The Synopsis, Part VI: The niceties

Hello, readers —

Welcome to my series on how to prep a synopsis prior to the conference, so you do not end up running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off when the agent of your dreams asks you to produce one. As in instantly. I had thought I would be able to wrap up the series today, but as often happens, I found that I had even more wisdom swirling around in my head on the subject than I had previously thought.

Okay, let’s assume that you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis, and are now in the editing phase. Print it out, ensconce yourself in the most comfortable reading chair you can find, and read it over to yourself OUT LOUD.

Why out loud, and why in hard copy? As those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time already know, this is one of my most dearly-held editing rules. It is INFINITELY easier to catch logical leaps in any text when you read it out loud. It is practically the only way to catch the redundancies that the space constraints of a computer screen virtually guarantee will be in the text. Don’t even think of cheating and just reading it out loud from your computer screen, either: the eye reads screen text 75% faster than page text, so screen editing is inherently harder to do well. (And don’t think that publishing professionals are not aware of that: as an editor, I can tell you that a text that has not been read in hard copy by the author usually announces itself with absolute clarity.)

After you have read it through a couple of times, clearing out repeated words and ungraceful phrases, ask yourself the following questions. Be honest with yourself, or there is no point in the exercise; if you find that you are too close to the work to have sufficient perspective, ask someone you trust to read the synopsis, then ask THAT person these questions.

(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?

You want the answer to be the former, of course. Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the synopsis is, in fact, a writing sample that you are presenting to an agent or editor, every bit as much as the first 50 pages are. Make sure it demonstrates clearly that you can write — not merely that you had the tenacity to sit down and write a book, because thousands of people do that, but that you have writing talent and sharp, clearly-delineated insights.

It is far, far easier to show off your writing in detailed summaries of actual scenes, rather than in a series of generalities about the plot and the characters. And if your favorite line of the book is not in the synopsis, why not?

(2) Does the story or argument make sense, as it is told in the synopsis? Is more information necessary?

There is another excellent reason to read the synopsis out loud: to make sure it stands alone as a story. Since part of the point of the synopsis is to demonstrate what a good storyteller you are, flow is obviously important. If you have even the tiniest reservations about whether you have achieved this goal, read your synopsis out loud to someone unfamiliar with your project — and then ask your listener to tell the basic story back to you. If there are holes in your account, this method will make them leap out at you. (Insofar as a hole can leap.)

(3) Is it compelling? Does it sound like other books on the market, or does it sound original? Does it make me eager to read the book?

When agencies specialize (and most of the best ones do), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books and NF books, and romances and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries — no, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.

This may seem self-evident, but think about it: it has practical ramifications. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre… and your synopsis is the 658th he’s read that week… so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?

Right: next!

“Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear some of you out there cry, the ones who have attended conferences before. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”

Ooh, good question — I was planning on holding off on this one until I started writing about pitching, but it is relevant here, too. Yes, you are quite right: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t what they really mean. They really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.

Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”

“Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”

You can cater to this kind of logic if you like, but personally, I don’t think it’s worth your time to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy. Given how fast publishing fads fade, the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive.

The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a much greater eye for originality, apparently, than the publishing industry. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.

And the synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs. Make sure it does not make your book sound generic.

All right, the rest of the questions follow tomorrow (you didn’t think you were going to get away with only three, did you?) If you are planning to attend the class I am giving on prepping your conference pitch, it’s THIS SATURDAY; please do pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many cookies to buy. And, again, if you are still trying to decide whom to rank first for your agent and editor choices for the conference, check out my archived blogs for April 26 — May 17 for the agents and May 18 — 26 for the editors.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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