Welcome to day two of my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way. Rather than regarding the synopsis as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent, I would encourage you to regard it as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form.
Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively.
Back to the checklist:
(4) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?
When agents specialize in a particular kind of book (and virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books and NF books, and romances and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.
Translation: Millicent is seeing a whole lot of repetition across plots.
This may seem self-evident, but it has practical ramifications that many aspiring writers do not pause to consider. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre… and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week… so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?
The application of Millicent’s favorite word: next!
“Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear some of you out there cry, the ones who have attended conferences before. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”
Yes, you are quite right, anonymous questioners: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t typically what they mean in practical terms.
Since it would be completely impossible for a book acquired today to hit the shelves tomorrow, and extremely rare for it to come out in under a year — and that’s a year after an editor buys it, not a year from when an agent picks is up — what is selling right now is not what agents are seeking, precisely. They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence.
Which no one can predict with absolute accuracy.
So when an agent or editor tells writers at a conference that they are looking for books that resemble the current bestseller list, they really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.
I’ll leave you to figure out the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening by yourselves.
Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”
“Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”
Given how fast publishing fads fade, the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy.
The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.
Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.
At the time, there was much discussion of how this outcome was evidence that editors wouldn’t know great literature if it bit them, but actually, [my] first thought was, how little would you have to know about the publishing industry to think that an unsolicited, unagented novel would NOT be rejected unread by the big publishers? Mightn’t this have actually been a test not of how literature fares, but what happens to submitters who do not follow the rules?
My second thought, though, was this: at this point in publishing history, wouldn’t even an excellent rehashing of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seem old hat? After all, it’s been done, and done brilliantly — and re-done in many forms, up to and including BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. I can easily imagine pretty much any English-speaking editor’s taking one look, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, God, here’s somebody ripping off Jane Austen again.”
She really does turn up everywhere these days, you know. (If you are curious about how often and where, the completely charming Austenblog tracks such matters.)
My point is, agents and editors tend to be pretty well-read people: a plot or argument needs to be pretty original in order to strike them as fresh. The synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs from the rest.
And what’s the easiest, most direct way of doing that? By including surprising and unique details, told in creative language.
Even if your tale is a twist on a well-known classic (which can certainly work: THE COLOR PURPLE is a great retelling of the Ugly Duckling, right?), you are usually better off emphasizing in the synopsis how your book deviates from the classic than showing the similarities. Here again, vivid details are your friends.
The rest of the checklist follows on Monday. (You didn’t think you were going to get away with only four questions, did you?) Keep up the good work!