That pesky contest synopsis, part IV: hold the phone!

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What a day this has been! What a rare mood I’m in! No, it’s not almost like being in love — it’s exactly like living in a caucus state the day before the big event. My telephone hasn’t rung this much since the days when my phone number was one digit off from my hometown’s most popular bar.

Why all the ringing? Why, so the recorded voices of people I have heard of and the live voices of people I haven’t may urge me to spend half a day tomorrow arguing with my neighbors at my local caucus, of course. All of a sudden, everyone in the other Washington can find Seattle on a map unassisted.

Heck, representatives from both major campaigns offered not only to give me directions to the elementary school where I will be caucusing; they offered to DRIVE me there.

To be fair, a certain amount of nagging is warranted in my neck of the woods — to attend my caucus is to take one’s life, and certainly one’s blood sugar, into one’s hands. Unlike a primary, where all the voter is asked to do is fill in a few bubbles, drop a form into a box, and go, caucus goers are expected to spend several HOURS holding forth on the relative merits of their chosen candidates.

While actual fisticuffs seldom occur, bullying often does; the last time I attended, my views on environmental preservation were challenged by a 6’5″, 400-pound ex-Marine willing — indeed, eager — to throw his considerable bulk in the direction of anyone who contradicted the views of the party leadership.

Since he was of the opinion that the merest discussion of any plank of the state’s platform, however minor, was tantamount to treason, a certain amount of physical intimidation was inevitable. I’ve seen him send entire salmon preservation leagues scurrying to the other side of the elementary school auditorium.

All the while, party volunteers proffer cookies, coffee, candy, coffee, hot dogs, coffee, Danish, coffee, brownies, coffee, and sometimes, in my neighborhood, a gigantic cake emblazoned with the iced likeness of our local baking maven’s choice for president. You should have seen it the year she went for Jesse Jackson.

Oh, heavens, there goes the phone again.

I’m back — now back to work.

It may seem odd that I hammered so hard yesterday about the importance of a finely-crafted synopsis to a contest entry’s overall chances of winning, but you would be astonished at how often a well-written chapter is accompanied by a synopsis obviously dashed off at the last minute, as though the writing quality, clarity, and organization of it weren’t actually being evaluated at all.

I suspect that this is a fairly accurate reading of what commonly occurs. All too often, writers (most of whom, after all, have full-time jobs and families and, well, lives to lead) push preparing their entries to the very last minute.

Frustrated at this crucial moment by what appears to be an arbitrary requirement — it’s the writing in the chapter that counts, right? — it’s tempting just to throw together a synopsis in a fatal rush and shove it into an envelope, hoping that no one will pay much attention to it.

Trust me on this one: judges WILL pay attention to it. Many a fine entry has been scuttled by a slipshod synopsis.

I won’t go so far as to say, of course, that if you do not expend careful consideration over the crafting of the synopsis for a book-length category, you might as well not enter at all. It is entirely fair to say, however, that if you have a well-written, well thought-out synopsis tucked into your entry packet, your work will automatically enjoy an edge toward winning.

I have a few more tips on how to increase that edge, of course — but while that darned phone keeps ringing every few minutes, I think my powers of concentration will be best spent on issues of format, rather than content.

I hadn’t realized it until reader Sheri asked a question about synopses the other day, but back in December, when I was posting examples of standard format, I somehow managed to neglect to include what a synopsis should look like. Today, I’m going to rectify that, for both contest and submission synopses.

First, let’s look at the first page of a synopsis one might submit to an agent:


For the most part, as you may see, it simply adheres to standard manuscript format: one-inch margins all the way around, slug line in the top left margin, page number in the slug line, indented paragraphs, the works. (If you’re unclear on the hows and whys of standard manuscript format, or were unaware that such a thing existed, please see the STANDARD FORMAT BASICS category at right.)

Note, too, that the first time a character is introduced to the story, her name appears entirely in capital letters. That makes it easier for skimming eyes to follow — and if that seems like an invitation to screener laziness, bear in mind that Millicent and her compatriots are reading literally hundreds of pages per day. Their eyes are TIRED.

Do you want to be the writer who makes those eyes’ little lives easier or harder?

The title of the work is on the first line of the page, with the information that it is a synopsis on the second double-spaced line. Why state up front that it’s a synopsis? Well, remember a few months back, when I described that catastrophic collision between two interns in an agency hallway? Does “Hey, you got memoir in my thriller!” “No, you got thriller in my memoir!” ring a bell?

Since submitted manuscripts are unbound in any way, individual pieces of them tend to wander off on field trips of their own. Slug lines can go a long way toward allowing those hapless interns to piece the manuscripts back together.

Guess what? So can clearly labeled synopses.

For this reason, I like to label subsequent pages of the synopsis as such as well. It’s not strictly required, but hey, the subsequent pages are every bit as likely to go wandering as the first, right? The result looks like this:


All clear on the format for the submission synopsis? May I suggest that this would be a dandy time to bring up questions, if not?

Okay, on to the contest synopsis. The primary difference is — anyone? Anyone?

Yes, that’s right: in a blind-judged contest (i.e., in the respectable ones that are worth your time and money to enter), the writer’s name cannot appear on any page of the entry. Not the first, and certainly not the last.

Obviously, this is going to affect the slug line, but it’s easily resolved. Lookee:


See? Very simple. Notice any other differences?

If you are looking for purely cosmetic differences, there aren’t any, other than the slug line. However, on the content level, I did tighten up the synopsis a bit for the benefit of the contest judge.

Why, you ask? Because I happen to know (having read the contest rules as closely as I urge you all to do) that this contest accepts entries up to fifty pages long. Almost everything that happened within the first two pages of the submission synopsis occurs during the first fifty pages of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

The judge will most likely read the chapters before turning to the synopsis — that way, if the writing in the chapter is not good, they can skip the synopsis altogether. So why recap more than is necessary, especially if including a 4-page contest synopsis will allow Aunt Jane to include another page of text?

Seem rules-lawyerish? Exactly; contests are run by people who just adore rules. Go with the flow.

Next time, phone conditions permitting, I shall polish off the hot topic of contest synopsis-polishing. Happy caucusing, Washingtonians, Louisianans, and Nebraskans, and everybody, keep up the good work!

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