Yesterday, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.
I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award. Not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and a close personal friend of the MC as well.
It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it.
If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, because neither is really about the book.
Yet both are rather common, you may be surprised to hear. If I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, “it isn’t autobiographical, but…” I would own my own island in the Caribbean.
And if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow.
The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for Millicent. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.
Trust me, however true any of the phrases above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot say — they comes across as clichés. Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.
For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.
A LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument.
There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate. First, within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform.
Second, within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. 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; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.
Third — and here is where talking about it will genuinely help you in your professional progress — when you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.
Other than that, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people as the book itself. At least if the book is any good.
And if you doubt that, start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point. After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN let’s talk.
I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why you wrote the book is not very important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer. Writers tend to do that.
From that rather cold POV, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional.
I hate this, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book primarily because they feel so isolated during the writing process. It is a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last? It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. Go with that impulse.
But please, please take my word on this one: you should not do it in your platform, or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry until after a contract is signed, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. Publishing types tend to regard it as a sign of writerly inexperience, a symptom of unprofessionalism.
In other words: back into the pond, fish.
As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you may give an honest answer. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen.)
Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a NF book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.
But I can feel already that some of you are not going to believe me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.
On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!