That pesky contest synopsis, part V: the remains of the (caucus) day


Well, my caucus day is finally over, and boy, is it odd to see the news reports reduce a thrilling, inspiring afternoon to a flat color on a map of the U.S.! Which isn’t even accurate in my state: we elected delegates for BOTH of the major candidates, thank you very much, not just for the one Wolf Blitzer keeps telling us won the entire state.

I volunteered to be my caucus’ secretary, which meant that my job was to document all of the twists and turns of everyone’s trying to figure out how proportional representation works. I know, I know: not really a task that required a professional writer’s hand, but hey, I get a kick out of seeing democracy in action.

The elementary school was SWAMPED, the rather acute parking situation exacerbated by the fact that some clever soul had scheduled the other party’s caucus ACROSS THE STREET, in a local high school, at the same time as several apparently fiercely-fought soccer games. If you’re willing to walk four blocks from your car just to convince someone who lives three houses away from you to support your candidate, you’ve got to be excited about electoral politics in a way that is rare in these decadent days.

My favorite moment: as we were cleaning up, a GORGEOUS 17-year-old (if you’ll be legal by election day, you can caucus here) brought over a stack of voter registration forms (heck, we’re so hospitable in Washington, you don’t even need to be registered to vote before caucusing! We’ll give you the forms, and we’ll provide the stamp!). She was glowing, because she had just been elected as a delegate to the county convention.

Naturally, as a former party hack (hey, someone has to write those platforms), I congratulated her winning the first elected office of her adult life. She burst into tears and threw her arms around me, cheering.

Imagine starting one’s adult political life like that. Long may it last, for all of the young people who are new to the process.

It reminded me of being at the national convention in 2000. Due to a freak accident during which a suddenly-turning cameraman, my body, and the convention floor abruptly made intimate, if not friendly, contact, I was sitting with my (broken, but we didn’t know that at the time) swollen ankle propped up on a chair near the press seats, explaining to a puzzled Russian journalist why the candidate had just been cheered for mentioning his mother, when I noticed that one of the security guards had tears rolling down her face. Believe me, when you sprain (we thought at the time) both of your ankles in the middle of a packed convention center, you make friends with the security guards, pronto. (My elevated gams also drew the attention of a very sweet cameraman with a pronounced foot fetish who worked for an East Coast newspaper which shall remain nameless, but that’s another story.)

Since I knew from previous conversations with this guard that she considered herself apolitical and the entire convention rather silly, I asked her why she was so moved. Apparently, on his way into the convention center, Gore had stopped and shaken hands with every single one of the security guards. She had grown up poor; it had never occurred to her that someone running for president might ever notice her existence.

And that, my friends, is a side of politics the media seldom covers.

Okay, that’s enough sentiment for today: back to work. Contest synopses ho!

Effectively, in a contest situation, the synopsis is the substitute for the rest of the book, right? It is where you demonstrate to judges that you are not merely a writer who can hold them in thrall for a few isolated pages: here is where you show that you have the vision, tenacity, and — chant it with me now — storytelling ability to take the compelling characters you have begun to reveal in your first chapter through an interesting story to a satisfying conclusion.

The synopsis, in short, is where you show that you can plot out a BOOK, baby.

For this reason, it is imperative that your synopsis makes it very, very clear how the chapter or excerpt you are submitting to the contest fits into the overall story arc of the book, regardless of whether you are submitting fiction or nonfiction.

Did I just notice many, many eyebrows shooting hairline-ward out there? “But Anne,” I seem to hear some of you asking, “isn’t that self-evident? Why would I be submitting anything other than the first chapter(s) of my book?”

Well, for starters: the rules. Quite a few contests allow writers to submit chapters other than the first. Still more do not explicitly specify: they merely tell the entrant to send X number of pages and a synopsis.

Sometimes, writers feel that their best writing falls in, say, Chapter 18; these writers might want to take advantage of such a loophole. However, if you elect to take them up on this offer, your synopsis had better make it absolutely plain where the enclosed excerpt will fall in the finished work.

Truth be told, I think it is seldom wise to submit either non-consecutive excerpts from a book or chapters other than the initial ones, even if later chapters contain writing that is truly wonderful. Non-consecutive excerpts require the judge to make the logical connections between them — which the judge may not be inclined to do in a way that is in your best interest.

An uncharitable judge might, for instance, draw the unkind inference that you had submitted the excerpts you chose because they were the only parts of the book you had written – a poor message to send in a category devoted to book-length works. Or that you simply can’t stand your introductory chapter.

Or, a judge may reason, no agent or editor in the world, is going to accept random excerpts from a book for which she’s been queried: she is going to expect to see the first chapter, or first three chapters, or some other increment up to and possibly including the entire manuscript. But no way, no how is an agent or editor going to ASK to see unrelated excerpts out of running order.

Well, okay, not unless the submitter is a celebrity for whom it would be a stunning surprise to the industry if s/he could string three coherent English sentences together. But in that case, the celebrity would be selling a platform more than the writing itself, right?

Since reputable contest judging is blind, this situation is unlikely to arise, anyway. So a judge might safely conclude that the author who submitted this patchwork entry isn’t anywhere near ready to submit work to professionals. In other words: next!

This is not, in short, a situation where it pays to rely upon the kindness of strangers.

If you DO decide to use non-contiguous excerpts, place your synopsis at the BEGINNING of your entry packet, unless the rules absolutely forbid you to do so, and make sure that the synopsis makes it QUITE clear that these excerpts are far and away the most important part of the book. Basically, the role of the synopsis in this instance is to make the judges EAGER to read THESE particular excerpts.

Obviously, this means that your storytelling skills had better be at their most polished, to meet the challenge. But really, why raise an already lofty bar even higher?

As for selecting a chapter other than the first for submission, effectively starting midway through the book, I would advise against it, too, even if when contest rules explicitly permit the possibility.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you point out, “the opening to my Chapter 58 knocked the socks off my mother, nearly slayed my writing teacher, and generally left my critique group in a state of panting incoherence. Are you saying that I SHOULDN’T loose that level of brilliance upon a contest judge?”

Before I answer that directly, let me acquaint you with some of the arguments against not beginning at the beginning in general. In the first place, the judge may well draw the same set of uncharitable inferences as with the non-continuous excerpts, and dismiss your submission as not ready for the big time.

Remember, they are typically judging marketability as well as writing quality. As I have mentioned repeatedly over the last couple of weeks, contest organizers LOVE it when their winners move on quickly to publication. If your submission looks like it needs a couple of years’ worth of polishing to become market-ready, it is unlikely to win a contest, even if you are extremely talented.

In the second place, while your best writing may well lie later in your book, the advantage of starting at the beginning of the book is that the judge and the reader will have an equal amount of information going in. To lay bare the secrets of the judging world, I’ve known a LOT of contest judges who resent having to go back and forth between the synopsis and the chapters to figure out what is going on.

There is a sneaky way to get around this – but I’m afraid I would have to scold you if you did it.

Here it is anyway: there is no contest in the world that is going to make you sign an affidavit swearing that your entry is identical to what you are submitting to agents and editors. If you win, no one is later going to come after you and say, “Hey, your book doesn’t start with the scene you entered in the contest!”

And even if someone did, so what? Professional writers change the running orders of their books all the time. And titles. And the name of the protagonist’s baby sister. Pretty much no one in the industry regards a manuscript as beyond revision until it is sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

With NF books that go into subsequent editions, not even then.

Thus, a clever entrant who feels her best writing occurs fifty pages into her novel might, for the purposes of competition, place her strongest scene first by starting the entry on page 50. Presenting it as page 1, of course.

The synopsis would have to be revised, naturally, to make it appear that this is indeed the usual running order of the book, and our heroine would have to edit carefully, to make sure that there is nothing in the skipped-over pages that is vital to understanding what happens in the chapters presented in the entry.

The job of the synopsis, then, in the hands of this tricky writer, would be to cover up the fact that the entry starts in the middle of the book. It would be just our little secret.

To put it in a less clever way: go ahead and submit your strongest chapter — but for heaven’s sake, do NOT label it as Chapter 8. Label it as Chapter 1, and write a new synopsis for a book where Chapter 8 IS Chapter 1. Just make sure that your synopsis is compelling and lucid enough that it makes sense as a story told in that order.

Are those eyebrows wiggling again? “But Anne,” some of you tireless running order-huggers maintain, “my story doesn’t make sense told out of order. Am I doomed to submit Chapter 1, just so the synopsis makes sense?”

Okay, come closer, and I’ll whisper a little secret that the pros use all the time: it’s perfectly acceptable in most fiction genres, and certainly in memoir, to open the book with a stunningly exciting scene that does not fall at the beginning of the story, chronologically speaking. It’s usually called a prologue, and it’s slapped onto the beginning of the book, before the set-up begins.

Does this seem a tad dishonest? It isn’t, really; it’s an accepted trick o’ the trade. If you trawl in bookstores much, you’ve probably seen this technique used in a novel or twelve lately. It’s become rather common in submissions, for the simple reason that a book that bursts into flame — literarily speaking — on page 1 tends to be a heck of a lot easier to sell to agents and editors than one that doesn’t really get going until page 27.

And that’s doubly true of contest entries, which judges are often reading for free and in their spare time.

Generally speaking, anything you can do to place your best writing within the first few pages of your contest entry, you should do. Judges’ impressions tend to be formed very fast, and if you can wow ‘em before page 3, you absolutely should.

Just as with work you submit to agents, the first page of your entry is far and away the most important thing the judges see — which is why, unless an entry features mid-book excerpts, the author’s platform is truly stellar, or the contest’s rules specify a particular order for the entry packet, I ALWAYS advice placing the synopsis AFTER the chapters, not before.

That way, your brilliant first page of text can jump out at the judges. (After the title page, of course.) And if you can include some very memorable incident or imagery within the first few paragraphs of your chapter, so much the better.

One final word to the wise: whatever you do, try not to save writing your synopsis for a contest for the very last moments before you stuff the entry into an envelope. Synopsis-writing is hard; budget adequate time for it. And make absolutely sure that the synopsis you submit supports the image of the book you want your submitted chapter to send.

Next time, I shall begin to cover the super-common entry mistakes that tend to raise even the most tolerant judges’ hackles, due to sheer repetition. Feel free to keep posting questions about synopses as you write them, though, and keep up the good work!

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