Tracking the Wily Synopsis, Part II

Hello, readers —

Happy Flag Day, everybody! I’m not quite sure why flags NEED their own day, any more than, say, pandas do, but say what you like about the flag flying over the U.S. capitol, it’s certainly colorful. Festive, even, and perhaps that in itself deserves a commemorative day. Although why the fine folks who work in said capitol would have picked Che Guevara’s birthday to commemorate the U.S.A.’s flag is beyond me.

Speaking capitols and capitals, I’ve realized that I left a rather important piece of advice out of yesterday’s post on writing a synopsis. It’s not absolutely necessary, technically speaking, but most professional fiction synopses CAPITALIZE THE ENTIRE NAME of each major character the first time it appears. It is also considered pretty darned nifty (and word-count thrifty) to include the character’s age in parentheses immediately after the first time the name appears, resulting in synopses that read something like this:

“ST. THERESA OF AVILA (26) has a problem. Ever since she started dating multi-millionaire GEORGE ARMSTRONG CUSTER (82), all of her friends have unaccountably decided that she is mercenary and hates Native Americans. Apart from JEANNE D’ARC (30), her wacky landlady-cum-bowling-partner, who uses every opportunity to pump Theresa for man-landing tips, none of the residents of Theresa’s swanky Upper East Side co-op are even speaking to her — at least until they start desperately vying for invitations to her exclusive wedding extravaganza, a lavish event to be held onstage at the Oscars, with THE REVEREND DOCTOR OWEN WILSON (42 if he’s a day, I would guess, but his press agent probably slashes at least eight years off that for the press’ benefit) officiating. How will Theresa find a maid of honor — and if she does, what will her jealous old boyfriend GOD () do?”

Should any of you out there think you’re up to rounding out the plot above into some measure of coherence, please, be my guest. Really. It’s my Flag Day present to you.

For the rest of you, please note what I have done here: in preparing a synopsis for a comedy, I have produced a — wait for it! — humorous treatment of the material. And if I were creating a synopsis for a steamy romance novel with the same premise (although I tremble to think what a sex romp with that particular cast of characters would entail), you can bet your last wooden nickel that I would take some writerly steps to make my reader’s mouth go dry and his breath become short while perusing it.

Would I do this because I’m wacky? No, because — and brace yourself, because I’m about to divulge some serious words of wisdom here — the synopsis, like the first 50 pages, is a writing sample. The sensible writer’s primary goal in producing it is to demonstrate not only that it is a good (or at least marketable) story, an attention-grabbing yarn peopled with fascinating characters, but that the writer is a great storyteller.

Yes, yes, I hear you grumbling: from the POV of a novelist, 3 — 5 pages is hardly enough space to tell the story of a stoplight going from green to red with much panache. But you know something? Agents and editors think so highly of writers that they expect you to do it anyway.

Bless them for their optimism, eh? You’d think, after reading hundreds of these things per week, that their faith would waver a bit, but no. Even the most hardened publishing type retains a belief in the possibility of the perfectly entertaining synopsis so intense that it makes the average 6-year-old’s belief in Santa Claus seem like Voltaire-ish skepticism. And that is pretty darned impressive, considering that all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel in a synopsis, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow — and that can be mind-bogglingly boring.

“But Anne!” I hear you cry, and who could blame you? “My book is about a love affair between a bomb-defusing stockbroker who moonlights as a cat burglar and a former Miss America who now sits on the UN Security Council when she’s not designing speedboats or skeet shooting. How boring could a straightforward summary of THAT premise possibly be?

Oh, honeys, you would be surprised.

I read a LOT of synopses each year, and let me tell you, through sheer repetition, the plots of even the raciest potboilers can start sounding awfully similar after awhile. And the average agent reads as many of them in a day as I do in six months. Under such an assault of plotting, even if the reader is armed with the best possible intentions and the greatest conceivable love of literature to begin with, the eyes begin to glaze, passing indifferently over massacres and heretofore-unknown sex acts alike.

So how, given that your synopsis is inevitably going to be read in the midst of an avalanche of others with similar claims to a reader’s attention, can you make yours stand out? As any great storyteller can tell you (and will, at the slightest provocation), keeping the audience’s attention is largely dependent upon the storyteller’s skill in juggling a number of factors: pacing, character development, and detail, to name but a few. A storyteller who cannot surprise her audience from time to time is probably going to end up boring them, at least a little.

Work on cultivating the element of surprise. If the plot has twists and turns, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, but do not merely summarize the plot as quickly as possible (as — sacre bleu! — most of the synopses any agent receives will). Try 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 make the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, 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. And don’t you want YOURS to be the one that justified the agent’s heavily-tried faith that SOMEBODY out there can tell a good story in 3 — 5 pages? The truly entertaining synopsis may be as hard to spot in the wild as the giant panda, but by golly, that’s what these agents and editors have set out to hunt.

More practical advice on the same subject follows tomorrow, of course. Hey, if you haven’t already done it, why not register for my Prepping Your Pitch class on June 24th? Check out the PNWA’s homepage for details.

And those of you who have not yet registered for the conference in July, please feel free to consult my rundown on the attending agents and editors who are available for pitching appointments. Those posts are in the archives, April 26 — May 26. (Wow, I hadn’t realized I spent a month of my life tracking down that information. No wonder it seemed like a never-ending task; by the end of it, I was having dreams about having high tea in Manhattan with Lauren Abramo, Jeff Kleinman, and a clouded leopard, with D.H. Lawrence bringing us crumpets and marmalade jam.)

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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