The Synopsis, Part VII: This time, it really is the last installment

Hello, readers —

Okay, I honestly am going to wrap up my synopsis-writing series today, so I can move on to a few words about prepping your manuscripts for the magical moment when the agent or editor of your dreams asks to see it, before launching into a full-on assault upon the subject of pitching your work! That’s a lot of material to cover over the next few weeks, campers, so stay tuned.

Back to yesterday’s list of questions you should ask yourself after you have completed a solid draft of your synopsis:

(4) Does the synopsis read as though I am genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, or does it read as though I am deeply and justifiably angry that I had to write it at all?

This is a subtlety, a matter of tone rather than of content. Believe me, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis, even ones that do not breathe an overt word about marketing. The VAST majority of synopses (particularly for novels) simply scream that their authors regarded the writing of them as tiresome busywork instituted by the industry to satisfy some sick, sadistic whim prevalent amongst agents, a hoop through which they enjoy seeing all of the doggies jump.

Show that you are professional enough to approach the synopsis as a marketing necessity it is. Remember, agents and editors do NOT ask writers for synopses because they are too lazy to read entire books: they ask for synopses because they receive so many submissions that, even with the best of wills, they could never possibly read them all. The synopsis, then, is your chance to make your work jump up and down and scream: “Me! Me! I’m the one out of 10,000 that you actually want to read, the one written by an author who is willing to work with you, instead of sulking over the way the industry runs!”

Mind you, I’m not saying that you SHOULDN’T sulk over the often arbitrary and unfair way the industry runs: actually, it would be merely Pollyannaish NOT to do that from time to time. Vent as often as you please; it’s healthier than keeping it inside. But it simply is not prudent to vent anywhere near an agent or editor whom you want to take on your work, and certainly not in the tone of the synopsis. The synopsis’ tone should match the book’s, and unless you happen to be writing about deeply resentful characters, it’s just not appropriate to sound clipped and disgruntled. Sorry.

(5) Does the first page of the synopsis SAY that it’s a synopsis? Does it also list the title of the book? And does every page of the synopsis contain the slug line AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/SYNOPSIS/#?

I am always shocked at how few synopses identify either themselves or the author, due no doubt to a faith in the filing systems of literary agencies that borders on the childlike. Pages get separated; things get lost. Identify each and every page with a slug line, and tell the nice people that they’ve got a synopsis in their hands.

Standard format for a synopsis dictates that the title (either all in caps or bolded) is centered at the top of the first page of the synopsis, with “Synopsis” on the line below it. Then skip one double-spaced line, and begin the text of the synopsis.

(6) Is the synopsis absolutely free of errors of any kind? Not just what my word processing software tells me is an error, but an actual error?

Naturally, you should both spell-check and read the ENTIRETY of your synopsis IN HARD COPY, ALOUD, before you send it anywhere. Period. No excuses. As I mentioned yesterday, my professional editor hat gets all in a twist at the notion of any writer’s proofreading solely on a computer screen. It is well-nigh impossible to do with complete accuracy.

And don’t even get me started on the chronic inadequacies of most word processing programs’ grammar checkers! Mine disapproves of gerunds and semicolons, apparently on general principle, strips accent marks off French words, leaving them obscenely naked, and regularly advises me to use the wrong form of THERE. (If anybody working at Microsoft does not know the ABSOLUTELY IMMUTABLE rules governing when to use THERE, THEIR, AND THEY’RE, I beg you, drop me an e-mail, and I shall make everything clear.) Why, just a couple of days ago, when I wasn’t paying attention — hey, this is a busy month — it incorrectly changed a word in this very blog from “here” to “hear.”

I am fascinated, too, by the fact that its dictionary evidently does not contain any words that relate to the Internet or computer operations. Should I really have had to introduce “blogger” into its vocabulary? And I tremble to think how the grammar checker butchers dialogue. Suffice it to say, most standard word processing spelling and grammar checkers would condemn the entirety of Mark Twain’s opus outright.

My point is, like a therapist who doesn’t listen well enough to give good advice, a poor grammar checker cannot be sufficiently disregarded. Even in the unlikely event that your grammar checker was put together by someone remotely familiar with the English language as she is spoke, you should NEVER rely solely upon what it tells you to do. Read the manuscript for yourself.

If you’re in doubt on a particular point, look it up. In a well-regarded dictionary, not on the internet: contrary to popular opinion, most search engines will list both the proper spelling of a word and the most common misspellings. There is no gigantic cosmic English teacher monitoring proper spelling and grammar on the web. So get up, walk across the room, and pick up a physical dictionary. After so much time spent sitting in front of a monitor, the walk will do you good.

Made it through all of the questions above? After you have tinkered with the synopsis until you are happy with all of your answers, set your synopsis aside. Stop fooling with it. Seriously — there is such a thing as too much editing. Then, after you have gone to the conference and met the agent and/or editor to whom you will be sending it, read it again (IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD, naturally), and ask yourself a final question:

(8) Does my synopsis support the image of the book I want the requesting agent or editor to see? Would it be worth my while to modify it slightly in order to match more closely to what I told this sterling individual my book was about?

“Wait!” I hear some sharp readers out there cry. “Is Anne saying that it’s sometimes a good idea to tailor the synopsis to the particular agent or editor?”

Well caught, those of you who thought that. If an agent or editor expresses a strong personal preference for a particular theme or style in her speech at the agents’ and editors’ forum or in your meeting, isn’t it just common sense to tweak your already-existing synopsis so it will appeal to those specific likes? If your dream agent let slip in your meeting that she was really intrigued by a particular aspect of your story, doesn’t it make sense to play that part up a little in the synopsis?

A word of warning about pursuing this route: do NOT attempt it unless you have already written a general synopsis with which you are pleased and have saved it as a separate document. Save your modified synopsis as its own document, and think very carefully before you send it out to anyone BUT the agent or editor who expressed the opinions in question.

Why? Well, as I have been pointing out for almost a year now in this very forum, agents and editors are not a monolithic entity with a single collective opinion on what is good and what is bad writing. They are individuals, with individual tastes that vary wildly, sometimes even moment to moment, and certainly over the course of a career.

Think about it: was your favorite book when you were 13 also your favorite book when you were 30? Neither was any given agent’s. And isn’t your literary opinion rather different on the day you learned that you were being promoted at work and the day that your cat died? Or even in the moment someone just complimented your shirt (it brings out your eyes, you know, and have you lost a little weight?) and the moment when you spilled half a cup of scalding coffee on it?

Again, what’s true for you is true for any given agent, editor, or screener: a LOT of factors can play into whether they like the pages sitting in front of them — or the pitch they are hearing — right now.

Bear this in mind when you are incorporating feedback into your synopsis — or, indeed, any of your work. Just because one agent has given you feedback to tweak your story this way or that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that tweak will be greeted rapturously by everyone in the industry. Use your judgment: it’s your book, after all. But by all means, if you can modify your synopsis for eyes of the individual who expressed the particular opinion in question, do it with my blessings.

Tomorrow, on to prepping your submission pages. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

P.S.: If you live in the greater Seattle area — or live outside of it and just like long drives — why not attend the class I’m giving this coming Saturday on prepping your pitch for conference use? It’s free to PNWA members, and it will give you hands-on practice with people who have successfully pitched to agents in the past. How great is that? You can just drop in, but if you are fairly sure you would like to come, why not pre-register on the PNWA homepage, so we know how many chairs to set up?

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