That pesky contest synopsis, where once again we see the value of that old literary bugbear, show, don’t tell


I’ve spent the last week plus talking about the various types of literary contest that an agent-seeking writer might conceivably want to enter. As a freelance editor and not infrequent contest judge myself, I’m eager to move on to the nitty-gritty, how to make the small tweaks that often make the difference between reaching the finalist round and not — and avoiding the big mistakes that scuttle most entries before the end of page 2.

Not that I’m ambitious or anything.

Since I’m not gearing this series to a particular contest’s deadline, as I did last year (for the reasons behind that decision, please see my January 22 post), I’m going to put off discussion of the small points to concentrate for a few days on an aspect of contest entry that seems to frustrate nearly every entrant: the synopsis.

Why? Well, if you are entering a category that covers book-length material, you will pretty much always be asked to submit a synopsis — and since contest rules often specify an overarching page limit intended to cover both the submitted chapter and a synopsis for the whole book, many entrants yield to the temptation to skimp on this important part of the contest puzzle.

To summarize what promises to be several days’ worth of advice in a word: DON’T.

Contrary to widely-held writerly belief, a synopsis typically weighs MORE heavily in a contest entry’s success than in a submission to an agency’s, not less. Not to give away trade secrets or anything, but synopses tucked inside submission packets are not even always read — generally speaking, our pal Millicent the agency screener reserves that honor for those manuscripts she reads in their entirety.

Which is to say: not very many.

But the synopsis that accompanies a contest entry virtually always receives some critical attention.

Last September, just before I slid into the wonderland of glee that is mononucleosis, I spent a couple of weeks on how to write a stellar synopsis for querying agents. (Now well hidden under the startlingly opaque category title HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS. Why oh why do I not make these things easier to track down?)

Unless any of you kick up a hue and cry, demanding that I revisit the issue now (anyone? Anyone?), I’m going to proceed on the assumption that most of you have already mastered the basics of writing an (ugh) synopsis. Now, I would like to focus on the differences between a synopsis that might wow an agent and one that might impress a contest judge.

In answer to that vast unspoken question my readership just flung in my general direction: yes, I am indeed suggesting that you write a separate synopsis to accompany contest entries.

Before you rend your garments and trouble heaven with your bootless cries on the subject of all of the extra work I tend to suggest above the bare minimum, hear me out. I’ve seen a LOT of otherwise excellent contest entries scuttled by bad synopses.

Bad how? Well, most entries read as though their authors regarded them as — get this — an annoying nuisance to be tossed off as quickly as humanly possible, generally in as few pages as feasible. Exactly as if the writing there were not being judged, too, in addition to the writing in the submitted chapter.

Did I just hear about 5,000 of you suck in your breath sharply in surprise? A surprisingly high percentage of entrants seem to be unaware that the synopsis is part of the writing being evaluated in a contest, just as in a submission.

I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: every word of your writing that passes under the eyes of a professional reader is a writing sample.

Treat it accordingly.

Another common mistake is to submit a too-terse synopsis, presented in what is essentially outline form. (Sometimes, writers present it literally in outline format, believe or not.) Short on the sensual details and plot twists that enliven a story, they give no indication that the author is a talented storyteller. Just that s/he is darned good at making lists.

See my note above about every word of an entry being a writing sample.

Bearing that in mind might help a hopeful entrant from avoiding the frequent fault of repeating entire phrases, sentences, and even paragraphs from the entry itself. Trust me, judges are born nit-pickers: they’re going to notice.

(As will Millicent the agency screener, incidentally; it’s one of her predictable pet peeves.)

It’s also becoming increasingly common to conflate a screenplay synopsis — which typically has separate categories for action and major characters — with a literary synopsis, which is a linear, one-piece narrative concerned with plot for fiction and argument for nonfiction.

Remember how I mentioned yesterday that there are certain problems that prompt judges to slide an entry prematurely into the non-finalist pile as soon as they appear? This is one of ‘em.

Why? Well, such a synopsis makes it so very apparent that the entrant has not learned the norms of the literary world — and as I mentioned last time, one of the things being evaluated in a literary contest is a book’s marketability. To put the prevailing logic bluntly, the vast majority of judges will prefer an entry that is professionally presented — that is, one that adheres to standard format and resembles what a top-notch agent would expect to see in a successful submission — over even a brilliantly-written submission that does not conform with these standards.

Or, to put it another way, with many, many good entries, few judges are going to be willing to waste finalist space on an entry that flouts the expectations of submission. They want to promote writing that has a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Seriously, I’ve seen this criterion included on judges’ rating sheets.

Another type of synopsis that tends to elicit this knee-jerk reaction is the one that does not summarize the plot or argument of the book at all. Instead, it reads like promotional copy: This is the best book about the undead since Interview with the Vampire! This cookbook will change cuisine as we know it!

Or, even more common: This is the moving, insightful, beautifully written story of two kids in love.

Clearly, the entrant has confused a synopsis with a back-jacket promotional blurb. Judges are seldom amused by this, for precisely the same reason that Millicent tends not to be: they want to make up their own minds about how good/important/marketable a piece of writing is, not have it announced to them.

Once again, an old nag from the writing advice stable may be trotted out to admonish us all: show, don’t tell, the high quality of your writing.

The final frequent strategic error is also often seen in submissions to agencies: devoting virtually the entire synopsis to the premise of the book, often to the exclusion of the major conflicts of the book or the ending.

The usual authorial justification for this, of course, is I don’t want to give the ending away. Understandable, of course — were these writers not asking the judges to recognize the high quality of a book that they’re not going to read in its entirety.

Surely, it isn’t SO unreasonable for the judges to want to be provided with proof that the author has at least thought through the ending of the book, as well as the beginning?

Of course, any entrant is free to interpret the synopsis requirement as s/he pleases, but it’s only fair to tell you that in every contest I’ve judges, none of these synopses would have made it to the semifinalist round, much less been seriously considered for the top prize.

As if all that weren’t enough to make even the bravest first-time contest entrant tremble like a leaf at composition time, contest synopses often need to be shorter than submission synopses — which means that writing them is often harder.

Why harder? Well, most contest entries set absolute maximum page limits, which means page space will be at a premium. For instance, if the chapter you want to submit is currently 23 pages long, and the page limit (exclusive of title page, which is never counted in a contest’s maximum page count) is 25, you’re either going to need to shorten your already-existing synopsis to 2 pages or make some serious cuts to your chapter to permit something longer.

Guess which option most contest entrants pick?

Yep, you guessed it: contest judges see many, many single-page synopses. Unless the contest rules actually call for it to be that short, however, those synopses tend to lose style points for the entry — because, after all, it’s pretty hard to tell the story of a reasonably complex book within a couple of dozen lines of text.

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.

Why am I being so adamant about this? Simple: if you do it, you will get caught and penalized.

It’s kind of a no-brainer for the judge, actually. 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.

Why those limits? 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 that a 3- to 5-page synopsis is fairly standard in the industry.

If this is starting to sound a bit repetitious, congratulations — you’ve grasped a fundamental truth about literary contests. An entry’s synopsis, just like its chapter(s), is subject to judging for clarity, coherence, marketability…and professionalism.

Which is why a synopsis that reads like a SYNOPSIS is almost always going to receive higher points than one that sounds like a back-jacket blurb (My writing teacher says this is the best novel since THE SUN ALSO RISES!) or an exposition on why the author chose to write the book (It isn’t autobiographical, but…).

Instead, if you are entering fiction, make sure that the novel sounds engaging, marketable — and like the best yarn since TREASURE ISLAND. For a memoir, ditto. And for other nonfiction, present the argument as fascinating and rigorously supported.

But use the synopsis to SHOW that your book is all of these things, not to tell about it.

Admittedly, that’s a fairly tall order. Don’t worry, I shall be giving some tips o’ the trade in the days to come, to give your synopsis some platform heels. Perhaps even a ladder, to enable it to stand head and shoulders above the other entries.

Before that metaphor falls of its own weight, I’m going to sign off for the day. Keep up the good work!

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