Did you notice yesterday that I began a subtle segue into synopses? Well, okay, not all that subtle — I just started saying that this or that piece of advice could also be applied productively to your synopsis. Which, in case you weren’t aware of it, you are going to need to market your book.
I do hope that wasn’t a terrible surprise to anyone.
Literally every writer in the world who deals with either an agent or an editor will need to produce a synopsis at some point — and since the first of those points is often immediately following a querying at a literary conference, I wanted to make sure to cover it before I ended the Book Marketing 101 series.
Actually, glancing back over my archives, I’m rather stunned at how long it’s been since I’ve devoted a post to ’em; like most unpleasant subjects, I guess we’ve all been gliding past this one with genteelly averted eyes. Since I haven’t talked about it in depth for a while, let’s start with the absolute basics.
For those of you new to the term, a synopsis is a brief exposition IN THE PRESENT TENSE of the entire plot of a novel or the whole argument of a book. Typically, professional synopses run from 3-5 pages (in standard format, and thus double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier typefaces), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent or editor.
Yes, Virginia, you read that correctly: agency guidelines and contest rules 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.
The result is — and I do hate to be the one to break this to you, Virginia — 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.
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, Millicent really is 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 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; much of the time, tradition does. So the argument against trying to sell a first novel on synopsis alone: fiction is just not sold that way, my dear.
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.)
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? Today, in most cases, a 3 or 4 page synopsis is all a fiction writer will need.
But think about that for a moment: 4 pages in standard format is roughly 1000 words, enough space to give some fairly intense detail. By contrast, a jacket blurb is usually between 100 and 250 words, only enough to give a general impression or set up a premise.
I point this out, because far too many writers new to the biz submit jacket blurbs to agents, editors, and contests, rather than synopses: marketing puff pieces, rather than plot descriptions or argument outlines. This is a mistake. Publishing houses have marketing departments for producing advertising copy. In a synopsis from a heretofore-unpublished writer, what industry professionals want to see is not self-praise, or a claim that every left-handed teenage boy in North America will be drawn to this book (even it it’s true), but a summary of what the book is ABOUT.
In other words, like the query, the synopsis is a poor place to boast. Since the jacket blurb synopsis is so common, most agencies use it as — wait for it — an easy excuse to reject a submission unread.
Yes, it’s unfair to those new to the biz, but the industry logic runs thus: a writer who doesn’t know the difference between a blurb and a synopsis is probably also unfamiliar with other industry norms, such as standard format and turn-around times. Thus (they reason), it’s more efficient to throw that fish back, to wait until it grows, before they invest serious amounts of time in frying it.
With such good bait, they really don’t stay up nights worrying about the fish that got away. They know you’ll come swimming back.
I know: it’s awful to think of one’s own work being treated that way, or indeed, that of any dedicated writer. If I ran the universe, synopses would not be treated this way. Instead, each agency would present soon-to-query writers with a clear, concise how-to for its preferred synopsis style — and if a writer submitted a back jacket blurb, Millicent the agency screener would chuckle indulgently, hand-write a nice little note advising the writer to revise and resubmit, then tuck it into an envelope along with that clear, concise list.
Or, better yet, every agency in the biz would send a representative to a vast agenting conference, a sort of UN of author representation, where delegates would hammer out a set of universal standards for judging synopses, to take the guesswork out of it once and for all. Once codified, bands of laughing nymphs would distribute these helpful standards to every writer currently producing English prose, and bands of freelance editors would set up stalls in the foyers of libraries across the world, to assist aspiring writers in conforming to the new standards.
Unfortunately, as you may perhaps have noticed, I do not run the universe, so we writers have to deal with the prevailing lack of clear norms.
Because it’s so easy for a too-long or too-short synopsis to be dismissed, though, I would advise NEVER allowing your synopsis to run over 5 pages or under 2. Since 3-4 pages is industry standard, one that is much shorter will make you look as if your story is unable to sustain a longer exposition; if it is much longer, you will look as though you aren’t aware of the standard. Either way, the results can be fatal to your submission.
So what DOES work in a synopsis? It’s not going to sound sexy, I’m afraid, but here is the secret: for fiction, stick to the plot of the novel, include enough vivid detail to make the synopsis interesting to read, and make sure the writing is impeccable.
For nonfiction, begin with a single paragraph about (a) why there is a solid market already available for this book and (b) why your background/research/approach renders you the perfect person to fill that market niche. Then present the book’s argument in a straightforward manner, showing how each chapter will build upon the one before to prove your case as a whole. Give some indication of what evidence you will use to back up your points.
Well, so much for synopses. Tomorrow…
Just kidding; the synopsis is a tall order, and I’m going to walk you past its most common pitfalls. In a week or so, you’ll be teaching other writers how to do it — and you’ll have yet another formidable tool in your marketing kit.
In the meantime, keep up the good work!