Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?

I seldom advise my readers to drop what they are doing to watch an imbedded video, but I was so struck by Slate.com’s 7-minute synopsis of the previous several seasons of Mad Men that tonight, I’m going to make an exception. At least for those of you who plan to write a synopsis anytime soon: run, don’t walk, to watch the extended plot summary above.

Well, okay, you can just click. But trust me on this one: anyone who has ever even contemplated compressing a book-length tale could benefit from watching this.

Why? Well, it demonstrates beautifully, swiftly, and as well as a spoken-word piece can the central problem with most query- and submission-packet synopses: despite covering a story arc that many, many people have found quite compelling for many years, this summary consists of nothing more but a flatly-told list of purely factual elements. (And, if memory of the show serves, not all of the facts in it are accurate.)

Yes, it could provide someone who just wanted to know what had happened with the essentials, but there’s no sense of causation, character development, or any vestige of the show’s actual charm. Doubly troubling to those who admire the generally fine writing on the show itself, virtually every sentence in this summary is a declarative sentence.

It is, in other words, just a frantic attempt to cover a whole lot of plot as fast as humanly possible. Sound familiar, synopsis-writers?

Unfortunately for the cause of literature, professional readers like Millicent the agency screener see synopses like this all the time. The stories being told may in fact be well-written, fascinating, and crammed to their respective gills with nuanced character development — but Millie would never know that from reading the synopsis. Oh, she doesn’t doubt that the events listed all occur within the manuscript being described, but that’s not the point of a synopsis. The goal here is to make the story sound interesting to read.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard bouncing around the ether the sound of jaws hitting the floor?

I’m not entirely astonished: the overwhelming majority of synopsis-writers, like most queriers, pitchers, and book-length literary contest entrants, labor under the impression that style does not matter in a plot summary.

“If Millicent’s boss were really interested in gaining a sense of how my book was written,” the average synopsizer/query descriptive paragraph-constructor/2-minute pitcher/entrant reasons, “she would ask to see my manuscript. Or at least the opening pages of it. So obviously, the expectation that I should summarize my 400-page opus in 1 page/3 pages/5 pages/1-2 paragraphs in my query/2-minute speech/whatever length the contest rules specify must mean that the length, and not the quality of the storytelling, is the most important element here. All I’m required to do, therefore, is to cram as much of the plot as I can into the stated length. And if that means that the result is just a list of plot elements presented in chronological order, well, that’s the requester’s own fault for asking for so short a summary.”

I get why most first-time synopsis-writers feel this way; honestly, I do. They don’t know — how could they, really? — that writing a synopsis is not just an annoying hoop through which writers of even the most excellent book-length projects must leap in order to get an agent, editor, or contest judge to take a serious gander at their manuscripts. It’s a professional skill that agented writers are expected to develop, because — brace yourself if you are summary-averse — a synopsis is the standard means of presenting a new book concept to one’s agent or editor.

That’s right, those of you who just felt faint: the more successful your first book is, the more likely you are to have to write synopses for subsequent books.

It also means, as those of you currently clutching your chests and hurling invectives at the muses may already have guessed, that Millicent, her boss, the editors to whom they pitch books, and contest judges see a heck of a lot of synopses in any given year. As I intimated above, a stunningly high percentage of them — at the query, submission, and contest-entry stage, at least — are written more or less identically: as a hasty, detail-light series of plot highlights, told almost entirely in declarative sentences and vague summary statements.

Can you honestly blame them, then, if all of those similarly-told stories start to blend together in their minds after a while? Or if they sometimes cannot see past a rushed, sketchy telling to the beautifully-written, complex book upon which it was based?

Yes, that’s depressing, but there’s a silver lining here: the relatively few excitingly-told synopses, pitches, and query letter book descriptions do tend to leap off the page at Millicent and her cronies. Because of their rarity, even some original small touches — a nice descriptive phrase, a detail they’ve never seen before, a bit of if/then logic well handled — can make a professional reader’s day.

I’m sensing some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there, do I not? “But Anne,” many of you shout in frustration, and who could blame you? “If the pros are so longing to see a nicely-written synopsis crammed to capacity with unexpected details, as you maintain, what gives with the length restrictions? It’s not as though every gifted long-form writer is similarly blessed with summarizing talents, after all. Surely, if Millicent wants to be wowed by writing, asking for a synopsis — or, still more limiting, the 1- or 2-paragraph premise description in the query — is not the best way to elicit it.”

Perhaps not, frustrated synopsizers, but remember what I said above about tossing ‘em off being a necessary professional skill? Let’s apply a little if/then logic: if Millicent’s boss is looking for new clients who will be easy to handle (read: will not require a lot of technical hand-holding), then is it in her interest to ask Millie to

(a) be lenient about the writing in the synopsis, because it doesn’t matter as much as the writing on the manuscript page,

(b) apply her imagination to a detail-light synopsis, filling in what the writer did not have space to include,

(c) just accept that due to space limitations, most descriptive paragraphs in queries within a particular book category are going to sound awfully similar,

(d) all of the above, or,

(e) operate on the assumption that a good writer — and, equally important to authorial success, a good storyteller — should be able to wow her within the specified length restrictions.

If you answered (a), welcome to the club of most submitters and contest entrants — and, indeed, the frustrated shouters above. Writing is an art, you reason; producing these extra materials is just an annoying practical exercise. As tempting as it is to blame the format for uninspired writing (because, let’s face it, few writers find synopsis-writing inspiring), though, is it really in your book’s best interest to treat it like irritating busywork, to be polished off as rapidly as humanly possible?

If you said (b), you have thrown in your lot with the countless conscientious queriers, submitters, and contest entrants who want to tell Millicent and her ilk a good story in a short time — but feel that, due to space restrictions, they have to sacrifice unique details to completeness of story. In most cases, this is a false economy: no one seriously expects you to convey the entire story arc of a 360-page book in a single page or paragraph. They are looking for a sense of the main characters, the central conflict, and, in a synopsis, how that conflict will play out.

Rather a different task than telling Millie everything that happens, isn’t it?

If you opted for (c), you might want to take a closer look at the queries and synopsis you have been sending out. Do your synopses make your unique storyline sound like every other book in its category — or like the most recent similar bestseller? If so, is there a way you can work in plot elements that a Millicent familiar with your genre won’t see anywhere else?

Don’t tell me that your manuscript doesn’t contain anything that will astonish her. I have too much faith in your creativity to believe that for a moment.

If you voted for (d), am I correct in assuming that you believe agencies to be non-profit organizations, devoted solely to the promotion of good writing, regardless of whether the fine folks who work there can make a living at it? If so, you’re hardly alone; many, if not most, first-time queriers and submitters cling to this hope. That’s why, in case you had been wondering, such a hefty percentage of those who get rejected once never try again.

And that’s distinctly bad for the cause of literature. Chant it with me, Queryfest faithful: just because one agent says no doesn’t mean that a manuscript is not well-written or a marketable story; it means that one agent has said no.

If, on the other hand, you held out for (e), I’m guessing that the Mad Men synopsis drove you nuts. “Yes, most of these things happened,” you found yourself muttering, “but where’s the storytelling style? Surely, this is not the best way to make an exciting story arc sound exciting.”

I’m with you there, mutterers. So is Millicent. And that clamor you hear outside your studio window? That’s half the literary contest judges in the country, lobbying for you to enter their contests. They’re quite stressed out after years of watching so many well-written entries get yanked out of finalist consideration by a hastily tossed-off accompanying synopsis.

Now that those expectations are lurching around the Author! Author! conversational nook like Frankenstein’s monster, I would like to know what concerns, fears, and moans about technical difficulties those of you struggling to write effective synopses, pitches, and query letter descriptive paragraphs you would like to see hobnobbing with them. What hurdles have you encountered while trying to synopsize your work, and how have you overcome them?

And, speaking more directly to the usual purport of my posts, is there any particular synopsis-related problem you would like me to address here?

As I said, this is a standard professional skill; I toss off synopses all the time. So do quite a few of the people giving advice online about it. So what we might see as the difficulties of the art form — and writing a good synopsis is an art form, as well as a marketing necessity — may well not be what a talented writer coming to it for the first time might experience.

So please chime in, people. I’m here to help. And to save the world from storytelling consisting entirely of summary statements and declarative sentences.

Oh, and to those of you who had been wondering: the promised wrap-up of Queryfest does follow soon. That Mad Men synopsis just passed up too good a teaching opportunity to pass up, even for a day. Keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: is compiling a list of events honestly the best way to produce a synopsis?”

  1. Hi Anne!

    I’m so excited to stumble onto your blog today – what an absolute wealth of information you provide here for people like me in the midst of the Memoir writing and publishing process. I read the article on Travel Memoir writers, which had some wonderful tips, even though I am not a Travel Memoir writer – I think many of the principles could be applied to my process as well. Then, I went searching your site, and in the abundance of information, couldn’t quite seem to locate an answer to this question: If I’m writing a personal memoir, can I query before the manuscript is done? I’ve written 800+ pages, have 400+ about 90% ready for “show and tell” – but this has been a 1.5 year process. I’m wondering, can I start querying now, or do I really need to commit another year or two to finishing the manuscript before I try? I’m a Work From Home Mom to 2 small children so although I try to write every day, it’s been a slow-going process.

    I apologize if this question has been answered in some other format already! If it’s already here and I missed it somehow please direct me to it, or if it’s not already here, perhaps you could answer it now?

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom here – what a remarkable endeavor, to share your experience with fellow writers, just for the good of others. Bravo!

    1. I’m so glad that you’re finding it helpful, Megan — it makes my day to hear that. And, having been the small child in a family of authors, I’m always impressed with parents of small children who write. You have challenges on your time and attention that those of us with the luxury of closing the doors of our studios on the rest of the world cannot even imagine. So good for you for keeping at it so faithfully.

      The information is here, but actually, I hadn’t established a category under the Memoir heading that would lead people right to it. That will take some time to establish, but thank you for reminding me that I need to do it. On to my burgeoning to-do list it goes!

      The essential answer to your question is short enough that I can answer it here, though: if you are approaching agents, you do not have to have a manuscript in hand in order to start querying; professional NF writers almost never do, so agents do not expect it. You do, however, have to have a complete book proposal on hand, which will include a sample chapter or two, because that’s how agents sell nonfiction books to large and mid-sized publishers. You’ll find guidance on how to write a proposal — and please be aware that it’s a very different process than writing a book — under the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category under the HOW TO… heading on the archive list. (I believe you’ll also find a longer explanation of the proposal vs. manuscript question within those posts, but don’t hold me to that.)

      One exception, though: some agencies do specify in their submission guidelines (check their individual websites) that they will want to see a completed manuscript from first-time memoirists. It’s not a widespread preference, but there is a reason for it: as I am sure you have already discovered, there’s a huge difference between sitting down to write about one’s life and writing a BOOK about it. Then, too, as personal memoir often covers rather painful subjects, it’s not entirely unreasonable to want to make sure that the writer has already faced his or her demons at the deep level required to write about them well.

      If you would like to start querying, though, there’s a simple way to side-step this: just don’t query agents who express this preferences. You’re going to want to do some basic research on any agent you query, anyway; it won’t take much more time to check the agency’s policies. If its submission guidelines do not state point-blank that they want to see full memoir manuscripts, it’s usually safe to assume that a successful query will elicit a request for a proposal, not the full manuscript. An individual agent might also want to see a couple of extra chapters, but again, that’s rare.

      If you’ll pardon my asking, though, is the 800 pages in standard format for manuscripts? Double-spaced, with 1-inch margins, in 12-point type? If not, run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list.

      Why? Well, people in publishing expect every manuscript to be formatted identically, so when they hear 800 pages, they will automatically think that you are talking about a manuscript in standard format and start doing the math: at 250 word/page, an 800-page manuscript would be approximately 200,000 words. About 125,000, the binding costs rise dramatically, so an agent trying to sell a book longer than that would have to make the argument that it will sell well enough to justify the extra cost. Because it is a tough argument to make in the current economy (for a non-celebrity memoir, at least), most agencies will tell their screeners simply to reject queries for any book longer than 100,000 words.

      If any or all of this is news to you, you’re certainly not alone: most first-time memoirists have no idea of any of this, especially the part about standard format for manuscripts. Which means, unfortunately, that every year, many, many queriers innocently cite page lengths in their queries, completely unaware that the 14-point type or triple-spacing that they have been using render those page lengths misleading to an agent.

      So unless an agency’s submission guidelines ask point-blank for a word count (and most don’t), please don’t mention length at all in your query — in the current market, no agent could hope to sell a first-time non-celebrity’s memoir if it ran as long as 800 pages in standard format. If, however, you have been formatting it correctly and it is still over 800 pages, consider whether you actually have more than one book on your hands. Is there a way that you could chop the story up into several shorter storylines? Or that you could write a proposal for only part of it, and discuss the larger storyline with your future agent? She might well have some clever marketing ideas for a longer work.

      And if you run into problems writing your proposal, please do feel free to post questions about it. It’s a rather counterintuitive process for every writer, the first time around. Best of luck with it!

  2. Ah, I thought I’d done a post recently on the word count issue for memoir and how it might affect the query: I think you’ll find this post helpful, Megan. I’m also, while it’s on my mind, going to go ahead now and set up that category. The more I think about it, the more likely it strikes me that there would be other first-time memoirists out there, searching for an answer to that question.

    So would you mind doing me a favor? I’ve posted the new category title on the archive list. Would you mind scrolling through and seeing how easy it is to find? And if the title immediately makes you exclaim, “Oh, I’ll find a direct answer to my question here,” rather than, “Oh, I wonder if this is the one,” because it doesn’t seem spot-on? It really would help me out. As I mention in this post, what might strike someone who works with manuscripts for a living as a relevant question won’t necessarily be the same as how someone new to the process would frame it. Thanks!

  3. Hi: I must say that I had a great deal of difficulty writing synopses of varying lengths for my book of literary fiction involving an orphan from the stars who must decipher stories from a magic leaf to find his way home. My difficulty was in how to describe an evolving personal transformation in response to numerous stories within the book that are stand alone fables with their own individual message. The main character’s evolution is in reponse to the stories, and the conflict/ resolution is more often an internal restructuring reactive to the lessons he gleans from them. Although, there are other external results and consequences that also figure into his redefinition of self. Any thoughts on a best way to approach this would be helpful.
    P.S. I’ve been reading your blog now for two years while I finished writing and editing my book. I must thank you profusely for the help you’ve provided me in so many different arenas, but particularly in manuscript fomatting and editing. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been finding it helpful, David! It’s been a stressful day, so it’s especially welcome feedback.

      That’s a tough challenge for a synopsis: allegories are always harder to synopsize than more tangible plots. From what you say, though, I have a questions: is part of the difficulty that on the synopsis page, it reads as though your protagonist’s primary activity is reading the stories? I

      If that’s the case, have you tried setting up the premise — how the orphan got stranded, why getting home is difficult, where the leaf comes from, why the orphan believes the stories on it — in the first couple of paragraphs, then devoting a separate paragraph to each stand-alone fable told directly, rather than through the orphan’s prism? That way, you could show off your storytelling skills by presenting each fable as a story, without making it appear second-hand, as would almost inevitably happen if the fable were couched primarily in terms of what the orphan learned from it. You could also demonstrate your skill with allegory by showing his development by the progression of the stories, rather than saying, “and from that, he learned X,” each time.

      You could also — brace yourself — not tell the plots of the fables at all. For a one-page synopsis, that would probably be the only viable option: just explain the premise and say that he finds his way home via deciphering fables from a magical leaf. Yes, I know that it’s not how you have chosen to tell the story in the manuscript, but complex concepts can be very difficult to summarize well.

      Another question: is part of the difficulty that the overarching story starts to sound like YA in the synopsis? That’s often true of allegories. Or that it sounds like a fantasy novel? (I can very easily see Millicent going there.) If either is the stumbling-block, what elements in the book make it unquestionably literary fiction? So what about your book will make it appeal to literary fiction readers, rather than YA or fantasy readers?

      Remember, beautiful writing is not the only criterion for literary fiction; there’s wonderful writing in every book category. Literary fiction presumes an educated audience, and is often experimental. Obviously, you’re not going to want to come out and say in the synopsis this book is for adult readers, because of its philosophical complexity, but you can write your synopses in a manner that demonstrates that.

      Which, I suppose, is a long way of saying: tell me more about your book.

      1. It sounds as though you’re handling the synopsis quite well, David — and the description at the top of your response would be pretty darned eye-catching in a query. My only caveat (and you may well not usee this language in either your query or your synopsis) is that Millicents tend not to respond well to what they call English term paper language. It’s not a universal reaction, but I have seen the simple use of the phrase main character raise red flags in either context. Just one of those secret handshake things.

        I think you’re very wise to vary the use of spiritual by the agency, but at an agency that routinely handles this type of story — the best bet for querying, anyway — you should not run into that particular problem. It is in fact what this kind of book is often called, even by marketing departments. At a more generalist agency, though, it can sometimes cause a query to get shuffled into the wrong pile. A safe standard: if the agency uses the word on its website (and many that represent philosophically-minded books do), you can assume that they understand it in the sense that you are using it.

  4. A re-read of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism has been on “Mount TBR” for some time now, but this post raised it higher to the top. It’s always been one of my favorite points of Lewis’s that a highly serviceable working definition for a myth is “a story that is dramatically compelling regardless of the quality of the story-telling.”

    So for a writer in any other form, it takes special care to make the story sound good outside of its natural length or format. This reminds me also of a recent NYTimes – Opinionator – Draft post, “The Trouble with Intentions“: your sentences will be read without you to explain your thought process behind them. They will and must speak for themselves.

    1. Your comment made me grin, Jinnayah. You’re right, of course, but one of the big complaints new writers frequently have about the publishing world is the pervasive (and all too often unspoken) presumption that everyone who wants to write will be extraordinarily well-read — and have the leisure to read fresh material in order to improve their literary antennae. It used to be a fairly open secret that it was easier for the well-educated to get published for this reason, in fact.

      That’s less true today, partially due to the rise of the Internet (even specialists tend to read more cross-genre than in days of yore), partially due to a personnel revolution in publishing houses and agencies since the economic downturn (publishing work has always paid badly, on average, but it used to come with good, and therefore expensive, benefits), and partially because we’re going through a period — and there have been several of these throughout U.S. history — when pop culture doesn’t make a very strenuous distinction between those that achieve and those who are pretentious about achieving. In a snap-judgment world, it’s easier to dismiss something as elitist at first sight.

      All of which is to say: while I’m delighted to second the recommendation of AN EXPERIMENT IN CRITICISM (and thank you for including the link — that’s going to be helpful to people), it might also scare some to cite a classic. And you wouldn’t believe how often I hear aspiring writers say, “Oh, I don’t have time to read; I barely have time to write.” Which, naturally, strikes old-school editors like your humble correspondent as fundamentally tragic.

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