Welcome to day two of my list of questions to put to your synopsis before you send it on its merry way, a sort of hit parade of the most commonly-made mistakes. Rather than regarding the synopsis as a tedious bit of marketing trivia, yet another annoying hoop for the aspiring writer to jump through on the way to landing an agent, I would encourage you to regard it as an opportunity to encapsulate your writerly brilliance in capsule form.
Okay, so it’s still probably going to be tedious and annoying to produce. But addressing these questions will help it show off your talent more effectively.
Got your highlighting pens all ready? Excellent.
Before I suggest anything new, however, let’s take a gander at the points we’ve hit so far — and FYI, those of you who slogged through my Book Marketing 101 series in the summer of 2007 or indeed any of my earlier posts on the fascinating subject of synopsis-improvement, some of these questions are new, freshly minted to torment you and improve your submissions. You’re welcome.
(1) Does my synopsis present actual scenes from the book in glowing detail, or does it merely summarize the plot?
(2) If the reader had no information about my book other than the synopsis, would the story or argument make sense? Or is more specific information necessary to render the synopsis able to stand alone?
(3) Does the synopsis make the book sound compelling? Does it make me eager to read it?
(4) Does the synopsis tell the the plot of the book AS a story, building suspense and then relieving it? Is it clear where the climax is and what is at stake for the protagonist? Or does it merely list all of the events in the book in the order they appear?
(5) Have I mentioned too many characters in the synopsis? Does each that I mention come across as individually memorable?
Is everyone happy with those? Or, if not precisely happy, because revising a synopsis can be a heck of a lot of work, at least conversant with why I might have suggested such darned fool things?
I’m electing to take all of that silence out there in the ether as a resounding, “By Jove, yes!” from each and every one of you. (If by some strange fluke that’s not your personal reaction, by all means, chime in with a question.) Let’s move on, shall we?
(6) In a novel synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is?
I can hear some of you laughing at the first part of that question, but actually, fiction synopses that imply the book is about every character, rather than following the growth of a single one. For a multiple-protagonist or multiple point of view novel, this kind of ambiguity might make some sense — but for the vast majority of novels that focus on a particular individual, or at most two, it’s unnecessarily confusing to Millicent the agency screener if the synopsis doesn’t specify who the protagonist is.
And no, in answer to what some of my more literal-minded readers just thought very loudly indeed, you should NOT clarify this point by the inclusion of such English class-type sentences as The protagonist is Martha, and the antagonist is George, any more than you should come right out and say, the theme of this book is… Industry types tend to react to this type of academic-speak as unprofessional in a query, synopsis, or book proposal.
Why? Veteran synopsis-writers, take out your hymnals and sing along: because a good novel synopsis doesn’t talk ABOUT the book in the manner of an English department essay, but rather tells the story directly. Ideally, through the use of vivid imagery, interesting details, and presentation of a selected few important scenes.
I sense the writers who love to work with multiple protagonists squirming in their chairs. “But Anne,” these experimental souls cry, “my novel has five different protagonists! I certainly don’t want to puzzle Millicent, but it would be flatly misleading to pretend that my plot followed only one character. What should I do, just pick a couple randomly and let the rest be a surprise?”
Excellent question, lovers of many protagonists. Essentially, my suggestion for handling this particular dilemma in a synopsis would be the same as my advice for handling it in a pitch: tell the story of the book, not of a particular character.
And before anybody point it out: yes, I’m aware that this approach might cause a conscientious writer to run afoul of Point #6, but honestly, the multiple-protagonist format doesn’t leave the humble synopsizer a whole lot of strategic wiggle room. Concentrate on making it sound like a terrific story.
And, above all, be certain that your synopsis doesn’t violate Point #7.
(7) Does my protagonist/do my protagonists come across as an interesting, unusual person(s) involved in an interesting, unusual situation?
Again, this question may make some of you giggle, but you’d be surprised at how often novel synopses stress the averageness of their protagonists, the everydayness of their dilemmas, and seem to taunt Millicent with a lack of clear motivation or major plot twists. “How on earth,” she is wont to exclaim, “is this super-ordinary character/this very common situation going to maintain my interest for 350 pages, when s/he/it is already starting to bore me a little in this 5-page…zzzz.”
Clearly, Millicent could use a sip or two from one of her favorite too-hot lattes, eh?
Seriously, super-ordinariness has been the death knell for many a novel synopsis — which I suspect may come as something of a surprise to many of you.
What makes me think that, you ask? Many aspiring writers deliberately go out of their respective ways in order to present their protagonists as completely ordinary, normal people leading lives so aggressively mainstream that George Gallop is inclined to sit up in his grave at the very mention of them and shout, “At last! People so average that we don’t need to perform broad-based polling anymore! We’ll just ask these folks!”
Or, to put it in a less melodramatic manner, these writers are fond of slice-of-life writing.
The problem is, book-length slice-of-life writing can be pretty hard to sell — and nearly impossible to synopsize excitingly. Even the most character-driven of literary fiction needs to have a plot of some sort and a protagonist engaging enough (or appalling enough) to render the reader willing to follow him/her through the relevant high jinks, right?
Stop wailing, please, literary fiction writers; yours is a highly specialized market, and you shouldn’t be sending out synopses to agents who don’t represent your kind of writing, anyway.
“Okay, Anne,” some of you literary fiction writers say, bravely wiping your eyes, “I realize that I’ve chosen to write in a book category that represents only about 3-4% of the fiction market; I know that I’m going to have to target my queries very carefully. But I have a wonderful slice-of-life novel here about Everyman and Everywoman’s universal struggles to deal with the everyday. How should I go about synopsizing it?”
In a way that may well strike you as running counter to your goal in writing such a book: by emphasizing what is different, fresh, and unusual about your protagonist and his/her dilemmas.
Before any of you get huffy at the prospect of soft-selling your aim of holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, listen: no agent, no matter how talented, is going to be able to sell a novel by saying, “Oh, this book could be about anybody”; no matter how beautiful the writing may be, the agent of your dreams is eventually going to have to tell an editor what your book is about.
In industry-speak, ordinary is more or less synonymous with dull. Sorry to have to be the one to break that to you, but it’s true.
I’m guessing, though, that your protagonist actually isn’t dull — so why isn’t s/he, precisely? How is s/he different from every other potential protagonist out there? What quirks render her or him fascinating on the page? What about her/his situation is unique?
Getting the picture? The synopsis needs to demonstrate not only that you can write, but that your book concept is fresh.
Actually, the questions above are dandy ones to ask about any fictional protagonist, not just those who grace the pages of literary fiction. What makes this character interesting and different from the protagonist of any other novel currently on the market — and how can you make those traits apparent on the synopsis page?
(8) In a memoir synopsis, is it clear who the protagonist is? Does s/he come across as an interesting, unusual person involved in an interesting, unusual situation?
Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it? And you would have thought that the identity of a memoir’s protagonist would be awfully hard to hide for long, wouldn’t you?
If you walked a mile in Millicent’s shoes (sipping her latte, no doubt), or cozied up to Mehitabel the contest judge, you would know otherwise. To your sorrow, probably.
Just make it clear who the narrator is, okay?
Actually, memoir synopses scuttle themselves even more frequently by running afoul of that second criterion — the one about being an interesting character embroiled in an interesting situation — for the very simple reason that memoirists are prone to regard their stories as self-evidently interesting just because they are true.
As any memoir-representing agent could tell you, that’s not always the case. In fact, s/he is very likely to tell you that s/he sees very dull-sounding memoir synopses all the time.
So the synopsis-writing memoirist has an additional goal: not only to present her life story as important and intriguing, but also to render it pellucidly clear precisely how her life has differed from other people’s. A memoir synopsis that doesn’t convey this information within the first paragraph or so — ideally, by showing, rather than telling — tends not to maintain Millicent’s interest thereafter.
If you find it hard to figure out what to emphasize, try thinking of yourself as a fictional character. Why would a novel-reader want to follow you throughout a 500-page plotline?
While we’re on the subject, another good way to determine what might make dear self interesting to others…
(9) In either a novel or a memoir synopsis, is it clear what the protagonist wants and what obstacles are standing in the way of her getting it? Is it apparent what is at stake for the protagonist if she attains this goal — and if she doesn’t?
To twist these questions in a slightly different direction, does the synopsis present the book’s central conflict well?
If ordinariness tends to raise Millicent’s am-I-about-to-be-bored? sensors, the prospect of conflict usually makes her ooh-this-is-interesting antennae twirl around in circles — but nothing flattens a reader’s perception of conflict like the impression that the outcome doesn’t matter very much to the characters.
Admittedly, not every good novel features life-or-death stakes. Nevertheless, your story is going to be more memorable to someone who reads synopses for a living if the conflict appears to be vitally important to the protagonist.
Trust me on this one.
(10) In a NF synopsis that isn’t for a memoir, is it clear what the book is about? Does the subject matter come across as interesting, and does the synopsis convey why this topic might be important enough to the reader to make him/her long to read an entire book about it?
Again, this is a stakes issue: remember, however passionately you may feel about your chosen topic, Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and her Aunt Mehitabel will probably not already be conversant with it. It’s your job as the writer to get them jazzed about learning more.
Yes, even at the synopsis stage.
One of the more reliable methods of achieving this laudable goal is not only to present your subject matter as fascinating, but also to demonstrate precisely why your readers will find it so.
In other words, why does your subject matter, well, matter? Which leads me to…
(11) Does my synopsis make the book sound just like other books currently on the market, or does it come across as original?
When agents specialize in a particular kind of book (and virtually all of them do limit themselves to just a few types), you would obviously expect that they would receive submissions within their areas of specialty, right? So it’s reasonable to expect that an agency screener at an agency that represents a lot of mysteries would not be reading synopses of SF books, NF books, romances, and westerns, mixed in with only a few mysteries. Instead, that screener is probably reading 800 mystery synopses per week.
Translation: Millicent sees a whole lot of plot repetition in any given pay period..
This may seem self-evident, but it has practical ramifications that many aspiring writers do not pause to consider. That screener is inundated with plots in the genre…and your synopsis is the 658th she’s read that week…so what is likely to happen if your synopsis makes your book sound too much like the others?
Most likely, the application of Millicent’s favorite word: next!
”Wait just a cotton-picking second!” I hear those of who have attended conferences before protesting. “I’ve heard agents and editors jabbering endlessly about how much they want to find books that are like this or that bestseller. They say they WANT books that are like others! So wouldn’t an original book stand LESS of a chance with these people?”
Yes, you are quite right, anonymous questioners: any number of agents and editors will tell you that they want writers to replicate what is selling well now. Actually, though, this isn’t typically what they mean in practical terms.
Since it would be completely impossible for a book acquired today to hit the shelves tomorrow, and extremely rare for it to come out in under a year — and that’s a year after an editor buys it, not a year from when an agent picks is up — what is selling right now is not what agents are seeking, precisely. They are looking for what will be selling well, say, a couple of years hence.
Which. common sense tells us, no one can possibly predict with absolute accuracy.
So when agents and editors tell writers at a conference that they are looking for books that resemble the current bestseller list, they really mean that they want you to have anticipated two years ago what would be selling well now, have tracked them down then, and convinced them (somehow) that your book was representative of a trend to come, and thus had your book on the market right now, making them money hand over fist.
I’ll leave you to figure out by yourselves the statistical probability of that scenario’s ever happening in our collective lifetimes.
Or, to put it in terms of the good joke that was making the rounds of agents a couple of years back: a writer of literary fiction reads THE DA VINCI CODE, doesn’t like it, and calls his agent in a huff. “It’s not very well written,” he complains. “Why, I could write a book that bad in a week.”
”Could you really?” The agent starts to pant with enthusiasm. “How soon could you get the manuscript to me?”
Given how fast publishing fads fade, I will make a prediction: the same agent who was yammering at conference crowds last month about producing book X will be equally insistent next months that writers should write nothing but book Y. You simply cannot keep up with people who are purely reactive. Frankly, I don’t think it’s worth your time or energy to get mixed up in someone else’s success fantasy.
The fact is, carbon copies of successful books tend not to have legs; the reading public has a great eye for originality. What DOES sell quite well, and is a kind of description quite meaningful to agents, is the premise or elements of a popular work with original twists added. So you’re better off trying to pitch LITTLE WOMEN MEETS GODZILLA than LITTLE WOMEN itself, really.
Which is why, I suspect, that much-vaunted recent experiment where someone cold-submitted (i.e., without querying first, and without going through an agency) a slightly modified version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to an array of major publishers, only to have it summarily rejected by all.
At the time of the experiment, there was much tut-tutting discussion of how this outcome was evidence that editors wouldn’t know great literature if it bit them, but my first thought was, how little would you have to know about the publishing industry to think that an unsolicited, unagented novel would NOT be rejected unread by the big publishers? Mightn’t this have actually been a test not of how literature fares, but what happens to submitters who do not follow the rules?
My second thought, though, was this: at this point in publishing history, wouldn’t even an excellent rehashing of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE seem old hat? How could the submitter possibly have presented it in a manner that seemed fresh?
After all, it’s been done, and done brilliantly — and re-done in many forms, up to and including BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY. I can easily imagine pretty much any English-speaking editor’s taking one look, roll her eyes, and say, “Oh, God, here’s somebody ripping off Jane Austen again.”
My point, in case you were starting to wonder, is that agents and editors tend to be pretty well-read people: a plot or argument needs to be pretty original in order to strike them as fresh. The synopsis is the ideal place to demonstrate how your book differs from the rest.
And what’s the easiest, most direct way of doing that, for either fiction or nonfiction? By including surprising and unique details, told in creative language.
Even if your tale is a twist on a well-known classic (which can certainly work: THE COLOR PURPLE is a great retelling of the Ugly Duckling, right?), you are usually better off emphasizing in the synopsis how your book deviates from the classic than showing the similarities. Here again, vivid details are your friends.
Okay, that’s enough mental chewing gum for one day. The rest of the checklist follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!