That pesky contest synopsis, part III: an entry synopsis that stands out from the crowd, or, baa humbug


Yes, the pun is a terrible one, but I’m in a giddy, hopeful mood today; specifically, I’m hoping that those rumors I’ve been hearing about an any-second-now settlement to the screenwriters’ strike are true. I’ve been hearing them from increasingly credible sources all week; if you picture an Oscar statuette whispering in my ear today, you wouldn’t be far off. Fingers crossed for all of those talented people getting back to work on reasonable terms.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about how and why a successful contest synopsis and a killer submission synopsis can and should be different. I have to say, I had expected to hear a little more groaning from the peanut gallery about this — I am, after all, suggesting that you write a 3 – 5 page summary of your book for contest submission that you will pretty much never be able to use for any other purpose on God’s decreasingly green earth.

See? Nothing. You people must be getting desensitized to the idea that reading this blog may lead to more work for you.

Frankly, I think that nonfiction entrants typically have a harder time producing a winning synopsis — or perhaps I merely think that because I have more often been a judge in nonfiction than fiction categories. For fiction, the task at hand is a bit closer to writing a submission synopsis: tell a good story in a reasonable amount of juicy detail.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to those of you who suffered through last summer’s Book Marketing 101 series, you have an excellent memory: this is more or less the goal of the 2-minute pitch as well.

You would be AMAZED how few contest synopses-writers seem to realize that the point is to tell a terrific story, though. Seriously, in my experience, usually under 10% of the entries include synopses that indicate storytelling ability, rather than going through a rote exercise in summarization.

Where do the other 90% go wrong, you ask?

As I explained yesterday, all too often, writers just state the premise of the novel, rather than taking the reader through the plot, blow by blow. If the plot has twists and surprises, so should the synopsis. Show the story arc, and make it compelling enough that the judge will scrawl on the evaluation sheet, “Wow, I want to read this book when it comes out.”

Trust me, pretty much every contest winner and placer’s evaluation sheet has this sentiment, or something very similar to it, scrawled upon it in a judge’s hand. So make it your mission in the synopsis to evoke that wonderful response.

Yes, I know: it’s a tall order. But don’t forget that the synopsis is every bit as much an indication of your writing skill as the actual chapters that you are submitting. Both need to be compelling reads that draw the reader into the story you’re telling.

The easiest way to get the judges involved is not merely to summarize the plot as quickly as possible but to give the feel of a number of specific scenes. Don’t be afraid to use forceful imagery and strong sensual detail, and try to have the tone of the synopsis echo the tone of the book.

Yes, you read that correctly, too: a good synopsis should be written in the same voice as the book, for both contest and for submission. Changes the way you think of the synopsis, doesn’t it?

Again, this should sound familiar to some of you: a good pitch conveys the same tone as its book, too.

So if you’re writing a comedy, you had better make sure that the judge at least chuckles a couple of times while reading your synopsis — and, word to the wise, as nothing is more stale than a joke told twice with a ten-minute period, repeating the same funny line in both chapter and synopsis is not the best means of invoking hilarity.

A sexy book deserves a sexy contest synopsis, too, and a thriller’s synopsis had better be, well, thrilling. If your horror synopsis doesn’t make the reader blanch (try it out on strangers in a coffeeshop), add gory details until it does.

And so forth. You’re a writer; you’re good at this sort of thing.

For nonfiction, the assignment is slightly less straightforward: yes, you need to make it plain that you’re a good arguer making an intriguing argument, but it would also behoove you to include certain elements of the book proposal that you would never include in a submission synopsis.

Some indication of the target market, for instance. A passing reference to why your book is better at conveying this set of information than anything currently on the market. A miniscule tease about how the publication of THIS book, as opposed to any other entered into the contest, will make the world just a little bit better for those who read it.

Why shouldn’t you include these in a synopsis sent along with requested materials? For starters, it’s redundant with the both the book proposal and, most likely, with the query letter as well.

Think about it. You might, if an agent’s listing or website asked for it, include a synopsis with your query letter, but really, if you’re going to make the case that the agent should drop everything and read your book proposal, the argument belongs in your query letter. (For tips on how to construct this type of case, please see the HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the list at right.)

You MIGHT be asked to send a synopsis along with requested materials, but for nonfiction, an agent or editor is far more likely to ask to see the entire book proposal — which, naturally, would include entire sections on who the target audience is, why they would benefit from your book, and how your book is different and better than anything remotely similar currently on the market. (For some insights on the various necessary components of a NF book proposal, please see — you guessed it — the BOOK PROPOSAL category at right.)

For a memoir, admittedly, an agent is slightly more likely to ask to see the first couple of chapters plus a synopsis, but still, most memoirs, like other nonfiction, are sold on proposals, not the entire manuscript. (And no, I’m not sure why there are so many sources out there that say otherwise. I’ve sold two memoirs to publishers without having written more than the first chapter and a proposal for either.)

But as I mentioned yesterday, the trick to a memoir synopsis, for a contest or submission, is much closer to the goal for fiction: it needs to sound like a great yarn well told. What it does NOT need to be and should not be is an extended discussion of why you decided to write a memoir in the first place.

For some reason, it is hugely common in contest synopses for memoirists (and sometimes other NF writers as well) to treat the synopsis as though it were a response to an impassioned crowd storming their writing spaces, demanding to know who the heck the author is, to think he has the right to think his pet topic might interest even a single other human being, let alone thousands or millions. Defensive does not even begin to describe it.

A LOT of contest synopses go off on these tangents, to the detriment of the entry, and it costs them a plethora of presentation and professionalism points. Which means, unfortunately, that an experienced judge’s knee-jerk response to a synopsis that engages in this practice even a little tends to be exaggerated.

Yes, I am saying what you think I’m saying: “Next!”

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there saying. “Why is personal revelation regarded as a sign of a lack of professionalism? In a memoir, I would think that it would be downright desirable. Why aren’t my reasons for writing my own life story worth mentioning in the contest synopsis?”

It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? In the eyes of the industry, though, there are only a few contexts where a lengthy discussion of why you chose to write a book is considered appropriate professional behavior:

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, where it is a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing. There, you may state your case in market terms in the section dedicated to that purpose.

(2) In a query letter or pitch, to show that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are pitching. There, you may indulge in this impulse for as long as a couple of sentences.

(3) After you have signed with your agent, when she asks, “So, are there hidden selling points in this book that I should mention while I’m marketing it?” At that point, you may discourse for as long as it takes for the agent to drink a cup of coffee — or until her other line rings, whichever comes first.

(4) To your publisher’s marketing department just before your book is released, so they can include any relevant points in the press packet. They will be far more interested in your listing the addresses, phone numbers, and websites of every bookstore where any local might recognize your mug, but they’re going to want you to come up with a nice sound bite about why you wrote the book as well.

(5) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released. 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. So you can go to town after the book comes out.

(6) When you are chatting with other writers about why they wrote THEIR books. You can basically do this for the rest of your life.

Other than those few occasions, it’s considered over-sharing — yes, even for memoirists. In a contest entry, it is NEVER considered anything but self-indulgent.

Just don’t do it. In your contest synopsis, stick to the what of the book, and save the whys for later.

The only exception to this in a contest entry is if you have some very specific expertise or background that renders your take on a subject particularly valid. If so, make sure that information is stated within the first paragraph of your NF synopsis.

If you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply MUST be mentioned to the judges, go back and reread that list above three more times. If you are still wedded to the idea after that, imagine me sighing gustily — then stick the information at the end of the synopsis, where it won’t be too intrusive.

For nonfiction, keep reminding yourself that your goal in a contest synopsis is threefold:

A) to show the argument of the book in some detail, along with some indication of how you intend to prove your case,

B) to show that the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile, and

C) to demonstrate that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book.

In 3-5 pages, no less. Piece o’ proverbial cake, right?

In pursuit of Goal A, it is helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case. Even if you are writing a self-help book, history book, or memoir, you are always making a case when you write nonfiction, if only to argue that your take on the world around you is interesting, unique, and valid.

Make absolutely certain that by the time a judge finishes reading your synopsis, s/he will understand very clearly what this argument is – and what evidence you will be bringing in to demonstrate it. (Statistics? Extensive background research? Field experience? Interviews? A wealth of personal anecdotes? Etc.)

In doubt about whether you’ve pulled this off successfully? Hand your synopsis to an intelligent non-specialist in your area (intelligent adolescents are great for this), have him or her read it — then ask the reader to summarize the argument for you without looking at the paper. Take notes on what parts come back to you fuzzily: those are the parts of the synopsis that need work.

If you are pinched for space in your entry, you need only devote the first paragraph to marketing information. State outright why the world needs your book. If you are writing on a subject that is already quite full of authorial opinion, make it plain why your book is different and better. As in:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist.

If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them, as you would in a query letter or book proposal. Remember, one of the things that the judges are evaluating is the book’s marketability — how likely is a judge who thinks your target market is a quarter of its actual size to give you high marks? Go ahead and minimize this possibility:

There are currently 2 million Americans diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in.

The third desiratum is what is known in the industry as your platform. Admittedly, it is a trifle hard to explain why you are THE expert best qualified to write this book without saying a little something about yourself, so you may feel as though you are slipping into the realm of author bio, a potentially dangerous strategy in a contest where you might get disqualified for inadvertently mentioning your first name.

But rest assured, no one is going to disqualify you for mentioning that you have a Ph.D. or went to a specific culinary school. Go ahead and state your qualifications – just don’t slip up and mention yourself by name. As in:

A well-respected Seattle area caterer for twenty years, the author has extensive experience in crafting meals for the pickiest of eaters.

SHELLFISH AND YOU is the fruit of many years of postdoctoral research. The author, a graduate of the prestigious Scripps School of Oceanography, is recognized worldwide as an up-and-coming authority on mollusk behavior.

If your head is whirling from all of this – and whose wouldn’t be? — don’t worry. I’ll go into some tips on how to simplify the contest-writing synopsis process tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

(PS: today’s photo appears courtesy of

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