The short, short lifespan of the novel synopsis

As query season is about to descend upon us again – most agencies will have calmed down from the New Year’s Resolution Rush by the end of Martin Luther King, Jr. week – and the PNWA contest deadline approaches, I had intended to begin my promised series on prepping your entries for contest submission today. However, an excellent question from a longtime reader sidetracked me — and I’m pleased it did. Talented and insightful Soyim wrote in to ask:

“Did you have to write a synopsis for the publishing house for which you’re revising your novel? And if so, how long was it? I keep reading that the synopsis has to be as polished as the book itself, but the desired length varies. Some agents suggest 1-2 pages; others say 6 pages or longer.”

Soyim, this is a great question – and a topic, much to my surprise, I had not revisited since June, 2006! So I’m really glad you brought it up. One of the long-term problems of writing this blog is that I have SO much territory to cover that I sometimes forget time passes in between series. Never fear, those of you new to the synopsis-writing process: I’m going to deal with the issue quickly today, and then revisit it within the context of contest entries, to kill as many birds as possible with the few stones at hand.

And if that’s not a gratuitously violent analogy for an essentially positive situation, I should like to know what is.

A synopsis, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a brief overview of the plot or argument of a book. Often confused with a back jacket blurb, which provides only the premise of the book, the synopsis goes over the entire plot and major characters. Written in the present tense, it provides an agent or contest judge with the essential story arc, demonstrating how the issues raised in the book are resolved.

I did write a synopsis for my novel, but purely for my agent’s eyes, not for the editor’s; as far as I know, the editor for whom I have been making pre-sale revisions has never seen it – of which, more below. It was 5 pages, but I probably could have gotten away with a touch less or a few paragraphs more.

5 pages is industry standard, but as my fair correspondent points out, some ask for longer and shorter. Unless an agent specifically states otherwise, though, you’ll never go wrong with 5 pages.

Yet, as Soyim points out, agency guidelines sometimes ask for much shorter synopses, 1 or 2 pages – and this is maddening, as it would obviously be INFINITELY easier on aspiring writers everywhere if we could simply produce a single submission packet for our work that would fly at any agency in the land. As I have mentioned before, though, however much speakers at conferences, writing gurus, and agents themselves speak of the publishing industry as monolithic, it isn’t: individual agents, and thus individual agencies, like different things.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: no single synopsis you write is going to please everybody in the industry.

Give each what she asks to see. Literally the only pressure for length standardization comes from writers, who pretty uniformly wish that there were a single formula for the darned thing, so they could write it once and never think about it again. I can’t say as I blame them for feeling that way, but the fact is, any given agency wants what it wants.

Why might an agency want a shorter one? Like so much else in the industry, time is the decisive factor: synopses are shorthand reference guides that enable overworked agency staffs (yes, they really are overworked — and often not paid very much, to boot) to sort through submissions quickly. And obviously, a 1-page synopsis takes less time to read than a 5-page one.

As nearly as I can tell, the shorter synopses typically aren’t used for marketing outside the agency at all, Why not? Well, realistically, a 1- or 2-page synopsis is just a written pitch, not a genuine plot summary, and thus not all that useful for an agent to have on hand if an editor starts asking pesky follow-up questions like, “Okay, so what happens next?” (If you’ve never pitched your work verbally to an agent, and want to learn how to do it, please check out the PITCHING TIPS category at right. No matter how good a book is, learning to describe it in terms the entire industry will understand is a learned skill.)

Do I hear some confused murmuring out there? “Wait,” I hear some of you saying, “this makes it sound as though my novel synopsis is never going to see the light of day outside the agency. If I have to spend all of this time and effort perfecting a synopsis, why doesn’t the agent just forward it to editors who might be interested?”

Ah, that would be logical, wouldn’t it? But as with so many other flawed human institutions, logic does not necessarily dictate why things are done the way they are within the industry. Fiction is just not sold that way.

Fiction is sold to publishing houses on the manuscript itself, not the summary. So for a novel, the synopsis is a marketing tool for landing an agent, rather than something that sticks with the book throughout the marketing process. This is not true of nonfiction, where the synopsis is part of the book proposal.

Thus, since my book is a novel, and I already had an agent, it was not necessarily a foregone conclusion that I would have to write a synopsis for it. I just told my agent about it verbally; she read it, then she began shopping it around. (To give you a sense of the timeline on a novel submission, she and I decided last February to start marketing it; I sent her copies in March, and the first round of submissions to editors went out in June. In September, one of the editors asked me to revise the book, pending passing it up the food chain at her publishing house; around Thanksgiving, I was asked if I would be open to a bit more tinkering. I received the second revision request just before Christmas, and I shall be sending the revised manuscript early next week. This, incidentally, was an unusually quick chain of events for the marketing of a first novel.)

Why did my agent have me write a synopsis, then, since I didn’t have to sell her on the book? So she would have an easy reference guide in front of her when she spoke on the phone about the book. Here again, we see the synopsis being used primarily as a tool within the agency, not as a document that markets the book directly to an editor.

And that, my friends, is almost certainly the last anyone will ever see of my novel’s synopsis. R.I.P.

I’m not quite sure why agents aren’t more upfront at conferences about the synopsis being primarily an in-house document when they request it. Ditto with pretty much any other non-manuscript materials they request – indications of target market, author bio, etc. Requiring this kind of information used to be purely the province of the non-fiction agent, who needed it to put together a book proposal. Increasingly over the last decade or so, however, fiction writers are being asked to provide this kind of information to save agents time. Since the tendency in recent years has been to transfer as much of the agents’ work to potential clients as possible, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if agents started asking for the full NF packet from novelists within the next few years.

But let’s not worry about that dread day until it happens, shall we?

And yes, it does need to be ultra-polished (which isn’t really fair, as summaries entail a completely different kind of writing than a book), as does everything you place under a prospective agent’s nose. Synopses are marketing materials, and should be taken as seriously as anything else you write. No matter how good your book is, your best strategic move is to take some time to make your synopsis gorgeous; Miss America may be beautiful au naturale, for all any of us know, but you can bet your last pair of socks that at even the earliest stage of going for the title, she takes the time to put on her makeup with care.

It should be polished because it’s a writing sample, another way to wow the agent. On the bright side, since almost everyone just throws a synopsis together, impressing an agent with one actually isn’t very hard. Being able to include a couple of stunning visceral details, for instance, is going to make you look like a better writer — almost everyone just summarizes vaguely.

My readers, of course, are far too savvy to make that mistake, right?

It’s also helpful if a synopsis gives the impression that the writer is genuinely excited about this book and eager to market it, rather than being deeply and justifiably angry that it needed to be written at all. Believe me, to an experienced eye, writerly resentment shows up BEAUTIFULLY against the backdrop of a synopsis. The VAST majority of novel synopses 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 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. As I believe I have mentioned before, if I ran the universe, not only would manuscripts be judged purely upon the quality of their writing by book-loving souls who would read every submission in full, but there would be free merry-go-rounds in every schoolyard, college tuition would cost nothing, lions and tigers would want nothing more than to cuddle up to humans and purr – and I would have more than a week left before my revision deadline.

However, as my calendar informs me quite clearly every time I sit down to revise, I do not, in fact, run the universe. Unfortunate.

A lot of writers tell me that they find 5 pages a difficult target length for a synopsis. If your draft persists in being less, and you are synopsizing a book-length work, chances are that you are not including the plot or argument in sufficient detail. Remember, your goal here is not just to give the bare bones of the plot, but also to bowl that agency screener over with your incredible storytelling acumen: telling little asides and sensual details can go a long way toward making your synopsis stand out in the crowd.

If you really get stuck about how to make it longer, print up a hard copy of the synopsis, find yourself a highlighting pen, and mark every broad summary statement about character, such as “Bartholomew was a morose man,” as well as every time you have wrapped up a scene or plot twist description with a sentence along the lines of, “and in the process, Sheila learns an important lesson about herself.” These types of statements show up so often in synopses that agents tend to read them as clichés.

Go back through and take a careful look at these highlighted lines: would a 2- or 3-sentence scene SHOW the conclusion stated there better than just TELLING the reader about it? Is there a revealing character detail or an interesting plot nuance that might supplement these general statements, making them more compelling to read?

I’ll let those of you into brevity in on a little secret: given a choice, specifics are almost always more interesting to a reader than generalities. Think about it from an agency screener’s POV, someone who reads 800 synopses per week: wouldn’t general statements about lessons learned and hearts broken start to sound rather similar after awhile? But a genuinely quirky detail in a particular synopsis — wouldn’t that stand out in your mind?

If your synopsis has the opposite problem, and insists upon running over 5 pages (the naughty thing), you should also sit down and read it over with a highlighter gripped tightly in your warm little hand. On your first pass through, mark any sentence that does not deal with the primary plot of the book. Then go back through and read the UNMARKED sentences in sequence, ignoring the highlighted ones. Ask yourself honestly: does the shorter version give an accurate impression of the book?

If your synopsis still runs too long, try this trick of the pros: minimize the amount of space you devote to the book’s premise and the actions that occur in Chapter 1. Much of the time, extensive explanation of these is redundant within the context of the submission.

Why? Well, presumably, if you are sending the synopsis with a query letter, the query itself will state the premise of the book; if you have been asked to send chapters along with the synopsis, as commonly occurs, the agent will already have the actual chapters on hand.

Phew! That was a lighting-paced run through the topic, wasn’t it? Don’t panic, first-timers, if it went by a little fast: as I said, I will revisit the synopsis in my upcoming series on contest entries. If you would like a fuller explanation of the mechanics of the synopsis in the interim, check out the SYNOPSES category at right. And, of course, if you have any questions, feel free to drop me a note via the COMMENTS function.

Thanks, Soyim, for reminding me to come back to this important subject! And everybody, keep up the good work!

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