Writerly fads revisited

Hello, readers —

Did you miss me over the last couple of days? Technically, I am still on retreat — I’m trying to finish a novel; I’ve lost oodles of writing time over the last year to a series of groundless lawsuit threats against my memoir, so I’m doubling up on my weekly writing quotas this summer, to try to catch up — but as I mentioned in my last post, writers’ vacations tend to be working ones. So do editors’ — and if it makes you feel any better, I know a tremendous number of agents who spend their Saturdays and airplane trips home to visit parents plowing through manuscripts. This is just not a 9-to-5 business.

Thus it came about that while I am on retreat, I have also been reading submissions for a literary contest for which I am a judge. For those of you whose heart rates just shot up: no, it was NOT for PNWA. The finalists for this year’s PNWA contest have already been decided, and the happy few will be notified by June 15th. Those whose entries did not make it to the finalist round will receive their two sets of feedback AFTER the July conference. (Hey, it’s a volunteer-run organization; pulling together a contest AND a conference is very time-consuming.)

So I have been reading a WHOLE lot of first chapters and synopses this week — the typical contest-entry mixed bag. (Once again, I implore you: if you EVER enter a literary contest, make SURE your submission is in standard format! Deviations from standard format result in far more good entries being knocked out of competitive running than almost any other single criterion. That, and not adhering to contest rules.) I couldn’t help but notice that the fashion in synopses is running toward brevity this year — a fact I thought deserved comment, because until a couple of years ago, the fad ran in the opposite direction, toward over-long synopses.

Are you surprised that synopses, much like contest entries and submissions to agents, exhibit trends over time? Don’t be. Just as agents’ and editors’ tastes undergo wild fluctuations — anybody try to sell a historical novel to a mainstream agent in the year or two before COLD MOUNTAIN came out? Couldn’t give ’em away. — so do writers’. Partially, this is a reflection of the prevailing wisdom on the writers’ conference circuit, as well as in publications aimed at writers, which too run in fads.

All of this is fine, and to be expected. Since one of the biggest conference and class trends of the last five years has been screenwriters sharing their plotting tips with aspiring novelists, it was predictable that synopses would start getting shorter. In the movie-making world, the single-page plot synopsis is the norm.

However, I think the trend toward super-short synopses is not particularly helpful to the writer of books. For agents, yes, I do see some benefit: the shorter the synopsis, the less time required to review it. But since three- to five-page synopses are standard in the book publishing world, you should ask yourself: does a one- or two-page synopsis really impress the people you need to impress in order to get your book published?

Usually, no — and here again, we encounter another secret handshake of the publishing world. Most query screeners at most major agencies are trained to reject any submission that does not adhere to industry norms. So when an agency that represents novels receives a query with a one-page synopsis attached, will the too-short synopsis raise a red flag? It’s been known to happen, alas.

However, when asked about this phenomenon, most agency screeners will not state outright that if synopsis is not a certain length, they will conclude that the writer is not familiar with professional standards. Instead, they tend to report drawing an even more significant conclusion: if the synopsis is too short, they say, they assume that the author has not yet finished writing the book.

The logic behind this is rather abstruse, so stick with me here. A professional synopsis is NOT just a summary of the plot of the book, or even its major themes: it should include a few scenes recounted in a fair amount of detail, to give a representative taste of the flavor of the writing in the book. (Don’t worry, if this is news to you; I shall return to this topic in a future posting.) With few exceptions, a super-short synopsis will not include any individual scenes at all. Since few writers are reticent in describing (in print, anyway) the glories of their own plots, why would a writer NOT include descriptions of the best scenes in the synopsis, since the synopsis is first and foremost a sales document?

I think I can tell the screeners why: many writers confuse the synopsis with the jacket blurb, which also usually includes some summary of the plot. The jacket blurb does tend to be, in fact, about 250 words: in other words, a one-page synopsis.

Now, I am of the opinion that virtually no aspiring writer would confuse the two on purpose, but then, I am not an agent who reads 800 submissions per week, so I am inclined to be charitable. Agency screeners usually are not. Thus the common conclusion: if the synopsis is very short, or insufficiently detailed, they assume that the writer simply hasn’t finished WRITING the book yet. They assume, in short, that the reason the detail isn’t there is that it does not yet exist in the book.

And why is this conclusion a problem for the querying writer? Chant it with me now: because fiction agents do not represent unfinished novels. When confronted with an unfinished manuscript written by a previously unpublished writer (someone other than a celebrity, that is), virtually any agency’s screener will move it from the consider-me pile into the reject pile so fast that it will hardly touch the desk.

In other words: NEXT!

Yes, yes, I agree: this conclusion is unfair. However, in a sense, I can see the screeners’ point. The jacket blurb is marketing material, aimed at the general public; the synopsis is aimed at those who screen books for a living. Think about it from the agent’s POV: if you read 50 synopses for, say, murder mysteries in any given day, wouldn’t the plots all start to run together in your mind if NONE of the synopses included significant detail?

If you have been sending out very-short synopses with your query letters, DON’T PANIC. If you have been receiving form-letter rejections, you might want to consider the possibility that your submissions have been rejected unread, simply because your synopsis was too short. (Hey, I don’t make the rules: I’m just the messenger here.) It might well be worth your while to construct a longer, more detailed synopsis — then query your top agent picks again. Perhaps not the ones who rejected you in May, but certainly the ones who rejected you in March.

Don’t worry about the repetition bugging them, if it is a large agency: they receive far too many queries in a given month to remember (or catalog) them all. (I wouldn’t suggest mentioning in the query letter that you had queried them before, however.) And if they do remember yours from before, they will probably merely conclude that in the interim, you finished writing the book — thus the fuller synopsis.

Hey, sometimes, the industry’s cynicism works for you, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Since some of you who will be meeting with agents and editors at the PNWA conference (or other conferences) this summer will undoubtedly be asked to submit a synopsis with your post-conference submissions, I am going to revisit the issue of how to write a killer synopsis. But not right now — because, appearances to the contrary, I am on retreat! Watch this space, though.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Min

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