Increasing your chances: the synopsis that cinches the deal

Yes, I know: I revisited synopses fairly recently, but yesterday, I made a bold statement: a good synopsis for a contest and a good synopsis for submission are not necessarily the same thing. I could have dropped that hot potato into your lap and gone blithely on my way, but something tells me that some of you might like some explanation of HOW the two might conceivably differ.

You’re funny that way. It’s one of the things I love about you.

In the first place, contest synopses are often shorter. Unlike submissions to agents, where you are merely expected to produce a document that falls within industry standards for length and format, contests generally will specify the length of the synopses they want; sometimes, the rules merely set a maximum page limit for the entry, and allow the writer to decide how much of it to devote to the synopsis.

In either case, page space will be at a premium — but even if the contest rules specify an absurdly short synopsis (or make it sound shorter by calling it a plot outline), please do not give into the quite substantial temptation to fudge a little to stay within the specified parameters. Even if you have been asked to produce a 3-paragraph synopsis of a 500-page book, DO NOT single-space it, shrink the print size, or fudge the margins to make it fit within the specified limits, unless the contest rules say you may.

The reason is simple: you will get caught and penalized. Trust me, if the rest of your entry is in 12-point Times New Roman with 1-inch margins, double-spaced, almost any judge is going to be able to tell right away if your synopsis is presented differently.

Because judges are expected to rate entries for professional presentation, unless contest rules specify otherwise, NEVER allow a contest synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. A synopsis that is much shorter will make you look as if you are unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard.

That’s right: if you have been asked to submit a synopsis, it, as well as your chapter, is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability… and professionalism. Make sure that your synopsis reads like a SYNOPSIS, and not like a back-jacket blurb (“My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!”) or an exposition on why you chose to write the book (“It isn’t autobiographical, but…”)

Just make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. Make the pacing FAST.

To that end, it is justifiable to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis — trust me, after you are wearing the first place ribbon, no one is going to come running up to you crying, “Hey! Your synopsis left out three major plotlines, and didn’t mention the protagonist’s sister! Foul! Foul!”

For non-fiction entries, it is usually a good idea to include some brief indication of the target market and why your book will serve that market better than what is currently available — but do keep it short and to-the-point. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (“Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!” All of these quotes are permutations of statements I have seen in actual contest synopses, by the way.).

Stick to saying what the book is ABOUT. Also — and this is for some reason hugely common in contest synopses — try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it. A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points.

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why is personal revelation regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? What if my entry is a memoir, for instance? Aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the synopsis?”

Not necessarily. In the eyes of the industry, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate professional behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing.
(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching.
(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “So, are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?”
(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet.
(5) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels. So feel free to go to town after the book comes out.
(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote THEIR books.

Other than that, it’s considered over-sharing — yes, even for memoirists. In your synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest entry is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis; if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned to the judges, stick it at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

In all other cases, for a synopsis to accompany a fiction entry, your goal is very, very simple: make it a terrific story. You would be AMAZED how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that.

What do they do instead? All too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible, but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

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

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

For the first, 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. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid. Be certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is — and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

If you are pinched for space, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. Say why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. (“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 snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.”)

If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them. (“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.”)

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, so you may feel as though you are slipping into the realm of author bio, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest entry where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name. But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school.

So go ahead and state your qualifications — just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. “A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters,” for example, will only make you sound authoritative, not rule-breaking. As will, “SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.”)

If your head is whirling from all of this — and whose wouldn’t be, given the imminence of the PNWA contest deadline — don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the contest-writing synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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