Paperwork to have ready before the conference

Hello, readers —

I am back in residence again! Judging from my inbox, I suspect that my limited postings of last week, coupled with last week’s early bird conference registration deadline, made some of you out there a wee bit nervous. Never fear — I’m back on the job, eager to tackle the big issues.

To answer the two most frequently-expressed concerns: no, it is NOT too late to register for this summer’s PNWA conference, nor is it too late to sign up for an agent or editor appointment. June 6th was just the deadline for the early registration discount. There are still a TON of spaces left, so don’t be shy! (And if you have not yet made your agent and editor choices, check out my posts of April 26 — May 12 for specifics on the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.)

Second: yes, I shall be teaching a Writing Connections class (free! free! free!) on June 24th on how to prep yourself for pitching to an agent or editor, and I would love it if any or all of my Seattle-area readers who are interested would attend. However (as some of you wrote in anxiously to ask), does this mean that I’m NOT going to run an extensive series here on pitching? Of course not! I shall be yammering on about it for much of the next month, in fact. I predict that you’ll be good and sick of it by the time I’m through.

And if that’s not a reassuring statement, I’d like to hear one.

As I mentioned last week, though, I want to spend a few posts on synopses first, and perhaps a couple on getting your first chapters ready to send out, since any agent or editor whom you wow with your pitch will want to see both of these right after the conference. I’m going to deal with them now, so you have a few weeks to scrabble them into shape. That way, when the agent of your dreams hands you a business card and says, “That sounds interesting — send me the first 50 and a synopsis,” you’ll be ready.

“But wait,” I hear some of you say. “I’m going to be learning a great deal about these agents’ and editors’ likes and dislikes at the conference. Wouldn’t I be better off waiting until I know their individual quirks, so I can craft a synopsis that speaks to them specifically?”

In principle, this is a good idea, but in practice, it can make the stressed-out writer yearn for the nice padded rooms of a mental institution, complete with the cozy comfort of a straitjacket. Even if you have been living for years on the hope of being asked by an agent to send your work for review — perhaps ESPECIALLY if so — when it comes, the request can send you into a frenzy of dither. Is it good enough? Did I miss a necessary comma in my fifteenth re-read? And, oh God, did I represent it accurately when I pitched it?

Hey, having your dream come true can be very stressful.

Advance preparation can make it less so. Amazingly, though, most aspiring writers do not walk into their first (or even subsequent) literary conference prepared to send their work out, and frankly, that can lead to some pretty sloppy synopses.

Why? Well, writing a synopsis is hard; most writers procrastinate about it, and many resent having to do it at all. If a publishing professional is interested in my work, they reason, why doesn’t he just ask to read the whole thing?

Because the industry doesn’t work that way, that’s why. And please don’t grumble at me about it; I don’t make the rules. As I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe; if I did, I assure you that I would make the road to publication much, much easier for writers. So the next time you get your ballot for the galactic elections, kindly remember my name.

Seriously, synopses, like back jacket blurbs, are tools of the trade, shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency and editorial staffs (yes, they really are overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. There is no getting around this. No matter what kind of books you write, if you are going to make a career of writing, you will be expected to produce professional synopses on demand.

It’s just an unpleasant necessity, like… well, all of the examples that spring to mind are pretty grisly, so I’ll leave you to come up with your own analogy.

Synopses 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.

Still haven’t convinced you? Okay, I’ll pull out the big guns: in the short term, not having a synopsis already written by the time an agent or editor asks to see it virtually guarantees a writer epic levels of last-minute panic. All too often, writers become frustrated at this crucial moment, and just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush, unsure of what they are doing, and dash their work off to agents. I don’t know about you, but I don’t do my best writing — no, nor my best proofreading — when I feel that my entire future depends upon getting a packet out the door within the next 36 hours.

Believe me, I speak from hard experience here. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware, when I won the Zola Award for Best Nonfiction book at the 2004 PNWA conference, I had written only — brace yourself — a chapter of the book and a synopsis. Within 24 hours of my having won the prize, 14 agents had asked to see my book proposal, including my current (and wonderful) agent. Since virtually the entirety of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day (so don’t expect to hear back then), I had approximately three weeks to build a book proposal, including a second chapter, from scratch — and my computer died three days after the conference. From the second my new computer was plugged in, my fingers were moving so fast across the keyboard that my arms looked like they ended at the wrists.

So trust me when I tell you: if there is ANY way you can avoid putting yourself in this kind of bind through advance preparation, PLEASE DO IT. You will be happier, your kith and kin will be happier, and your pets will be happier. Oh, and the results will probably be better.

A word to those of you who have not yet finished writing your books (or book proposals), and are not planning to pitch at a conference this summer — did you think I was just going to leave you sitting there, twiddling your thumbs? No, I have some solid advice for you, too: consider drafting a synopsis now, BEFORE you finish the book. 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? In the long run, if you multi-task, your work will ultimately hit the agent market faster.

What are the advantages to creating the synopsis in advance? 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. Your book is about X, and it’s about Y, and the theme is Z. Simple dramatic arcs, easy to write about in a few pages. After you have spent a year or two fleshing out your characters and causing your plot to thicken, though, narrowing your account down to the major themes and incidents can feel like gratuitous butchery.

All of you who have ever sighed in response to the ubiquitous question, “So, what is your book about?” know what I’m talking about, right? I sympathize with that telling sigh, truly I do: 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? (Consider my earlier comment about why you need to swallow the insult and do it anyway repeated here.)

If you resent this necessity for brevity, you are not alone. I met a marvelous writer at a conference in New Orleans a couple of years ago; 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 sincerely, 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 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.

In short, my acquaintance with the story was relatively shallow. 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.

The same holds true for synopses. Naturally, they will evolve as the book develops, 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 molar-grinding, ulcer-inducing agony a year later. You can always change the synopsis later on, but for a concise summary of the major themes of the book, you’re better off writing it well in advance.

Is everybody convinced now that advance preparation is a good idea? I’ll take that silence as a yes, and proceed. Let’s spend the next week or so diving right into that difficult and delicate task, shall we?

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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