As promised, I am continuing my three-week (give or take a day or two) holiday present to my readers, and continuing to yammer on about tips on how to improve your contest entries. Allow me to reiterate a point I made last week: a single book may benefit from having one version of the synopsis that goes out to agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries. The reason is simple: in each context, the synopsis is intended to perform different functions.
Let me back up for a moment and define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:
SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 2-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor. (See my blogs of Sept. 9 and shortly thereafter for tips how to write a stellar synopsis for querying agents.)
If you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to submit a synopsis. In general, contests will specify the length of the synopses they would like to accompany your entry; sometimes, the rules merely set a maximum page limit for the entry, and allow the writer to decide how much of it to devote to the synopsis.
Even if the contest rules specify an absurdly short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), DO NOT single-space it or fudge with the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis is presented differently.
NEVER allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. Since 3-4 pages is industry standard, a synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.
Also, for fiction entries, avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a back-jacket blurb (“My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book (“It isn’t autobiographical, but…) For nonfiction, you will want to do some gentle blurbing, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable (see yesterday’s posting), but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry.
Just so you know, in the eyes of the industry, there are only three contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is appropriate. First, within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. Second, within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. 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. So you can go to town after the book comes out. Third — and here is where talking about it will help you most — when you are chatting with other writers.
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.
The only exception to this is if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis; if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, stick it at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.
For a synopsis to accompany a fiction entry, your goal is very, very simple: make it a terrific story. All too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”
The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible, but 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 have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.
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.
For nonfiction, your goal is threefold: to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book. In 3-5 pages, no less.
For the first, it is 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. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid. Be certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is — and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)
If you are pinched for space, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. Say why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. (“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 snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.”) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them. (“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.”)
The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform, and admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying something about yourself. Go ahead and state your qualifications — just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. (“A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters.”) No one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school. (“SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.”)
If your head is whirling from all of this, don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini