Synopsis Wisdom, Part IV: Don’t let resentment hold you back

Hello, readers –

Before I get started on the latest installment in my series on how to write a synopsis for your book (and why it really would behoove you to do so BEFORE the conference is upon us), many thanks to my correspondent (who shall remain nameless) for writing in with the skinny on Flag Day — and a confession that might conceivably raise the eyebrows of the Department of Homeland Security:

”Hello, Anne. Flag Day commemorates the day Betsy Ross (supposedly; many historians are skeptical of the Betsy Ross lore) presented George Washington with the flag he had requested: the first Stars and Stripes. I think it’s a rather lovely design, although I won’t discuss here my opinions of what has/hasn’t been done in its name. And I deny ALL the rumors that Che Guevara is alive and well, lives in my basement, and loves Taco Bell…(Aunt Jean warned me that fish and house guests both start to “turn” after three days…)”

I can believe it all but the part about Taco Bell. But thanks for filling us in.

Back to synopses. For those of you who are still resistant to the idea of writing one before you are specifically asked for it (which, unless you happen to be a masochist who just adores being under time pressure, is an exceedingly bad idea), I have two more inducements to offer you today.

First — and this is a big one — taking the time to work on a synopsis BEFORE you meet with an agent is going to make it easier for you to pitch your book. It helps you think of your baby as a marketable product, as well as a piece of art and physical proof that you have locked yourself away from your kith and kin for endless hours, creating. Even writers desperate to sell their first books tend to forget that it is a product intended for a specific market. Yet any agent who signs you is going to HAVE to summarize the book in order to market it — there is just no way around that.

So by having labored to reduce your marvelously complex story or argument to its basic elements, you will be far less likely to succumb to that bugbear of pitchers, the Pitch that Would Not Die. When you are signed up for a 15-minute pitch meeting, you really do need to be able to summarize your book within just a few minutes — harder than it sounds! — so you have time to talk about other matters, such as whether the agent wants to read the book. Confidentially, anyone who has ever sat down for coffee or a drink with an agent has heard at least one horror story about a pitch that went on for an hour, because the author did not have the vaguest conception what was and was not important to emphasize in his plot summary.

Trust me, you do not want to be remembered for that.

The second inducement: a well-crafted synopsis is something of a rarity, so if you can produce one as a follow-up to a good meeting at a conference, you will look like a star. You would be astonished (at least I hope you would) at how often an otherwise well-written submission is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t to be evaluated at all.

I don’t think that sheer deadline panic accounts for the pervasiveness of the disorganized synopsis; I suspect resentment. I’ve met countless writers who don’t really understand why the synopsis is necessary at all, and thus hate it. Frustrated by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement, many writers just throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it. It’s the first 50 pages that count, right?

Wrong. EVERYTHING you submit to an agent or editor is a writing sample. If you can’t remember that full-time, have it tattooed on the back of your hand.

While frustration is certainly understandable, it’s self-defeating to treat the synopsis as unimportant or (even more common) to toss it out in a last-minute frenzy. Find a more constructive outlet for your annoyance — and make sure that every page you submit is your best writing.

Caught your attention with that constructive outlet quip, didn’t I? In real life, almost nobody is actually brave enough to say to an agent or editor, “No, you can’t have a synopsis, you lazy so-and-so. Read the whole damned book, if you liked my pitch, because, as any fool can tell you, that’s the only way you’re going to find out if I can write is to READ MY WRITING!” ’Fess up — wouldn’t you LOVE to see someone do that at a conference? So that is my mental health assignment for you while working on the synopsis: once an hour, picture the nastiest, most aloof agent in the world, and mentally bellow your frustrations at him at length.

Then get back to work.

I know, it sounds silly, but it will make you feel better to do it, I promise. In fact, I think it would be STERLING preparation for the conference to name your least-favorite sofa cushion The Industry and pound it silly twice a day until it’s time to give your pitch. I’m all in favor of venting hostility on inanimate objects, rather than on human ones. Far better that your neighbors hear you screaming about how hard it all is than that your resentment find its way into your synopsis. Or your query letter. Or even into your verbal pitch.

Yes, I’ve seen all three happen. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me, these were not pretty incidents.

After you have thrown a well-deserved tantrum or two at how difficult it is to catch an agent’s attention, remind yourself that the synopsis DOES serve a purpose within your submission packet: from the requesting agent’s POV, it is the substitute for the rest of the book.

Let me repeat that: in this context, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book.

It bears repeating, because the synopsis an agent or editor asks you to include with your first 50 pp. actually serves a rather different purpose than the synopsis you tuck into the envelope with your query letter. After all, a querying synopsis’ primary purpose is to prompt the agent or editor to ask to see the first 50 pp.; basically, it acts as a proxy pitcher for your book.

But at a conference meeting, YOU are the pitcher, and your goal is to get the agent or editor to ask to see the pages. Now, let’s assume s/he has done so. In the packet of requested materials you send, the synopsis has a new goal: to convince the agent or editor that the rest of the book is every bit as interesting and action-packed as your first 50 pp. It is a marketing tool, intended to get the agent or editor to ask to see the rest of the book.

I hear some of you out there grumbling. “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t it the job of the first 50 pp. to inspire such interest in the reader that she wants — nay, longs — to read the rest of the book?”

In a word, yes, but not alone. Often, agents (and their screeners; remember, even if an agent asks you to send pages, she is usually not the first person in the building to read them, even if she REALLY liked you) will read the requested chapter(s) first, to see if they like the authorial voice, and then turn to the synopsis. Thus, the synopsis is where you demonstrate to their hyper-critical eyes that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: you have the vision and tenacity to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the first 50 pp. you are submitting fits into the overall arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction. But don’t forget to make the rest of the book sound interesting, too.

And PLEASE don’t make the very common mistake of not explaining how the plot is resolved. This is not the time to conceal your favorite plot twist, as a delightful surprise for when the agent requests the entire book. Revealing it now will SUBSTANTIALLY increase the probability that the rest of the book will get read, in fact.

Why? Well, agents and editors tend not to be very fond of guessing games (or, as they like to call them, “those damned writer tricks that waste my time.”) So ending your synopsis on a cliffhanger on the theory that they will be DYING to read the rest of the book to find out how it all ends seldom works. Remember, agency screeners are suspicious people: if you don’t show how the plot works itself to a conclusion, they may well conclude that you just haven’t written the ending yet.


More tips follow on Monday. In the meantime, here comes the tape recording again: for those of you who have not yet done it, there is still time to register for this summer’s PNWA conference. Come along and have a spot of tea with your humble correspondent and talk about your work. If you’re lost about which agents and editors to pick for your appointments, check out my archived blogs for April 26 – May 17 to get the skinny on the agents and May 18 – 26 for the editors.

Hey, while you’re on the website, why not sign up for my Prepping Your Pitch course on June 24th? It’s free to PNWA members, and while it isn’t strictly necessary to pre-register, it would be nice for me and the organizers to know whether to expect 5 people or 500. Makes a difference in how many cookies to buy, after all.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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