The dreaded synopsis, part III: nonfiction

Hello, readers —

Welcome back to my ongoing series on how to craft an attention-grabbing synopsis BEFORE the conference, so you will not be thrown into forty-seven kinds of panic the instant an agent or editor asks you to send one. If you’re looking for information on how to register for said conference, don’t look here — check out the PNWA homepage, which will give you the skinny on how to sign up. But before you do, why not read some helpful background on the agents and editors with whom you can request appointments? Detailed low-down in my archived blogs of (longtime readers, chant it with me now) April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

I went on (and on and on) yesterday about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller. For nonfiction, the task is a trifle more complicated. And lest you think I am speaking out of my area of expertise here, I should tell you: I have a LOT of experience writing and editing both. My memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK is due out sometime this year (the author is always the last to know such trivialities as release dates; all I can currently tell you for sure is that it is already available for presale on Amazon), and my agent has just sent out my first novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, to make the rounds of agents. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor.

So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak. To get a sense of the authority with which I speak, kindly imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

In a NF synopsis, your goal is threefold: to give the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case; to demonstrate that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

The argument is the most important element here — in the synopsis you should not only show the content of the argument, but also that you can argue coherently. Yes, yes, I know: this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent to check out your argumentative style be to, you know, read the book?

Let’s all take a mental holiday, shall we, and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way? Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors. And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jimmy Stewart on his back?

Okay, back to the real world: your synopsis will have perhaps two minutes under an agent’s (or, more likely, an agency screener’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. This isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup, right? Even if your mother’s recipe consists primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s.

It is enough time, though, to demonstrate that you can make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, the agent will ask to see the argument in the book.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it is because the single most common mistake NF synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the NF synopsis. Period.

Don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people? If you have a professional with the subject that makes you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to mention that in your opening paragraph, or at least in the second. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter, and explain what the book is going to teach people about it.

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content. How will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Obviously, a good professor would not try to cram an entire semester’s worth of material into the first lecture, right? Neither would a good NF synopsizer. Instead, both outline their work in general, try to convince their audiences that it is worthwhile to sign up for the class or buy the book in order to learn more about the topic.

Your first task, then: to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, you will need to show how your take on it is original — and to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. (Have I convinced you yet that that you really do need to present a cohesive theory here? And did I mention the importance of its being cohesive?)

Easier said than done, though: in the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? I find that 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.

Don’t get so caught up in the argument that you do not include a BRIEF explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it, the second and third goals on our list. If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, this is even more important. Make it plain why your book is different and better.

There is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this brief paragraph achieves Goals #2 and #3:

“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 the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.”

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis. Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks. No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are.

Still more points if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

“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 by fear.”

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable forum? Well, no matter how large the prospective market for your book is (unless it is an already well-covered market, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size. ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book.

(This is particularly true if you are pitching a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Albany to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one. The news media are not the only folks who think that nothing that happens to anyone outside of their own city limits is worth reporting, alas. Regional prejudices still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Boise CAN support a symphony, and have for many years. And schools. And indoor plumbing.)

Back to our example. Bonus points if you noticed the sneaky way MOUTAINS MY WAY established the author’s status as an expert. If “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, you probably haven’t pitched a NF book lately. Just so you know, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a NF book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

Platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — and unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience. In the case of my memoir, for example, my Ph.D. did not even gain a reference in my platform: what was important, for the purposes of establishing my familiarity with the subject, was that from when I was 8 until I was 15, the world’s most famous SF writer (although he was not so well-known at the time), who happened to be my mother’s ex-husband, used to call me on a regular basis to chat about life in general and what whoppers he could tell the reporters coming to interview him in particular. Far from my schooling establishing my expertise, my platform for this memoir had been magnificently erected long before I graduated from high school.

I’m going to be brutally honest with you here: very few writing teachers will advise you to include your platform in your synopsis, even for a NF book. That’s material for the author bio, they will tell you. Most of the time, writers include a background paragraph in their query letters, but personally, I think it makes a whole lot of sense to give a quick nod to the platform in the synopsis as well, if it makes your work sound more credible. Go ahead and state your qualifications, but keep it brief, and make it clear how those qualifications, well, qualify you to write this book.

They’re not going to know if you don’t tell them, I always say.

If your head is whirling from all of this, or if it’s starting to sound as though your synopsis will need to be longer than the book in order to achieve its goals, don’t worry. Tomorrow, I shall cover some tips on how to simplify the synopsis process, as well as how to slim it down if it becomes overlong. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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