Taming the wild synopsis — and pitch

Hello, readers —

A little bit of housekeeping before I launch into my promised nuts-and-bolts speech about synopses. First, many thanks to all of you who have been writing in to me here at the blog — it really is useful for me to know what pieces of advice you have found especially helpful. An especial round of thanks to those blog readers who let me know that their entries made it to the finalist round in the PNWA contest! Congratulations! (And if you haven’t already let me know, please do. I enjoy the vicarious thrill.)

If you do write in, for whatever reason, please do be aware that if you do not include your e-mail address in the body of your message, I cannot write back to you. Matter of policy. So if you are asking a very specific question, please do give me the means to respond directly.

Last housekeeping detail: yes, I know those of you who have already registered for this summer’s PNWA contest are probably sick of hearing about it, but for those of you who have not yet made your choices for agent and editor appointments, check out my series of posts detailing these fine people’s accomplishments: April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

All right, on to today’s topic, crafting a stellar synopsis of your book. (And don’t worry, those of you who missed yesterday’s post: I SHALL be writing a LOT on pitching between now and the conference. However, since literally every writer in the world who deals with either an agent or an editor will need to produce a synopsis at some point — and that point is often immediately following meeting same at a literary conference — I want to drop some words of wisdom on synopsis-writing first.) Let me define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:

Synopsis: A brief exposition IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 3-5 pages (double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces, the standards for the industry), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor.

When in doubt, stick to 3 or 4. Think about that. 4 pages in standard format is roughly 1000 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.

I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.

Since the jacket blurb synopsis is such a common mistake, most agencies use it as an easy excuse to reject a submission unread. Yes, it’s unfair (as I mentioned yesterday, I do not run the universe, or nicer rules would prevail for writers), but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it. With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away. They know you’ll come swimming back.

I apologize from the bottom of my heart for that analogy; it’s certainly unkind to describe any dedicated writer’s work that way. However, I have been listening to agents and editors talk about submissions for many years now, and I do believe the fish metaphor is, alas, a pretty accurate representation of most of the non-creative side of the industry’s attitudes. Ugly, isn’t it?

Because it’s so easy for a too-long or too-short synopsis to be dismissed, you should NEVER allow a 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. Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.

So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret: for fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, include enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read, and make sure the writing is impeccable.

For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.

And that’s it. I know — it sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Whatever you do, if you are writing a synopsis for a novel, avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book. These asides are often deal-breakers for agency screeners.

Why? Because they are both SO common. If I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, “it isn’t autobiographical, but…” I would own my own island in the Caribbean. (And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright.) When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true it may be, it comes across as a cliché, and besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument.

In fact, there are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate. First, within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform. Second, within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. 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; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews. Third — and here is where talking about it will help you most in your professional progress — when you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why you wrote the book is not very important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer. From that rather cold (and, I have to say, not very imaginative) POV, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional.

I hate this, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book primarily because they are so isolated during the writing process. It is a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last? It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. Go with that impulse.

But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry until after a contract is signed, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor, because publishing types tend to regard it as a sign of writerly inexperience, a symptom of unprofessionalism.

In other words: back into the pond, fish.

It’s a great idea to get your blurting out of your system BEFORE you walk into your pitch meetings. Vent to your kith and kin. Gather together a group of writing friends before the conference and have a vast personal revelation session. Make friends with the writers in the hallways of the conference. Come and see me at the pitch-practicing booth at PNWA. But do not, under ANY circumstances, either use your synopsis or your pitch meeting for personal revelations not integrally related to the content of the book.

Again, there are a couple of exceptions; obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book,” you may give an honest answer. Also, if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter — in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis. If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned here, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

See? Working on your synopsis before the conference really does have fringe benefits: it helps you gain a gut feeling for what is and isn’t appropriate to mention when discussing your book. And that, my friends, is an instinct that will serve you well anywhere you go within the publishing industry.

More tips on synopsis building follow tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S. to my correspondent in India: that’s a rather broad question; I would need more information about your book in order to answer it. In a sense, everything I have written in this blog has been advice on how to get books published. (You might want to read through the archives, especially for August and September, 2005, which would be most helpful for a writer of literary fiction.)

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