me: these are not people who like to be teased.

(7) Is this a synopsis, or is it a marketing pitch?

Many synopses eschew plot in favor of discussions of the market’s crying need for their particular books, an elucidation of the target market, or — heaven help us — an in-depth personal discussion of the author’s motive for writing the book in the first place. If the book in question is NF, this can make some sense, but it’s a risky strategy: the synopsis is where people in the publishing industry expect to see a brief summary of the argument of the book.

For fiction, however, this approach can be fatal. Marketing suggestions belong in the query letter, not in the synopsis. Girls aged 10 to 14 may spent the entire rest of their lives influenced by the book you have written, but an agent will not want to learn that in the synopsis. The synopsis is for telling what the book is ABOUT.

It is also far from uncommon to write the synopsis as if it were the back cover blurb for the book, which has a different goal entirely. Yes, you are using the synopsis to market your work, but this is not the place to include blurbs, boast that this is the next WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, or state that it belongs on the bookshelf of every carpenter in America.

Stick to what the book is about.

Whew! That was a lot of work, wasn’t it? It’s worth it, though: not only will a stellar synopsis please an agent, and thus help you get signed, but it will also probably be gracing the desk of any editor your agent wants to interest in the book. After the editor falls in love with your book, your synopsis will be what is circulated amongst the other editors and higher-ups, not your manuscript itself (unless the publishing house in question is absolutely tiny, that is.) The thing is gonna get around.

Trust me, it’s worth the time to perfect it. The synopsis and the query letter are your calling cards, your introduction into a world that does not yet know what a talented, wonderful person you are. They’re tools: use them well.
Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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