What, you ask, am I talking about? Well, last time, I began talking about the differences between a synopsis that an aspiring writer might submit along with a query or requested pages and one that works well in a contest submission. Although they are called by the same name, they actually serve different purposes, so it’s in your best interests to craft them differently.
Hey, both vultures and peacocks are birds, but you don’t expect them to move from Point A to Point B precisely the same way, do you? Would you feed a peacock Vulture Chow?
Of course not. You’d feed it Peacock Yummies.
Because I had gone over the ins and outs of constructing the former type fairly recently (a series of posts gathered for your reading pleasure under the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category in that long list at right), I leapt right into the contest version last time with nary a backward glance. But perhaps that was a tad abrupt.
Let me back up for a moment and define synopsis, for those of you new to the term:
SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. Typically, synopses run from 1-5 pages (double-spaced), depending upon the requirements of the requesting agent, editor, or contest.
That’s going to be true, incidentally, no matter the context in which it is requested. But, unlike many of the other hoops through which aspiring writers need to jump through on the way to landing an agent, the ability to write a strong synopsis is a skill that’s going to serve you well for your entire literary career.
That’s right, folks: even the long-agented and often-published still need to write ‘em occasionally. Might as well learn to do it well.
Because, after all, no one likes a synopsis that just lies there like a dead trout. Except, perhaps, our friend the vulture.
Now, obviously, it’s a tough task to summarize a 400-page book in just a few pages — no one contests that. You’re going to need to cover that plot with dispatch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean being vague or leaving out eye-catching details.
In both types of synopsis, most fiction writers make the mistake of summarizing the plot in generalities, rather than giving a brief overview of the major conflicts of the plot through a series brief, vividly described scenes redolent with juicy concrete details. The latter is definitely more memorable — which is definitely a great trait in a synopsis.
Not clear on the difference? Let’s take a gander at a fairly typical opening paragraph for a synopsis:
JACQUELINE (42) is experiencing severe problems in her life: a boss who alternately seems to hate and praise her, a father who calls all the time to grill her about her love life, and a wacky neighbor who is constantly knocking on her door to borrow things. She feels like she’s going out of her mind until she meets the man of her dreams, an architect whose bedroom eyes make her swoon, but who may already have a wife. After a series of disturbing “chance” meetings with Josh, she finds that it’s easier to accept a temporary demotion than to keep on fighting battles on all fronts.
Okay, let me ask you: how many lines into that summary did your attention start to wander? How many lines before you started to become confused about what was going on? And if you made it all the way to the end, did you find yourself wondering whether Josh was the architect, the boss, or the neighbor?
Good; you’re thinking like an agency screener. And like a contest judge.
The primary reason that this excerpt doesn’t hold the attention is that it’s stuffed to the gills with generalities and clichés. But a synopsis does not need to present a story with either. Take a look at the same story, summarized with a bit more pizzazz and a lot more specifics:
Freshly-divorced graphic designer JACQUELINE (42) is finding it hard to sleep these days. Staying awake isn’t much of a picnic, either. Her boss, ALBERT (87) cannot seem to make it through a staff meeting at the magazine without criticizing her layouts while running a warm, greasy hand up her stockinged thighs under the conference table.
You already want to read this book, don’t you? That’s because the details are compelling and unusual. Let’s see where else dialing back the vague helps us:
Every morning at precisely 9:24, her habitually-marrying father (OWEN, 67) telephones her at work to see if she met Mr. Right the night before — and when she sheepishly says no, he regales her with tales of his latest paramour. Even her nights are disturbed by her lonely neighbor, CLIVE (24), who can’t seem to make it past midnight without scratching on her door to ask to borrow something — her milk, her hairdryer, her cat.
She manages to run carefully-balanced chaos of her life runs with relative smoothness until dreamy, suspender-wearing architect JOSH (48) comes to measure her office for long-overdue renovations. But is does that untanned line on his left ring finger mean that he, too, is recently separated, or that he’s the kind of rat who slips his wedding ring into his pocket every time he comes within smoldering range of an attractive woman?
Yes, this second synopsis is a trifle longer, but aren’t those few extra lines worth it, when they give the story so much more oomph?
Oomph is, after all, important in a contest entry. A contest judge, like our old friend Millicent the agency screener, typically reads quite a few entries within a single sitting. If you want yours to end up in the pile with the finalists, you’re going to want that judge to remember the STORY of your book, as well as the quality of the writing.
Remember them for positive reasons, that is. If your synopsis doesn’t make the judge make a mental note to rush out and buy that book the nanosecond it hits the shelves, it may be lacking in the oomph department.
Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you asking, “wouldn’t everything you’ve just said be applicable to either a submission OR a contest synopsis? I thought we were talking this week about contest synopses specifically.”
Good point, ethereal questioners. Yes, these principles would apply equally well to either type of synopsis. However, for a contest synopsis, since you will also be submitting the opening of the book — even if the rules merely say that you should include A chapter, rather than Chapter 1, you’re pretty much always going to be better off submitting the beginning — you can get away with covering those early pages only very lightly in the synopsis.
Actually, since those opening 10 pages (or 15, or 25) are all that the judges are going to see of the book, it is justifiable to streamline the plot more than you might for a regular synopsis. If you can make a better, more vivid story by sticking to only the book’s primary plotline (which, in a short synopsis of a long novel, is often the case), go ahead. The point of the contest synopsis, after all, is to wow the judges with what a great storyteller you are, not to reproduce every twist, turn, and minor character’s angst.
This may feel a touch misleading, but 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!”
Trust me on this one.
For memoir, it’s especially important to streamline the story, since the number one problem that most memoir entries present is a tendency to include a little too much information extraneous to the primary plotline. For the synopsis, hit only the dramatic high points — and make sure to give some indication of how the main character grows and changes throughout the book.
Oh, and avoid making the common mistake of mentioning in either a contest or submission synopsis that the story being told is TRUE. Actually, you should eschew it in a query, too: in publishing circles, all nonfiction is assumed to be based upon truth.
Just ask James Frey.
Seriously, the true memoir is as much of an industry pet peeve as the fiction novel or the nonfiction how-to book. To the ears of the industry, all of these terms are redundant.
For other non-fiction entries, you’re going to want to reproduce the basic argument of the book in the synopsis. Starting with a thought-provoking question (“In a society as complex as America’s, why isn’t there more social acceptance of squirrel-lovers?”), then moving on to why the question is important enough to answer is often a good start. Present the essential planks of your argument in logical order, and give some indication of the kind of evidence you intend to use to back it up.
But again, remember to be SPECIFIC in your overview, not vaguely general.
I hear some throat-clearing out there. “Um, Anne? Again, dandy advice for either kind of synopsis, but how should I handle NF in a contest synopsis in particular?”
Tenacious, aren’t you? I can refuse you nothing, so here goes.
In a contest synopsis, 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 — essentially, a free taste of the argument that you will be making in your book proposal.
Do keep it short and to-the-point, though. Hyperbole does not work well in this context, so steer clear of grandiose claims (Everyone in North America will want to buy this book!) and stick mostly to saying what the book is ABOUT.
But most of all, make sure that the synopsis makes the book sound like a great read.
As with a novel, the way to achieve this in just a few pages may well involve leaving out some of the less important planks of your argument. Do not feel compelled to give the chapter-by-chapter summary as you would in a book proposal. Just because you have a chapter on the spiritual life of tadpoles in your book on frogs doesn’t necessarily mean than a description of it will read well in a contest synopsis.
Here again, we see that a single book may benefit from having one version of the synopsis that goes out to agents, and another, more streamlined one that gets tucked into contest entries. Different contexts — and sometimes even different contests — may call for different approaches.
Flexibility, after all, is as important a part of the writer’s tool bag as the ability to write an eye-catching opening paragraph. Don’t worry that a judge is going to assume that you don’t understand how to write a submission synopsis — this is a bird of another color, and everyone concerned understands that.
No one familiar with the vulture and the peacock would expect them to flap their wings in exactly the same manner or emit the same sounds, right?
Next time, I shall give a few more pointers on how to make that synopsis appeal a bit more to contest judges — and for those of you who are visually-oriented, I shall be showing examples of how a synopsis should be formatted later in the week. In the meantime, keep up the good work!